(About) A Painstaking Replica of a Master-Built Ulfberht Sword
In total, around 170 swords found spanning the high-point of the Viking Age – from the 9th-century to the 11th-century – have been found with the mysterious insignia ‘+VLFBERHT+’ inscribed into their blade. On the obverse of these blades is the Ulfberht ‘brand’ – the Ulfberht rune. Many of the Ulfberht swords we have discovered have some form of this identifying mark, which seems to be an equally important part of its character as the name, which might be a combination of the Futhark runic letters for ‘gift’ or the goddess Freyr, or maybe merely be a decorative braid.These blades are reputed to have mystical powers, being made with wildly advanced technology and possessing near-supernatural hardness and sharpness. Whilst the reality is slightly more realistic, these swords have proven to be one of medieval metallurgy’s most enduring mysteries: we still do not know who or what Ulfberht was, and they have proved fertile ground for imaginative sword-makers to build their own interpretations of the Ulfberht Sword for collectors, LARPers and re-enactors.
The Blade of Ulfberht
Our Ulfberht Sword replica is made by the master sword-smiths at Darksword Armory. It is part of their Elite Series: these are the finest modern swords available, having been hand-forged according to the highest possible standards, with an exclusive limited run of only 100 swords worldwide – each is presented to you with a wax-sealed certificate of authenticity. It retains characteristics of the traditional Viking sword, and combines it with cutting-edge 10th-century styles and features as the Frankish smiths who likely made it transitioned into making the blades of the high-medieval period such as the Norman arming sword. Oakeshott classifies this as a late example of blade Type X – as in the original, our Ulfberht Sword has edges that are almost parallel for most of their length, before tapering to a relatively short point. As the Viking Age progressed and armor began to slowly improve, piercing became more important: thus, the early Viking swords with near-rounded points began to give way to more pointed forms, and our Viking Ulfberht Sword reflects this. This also resulted in blades which had a balance-point closer to the grip, meaning they were faster and more agile in the wielding, whilst still retaining power and heft. The blade of our sword is made from pattern-welded steel: known today as the semi-mythical ‘Damascus steel’, Frankish smiths developed the process of ‘piling’ and twisting different grades of steel together to produce breathtaking rippling patterns in their steel. Our Ulfbehrt Sword has been forged from four different steels (1095, 5160, L-6 and O1) to produce a pattern-weld that is every sword-collector’s dream.
The fuller is wide and shallow, and extends almost to the point – this again produced more agile blades, with a balance point closer to the hilt.
A Mastercrafted Hilt
The Ulfberht Sword’s crossguard is elegant, very slightly curved inward toward the blade. This would have had little impact on its function, but it demonstrates that the original weapon was clearly made by a highly skilled swordsmith with an eye for the entire weapon. . This marks it as a transitional form on the cusp of the Norman arming sword and the high-medieval knightly sword. It is also made from the beautiful banded pattern-welded steel of the blade. The grip of the weapon is wrapped in finely tooled brown leather. The pommel is of the large ‘five-lobed’ style, and it is also made from the rippled pattern-welded ‘Damascus’. Note how the pommel is almost wider than the blade itself: again, this shows the care and careful judgment which went into the creation of this blade, resulting in a finely balanced blade both physically and aesthetically. Like all of Darksword Armory’s swords, the Ulfberht Sword is made with a full-tang, peened construction, meaning that it is fully capable of being used in a light-combat environment with other similarly-graded swords. Included is an ergonomic leather scabbard with a metal chape and interlaced sword belt.
Our Ulfberht Sword replica is the closest one can get to wielding an Ulfberht blade itself in its heyday as a shining, brand-new blade – when everyone would have known what an Ulfberht Sword meant. It would make a perfect addition to a late-period Viking warrior re-enactment, a Viking-inspired LARP outfit, or to a sword collection lacking an authentic historical centrepiece. It will impress even the most discerning collector.
(History) The Riddle of Ulfberht
In order to better get a handle on what the Ulfberht swords were, what they weren’t, we need to take a dive into the world of Viking Age swordcraft. It’ll involve getting to grips with a little metallurgy, some traditional archaeology, and a smattering of social history. By the end, we’ll be able to at least have a good stab at some probable answers to who or what Ulfberht might have been.
To begin with, we need to understand the geography of European sword-making that produced the Ulfberht swords. When we talk of ‘Viking’ swords, we really should talk of Viking Age swords, because Scandinavian smiths were often only poor imitators doing their best with inferior materials – the majority of swords of any quality were made in the Upper Rhine region of what nowadays is southern Germany and northern Switzerland. The Frankish and Germanic swordmakers of this region had access to high quality materials and knowledge because they were on European trade routes with nearby overland access to the Mediterranean and the Orient. The swords they produced in the early Viking era were streets ahead of any other. At the most basic level, constructing a sword blade involves beating a handful of bars of iron or steel into a blade shape in the best way possible: Gallo-Roman smiths in the previous centuries had pioneered ‘piling’, experimenting with combining different qualities of iron and steel in different configurations, out of which they would hammer a blade-shape. This was of course limited by the availability of materials: low-carbon wrought iron was comparatively easy to make in a bloomery by smelting iron ore with charcoal and then hammering the bloom to beat out impurities. But steel was much harder to make, and could only be produced haphazardly in small quantities by working wrought-iron in a charcoal-fired hearth for a long time. By the 8th-century CE or so, Frankish smiths had discovered the blade configurations that made best use of the scare amounts of steel available: a wrought-iron core, often beautifully ‘pattern welded’ by twisting and folding the iron core bars, with high-carbon steel forge-welded to the sides with a hammer to make edges that were hard enough to sharpen. Then, from the 8th– to the 10th-century CE, metalworking underwent a comparatively rapid improvement. Frustratingly, we don’t actually know exactly why! Most historians reckon it was a combination of improving bloomery technology which allowed the creation of hotter smelting conditions and better European bloomery steel, and the increasing availability of steels from outside Europe, such as the legendary ‘Damascus steel’ – we’ll talk more about this later. Suffice to say, Frankish and Germanic smiths now had the ability to experiment with all-steel sword construction for the first time.
