The foraged steel of warrior’s swords, Damascus steel, has a rich history that continues to puzzle and intrigue historians, metallurgists, and fantasy fans. The origin of Damascus steel is complex, with ties to India and modern-day Syria. Despite being traced back to 500 A.D. with lots of historical information on the metal, the true methodology in producing Damascus steel was lost in the 1700s. Although countless attempts have been made by metallurgists worldwide, the exact methodology has not been discovered. A modern form of Damascus steel has been reproduced with the same impeccable strength and beauty as the original through these studies. Known for its exquisite designs and patterns, Damascus steel is available today and often used to make knives, swords, décor, or fashion.
Damascus steel is a very popular metal renowned for its unique structural and aesthetic properties. It has a charming and mysterious history with deep cultural roots. Controversial origin stories and tales of swords used by the Crusaders, Vikings, and warriors, add mythical charm to this not-so-ordinary metal (The Making of Pattern Damascus, 2017).
It is steel with a story and an interesting one at that!
Damascus steel has several remarkable characteristics. It has an agile form due to its highly plastic characteristics and is sometimes known as a “superplastic” (Sullivan, 1981). It is also extremely strong and durable, making it a popular choice for weaponry. Resistant to shattering, malleable, and able to have a razor-fine edge, it was the choice material for swordsmiths as well as shotgun barrels centuries ago (Wikipedia, n.d.). Both functional and fashionable, Damascus steel is a double threat because of its special patterns.
There are two types of Damascus steel; crucible and forged, and they each have their own distinct patterns. The distinction between the two is a result of the way it is made. The original method, also known as wootz Damascus, dates to 500 A.D. Wootz steel solidified in a crucible had a 1.5% hypereutectoid carbon level, which resulted in beautiful swirly patterns on a black backdrop (Verhoeven, Pendray, & Dauksch, 1998). The original techniques and art of making Damascus steel were lost, and despite many attempts, the same metal cannot be recreated (Helmenstine, 2018). Modern-day methodologies involve forging multiple types of steel together in layers causing patterns to form, creating a very similar look and structure as the original. Talented metal workers and Master Smiths can create patterns resembling traditional wootz Damascus or watered-silk as well as more elaborate, modern designs with hundreds of layers (Davidson, 2020). The designs’ elegance is indisputable; however, the color of the design and background are as controversial as the origin. Viewed as either a dark pattern on a light background or a light pattern on a dark background, this is just another special feature of Damascus steel.
The history of Damascus steel is enveloped in controversy. The controversy lies in the name and origins of this remarkable metal and when credit is assigned to only one country when, in fact, it is a collaboration of skill and ingenuity between two nations. Damascus steel swords’ name and infamous appearance are believed to have originated in the capital of modern-day Syria, yet the steel (wootz) originated in India. Significant contributions from both areas created Damascus steel, and the unique features of this metal would not exist without either of the two.
To understand Damascus steel’s origin, you must first understand the history of India’s steel industry. India was producing steel Before Christ and was a leader in steel production up until the 17th century. As a major exporter for centuries, India distributed quality steel to countries worldwide, including modern-day Syria.
The etymology of the word wootz shows the term comes from the word ‘ukku’ (Srinivasan & Ranganathan, 2004). Locally it was called ‘Seric’ and much later, as the British tried to pronounce ‘ukku’ and instead said ‘Wootz’ – the name stuck (Jain, 2019). High carbon wootz steel results from crucible steel making, a practice said to have originated in Southern India by melting iron and wood or charcoal in a large container. The addition of wood and/or charcoal would increase carbon amount (Sullivan, 1981).
The process of making wootz steel involved several steps over a significant period of time (Encyclopedia Britannica):
- (Swords Swords, 2019).
- (Swords Swords, 2019).
This process took a significant amount of fuel and labor and was therefore produced in much smaller quantities (Pacey, 1991).
Examining early fragments of wootz shows evidence of advanced steelmaking technology, with the creation of high-carbon steel. This played an important role in modern metallurgy. No one knew that Wootz steel’s unique properties were caused by alloying of carbon to iron, and so many experiments were conducted in the 18th century as an attempt to figure this out (Jain, 2019). More and more studies were conducted to understand Damascus steel’s unique properties, which pushed metallurgy and alloy steels forward, ultimately resulting in the Industrial Revolution. India’s major contribution to Damascus steel was the production of wootz steel and advancements in metallurgy.
