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Help with tang modification process on trade blades


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Hello everyone

I am not a bladesmith nor have I ever hit hot metal with a hammer, but I do own a lot of swords and I'm doing some research into the history of swords in N. Africa. The link below is to pictures of a takouba, a sword typical of the Sahel. This particular example is quite old, probably 19C. It has been well used and sharpened many times over its life, clearly used for cutting (no armour to contend with). Often old examples become spatulate.

In researching these and other swords in Sudan (usually knows as kaskara) I noticed that this form of fairly flat triple fuller blade with two half moon stamps is common to both and I am trying to find out where they might come from. I assume these are trade blades from Europe (of which there was a surplus in the late 19C). But I cannot rule out local manufacture elsewhere in Africa. So I realized I needed some professional help to understand the bladesmithing processes, hence here I am :)

My questions are regarding the process of creating this tang. The pictures show two of the takouba tang and a third of a kaskara tang with virtually identical blade. On the kaskara tang you see some scratches which are actually etching (suns, moons, stars) which are typical of early 19C blades. The etchings extend beyond the shoulder of the blade, hence why I assume this was a blade made first, then adapted to the kaskara. The takouba tang looks to be made in the same way, but needs to be a different shape because it has to be peened over the end of the pommel (kaskara is held by a peg). 

How do you think this was done? I assume the tang was wider and full length as you would expect from a broadsword blade, then it is cut and folded in to thicken the tang (or make it square for the takouba). Would this not damage the temper of the blade? To me it looks as though the fullers were ground first before this process was carried out.

I'm also interested in the half-moons. These are stamped into the blade. In this case one has been struck twice. Could this be done by local smiths mounting the blade or does it need to be done hot, which again I assume could damage the temper of the blade? I am interested to know whether these were marked by the maker (in which case they knew the buyer because these moons are a linked to certain N.African tribes) or by lot smith mounting the blade.

Finally, would there be any way of knowing if these were European or from elsewhere?

These may be impossible questions to answer, but any help understanding what was done would be greatly appreciated. I have more examples and photos if it will help. I'm in Denmark if anyone is local.


Thanks for your help.


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Welcome aboard Chris, glad to have you. As a FYI, this isn't a blade or archeology forum, it's a blacksmith forum. There are a number of world class bladesmith members and more than one member holds degrees in archeology. Still this isn't really in our wheel house.

Then you get to guys like me, I'm not a bladesmith nor hold a degree inn anything but I read a lot and am not shy about opinions. Just do NOT quote me I'm surmising from general knowledge. Please feel free to skip my response if you wish, won't hurt my feelings.

19c is hardly old so expect to find the steel is from a large steel mill, say Krupp. If you're really interested finding out where and who of the blades is really easy if not cheap. I don't recall the specific name of the tests but they're laser or xray spectrometry, you can get results from a scrap yard of lower precision than a lab that does this in a serious way. A recent example used this method and traced a very large % of bronze age copper to mines in the UP of Michigan. 

Being 19c. the blades are not high alloy, they're what's known as, "low alloy," or "simple" steel. Alloying metals found in them will be traces from the original ores and how spectral analysis locates them. Simple steels are shallow hardening, meaning they don't require complex or precision heat treatment. Tempering is the last step, using the term as you have is inaccurate.

Swords need to survive impact damage so the steel is probably not "high" carbon  or it would break from use. The term is "work hardening." A steel at the high end of medium carbon would be pushing it. A medium carbon steel hardened and tempered for service as an impact tool, sword, can be stamped without heat. The maker's or national marks are not special applications.

The tangs are obviously hot forged if a bit crudely, your suppositions are lower probability in my opinion. If the swords are really very similar then there was probably a manufacturer turning out blanks with a basic tang, probably relatively straight and maybe relatively thick. The "retailer" would then profile the tangs as desired, stamp the marks. Then heat treat and finish. 

Were I the manufacturer I'd use a closed die in a BIG power hammer to crank them out by the hundreds. The triple fuller would be forged in and cleaned up by minions who's job it was. 

The chance there was a blacksmith hitting these with a hammer on an anvil other than doing a little truing up before sending it to the next part of the factory is very unlikely. That action went out before the iron age.

As a bit of friendly advice, you should at least learn the correct terms for blade parts before asking for expert opinions. Knowing the craft jargon allows you to ask GOOD questions without having to explain  what your question means. And you'll have a better chance of understanding the answers. We don't speak in exclusionist jargon, it's a specific craft jargon.

Frosty The Lucky.

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There is a possibility that the end of the tang broke off and then part of the blade was hammered down to make a longer tang. (Or done to make a longer tang from a shorter one due to changes in hilting styles.  The work on these tangs is very poor smithing, the curling in while it was being up set for more tang was not dealt with---something I teach how to do  day one of bladesmithing class!  While the blade may have been made in Europe, the tang retrofitting was probably done locally.  Micro hardness testing would be a method of determining the the heat treat state of the blade and the blade/tang juncture.  In general swords had soft tangs to prevent them from breaking during the stress of battle.

