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Thread: ‘Chemical Browning’. Fact or Fiction?

  1. #1
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    ‘Chemical Browning’. Fact or Fiction?

    I’ve long been rather sceptical of this phrase especially when it has been applied to British regulation swords. I’ve checked and re checked all my reference books to no avail and I would have thought that either the records of Robert Mole or a Wilkinson ledger entry would make reference to a hilt or scabbard having been treated in this way. Was there such a process, was it similar to ‘blueing’ a gun barrel or Parkerising, did any of our Victorian sword makers take out a patent for it? It would be great if anyone has some documentary evidence that I’ve missed, as otherwise most of my swords are just old and rusty! (I mean richly patinated, sorry)! Thx Ben.

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    I have one 1908p sword that is browned. There is a modern chemical that does this. In the past, pre the 1908p swords I've never seen one "chemically browned".
    I think you have read one particular dealer site which claims some of his swords are chemically browned when it is clearly evident they are nothing but corroded.
    I believe he uses this description to add value to the rusty swords.
    The 1908p I have that is browned has no pitting whatsoever, and you can see the shine of the metal under it, any corroded swords have long lost their original finish whatever it may be.
    Browning was used on BP firearm barrels mostly.

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    Cheers Will, I couldn’t possibly comment further!!

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    I've only seen British swords with a sheathing in leather to mark a transition from full dress to campaign dress (using the same scabbard), pre-1900 or painting in green or Khaki. I think this was in response to the Boer War experience but I'm sure such camouflage was practiced far earlier in the Indian theater.

    Greg

  5. #5
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    I've had a couple of antique British swords with no corrosion but a definite brown hue to the steel. I assumed that they were later browned by a later civilian owner. Also, the Italians had a widespread official order to brown their regulation swords, lance tips and (if I remember correctly) even bayonets at the start of World War One in 1915, and this practice continued until 1918. Some of these are very dark - almost black.

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    Yes, like gun barrels, hilts and scabbards were browned deliberately. Rifles swords in particular often have this treatment. I don't know exactly how they did it, but I'd imagine the same as for firearms.

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    Thanks for your replies so far gents, as we know there are plenty of examples of Georgian other ranks sword scabbards that have ‘period’ black paint or japanning applied, and the last trooper’s pattern both British and Indian, many of which had either brown or green painted hilts and scabbards in an attempt to camouflage them. ‘Khaki’ has been around since Harry Lumsden’s Guides Cavalry, founded in 1846, but for most British Regiments clearly they preferred ‘shiny’ noisy, clanking scabbards, even though the Indian Cavalry clearly got it right in terms of both preserving the sharp edge, prevention of rust and noise with their dark cow hide/donkey skin scabbards. What would be the point of chemically browning a metal scabbard or hilt of a British Regulation Sword when every bit of ‘brightwork’ was burnished till their eyes burnt, especially before The Boer War? There is no reference to browning in the existing Government Sword Specifications or Dress Regulations of 1846 and 1900. Can anyone please show me a definitive example as it could surely have only been done during manufacture ?

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    Hi Ben,
    There are dozens of details not dealt with accurately by the dress regulations. Can we clarify what you are looking for precisely please? Is it that you doubt browning was done?
    Browning on gun barrels is pretty common and is generally regarded as impeding rust, just as blueing, which was also done on swords.
    I don't think what we see is particularly unusual or special, it is simply the period ways of reducing rust. Nickel plating replaced it from the 1860s for swords and some firearms, though for the latter browning and blueing stayed in use widely.

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    Hi Matt thanks, yes I’m sceptical as to whether and why it was done to British regulation swords and would like to see any historical/documentary evidence from sword makers of the 19thC, other than simply looking at old brown metal that we can’t confirm either way without a specialist metallurgists report. I’m just posing the question as I don’t know.

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    I'm not personally in any doubt that it was done and quite often. Antique browned gun barrels are fairly common and when you see browned sword hilts, they look exactly like the gun barrels - smooth and polished, not patina or rust (well technically browning is a form of controlled patina actually). I don't recall a reference to it in a period written work, but there are very few period written sources that talk about this level of sword making detail. I think in the Victorian era it's most often found on Rifles officers' swords, but I have at least one (heavy) cavalry officer's sword where I think the guard and backstrap were browned (and remain so), because the sword has minimal patina and no rust.

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    Cheers Matt, most interesting, I presume it would have been more hard wearing than nickel plating, just not as attractive on a parade ground!

  12. #12
    British technical journals of the 1870s to 1890s refer to the browning of swords and firearms in the Browning Departments of the Royal Small Arms Factories at Enfield and Birmingham.

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ben Bevan View Post
    Cheers Matt, most interesting, I presume it would have been more hard wearing than nickel plating, just not as attractive on a parade ground!
    Well the swords that have it (which I know of) date to before the 1860s and nickel plating was not available before the 1860s. The only option before nickel plating was silver plating and understandably that was much more expensive. I have two silver-plated swords and both are top status pieces (one is Coldstream Guards, the other probably a presentation piece).
    Last edited by Matt Easton; 07-08-2018 at 10:00 AM.

  14. #14
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    p.s. Remember that Rifles, for example, tended towards dark coloured uniform accessories. They had black belts, black sword knots and often black scabbards. So a brown/black hilt (and they had black shagreen grips) would look the part. Their rifle or revolver metal parts would also be blued or browned.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by L. Braden View Post
    British technical journals of the 1870s to 1890s refer to the browning of swords and firearms in the Browning Departments of the Royal Small Arms Factories at Enfield and Birmingham.
    Robson: "To prevent glare from the bright metal, the cavalry on the Egyptian Expedition of 1882 had browned their sword hilts and scabbards."
    Musket and rifle barrels had long been routinely browned, but scabbards were more routinely browned than sword blades and hilts. This was also true of the U.S. Army, which led the way of browning. By the end of the 19th century, the browning of active-service arms (to complement khaki uniforms) was universal in both armies.
    Full details on the browning of arms can be found in Royal Warrant and Regulations for the Equipment of Her Majesty's Army. And yes, it was a chemical process!
    Last edited by L. Braden; 07-08-2018 at 12:51 PM.

  16. #16
    P.S. According to George Augustus Sala (Echoes of the Year Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-Three, 1884, pp. 340-2), the Colour Committee authorised the browning of all scabbards.
    The browning of blades was evidently optional and usually done before foreign or active service to prevent rust and corrosion. According to Regulations, even individual soldiers could request having their weapons browned by the armourer sergeants.
    Sala notes the resistance of traditionalists to khaki, as if they preferred soldiers to be easy targets rather than abandon their traditional scarlet.

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