800 AD "Samurai" swords vs New metallurgy


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lobo9er
December 20, 2012, 09:45 PM
I am using the word samurai to represent a broad group of japanese swords. I am not a collector and know very little other what I have read here and there.

So... yesterday at work someone was talking about knives and swords and was saying that old Katana and japanese swords were this and that and I chimed in and said "I dunno I have a feeling modern metallurgy maybe able to hang with them" and of coarse I am no expert but this gentleman didn't really sound like he knew anymore than me, and he scoffed at my statement. this was all friendly of coarse. But in my head I started thinking about INFI, A2,D2 1095, 5160.... and on and on. so anyways I thought it would be a decent conversation here.

How do those swords you see in museums from 800-1200 ad compare to whats available today?

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rcmodel
December 20, 2012, 10:09 PM
I think the laminated steel used in the old Japanese swords impart some properties impossible to duplicate with todays homogeneous steel of any type.

Impact resistance being one of the most important ones.

And a razor thin cutting edge, harder then woodpecker lips, yet supported by softer unbreakable steel on each side being another.

I suppose the only sure way to find out would be destructive testing of a 1,000 year old Samurai sword from one of the master swordsmiths.
But I doubt that is going to happen anytime soon.

rc

4v50 Gary
December 20, 2012, 10:10 PM
Superior metallurgy, superior heat control thanks to our ovens gives us better steel. Having men to wield them is another matter. Of course, some MG-42s and AK-47s would weigh heavily in our favor. ;)

anothernewb
December 20, 2012, 10:30 PM
Could we improve upon the steel used with modern metallurgy? Perhaps but I for one would kind of doubt it.

The art of making a folded steel blade is largely lost, in some cases like Damascus steel -it's been totally lost. no one (known) alive today posses that knowledge or skill. There are some rather excellent smiths out there that come close, but to my knowledge none have been able to replicate the stuff now hanging in museums.

I suspect that it would be similar with some of the incredible blades that were hand made centuries ago. My reasoning is thus - a sword these days is largely a ceremonial object or a curiosity. The gun is the standard military weapon. But in the elder days, a sword was everything, in some cases a family heirloom passed down generation to generation. That brings with it the knowledge of constructing them. Today, there are some incredible pistol and gunsmiths out there - the result of a lifetime of working with them, and years of apprenticeship with a master gunsmith. The same I believe goes for swordsmiths. building swords for a lifetime and refining techniques passed down for years would result in some true artisans.

Do we have the technology to forge alloys perfect down to a molecular level consistency? of course. Could a machine mechanically force them into hundreds of layers perfectly consistently - I submit that one could be made to do so. But is there anyone alive now who can "feel" the metal properties and work the blade to bring out the most the metal has to offer? I think not. A machine made blade would be just that, mechanically sound and dimensionally perfect, and numerically exact. But it would have no feel - no soul to it per se.

M-Cameron
December 20, 2012, 10:37 PM
despite what many believe, Japanese swords have no magical properties to them... compared to other swords of the time, they were miles ahead, which is where much of their mystical traits come from......

now the traditional sword makers had a very good understanding of metallurgical properties of the steels they were using......but with todays technology, we have better.

i have absolutely no doubt in my mind that we have the technology and understanding of steels to make a superior weapon to those made by ye' olde sword makers of japan.

hso
December 20, 2012, 10:54 PM
No, the modern L6 katana crafted by Howard Clark is a superior performer, but L6 doesn't polish out as nicely and the hamon doesn't come up as well.

You don't collect ancient katana, wakizashis, tantos, etc. because they're better performers than modern materials, but because an ancient technology in the hands of masters produced pieces nearly as good as modern ones from a performance standpoint AND because they are beautiful. We have so little in the way of materials that perform as well compared to newer materials just a hundred years more recent and technologies and techniques for creating objects of beauty and nearly perfect design as old, but here we have the best of the Japanese blades doing nearly as well as materials and design 800 years later. That's the remarkable part and hyperbole claiming they're better when it can be so easily disproved watching one of Howard's L6 pieces cut somehow diminishes the wonder of something that early doing almost as well.

The art of making a folded steel blade is largely lost, in some cases like Damascus steel -it's been totally lost. no one (known) alive today posses that knowledge or skill. There are some rather excellent smiths out there that come close, but to my knowledge none have been able to replicate the stuff now hanging in museums.


