5 Reasons Why Katanas are Stupid

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.

In conclusion

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.

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14 comments on “5 Reasons Why Katanas are StupidAdd yours →

  1. Very entertaining read. I will point out a couple points you may not be aware of. Katana lengths tended to be based on the size of the user. Back then most Japanese were very short. The sword length was based on what they could draw from the scabbard. I am over 6′ and use a very long Katana myself. Blocking – is primarily done with the side of the back edge – to prevent the blade from getting nicked, as it was and is a big deal to fix. If there was to be a battle between a normal sword of both kinds, the katana is much lighter, and will beat the long sword to the strike. The long sword can kill from impact even if the opponent has armor, that is not something a katana can do. So it comes down to who is better trained – like with all martial arts. Katanas are used to stab (ski) to go in between layers of armor. I like that you state that longer weapons/spear type were more effective on the battle field, as longer trumps shorter on the field, and a gun trumps them all. Another consideration is battle time, how long are you on the battle field, how much weight are you carrying/swinging, how long can keep up the fight with your tools. I’d rather be using a long bow myself, but I know I am a better with a katana than a heavier blade, so it fits me. You might be a very burly guy that can swing a 6lb sword for an hour, then that works for you.

    1. Very informative, thank you.

      [edit] I should point out that I’m basing my determination of longsword vs. katana on the assumption that the longsword wielder has European plate armor, and the katana-wielder has Japanese armor, and they’re in a duel situation rather than on the battlefield. I’d still give it to the longsword, assuming fighters of equal skill, for the points mentioned above.

      This is a debate that will never be settled, of course. And all things considered, I’d prefer a bow too

    2. Bluntly speaking: Everything you wrote is practically wrong.

      Long swords aren’t slow. They average three pounds wielded in two hands whereas katanas are about 2.3 lbs in two hands. Sabers can easily be longer and lighter than katanas and still be wielded one-handed. Most of the material in katanas are basically to support the edge.

      I do some HEMA and I can tell you that, when it comes down to it, longsword reach is quite easy to abuse. Short of you being some kind of martial god, it’s a very difficult thing to deal with. You say “speed” like it means something, but it’s sort of meaningless if I can touch you first just because of reach.

      Katanas are just dang short because it’s a technological/cultural limitation. And I seriously doubt they’re short because they’re just specialized for cutting.

      Find me a scrawny teenage girl. I’ll bet you she can come out once a week for a few months and she’ll find the average longsword pretty reasonably comfortable to swing. Much easier than if she had to handle a rapier or a saber.

      Nodachi are the longest this style of sword can get and those have to be made-to-order because it’s difficult to draw steel out to that length. So it’s not simply a matter of being tailored to personal height.

      The Japanese method of swordmaking is, basically, lamination with some differential tempering thrown in at the end of the process. Better steel heralded the death of infantry tactics like the ones Romans used because that made longer swords and, probably more importantly, better stirrups.

      You probably have some ideas about armor, since full suits of European armor basically amounts to what I’ve heard somebody describe as “can opener” fighting. Or in short: Wrestling. Secure a hold or throw the other person, then finish him at your leisure.

      You can knock a dude senseless with a murderstroke, but that’s an unlikely proposition unless you’re similarly armored.

  2. You’re no better you’re a European long sword fanboy.. I could come up with a list of why long swords are stupid too btw soooo I think all swords have their own advantages and disadvantages and none are superior or inferior

  3. Enjoyable read 🙂

    I’ve trained in Iaido, fenced and handled western medieval and renaissance swords and mostly agree with you.

    However, there are many types of Katana and some can deliver a devastating thrust. It’s down to the type of Kissaki (point) used.

    Another katana advantage: Draw speed. In a hypothetical situation with both swords sheathed, someone skilled in Iai *will* get a cut in before the longsword user can draw his/her blade.

    Finally, vs rapier: A katana is no match for the speed, reach and point control of a rapier. However, will one or two thrusts be enough to stop a samurai (fired up on adrenaline) before his swing connects and does catastrophic damage?

    1. Interesting questions.

      My opinion would be that the katana cut is effectively neutered by plate armour, so draw speed is not relevant. You just can’t cut through plate armour with any kind of sword. So the theoretical katana user would get the first cut off, fail to actually do damage, and then we’re back to square one.

      As to whether a katana can deliver an effective thrust against plate… I don’t quite know offhand, but my guess would be no. It would have to be incredibly accurate (to hit a gap in the plate) and very forceful, and then it’s a question of attaining effective penetration. The usual katana blade I’ve seen, however, is really fat in the cross-section, and this presents a problem for the possible penetration depth. In the European tradition, knights used half-swording to get their opponent on the ground, and then switched to a rondel dagger to actually do any damage. Rondel daggers are all very thin and straight; hold them in an ice-pick grip for maximum power, while you’ve got your opponent pinned under you, and getting through a gap, and through the mail and the padding under it isn’t so difficult. But in combat, with moving targets, where you can’t apply your full strength and more importantly your full weight to the thrust, with a fat blade? I would put it at a level that’s very close to impossible.

      Now, whether a rapier would actually stop a samurai with a katana is something else entirely. The answer to that is twofold. Rapiers are not designed to be used against armour, even lamellar armour. A samurai in armour would likely destroy a rapier duelist because the duelist just can’t hurt them. Same for the longsword user in plate. (It was a civilian weapon, after all.) But if we’re looking at just the swords, on equal footing, meaning everyone in regular clothes? I’d still give it to the rapier. It’s not just faster; it’s got a much greater reach, and superior protection in the hand guard and its defensive tactics. It’s designed for the wielder to avoid being hit at all, so the lunge is long, the hand guard is huge, and the stance leans backwards.
      A rapier can disengage and strike at higher speed, from outside the katana’s range, with better defensive capabilities, and that’s a lot to overcome on the part of the katana wielder.

