Katana vs. Rapier:
Another Fantasy Worth Considering

jcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)By John Clements, ARMA Director

There is typically a view that the katana and rapier represent the ideal cutting blade and the ideal thrusting blade; the "highest" development of East and West. Every once in awhile it's not uncommon to hear people speculate on what result might occur in a duel between a Japanese samurai armed with his katana and an European Renaissance swordsman with a rapier. It's a worthwhile question to consider.

As someone who has some small experience in both Japanese swordsmanship and fencing (kenjutsu & kendo) and who has been a long-time Renaissance swordsman and previously a sport fencer, I can offer an opinion on this question. From my own experience sparring with cutting against thrusting swords, I have a few insights. While there are certainly no historically recorded accounts (other than unsubstantiated folklore and rumor) as to a one on one duel between an European swordsman with a rapier and Japanese samurai using a katana, I think we can make a few very general suppositions about such a hypothetical encounter.

First, while typical samurai warriors were highly trained soldiers, the average samurai was not an expert swordsman, perhaps only 5% or so were its been suggested. Of this 5%, maybe 5% of those were "master" level swordsmen (not that it matters to the issue at hand whether the figure was over 99% or less than 1%). Whereas the average European rapier swordsman, would more or less be an ordinary urban citizen with or without military experience. He would likely have received some (if any) professional instruction from a master in a private school of fence and then would of course have likely some degree of practical "street-fighting" experience or have been in a duel. The weapon he used would be one of personal self-defence and duel as opposed to a battlefield sword.

There is no question that each swordsman was experienced at armed close- combat. For sake of argument though, let's assume mastery level by each hypothetical fighter. Let us also assume armor is a non-factor in the encounter, as are any missile weapons or terrain factors. Let's additionally assume neither has any major physical advantages over the other. Further, let’s assume that each swordsman is equally ignorant of the other's style of fight. Though the rapier fighter was ideally at home in a civilian environment, he would certainly be far from ignorant of fighting tactics. While it is arguably not relevant to a duel of single combat, cavaliers and knights of this age were often well read in military strategy being familiar with the well-known literature on the subject, such as Vegetius, Frontius, Pizan, and Machiavelli’s art of war as well as countless fencing treatises.

An immediate question that occurs then, is would the samurai's notorious resolute contempt for death and self-disregard lead to an audacious and immediate offensive attack? Would the rapier fighter's presumably cautious, cool-headed counter-thrusting style of fight provoke a simple stop-thrust? The samurai might well hold disdain for his "barbarian" foreigner's seemingly "flimsy" blade. This could prove fatal against a weapon with the speed and reach of a rapier. The rapier fighter himself may also erroneously hold his "pagan" adversary's cutting style equally in contempt. Underestimating both the speed and the force of a katana's deflecting counter-cuts can be disastrous. Even a small snipping cut could often dismember an arm. Simply stepping to evade an initial cut can even place you in the path of a powerful second and third one. For the most part though, since all the psychological factors, although important, are notoriously hard to quantify, we'll have to avoid them for now.

Personally, from my own experience, I think the outcome of such a fight would fall in one of either two directions: The samurai would move directly to make a devastating cut, becoming punctured through the head, throat, or chest as a result, but still having his cut cleave through the rapier fighter's head and torso (or at least his extended arm). Else, the rapier fighter would over time, make multiple quick, shallow punctures at unpredictable angles of attack to the samurai's hands, arms, and face until able to deliver an incapacitating thrust. But at this same time, the samurai would be carefully closing the distance and waiting until the split second he could dash the rapier aside and step in with a slice clean across his opponent's abdomen or face.

Typically, the sword user won't risk stepping into a stop-thrust and the rapier fighter won't risk taking a swiping cut. The heavier blade can usually beat the rapier aside but can't respond in time. While the rapier often can attack but afterwards couldn't recover or parry once it connects. I have seen both forms of outcomes in my mock-fighting practices, but more often the Japanese stylist underestimates the rapier rather than vice-versa. The katana is limited to about 7 or 8 cuts and a thrust -all of which are techniques already contained within the familiar longsword and short sword styles a rapier fencer would be somewhat familiar with. Whereas the katana fighter, in contrast, has no equivalent foyning style of rapier (or rapier and dagger) fencing in their experience. Historically, in the late 16th century, it was the rapier's very deadliness at making unpredictable, lightning fast thrusts from unusual angulation that made it become so popular so quickly in place of all manner of cutting blades.

