Sweet iron:

Metal for Horse Bits

What IS "sweet iron"?

I've asked and gotten all sorts of answer's. Its either wrought iron, or just plain (non-alloy) mild-steel (I think). References found on the net imply it could be anything and is often used with copper. . .

Here's what I know about sweet iron. I own a horse bit that was made sometime between 1840 and 1860. It is also possible that it could have been made as late as 1870 but the gent I had take a look at it felt that it was an earlier manufacture. The pattern is known as a "Johnny Bit" or carriage bit. Since I have owned this artifact it has always been a dark brown almost the color of chocolate. When I tried to clean it all I did was make it a little glossy. The brown stayed. When I got the bit I had been involved in reenacting and so had pleanty of opportunity to talk to people about old horse tack. I discovered that the modern farriers I met didn't really know what sweet iron is. Frankly I'm still not sure. However, a few years ago I was in Texas and a guy that was in camp told me that sweet iron bits were made by either brushing the steel with a soft copper brush or by hammering thin, soft copper on the steel while the steel was hot. Over the years I took some flak for using a rusty bit but my horse never seemed to mind the taste and even would suck on the bit at times like a kid with a jaw breaker. With all of the abuse I put the bit through it never lost its browning and it never pited. I have always suspected that it stayed brown because of the acid in the sweat of the horse and in the horses saliva. I figure the bit is made from some kind of wrought iron because it would stand up to a variety of weather conditions better than the steel of the day. It would also have been plentiful and easy to work in order to produce large quantities.
Bill - Wednesday, 03/22/00

I have always been told "sweet iron' tasted good, enhanced salivation, just a better bit all around. And it was just 'plain iron'.

I did a little checking. Dennis Bright in his Bits and Bitting article calls Sweet Iron "cold rolled steel, a porous metal that rusts". All the suppliers I checked pushed sweet iron and copper as the two best mouth pieces.

Don't take any flack on the old rusty bit, look at the bits coming out of the mouths of the top trainers, they may be silver inlaid, but the mouth piece is sweet iron or copper. And even without the silver, they are NOT cheap.

Sweet Iron We've gotten several opinions. I see copper on NEW bits and hear of OLD bits that have a wonderful permanent brown color. Rust is not going to last long in the horses mouth but copper oxide is very tough.

Bill Epps opinion was that "sweet iron" was unplated wrought OR mild steel but not plated nickle or stainless. He says the part in the horses mouth stays bright in use.

I suspect the old "brown" bits have been copper clad or plated.
- guru

The Last Word

One of the Spanish words for the old low carbon wrought iron [the material] is "hierro dulce", translating literally as "iron sweet". Presently, mild steel [low carbon] is termed "acero dulce", or "steel sweet". The early-day Hispanic bitsmiths apparently passed this definition on to their Anglo apprentices and counterparts, and it stuck.

I have given this a little thought, wondering why in Spanish, wrought iron would be called sweet. I can't come up with anything really concrete. On the other hand, why do we call low carbon steel "mild"? They all seem to be culinary terms, but they are as good as any, and we have inherited them.

In terms of advertising, the bits are not really made of wrought iron anymore, but "sweet iron" sounds good to a lot of old buckaroos, the prospective buyers. I don't think the advertisers are fudging too much. After all, mild steel is technically an iron with only about 0.20% carbon. It gets semantic.

Frank Turley, Turley Forge Blacksmithing School - Saturday, 12/14/02

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