The Saracen Blade

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During the Crusades the Christen Knights came upon something they feared, the Saracen blade.  In the hands of their opponents, the Arabs, it was deadly and the knight’s bane.  The Crusaders had nothing like it, or could even compare with the Saracen Blade.

Although this wonder weapon was supposed to be made in Damascushence its alternate name Damascus Sword it was really forged by master sword-smiths from “wootz steel” that was produced in southern India.  This steel that was made from ore that was rich in tungsten had a peculiar appearance making it look watered when it was finished.

Many people thought the steel acquired its appearance by being folded again and again during the forging process like the steel used in Japanese Swords.  They have a similar appearance, but were made using a completely different technique.

To its makers in Indiait wasn’t known as Damascus Steel rather it was known as wootz steel.  The history of this steel goes back three-hundred years before Christ when some Indian steel-maker discovered the way to make it.  The very word “wootz” is a mis-translation of “wook” an Angelisized version of the Indian word for steel “urukku” that is the Tamil word for steel.

The traditional history behind Wootz steel is that it originated in southern Indiaabout 300 BC.  There is plenty of archeological evidence pointing to its manufacture in southern India.  From Indiait was distributed all over the known world.  It was especially well known in the Arab world where it was forged into tough, hard and sharp sword blades in Yeman.  A regular trade between Indiaand Yeman was across the Arabian Seawhere this wonder steel received its name in the West, “Damascus steel.”

One of the most critical characteristics found in wootz steel is the abundance of ultra-hard metallic carbides found in the steel matrix that precipitate out in the steel in bands.  This gives wootz steel its characteristic banding that is observed on its surface.  In combat blades made from wootz steel were well known for their sharpness and toughness.

Even though other methods have been adopted today, it is common knowledge in Indiathat wootz steel was classically manufactured using the crucible process e.g., it was what we term “crucible steel.”  In practice it was made from a mixture of wrought iron, iron ore with charcoal and glass that was sealed and heated in a furnace for several days.  The result of this is a mixture of various impurities that were mixed with glass that acted as slag carrying the impurities away along with “buttons” of wootz steel.

The buttons of steel that contained about 1.5% of carbon were then separated from the slag and welded into ingots by pounding while heated to white heat with a heavy hammer.  It was from these ingots that the Yemeni sword-smiths made the famous Saracen blades.

Around 1700 the making of wootz steel died out because the main sources of the special ore were exhausted.  These ores contained trace amounts of the elements tungsten or vanadium like that found in modern high-speed steel did not have these elements.  It required the presence of these elements that makes the segregation of the micro-carbides that give wootz steel have its characteristic banding.

In the latter part of the 20thcentury, wootz steel was developed using modern technology at StanfordUniversityand the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  It is still debatable whether this was true wootz steel even though it had the characteristic banding of micro-carbides as seen in wootz steel.

Today wootz steel is looked upon as a wonder material for the 21stcentury.  The Crusaders almost 1,000 years ago also saw wootz steel as a wonder metal if they survived the Saracen Blade.

References:

Wootz steel, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wootz_steel

John Carter, The Damascus Blade,  http://scienceray.com/technology/industry/the-damascus-blade/#ixzz0vNvBtTwV

 

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