Japanese Steel


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Dimis
September 27, 2010, 11:49 AM
Ive been reading a book called the 47th Samurai by steven hunter (Bob Lee Swagger novel)
Its all about this one sword carried home by a soldier on Iwo Jima and returned to Japan

the entire book they talk up these old swords from japan and how the craftmanship and quality was so great these swords were well... perfect almost

my question is are these swords just held higher because of the history or is it true that these old japanese swords are better than modern made pieces?

i know a modern katana can range anywhere from a $50 flee market junk to $10,000 collector quality but some of these authentic japanese swords can go for millions even if they never traced back to a battle just because a certain swordmakers mark is on it

is this more like collectors inflation or are they truely superior swords?

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General Geoff
September 27, 2010, 12:58 PM
It has to do with the original craftsmanship. The method of forging a top quality sword in ancient times, required an enormous time investment by a highly skilled smith. While the end result was a fine blade, from a strictly technical point of view, a top quality sword forged today from the finest grade of steel is better. The "folding" process used in ancient times was used only to compensate for inconsistent and lackluster quality of period steel. In effect, they were making the best of what they had to work with.

Today's highly refined steel alloys are superior in essentially every way, and a properly finished sword made from modern steel will outshine an ancient sword made by even the most legendary sword smith.

Zanad
September 27, 2010, 01:00 PM
I think it has to due with the fact that during the war, the japaneese actully destroyed alot of swords by shortening them down to turn them into military war swords during WW2.
My old japaneese teacher told me that would go into massive debt just to by the best sword their money could buy only to find out that the sowrd they bought would have to be cut down...


so i guess finding one that is unaltered that was carried into battle is truely a uniqe specimen.

rcmodel
September 27, 2010, 01:01 PM
are these swords just held higher because of the history or is it true that these old Japanese swords are better than modern made pieces?IMO: Both.

The huge prices are collector driven.
There can only be so many swords by the famous old masters in existence, and there can never be any more.

However, the folded lamination method of soft iron & high carbon steel used to make the blades results in a sword that is probably superior to any modern fluid steel made today.
By laminating iron and steel, and then forging & folding it several times, as many as 1,000 or more layers of soft & hard metal results with the center or edge being high-carbon steel only a few thousands of an inch thick.

The edge is super hard and super sharp, but the surrounding metal is soft to prevent breakage. That was followed by a differential temper that left the sharp edge super hard for edge holding and the spine & surrounding metal soft and unbreakable.

I picked up an old Katana sword years ago out of crock pot full of umbrellas & canes in an antique shop for little of nothing. It apparently had never been touched, or cared for since the vet brought it home from WWII.. All rusty and parts of the handle & wrap gone.

Surprisingly, it was still sharp enough to shave hair off my arm after 40 years of neglect.
And it cleaned up into a showpiece of my knife collection.

rc

Billy Shears
September 27, 2010, 01:02 PM
Japanese swords are sharper and hold an edge better, but are they "better" period? There's no easy answer. As I said, they do hold an edge better, and their method of making is more refined, but the reason for that is the relatively low quality of raw materials that were available in Japan. The steel used in Japanese swords was called tamahagane (trans. "jewel steel"), and could only be produced in relatively small amounts. After the smelting process, the smiths would sort the steel into various grades, which would be used for different parts of the blade. A softer grade was used for the core and back, and a harder grade for the sides and edge. You are probably somewhat familiar with the folding process they Japanese smiths used to create the layers in the blade. Once the forging was done, the blade was differentially tempered to give the edge greater hardness than the rest of the blade. The result was a truly superb sword. After the invention of the Catalan forge in Spain in the Middle Ages, it was easier to produce steel in larger amounts, and because of this, and the higher quality of the iron ore available in Europe, European smiths didn't have to use as much ingenuity in order to come up with a good quality blade. Before the invention of the Catalan forge, when European smiths also could only produce steel in smaller quantities, they too had to use an ingenious and very time consuming method of blade making called pattern welding, using different grades of iron, with differing amounts of carbon, and they too forge welded the hardest grade of steel available onto the blade's edge.

But the Japanese blades, although superb, are still steel swords, subject to all the limitations of steel swords, and although they tend to hold a sharp edge a bit better, they are more brittle, and edge is much more prone to chipping. If you look on earlier katanas and tachis, the hamon (temper line) is straight. Chipping, however, was a serious enough problem that later on, Japanese smiths developed a way to create a hamon that has a sawtooth-like pattern. The ashi ("legs"), which are the vertical lines of softer steel in the hamon, are designed to limit the size of any chips to a smaller portion of the edge. A European sword could chip too, but was less likely to do so. The edge on a European sword, which was still quite hard, but not quite as hard (and therefore as brittle) as that of a Japanese blade, was more likely to bend or deform if it hit something hard, after which it could simply be peened or hammered flat again and resharpened. A Japanese blade was more likely to chip. A blade that has a portion of its edge chipped away has to have the whole edge ground down, along its entire length, until the edge once again presents a smooth, unbroken line. This can only be done so many times before all the hard edge steel is ground away, and you are down to the softer core steel. Once this happened, the blade was done as a combat weapon. A lot of old Japanese swords, have a great deal of their edge ground away, and are referred to as "tired."

Japanese swords were excellent, but they have been overhyped to the point where a lot of people think they are practically lightsabers. Forget about any stories you may have heard about Japanese officers cutting American machine gun barrels in two during WWII; they're bunk. Japanese swords could cut whole bodies in half, but so could European swords (and Indian swords, and others). Neither kind of sword was much use against a man in armor (swords, for both medieval knight and feudal samurai were very analogous to pistols -- they were sidearms for personal defense and last ditch use on the battlefield, the primary battlefield weapon was something else). The intricate method of manufacture used by the Japanese smiths was, as I said, an ingenious way to make a superb quality blade out of mediocre quality raw materials that were only available in limited quantities. Europeans once used a somewhat similar method, but promptly abandoned it once they developed the smelting technology to produce large amounts of high quality steel -- something which allowed swords to become far less expensive, more commonly available, and more uniform in quality, since the more involved methods of blade forging, like pattern welding, offer a lot of opportunities for even a skilled smith to make a mistake in the forging, and even one poor weld can make a blade that will fail catastrophically during the impact of combat use. A sword of high quality, homogeneous steel can be made more quickly (and more cheaply, since the labor is what costs), and with less likelihood of a mistake in the forging that will ruin the blade. This is why swords in early medieval Europe were something only wealthy warriors had, but by the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, practically every man-at-arms could afford one.