As is becoming increasingly well known, the rapier is not the flimsy tool of the modern sport version, nor is it used in the same flicking manner. It is longer, stronger, heavier, and involves a greater range of techniques and moves. The rapier's penetrating stabs have great reach and are very quick, particularly on the disengage. But it can still be grabbed and lacks cutting offense. The katana has a well-rounded offence to defence, and is much more symmetrical in its handling. It can make great close-in draw cuts and is an agile weapon with quick footwork of its own. It can be wielded well enough one-handed if need be, too. Obviously, a katana can't match the rapier thrust for thrust. What a rapier does best is fight point-on with linear stabs, and no heavier, wider blade will possibly out maneuver it. Playing to the rapier's strength by using a katana horizontally is a losing game.

While the rapier certainly is a "point-based" threat and does not work well close in, it makes up for this by being able to out thrust cutting swords, like the katana, by about three feet of range using in its foyning method specialized footwork such as the lunge. A long lunge can strike a lethal hit from well outside the effective distance of a man with a long cutting sword.

If a longer, straighter, double-edged sword adept at stabbing attacks could not out-thrust the rapier, we may well wonder what chance a shorter single edged katana, devised for slashing, would have? Besides that, the rapier was devised to outfight blades that could strike with both their edges in sixteen possible lines of attack—twice the number employed by a katana—as well as trap and bind with their large cross-guards which the katana also did not possess.

The katana itself s not a slow sword. It has a good deal of agility as well as being able to thrust some. Kenjutsu cuts are delivered in quick succession using a flowing manner. Its two-hand grip can generate great power by using a sort of "torqueing" method with additional force added from the hips. The katana's cutting power and edge sharpness is also legendary (although often the subject of exaggeration, sometimes absurdly so). It is a sword of war after all, and faced a variety of arms and armors. While not every puncture with a rapier would be lethal, to be sure, virtually every cut by a katana was intended to kill instantly. During the centuries of the Renaissance in Europe (the 1400s to early 1600s), Japan was in its Warring States period; the samurai class were essentially mounted archers with their main infantry weapon being the spear (yari). At this time the sword was a secondary weapon. It was only later, during the peace of the Tokugawa unification when the era of endless civil war had ended, that the “cult” of the katana developed around the samurai as warriors (which in modern times this has grown into something of a pop-cultural mythology). The rapier on the other hand, had but one purpose: dueling another swordsman.

Although occasionally argued by some, I do not believe for an instant that the rapier would be "cut" or broken by a katana. Although katanas were (more or less) capable of cutting through metal, slicing an adversary's very sword, especially one as agile as a rapier, is improbable at best. The rapier really just doesn't offer the opportunity or the necessary resistance to even attempt it. We might wonder however about the rapier's recorded propensity to break when used in cutting. Yet it is necessary to understand that there was considerable diversity in the geometry of rapier blades. Some designs intended to produce an especially light and agile thrusting weapons resulted in particularly thin points that did indeed tend to snap off when a forcible edge blow was struck with them.

The speed and angulation of the highly methodical and calculating rapier and dagger style (quiet unlike the dui tempo Baroque form of modern sport fencing) is also one that would intentionally avoid contact with a wider cutting blade. (Cutting through highly tempered and deceptively swift blade of a thrusting rapier with a one- handed slash from a katana, while an interesting and not inconvenient theory, it must be admitted is certainly one without any physical or literary evidence).

In thinking about all this, I have to admit to a certain bias. Being somewhat familiar with both Eastern and Western systems, I have a good feel I think for the strengths and weaknesses of each. So I may have a slightly skewed opinion. When I have sparred with each weapon against each style of fighter, I know generally what they can and can't do and adjust myself accordingly. Then again, maybe that makes me more objective than biased. My own experiences contrasting the two forms has been in using a variety of implements, including: non-contact steel blunts, semi-contact bokken (wooden sword) versus replica rapier, and full-contact padded sword versus schläger (rapier simulator). Attempting a simulation of sport epee versus bokken though, is a futile exercise as the super light epee, more often than it can flash in with a poke, can be easily knocked around and even end up being bent. As well, shinai versus a foil or epee is just as futile. The virtually weightless bamboo shinai distorts a katana's handling far more so than even a foil or epee misrepresents the performance of a rapier or small-sword.

