Stellenbosch swordsmith Marius Titus rediscovers a forgotten art – and gives purism a good name.
On a quest to understand the finer points of ancient swordmaking technology, swordsmith Marius Titus goes to extraordinary lengths. Like the craftsmen of yore, he sweats over a crude forge, pounds red-hot iron and steel with bone-jarring force, and agonises over cutting edges in the pursuit of the perfect blade.
But that’s just half of it. To create his lethal, beautiful and eminently collectible weapons, he engages his intuition, trying to replicate the thought processes of those who came before him. He’ll even go out and select the best iron ore, for heaven’s sake.
Well-crafted swords have always been the stuff of legends. Given affectionate names like “Limb Biter” and “Wolf Tooth”, they were supposedly capable of bestowing superhuman prowess on those who wielded them. Mention Excalibur, and everyone knows what you’re talking about. Old swords were particularly revered; oaths were sworn on them and they became valuable heirlooms – simply because only a good sword got to be an old sword.
Ancient swordsmiths, working with fire to turn crude ore into deadly and sometimes exquisitely designed steel weapons, were considered mystics in their day. It’s no wonder: as sparks erupted from the glowing forges like dancing fairies, the bellows wheezed and the hammers clanged with rhythmic violence. row in loud hisses and puff s of steam as the glowing blades were quenched, and you have an assault on the senses. It’s no wonder that visitors and potential clients felt as if they were entering some kind of devilish factory.
To the Vikings and Teutonic knights – just two of the many skilled warrior groups that have fought and died throughout Europe’s violent history – the sword was a serious weapon. If your spear point was bent on an opponent’s femur, no problem – you could still end up winning on the day. An axe might be a pain to lug about, but one well-planted swipe would put an end to most disputes. And the mace could always be relied on to deliver a crushing blow.
However, none of these weapons demanded the quality of valuable metal, or the exacting levels of craftsmanship, as did the sword. The practical requirements of a sword were special: it had to be long and thin, yet strong; hard and sharp, yet flexible and perfectly balanced.
Swords have fascinated Stellenbosch’s self-taught swordsmith, Marius Titus, for as long as he can remember. “The first metal sword I made and sold was a piece of iron piping that I hammered flat on a flat-backed stone in my garden. I was twelve.” He began fencing lessons about the same time.
He’s moved on a bit since then. Nowadays, depending on the origins of a particular sword’s design, he’ll use carbon steel or spring steel. The former is more traditional, and better suited to serious collectors looking for exact replicas of Viking or Japanese blades. If you’re prepared to be patient – and some purist clients are happy to wait up to two years for their masterpiece – he’ll even collect iron ore from the mountains around the Western Cape, smelt it to produce his own iron bars, then turn it into steel (with the correct carbon content) in his forge to create that perfect blade.
Spring steel, on the other hand, makes great blades for European martial arts practitioners because it’s really strong (according to Titus, these customers tend to engage their swords quite vigorously in their re-creation of ancient sword battles – an art largely forgotten when gunpowder changed the face of warfare forever). It’s also a good substitute for the steel that was readily available to swordsmiths when armour production was in full swing.
By the age of 15, Titus was already experimenting with his first forge, using old metal fence struts for blades and an I-beam scavenged from a scrapyard as an anvil. He recalls his prototype design: “I dug a deep channel in the ground and built a fire, inserted the metal into the coals, and piled rocks on top to trap in the heat. I then ‘borrowed’ my mother’s hairdryer, connecting it to an iron pipe to feed air in.” His first product was a crude daggersized blade – and he was hooked.
While studying for a BSc degree at the University of Stellenbosch, he could generally be found in the library, reading up on swords. Having completed his degree, he toyed with studying further, but abandoned the idea: “I was seriously considering palaeontology but my lecturers advised me against it, saying there was no money in fossils. They suggested I go into mining instead. For me, that just wasn’t an option.”
He’d been studying fencing under a renowned Russian Olympic fencing instructor, Professor David Tyshler, for a number of years, and inherited the fencing club in 1999. This forced him to make a decision: should he study further, or teach fencing full time? Recalls Titus: “It was a no-brainer. Now I could start channelling funds into my real interest – making authentic ancient weapons.”
The specifics of ancient European swordmaking remain something of a modern mystery, largely because when the swordsmiths vanished in a gunpowder-induced puff of smoke, they took all their jealously guarded trade secrets with them. (Even then, it seems, the arms trade was shrouded in secrecy.) Perhaps the most illuminating key to that forgotten craft may lie in the arcane art of experimental archaeology. In this discipline, enthusiasts replicate the working conditions of ancient craftsmen, then create the same products using the same tools, thereby gaining better insight into the past. It’s a methodology that’s perfectly suited to swordmaking.