JR47
September 27, 2010, 04:21 PM
In their hay-day, there were five major Houses that made swords. Yes, the materials weren't as good as COULD be made today, but the swords actually exist, as opposed to the eternal "we could make them better" phantoms.

Today's QC in metal making isn't quite as good as the major manufacturers would have us believe. The May, 2009 issue of Knives Illustrated has an article by Michale Black that addresses this very point.

A good knife-smith of today, who was skilled at making large swords (and most aren't), forging their own blades, and finishing them to the highest standards can make such a sword. Trouble is, when he was done, it would inevitably cost as much as one of the older Japanese swords.

As for chipping of the blades, that isn't the way they were employed. The time for a sword fight like in the Three Musketeers didn't exist. The fighters would BOTH have been cut down from behind by others. Swords back then were used as striking weapons, and fights lasted seconds.

Too much of our knowledge is drawn from movies.

KodiakBeer
September 27, 2010, 04:49 PM
The subject is both simpler and more complicated than it would seem on the surface.

1. Japanese swords were not tempered to make the edge harder, but to make the edge softer and less brittle than the body of the blade.

2. The edge on a Japanese sword owes its lasting sharpness to the shape rather than the tempering. Instead of the hollow ground "razor" sharpness of a western sword or dagger, the Katana edge is "full" - like the front deck of a speed boat when viewed from above. It closes abruptly to the edge so there's no long narrow edge prone to chipping.

3. There's a lot of confusion about folding and laminating of steel. All steel, anywhere in the world, had to be folded over and over again between reheating in charcoal (carbon) because that's how iron is/was turned into steel. The method makes the iron absorb carbon while at the same time expelling impurities and aligning the grain of the iron/steel.

4. The really great Japanese blades are "folded" around an iron core in the very last step. The iron is soft (for flexibility) while the outer layer is hard. It's a great combination, but is only present in a tiny percentage of Japanese swords. And this isn't a purely Japanese thing, Europeans were also doing this and much earlier than the Japanese. Western European swords from as early as the the 9th century were folded around iron cores.

As for modern makers... Well, there may be some people capable of making swords (especially very simple swords like the Katana) that measure up to standard grade Japanese historical swords (without the iron core), but I've never seen one that's as good as a late 19th century European sword.
It's a simple matter of economics. The European sword (unlike the Japanese sword) continued to be refined and improved. A typical 1880 - 1900 European saber has a "T" back, fullers, a blood groove down the spine - the length, the thickness, the balance of various parts of the blade were reached by hundreds of years of trial and error. The hardness or springiness of various areas are accomplished by tempering each area differently. It's an incredibly manpower intensive task and most of that knowledge is gone.
The later European sword/sabers were amazingly subtle weapons - I'm talking about fighting blades, not the decorative badge-of-rank blades that senior officers wore to balls. They achieved a balance between a slashing weapon like the Katana, and a thrusting weapon like the rapier. The later European swords are amazing pieces of technology and far superior to a Katana.

I always tell people to buy a Puerto Seguro sword from Ebay because examining such a sword is the only way to appreciate what I'm talking about. The reason I advise that one is because of price. They are typical fine swords of the period, but because so many crappy reproductions come from Spain, these real Puerto Seguro's get overlooked and you can often snap them up for less than $100. Look up Puerto Seguro on google so you know what they look like. Then do an ebay search for "Spanish sword".

Billy Shears
September 28, 2010, 12:46 AM
As for chipping of the blades, that isn't the way they were employed. The time for a sword fight like in the Three Musketeers didn't exist. The fighters would BOTH have been cut down from behind by others. Swords back then were used as striking weapons, and fights lasted seconds.
Duels lasted seconds. Not all fights were duels. And though they were secondary weapons, swords were used on the battlefield. And katanas weren't supposed to be employed in a way that would chip the blade. It occasionally happened anyway, because combat is messy and unpredictable, and things don't always happen neatly, even in one on one duels. Ashi were introduced into the hamon for a reason, and it was not to cope with a problem that never arose. Chipping was an occasional problem, and something Japanese swords, being more brittle than European ones, were more prone to, and ashi were a partial solution intended to limit any damage to a smaller portion of the blade. This is absolutely a fact.

Don't believe me? I refer you to "The Craft of the Japanese Sword," co-authored by Japanese swordsmith, and "living national treasure" Yoshindo Yoshihara, specifically to page 38, where it says:

The oldest swords have very narrow and straight hamon. For fighting, this type of edge has several disadvantages:

1. The edge, being hardened steel, is brittle and chips easily (emphasis added). A chip could easily go through a narrow hamon, and subsequent polishing would have to grind away much of the rest to make the edge straight again.

2. A chip might mot extend past the hamon, but instead spread laterally across a broad portion of the edge.

In the Heian period, smiths learned to make wider hamon, thus lessening the possibility of a chip going all the way through the hardened edge. They also discovered a new shape for the hamon that would prevent a chip from spreading laterally. This type of hamon is called a gunome. It resembles a row of teeth, with projections of soft steel going all the way from the border of the hamon to the edge of the blade. These projections are called ashi. When the sword is used, any chipping that occurs will have its size limited to the distance between two ashi.


1. Japanese swords were not tempered to make the edge harder, but to make the edge softer and less brittle than the body of the blade.
Sorry, this is wrong. The forging process, and then the process of hardening the edge (yake-ire in Japanese) was deliberately developed to make the edge harder. Done correctly, this produces a blade with a softer pearlite body and a harder martensite edge.