You should look at the work of ABS Master Smiths Al Pendray and Ric Furrer and some others. They've done exactly what was impossible before Al came along. A little light reading http://projects.olin.edu/revere/Cool%20links/damascus%20sci%20amer%20jan%202001.pdf

JShirley
December 21, 2012, 09:21 AM
I have a Swamp Rat 52100 Waki that is tougher than any similar-length historical Japanese blade could ever be*. Japanese bladesmithing developed techniques to compensate for the inferior steel they had available. This doesn't take away from their craftsmanship, which is rarely duplicated.


*and, if you expressed it in terms of comparing the premier weapons of the day, was an incredible bargain. For comparison, a top-of-the-line rifle like a SCAR- our premier weapon today- would run about 2 weeks pay for me, while the SR was 1/4 of that.

Il Duca
December 21, 2012, 09:37 AM
There are still master swordsmiths in Japan who traditionally forge katana out of Tamahagane. However, one of their swords will cost you 10s (if not 100s) of thousands of dollars. I imagine that one of these makers could use modern steel to make a sword that would perform with a traditionally forged piece, I doubt your average sword maker could. Since we all likely lack the funding to find out, we'll probably never know.

I read somewhere online that traditional masters will not work with nontraditional steels because without the traditional process the sword would have no soul.

If you have an interest in traditional Japanese katana you really need to pick up a copy of the Art of the Japanese Sword. It not only covers the history of Japanese sword making but details the process of making a traditional katana. Pretty much everything you could want to know on the katana. It's reall a fascinating read and some of the swords pictured are just breathtaking.

ApacheCoTodd
December 21, 2012, 11:44 AM
Japanese bladesmithing developed techniques to compensate for the inferior steel they had available. This doesn't take away from their craftsmanship, which is rarely duplicated.
That is a fascinating take on the situation which I've never heard before.

I'm lovin' this thread.

NoirFan
December 21, 2012, 11:53 AM
Japanese bladesmithing developed techniques to compensate for the inferior steel they had available. This doesn't take away from their craftsmanship, which is rarely duplicated.

Very true. To elaborate, Japanese iron had to be refined from iron-bearing sand, which contains loads of impurities. The folding process is necessary to spread impurities out along a billet of metal, avoiding high concentrations that would cause a weak point in the blade. The famously effective katana composite construction, with a curved hardened edge supported by a softer core, is a result of the quenching process, not the folding. In fact a katana made of modern non-folded steel, tempered and quenched in the traditional fashion, can be much tougher than its feudal counterpart.

It's worth noting that composite blade construction was used all over the world. The design concept of marrying a hardened steel edge to a softer iron core shows up in European, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and North African swords, just to name a few. Even some lowly tools like wood-cutting axe heads have it. The reason Japanese traditional bladecraft is celebrated above all these others is because Japan has a continuous living tradition of forging swords the old way, whereas most other developed countries have had to rediscover the old methods.

mdauben
December 21, 2012, 12:25 PM
The art of making a folded steel blade is largely lost, in some cases like Damascus steel -it's been totally lost. no one (known) alive today posses that knowledge or skill.
This may be true with Damascus as the process had been largely forgotten in the western world. As I understand it, the process had to be... reverse engineered in the 20th century to try and repoduce the steel in historical blades. In Japan, however, there are still traditional sword smiths who are doing things the same way that they were done hundreds of years ago. Whether they are as good as the old swordsmiths may be debated, but the skills and techniques were never lost over there.

hso
December 21, 2012, 01:07 PM
I was fortunate enough to be at a gathering of swordsmiths several years ago. Some of them had trained in Japan and others had learned here in the US and others in Europe. All of them strived to make the best blades possible. A traditional Japanese smelter was set up and tamahagane was made. The simple fact of the matter is that the processing of the steel the Japanese smiths used was to homogenize the steel, remove impurities, conserve rare resources, and optimize the use of those resources. None of the professional and amateur swordsmiths were under the illusion that 800 year old steel making techniques and technology and steel was of the same quality as modern steels adapted to or produced specifically for blades. They all were in awe of the ability of those ancient smiths to produce steel using the techniques they had available to them and of their skill and talent in forging swords, but they were all grateful for the resources available today that in every way were superior.

