How durable are silver inlays on a blade?

Motivation (fictional of course)

Fantasy is full of references to silver swords and other weapons thought to make a poor lycanthrope‘s life miserable. Since silver appears to be too soft for blades, I came up with the following solution: inlay the blade with silver runes or ornaments, so that upon being cut by the steel edge the monster may feel the silver in the wound and suffer the alleged effects.The question is meant to establish the reality, so as to introduce no more than the necessary magic in the setting.

Main part

I discovered this tutorial on how to inlay silver into a tomahawk. Let’s assume this technique is used on the blades. How durable will they be? Specifically, I would like rough estimates on the following (obviously a lot depends on the particulars of the situation, but I hope we can still establish orders of magnitude).

• Assuming monster physiology is similar to human physiology, how many times can I cut edge on, before I need to repair the inlays (I guess the answer here is practically infinite, but I better ask. Someone might know about real silver inlayed blades)?
• Assuming I have to parry a steel sword with such a weapon. I guess I wouldn’t do it edge on, but with the side of the blade. How many hits would it take to ruin the inlays (If we can imagine something like an "average human hit")? Let’s say the integrity of the inlay is the percentage of the original silver Volume left in them.
• Might it make sense to reserve one side or section of the blade for parrying or would it completely handicap a practitioner of historical martial arts (for instance Liechtenauer)?

Very preliminary Model on the effects of silver on werewolves

(In response to many justified comments I tried to refine my model)

• Nothing happens as long as silver never enters a wound.
• If 1cm2 of silver enters the wound for 1s, then the werewolf can not heal at that point for 999 heartbeats. In lack of a better theory everything scales linearly. That also means 1/20th also has a huge effect.
• If 1cm2 of silver stays in the wound for 99 heartbeats, the wolf transforms into human form, being defenseless in the process.
• For impure silver lets assume effects scale linearly with purity.
• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – L.Dutch Jun 11 at 3:15

Judging from what I've seen of museum examples, silver inlay is decently durable. Usually, it's much thinner then in the guide you linked. Here is an example of a 10th century axe with all the inlay still intact. I've also seen a good number of spears with inlay.

The inlay on the swords seems to be more problematic. I think I remember the inlay on some yataghans, but it's concentrated nearer to the handle, not in the last third of the blade. It may be due to the blade flex.

Axes and spears are quite rigid, so inlay won't get damaged. Blades, though, are expected to flex, especially in the last third. It may be that the inlay on the last third of the blade will get cracked and damaged.

As far as edge parry is concerned, I'm of the opinion it's some sort of Victorian myth. Matt Easton has some nice videos on the topic. In short, turning your sword to party with flat every time is just too slow. Besides, crossguard on the most of the blades is situated to catch the blade sliding down your edge, not the side. There is only one type of the weapon I know of that has a guard on the side of the blade without any sort of the guard in line with an edge - that is German short Messer with Nagel.

To conclude, significantly rigid weapons such as spears, axes and daggers can have inlay quite near to the cutting edge, and it won't get damaged much. On the swords you may have to renew the inlay from time to time, if it cracks from the blade flex. More rigid swords, such as Oakeshott type XVII will have easier time coping with that problem. (Other comparatively thick designs with little distal taper qualify too - something like a katana).

You do not parry with the side of the blade with most swords - not habitually. Unless your blade is a Messer. Then you may want to have the inlay on the left side of the blade only (assuming a Messer for a right-handed person with the Nagel on the right).

UPD: since OP now clarified how silver works on werewolves, some clarifications are necessary. Obviously, the best weapons are going to be projectile ones - all manner of arrows, bolts and darts. Starfish Prime had written enough about them. I can also call your attention to the dual-use weapons. Narrow-bladed small axes, similar to francesca, that you can fight with against other targets, but balanced for throwing as well. Short spears that a single person can carry several of, peltast-style. What all those weapons have in common is that they are made mostly of wood, with comparatively small blade, so that even with the addition of silver decoration they are cheap and easy to make, and a person can carry multiple items.

