and Katana Considered
are two of the world's most recognizable and iconic weapons in history:
the European double-handed knightly sword and the feudal Japanese double-handed
samurai sword. Each of these famous sword types owes its design to the
marriage of pragmatic function with technological form. Each evolved to
answer specific challenges in their own particular martial environments.
Each was tested and improved upon over time through the unforgiving trial
of war and duel. Each proved itself in expert hands. The idea of evaluating
one against the other is undeniably intriguing. Although the attempt can
be an amusing intellectual exercise, an objective approach to comparing
the longsword and the katana, however, is highly problematic. The issue
is actually far more complicated than simply asking, "Which is the
Contrast and comparison of these two sword types as functional tools
is difficult foremost because neither weapon exists as a "generic"
ideal. There really is no such thing as a generic longsword or a generic
katana any more than there is a generic "rifle" or a generic
"car." True enough, for each of these famous sword types there
are certain quantifiable characteristics. But these qualities vary to
such a measure that there really is no standard for what could be considered
"typical." Each comes in many varieties.
though they are easily identifiable to us now, as artifacts both sword
forms - the straight double-edged long-handled war-sword with cruciform
hilt, and the curved single-edged Nippon-to - differ considerably
in their intrinsic traits. In blade cross-section or hilt configuration
even swords of the same "family" or typology are not all of
uniform design. Since both styles of sword in question existed in countless
varieties, each with numerous atypical variations, it is nearly impossible
to consider either in terms of some standardized representative archetype
of an entire species of sword.
Yet, both models of sword have certain self-evident aspects that define
them as being part of a classification of historical bladed weapons. Among
their attributes, each of these objects has a particular length, weight,
shape, and blade geometry as well as edge, point, and hilt configuration.
When properly handled each sword also possesses a certain center of gravity
and inherent balance (matters which can themselves be subjective).
Thus, while any two individual sword blades can be scientifically tested
for certain metallurgical properties, any style of sword is more than
the sum of its physical parts. As a weapon, a sword is a holistic combination
of certain qualities matched together to optimally perform certain physical
actions in the hands of a human user. There really are no objective criteria
then which can be put forth to quantify specific styles of historical
swords in terms of their mechanical properties. There is no real possibility
today of performing neutral tests that would proportionally match each
type of sword to the historical requirements either was called upon to
meet. Striking with a bladed weapon is, after all, not equivalent to dispassionately
testing the performance characteristics of two automobiles or two firearms
under laboratory conditions.
Besides each of these sword patterns having its own dedicated community
of loyal fans and ethnic interest groups of aficionados, there are those
today whose beliefs in either weapon's mythology are unassailable
by either enlightened reason or educated fact. This effort is not directed
toward those audiences. The attempt here is to offer some impartial criteria
by which to conversationally evaluate these two noble weapons through
those shared elements that define each sword's parallel utility.
Any such attempt is fraught with the difficulty of dealing in such
The discernable elements that can be assessed in any sword are: cutting
ability, thrusting ability, guarding capacity, speed, technical versatility,
and durability. None of these factors is without controversy, let alone
uncertainty. Each is still a generality. But relative to such criteria
we can attempt to judge both sword specimens. We might appraise them by
scoring one sword or the other for each category:
Cutting Ability - This is the blade's capacity
to deliver powerful shearing and cleaving edge blows. Despite it being
the fundamental purpose of most swords, this category is still challenging
to determine. The katana, with its living tradition of practice, is
well known for demonstrating its cutting power. Its single, hardened,
wedge-like edge has long been shown to be capable of extraordinary sharpness.
The longsword, which has not been practiced or studied for centuries,
has not acquired a similar reputation. Indeed, its utility and cutting
ability has suffered from considerable disregard by fencing historians
and arms curators (despite historical accounts documenting its formidable
edge blows having been corroborated by modern experiment). It is certain
that both weapons successfully faced opponents wearing soft and hard
armors without great difficulty. Nonetheless, a curved blade is mechanically
superior to a straight one at delivering edge blows to produce injury.
And due to its hardness, the single curving edge of the katana is very
good at penetrating even hard materials with straight-on strikes. Verdict:
Thrusting Ability - This is the capacity for a weapon
to make penetrating stabs with its point. Whether against armored or
unarmored opponents, a thrust has long been recognized as more difficult
to defend against, easier to deliver a fatal wound with, and quicker
and farther reaching than a cut. As has been known since ancient times
and shown by fencers since the mid-16th century, the geometry of a straight
weapon means its thrust hits more quickly and deceptively than does
a curved or semi-curved one while also leaving the attacker less exposed.
A longer blade can also stab out farther than a shorter one, and a narrower-point
thrusts more quickly and with greater penetration than does a wider
blade optimized more for cutting. The longsword's inherent design,
particular center of gravity and hilt configuration, as well as its
manner of fighting, take full advantage of this. Though the katana is
certainly adept at thrusting, its configuration as a dedicated cutter
gives up advantage in the thrusting department. Verdict: Longsword.
Guarding Capacity - This is the weapon's ability
to be moved to ward, parry, and block the assorted strikes of other
weapons it had to face in combat. A sword is a weapon that has a defensive
as well as an offensive value. It is not just intended for attacking.
