Much Ado About Swords- Exploring the Zlatoust weapons foundry through photographs

As part of my 20th Century Russia history class, we have to pick a photograph taken by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. As I was browsing through the World Digital Library gallery, a group of pictures stood out to me. Entitled “Successive Steps in the Production of Blades, Scabbards, and Manufacture of Welded Damask Steel at the Zlatoust Plant”, they depict cavalry sabers in various stages of production.

The images of the Zlatoust plant. Source:

The images came from the Zlatoust Weapons factory. Located near the Kazakhstan border, Zlatoust was a center for metallurgy in the nineteenth century. The plant director, Pavel Anosov, created a museum called the Arsenal showing the various pieces that had been produced there over the years. One of these displays was later photographed by Prokudin-Gorskii.

One interesting thing that immediately stood out to me was phrase “welded Damask steel” in the photos’ titles. Were the Russians forging standard issue military weapons out of Damascus steel? In the twentieth century? The idea intrigued me, so I decided to jump in and investigate further.

First, what is Damascus steel?

Damascus steel historically refers to swords from the Syrian city of Damascus, which were famed for their strength, sharpness, and a distinctive pattern visible within the steel. True “Damascus” blades were made out of a steel called Wootz, coming from southern India. The exact process to make Wootz steel has been lost, but it likely involved a special quenching process. However, the term “Damascus” has been appropriated by later smiths to describe any blade that features that kind of pattern, which in modern times is created using a forging process called pattern welding. For the sake of clarity I will be referring to the steel the original Damascus swords was made of as Wootz, and later pattern welded blades as Damascus or pattern welded.

Ancient Damascus- Wootz steel. Source:
Modern day “Damascus” pattern welded blades. Source:

Pattern welding is a process where layers of different metals are stacked, and then forge welded (heated to a red hot temperature and then pounded with a hammer until the pieces fuse together). This leaves visible layer lines, which can be manipulated by the bladesmith through cutting, stacking, and reforging to produce beautiful patterns. Modern day smiths use pattern welding (“Damascus”) for the artistic appeal of the patterns. However, in ancient/medieval times, pattern welding was used by swordsmiths to overcome deficiencies in the steel making process.

Outback Steakhouse presents: Bloomin’ Iron

Before the invention of the Bessemer process in the 1850s, producing iron and steel was a very labor intensive process. While the exact methods used varied somewhat depending on place and time period, most used some variation on the “bloomery furnace” method. A brick or mud chimney is built around a pile of charcoal, open at the top. The charcoal is lit and let to burn down for several days. Iron ore is periodically fed into the top of the furnace, and the top then covered to contain the heat and regulate the rate of burning. Over time, the intense heat inside the furnace liquifies the iron within the ore, which runs down and collects in the bottom of the furnace. Along the way some of that liquified iron picks up varying amounts of carbon from the burning charcoal. After the charcoal is completely burned, the furnace is broken apart to reveal the bloom- a red hot spongy mass of iron and steel.

A video showing the bloomery process. Here they are taking wrought iron (very low carbon content) and adding carbon by heating it in the presence of charcoal. Interesting bits start at about 8:30-10:30
A video showing the Japanese style of creating bloomery steel (tamahagane)

This bloom could theoretically be used to make blades, but they would be of extremely low quality. The reason for this is the metal making up the bloom varies considerably in the amount of carbon it’s picked up. Some of it will be wrought iron (less than .08% carbon), which is essentially elemental iron. Some will be mild or low-carbon steel (.05-.3%), medium (.3-.6%), or high carbon steel (.6-1.7%). These steels are useful to the bladesmith, with the lower carbon steels being softer but more flexible, and the high carbon steels being harder but more brittle. Finally, some will be cast iron (greater than 1.8%), which is extremely brittle.

Given this material that varies considerably in quality, ancient smiths developed methods of creating something that is more homogeneous. One method was carborizing/decarborizing the material, heating the metal either in or out of the presence of carbon. This is shown in the first Alec Steele video; they increase the carbon content of wrought iron by heating it in a charcoal furnace, but then accidentally decarborize it too much back to wrought iron. This is apparently hard to control and easy to mess up, so what is the smith to do? In comes pattern welding. By layering steels of different quality, you get a blade where the hard and the softer metals are both evenly distributed without areas where a weak spot would compromise the integrity of the blade. This also gives a benefit of carbon bleeding across the layer boundaries somewhat, balancing out the material a bit.

An example of modern day “Damascus” pattern welding

Back to Zlatoust
So what does this mean for the Zlatoust images? Were the Russians actually making Damascus, or some sort of pattern welded steel that they called Damascus? This could shed some light on the state of the Russian steel industry during the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. For one thing, a foundry that has access to high quality steel would not have a good reason to make mass produced weapons out of Damascus. It is extremely time intensive to create, and must be done by skilled craftsmen. A nation needing to produce enough blades to outfit its army would have serious difficulty produce Damascus in remotely sufficient quantities to do so. Any nation with the technology sparked by the Bessemer process around this time could produce hundreds of tons of uniform, high quality steel.
So why would the Russians be doing it, and in one of their biggest blade manufacturies? It is possible that they had not acquired the technology to mass produce steel, and would have had to rely on older processes that made smaller quantities of lower quality material. In that case, using a pattern welding process to improve their blade stock could make sense. However, Russia at the end of the nineteenth centuries had battleships and trains that contained vastly larger quantities of steel than would be needed for swords, so they obviously either had a way to domestically produce steel or a foreign source to import it from.
So the Russians were not producing pattern welded blades due to a lack of access to modern steel. Why then? It turns out that the push at the Zlatoust foundry to produce Damascus was sparked by one man: Pavel Petrovich Anosov.