4v50 Gary
December 21, 2012, 01:18 PM
Great thread. Everyone is confirming what I believed to be true. We have superior metallurgy, heat control thanks to modern ovens and can produce better blades. Thankfully they are not the weapons of choice today.

JShirley
December 21, 2012, 01:53 PM
The folding of steel x times was done to introduce carbon and refine grain structure. With modern steel, there's just no practical point.

(eta) I see hso has already confirmed this. That'll teach me to refresh before I reply! :D

John

Logan5579
December 21, 2012, 02:56 PM
Great thread. Everyone is confirming what I believed to be true. We have superior metallurgy, heat control thanks to modern ovens and can produce better blades. Thankfully they are not the weapons of choice today.

Not the weapon of choice, but a great fallback if you run out of lead and are up close in an ugly situation that keeps gettin uglier because you ran out of lead. Here's where I couldn't stop me from putting up a picture of my modern made 1080 steel fallback...:D I would love to have an several hundred year old beautiful japanese made katana, but it's out of this ol hillbillys price range, so modern katana it is for me unless I inherit a bunch of money from my rich uncle.

176424

Sheepdog1968
December 21, 2012, 03:04 PM
There was TV show I caught about 3 or 4 years ago that set out to do this exact challenge. It was nicely done on showing both old and new fabrication. The bottom line was that then new steel blade did just as well as the one made from the traditional method.

SlamFire1
December 21, 2012, 03:11 PM
The Japanese well understood subtleties in sword design that we donít think about. I saw one program that used high speed cameras: the handmade Japanese sword flexed less under impact than a modern copy due to geometry and cross section. Applying clay for tempering with down risers apparently helped prevent blade chipping .

The metal we have today is cleaner and made under more controlled conditions than the tamahagane created for Japanese swords.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_swordsmithing

It is just amazing what the old Sword smiths were able to do with such primitive technology and I am of the opinion that a great old sword would compare pretty well to todayísí stuff, but if someone today put the time and effect into a modern blade, with modern materials, and experimented to get everything just right, todayís steels would make a better product.

Considering a modern tamahagane steel sword lists for $5,500 you would hope for a good sword for that price.

http://www.swordnarmory.com/Takemoto-Authentic-Hand-Forged-Tamahagane-Sword-p/ss-621.htm

lobo9er
December 21, 2012, 09:56 PM
I doubt the basics have changed much really forge/stock removal, heat treat, sharpen.

Not that I want to see history destroyed but a side by side abuse test with a Busse would be interesting. I have to say my $ would be on a Busse. Maybe lacking soul we have crazy heat treat, and cryo-treatments now a days that make stuff durable on a level that really none of us or most of will ever need.

tomrkba
December 21, 2012, 10:05 PM
Check out Sword Buyer's Guide (http://www.sword-buyers-guide.com/)

Dig around on their forum; you should be able to find some additional info.

Zoogster
December 21, 2012, 10:26 PM
Do keep in mind many swords on the market are not quality swords made of alloys or properly treated and intended for actual combat.
So while they can definately be made better today, only some are, while back in the day they were all made to be real functional weapons.

I imagine the many wall hangers purchased by the bargain shopper increases the perception that the old swords were better. Because they are often blades that would bend, dent, or break if actually used to strike other metal objects. Quality swords would still chip at the edge a little here and there but would hold up much better. However quality swords cost more than the average casual shopper not that into knives would spend.

There was a good period of time there pre-internet when swords that could withstand rough use but didn't cost as much as a used car were hard to come by. Most were catalog and tv shopping network junk. So most swords in the samurai style owned by the largest number of consumers were of poor quality and did little beyond have a sharp edge, a point, and hold a nice mirror polish well. The old swords were definately better than those.
In fact the old masters could still make swords that rival many moderate quality modern ones, while having superior craftsmanship in the end product.
But top end vs top end today technology definately means those so inclined can make superior swords.

9mmepiphany
December 21, 2012, 11:34 PM
There are still master swordsmiths in Japan who traditionally forge katana out of Tamahagane. However, one of their swords will cost you 10s (if not 100s) of thousands of dollars. I imagine that one of these makers could use modern steel to make a sword that would perform with a traditionally forged piece, I doubt your average sword maker could. Since we all likely lack the funding to find out, we'll probably never know.