Depending on the severity of the werewolf problem, swords can be traditionally inlaid with silver too - but that is going to be a last-ditch weapon. You are not expected to fight as protracted battle with it, you just stick it into the werewolf as deep as possible and run like crazy. In the best case, you get it somewhere vital, or you have friends that will be able to use werewolf's vulnerability. At least you are going to escape while the beast is in pain and distracted.

When we come to the finer points of werewolf hunting, I envision it as a communal effort, similar to whale hunting. Even the weapons can be similar. Harpoons with ropes, or any other similar weapons that can stick deep and have a rope or chain on the other hand (even something like kusari) are going to work nice. Obviously, a single person won't hold a werewolf, but a big group of people can get their silver-inlaid barbed harpoons into a werewolf, and pull the ropes and chains in different directions, immobilizing it for long enough for couple of spearmen to finish the job.

• the reason there is litle inlay near the end of a sword is sword blades are thin, there is not much space fo inlay, but there are plenty of sword designes that reinforce the tip. if inlay is important to the function they will design swords with the need in mind., you will never have an inlaid rapier but most other sword desings will be fine. not to mention you can make the inlay stronger by doing many small dots instead of long strips. – John Jun 9 at 12:46
• @John right, I didn't think about the dot design. It would solve a flex problem. And there is a number of sabre designs that broaden the blade on the last third (Ottoman kilij comes to mind) – Cumehtar Jun 9 at 12:54
• Thank you very much for your many clarifications. Seems like spears might make the most sense (to nicely drive the inlays into the wound) and axes and daggers might also find their niche. Nobody forces us to recreate Geralt of Rivia after all! :) – Ludi Jun 9 at 12:55

If inlaying the blade of a sword all the way to the tip turns out to be difficult... might I suggest simply not doing it?

• The silver is expensive.
• The weaponsmithing is more complex, and so more expensive.
• The sword may end up being structurally compromised. I'm not totally certain on this, because there may be some sword geometries that have enough metal far enough up the blade that inlaying won't be too problematic, but you will run into issues of weight!
• Silver tarnishes and so will need more care (though the existence of silver inlaid weapons and armour suggests that this isn't too serious a problem, at least for decorative elements)
• Most things you're fighting won't be werewolves (I don't have any evidence to back this one up, sorry).

Lets assume that werewolves are both unusual, and dangerous, and you probably know if you're fighting one (which might be a bit of a stretch, but there you go).

I'd suggest that you carry with you a special purpose sidearm for the purposes of dispatching lycanthropes. Something like a silver-inlaid dagger or a little spike you could attach to your buckler perhaps. You can always have the dagger with you, just in case, and you'll know it'll always be shiny and sharp because you only get it out on special occasions, and you know your regular sword won't be unnecessarily expensive or need special treatment.

For purpose-made werewolf hunting weapons... use something like a boar spear. You won't be duelling with a ravenous beast after all, you'll be fending it off. Spears would be much easier to inlay, and generally speaking you won't be parrying steel so much as claws and teeth.

Now, to take into account the note by the OP,

nothing happens as long as the silver is not in the wound

In that respect, silver inlays in weapons you're not intending to leave in the target seem a bit pointless. The boar spear is alright, because you want to drive that thing in and not take it out until the wriggling has stopped, but you probably don't want to do that with a dagger if you don't want to get your face bitten off and losing your sidearm might be quite problematic.

The obvious weapons would be arrows and crossbow bolts. Cumehtar suggested javelins but I'm not so sure... they're quite big, heavy things, and awkward to carry around, and so you might only bring them if you were specifically out hunting lycanthropes.

Instead, I'd go for barbed metal darts, like the plumbata that Roman legionnaries carried. They can be used close in as you like but still have a reasonable range, deliver the poison (or however you want to describe the active material) and cause ongoing pain and interference with muscle use. They're shorter and lighter than javelins, and so easier to carry, and you can reasonably carry several of the things "just in case" without overburdening yourself. They're probably also quite cheap and cheerful compared to daggers or spearheads.