It is clear that India played a significant role in Damascus steel’s history, but where does Damascus, capital of modern-day Syria, come in?
Wootz ingots made in Southern India are believed to have first made their way to Damascus around 300 A.D (Srinivasan & Ranganathan, 2004). These wootz ingots were then used to fabricate the renowned Damascus swords around 600 A.D. With very few original swords left to study, Damascus swords’ origin is pieced together in large part through the etymology of the word (Verhoeven, Pendray, & Dauksch, 1998). The Arabic word Damas means water, which may be in reference to Damascus steel’s watered-silk pattern. Islamic writer al-Biruni also wrote of a swordsmith by the name of Damasqui (Wikipedia, n.d.), yet the most agreed-upon theory is that the name stems from its place of origin, Damascus, capital of Syria.
The date of the last quality Damascus swords is believed to be 1750; around the same time, Damascus steel’s art was lost (Verhoeven, Pendray, & Dauksch, 1998).
Although the traditional art of Damascus steel making was lost in the 1700s, modern-day reproductions are quite advanced and can create steel with similar structural and aesthetic properties. Thanks to the studies and advancements made by prominent metallurgists, forged (modern) Damascus steel is available today. There are several different types that are fabricated in slightly different fashions and have their own distinct patterns.
Pattern-welded Damascus steel is a modern-day method of welding Damascus steel, sometimes referred to as “modern Damascus.” It is made by welding several types of iron and steel together in order to create a billet (round or square length of metal). The billet is then twisted, folded, and repeatedly hammered until a specific number of layers produce the unique patterned appearance.
There are five types of Damascus patterns that are achieved through specific forging techniques (Knife Knowledge, 2019):
- Cable Damascus: a simplistic pattern is achieved by heating a piece of cable and then hammering it and rotating the steel, so the strands do not unravel.
- Feather Damascus: one of the most distinctive patterns of the five. This pattern is created by welding several pieces of steel together, forming a “W” and creating one billet. The billet is repeatedly heated and cooled, cut in half, and then again welded together side-by-side. This technique creates a beautiful feather pattern.
- Raindrop Damascus: a raindrop appearance is created by pressing dimples into the steel.
- Ladder Damascus: like the raindrop, a ladder appearance is created by pressing steel rods into heated bars of steel. This creates grooves that are ground down and evened out.
- Twist Damascus: the steel is hammered and twisted to create a star effect. The tightness and amount of twists will change up the pattern.
Pavel Petrovich Anosov had tried several times to reproduce the original process to create Damascus steel, or ‘bulat’ as he knew it (Wikipedia, n.d.). In 1841, the distinguished Russian metallurgists stated, “Our warriors will soon be armed with bulat blades, our agricultural laborers will till the soil with bulat plow shares… Bulat will supersede all steel now employed for the manufacture of articles of special sharpness and endurance.” (Sullivan, 1981). Anosov continued to try and reproduce the steel; however, he did not live out his vision as he had hoped. It wasn’t until over a century later, in 1980, at Stanford University, when two metallurgists discovered a reproduction of Damascus steel (Sullivan, 1981). In their quest to find a superplastic featuring high carbon, Oleg D. Sherby, and Jeffrey Wadsworth revealed properties that shared the unique features of Damascus steel.
At Iowa State University in the early 1980s, John Verhoeven produced standard ferrite and pearlite banding by using an automated rolling mill with a smith in order to forge a blade (Extance, 2016). Verhoeven and his colleagues were attempting to recreate Damascus steel’s watery patterns but were unsuccessful at first. Years later, Verhoeven connected with Alfred Pendray, a Florida based metallurgist. The two worked together for over ten years before creating authentic-looking Damascus steel patterns. These two American metallurgists were able to do this with a cast iron called Sorel, which contained 0.04% of vanadium (Extance, 2016). Vanadium, along with other impurities, caused the formation of cementite particles that created a pine tree pattern. Pendray continued to make about 20 blades a day using this method, which was also demanding of labor and fuel. Pendray and Verhoeven’s blades are believed to be quite similar to original Damascus blades made from wootz with one key distinction. Damascus blades made from wootz were said to be very sharp, able to cut silk in the air. Pendray and Verhoeven couldn’t quite achieve this and found their blade left rough edges (Extance, 2016).