2. The edge on a Japanese sword owes its lasting sharpness to the shape rather than the tempering. Instead of the hollow ground "razor" sharpness of a western sword or dagger, the Katana edge is "full" - like the front deck of a speed boat when viewed from above. It closes abruptly to the edge so there's no long narrow edge prone to chipping.
Japanese swords were still prone to chipping -- at least more so than European ones. European swords, even hollow ground ones, are not razor sharp. Look at some real historical swords, and look at some of the old surviving fight manuals, like the ones from Lichtenauer and Talhoffer. Some of the techniques in those manuals call for "half-swording," i.e. gripping the bare blade with the bare hand. This cannot be done with a razor sharp blade. You'll cut your fingers off. Japanese swords, as you say, have a continuous cutting bevel that extends some distance back from the edge from the edge to the middle portion of the blade, where the ridge line is. European swords have a cutting bevel that changes only a millimeter or so back from the edge. So even a hollow ground sword, like an Oakeshott Type XVIII, has a less acute cutting bevel, because it changes the angle of the bevel to a much less acute angle a very short distance before the edge. They were still sharp, and could deliver devastating cuts, but they didn't have edges like razors.

Carl Levitian
September 28, 2010, 07:02 AM
There is so much ridiculous hype about Japanese swords that you have to sift through it all to find truth. The fact is, like any country, they had some good sword smiths, some mediocre smiths, and even some bad smiths. While there was good swords, there was also some junk floating around as well. Not all Japanese swords are good ones just because they are Japanese swords.

One problem was, like has been said, they did nothave really good steel available to them. Swords were known to break in battle. As a point of fact, one of Japan's greatest Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, used a wooden sword on more than a couple of occasions to defeat an enemy. In 1612, in a dual with Sasaki Kojiro, Mushashi uses a wooden sword he carved out of a boat oar, to beat his opponant to death. He didn't trust his own sword as being poor, he couldn't afford the best sword available.

Like anything else the collectors get into, the increase in hype drives up the prices to the point of being insane. And no, a samurai sword can not chop through a gun barrel. Go easy on things in movies and novels.

Billy Shears
September 28, 2010, 08:31 AM
If memory serves, Musashi didn't use a wooden sword in the duel with Kojiro because he was unconfident in the quality of his weapon, but rather because Kojiro was known to favor a nodachi, which was much longer than a katana, and Musashi wanted a weapon that would outreach him. He used wooden swords on other occasions, but also used steel ones. He fought many duels, and used what weapons he thought would give him the most advantage against a particular opponent. He was a clever strategist and tactician who also used psychological warfare. Against Kojiro, for example, he deliberately showed up to the duel late, which not only angered Kojiro, and made him less cautious, it also put the setting sun in his eyes.

Vonderek
September 28, 2010, 09:21 AM
Was not the wooden sword in the Musashi/Kojiro duel also a psychological tactic like his late arrival...meant to enrage his opponent, i.e. a sign of disrespect to use a crudely carved wooden sword instead of a "real" one?

Also, in regards to an earlier post, I thought the core of the japanese sword was hard and the surrounding layers soft?

BTW, I have some interesting literature from the Tokyo sword museum if anyone is interested...PM me.

Billy Shears
September 28, 2010, 09:32 AM
Was not the wooden sword in the Musashi/Kojiro duel also a psychological tactic like his late arrival...meant to enrage his opponent, i.e. a sign of disrespect to use a crudely carved wooden sword instead of a "real" one?
It could have been. As I said, Musashi wasn't just a skilled fighter, he was a clever one, who sized his opponents up and used whatever strategy he thought would give him an edge. Kojiro was known to be very refined and fastidiously correct in his manners and his observance of customs and traditions. Musashi knew that his late arrival and unkempt appearance would annoy and anger such a stickler for correct protocol, and it's certainly possible that he counted on his use of a crude wooden wooden sword to be taken as a sign of casual contempt that would anger Kojiro further. His tactics worked too, and he beat Kojiro very swiftly.

KodiakBeer
September 28, 2010, 04:26 PM
Sorry, this is wrong. The forging process, and then the process of hardening the edge (yake-ire in Japanese) was deliberately developed to make the edge harder. Done correctly, this produces a blade with a softer pearlite body and a harder martensite edge.

You are of course, correct. Momentary brain farc thinking the clay was applied to the edge rather than the body in the tempering process.

Still, the Katana is a rather simple blade because innovation was discouraged in Japanese culture. I suspect a Western swordsman would make short work of a Samurai.

gb6491
September 28, 2010, 04:51 PM
It could have been. As I said, Musashi wasn't just a skilled fighter, he was a clever one, who sized his opponents up and used whatever strategy he thought would give him an edge. Kojiro was known to be very refined and fastidiously correct in his manners and his observance of customs and traditions. Musashi knew that his late arrival and unkempt appearance would annoy and anger such a stickler for correct protocol, and it's certainly possible that he counted on his use of a crude wooden wooden sword to be taken as a sign of casual contempt that would anger Kojiro further. His tactics worked too, and he beat Kojiro very swiftly.
Billy Shears,
Excellent post (actually I found all of yours in this thread to be so), but darn if it doesn't make me want to sit down and read Yoshikawa's "Musashi" for the umpteenth time. If any here are interested in historical fiction, I highly recommend it (Taiko is quite good as well).
Regards,
Greg

hso
September 28, 2010, 06:26 PM
You have to ask what "superior" means. Turn your idea upside down and think about the fact that smiths on the Japanese islands in 900 AD were smelting steel using charcoal and iron sand, sorting and combining the pieces of the bloom by hand and eye to ultimately forge swords and blades that have characteristics close to the best that modern metallurgy with vacuum furnaces, computer control and analytical labs to test materials can provide to talented and skilled smiths with gas forges, optical pyrometers, power hammers and decades of study and shared research to produce swords and we might get a better understanding of why a sword made in 900 AD to 1500 AD is so impressive. Add to the fact that those old smiths were water quenching their swords and hearing/seeing them snap due to the stresses much of the time and we should give them their due.