Modifying premade blades to meet the "current fashion" has a long and widespread  history.  The ornamentation was often done on trade blades before they were traded and having the modification affecting it is a clear sign that it was done later for some reason.

It may be a translation issue; but now days we talk about heat treating as a series of processes that may include: annealing, normalizing, hardening, tempering, cryo quenching, etc.  In earlier times; tempering was often used for both hardening and drawing temper; probably because the prevalence of doing it in one step (quenching and then using the residual heat to draw temper on the workpiece) or the use of slack quenching.

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That is all really useful thank you for the responses. As I said I'm no bladesmith so I appreciate your patience.

I can supply a little more information. The shorter kaskara tang is 100% in line with the ´typical form. This was a particular sword type that uses a pin through a wooden (usually) grip to secure the blade. The pommel has no structural function but is just a leather disc to stop the hand slipping. I recently disassembled 6 of my swords and the form of the tang was the same with a seam up the middle where to me it looks like the metal was folded over then hammered out again. These were 1 18th century, 3 19C and 2 20C.

The blade itself does vary with age. The 18C has a more rounded profile, and all are slightly thicker towards the base of the blade. I see no hammer marks on the blades (which do occur on some blades from the area). Old texts refer to Hausa smiths as mounting the blades and making the fittings, but not creating the blade itself. My ideas here have been considering 3 possible sources for these mystery blades:
1) Locally produced from imported or locally sourced steel. If this was done anywhere it could most likely have been Kano, and then traded via the trans-Saharan trade routes. I think that this route is unlikely since to make a blade like this I understand from your replies that you would assume at least the use of a rudimentary form for mass production, and to my knowledge there were no trip hammers or water powered tools in use in sub-Saharan Africa at that time.

2) A almost finished blade ready to be adapted to local mounts, from Solingen traded via Alexandria/Cairo moving South-west. Here my worry is that all the Solingen blades I own have a different profile and colour to the steel (lighter colour than the 'mystery' blades). This could easily be because the steel sourced was different and different makes produced different blade qualities, but it is noticeable and consistent.

3) Italian blades - here I know that Tuaregs often had Italian bladed daggers from Tunis, traded south. It may be that the sword blades were from the same route but were unmarked and therefore it was not noticed that they were also Italian.

Your replies are extremely useful because from this I learned that the blade itself could feasibly have been mounted by local smiths, hence the poor workmanship, and that due to the softer tang this local refitting is quite possible. The dukari (half moons) could also be stamped locally (cold) either by local smiths (here I suspect this requires a very good stamp so maybe not), or a middleman who imported the blades applying the dukari and then selling them on. 

For European imports the flatter profile of the blades might give a hint. I believe drop-forging appeared aroung 1860-1870 in Solingen at least, so mass production as described by Frosty would have been an option from this point on. 

Wherever they came from I believe it points to relatively mass produced 'blanks' with the fitting adjusted to the takouba or kaskara as needed.

Btw 1950s kaskara were produced from lorry or Land Rover leaf-springs, and entirely locally. Unfortunately I do not have a bone-fide example of one of these to compare to.

I attached two more images - one showing this form of tang, the other being (I think) from Solingen showing a process of cutting to fit the kaskara needs. There is no 'folding' at the base of the tang on this one, so no mystery here what was done.

Thanks again for your help and patience.



DSC_8055 (2).JPG

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The line down the center is what you get when you forge down a piece of steel to make it thicker but narrower---if you don't take care to NOT leave it that way!

I teach the "two steps forward, one step back" process where after hitting it to narrow it you then turn it 90 on the anvil and flatten the lips out that you just made hitting it the other way.  If you don't do so the lips will finally meet in the center---per your examples.  Hence my comment about it being a quick and dirty method. I don't think trade blades would be done with such nice blades and then such "cheap" tangs; but I could be wrong.

Note the deformation around the holes indicates that they were punched by a smith rather than drilled.

The colour of the steel does link to where it was made---somewhat;  in the days before modern refining methods.

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Thanks Thomas, that makes perfect sense to me regarding the line. I guess these guys were not worried about professionalism and neatness as long is it worked. Kaskara were cutting weapons and the way they used them was with a kind of buckler, so probably blade on blade contact was not the norm (balance is horrible on these), so I guess strength was less of an issue.

If a trade blade had a typical tang that needed narrowing and thickening, would be be likely it could turn out like this, assuming starting from a broader flat starting point?

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I don't know what you mean by a "typical tang",  European swords did not generally have wide flat tangs and neither did knives till rather recently.

I just finished "The Sword and the Crucible--- A History of the Metallurgy of European Swords up to the 16th Century" It would be nice if there was a sequel to say 1918.

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