I read somewhere online that traditional masters will not work with nontraditional steels because without the traditional process the sword would have no soul.

The best of the traditional masters have been identified and declared National Treasures...along with masters of the brush, the tea ceremony and other traditional arts.

The swords they produce aren't for sale and are held as examples of that never lost art.

CWL
December 22, 2012, 01:24 AM
Actually, the Japanese swords from 800-1000 years ago were inferior in design to later swords.

The main sword of that era was called the Tachi and they tended to be longer and more slender than Katanas. These were mostly for formal duels fought on horseback

These Tachi were used against the Mongol invaders and were discovered to break easily against the lamelar armor worn by the Mongols/Koreans/Chinese invading forces.

As a result, the design was changed to a more robust sword which became the Katana from which most Westerners have learned about from the movies. These are better able to withstand blows against armor, particularly during the century when Japan was constantly at war (16th Cent-early 17th Century) before it became a united country.

So if you want to discuss the highest quality swords for use in war, they are probably from 500-700 years ago range. Earlier swords were typically heirlooms to be kept as family treasures or ceremonial & political legitimacy reasons. These tachi, although beautiful and incredibly well-made, were more for show than for use.

hso
December 22, 2012, 02:10 AM
I doubt the basics have changed much really forge/stock removal, heat treat, sharpen.


You'd be both right and wrong.

Sheepdog1968
December 22, 2012, 02:31 AM
Another obscure point I read or saw once. I work in an industry that has heavy quality control to make sure all is going well. That type of quality control formal concept didn't exist back when these swords were being made. So, what was done was that much ceremony to the way something was done became part of the culture. In doing so with this almost religious level of ceremony to the way a process was done built huh level of reproducibility and quality into the system.

Mizar
December 22, 2012, 07:05 AM
Just to add my thoughts about the lost art of making Damascus steel - are we talking about laminated steel, or Wootz steel? Because the art of forging a welded (laminated, mechanically bond and etc.) Damascus is alive today and it has never been lost. The process of forging Wootz (or Bulat) steel on the other hand was rediscovered not long ago - If I'm remembering correctly, in the late 19 century... And today some great Wootz blades are forged by master bladesmiths that can compete with the finest ancient examples. So, about the "Lost art of making Damascus" - it's really old news.

Boris

hso
December 22, 2012, 11:44 AM
lost art of making Damascus steel

Boris,

You're correct, the art of making damascus or wootz is not lost, just not everyone is aware of that.

leadcounsel
December 22, 2012, 02:19 PM
Is it fair to say that the good price point for a combat ready style katana type sword is around $150? Anything below is junk, and anything above doesn't get you much more sword for the money (e.g. marginal incremental increases in quality)?

Much like a handgun has a sweet spot of around $500... below that you're rolling the dice, and above that you're paying for extras...

JShirley
December 22, 2012, 02:48 PM
OH, no. Most decent katanas start above $200.

I paid around $500 for a wakizashi-length blade. It's not very traditional: if it had been traditional styled at this quality, I'd expect it to run around $1000 (if Busse even could make one). And that's for a short sword, not a 30+" blade.

There are quite a few "pretty good" katanas around $350. That point of diminishing returns you're talking about is much closer to $1000 for a traditionally-styled katana than $150.

John

9mmepiphany
December 22, 2012, 03:16 PM
Is it fair to say that the good price point for a combat ready style katana type sword is around $150? Anything below is junk, and anything above doesn't get you much more sword for the money (e.g. marginal incremental increases in quality)?
I think that is a bit low

Even just casual browsing would lead me to believe that a combat capable katana starts at over $1k.

You could likely get a practice blade in the neighborhood below $700

JShirley
December 22, 2012, 03:17 PM
If some of you have silly ideas about "needing" a sword, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the Dark Sentinel, purchased from Kult of Athena ( http://kultofathena.com/product.asp?item=PC2066). Then you'll be ready. :rolleyes:

This, of course, isn't a serious suggestion for martial artists who practice a serious discipline, and need a sword in that style. For less than $150, it's a bargain, and will save you when the pool noodles attack. :)

John

hso
December 22, 2012, 09:09 PM
Is it fair to say that the good price point for a combat ready style katana type sword is around $150?