Is a 1200 AD katana superior to a modern katana crafted by a master? Not if we only look at the performance. When differentially heat treated L6 bainite tool steel is used for the katana compared to that available to ancient craftsmen we have a better material to start with. When the likes of Howard Clark and other top sword makers today who have spent decades studying everything about forging and katana available AND who have the advantage of modern equipment as well as ancient tools at their disposal craft a katana from L6 they will produce swords with the same fine handling characteristics as ancient katana, but of better material properties for use. That doesn't take a thing away from the 500+ year old sword, though. Is that L6 Howard Clark "superior" to the likes of the known smiths of ancient Japan? Only if viewed from the perspective of pure performance, BUT when you understand what an ancient Japanese smith had to work with in tools and materials and technology, even if their katana doesn't quite perform as well as Howard's, it is a superior feat of craftsmanship as a whole. Think about deciding which is superior, a modern BMW compared to a hand built vintage Bugatti on the highway. While the BMW will outperform the hand built Bugatti look at what went into the building the Bugatti at the time and ask which is superior and in what context.

Now move the difference in time of manufacture apart as far as treasured katana and modern top end pieces are today. Remember that all the makers from that time are long dust and now legendary and will never reveal any of their secrets or produce another piece. Take everything they ever made and force it through the destructive maw of time and you only have a few examples of that artisan's work left to be appreciated, studied and collected. Attache historical significance to them and you're looking at the definition of a rare treasure. We can't do that with a modern piece, even the ones made in the same manner as the ancient swords. There will never be any pivotal battles fought with them.

I own a Edo period wakizashi from a known maker as well as a Louis Mills tachi. Louis used traditional methods for making the steel and the forging the blade. I treasure both of them for their beauty and utility, but more because I know the level of effort that went into them. Howard's L6 sword would have superior performance, but the ancient and the traditional pieces have so much more invested in their being crafted.

simonriece
September 28, 2010, 06:39 PM
I have a sword that is over 5000 years old. It sits in my private study. No, It is not on par with modern swords, because is it made of bronze and due to its' age and the effects of corrosion, it could be broken with your bare hands. I also have several Japanese swords, damaged, but well constructed. The earliest dates from the 1600s. If you are lucky enough to come across a true blue Samurai sword don't try to cut anything with it! Have it polished, by someone who is certified, and remark the beauty of its' construction. Compare this to coming across an unfired 1901 CAP, unfired and still in the factory box, or better yet, and unfired Dragoon, in mint condition.

Billy Shears
September 28, 2010, 08:26 PM
You are of course, correct. Momentary brain farc thinking the clay was applied to the edge rather than the body in the tempering process.

Still, the Katana is a rather simple blade because innovation was discouraged in Japanese culture. I suspect a Western swordsman would make short work of a Samurai.
The clay was applied to the edge. It was merely a thinner layer along the edge than along the body of the blade. The entire blade was covered during the annealing process, and the lighter covering on the edge allowed it to cool faster, promoting the formation of harder martensite steel along the edge.

As for who would win between a European knight and a Japanese samurai... It would depend on the skill of the samurai, and of the Western swordsman. Who was better would win. I don't think the style of swordsmanship or the blade would determine the outcome (though a later medieval knight, in full plate, would have a huge advantage I think, as his armor would be much better). The katana was an excellent and versatile sword, reasonably light, very fast, with an excellent balance of offensive and defensive utility, and capable of delivering cuts and thrusts both (though it was more for cutting, of course), and although it was shorter than a Western sword, it is also capable of delivering very effective cuts with the very tip of blade, which most Western swords can't do well (there have been some that could, but most can't), and the fact that it was wielded with two hands meant its cuts had tremendous power.

Interestingly, the Japanese are one of the only people not to make use of a shield, and since Samurai almost never faced an opponent using one, they never developed a great capability to cope with an opponent so equipped. A sword and shield wielding knight might well give a samurai a very hard time because of this.

The form of the katana changed little over time because Japan was extremely insular, and the opponent faced by most samurai throughout Japan's history was another samurai. During the Heian period, which began in AD 794, Japan abandoned cultural exchange with China. The Japanese fought a few campaigns in Korea, and they faced two Mongol incursions during the Kamakura period (they made small small changes to their swords because of this as well, as they had difficulty penetrating the Mongols' leather armor), but by and large, they were very isolated, and had little contact with the outside world. As a result of this isolation, there were fewer outside influences driving the evolution of Japanese weaponry, and they changed little over time. An expert can tell the difference between, say, an early Heian blade made around AD 900, and a late Muromachi period blade made around AD 1400, but to the layman they'd look almost exactly the same. By contrast, anyone could see the difference between a European blade of AD 900 (which is Viking Age), and one of AD 1400, (which is late medieval/early Renaissance) at a glance.

Dimis
September 29, 2010, 02:08 AM
young grasshopper is not yet ready to grasp from the hand of the master on this one

you guys truely are a wealth of information thanks to all

KodiakBeer
September 29, 2010, 03:04 PM
Interestingly, the Japanese are one of the only people not to make use of a shield, and since Samurai almost never faced an opponent using one, they never developed a great capability to cope with an opponent so equipped.

That is rather the point. Japanese combat culture and weaponry became formalized and ritualistic - stultified if you will. For example, thrusting was banned in most schools of Japanese fencing. Also, the Katana is largely a two handed weapon, meaning you had to get closer to an opponent than a Westerner. A Samurai might find himself skewed before getting close enough to slash a Western opponent. A Katana is generally under 28" in length. Later western sabers were 34" or even longer and designed (and the user trained) for thrusting as well as slashing.

Of course it's all academic, but I find the differences interesting. In western thought (at least later, 17th - early 20th century) the slash was considered a mercy stroke. It was used to disable and allow the opponent to live and be captured. In fact, during that period Europeans and Americans stopped sharpening sword blades altogether, just to allow opponents to live and be captured.

Napoleon was famous (and roundly criticized) for shouting "Give them the point, the point!" when unleashing his cavalry at (I believe) Austerlitz. In effect, he was shouting "Kill them" which was considered very bad form for a gentleman of that era. Yet, it does illustrate that the point of a sword is the dangerous end. The Japanese didn't care because if you disabled an opponent, he would kill himself out of shame. They didn't need the point and didn't train to use it.

Vonderek
September 29, 2010, 03:16 PM
In 17th century Europe the rapier became the rage and sword fighting...at least of the dueling variety among the upper classes...was strictly a thrusting and not a slashing affair.

