Whoosh! Issue 27 - December 1998

IAXS project #381
By Donald Plunkett
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2815 words

Xena's Sword (01-02)
Other Swords In The Show (03-07)
Historical Swords (08-13)
Other Sword Aspects (14-27)
     Hardness, Shock Resistance, And Flexibility (14-20)
     Shape (21-27)
Sword Timeline (28-41)
Web Sites For Swords (42-45)

What Are Little Girl's (Swords) Made Of?

Xena's Sword

One of those rare moments Xena's sword isn't in her hand or scabbard

Xena had lost and regained her sword many times throughout the series.

[1] Xena's sword is a reproduction of a leaf-blade grip tongue sword with a mushroom pommel. The blade appears to be two to two and a half feet long (61 to 76 centimeters) with another eight or nine inches (20 to 23 centimeters) of hilt. The leaf-blade design narrows a bit just past the hilt and then widens about two thirds out along the blade where it begins to narrow again to a point. This design aids in the cutting action by presenting a curved blade at the point of contact and placing more weight at the end of the sword lending momentum to the swing. The basic leaf-blade pattern was commonly used by the Hoplites [Ancient Greek foot soldiers].

[2] The grip tongue design replaced the older and weaker method of riveting a hilt to the sword blade. With a grip tongue, the tang was cast or forged as part of the sword blade. The hilt is then formed by riveting, wrapping, or peening grip material in place around the tang. On swords of that period the end of the tang would have been hammered over to form the mushroom pommel. The pommel keeps the hand from sliding off the hilt and helps hold the hilt in place. Hilt materials would have included wood, ivory, horn, or metal, and, wrapping materials would have included cord, leather, shark or ray skin, sheet metal, or wire. Xena's sword hilt appears to be made of horn or a dark wood. Decorations include the same green abalone shell used on the chakram.

Other Swords In The Show

What, *this* old thing?

Callisto's 'shell grip' sword is unique.

[3] During the production of the show several swords are used. What material the sword is made of will be determined by what the sword is to be used for.

[4] Steel may be used for most scenes where the sword is just for show, especially for close-ups. A steel sword like Xena's will weigh two or three pounds (1 to 1 1/2 kilograms).

[5] Magnesium blades are much lighter and will ring like steel when struck. They may be used during certain fight scenes or for the actors to carry so they do not get weighed down with a steel blade.

[6] Magnesium swords are more common in theater than film as the sound effects will be added later for television productions.

[7] Rubber or plastic stunt swords are used during fight or action scenes to prevent accidental injuries. Plastic swords may be carried in the scabbard for long shots to reduce the weight an actor has to carry. In the past, painted wood would have been used. Plastic or magnesium swords will weigh around a pound (half a kilogram).

Historical Swords

[8] Historically a number of materials have been used to make swords. As time went on and technology improved, better materials and better ways of handling materials were adopted.

[9] The very earliest "swords" were made of bone, stone, or wood. Some woods are dense enough to hold a cutting edge. Fire hardening improves the edge further. Wood swords were still in use throughout the south pacific until very recently. In South America, a form of green obsidian was used to make knives and swords. The green obsidian has a finer grain that the black and will take a razor edge. Often obsidian, flint, basalt, or chert edges were embedded into a wooden sword. Shark's teeth were also used to provide an edge for wooden swords.

[10] The first metal used in sword blades was copper. Copper is easy to work and cast but it is not very hard and will not hold an edge. By adding a bit of tin to copper the alloy called bronze is created.

[11] Bronze is actually easier to cast than copper. Bronze can be hardened by hammering or heat-treating so it will take and hold an edge better than copper. The earliest bronze blades were not short because of a lack of strength in the bronze. The early hilts were riveted to the blades and these rivets were the weak point that limited sword length. Some of the early grip tongue bronze swords had blades over three feet long.

[12] Iron is even harder than bronze but it is more difficult to work. Steel is an alloy of iron and other elements with carbon being the most important. It is nearly impossible to work iron over a charcoal or coal fire without introducing some carbon, so virtually all "iron" swords were really steels of one grade or another. For most purposes steel alloys with less than .3 % carbon can be considered iron. When the percentage of carbon rises above .4 % the steel can be heat treated and hardened considerably over pure iron. As the carbon content rises, so does the potential hardness of the steel alloy and this leads to the "Paradox of Steel" faced by early bladesmiths.