Heavens no. You're just getting half way onto the first step of that ladder.

tomrkba
December 22, 2012, 09:24 PM
Severn at Sword Buyers Guide covers just about everything you need to know about this topic.

Read instructions and reviews at the Sword Buyers Guide. They have several price groups. I likely would not spend less than $300-500 for a cutter. (http://www.sword-buyers-guide.com/authentic-japanese-swords.html)

Scroll down to the "CHENESS CUTLERY" section for an interesting video covering the manufacturing process.

taliv
December 22, 2012, 09:24 PM
i'd go further to say that it can be quite dangerous to attempt to actually use a $150 katana. odds are high that it doesn't have a full tang or quality handle and instead, there's a long screw in there. when you start cutting with it, it may break and the blade may fly out of your hands, with the only potential mitigation to disaster being that $150 blades aren't that sharp

i was a student of iaido for many years and owned and used many antiques (between 80 and 700 years old). some were papered and quite beautiful. but i always wanted one of clark howard's l6 bainite blades, which i believe are far stronger

Certaindeaf
December 22, 2012, 09:31 PM
They invented sepuku for a reason. tsk tsk

JShirley
December 22, 2012, 11:42 PM
Yeah, the original instance was distraction to let the samurai's master escape.

hso
December 23, 2012, 12:22 AM
Severn at Sword Buyers Guide covers just about everything you need to know about this topic.

I'm not sure which everything you're referring to, but no one source covers close to everything anyone needs to know about making the katana or using it.

If you're talking about the under $500 katana, SBG is pretty good.

I'd start with SBG, head over to SFI, spend some time at Don Fogg's site,

The "best" American Japanese style sword-smiths are Howard Clark, Michael Bell, Louis Mills, Rick Barrett, Jesus Hernandez, Walter Sorrells and Steve Schwarzer (depending upon what it is that you mean by "best"). Check the price on their swords.

ApacheCoTodd
December 23, 2012, 12:53 PM
There was an outstanding - in humor and information - skit/clip on TOSH.0 where he commences to hack at things with a cheap sword and the point (NPI) that really impacted the greatest (PI) was right at the end in the middle of a comical demonstration involving a rather epic chop, the entire blade flies from the handle DIRECTLY at the camera operator. Watching this show a lot and observing the reactions I can say that it was not a set up and a real eye-opener for folk thinking these cheap collection place-holders have any real utilitarian value.

In watching it again, I see he says the handle in fact breaks - maybe. He also abuses the hell outa it but still...

Mod Note: Point made, but language not appropriate for THR.

Again, more cheerleading for the thread... Outstanding postings fellas.

hso
December 23, 2012, 04:54 PM
A better illustration of an accident with a "practice" katana breaking and the tip and first third of the blade recoiling and striking the guy marketing the piece.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKInefbBljU

9mmepiphany
December 23, 2012, 05:12 PM
That has always been one of my favorites

Walking Dead
December 25, 2012, 09:05 PM
I have a Swamp Rat 52100 Waki that is tougher than any similar-length historical Japanese blade could ever be*. Japanese bladesmithing developed techniques to compensate for the inferior steel they had available. This doesn't take away from their craftsmanship, which is rarely duplicated.


*and, if you expressed it in terms of comparing the premier weapons of the day, was an incredible bargain. For comparison, a top-of-the-line rifle like a SCAR- our premier weapon today- would run about 2 weeks pay for me, while the SR was 1/4 of that.
That's exactly what I would assume as well. Today's processes and technology can give you exact duplications from one blade to the next. Those old processes while great in their time had a certain amount of guesswork.

tomrkba
December 25, 2012, 11:57 PM
He does not need an extreme level of detail. He needs to know the basics so he can buy a backyard cutter. As usual, the empiricist personalities insist upon an N+1 level of detail to answer a basic question. SBG has that information on a few pages. If the OP becomes extremely interested in historical and modern katanas, he will seek that out.

JShirley
December 26, 2012, 11:21 AM
As I said, if someone just wants an inexpensive cutter without any need for it to be based on a historical sword, the Dark Sentinel is about as good as can be found.

Reading the original post suggests we have exactly answered the member's questions. Perhaps reading the original post might clarify your confusion.

John

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