Yes it would be interesting to pit a European with a rapier against a Japanese with a katana.

gun addict
September 29, 2010, 03:35 PM
kinda like fencing vs kendo?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ST1wRzfgmI

KodiakBeer
September 29, 2010, 03:42 PM
Europe (and the US) went back to something like the Rapier in the 1890/1910 period. I find these later swords to be among the most interesting of any period and probably the most lethal.

Look at the Spanish 1907, British 1908/1912, US 1913 "Patton" sabers. These are straight sabers, 34 to 36" in length, mostly with "T" back for strength in slashing, ergonomic grips and balanced well enough for rapier-like thrusting and countering. Of course, the machine gun came along at the same time and made swords and cavalry kind of silly.

The only one that saw any real combat use was the Spanish 1907 "Puerto Seguro" which was used to stab socialists right up until the late 1940's.

http://www.wwmilitary.com/catalog/images/olg5158_1.jpg

Billy Shears
September 29, 2010, 03:54 PM
That is rather the point. Japanese combat culture and weaponry became formalized and ritualistic - stultified if you will.
This only happened during the long period of peace after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country under the Tokugawa shogunate, which was rather late -- 16th century in fact. Prior to that, when the Japanese fought real wars, a more practical attitude prevailed.

For example, thrusting was banned in most schools of Japanese fencing.
Same again. During the period when there were real wars fought in Japan, and samurai wore armor, the only way to get through it with a sword was -- same as in Europe -- to thrust in between the gaps. Any such formalized restrictions on Japanese swordsmanship only came in after the peace established under the Tokugawa shogunate, when the samurai gradually transformed from a true warrior class into bureaucrats, courtiers, and administrators. In actual battle, nobody is so "honorable" that he will invariably abide by such arbitrary restrictions; the cheaters win too often for this to be practical.

Also, the Katana is largely a two handed weapon, meaning you had to get closer to an opponent than a Westerner.
Actually you didn't. Remember what I wrote earlier: a katana (or tachi, which is the same as far as the blade is concerned) can, unlike most western swords, cut effectively with the very tip -- its shouldered point is actually designed specifically for this purpose, it's a cutting point. A typical straight-bladed Western sword can't. Effective cuts can only be delivered at the center of impact which is usually six to eight inches back from the blade's tip, meaning the combatants would end up standing about the same distance from one another. A Western sword would usually only have a reach advantage when thrusting, though a European longsword -- also a two-handed weapon (and not meant to be used with a shield) -- would have an all round reach advantage, since it's blade would be around ten inches longer.

A Samurai might find himself skewed before getting close enough to slash a Western opponent. A Katana is generally under 28" in length.
Again, not necessarily. To get close enough to deliver a thrust, a Western swordsman will put himself in range of a cut to the arm or leg, if not the body, and a katana easily cuts powerfully enough to take off a hand, even with a quick, economical motion of the blade. Don't put too much weight on the matter of reach. It is an important factor, but both Japanese and Western schools of combat trained their student to fight a variety of weapons, some of which would outreach a typical sword (e.g. longsword, spear, polaxe, naginata, etc.). There are ways to compensate for a reach disadvantage. As I said, it will come down to a question of skill between the combatants much more than style of swordplay or type of sword.

Later western sabers were 34" or even longer and designed (and the user trained) for thrusting as well as slashing.
Some were, some weren't. Take a look at a British 1796 pattern light cavalry sword, for an example of a saber dedicated almost exclusively to slashing.

Of course it's all academic, but I find the differences interesting. In western thought (at least later, 17th - early 20th century) the slash was considered a mercy stroke. It was used to disable and allow the opponent to live and be captured. In fact, during that period Europeans and Americans stopped sharpening sword blades altogether, just to allow opponents to live and be captured.

Napoleon was famous (and roundly criticized) for shouting "Give them the point, the point!" when unleashing his cavalry at (I believe) Austerlitz. In effect, he was shouting "Kill them" which was considered very bad form for a gentleman of that era. Yet, it does illustrate that the point of a sword is the dangerous end. The Japanese didn't care because if you disabled an opponent, he would kill himself out of shame. They didn't need the point and didn't train to use it.
This is simply not true for most of the history of the samurai. When they had to face real warriors in real armor, the samurai most certainly did train to use the point. As I said, it was the only way to defeat armor. The point is also far too useful to neglect for no better reason than tradition. Again, I cannot stress highly enough that so much of what people think about the samurai arose only after real warfare in Japan ceased and the only fighting samurai did consisted largely of formalized duels. In such an environment, restrictive codes and traditions could flourish, that practical, hard-bitten warriors, concerned with life and death and winning and losing would never follow in war. For example, take the idea that a samurai never retreated and doing so was considered so dishonorable that only ritual suicide by seppuku could atone for it. There's little basis for this from the period of actual warfare in Japan. During the 60 years of warfare that followed the end of the Kamakura regime in 1333, there are numerous examples of reports written by samurai themselves about attacking, and then choosing to retreat when they began experiencing casualties. The idea that a samurai always chooses death over defeat or retreat only arose later, during a long period of peace, with a stable government, and no more land rights, the Samurai needed to justify their existence. They began promoting that "the way of the Samurai was death," and exaggerating their sense of honor and loyalty. The whole notion of the samurai always following a rigid code of bushido and never, ever breaking the rules was created by the samurai themselves in the 17th century and later, when Japan was not ravaged by war the way she had been in earlier centuries, and the samurai could afford to indulge in such luxuries. When war was a reality, on the other hand, samurai were every bit as practical as other warriors around the world were.

KodiakBeer
September 29, 2010, 04:48 PM
This only happened during the long period of peace after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country under the Tokugawa shogunate, which was rather late -- 16th century in fact. Prior to that, when the Japanese fought real wars, a more practical attitude prevailed.


That period lasted nearly 400 years, right up until the Samurai were outlawed in the late 19th century. But of course, they fought clan wars and personal duels all through that period.

Your points are interesting and educational and I thank you for them. It's misleading to generalize (as I'm doing), but the basic points are still true. Japanese weaponry and weaponcraft did become frozen to a much greater degree than anywhere else. A Katana from 1350 doesn't vary a lot from a Katana made in 1860.

The style of weapon dictates the tactics needed to employ it effectively.