[13] Steel must be hard to hold an edge. The harder the steel, the better the edge holding ability. As the carbon content rises, and the steel gets harder, it also gets more brittle. A sword made from very high-carbon steel will hold an edge quite well but may break or even shatter when struck by something hard. A low-carbon steel sword will not break when struck but it also will not take or hold an edge very well. The paradox is then to make a sword soft enough to be shock resistant and hard enough to hold an edge. Knives do not face the shocks that swords do and so are made slightly harder. In general, .6 to .7 % carbon content makes for good swords and .7 to 1.0 % makes for good knives.

Other Sword Aspects

Hardness, Shock Resistance, and Flexibility

Look for the new repro line from Creation soon

You can take your pick of blades at Ares' place.

[14] Another important attribute is flexibility. A soft sword will not break but it will bend. A good sword should be able to flex and return to its original shape without bending. Attempts to achieve the best combination of hardness, shock resistance, and flexibility led to several methods of sword making.

[15] Because it was difficult to control the amount of carbon in a particular bar of steel, smiths would choose several bars of varying hardness and twist them together to form a more homogenous blade. This twist steel was used by the Vikings very early on. Even after alloying became more controlled, the twist method was still used to get the shock resistance of softer steel and the edge holding of harder steel.

[16] Twist steels also make distinctive patterns in the blades and were used for their esthetic qualities. Damascus was well known for producing twist steel blades and such steels are often called Damascus steel. The patterns produced can be brought out by etching and look like water ripples leading to the other common name of watered steel. By using different combinations of folding and twisting the steel as the strips are welded together, all manner of patterns can be obtained in pattern-welded steel.

[17] Another method of combining hard and soft steels is laminating. A very hard core can be welded to two strips of softer steel on either side. The soft steel lends toughness but the hard core is exposed at the cutting edge. The hard and soft layers can also be combined by folding. Each time the steel is folded together the number of layers doubles. This is the method used to forge the famous Japanese blades, although several other cultures used the same method throughout the Far East and South Pacific. The laminate blades made in east India were among the very best.

[18] There is a limit to how many layers can be obtained by folding. When the steel is folded too many times it becomes homogenous and loses any advantages gained by laminating. Heat treatment is also used to control the attributes of the steel. By controlling the temperature of the steel and the speed at which it is heated up or cooled down the crystalline structure of the steel can be controlled. As the blade is forged, it is heated slowly and cooled slowly so that it remains soft enough to be worked. The blade is then annealed to relieve internal stress that may cause the blade to warp or crack. The blade is heated and then cooled very slowly. Hardening the blade is achieved by heating the steel until the desired crystal structure is achieved and then cooling it very quickly by quenching in oil, water, blood, etc. to "freeze" the structure. The blade is then tempered to increase its shock resistance and relieve stress by heating it up to a relatively low temperature and slowly cooling it again. By controlling the temperature and time during the heating and cooling process, the hardness and toughness of the steel can be controlled. This used to have to be done strictly by eye and experience.

[19] Partial heat treatment of the blade is also possible. The Japanese sword maker would cover the blade in several layers of clay. He would then remove the clay along the cutting edge and harden the blade. The back of the blade would be protected from the heat and remain relatively soft while the edge became very hard.

[20] Modern steels have all manner of elements added to control their physical properties. Elements such as nickel, chrome, vanadium, molybdenum, sulphur, silicon, tungsten, phosphorus, etc. are added in precisely controlled amounts to add toughness, hardness, flexibility, rust resistance, resistance to wear, etc.. With modern steel it is possible to have a blade with all the best attributes of steel and the Paradox of Steel no longer really applies.


[21] The shape of the blade has been mostly determined by fashion rather than utility. Some terribly effective blade shapes have developed but they were mostly designed for esthetic reasons. When a blade design cropped up it would usually spread over Europe very rapidly even though it might not become popular in all regions. There were several blade designs that were common on the Mediterranean during the period that Xena takes place.

[22] The leaf-blade, the kopis, the triangular blade, and the straight blade were common designs. Curved scimitars were used to the north and east but were not widespread at that time.

[23] A curved blade is more difficult to make than a straight blade. A curved blade is more efficient for cuts but may make thrusting difficult if the point is far enough out of line with the handle. Because only a small portion of the cutting edge comes in contact with the target at any one time, a cut is more easily made with a curved blade.

[24] The leaf-blade is the design Xena uses. It has a relatively narrow waist just above the hilt then widen about two thirds of the way along the blade. The weight-forward design and curved cutting edge make for an efficient blade. The leaf-blade was usually double edged. The Romans adopted the same design in their _gladius hispanicus_. The Romans later switched to a straight blade design to simplify manufacture.