A related device might be the banderillas (content note: link has photos of bullfighting, in case you're not happy about that sort of thing) used in bullfighting; little barbed spears driven in by hand. The external part would make the barb inside move around as the victim moved and also get in the way of movement somewhat.

If silver compounds are useful too, expect professional werewolf hunters to look a little off colour as a result of prophylactic use of silver medicines to make themselves unpalatable...

• A lot would also depend on the amount of silver needed and the length of contact for optimal results. If the silver needs to stay in the wound, projectiles like arrows and javelins, dual-purpose throwing-stabbing short spears and throwing axes would be the best. Your silver-inlaid dagger can also be a barbed one-use item you are expected to leave in the wound. – Cumehtar Jun 9 at 13:52
• Yep. Given the Byzantine elements in my story, I have thought of plumbata/marzobaboula, which they carried nicely behind their shields!👍 But I feared the question of how much silver you could get onto them, while retaining a good tip would be considered separate from the blade question, so I was thinking of posting a separate question in a few days :) – Ludi Jun 9 at 16:13
• @Ludi I think I'll leave the answer as it is; leaving a blade stuck in someone for a whole second and expecting to retrieve it afterwards sounds risky. Arrowheads, darts and spears FTW, I think. – Starfish Prime Jun 9 at 16:30
• @StarfishPrime these ideas are excellent in my opinion. Just wanted to say, 1s is not like a lower limit. If 1s corresponds to 999 heartbeats, 1/10 second corresponds to 99 heartbeats. That should be substantial in a fight. – Ludi Jun 9 at 16:41
• Barbed silver caltrops? – Chronocidal Jun 11 at 8:53

I commissioned a sword from Canadian smith Jeff Helmes back in 2013. I got my then 6 year old to help me choose a design, and being 6, his most important consideration was its suitability for fighting monsters. So we needed something with silver, iron and a religious or holy motif.

I ended up going with a design based on a sword in the museum of Glasgow. The original gold inlay (surmised to say "blessed and omnipotent is the warrior of Christ") was changed to silver, and the blade is made from a pattern welded composite of modern tool steel (1095) and wrought iron (as pure iron is too soft).

A very fun project. :)

Edit for clarity;

The sword on the right is the 900 year old antique, with the majority of its inlay intact. Mine is the one on the left, as it is today (and after 6 years of cutting tests against bottles, tatami mats and a couple of feral pigs). I did have a slight issue with a small piece of the inlay last year, but nothing a good silversmith couldnt fix in 20 minutes.

An inlay isnt simply soft metal beaten into a pre carved form, the smith actually uses a specialised hammer to create a notch under the edge of the steel along all sides of the carving. This notch holds the inlay in place, generally for the lifetime of the sword. To my knowledge, inlays on existing swords usually only come out when the notch is worn away (usually by rust in the case of a river found sword).

• Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE Taylor, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center. The story of your sword is really cool, thanks for sharing it. But it's not really answering the question. The question is about the science of how well silver holds up as an inlay on a blade. You have that but you haven't talked about how it's held up for the last 6 years. And the pictures are confusing. Is the one on the right the current picture? And on the left when it was new? Or is the one on the right the museum sword? We're pretty picky here about answers being on point, as opposed to a chat. – Cyn Aug 13 at 4:06
• It seems to be a pretty clear answer to me: the modern copy has been in semi-regular use for 6 years and in that time, there has only been one relatively easily fixed problem with some of the inlay. Given the uses described, I'd say they are reasonably comparable to the likely usage pattern of a sword used to hunt lycanthropes. – Monty Wild Aug 13 at 22:06

You could just plate it every once in a while (which can be accomplished chemically; without electricity).