If you go back to European swords of the medieval era and follow it through the early 20th century, you see enormous changes in styles and types - and enormous changes in training and employment of those styles.

The last western swords (which I'm particularly interested in) came about because of the bayonet of all things. The cavalryman wanted something capable of sticking a opponent before that opponent skewered him off his horse with a Mauser and 16" of bayonet. Yet, because of the rigid blade (the "T" back and all that) it was still an effective cutting/slashing weapon if he faced another cavalryman.

To get close enough to deliver a thrust, a Western swordsman will put himself in range of a cut to the arm or leg, if not the body, and a katana easily cuts powerfully enough to take off a hand, even with a quick, economical motion of the blade.


True, but the western sword is also capable of not only thrusting, but slashing the opponents arms or legs. No matter how the attack is delivered, the longer sword has the advantage. Of course, I'm not talking about a heavy medieval Claymore or Bastard sword (which would be too heavy and slow to be effective against a Katana), but any of the lighter long blades from various periods.

Samurai culture and weaponcraft are fascinating, but I think it's overstated and mythologized in popular literature. The reality is that western swords and swordcraft are much older than Samurai culture. And in the west, it continued to evolve right up until firearms ended it forever.

Billy Shears
September 29, 2010, 06:13 PM
That period lasted nearly 400 years, right up until the Samurai were outlawed in the late 19th century. But of course, they fought clan wars and personal duels all through that period.
And the period before it lasted even longer. And remember, a lot of what people think today about the samurai was propaganda and mythmaking promulgated by the samurai themselves in order to justify their existence as a class after they ceased to have any real military function. Because of this, there's a large element of myth to it. Real samurai, even from the late period, could be practical and realistic, and their fighting could reflect this.

Your points are interesting and educational and I thank you for them. It's misleading to generalize (as I'm doing), but the basic points are still true. Japanese weaponry and weaponcraft did become frozen to a much greater degree than anywhere else. A Katana from 1350 doesn't vary a lot from a Katana made in 1860.

The style of weapon dictates the tactics needed to employ it effectively.

If you go back to European swords of the medieval era and follow it through the early 20th century, you see enormous changes in styles and types - and enormous changes in training and employment of those styles.

Yes, but don't mistake such change as a steady march from poorer to better. Just because there was more change in Europe doesn't mean that earlier weapons and styles of combat were crude and later ones were refined and were much better. The change was simply change to adapt to current conditions. European sword evolution reflects this. Very early swords, such as those from the Migration period and the Viking Age, were broad, straight, slashing swords with rather rounded points and very little taper (and these rounded points gave them, like the katana, an ability to cut effectively with the very tip of the blade). As the Viking Age progressed, swords became more tapered, and developed more acute thrusting points because conditions were changing: armor was becoming more common. Later still, during the Crusades, swords got longer, as mounted fighting became more prevalent with the introduction of the stirrup to Western Europe: a longer sword was better for fighting from horseback. As armor evolved, and became much better, swords with very narrow, stiff blades evolved for thrusting into the gaps between plates (and actually, swords diversified during this period into a huge variety of specialized forms). After the pike phalanx and gunpowder weaponry began to banish the knight from the battlefield, more and more swords began to return to a general, cut and thrust pattern of blade, since the need to have a blade for dealing with armored opponents was diminishing.

The point of all of this is simply to say that swords changed so much over time in the West not because that made them better in general, it merely made them better for the conditions that prevailed while those particular types of swords were in use.

The last western swords (which I'm particularly interested in) came about because of the bayonet of all things. The cavalryman wanted something capable of sticking a opponent before that opponent skewered him off his horse with a Mauser and 16" of bayonet. Yet, because of the rigid blade (the "T" back and all that) it was still an effective cutting/slashing weapon if he faced another cavalryman.
That's not the only reason. Infantrymen had been using bayonets for centuries by then, and for a cavalryman, facing a German Schutze with his Mauser and bayonet wouldn't have been all that different from facing a Revolutionary War era Hessian mercenary or British redcoat -- at least as far as dealing with his bayonet goes; as for his gunfire... different story entirely. The truth is the debate over which was better, the edge or the point, raged on during the entire history of the sword, and if swords were still in use on the battlefield, it would still be going on in the world's armies today. The straight cavalry swords of the era just before WWI were the last cavalry swords not because the sword had finally reached the pinnacle of perfection, and every blade that been in use before had been less capable or less well designed, but only because they were the swords in use at the time the sword at last became undeniably obsolete, and was finally abandoned as a battlefield weapon.

True, but the western sword is also capable of not only thrusting, but slashing the opponents arms or legs. No matter how the attack is delivered, the longer sword has the advantage. Of course, I'm not talking about a heavy medieval Claymore or Bastard sword (which would be too heavy and slow to be effective against a Katana), but any of the lighter long blades from various periods.
It's just not that simple. A longer sword has an advantage -- unless you get inside its reach, then at close quarters a shorter weapon becomes more practical. As I said, swordsmen were well schooled to deal with a variety of weapons that would outreach their swords, and it's going to come down to who is more skilled with his particular weapon far more than it is to whose weapon is supposedly better.

Samurai culture and weaponcraft are fascinating, but I think it's overstated and mythologized in popular literature. The reality is that western swords and swordcraft are much older than Samurai culture. And in the west, it continued to evolve right up until firearms ended it forever.
Oh the samurai and the katana are overhyped, no question about it. But the form of the weapon changed so little over time not only because Japan was isolated, but because it really was a superb weapon. Strip all the hype away and you are left with a truly excellent, versatile sword, whose associated style of swordplay is quick, powerful, deadly, and well balanced in terms of offensive and defensive capability.

You might check out the following essays on this very topic:

http://www.thearma.org/essays/knightvs.htm

http://www.thearma.org/essays/katanavs.htm

CWL
September 29, 2010, 07:03 PM
1. Japanese swords were not tempered to make the edge harder, but to make the edge softer and less brittle than the body of the blade.

Boy... when the very first item in a long list of comments is so completely and absolutely wrong... it makes it hard to take anything that follows seriously.

Tempered blades have been used by more than the Japanese. It's still commonly used today in steel producing nations, not just for knives, but for industrial applications. Its purpose is to create a hard martensite edge while leaving the body & spine relatively soft to provide flexibility and support to the edge.