Pattern welded shotgun barrels have a deep history going back as far as wootz. Wootz was a popular metal used for forging weaponry, specifically swords, and guns. Some of the earliest guns were created by laying steel and iron sheets, folding, and hammer welding them. An etching agent like citrus juices was then added. By 1300, iron sheets were being folded over a mandrel and hammer welded to create the first iron hand cannon barrels (Hause, n.d.). A few hundred years later, in 1600, Turkey, India, Vienna, Spain, and Hungary had adopted this method, and by the 19th century, many countries had followed.
Pattern welded shotgun barrels are categorized by the manufacturing methodology with three main types (Hause, n.d.).
- Twist: created by taking thin ribbons of steel and iron and wrapping them around the mandrel before being hammer forged
- Crolle Damascus: iron and steel are layered in the billet
- Laminated Steel: more steel than iron is mixed before forming rods
The process of forging strips of iron and steel around a mandrel is referred to as “Damascus.” Although aesthetically pleasing, the guns were weak and couldn’t hold up to a powerful explosive (Wikipedia, n.d.). Current gun-making methods are known as “stainless Damascus” because of the two-tone swirling created by powdered Swedish steel (Hause, n.d.).
Damascus steel has transcended history and metallurgy and is now a pop culture topic.
The award-winning HBO sensation, Game of Thrones, brought Damascus steel into the homes of viewers worldwide. Valyrian steel is a main plot point in the popular television series; weapons made from this special steel can kill ‘White Walkers’ (Rothman, 2019). The metal is very rare, and only a few characters on the show have these Valyrian steel swords. Furthering the storyline of the show, new Valyrian steel weapons cannot be created as the methodology to forage the metal has been lost in time (Rothman, 2019). Valyrian steel also possesses a unique water-like pattern and is very sharp and unbreakable. The creator George R.R. Martin had said the real-life version of Valyrian steel is Damascus steel, and he purposely meant to mirror the special metal (Rothman, 2019). Loyal fans of the show suddenly became very interested in Damascus steel!
Damascus steel has also appeared in one of the most popular video games, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In the game, Damascus steel weapon camo is the highest in-game content gamers have to unlock and is considered the most rate prize in the game (Bhat, 2019). This blue and red Damascus steel camouflage can only be unlocked once after every other camo has been.
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Davidson, M. (2020, April 15). Damascus Steel – A Beginners Guide. From Knife Informer: https://knifeinformer.com/damascus-steel-a-beginners-guide/
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Wootz (steel). Britannica.
Extance, A. (2016, January 14). Raiders of the Lost Steel. From Chemistry World: https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/raiders-of-the-lost-steel/9344.article
Hause, D. D. (n.d.). The History, Art and Acienve of Pattern Welded Shotgun Barrels. From Damasacus Knowledge: https://sites.google.com/a/damascusknowledge.com/www/home
Helmenstine, A. M. (2018, January 10). Damascus Steel Facts. From Though Co: https://www.thoughtco.com/damascus-steel-facts-608458
Jain, A. (2019, December 20). Damascus Steel’s Indian Origins. From Live History India: https://www.livehistoryindia.com/cover-story/2019/12/20/damascus-steels-indian-origins
Knife Knowledge. (2019, December 11). Elevate Your Kitchen With Damascus Steel Patterns. From FN Sharp: https://fnsharp.com/blog/about-damascus-steel-patterns/
Pacey, A. (1991). Technology in World Civilization. The MIT Press.
Rothman, L. (2019, April 24). There’s a Real-Life Inspiration for Games of Thrones’ Valyrian Steel. Here’s How Its Long-Lost Secrets Were Revealed. From Time: https://time.com/5575279/game-of-thrones-valyrian-damascus-steel/
Srinivasan, S., & Ranganathan, S. (2004). India’s Legendary Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World. Bangalore: National Institute of Advance Studies, Bangalore and Indian Institue of Science, Bangalore.
Sullivan, W. (1981, September 29). The Mystery of Damascus Steel Appears Solved. The New York Times, pp. Section C, Page 1. From The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1981/09/29/science/the-mystery-of-damascus-steel-appears-solved.html
Swords Swords. (2019, January 14). Everything You Need to Know About Cast Damascus Steel. From Swords Swords: http://blog.swordsswords.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-cast-damascus-steel/
The Making of Pattern Damascus. (2017, August 27). From The Shed: https://the-shed.nz/home/2017/6/27/the-making-of-patten-damascus
Verhoeven, J. D., Pendray, A. H., & Dauksch, W. E. (1998). The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades. Journal of Minerals, Metals & Materials Society.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Damascus Steel. From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damascus_steel