Pavel Anosov. Source:

As a cadet at the St Petersburg Mine Cadet School, he was introduced to a sword reputed to be made out of “Bulat” steel, a quasi-legendary variant of Wootz steel produced in medieval Russian. Anosov was mpressed by the Bulat’s strength and sharpness, as well as by other Damascus/pattern welded blades he later encountered. After graduation, he was assigned to the Zlatoust mining district, eventually becoming the head of the foundry (and later civilian governor of Tomsk). Note that Anosov’s career lasted from 1817-1851, so before the Bessemer process made steel significantly more accessible. Unimpressed with the quality of the steel produced at Zlatoust, Anosov began to study the effect of various pattern-welding and quenching techniques on the strength of the steel they produced. Significantly, he was one of the first to study the microstructure of steel under a microscope, a field that would later revolutionize our understanding of grain size, tempering/quenching/annealing, and the various types of steel grains. The steel Anosov produced was much stronger than what Zlatoust had been previously using, and his process and writings were widely circulated. Modern Bulat became popular for the production of swords, as well as cannon barrels, before eventually being supplanted by Bessemer steel.


I initially found these images interesting because they didn’t seem to make sense. Why would the Russians be producing outdated sabers using a process that was much more artisinal than industrial. My initial inclination was to write it off as part of Russia’s lack of industrialization. But in reality, the Zlatoust factory in the nineteenth century seems to have been a center of technological development, stemming from ancient metallurgical traditions. I was incredibly surprised at the amount of work Anosov produced- everything from steel microstructures to mining practices to gold prospecting. I’ve actually taken a course on steel metallurgy, and much of the curriculum stems from his initial work with Bulat. Overall, I am coming away extremely impressed with the state of Russian metallurgy in the late nineteenth centuries, at least in Zlatoust.


  2. Maryon, Herbert (February 1960). “Pattern-Welding and Damascening of Sword-Blades—Part 1: Pattern-Welding”. Studies in Conservation5 (1): 25–37. doi:10.2307/1505063JSTOR 1505063.
  3. ^ Maryon, Herbert (May 1960). “Pattern-Welding and Damascening of Sword-Blades—Part 2: The Damascene Process”. Studies in Conservation5 (2): 52–60. doi:10.2307/1504953JSTOR 1504953.

5 thoughts on “Much Ado About Swords- Exploring the Zlatoust weapons foundry through photographs

  1. Hello! The photographs that you selected to analyze are extremely unique compared to other posts I have seen thus far. What I appreciate the most about your post is how well you reconciled your personal interests in metal working with historical context and course materials. As I was reading your post I too was wondering why such a complex method for forging blades was being used and my initial thought was that the Zlatoust foundry was used for making ceremonial blades. However, your exploration of the photographs and the metallurgical process that they depict gives great perspective on the industrial capacity and technological advancements of the Russian Empire at the time. I very much enjoyed reading what you discovered about these images and the wider Russian Empire.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey! I really like your post for how unique and interesting the subject matter was. I mean swords themselves are really cool so I always find that kind of stuff very interesting. I also really like how you included videos that show the sword making process as it is a great visual aid. Thank you for your post!


  3. That’s really cool that you started out being skeptical but ended up being impressed by Russian metallurgy! I agree that Anosov was a real innovator. (“Bulat” means “Damask” in Russian). It’s curious that his career begins at the end of the Napoleonic era, and I wonder if he took any inspiration from there? Did Europeans make their own “Damascus” steel in the 19thc, or was it all still mainly being produced in Damascus?
    In any case, I really enjoyed reading your post. I learned a lot and appreciate how significant (and progressive) things were in Zlatoust all the more. Matt also wrote about tradition and innovation in Zlatoust, but from a completely different angle:


    1. As far as I am aware, Wootz steel, the steel that makes Damascus swords unique, was being imported from India to various parts of Europe from early antiquity up until the seventeenth century. Now the manufacturing practices obviously changed quite a bit over this timeframe, so it is hard to tell when the importation of true Wootz steel ceased. The Wootz that made Damascus blades famous has been found to have things like carbon nanowires and other unique trace elements that make its “special sauce” unique and hard to replicate using experimental archaeology.

      During the 19th century, the Bessemer process made the production of steel significantly cheaper and less time consuming, permitting the production of immense quantities of steel. But the evolution from bloomery steel production to Bessemer steel had a lot of intermediate steps that gradually made steel production more and more economical. The blast furnace in the 15th century and Benjamin Huntsman’s crucible steel work in the 1750s are two examples. While Bessemer brought about the modern age of steel, before that Europe was still producing pretty large quantities using various other technologies.


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