Dimis
September 29, 2010, 11:40 PM
I think we have strayed a bit far from my question
but since were on a roll i will say no sword style is superior to another

think of it in modern times some spetznaz with an AK-74 could obliterate a US GI with a M4 and all its bells and whistles and vise versa

its the man not the tool that is the weapon

Yes the japanes did stiffle out in the forms and ritualistic kata of there sword style but thats not to say it was ineffective
to say a european sword style is superior would be nieve if you illiminate the human factor lets say musashi vs. a pesent european? or (place european hero here cause i cant think of any) vs. a japanese pesant wouldnt be a fair comparison but non the less the skill is what wins out not the style
now to place two experienced swordsmen together its still a toss up alot of eliments are involved besides just technical knowledge
Fear
Psychological Mind Play
True Used in Battle Experience
CHEATING!!!!
remember all is fair in love and war so if i think to kick sand up and get a "lucky" kill shot or "cheap shot" in its still a win and a "W" is always a "W"

Billy Shears
September 30, 2010, 08:43 AM
Yes the japanes did stiffle out in the forms and ritualistic kata of there sword style but thats not to say it was ineffective
to say a european sword style is superior would be nieve if you illiminate the human factor lets say musashi vs. a pesent european? or (place european hero here cause i cant think of any)
Try William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (b.1146 -- d.1214). He was a younger son of a minor nobleman, and had no lands or fortune to inherit, so he had to make his own way in life. He amassed a huge fortune beating knights in tournaments (you got all their gear, which was worth a lot of money, when you beat them -- and the tournaments were deadlier than they would eventually become when they were reduced to jousts), and his record was legendary: he beat over 500 other knights throughout his career. He eventually became regent of England during the minority of King Henry III.

Dimis
September 30, 2010, 01:06 PM
Billy imagine the irony that i am watching a knights tale as i read that lol

My point was more to the fact that a "standard" commoner couldnt defeat a skilled warrior
this holds true no matter what century or era it is

the old expression "theres more than one way to skin a cat" comes to mind when i think of "battle, duels, war, or fighting"

there is no absolute proven effective method of defeating every person on this planet with just one style there will always be an anomoly or luck factor or something that can turn the tide
in real life paper doesnt always cover rock sometimes it bursts through rock may not break scissors before it chissels it down to pieces and dull sciccors just dont cut paper

KodiakBeer
October 4, 2010, 04:45 PM
Oh the samurai and the katana are overhyped, no question about it. But the form of the weapon changed so little over time not only because Japan was isolated, but because it really was a superb weapon. Strip all the hype away and you are left with a truly excellent, versatile sword, whose associated style of swordplay is quick, powerful, deadly, and well balanced in terms of offensive and defensive capability.

I agree. I was only trying to make the same point; that the Katana (and Samurai in general) are hyped in modern mythology. The difference is that western culture allowed and encouraged new arms and combat styles, while Japan closed its doors to keep the warrior class in power.

You're right too, that sword development in the west was driven by specific conditions and battlefield technology. Pick any one point in time and you'll note that western swords vary considerably for use on ships, cavalry, foot officers, whatever. And by nation - what worked for a Cossack on the steppes of Russia, wasn't what a British cavalryman wanted or needed.

I would disagree that the last swords (pre-wwi) are not the pinnacle of development. I think they are. They brought in several innovations that were completely new, most noticeably the grips which became ergonomic and fitted to the human hand in ways that were totally new. The blades themselves became quite elaborate in shape to give added strength and balance - quite subtle and real improvements over what came before them. That doesn't mean that they were now "perfect", just that they were the at the "pinnacle" of development when they became obsolete.
If sword use had continued we'd likely be seeing blades with titanium hearts or something like that. Who knows? But the 1900 era blades were state of the art for 1900 and were better than those that came before.

Billy Shears
October 4, 2010, 07:56 PM
I would disagree that the last swords (pre-wwi) are not the pinnacle of development. I think they are. They brought in several innovations that were completely new, most noticeably the grips which became ergonomic and fitted to the human hand in ways that were totally new. The blades themselves became quite elaborate in shape to give added strength and balance - quite subtle and real improvements over what came before them. That doesn't mean that they were now "perfect", just that they were the at the "pinnacle" of development when they became obsolete.
I strongly disagree, for two reasons. First, that presupposes that the advocates of the point over edge were right, and the thrust was indisputably superior to the cut. I don't think that's nearly so clear cut (no pun intended). the matter never was, and never will be definitively settled. Second, and more importantly, there really can't be a pinnacle of development, because there is no, can be no "best sword." Swords are too specialized and are made to answer specific needs and purposes. A sword that will make an excellent cavalry sword will make a terrible weapon for infantry combat. A sword that will make a superb dueling weapon, like the rapier or the smallsword, is virtually useless for the battlefield, etc. The British 1908 and 1912 pattern swords, and the US M1913 were very specialized swords designed to do one thing really well, and that was skewer a man being charged by a cavalry trooper at full gallop, with the trooper's arms extended at full length in front of him. It may have been excellent for that purpose, with all the necessary strength, rigidity, natural pointing qualities, and so forth. That doesn't mean for an instant that it was a better dueling weapon than a rapier would have been. It certainly wouldn't have been as versatile for foot combat as a Renaissance longsword, or sword and buckler. Again, there is no "best sword," just swords which are better for their specific purposes.

hso
October 5, 2010, 06:47 AM
Billy Shears is correct. A type of sword is designed to fill a specific role. A sword perfect for one role won't be perfect for another. A sword perfect "today" won't be perfect for tomorrow or yesterday because the conditions will be different. I suppose it's possible to achieve perfection of a class (dueling, against plate, against chain, against unarmored cavalry, ...), but keep in mind that you may have more than one example of perfection within that class as well.

KodiakBeer
October 5, 2010, 12:16 PM
The idea behind the last western swords was to do both thrusting and slashing. I suppose that's true of all swords to some degree, but the machining of the later swords allowed them to be long enough for effective thrusting from horseback, but also gave them more rigidity to prevent breaking or bending when slashing. Such rigidity in a light and balanced blade wasn't possible before this period. The technology just wasn't there yet.

