# Shattering Swords: Yea or Nay?

First of all, I have searched for a similar question but couldn't find anything. Sorry if it's a duplicate.

The idea is this: my fantasy world has, beside regular ones, a set of Amazing Swords™. As the name suggests, Amazing Swords are superior in any aspect, from weight to cutting capabilities, and they look pretty neat, too. They are made from That Particular Metal™ and are forged through that Obscure Ritual™, so let's not dwell on how and why they are so good. Think of them like Damascus steel, but better. It's probably due to magic.

Since I'm not content with them being already overpowered, I'm trying to figure out what happens when an Amazing Sword clashes with a regular one (we're talking about the average eleventh century European sword here).

I imagine that the weaker sword will probably dent with ease, but could it shatter? Could it be that the Amazing Sword is so good at applying force that it messes up the very structure of an inferior sword?

According to a preliminary search, the answer should be no (e.g., here) and the whole sword-breaking could be just a trope. Still, I'd like to hear some opinions.

On a side note, I don't need shattering per se, I'd just like to know if I can make regular sword break or become unusable easily.

• Rituals and magic don't matter. Steel is still steel and behaves in a certain way. The super sword, per the OP don't have magic powers, they were just made by magic. – James May 10 '18 at 17:32
• @RonJohn Reality check behaves differently when used with fantasy style questions since obviously magically forged swords is not a thing in reality. When applied to this kind of question, reality check means "does my logic hold up, given the rules that i have laid out? Are there any holes that I'm missing." – AndyD273 May 10 '18 at 19:17
• @RonJohn How does it not? It's even in the tag description so you can read it for yourself: "Asks if a given concept is realistic in a given context." POB doesn't even apply with reality check because they aren't really asking for new answers, they are essentially asking if they answer they already have works: "Answers should say yes or no, with supporting info." This question fits that perfectly. "I have supersword. I think it might break normal sword. Am I right?" – AndyD273 May 10 '18 at 19:35
• I have seen swords break in reenactments and send dangerous shards out. – Sarriesfan May 10 '18 at 19:52
• Don't think Damascus. Making Damascus steel does not make anything better. It allows to make decent blades if you have crappy steel to begin with. If you have good steel, folding it gives no benefit. – n0rd May 10 '18 at 23:58

Whether or not the non super blades will shatter is dependent not on your super blades but rather the process and materials used to create your standard fare swords.

I will assume that your swords are steel for a couple reasons. Iron won't shatter, it's simply too soft. Some less common alloys and metals will shatter but in a world of swords (usually medieval) those alloys probably don't exist yet.

So anyway, steel non-super swords...

Steel will indeed shatter. It can happen for a few reasons.

1. The carbon content is too high. Carbon is what gives steel its extra strength versus straight iron. If the carbon content is too high it gets brittle and can shatter.

2. Poor quality materials. Steel that is sufficiently contaminated with other elements could become brittle and shatter. There are many options here but in general this can usually be overcome by heating and folding the steel to incinerate impurities and even out the distribution of contaminants. (Thanks @John for pointing out I missed mentioning this)

3. It was not properly tempered when the blade was created. To create a steel blade you get it to shape and then heat it to critical and then quench it in water or oil. The quenching process hardens the steel. At this point in the process the blade can indeed shatter, even by simply dropping it on the floor. Another step, tempering, is required to soften the spine of the blade which gives the blade its flexibility. So if you improperly, or simply didn't temper the blade it could shatter.

So all in all you are either dealing with incompetent smiths, or more likely your super swords will simply dent, bend and otherwise destroy the regular swords.

• It could also have the problem of japanese steel too much silica from poor quality ores. That's why Katana are so heavy for their length they have to be thick to make up for the brittle steel. – John May 10 '18 at 20:16
• @John Thats a solid point, I did mention materials in the intro but I should have elaborated. Editing. – James May 10 '18 at 20:19
• Why 1) and not 1.? It is easier for screen readers and Google bot if list is formatted as list. I understand not caring about the bot, but people with impaired sight are another matter. – Mołot May 11 '18 at 7:38
• @Mołot I feel this comment is pretty opinion based. I have always preferred parenthetical, if you feel that strongly feel free to edit. – James May 11 '18 at 14:52
• @James When you use parentheses for lists in Stack Exchange's Markdown variant, it doesn't actually translate into an HTML list (i.e. <ol>, <ul>, and <li>), which makes things harder on bots and screen readers. – Brian McCutchon May 12 '18 at 1:10

All magic aside, likelihood of a sword to break depends much more on the sword itself rather than opponent's sword. An "average eleventh century sword" is likely a Viking/Carolingian sword and it is made of steel of uneven quality. Steel (unlike pure iron) is more likely to break on impact, but it still not the same thing as shattering. For a particularly bad, brittle steel (or would it be cast iron actually?) sword it might be possible, but for a regular one we are going to have a bend or a notch.

