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So its already been repeatedly established that any harder material will inevitably be more brittle than steel and more likely to break on impact in comparison to steel. However, what if the primary opponents are unarmored? Such as equipping Roman legions with tungsten carbide gladii?

While no fighting manual exists in the period, given the lack of crossguards until the 10th century and legionnaire fighting tactics, it's likely that swords were not generally used to parry against another sword. So against unarmored opponents, it stands to reason that swords will only meet cloth, flesh, or wood (shields).

Given this context, could more brittle but harder swords or other weapons be preferred?

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  • $\begingroup$ Most Roman swords were not made of steel, they were made of soft iron. (The Romans did not know how to make steel in any quantity.) They worked very well, thank you. But the point is that even ordinary mild steel would be a great progress. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 4 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ If the defenses against hard but brittle swords were poor, and people started using harder swords, it would take just a few years for the appropriate defense to be developed (iron-ringed shields, sword breakers). Attack and defense are highly adaptable and responsive. But the Macahuitl comes close to your goal. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macuahuitl $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 4 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ A carbide sword might not survive being swung much less hitting something. I think you underestimate how brittle it is. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 4 at 16:58

2 Answers 2

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Given this context, could more brittle but harder swords or other weapons be preferred?

There's a more important question here that you haven't answered, which is "What is the benefit?"

Super-hard materials are useful at cutting and breaking and penetrating hard things, but when fighting against unarmoured opponents who are presumably using no more substantial protection than a wooden or leather shield, what's the benefit of your tungsten carbide gladii? Seems like there's at best a small incremental damage improvement over the use of more conventional metal weaponry, which is easier to make and sharpen, and much tougher.

So I'd lean towards "no".

Also, this probably isn't a safe assumption:

So against unarmored opponents, it stands to reason that swords will only meet cloth, flesh, or wood (shields).

Where metal was available, shields often had reinforcement. Polybius wrote of one design of Roman shield,

Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging that protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron shield boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general.

Obviously, not all shields had this kind of reinforcement, and a society that had little metal would seem likely to prefer things like metal spearheads as an efficient use of limited resources, but as you're talking about opponents with metal swords there's a chance they have reinforced shields too.

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  • $\begingroup$ As I understood it, most of the Rome's enemies did NOT have swords much less the Roman industrial complex. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ @FantasyScience the ones who posed a threat certainly had either swords, or a powerful industrial base, or both. The ones who didn't pose a threat didn't need super-metallurgy to defeat. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ The Gauls and Germanic tribes? But beside that, wouldn't a harder material penetrate shields more easily giving that the gladius is a thrusting weapon? $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @FantasyScience trying to stab clean through a shield seems like an excellent way to lose your sword. Also note that wood is Quite Tough, and a thrust hard enough to penetrate it risks unbalancing you and doesn't guarantee that you'll pierce clean though and disable the person behind it (especially given the length of a gladius). This sounds like a very poor fighting style. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @FantasyScience Also, to supplement Starfish Prime's comment about punching through a shield, brittleness doesn't just affect impact. After punching into a shield, you have to get the weapon back out of it and the lateral force from wiggling / torquing it may also snap the blade. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 16:55
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You would not want more brittle weapons. Broken swords are not very useful. One that takes out the first person in line but breaks won't help you in battle when facing a full army. You want the midpoint between a steel that bends on impact and one that breaks on impact. In battle, you want one that can take a lot of beating, perhaps nicks broken out of it, and yet is still functional to fight the next person in line.

Look at the Japanese swords. A harder but more brittle metal was embedded in and surrounded by far softer steel. Some such swords have a very good edge but can be bent almost double. Today, Japanese wood working chisels have a hard but more brittle edge steel and a much softer backing steel to take the blow.

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  • $\begingroup$ So even if the contact material is significantly softer relative to the weapon, the harder weapon still breaks easily? But wouldn't a harder weapon cleave through the target more easily? Additionally, I thought the reverse was true for Japanese swords. Wouldn't you want the internal structure to be tough and give a harder surface for the edge? $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ @FantasyScience don't imagine that Japanese swords were ultra-powerful. They were a way to make good swords given the materials available. And you don't need to cleave all the way through something unless you're butchering it, and you may note that butchers tend to use steel with metalworking (and woodworking) powertools using fancy ceramics... $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ I'm well aware that the Japanese had inferior metals, but that wasn't my question. I thought sword folding was to fold in the softer but tougher metal as base? The idea isn't that so much in wanting to cleave through an opponent, more that to avoid weapons getting stuck inside a defeated opponent. Sword fighting styles with light cut injuries to disable opponent weren't developed until several centuries later, so couldn't a weapon that could hold the better edge and force to cleave all the way through help the wielder survive battle batter by simply having less stuck swords? $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @FantasyScience weapons are subject to a great deal of stress just because the target and the wielder are two heavy masses moving in different directions. then you have things like bone, cloth armor, wood and other materials that are hard or binding. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 4 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ Wasn't the Roman style to use the sword more as a stab than a slice? In which case, the quality of the edge is mostly immaterial. It would get slammed from the side from the shield parry and would need to withstand such blows. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 5 at 1:51

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