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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Quality of English Swords

An article on English swords was published in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal in 1834, shortly before the heyday of the bowie knife. Note that the author describes some tests of a good sword that were later refuted by John Latham of the Wilkinson Sword Company in a lecture titled "The Shape of Sword Blades."
One of the most important pursuits which Mr. Gill, the celebrated mechanist, ever engaged in, was his retrieving the reputation of English swords, which in 1783 had fallen into such deserved ill-repute, that an English officer would not trust his life to the hazard of the probable failure of his English sword-blade, upon any consideration whatever; although, only a century preceding, James II had passed an act expressly prohibiting, under severe penalties, the importation of swords from Germany, or any other nation; a clear proof that at that period the English swords were sufficiently good to be relied on. However, in the year 1783, a petition was presented to the lords of the treasury, by the London sword-sellers, praying leave to import sword-blades from Germany duty free. But as a friend to the manufacturers of England, the Duke of Norfolk, then Earl of Surrey, one of the lords of the board, wrote a letter to a gentleman of Sheffield, Mr. Eyre, to the following purport: “You will please inform those whom it may concern, that a petition has been this day presented (October 1) to the treasury, praying permission to import swords and swordblades from Germany, duty free, on account of the inferior quality of the English blades. I should be very happy that any ingenious manufacturer of Sheffield would supply me with such information, both as to price and quality, as would enable me to remove so disgraceful a reflection on English ingenuity."

The business of sword-making being, however, more immediately within the province of the Birmingham manufacturers, Mr Eyre sent Mr Gill an extract from his lordship's letter, who, in December of that year, presented a memorial to the lords of the treasury, stating that sword-blades could be made by him of as good a quality as those from Germany, or any other nation, and praying that the comparative goodness of those of both countries might be examined into.

It was not till the year 1786, that Mr. Gill obtained the object of his pursuit, though he made repeated and fruitless attempts for that purpose. For, on an order for ten thousand horsemen's swords being issued by the East India Company, which was divided indiscriminately amongst English and German manufacturers, Mr Gill, being still anxious for the comparative proof, presented a petition to the committee of shipping of the East India Company, requesting that all the swords of the different countries and manufacturers might be proved by a test, so as to ascertain the difference of their qualities. This produced an order for that purpose, and a resolution that none but such as on inspection and proof stood that test, should be received. Accordingly, when the swords were sent to the company's warehouse, they underwent an examination by a test or machine, recommended by Matthew Boulton, Esq., of the Soho, for trying the quality or temper of the sword-blades; namely, by forcing the blade into a curved state, and which reduced its length of thirty-six inches to twenty-nine and a half inches only, from the point to the hilt. The result of this trial proved, that Mr Gill had two thousand six hundred and fifty swords received and only four rejected; that of the German swords, fourteen hundred were received, and twenty-eight rejected, being in the proportion of thirteen to one of Mr Gill's; and that of the other English swords, only two thousand seven hundred were received, and one thousand and eighty-four rejected!

It was owing to the parsimony of the London retailers of swords, that the English swards fell in disrepute; the fact was, they employed unskilful workmen, and bought goods of an inferior quality. To corroborate this fact, it may be necessary to relate a case in point:--A London dealer having earned a commission for swords for General Harcourt's regiment of dragoons, prior to its going to North America, in the war of the revolution of that country, was called upon by the general on his return to England, and upbraided by him in the severest language of reproach for having supplied his troops with swords of so base a quality, that they either broke to pieces, or became useless, in the first onset of an engagement, by which many of his brave soldiers were unworthily slaughtered, and his own person exposed to the most imminent danger. In this distressed predicament the contractor applied to Mr Gill, who had never before supplied him with any sword-blades, in consequence of another regiment wanting some at that time, to know at what price he could render swords of such quality as to bear what he, the contractor, called  severe mode of trial, namely, striking the sword with violence upon a large flat stone. But Mr Gill, in answer, told him he thought it by no means so severe as it ought to be, to determine properly the real quality of swords; and that he would engage to serve him with such as should stand a much severer test, at advance of only ninepence for horsemen's, and pence for small swords, more than was given to other makers for those of an inferior quality. Intact, besides subjecting his sword-blades to the test of bending them in the manner above mentioned, he caused them to struck flatways upon a slab of cast iron, and edgeways upon a cylinder of wrought iron, frequently a piece of a gun-barrel, which they often cut into two parts. Nay, so exceedingly tough were they, although made of cast steel, that, after cutting a gun-barrel asunder, he would frequently wind one of them around it in the manner of a riband, without its breaking; and, indeed, the greater part of the blade would recover its original straightness, the part nearest to the point only remaining in a coiled state. The result of this great success was, that he was very frequently applied to for his superior sword-blades, even by German officers who preferred them to those of the their own country.
(From the Technological and Microscopic Repository.)
Stories of swords that could cut a gun barrel in two have persisted for centuries. During World War II, there was purported to be a film of a samurai sword cutting through the barrel of a machine gun. I would have to witness that in order to believe it.

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