Very often it has seemed to me, that sport fencers are quite often much too quick to assume that their own speedy feints, disengages, and long reach will easily overwhelm a cutting sword. Frequently, what passes for the kenjutsu that Western fencers have previously encountered was far from competent. Thus, they are habitually unprepared for a katana's agile strength and defensive counter-cuts. The worst thing the rapier fighter can do is to allow his weapon to be bound up with the point off to the side (once you're past a rapier's point, the weapon is almost impotent). He also must avoid fighting close-in where the katana's force and slicing ability will instantly dominate. On the other hand, Asian stylists unfamiliar with what a rapier really is and what it can do, severely underestimate it. They too readily believe what they see in sport epee and foil is the "real thing", or that the Princess Bride and Zorro fans at the local Renn faire represent the best the weapon has to offer. The rapier's deceptive speed combined with its excellent reach and fast, efficient footwork make it a formidable weapon to face in single (unarmored) combat. Essentially, underestimating either weapon is a fatal misperception.*

If we assume the rapier is being used alone, that means the fencer has its left hand free to seize his opponent's grip, handle, or arm. If we assume he is using a companion dagger with his rapier, then when he closes in he has a potential killing thrust at his disposal. Also, the rapier fighter would not have been ignorant of grappling and wrestling techniques any less than his Asian opponent.

It is worth mentioning that the rapier was used more often with a companion dagger. But employing a dagger against a fast katana is extremely challenging as well as possibly self-defeating. Trying to trap or block a sword held in two-hands with a light dagger held in one is not advisable. The samurai might always release one hand from his weapon and grab his opponent's blade. However, some dagger techniques against a sword actually resemble those effectively used with the Okinawan sai --a weapon fully capable of defeating a katana. Also, the respected two-sword nito-ryu style of the famous Miyamoto Musashi seems to be much less relevant against the rapier. In this case, using one hand on two separate swords reduces the katana's own speed and strength advantages while playing to the rapier's. The two swords end up being too slow to employ their combination parry/cut against the rapier's greater speed and stabbing reach.

So, after all this I am reluctant to form an opinion of one over another, but I have to say I really don't know one way or the other. I have tremendous respect for kenjutsu's excellent technique and its ferocious cutting ability, yet I favor the rapier's innovative fence and vicious mechanics. Though it's very fun to speculate on, I think "who would win" between a rapier swordsman and a samurai is a moot question and unanswerable. Thus, what it eventually gets down to is not the weapon or even the art, but the individual (their conditioning and attitude) and the circumstances. Bottom line, it's about personal skill.

*End Note: As students of both combatives and history, we must recognize the limitation that, despite the sincerest attempts, any modern civilianized (even sportified) martial art practiced for recreation and health is not the same as one historically practiced for survival.  Few would assert today that medieval styles of fighting have anywhere been preserved exactly as they once were with the same level of intensity, expertise, and motivation. However, it’s no secret to point out how today's less informed student of Asian martial arts often imagines his modern style (or at least the popular mythology surrounding it) is identical in all respects to the version once practiced in a very different society and culture hundreds of years past (indeed, even when it comes to historical weaponry, some modern day practitioners feel their theoretical version is actually superior to what was done in antiquity for real). What is required then for objective consideration is a willingness to look at the subject more as students of history, rather than as emotionally invested adherents of a belief system. The more a combative digresses from its originating conditions compelling combat utility, the less martial it becomes. The counter-argument to this is that preservation is systemic and endemic to the pedagogy of traditional fighting skills and that the subtleties of martial arts can only be passed on person to person, not via texts and images. However, anthropologically, there can be no question that despite the best efforts, there is no way to ever verifying the veracity of generational verbal transmission which by its nature is subject to change over time.

*Note: Interestingly, the Renaissance cut-and-thrust method (as for example practiced by the Elizabethan master George Silver or described in various early 16th century Italian manuals) naturally has qualities of each weapon. It's not unlike that of kenjutsu with many fundamental principles being the same. It differs significantly of course, in its footwork and in the application of certain techniques and moves (particularly thrusts and parries) which were later adapted to its similar "cousin", the rapier. Cut-and-thrust or side-swords swords were also commonly used along with a buckler or dagger and the flexibility of this two-weapon combination can have some advantages against a single sword in held two hands. It certainly did against European greatswords on occasion, but this was in the age when such war swords were already no longer in wide use.

*Note: Japanese television recently featured a contest between a kendoka and an epee fencer. The epee fencer was declared the victor because he managed a thrust to the thigh or hip a split second before receiving a cut down his forehead. Hardly decisive. But the contest proved nothing as neither combatant really represented a “traditional” sword fighting method with historical weapons. With its featherweight bamboo stick kendo is not definitely not kenjutsu, and modern sport fencing is not a Renaissance style at all but a Baroque one using the featherweight equipment and actions of a method less than 300 years old. Both games purposely use near suicidal techniques to score points, rather than historical moves to win fights. So, the single bout contest was really one between two practitioners of two modern martial sports and, in my opinion, demonstrated nothing of value concerning the weapons and historical methods of swordplay being discussed here.  

See also:

The Medieval European Knight vs. The Feudal Japanese Samurai?

Longsword and Katana Considered

Back to the Essays Page

© Copyright 2002 by John Clements.


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