      The longsword in this situation is tricky as well, but there’s always the option of taking the first few hits to get inside the rapier’s effective measure, and going to half-swording. It’s probably very risky, but it’s an option at least. The katana, as far as I know, doesn’t have an equivalent to half-swording.

      But that’s just how it is with specialization. A rapier is rubbish on a battlefield, and its ability to cut is laughable. You’ll always trade off some functionality in one area and accept that, in some situations, your blade is no better than a paperweight. Just goes to show there is no such thing as a perfect sword.

      1. As you’ve stated the sword is a last resort weapon, not a first resort. So it’s unlikely that somebody is just out on foot in the battlefield to duel another armored person with a sword. That’s what polearms are for. Mounted cavalry wouldn’t be on foot either way.

        The only exceptions armored duels with swords would happen is basically:
        – As a last resort on the battlefield.
        – Competitive purposes.
        – You need to kill some less fortunate people who are less armored than you.

        Most people just don’t wear that much armor in everyday life. It’s like going about your day wearing a full vest with plates in it rated to stop rifle rounds. Few people have any business wearing such a thing unless you’re a professional soldier fighting a war.

  4. I fully agree with your statements and points, however I want to point out that rapiers are even WORSE weapons
    They are designed for thrusting and that’s the ONLY thing they can do, since you can’t expect to block or parry with it unless you’re up against another rapier
    And they can do NOTHING at all against any armor ever

    They were created when people started using the first firing weapons, meaning armor was disappearing and rapiers were a relatively easy out in close quarters
    Against any other ancient weapon; the rapier is biting the dust

    1. I happen to disagree.

      Katanas are specialized at cutting; longswords are good all-rounders. But they are still not dueling weapons, and their place is on the battlefield. If we’re going to assume the rules and space of single combat, then the person with the sword designed for it is going to win the duel. Winning a duel usually didn’t mean ‘kill the other person’. It meant to first blood, or to exhaustion, or to someone conceding.

      Rapiers are fast and terrifyingly precise. Rapier sword play is based on avoidance and reach. All that adds up to the rapier duelist being able to land a hit on a longsword or katana fighter long before they can get a strike in return. (Fun fact: you can parry and block a longsword or katana with a 16th century steel rapier. Source: the Academie Duello Open Floor Night every Friday.)

      Let’s say it’s an utterly unfair duel, and the other fighter is in plate or lamellar armor. I’ve said before that the rapier wielder will lose this, but having thought about it some more, I think I would still give it to the rapier duelist – the one carrying a lighter weapon who isn’t burdened down with forty pounds of armor. The other fighter still has the problem of actually hitting the rapier wielder (not an easy feat, considering the weapon), and they’ve got to do it before they themselves are too tired to continue. Plus they have the additional problem of defending against a lucky strike from the rapier in between their armor’s plates.

      Now, this is not to say that rapiers are superior weapons. They’re not. In an unpredictable battlefield setting, surrounded by multiple opponents, they’re always going to be ineffective compared to weapons and armor actually designed for those conditions. Funny how that works, eh?

      But I think the best counter to the argument that rapiers were terrible weapons and useless against anything but another rapier is the fact that they were the the civilian weapon of choice for such a long time. If longswords or katanas were superior single combat blades, all else being equal, then we would have seen a very different evolution of sword design in the 16th-17th centuries in Europe. After all, why would someone choose an inferior sword to defend themselves? We have to assume that actual swordfighters of the time were not stupid, and the rapier endured for so long because it worked well in its proper context against other swords of the same era.

  5. Very good points, good sir, though any weapon is only as useful as the individual wielding it. For example, you could give me the finest sword ever made and I would still probably be disemboweled in seconds by any knight or samurai with a dull knife. I was born in the twentieth century, after all. My pops taught me to shoot; not beat on people with sharpened pieces of metal.

    However, as a lover of the old school weapons of war from all over the world, I have to disagree that the longsword is a superior weapon, altogether. A lengthy straight blade can be just as much a curse as a blessing if your opponent can inside of its reach. You said it yourself: “A katana is good at fast, close moves, but this means it lacks reach.” In saying this, you’re also forgetting that the people that used these swords were beyond being simply aware of how they were meant to be utilized, and had well-developed techniques to prove it and, as I have personally witnessed, this does actually include some very effective and well-developed sparring and parrying techniques using what looked like the back of the blade. In other words, the skilled user of the katana being confronted by a guy with a longsword is obviously going to know that he wants to get inside to make those fast, deep cuts just as much as the skilled user of the longsword is going to know that he wants to keep the guy with the katana at a distance. There is no way of knowing what would happen here. The moment that one them makes that wrong move, consciously or unintentionally, it’s over for them.

    This is, of course, assuming that armor is not involved. You are talking about swords, after all. You should compare the swords alone without factoring in armor. The katana is fine and quick slicing/slashing blade, but why would you even use a sword against plate or mail? From what I’ve read, small-bladed axes, picks, and spears dominated the battle-field during that time period, and swords were reduced to being small backup weapons. I think a more interesting scenario (seeing as we’re talking hypothetically) would be a knight is plate mail armor with a katana versus a guy in samurai armor with a longsword.

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