Military Sword Finishes
There are primarily three finishes that are applied to modern swords: lacquered, anodized, and plated. If you are trying to decide upon a finish for your sword - read on.
Lacquer is the least expensive finish that is applied to metal swords and is generally a sign of a very low-quality sword. For gold-colored components, the manufacturer will cast the components in brass and then apply a lacquer finish to the surface to retard oxidation or tarnishing of the components. Lacquer, however, is very susceptible to cracking and flaking; over time the surface will corrode, especially if the sword is ever worn. Simply bumping the surface of the sword component against a hard surface will likely crack the lacquer. The brass component under the cracked lacquer will soon oxidize and corrode in a manner that is impossible to repair without stripping the lacquer and continually polishing from that point on, or without stripping the lacquer and finding someone who will reapply the lacquer.
While the specifications for nearly all U.S. military swords allow lacquered-brass finishes, most government purchases will require gold-plated surfaces as an element of the contract specification. Furthermore, while the U.S. Marine Corps allows lacquered brass components on both of the Marine NCO and Marine Officer Swords, all of the suppliers who are currently certified through Marine Corps Systems Command have chosen to use gold-plated components; none of them (including WKC) use lacquered brass.
Some specific military schools, such as the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Citadel, require that the brass components be lacquer-finished.
The United States Air Force Sword is a distinct exception to the rule of thumb that lacquered components are a sign of poor quality. Air Force specifications require the various components of the sword and scabbard to be silver plated. As silver oxidizes very quickly, the Air Force also requires that the sword should be lacquered.
Many web sites tout anodized finishes as being the best, but we disagree. The term "anodized" within the military is a term that generally means that the brass component is plated with a mixture of stable metals to give two results. First, the metals do not tarnish easily over time and require only a fine, precursory polishing with something like a jeweler's cloth to keep the finish uniform over time. Secondly, the mixture of metals (generally 22k gold with other lighter-colored metals) presents the appearance of polished brass.
The polished-brass color is the attribute with which we have a problem. Most military specifications require lacquered brass or gold-plating. Each of these processes results in a color that is darker than the 22k-gold anodized surfaces we have seen. While anodized surfaces are as resistant to corrosion as gold plating, anodized finishes are just too light in color. Most military certification agencies will not certify swords with anodized finishes because of this lighter color.
Gold- or silver-plated finishes are considered to be the best finish. Again, the components are usually cast in brass or bronze initially, but then are gold or silver plated. Gold plating with 24k gold results in a very stable, non-corrosive finish that is almost always the correct and desired color.
Even with gold-plating, however, the manufacturer must take care to maintain the proper mixtures in the electroplating bath in order to maintain the correct color. As an example, WKC uses an electroplating bath that results in a 24-carat-gold finish that is about 99.3 to 99.7 percent gold. The fractional percent are other minor elements that allow uniform and secure adherence of the gold-plating to the metal; however, if the gold-bath mixture is not maintained properly, and the gold percentage falls below 99.3 percent, the gold-plating will begin to lighten in color, much like the anodized finish. We have found through our experience that WKC maintains a very uniform color in their gold-plating process.
Gold plating is also highly resistant to any discoloration over time.
Of course, the specification for the Army Officer Saber requires nickel plating . Nickel is a highly stable metal, and does not tarnish or stain easily.
What is Gold Wash?
Gold washing was a method used years ago to cover an object with gold. The process involved making a mercury-gold amalgam and then burning off the mercury - a process that is highly toxic and, as you might imagine, unbelievably difficult to do safely under current environmental laws. Today, gold-plating has replaced this method as a safer, less expensive, and more uniformly applied finish method.
Can Gold Oxidize?
Both 24k-gold plating and 22k-gold anodization are highly resistant to any discoloration. Acids from fingerprints and air contaminants (e.g., sea air, formaldehydes from carpets, etc.) can cause some discolorations over time, primarily because of the presence of other minor elements used in the plating process. Wiping the sword after use and using a fine jeweler's cloth will remove these discolorations. We have details on Care and Maintenance of Swords elsewhere on our web site.
Return to the Military Sword FAQ.