If I have time later I'll take a close up picture of one of the blades I'm talking about. They're really quite a tribute to the machining technology of the era.

Billy Shears
October 5, 2010, 08:00 PM
The idea behind the 1908 pattern British sword and the 1913 pattern US sword was overwhelmingly to make a weapon for thrusting. The official specification called for a "cut and thrust" blade, but in the event, the sword was purely optimized for thrusting. This isn't to say that you couldn't cut with it. You could. But it really didn't cut well, and wasn't meant to. Cutting ability was purely secondary, and a great deal of utility in cutting was sacrificed to make a blade dedicated to the thrust. Really, this is the way it always works. Swords that cut best have broad, curved blades which are relatively thin in cross section, which allows then to flex a good deal to withstand the shock of cutting. The British 1796 pattern light cavalry sword is almost the perfect example. The best thrusting swords are less broad, but thicker in cross section, making them much stiffer and more rigid so as to resist buckling in the thrust, and straight, with very acute, stabbing points. The British 1908 pattern cavalry sword is, again, almost the perfect example. In the space of a century, the British cavalry went from one extreme to the other. They had a stop in the middle with a compromise design, in the 1821 pattern sword that didn't cut nearly as well as the 1796 sword, or thrust as well as the 1908 sword, but was more versatile than either.

With the 1908 sword, they abandoned the compromise design and made a purpose-built thrusting sword. The blade was very narrow, but had a thick "T" cross-section, to give it more stiffness for the thrust. The large, sheet metal bowl guard gave considerable protection to the hand, but combined with the slenderness and lightness of the blade, and the weight of the pommel, shifted the balance back well toward the hilt, which is undesirable for a cutting sword, where you want to retain some mass over the center of impact. The semi-pistol grip configuration, was angled so as to cause the blade to naturally align with the arm when the arm was extended, in position for a charge using the point. A checkered thumb rest was indented on top of the grip, just behind the guard, and with the thumb placed upon it, and the arm extended at full length, the sword will make a continuous line with the straight arm. This was a weapon meant to be extended forward almost like a lance during the charge.

The configuration and balance of the sword actually mitigate against effective cutting. The light, narrow, stiff, straight blade lacks either the slicing action of a curved saber, or the concussive mass of a hacking broadsword. The concussive force would be still further compromised by the hilt-biased balance. And finally, the pistol grip with specialized thumb placement, while perfectly ideal for thrusting, was awkward for the cut.

One could still cut with the sword. Regulations called for it to be sharpened along its entire length for that purpose. Nevertheless, cutting ability was very much a secondary consideration in the design of this sword, and the sword didn't do it even remotely well compared to most other swords. Really this generation of cavalry swords are perfect demonstrations of what happens with specialization, and why there never will be a perfect sword in general. The more you optimize a sword for one purpose, the more you take away from its overall versatility. The more you optimize a blade for the thrust, the more you detract from its ability to cut, and vice versa. Or you can build a sword that will be pretty good at both jobs, but not as good at either as specialized swords optimized for either purpose. Every design is a compromise, and what you get depends on what trade offs you want to make.

hso
October 5, 2010, 08:02 PM
KB,

I suspect the blades were probably forged instead of "machined". Also, you want rigidity for thrusting so the blade doesn't bend when the point hits something hard and flexibility when you cut so the blade doesn't break when you hit something hard.

KodiakBeer
October 6, 2010, 02:54 PM
Interesting stuff, Billy!

I don't know. I think it's just the nature of the beast that all swords will cut/slash pretty well, but not all swords are good at thrusting.

I have a dozen different swords dating from about 1850 to 1907, and some repro's from earlier periods. When I've used them in combat against various opponents ranging from hay bales to large squash I've found they all cut pretty well, but not all will thrust well.

For example; I have a late Czarist era Russian/Cossack Shashka which is obviously optimized for cutting, but it really doesn't cut deeper or more effectively than my Puerto Seguro 1907's which are straight blades similar to the Brit 1908/1912 models (there is speculation the Brits copied the design from the Spanish).
The Shashka has a longer "sweet spot" than the M1907 meaning if you catch the target just about anywhere along the length you'll get a good cut. But, on the other hand the M1907 has such an improved grip that you tend to get a stronger cut. The Shashka (and just about all my other swords) tend to bend back in the hand or turn when you hit something solid. The M1907 stays firm allowing you to finish your draw cut at full strength.

I'm no kind of swordsman, just a guy with a pot belly playing with swords in my back yard. And most of these are for cavalryman anyway, and I'm using them on foot, so... I'm not putting forth my experiences as definitive in any way. :) However, I had a number of swords before picking up my first M1907, and right from the beginning I realized these were something very different. I don't have a "Patton" or a Brit 1908, but I did get a chance to handle both recently and found them to be in the same class as the M1907. I like them.

KodiakBeer
October 6, 2010, 03:23 PM
I suspect the blades were probably forged instead of "machined". Also, you want rigidity for thrusting so the blade doesn't bend when the point hits something hard and flexibility when you cut so the blade doesn't break when you hit something hard.

I assume the blades are forged and then machined to complete the rather intricate design, but I don't really know.

A couple of pix to illustrate. An M1907 vs a fairly standard German blade from about the same period.
The German saber is both lighter and shorter, but because of the grip design doesn't feel nearly as controllable when used. Check out the swell in the grip of the M1907, and the overall size - it can be used two handed if need be.
Note the difference in the blade profiles - the deep fuller and "T" back on the M1907 vs the simplicity of the older design.
Also note the heavy plate hand guard and heavy pommel on the M1907. It's heavy enough to crack a skull if struck.

I realize we're diverging from the OP, and I apologize for that. But the blade design of the Katana isn't very different from many western sabers.

http://i896.photobucket.com/albums/ac164/kodiakbeer/sword.jpg

http://i896.photobucket.com/albums/ac164/kodiakbeer/sword2.jpg

http://i896.photobucket.com/albums/ac164/kodiakbeer/sword3.jpg

Boberama
October 6, 2010, 03:44 PM
http://www.ikigaiway.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/claymore.jpg

Claymore > Everything else

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