Date: Sat, 3 Feb 2001 14:02:01 +0000 From: "G. S. Murray Threipland"
Subject: European vs Japanese blades. Comparing cutting ability of Japanese and European blades does not really tell very much. Swords develop as a result of the environment in which they are used. Take Roman swords. They are ideal for the way the Romans used them. A legionary usually worked in close proximity with others. A shield and short stabbing sword is ideal for close combat in a phalanx. Another factor is that the Roman military machine was cost conscious. They needed a cheap, mass produced, legionary-proof sword. The more individualistic Celtic and Saxon peoples took the individual warrior against warrior approach, took up more space and so tend to have slashing swords, each individual and individually crafted. The Viking and Saxon swords (5th-9th centuries) were usually pattern welded, which entailed the twisting together of different grades of steel and iron to produce a sword that was in many instances every bit as sharp and strong as Japanese swords. (Aside: Pattern welding survived up to modern times, but in shotgun barrels, and quite a number of bladesmiths today still use it, especially in the USA). Legends surround many of the smiths who made these swords, and of course of the warriors who used them. Put Japanese names in the Icelandic sagas, and you would be hard put to tell them apart from the indigenous Japanese stories. Anyway, the Saxon smiths used cutting tests that sometimes bear striking resemblance to Japanese stories of testing. For example one smith tested a blade by standing it up in a river, and letting a thread, carried by the current, impinge upon the blade, cutting it in the process. What is interesting is the protocol surrounding European swords was very similar to what Iaido practitioners still honour today. Don't touch another's sword without permission, don't draw the blade without good reason, etc. I have serious doubts that a katana would have survived very long in a medieval European battle. European swords of the time were the way they were because they had to deal with European armour, which was very efficient. ( I am not talking about the jousting armour which was incredibly heavy, but the 'field harness' used in battle and weighing about 50-60 lbs). With mail based armour, percussive weapons were favoured, such as axes and maces What was needed was a heavy, smash through everything type of weapon. The swords developed along these lines as well. Sharpness was not really needed, You can't cut through armour, but you can cleave through it, hence there is no need for a curve on the blade. Also the straight blade with the crossguard represented the Cross, which was supposed to remind a knight of his service to God. When plate armour became the norm, armour was designed to deflect blows away from the wearer. So more penetrative weapons became necessary. The war hammer, poleaxe and such became popular. Swords slowly became more pointed, so as to stab into the chinks and gaps in the armour. This led to the Estoc, which was the ancestor of the rapier. The Estoc had a sophisticated hand guard, because the user did not wear a gauntlet, because gauntlets didn't allow for much sensitivity in the grip, which was needed for accuracy of thrusts. Another consideration was climate. When the Arabs pushed into Russia, they found that the Damascus steel swords, which were sharp and flexible in the desert, became as brittle as glass in cold weather. So they used to rob Viking graves for the swords, which would work in a cold climate. (Arab swords of this era were straight and double edged, as were the European ones). The Vikings responded by bending the sword ritually on the death of its owner. The religious logic was that the sword had to be 'killed' upon the death of its owner. The practical logic was by making the destruction public, everyone would know that it was pointless to rob graves for the sword. It is now coming to be realised that European fighting techniques were actually very sophisticated. Unfortunately the practice was discontinued when it wasn't needed any more, or was changed into something else. This was what faced the Japanese at the end of the Edo period, and dedicated sword masters took steps to preserve their various arts. Hence, here we all are, practising a Japanese sword art. Would we be practising kendo/iaido if the European sword arts had been preserved? (I am not talking about fencing, which was derived from the Small Sword of the 17-18th Centuries) I hope this gives a taste for some of the practical and cultural factors that affect sword design. I think that the nihonto is the best cutting sword ever developed, but the catch is that you must know how to use it properly. It is very strong when used as a slicing cutter, and the Japanese were obviously happy with that. However, if I am unfortunate enough to find myself in a European melee, then give me a poleaxe any day. Gavin. G.S. Murray Threipland Treasurer, British Kendo Association ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Sat, 3 Feb 2001 12:35:30 -0500 From: Peter Boylan Subject: Re: European vs Japanese blades. Thanks Gavin. That was useful. The truth about Japan is that the sword there was more of a side-arm until the Tokugawa era, with foot soldiers carrying spears and naginata (poleaxe). Japanese armor was quite effective, and provided many of the same problems that European armor did. Spears were quite popular, and exceptionally effective. It's just the the 250 years of Pax Tokugawa made battlefield practices rather rare, while street fighting, where a sword was much more useful than a naginata or spear, became the expected scenario. So sword techniques flourished. But if you look a bit, you can still find plenty of spear and pole-arm. And as Karl reminds us, the bow was the weapon of the serious warrior. Peter Boylan -- Peter Boylan Mugendo Budogu LLC The Finest Martial Arts Equipment, Direct From Japan To You http://budogu.com email@example.com PH/FAX (734) 675-0028