Its design affects the physical mechanics of how the object can be wielded
defensively. The resilience and toughness of the blade is a component
in this, but, since each of these swords has a proven combat record,
that concern is moot. The same may be said for mass as a factor of maneuverability,
as both weapons are comparable in their weight. Skill of the user aside,
inherent defensive potential then comes down to the tool's geometry,
or shape. A hand-weapon is managed in a way that plays to its strength,
and certain designs simply offer greater versatility for impeding hits.
If we imagine two simple wooden sticks, one curved and generally shorter,
the other straight and generally longer, the former with a smaller oval
protection for the hands while the latter having a larger cross bar,
common sense suggests which would offer more protection against threats.
Speed - Speed is the velocity at which any hand-weapon
can perform defensive and offensive actions to deliver hits or impede
blows. Again, this category is a more subjective matter to quantify.
The quickness of a hand-weapon depends partially upon the user's
own prowess, as the weapon itself does not move, the swordsman moves
it. Practice with historical specimens of both sword types suggests
neither weapon has any particular speed advantage. Each sword employed
a style of swordsmanship that emphasized taking the initiative as well
as controlling distance and timing. Since the relative weights of both
sword types are nearly equal, the issue comes down to the geometry of
how each can be moved. A shorter curved blade can slash more quickly,
but a longer, narrower, straight blade can certainly thrust more quickly.
Generality, one style purposely emphasized a quick drawing cut and decisive
single strike. The other intentionally incorporated long-reaching stabs
and quick combination blows. These factors are not decisive to dominate
the tempo of a fight. Both were effective, and the circular motion of
a cut is still the same whether the blade is long or short, straight
or curved. However, the slashing cut of a shorter curved weapon wielded
in strong fluid motion can be more maneuverable than the less oblique
cuts of a longer straight blade similarly used. Verdict: Katana.
Technical Versatility - This is the mechanical utility
the weapon has for being employed in distinct offensive and defensive
actions. Surely the most controversial category to rate any sword on
is its fighting capacity. Each represents sophisticated and highly effective
fencing styles that permit effective application of universal principles
and concepts of personal armed combat. In this regard both are limited
only by their physical properties and the prowess of the swordsman.
However, factored into this is a matter of specialization versus diversity.
The katana is the extreme single-edged cutting performer while the longsword
is an excellent multitasker. The katana, with its exceptionally hard
and sharp edge, is supreme in the one-directional cut department, while
the longsword, with its dual tapering edges and cruciform hilt with
pommel, is superbly adept at a diversity of striking actions.
Both these swords are established cut-and-thrust weapons. Both are
capable of numerous slashing, slicing, and stabbing techniques. Both
weapons utilize counter-striking and defensive displacements. However,
straight double edges permit cutting along 16 different lines of attack
compared to eight with a single-edged curved blade. This lends itself
better to agile transitions between assorted cuts, thrusts, and parries.
The longsword's well-honed but less keen edge purposely allows
it to be "half-sworded" or readily wielded by the blade as
if it were a spear, short-staff, or war-hammer. Its hilt arrangement
permits different manners of gripping for different specialized affects
at different ranges, such as close-in binding and trapping as well as
delivering unique one-handed springing hits from a farther distance.
Finally, its slim profile and greater length offer a longer reach in
both cutting and thrusting.
Through popular media and modern schools of swordplay the katana has
acquired a somewhat esoteric reputation for its "secret art"
of swordsmanship. By contrast, the little-known ingenuity of the Medieval
longsword and its systematic craft of fencing have remained obscure
even among modern fencing instructors and historians. Again, considered
as if simple wooden sticks, it is self-evident that a longer, straight,
staff-like rod is more versatile to wield than a shorter, curved rod.
Durability - Durability in a fighting sword refers
to its general tenacity and its resilience and in delivering blows and
receiving impacts over time without breaking or becoming bent. Simply
put, a blade that bends too easily will deform too often and build up
strains that will lead to its eventual failure (if not hopelessly distort
it first). A blade that does not deform would stand up to long term
use better, provided its strength is not exceeded. The more resistant
to brittle catastrophic failure a sword blade is, however, the more
malleable it becomes - meaning the easier a bend will set in. In
the most basic terms, a good cutting and thrusting sword blade needs
to be able to spring somewhat or else it will snap too easily under
stress. To achieve such characteristics indefinitely requires a heat-treatment
and cross-section that permits this - one that, if overloaded, will
deform slightly rather suffer a sudden total failure. This matter is
separate from edge hardness. Toughness is necessary for maintaining
a hard edge that can cut well, but a certain degree of "springiness"
permits it to resist sudden fractures.
A blade needs strength to resist deformation but toughness to withstand
cracking and chipping. A more ductile and pliable blade would have little
strength (as it would deform too easily). But, an overly hard blade,
while having great strength to resists deformation, would also have
no "give." Rather than bend or stretch under stress it would
fracture to the point of snapping. An ideal cutting and thrusting sword
blade is therefore between these two extremes. Hardness and softness
in a blade is a matter of heat-treating, such that it affects it to
either bend very quickly under force or else over-flex until it breaks
without bending at all. A blade's stiffness, by contrast is solely
a matter of its cross-section and its thickness, not its tempering.
