EDIT: For anyone who cares, I did a follow-up to this article here.
You heard me right.
First of all, what is the katana? It’s a traditional Japanese sword, characterized by a curved, single-edged blade, a short guard that can be round or square, and a hilt that can accommodate two hands. Due to some incredibly good marketing, there are legions of idiots out there with stupid ideas about katanas.
Now, dear friends, is the time to whack them upside the head with some knowledge. The truth is, katanas are stupid.
1. They were made from crap materials
So here’s the thing: the Japanese bladesmiths were very, very good at making swords. They had to be, because the raw ore they had to work with was limited and the quality wasn’t great. Europe was relatively spoiled in its availability of good iron, but over in Japan, they had to really scrape the stuff together. So the Japanese had to make do with what was available, and the end result is tamahagane, or jewel steel.
The long and short of it is that katanas themselves are made from the best steel the Japanese could produce from really bad raw materials. The well-known process of folding the metal to increase the strength of the blade was just part of what they had to do to draw out impurities; it wasn’t some mystical technique known only to master bladesmiths. (The Vikings were pattern-welding their blades for extra strength centuries earlier.) The end result was a fine sword made from some of the purest steel in the ancient world, but the whole process was long and backbreaking.
Why is this stupid, you may ask? Well, in the 16th century, the Portuguese and Dutch got to Japan. Just when the Japanese were on the verge of getting their hands on all the European iron they could eat, the shogunate decided to kick out all the foreigners and get into xenophobia in a big way for the next 250 years.
2.They were designed to cut, and not much else
The katana is not an all-round weapon. It’s probably the ur-example of a cutting sword, in fact. The katana is a curved, fat blade with a viciously keen single edge, used with two hands, and there’s a high preference for the draw-and-cut. It’s also a short weapon, only 25 inches on average. Yes, you can thrust with it, but it’s really not designed for it. It’s designed for fast cutting work.
This is stupid because it’s a one-trick pony that just isn’t all that useful on a battlefield. Bows, spears and later matchlocks were the primary weapons of the samurai in battle, not katanas – like many swords, they were the weapon of last resort, not first. They were and are a very expensive status symbol.
3. They weren’t good at parrying or blocking
So here’s the thing – a sword that takes an age to forge and sharpen and polish isn’t something you want to damage. Combat means damage. Blocking means damage. Parrying means damage. And that immensely sharp edge is somewhat brittle.
Europeans had enough iron and steel to not care too much about their swords when they took a beating. The Japanese had no such luxury. A cutting sword isn’t great at blocking or parrying anyway, because its one great advantage – a deep draw cut – is compromised by nicks to the cutting edge.
This is stupid because of the same problem of it being a one-trick pony. It’s a sword that is super good at one specific thing, and really mediocre in comparison to many other swords at other really vital things, like defensive actions.
4. They couldn’t cut through absolutely anything
There are far, far too many myths about katanas, and the one that pops up most frequently is that a katana is some mystical blade that can chop a tank in two, or cut through plate armor.
Yes, a sharp cutting sword is good at cutting stuff. Don’t tell me that surprises you. But they’re still physical objects that can’t break the laws of physics at will by slicing through steel plate armor like it’s butter. A katana can’t even slice through mail, for gods’ sake. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in anime, not in real life.
Katanas were tested on cadavers – naked cadavers. They sliced through them pretty well, and there are some historical swords that apparently cut through five bodies at once. But those tests were expensive, and the point of them was to increase the value of the sword. I’m not sure why anyone takes them as absolute truth.
5. Their fanboys are idiots
There’s no other way to say this: there is a strain of toxic fanboyism out there that insists that katanas were perfect, elegant killing tools wielded by master swordsmen, and European swords were big, blunt ugly choppers that any idiot could wave around. Said strain of fanboyism also insists that a katana versus a longsword would inevitably result in a win for the katana.
I can’t roll my eyes hard enough, seriously. I’m a big believer in the idea of form following necessity and feasibility when it comes to swords and swordplay, and never is this more apparent in the evolution of European martial arts. The concept that all European swords can be reduced to heavy, badly-made, mass-produced lumps, more akin to a steel bar than an actual weapon of war, is offensive. It actually bothers me that people seem to think that it’s totally plausible for a whole continent of nations to make war on each other (and anyone they met) for hundreds of years, but somehow no one ever came up with a design for a good sword.
I’m saying this a lot, but it is So. Goddamn. Stupid.
I know longswords, and if I had to take bets on the average katana-wielder versus the average longsword-wielder, I’d bet on the longsword every time, and here’s why.
- A katana loses viability against armor of any kind, because its big advantage – deep cuts – is negated pretty effectively by metal armor.
- A katana is too specialized; it lacks a level of defensive ability because its design is so hyper-focused on cuts.
- A katana is good at fast, close moves, but this means it lacks reach.
- A longsword has a whole selection of techniques for getting an armored opponent on the ground.
- A longsword is a great all-round weapon – you can cut, thrust, defend, and attack in many different ways. It doesn’t excel in any particular field, but it doesn’t need to. Its big advantage is flexibility.
- A longsword is… long. The average katana blade is 23-28 inches. For comparison, my longsword’s blade is 38 inches. That extra reach isn’t trivial in combat, especially when the counter to it – getting inside the longsword’s close measure – means you’ll get grappled and bashed in the face with the pommel.
Do I think the longsword is the best weapon ever? No. I just think it’s a pretty good bet against a katana. Let’s be honest here, if we’re talking one-on-one duels, a samurai with a katana and a knight with a longsword are both going to get their asses kicked by the same person – someone who had the foresight to bring a sword heavily designed for dueling to the fight, i.e. a rapier.
Katanas are stupid.
Okay, okay – they’re pretty good swords, and many ancient katanas are works of art. We also have the benefit of hundreds of years worth of records of Japanese weaponsmithing and swordfighting, which Europeans certainly didn’t do to the same degree. But the level of asshattery that’s grown up around katanas is stupid, so much so that it’s almost hard to appreciate them without being tainted by it.
In short, I am on Team Longsword and I regret nothing.