Longsword and Katana Considered

By John Clements

They 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 better sword?"

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.

Even 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 generalities.

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: Katana.

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. Verdict: Longsword.

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. Verdict: Longsword.

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: Unknown.

Both 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).

It 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.

See also:

The Medieval European Knight vs. The Feudal Japanese Samurai?

Katana vs. Rapier - Another Fantasy Worth Considering


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