Together, these factors will achieve a particular sword's intended
qualities. Generally, the sword which was least "heat treated"
(hardened) would be tougher, but not necessarily the most resistant
to fatigue strain. But, hardness in a blade or edge will undergo stress,
and stressed material is more susceptible to fracture.
A springier blade, such as on the longsword, is able to endure fatigue
and abuse over longer periods. However, a more robust blade able to
resist breaking will tolerate greater sudden stress as in cutting powerfully
at more resistant materials, which the katana achieves. Katanas tended
to be strong essentially because their thick blades and narrow edges
were of laminated structures with a differential heat treatment. Katanas
typically have a very good combination of strengths due to tensile versus
compressive forces from the edge material actually being longer than
the spine (forcing its natural curvature). But such hardness is possible
on two-edge straight blades as well. The katana will cut soft objects
very well with little fatigue/strength issues, but over time it will
not handle massive impacts or lateral forces as due to the same heat
treatment that gives it such a strong edge (but requires a softer back).
Additionally, the fact is, the sharper and the harder an edge, the easier
it chips and cracks from use (i.e., suffers brittle failures). A softer
edge, by contrast, will fold and dull from use (ductile failures). The
katana required more rigidity for its hard-cutting design, while for
its utility the longsword was more of a spring. The katana's edge
leaned towards more brittleness while its spine was more prone to bending.
In both weapons, cross sectional shape compensated for weaknesses while
capitalizing on strengths.
Flexibility, or the ability for a blade to deform but return true,
though regularly exaggerated in modern times, was actually of very little
concern for swords intended for serious combat, and does not enter into
the criteria here. Surprisingly, metal fatigue caused by shock and vibrations
were not great concerns on swords. While the durability factor is one
that should be the easiest to determine categorically by empirical measurement,
it is one that has the least information on which to draw firm conclusions.
No practical tests have ever been done to record the overall comparative
attributes (impact forces and hardnesses) of the different respective
blades from either culture. Making generalized estimates is thus difficult.
Modern replica swords are typically poor substitutes for the real historical
specimens and anecdotal accounts of blade resilience or flexibility
are not enough to go on.
Of all the categories to rate, durability is the one, which, arguably,
there is the least understanding of among modern sword enthusiasts.
We can dismiss the hype that occurs with regularity in cartoons and
videogames featuring the katana as a virtual lightsaber cutting through
cannons and tanks. Similarly, we can dismiss the ignorant assumptions
of Victorian-era-inspired writers of the 20th century who viewed Medieval
European swords through the strained prism of isolated experience with
flimsy sporting swords.
No sword is indestructible. All are produced as perishable tools with
a certain expected working lifetime. There is also evidence both swords
styles were made in versions intended for armored combat and versions
intended for unarmored combat. This further complicates efforts to discern
any overall sturdiness in their design. Which blade historically could
possibly be called the more durable in combat is then an exceptionally
complex issue to address and perhaps unanswerable. Verdict:
of these two celebrated sword types have a long martial heritage behind
them and considerable lore surrounding them. Both have become symbols
of their respective warriors and their military cultures. Both the longsword
and the katana owe their modern popularity to a resurgence of interest
in historical sword arts and fighting traditions. But each suffers considerably
from its share of popular misconception, distortion, and modern misrepresentation
(due largely to the unarguable fact that no one today any longer uses
these tools for earnest fighting in actual life and death situations).
Historical examples of both sword types represent finely engineered cut-and-thrust
weapons. Matching them is, then, a bit like asking which is a deadlier
gun in a close firefight, a sawed-off shotgun or an Uzi sub-machine gun?
There are core commonalities in the use of both but also a significant
dichotomy in their manner of application (because neither historical swordsman
was built or moved in exactly the same way).
has been suggested that comparisons of sword designs is meaningless unless
it is narrowed down to comparisons of individual sword specimens, and
even then only two possible examples have been compared. Just as victory
in a duel depends upon the quality of the warrior's skill regardless
of his method of fighting, so too does the quality of any sword come down
to the skill of the maker whatever his process of manufacturing. We might
consider them as a good sturdy truck contrasted with a fine sports car.
You wouldn't want the former in a street race or sprint nor want
the latter off road or pulling weight. In the final consideration, they
are both effective and have their advantages. It is through knowing more
about these two swords, both their strengths and their weaknesses, that
greater appreciation for their distinctiveness develops.
Any sword ever made is a result of a series of compromises that depends
on the desired performance characteristics of the weapon combined with
the technology and skill available to its craftsman. There are tradeoffs
every time a sword design must place one trait above another. To ask then,
what is a "better" sword is to ask, what are your needs for that weapon?
The longsword and the katana both were proven answers to very similar
yet not identical problems of specific self-defense. Ultimately, any sword
is only a tool; well-forged, carefully tempered and honed, but still just
an inert piece of handcrafted steel. In the end, perhaps the firmest conclusion
that can be reached is that, historically, both the longsword and the
katana served its intended purpose with equal success.
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