[25] The kopis was a common blade design throughout the area. It is a forward curving shape similar to the kukris used by the Gurkhas of Nepal and India. The blade is heavy toward the front and the grip angle makes for an extremely efficient chopper. The kopis were single edged.

[26] The triangular blade starts out wide at the hilt and then tapers all the way out to the end. Triangular blades were typically double edged although many were designed for thrusting only. Most early copper knives were triangular as this is a strong blade design. Triangular blades ranged from very short and wide to quite long and slender.

[27] The straight blade is easier to manufacture than most of the other designs. The edges run parallel from the hilt to about two thirds of the length of the blade. There the blade tapers to a point. The later Roman shortswords were of this design.

Sword Timeline

[28] Below is a time line showing the approximate dates of significant events in metal sword making, especially in the Mediterranean region. There was a great deal of overlapping from one era to the next and precise dating is difficult. Copper blades were undoubtedly still used long after iron had become common. Bronze was used far into the iron age because it is easier to work ornamentally. Because copper and bronze do not oxidize as quickly and completely as iron, there are more examples of them to be found. There are remarkably few examples of early iron age artifacts because of rust. Even those iron swords that were preserved in bogs and the like are in generally poor condition. Iron here refers to very low carbon steels.

4000 BCE   [29] Daggers appear in the Iranian highlands.
3000 BCE   [30] Daggers appear in the Near East and the first swords appear in Anatolia.
2000 BCE   [31] The Hittites and Philistines begin using iron. Swords appear in Lebanon and are common in Crete. Scimitars appear in Babylonia. Swords spread everywhere except Egypt. Cavalry tactics make swords useful in combat. The spear is the primary weapon of the infantry.

[32] Central Europe is using longer bladed swords. Curved swords are used in Scandinavia. Denmark, being a flint center, makes copies of copper swords in flint; even including the rivets.

[33] Swords become common in Italy prior to their common usage in Greece. Greece adopts the sword designs from the Levantines. Because the Greeks are using the phalanx as their primary battle tactic, they consider the sword a secondary weapon and of limited usefulness.

1800 BCE   [34] Steel blades are found in East India.
1200 BCE   [35] The grip tongue sword moves from Europe to Greece. Iron use becomes widespread.
1000 BCE   [36] The iron grip tongue sword is adopted by Greece. The Hoplites begin using the leaf blade sword.
900 BCE   [37] Greece begins using iron. Steel starts to show up in the Middle East and Europe.
800 BCE  
700 BCE   [38] The Greeks are still using the phalanx. The Etruscans learn the phalanx from the Greeks. Iron usage is universal.
600 BCE  
500 BCE   [39] The kopis design appears.
400 BCE  
300 BCE  
200 BCE   [40] The gladius hispanicus is copied from the Hoplite leaf bladed sword by the Romans during the Punic wars. The Romans consider the spear their primary weapon and relegate the sword to secondary status.
100 BCE   [41] Even if Xena takes place as early as 1000 BCE it is entirely possible that she would have had an iron sword. Bronze swords of the same shape and size as Xena's were already common.

Web Sites For Swords

[42] I have not found any licensed or official copies of Xena's sword for sale but there are several close replicas available. Several manufacturers offer "Warrior Princess" swords that are fairly close to Xena's in design. Most custom makers could produce a very close copy given some good photographs. Here is a list of a few possible sources for swords on the Internet. The search engines will give you dozens of others. Shop around for the best prices and decide ahead of time whether you want a wall-hanger or a working blade.

[43] Salamander Armoury is owned and operated by Dr. Jim Hrisoulas. Dr. Hrisoulas is a master blade maker and forges the very finest of blades at extremely reasonable prices. He does not offer a Xena sword as such but will make a blade to your specifications. Dr. Hrisoulas specializes in pattern welding and can produce all manner of patterns.

[44] Swords-N-Stuff offers a "Warrior Princess" sword for sale.

[45] Museum Replicas offers affordable working blades. Some of their Viking blades are fairly close to Xena's sword in design.


Donald Plunkett Donald Plunkett
I'm former military. I collect knives, swords, and most other types of weapons. I enjoy board games, racquetball, fencing (both foil and kendo), archery, and sport judo. I've tried most types of martial arts, but I've been practicing jujitsu and escrima the longest (maybe someday I'll even get them right). My little speckled dog is named Shelby. I live in the White Mountains of Arizona.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Favorite line: Vidalus: "I'm under a lot of pressure here..." BLIND FAITH (42/218)
First episode seen: THE WARRIOR PRINCESS (#H09/109)
Least favorite episode: Anything with Joxer in it, except those with Callisto in it.

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