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

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.


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
PH/FAX (734) 675-0028