Damascus steel was the material used to produce the famous Damascus sword blades renowned for remaining extremely hard and sharp, yet able to be bent to a 90 degree angle and spring back to its former shape without any detrimental affect to the blade's performance, Such a quality is a highly desirable feature for both ancient and modern blades. As an added bonus, the blades also exhibited a decorative surface pattern, which apparently acted as the blades' trademark' of quality.
Prior to the early 20th century, heating narrow strips of iron and steel and shaping them around a mandrel, forged all shotgun barrels. This process was referred to as "laminating" or "Damascus". These types of barrels earned a reputation for weakness and were never to be used with modern smokeless powder, or any kind of moderately powerful explosive. Because of the resemblance to Damascus steel, Belgian and British gun makers made higher-end barrels. These barrels are proof marked and supposed to be used with light pressure loads. Current gun manufacturers such as Caspian Arms make slide assemblies and small parts such as triggers and safeties for Colt M1911 pistols from powdered Swedish steel resulting in a swirling two-toned effect; these parts are often referred to as "Stainless Damascus".
Until a hundred years or so ago, koftgiri, the technique of encrusting one metal onto another, was widely used by the Gadi-Lohars, the traditional armourers of Rajasthan, to create a range of weaponry and armour for the use of their Rajput clientele.
The technique of Koftgiri was traditionally used for ornamentation of Swords, Sword handles, Sword sheath, Shields, Knifes, Body Armor - Helmets, Horse Armor. These products were traditionally formed of Damascus steel (it was locally known as 'Faulad') or mild steel.
Since Koftgiri was always in relation of to this sword making technique. It can be said koftgiri originated somewhere in between the Persia and India. Historically koftgiri has never been traced for origins but the artisans say the craft has become prominent since the time of the Mughals.
At present, there are few craftsmen left who practice this craft. Some families in the regions of Udaipur, Jaipur and Chittorgarh in Rajasthan are still practicing Koftgiri and imitation of Damascus steel as their profession.
With the growth of the ammunition industry, many older weapons of warfare and other paraphernalia have become obsolete. These objects are now seen only on the occasion of Dusshehra when each family takes its collection of arms to a temple so that these may be consecrated. Although elite houses of the region still commission the occasional coat of arms and swords for ritual display at weddings, the wares of the Lahore are now mostly seen as decorative curios and are made as per the requirements of antique dealers and interior decorators.
Myths & Legends
Common legend states that European Crusaders first encountered Damascus steel in the Middle East, where Islamic soldiers were wielding fantastic Damascus steel sabres. The Crusaders then brought tales of these impressive blades back with them to Europe. Those who believe in the Crusaders' story also often believe that swords made of Damascus steel were produced in Damascus, Syria, and that the technique was While it is conceivable that the Crusaders first became aware of Damascus steel during their wars in the Middle East, interest in its composition began centuries before the First Crusade (1095) and the technique to produce it was never 'lost' as such.
As an art, koftgiri has been closely guarded through generations in the community of 'Sigligar'. For long they have served the purpose of Rajput traditions by creating forth numerous decorations on the arms. The locals also often call them 'lohars'.
Only the family was taught the precious art of engraving gold and silver. As the artisans say, these crafts originated out of the need to please the 'Raba', The King or the ministers.
Origins of the craft are closely related to another craft of forging the armor's steel, presently called as 'Damascus-Steel'.
Damascus steel was a term used by several Western cultures from the medieval period onward to describe a type of steel used in sword making from about 300 BC to 1700 AD. These swords are characterized by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. Such blades were reputed to be not only tough and resistant to shattering, but capable of being honed to a sharp and resilient edge.
The original process of damascening was lost to metal smiths, after production of the patterned swords gradually declined and eventually ceased circa 1750. Several modern theories have ventured to explain this decline, including the breakdown of trade routes to supply the needed metals, the lack of trace-impurities in the metals, the possible loss of knowledge on the crafting techniques through secrecy and lack of transmission, or a combination of all the above.
The raw material for producing the original Damascus steel is believed to be 'wootz' imported from India and Sri Lanka by Persia. Due to the distance of trade for this raw material, a sufficiently lengthy disruption of the trade routes could have ended the production of Damascus steel and eventually led to the loss of the technique. As well, the need for key trace-impurities of tungsten or vanadium within the materials needed for production of the steel may be absent if this material was acquired from different production regions or smelted from ores lacking these key trace elements. The technique for controlled thermal cycling after the initial forging at a specific temperature could also have been lost, thereby preventing the final damask pattern in the steel from occurring loss of the technique.
The craft of koftgiri has become more of a commercial craft rather than a usage-based craft. There are only a few families practicing it today in Udaipur and there are industries copying the craft without its best practices.
The craft is losing its valor though the families who do practice it, if revived, can carry the torch ahead.