In order to actually shatter steel, we need speeds orders of magnitude higher than a human can possibly reach while swinging a sword. We can observe steel shattering when impact speed exceeds 2000 m/s, which is too high even for most modern projectiles. See also Brisance.

A semi-magical idea is that Amazing Sword generates sound waves in acoustic resonance with its opponent, which indeed can lead to shattering.

Eleventh-century swords did shatter on each other. Let's turn to the Vikings here, whose "age" extended until 1066 AD.

"A nick was a site from which damage could propagate across the blade resulting in the kind of failure seen in this historical blade (right). Clear signs of brittle fracture are visible. It could not have been a good situation for the fighter holding the sword when it happened." ... "The sagas confirm that swords could be damaged or broken by striking metallic or other hard objects."

via http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/viking_sword.htm

You're all set to have eleventh-century swords break against Amazing Swords™, because you're all set to have eleventh-century swords break against regular metal objects.

If you want more examples, look into the Ulfberht swords and their brittle counterfeits.

Shattering is so unlikely that it's not really worth your time, if the Amazing Swords™ don't operate through magic.

However...

If the Amazing Swords™ incorporated complex carbon fibre matrixes in the flexible spine portion of the blade (not the edges) they'd have a far superior ability to absorb impact and flex instead of shearing; if they also somehow incorporated some of the newly created superhard material (harder than diamond) which incorporates buckyballs in the alloy at the edges, you'd have super sharp edges which can partially handle insane compressive damaging forces, annealed to a spine which can handle impact absorption and flexing - if they were thinner than typical blades (but not so thin as to not correctly transfer shear forces to the opposing blade) you could posit that they cut through the "ordinary swords" completely.

I would think though that even an Amazing Sword™ would suffer attrition enough with each of these impact events that each would have a finite number of "cut through the opponent's sword" events before becoming damaged and needing rework.

Since magic is a thing, there could be an enchantment to bring the opponents blade to a very low temperature and put it through the ductile-to-brittle transition, which would make it much more likely to shatter. Basically a freezing blade.

Even if it took a few blocks to get the opponents sword cold enough.

• Alternatively, if your super-sword is enchanted to release ridiculous amount of heat at the point of impact, it might burn through the regular sword, or soften it enough to bend or tear . But we are talking about mini-sun levels of heat; a regular welding torch is plenty hot, but will take like a minute to cut through a sword – Bald Bear May 10 '18 at 19:25
• @BaldBear maybe if the sword was made of coherent light or trapped plasma or something that is very energetic... – AndyD273 May 10 '18 at 19:27
• So a lightsaber then. – TaylorAllred May 13 '18 at 2:54

I'm answering out of my experience with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts).

First, I want to clarify how swords break. They don't shatter in the same way as the sword of Elendil. They encounter stress at a weak point and break there. It is possible that they might break in a similar way to a piece of spaghetti, with a small bit breaking off from where the break happens, but this depends on the type of sword (I've seen this happen with rapiers, since they are thinner and used for thrusting).

Here is an example of a sword breaking. Note that this a sparring feder and not a sharp sword. This usually happens after several years of use, when the weapon has been through a lot of stress and reaches its breaking point. Your magic sword could maybe cause a similar reaction if it puts enough stress on the blade.

Note that a broken blade can still be used, and those broken bits are still sharp and dangerous. People can and have been hurt by broken swords.

P.S. Another common way that feders break is that the rolled tips come off, but this isn't really applicable to real swords.

• In particular, fencing swords are normally designed with a blunt point so as to not cause injury, but fatalities have resulted in competitions where a sword broke during the decisive strike, leaving a sharp point. – Chromatix May 11 '18 at 6:27

As others have said, whether or not a sword will shatter depends more on its own material properties than on the quality of the sword it is striking. However, there is at least one way in which your Amazing Swords might cause other swords to shatter much more often than they would normally - if it were otherwise rare for swords to contact each other directly.

