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The Western Sword and the Katana

Posted by Ivan Jankovic on

Over the years that have followed World War II, an obsession for Japanese martial arts and Japanese martial history has grown in the United States. One of the most important symbols of this martial history is the katana (the samurai sword). This sword has been given so much credit, mainly as a result of WWII propaganda films, that it has overshadowed much Western martial history. Life is always divided into binaries. The binaries are often handled like an equation. If you add to one side of an equation, you must balance that equation by subtracting from the other side. Sadly, this has happened with the historical ideas associated with the western sword and the eastern sword. However, despite some popular belief, the western sword was not an inferior weapon to that of the eastern sword.
The western sword has been demoted in status over the years. Some popular belief lists the western sword as a clunky, heavy weapon designed for hacking and slashing without control. It is not seen in the same light as the katana, which is viewed as a versatile, light, elegant weapon by many people. However, the strengths of the western sword should be noted in comparison to the katana in order to discard some of the myths surrounding both weapons.

The flexibility of the western sword.

The western sword was designed for longevity. As such, the steel was made softer, allowing for more flexibility and thus, a longer life. For instance, the claymore, a Scottish broadsword, should ideally bend quite far and return to its original form after being released. It should act as a spring. The katana, however, is a much more rigid weapon, with far less flexibility than the western sword. Both swords have their strengths. The rigidity of the katana derived from a harder steel allows for a finer cutting edge. The harder the steel, the sharper the cutting edge can be. Thus, the katana, on a whole, might be sharper than the western blade. However, the western blade could suffer much more abuse before breaking. We must also take into account the small amount of pressure, 3 lbs, that it takes to cut skin. It is not necessary to have an excessively sharp blade.

Folding versus not folding

One of the first things mentioned about the katana is often the process of folding the steel, thus homogenizing the steel and making a better blade. However, what is not often mentioned is the necessity for this process. In Japan, iron was much rarer and was of lower quality than in Europe. The folding of the blade was necessary to take bad iron and work it into a decent steel. The katana, when this iron is taken into account, is an amazing feat of engineering. However, the western sword did not have this problem. With better iron available, and advanced steelworking techniques, the western sword was strong enough, and the steel was homogenized enough, to work without the folding. Folding does not denote a better sword.

Weight

As the katana became more and more popular, the myth of the western sword's extreme weight also became more prevalent. I have heard a variety of weights listed for a western long sword, from 8 - 25 lbs. These weights, when considered in a reasonable light, are ridiculous. The average western sword would weigh no more than 3 lbs. Obviously, this would make the weapon just as versatile as the katana.

Although many myths have arisen on both sides of the equation, it is important to, before talking about swords in any form, research the subject. I have heard the weight of a western longsword listed as 18 lbs by a highly educated college instructor in Renaissance literature. Obviously, these myths are widely spread, but it just isn't the truth.

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