Werewolves don't usually use weapons, so if it gets nicked fighting another human, that was the wrong tool for the job. 'if silver stays in the wound they're defenseless' - Seems to me you'd want a 'silver' off-hand, and a steel longsword to finish the job.

..................................

You seem to be caught up on cutting and the general romantics of sword play. Objective: weapon that kills, or disables werewolves so that they can then be killed.

Use a short tri-bladed pokey stick, that once 'inlaid' with silver basically becomes a spike. Silver content, offhandedly: upwards of 85%.

1cm2 of silver entering the wound probably only requires about an inch of penetration. Any further penetration would scale more exponentially than it would linearly.

Given that silver melts at ~1,800, and iron at 2,800, should it ever become damaged, repairs in the field would not be out of the question. You'd melt all the silver off, retemper the 'blade', make a mold from the pattern that you carry, put the blade in the mold and pour the silver around it. Crude but 85% effective, per inch, with exponential gain thereafter.

I'm envisioning a fluted pipe reamer, without its handle, unless you want a pokey-hammer.

This shows damage as if some of the sliver chipped off.

It becomes significantly wider the further you stick it in. If it was a weapon instead of a tool, it'd be a little more pointy. But I don't think a medieval smith could forge it out of steel; it'd have to be cast iron. A one-off for your hero made in steel might be possible, but if you need them in production they'd be iron. Again, this is a piercing weapon, but it's a specific tool for a job, and like all tools: prone to breakage if used incorrectly.

• Could you explain or illustrate by means of picture what a „tri-bladed pokey stick“ is? Obviously, it has three blades, but the rest is unclear to me. I googled a bit and got images of snacks. 85% silver content seems fine. Do you think medieval smiths could have made it? – Ludi Jun 11 at 14:43

Since some of the objection is the blade might flex or otherwise be compromised by a silver inlay, you might want to consider the Falchion. This is a blade suited for more of a chopping or slashing attack, with the mass of the blade towards the end, rather than concentrated towards the hilt like more common cut and thrust swords.

Falchion

The blade was actually one of the responses to improved armours, giving the wielder some extra leverage when delivering a slashing or hacking attack, but was rapidly superseded as pole arms could deliver far more leverage and smashing weapons like maces and hammers could cause huge amounts of damage even without breaching the armour plate.

This does lead to a problem, since a werewolf will be very fast and capable of evading attacks, you would actually want something very quick like a small sword. This might make it possible to move the problem from edging a sword with silver to having the silver on a secondary blade, and fighting in the Italian style (or George Silver's English style) using the secondary blade to parry and deliver the deadly blow.

George Silver, illustration from one of his manuals

In the Silver style, the defense or guard position has the points of the sword and dagger roughly parallel to each other and projecting at the same distance, so an onrushing werewolf might actually impale itself on the tips of the sword and dagger. The human parrying with the dagger is also likely to be able to deliver a slashing wound, and since the dagger is the weapon with the silver inlay, that is where the damage is going to be. If the werewolf still has any semblance of human intelligence, it will realize the dilemma: attack and get slashed with silver, or defend and be speared by the small sword and get the killing blow delivered by the dagger.

So a sword and dagger style of fighting, combined with a silver inlaid dagger is likely the best means of protecting yourself from a werewolf.

• A falshion is also fairly thin (although wide), do the flex problem will exist for it. Additionally, if, by the OPs clarification, silver acts only while it is in the wound, a weapon that opens massive bleeding wounds will defeat it's purpose. – Cumehtar Jun 9 at 18:03

Have a spear with a steel blade with a hole in the tip, but have a lever on the handle which ejects a longer but thinner silver blade out of the head of the spear. This would be similar to a gravity knife except there would be a smaller steel head fitted over the end.

This would be difficult to do with a sword, since the blade could not easily fit inside the handle, but a spear could easily fit another spear tip inside.

When fighting a regular person, withdraw the silver blade inside to avoid it getting damaged. It now becomes a regular spear. When fighting a werewolf, flip the lever and the silver blade protrudes from the steel tip.