Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Purchase of a Samurai Sword (Katana)

I had been busy with kenjutsu for a while when I finally decided I needed to get myself a Katana. Till now I had used the bokken for all my training. I new that soon there was going to be a seminar which would culminate in test-cutting, 'Tameshigiri.' This aspiring Samurai needed a Katana.

That simple decision had some far reaching consequences. In this article I just want to highlight some of the pitfalls involved in the simple act of buying a sword. Believe me there are many ways that having a limited budget or only limited knowledge can be a serious handicap. Caveat emptor - Buyer beware

Let me start with some background. I had received a Katana for my eighteenth birthday from my father. Apparently Spanish in origin and the blade was blunted 'Iaito' and appeared to be chrome plated since it has never lost its initial polish in more than twenty years. My father had been assured that the blade could be sharpened if desired, but the whole family agreed that an eighteen year old with a sharp sword sounded like a recipe for disaster.
I took this sword along with me to my first few Kenjutsu classes. Sensei had told me that since it was blunt I would be allowed to use it in some of the kata or form work. Sensei was doubtful of the quality of the blade and advised me not to sharpen the blade, but to continue to use it as an Iaito. I started to use it to practice drawing the sword but found that the scabbard "saya" was deformed or warped and was gripping the sword once it was drawn about 50 mm or so, the result was a draw and cut "nukitsuke" which hesitated and did not flow.

Sensei is vocal in his belief that the only true sword is a Tamehagane Nihonto. Thats right, It must be made by a Japanese smith from Japanese steel in Japan. Well, the truth is that I cannot afford a Nihonto yet. Even when I do, one day, buy a Nihonto I very much doubt that I will easily use it for actual cutting. That is however, another story all together.

I started doing some research to make the correct decision when it came to putting down dollars.

I visited several online sword dealers, looked on e-bay and scoured the various books in my library. Everything from $20 display swords to $30,000 Nihonto's. But how do I know that the sword which is going to be shipped to me will be any good? How do I know the sword will be able to cut without being dangerous to me and those around me? What will be a realistic budget? What will pass muster with sensei and be good value for money?

You see although there are many really honourable shopkeepers online there are also many scoundrels out to make a quick buck. There are thousands of display swords with no body under the handle; called rat tailed tang. These are usually ornamental and have great photo's on the shop site. On e-bay they are usually very cheap with very expensive shipping. The reason for this is ebay does not require a merchant to refund shipping costs, so they profit from shipping and know that it usually will cost more than the cost of the refund to ship the defective item back to them.

Many swords are made from a steel which is not suitable for manufacturing swords. You see the amount of carbon in a piece of steel determines its hardness, but the harder the steel, the more brittle the blade becomes. For pocket knives and daggers this is rather insignificant since a four inch blade which breaks when used as a screwdriver is obviously not as deadly as twenty-eight inches of steal being swung with spectators watching. One of the greatest hazards is a blade with a chrome content or plating since chrome is very brittle and can easily splinter off creating needle like shrapnel. Surgical steel usually contains chrome because it does not oxidise, rust, the way a normal carbon steel does. The most common metal used for a usable sword is 1060 spring steel. The 60 says the iron contains 0.60% carbon. Ten forty-five is also used sometimes, and is a pretty safe option but it will loose its edge sooner than the ten sixty blade.

I printed out plenty of detail from various sites which I took to class one evening and discussed my options with sensei. He graciously conceded that the sword I had set my heart on looked safe enough to use in training so I placed an order.

I settled on a katana made by Chen Paul san of Cheness Incorporated. I chose the Shura which is made from silicon steel which is extremely tough. Unfortunately this particular type is no longer sold by Cheness. Now the wait began. The service from Cheness was excellent and the total wait was less than three weeks. Then it arrived.
The first thing which struck me was the weight. I had chosen the version without fuller; 'Bo-hi,' and it felt very heavy after the Bokken. I was extremely apprehensive of getting near the edge. Then came the realisation that 'noto' or returning the blade to the saya was also a bit more difficult than I had anticipated ... this was partly due to my distrust of the edge.
Sensei's advice was practice, practice and more practice. Within a short time I had grown more comfortable with using the Shura. The sword sat securely in the saya and did not slip out when bowing or rolling. It released easily with a little pressure form the fingers or thumb and came out of the saya as if by magic.
The next logical step was to test the blade. Fortunately we had a weekend seminar with a visiting sensei. The Gashku covered various short sword, 'Wakisashi,' techniques. I learned a lot but now new I would probably need to get a Wakisashi as well. The seminar was rounded off with a session of Tameshigiri. I watched the sensei and senior students do the cuts. With a bit of trepidation I stood before the mat, Slowly drew the sword and executed my first ever cut on a mat.

What surprised me was the lack of resistance. I had put tremendous strength and effort into the cut, including a loud kia. The mat before me was cut cleanly. It offered no resistance. The Shura had not let me down.

Since that initial cut there have been several tameshigiri sessions and the 'Shura' still cuts well. I have now got used to sensei's little comments that it is not a real sword and merely a tool. I have been extremely happy using the 'Shura.' The blade is tough and has held its edge well. This sword will continue to serve me well for many years to come.

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The Book of Five Rings

It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. - Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Geshin