So – the Ulfberht sword-maker set to work. The fact that the 150+ Ulfberht swords discovered span almost two centuries precludes a single legendary master sword-maker: it is intuitively likely that there was ‘an’ Ulfberht sword or swords, which were then copied with varying degrees of success. We have a whole host of evidence we can call on from a range of sources to try and divine who – or what – was the original.
Fingerprints of the Maker
Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stalsberg conducted an exhaustive inventory of the Ulfberht swords in 2008, and she made a number of fascinating discoveries. She found a variety of spellings amongst the extant Ulfberht swords: the most prevalent spellings was actually ‘+VLFBERH+T’ (about a third of the swords), with ‘+VLFBERHT+’ the next most common, all the way on down to vague approximations and nonsense such as ‘+VBLTH+’ and Ulfberht-ish squiggles, likely reproduced by illiterate or semi-literate smiths. But when Stalsberg then cross-referenced these spellings with the date of the swords, she discovered, broadly, that the ‘+VLFBERHT+’ spelling is much more prevalent in early Viking swords (68%), and gradually becomes less common and more garbled towards the end of the Viking Age. This might indicate that this is the ‘original’ spelling.
However! The Wallace Collection’s archaeometallurgist Alan Williams built on Stalsberg’s work and conducted a metallurgical analysis of the blades themselves. His conclusions are surprising: he found a fairly direct correlation between the spelling of ‘Ulfberht’ and the quality of the blade. He concludes that the best quality swords are actually the ‘+VLFBERH+T’ swords: all 14 of the ones he analysed show strong evidence of being made from ‘hypereutectoid steel’. This means high-quality, high-carbon steel made with complex production processes in clay crucibles, more similar to the steels created at the start of the Industrial Revolution – and the most likely candidate for this is the ripple-textured Wootz steel created in South India from the 1st-milennium CE and imported to Europe, where it became known as the mythic ‘Damascus steel’. These swords were not supernatural or ‘impossible’, but they would have been very, very good: hard, flexible and razor sharp, capable of literally smashing inferior swords to pieces. The ‘+VLFBERHT+’ blades he analysed were all similar to one another: they had lower-carbon steel cores with higher-carbon steel edges, made either by ‘case hardening’ – packing the finished blade into a ‘case’ filled with charcoal, usually a clay casket, and baking it at high temperature so the carbon diffuses into the iron – or by piling different qualities of steel together and forge-welding them into one blade. This might indicate a single origin for a cluster of ‘+VLFBERHT+’ swords. Other Ulfberht-ish swords with more varied spellings generally became metallurgically worse and would have made less effective weapons the more garbled the spelling.
In terms of who Ulfberht the person was, we cannot be certain. Whilst Ulfberht is a Frankish given-name (related to ‘Wolfbert’) which crops up in the record in several places, there is nothing linking any particularly Ulfberht to sword manufacture. However, aside from the possibility that this was the personal mark of an individual maker, it may be that Ulfberht was an overseer of some kind, ‘Damian-Hirst-ing’ the large-scale production of high-quality swords all stamped with his name. It may be that Ulfberht had nothing to do with the production process at all – Dr Anne Stalsberg suggests that it may be the name of a Bishop or other high Church official, whose monastic grounds were often home to productive industries from which they would derive significant wealth. Alcuin, for example, who was an Anglo-Saxon Churchman who became a scholar at the court of Charlemagne, had four abbeys who owned 20,000 slaves (!) in his demesne. Could Ulfberht have been such a grandee?
When taking the evidence all together, it seems likely that a sword-maker somewhere with good access to the Middle Eastern metal markets – possibly on the Baltic Coast at the terminal of the overland Varangian Volga trade route – began making swords from extremely high-quality South Indian Damascus steel, having learned the specific cold-forging techniques required to preserve the strength and power of the rare Wootz steel, hammering the word ‘+VLFBERH+T’ into the blade with twisted wrought-iron when the blade was done. Whether this was the name of the swordsmith themselves, whether it was their overseer, or whether it was their lord-bishop, remains elusive. But soon, another sword-maker acquired one of these spectacular blades, and, seeking to cash in on this blade’s fame, made his own copies with local materials and different techniques – and ‘corrected’ the spelling to ‘+VLFBERHT+’. And then so on, from swordsmith to swordsmith, like a pair of Nike trainers knocked-off and copied and counterfeited over and over – until we are left scratching our heads at a questionable low-carbon steel blade inscrutably marked ‘+SFBFLRT+’.
Our very own Ulfberht Sword is really no different to this line of august weapons: another homage to the enigmatic Ulfberht.
- Total length: 36 ½ inches
- Blade length: 30 ½ inches
- Blade material: Blend of 1095, 5160, L-6 and O1 steels
- Blade hardness: Edge: 60 HRC; core: 48-50 HRC
- Guard and pommel material: Blend of 1095, 5160, L-6 and O1 steels
- Grip material: Leather
- Weight: 2 lbs, 11 oz.