The concept of a handmade sword is easily defined. It is a sword that has been crafted in part or whole without by hand. This can actually mean quite a few different methods.
Many blades today are constructed using the stock removal method. Stock removal is the process of grinding or machining the steel until the desired dimensions are achieved. This method is almost as old as forging and can make a perfectly serviceable blade. Most of the knives made by custom knifemakers today are created by using the stock removal method.
Another common method for assembling handmade swords is by using a mass produced and machine made blade and or components and putting them together. The craftsman’s skill is applied in the choice and fitting of the various parts rather than creating the individual parts. To my mind this is not so much creating a handmade sword as it is simply putting together a kit.
The last common method of making handmade swords is to actually hand forge the blade, guard and pommel and construct the grip from scratch, then assembling these pieces into the finished sword. The benefits of hand forging are that the grain structure of the steel is further refined and that the grain structure follows the shape of the blade allowing for a more efficient and durable end product. By refining the grain and keeping it uniform throughout the piece by skillful forge technique, you are truly squeezing the most from the steel. I have heard the argument that forging has no benefit other than simply more efficient use of the steel. This is bunk, pure and simple. In no way am I stating that any construction method other than hand forging produces an inferior blade, however, there are measurable benefits of hand forging. The heat treatment of the blade is a major determining factor in the quality of the blade as well as the raw material, but skillful forging too provides a benefit.
In my 18 years as a live steel combat practitioner I have personally seen the difference between a hand forged blade and a ground blade. As a test I constructed two identical sword blades; one by hand forging, the other by stock removal. The steel was 5160 from the same mill run. The dimensions were within 10 thousandths of an inch in any measurement for the two blades. The edge geometry was the same. They were heat-treated in the same manner. They were hilted the same with threaded tangs to maintain that no hammer touched the non-forged blade. The harmonic balance was withing 1/8″ of each other. The two swords were as close to being identical as I could make them.
I conducted a series of cutting, flexibility, and shock tests with both blades. They were used to cut electrical conduit wrapped with wet newspaper, particle board, steel drums, and numerous saplings. The final test was actual combat. During the course of the third duel, the non-forged blade cracked. This was not an isolated incident. Every non-forged blade that we have used for live steel combat demos over the years (and we have used over 20 different blades made by various higher-end makers) has eventually broken. We have used the hand forged blades of my own and one other maker’s, and not a single one has broken. Currently the ratio is 11 non-forged blades broken, zero forged blades broken. I am not saying that a hand forged blade cannot be broken, they can. However my personal experience and the experiences of many others has shown that hand forged blades are in general more durable than non-forged blades. The refinement and continuity of the grain structure must be the reason for this.
I’ll take my handmade sword hand forged thank you.