Tooling up for the job required a degree of creativity, to put it mildly. Books on swords and swordmaking provided some useful tips and information, after which Titus begin digging deeper – a lot deeper. He learned about blacksmiths – how they thought, how they worked, what they used – and applied his mind to replicating the best of their methods.
After much searching, he managed to source a “decent” anvil from a steam train enthusiast. He already owned a 5 kg hammer with a large, elongated head. “I found it in a scrapyard when I was twelve. There was no way I could use it at the time; it was too heavy. But I knew that once I’d grown up, it would come in handy.” The so-called hardy tools (they slot into the anvil to cut and groove the hot, malleable metal) were made by Stellenbosch University’s engineering faculty.
Says Titus: “I somehow convinced them to take me seriously. I then supplied them with images from books as well as line drawings with dimensions from the Victorian era.” He chose a Japanese forge and bellows combination – simply because they were well documented (the Japanese never lost their swordmaking heritage) and easy to make. He made all the forge tongs himself.
When he began producing swords that looked like museum pieces, Titus knew he was on the right track. He began paying close attention to complaints from European martial arts practitioners via the Internet, trying to understand why their modern swords were badly balanced and kept breaking, and especially why the hilt components seemed to come loose so often. He didn’t want his own swords to just look good; they had to work, too.
Titus discovered that modern methods used to fashion sword hilts (handles), guards and pommels were woefully inadequate. Those ancient craftsmen might not have understood the metallurgical science behind what they were doing – but they knew how to make a durable sword. “I was convinced that the old swordsmiths would have had a simple, practical approach to this dilemma.” After much research, and staring at X-rays of old swords, he worked it out.
When making a sword, Titus’ first task is to look up the formal archaeological classification of the blade. For example, the sword in this article’s main image is a 15th-century “longsword”, smaller cousin of the two-handed sword that was popular in Germany around that time. Or you can call it an “XVIIIa” according to the “Oakeshott typology” Classification – which means it has a medium blade, long grip and diamond cross section, with a graceful profile to the tip, among other characteristics.
Says Titus: “Its spring-steel blade gives it a good balance between hardness and flexibility. Because of its broad base and narrowing profile, it balances itself perfectly, making it very responsive.”
The cross guard is mild (low-carbon) steel and the pommel (ball on handle) is a mixture of medium- and high-carbon steel. The grip is European beechwood – wrapped in cotton cord, then covered with goat skin decorated with small brass rivets. And Titus used homemade hide glue, naturally.
His next job is to determine whether the old swordsmiths would have had access to steel. “By the 15th century, armour production was in full swing, causing a boom in the steel industry. For the first time, good-quality steel was available to swordsmiths. Before that, they would have made most of their steel by hand, or refined it a lot.” In those days, steel – even in impure form – was a highly prized commodity.
One of the ways the Celts and Vikings got around this was by forging grooves (called fullers) into their blades. Often assumed to be channels for spent blood, they are actually a very practical solution if you want to make a wide blade with as little material as possible. It’s all about the geometry of the blade. Titus explains: “When you hammer the centre of the steel, it spreads, making it wider. So instead of having a single spine like a Roman blade, you end up with a double spine, but the angles of your sharp edges are still the same.” The end result is a sword that is much lighter to wield, just as effective in combat, and only slightly weakened.
Another option was to use iron or an inferior-quality steel as an inner core, encase it in quality steel (that can hold a sharp edge), then forge-weld it all together. Says Titus: “By doing it this way, you can create two swords out of the steel instead of just one.”
The Vikings elevated a variation of this method, called pattern-welding, into an art form. The blade is formed by welding two steel and two iron strips together in alternate layers, forming a bar which is then drawn out to length and twisted. Another bar is made, twisted in the opposite direction, and the two are joined. A hard steel edge is added and everything is forge-welded. Finally, the blade is polished and etched with a mild acid (such as vinegar) to bring out the V-pattern of the welding down the centre of the blade. This produced a sword with a soft, resilient body and a hard edge. It was also rather thin, light and flexible. Says Titus: “When diffused sunlight broke through the oppressive grey skies of Northern Europe and caught these blades, their patterns would come alive, making them seem magical to opponents.”
Lastly, Titus researches what kind of leatherwork went into the scabbard; was it glued or stitched? A purist to the last, he finds out what type of wood would have been used to fashion the hilt, then makes sure he gets it.
That’s one of the reasons why he takes such a long time to complete a sword. He’s dogged about historical accuracy and refuses to compromise for the sake of speed. An example of his meticulous attention to detail: asked why it takes him up to two years to deliver a Viking masterpiece, he replies: “I’m in the process of locating a cowhide for the scabbard with a pattern and texture that would be familiar to a Norseman – and I don’t work with impatient clients.”
Marius Titus is also a European martial arts instructor and Olympic-qualified fencing coach (he’s presently grooming a promising student for the 2012 Olympic Games). Another of his pastimes is the restoration of swords for museums.
For more information, visit his web site at www.nostro-swords.co.za.