As a target, all swords, from the worst to the best, present a similar challenge to the attacking sword. Flesh, bone, or a wooden shield present a lesser (though still not negligible) challenge. In any impact some of the energy is dissipated as the sword cuts into the target, the interaction time is lengthened and the instantaneous force applied to the sword is reduced. If normal swords in your setting were consistently mediocre, then they might rarely shatter against shields but quite routinely shatter against each other.

Dominant fighting styles would heavily emphasize the use of the shield, both in defending against incoming attacks and in creating openings for your own attacks. Parrying or making an attack that is parried reduces the combat to a coin-toss - either your sword will break or your opponent's will. Worse, even if you survive, your sword is probably now chipped and much more likely to shatter in the next encounter, perhaps even against a shield.

Now high quality Amazing Swords appear and their wielders fight in a new style. Incoming attacks are forcefully parried. Their own attacks are made to try to force a parry from their opponent. If the opponent's sword doesn't shatter on the first collision then the attacks keep coming until the chips become fractures.

One problem with this approach is in getting your ordinary swords to be reliably, consistently mediocre. My first instinct for how to achieve this would be to couple poor quality ores with a highly ritualised process of refinement and manufacture. Due to the poor quality ores, most deviations from the normal process lead to total failure. Swords that don't immediately shatter when drawn are rationalised as the result of appeasing the god(s)/spirits/ancestors by following the ritual, and so the ritual is followed closely.

While under most circumstances, a well made steel sword isn't going to shatter, there is a possible "out".

Early European steel swords were often "pattern welded" out of short lengths of steel, since the art of making steel in bulk wasn't perfected at that time. Since the blade isn't a uniform length of steel, there is potential for breakage to occur where the various pieces of steel were welded together.

Pattern welding developed out of the necessarily complex process of making blades that were both hard and tough from the erratic and unsuitable output from early iron smelting in bloomeries. The bloomery does not generate temperatures high enough to melt iron and steel, but instead reduces the iron oxide ore into particles of pure iron, which then weld into a mass of sponge iron, consisting of lumps of impurities in a matrix of relatively pure iron, which is too soft to make a good blade. Carburizing thin iron bars or plates forms a layer of harder, high carbon steel on the surface, and early bladesmiths would forge these bars or plates together to form relatively homogeneous bars of steel. This laminating different types of steels together produces patterns that can be seen in the surface of the finished blade, and this forms the basis for pattern welding.

Viking pattern welded sword. The "chevron" pattern is due to twisting of the welded steel blank before creating the sword

Like James' answer, this also requires an incompetent swords smith, since the usual procedure was not only to hammer red hot strips of steel together to weld them, but to also twist the growing blank in order to increase the strength and provide multiple stress paths through the metal. A simple pattern welded blade which wasn't twisted (perhaps by an apprentice smith in a hurry) would be more likely to break along the various weld lines, which in the heat of battle might look like the sword shattered.

Of course this still also requires the magical swords to deliver more force than the average human can muster in the strike as well; you may end up defeating your own purpose because the enemy will have the sword struck out of his now broken hand and arm, rather than shatter.

This is a butter knife being hit by a 9mm bullet.

The butter knife is not built of magic metals, and, as far as I know, no rituals are used in its making.

If such a puny blade can take the impact of a bullet head on and still be there, I don't think that a human-powered swing of a steel blade could do much better. So, if a magic sword manages to break a non-magical one, the merit goes to the enchantment alone.

You could put some dent on your foe's shortsword if you are wielding a bagua saber, though:

• The steel used to make a butter knife is very soft, and much thinner than a bagua. – RonJohn May 10 '18 at 18:17
• All modern steels are remarkably good and consistent even when compared to the best of the medieval world. – Separatrix May 10 '18 at 18:35
• Not to mention that bullets are lead which is very very soft in comparison to steel. – James May 10 '18 at 20:28

Hardening magic and stress fractures.

The magic sword could be enchanted with a relatively simple spell to harden the other blade -- a spell refined and mastered over a lifetime by a sect of simplicity mages/smiths. They spend decades refining and perfecting the spells everyone learns in the first year. The first strike hardens the other blade, the edge is able to cut better (but the last time it was sharpened it was a soft metal so it doesn't get sharp all of a sudden, just harder, better able to cleave a branch perhaps) however, after several strikes with the enchanted blade the opponent's sword gets harder and harder, more and more brittle. Stress fractures start to form. After the third or fourth clash it becomes so hard and brittle it snaps or shatters.

Added bonus, people who know this can contrive to have their blade struck once and get fantastic blade hardening out of the deal. But they better have some trick up their sleeve to end the fight quickly.