The smiths of Baltimore Knife and Sword have escorted us through Middle Earth, fathoms below an Aquaman-inhabited ocean, and into Kombat with a 10,000-year-old princess. Their latest build, however, stems from a location closer to home: China.
The Dan Dao saber dates back to 1616, a period of the Ming dynasty where battle was commonplace. During this time, Ming soldiers defended China’s coastline against the Wokou, a band of Japanese pirates who regularly raided their waters. But as is the case in most tales of war, the Chinese also stole something from their sailing opponents.
In a move that would teach the Ming army how to fight like their enemy, martial arts master Cheng Zong You developed a secret manual (Dan Dao Fa Xuan) that documented the swordsmanship from these battles. “Dan Dao,” which translates to “single knife,” was developed as the Chinese counterpart to Japan’s katana. It’s the longest of the Chinese two-handed sabers, and mirrored by “Shuang Dao,” the “twin knives.”
“Because this year marks the 400th anniversary of the manual, we wanted to recreate the sword using ancient techniques,” explains team member and master blade smith Ilya Alekseyev. “We used ironsand to create our steel.”
The black or red sand is rich in magnetite iron oxide, an ore that is often locked in with silica, manganese, and calcium. Superheating the substance with charcoal not only separates the impurities, but also fuels the chemical reaction that transforms iron oxide into workable iron. This technique has been used in steel forging for centuries, and it’s very much like what we would have seen in the creation of the first Dan Dao.
While not all of the Man at Arms techniques date back to the early iron age, watching the team role their steel through a 19th century press is undeniably satisfying.
Hand-cut dragon inlays, a traditional paracord tang-wrap, and hours of finessed polishing rounded off a blade composed of several hundred thousand layers – the first true historical build the team has taken on.
Even with modern machinery, this recreation took days of collaboration, but fine craftsmanship was an ideal held close by early Chinese swordsmiths. In fact, back in the ’60s, archeologists discovered a sword deep in the underbelly of a Chinese tomb that, despite being about 2,000 years old, was still etched and sharp enough to draw blood. The so-called sword of Goujian is made of bronze, and while the ductile alloy wouldn’t hold up against steel, the piece is a testament to the skill coming out of bronze and iron-age China. It was this attention to detail that the team hoped to honor.
“For being our first build with no modern tie-ins, we’re really proud of this one,” they say.