April 12, 2020 2:50 pm
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Katanas, the legendary samurai swords of almost mythical status, have a special place in our collective consciousness. A place that transcends cultures and has seen katanas portrayed on the biggest of stages, and in the most interesting of stories.

But were they really as good as we think they were?

Misconceptions

As with many things throughout history, there are several misconceptions about katanas, one of which this post is guilty of right off the bat. Samurai’s actually used a variety of swords, not just the katana. This does not mean that they were not effective in combat, but rather it highlights how the history of this blade is not immune to hyperbole.

Samurais did not exclusively wield the katana. Indeed, the wearing of a wakizashi along with the katana was considered the mark of a samurai warrior. It is believed that the katana was a tertiary weapon during warfare, with bows and arrows and spears being preferred. This is mostly because, in largescale war, getting close enough to attack with a bladed weapon is less preferable to shooting at them from a distance, or poking them with a long spear from the safety of your horse. Again, it does not mean the katana was no good. War is a matter of life and death; if the katana wasn’t an effective weapon, samurais would not have wasted valuable space by taking it with them.

How Do www.samuraiswordsmith.com Katanas Compare to Contemporary European Swords?

The question of whether a katana was “better” than other swords, such as those used by Europeans, is a false one. There is no objective answer because, like many things in life, context matters.

Katanas were indeed harder than other swords of the time. It is widely believed that the steel found in a quality katana blade was the hardest in the ancient world, something that was both a blessing and a curse. This hardness caused katanas to be more brittle than their European counterparts. So, while katanas were undoubtedly harder, they tended to chip and break from impact with hard objects. Conversely, the softer European swords could not hold a deadly edge like their Japanese counterparts, but they could take far more punishment before breaking.

 

For this reason, Japanese warriors tended to launch preemptive attacks on their enemies to minimize the wear of their precious blades.

So, who would win in a sword fight between a European sword and a katana? It depends. The katana can do more damage, but if the Japanese could not end their conflict quickly, there would be a real risk of that brittle steel causing them problems.

 

All Katanas Are Not Created Equal

The legendary status of katanas really only applies to a specific time before the 1500s. It was around the middle of the sixteenth century that gunpowder started to see extensive use by the Japanese, which quickly diminished the usefulness of the katana as a wartime weapon.

This had a knock-on effect that would lead to lowered quality in the steel being produced as there was less demand for the blades. Over time, the techniques that had been used to forge the special steel would be forgotten altogether, and blacksmiths would fall back on making ornate katanas rather than ones with the famed cutting power of old.

So when debating if katanas are better than other swords, it’s worth remembering that the period which a given katana comes from will significantly affect the answer to that question.

Conclusion

As is often the case, the truth of katanas lies somewhere in the middle of the two extreme opinions. On the one hand, katanas were an almost mythical weapon of unimaginable power. On the other hand, they were average weapons whose reputation has been significantly overblown.

The reality is they were good weapons in their time, but they were not the magical blade they are sometimes made out to be. They did have the famed sharpness thanks to their hardened steel, but they also had the brittleness that came with it.

These days katanas are, for the most part, ornamental items that spend more time hanging on walls than they do in training, and rarely-if ever-in combat. But times change, and many things that were once great seem average by comparison. The Japanese blacksmiths of the time certainly knew some techniques that the rest of the world didn’t-techniques that would disappear for a long time. Perhaps that makes the katana special enough.

 

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This post was written by Nadia Vella