The Anatomy of the Katana

AnatomyOfSwordLogoFor my last post, I talked about the importance of black gums for dogs and my failure to understand why some drivers refuse to move to the right when they are not overtaking. After talking about that stuff, I then wrote a post about the anatomy of rapiers. Today, we move almost as far as you can get from rapiers—geographically, philosophically, and designally. I know it’s not a word. But symmetry is important, dammit. Today, we visit Japan, to talk about Katanas. No, I don’t mean that literally. No one is going to Japan. Well, many people are going to Japan, but we are not included in that. Unless, of course, you’re going to Japan. In which case, please bring me back a katana.

There is a lot of similarity between the knight’s arming sword (discussed in the first of our Anatomy series) and the samurai sword. Both were seen as ideological weapons. Both sword types had deep spiritual value in the culture. Both were used only by the upper members of society that had been given the privilege to use them. And both are used in really, really cool movies.

The katana was typically used by Samurai, who were the only warriors allowed to wear two swords. And while the knightly sword was deeply invested in the knight’s religion, the katana was deeply invested in a samurai’s honor. And when a sword has that much value to an upper class warrior, you can bet the construction of that sword is going to be amazing. And man, were they ever.

A true Japanese katana, made by a master smith, is two parts artwork, two parts killing device, and one part liquid coolness (it’s true. Japanese swordsmiths pioneered techniques for liquefying coolness). The blades of these fine swords were made from differentially tempered carbon steel, which is a really fun and impressive term to drop in conversations, or just to say. Go ahead. Say it. Differentially tempered, high-carbon steel. You actually gain two IQ points every time you say it.

What does differentially tempered mean? I’m glad I asked myself that question. When a sword is differentially tempered, it means that the sharp edge of the sword in heated at a different temperature than the back (or dull) side. Why do they do this? Another fantastic question, Roberto! Why thank you Roberto, you’re too kind. No, Roberto, *you* are too kind. And full of awesome. And you, sir, are made of liquified coolness. Um… where was I? Why? That’s right. Why would you heat the edges at different temperatures. To answer that, let’s talk a little about tempering in general.

When you temper a steel sword, you are putting it through a process of heating and cooling that makes the metal harder. Hardness is important for blade sharpness. The harder a blade is, the better the edge it can hold and the longer it can hold it. But hardness is a double-edged sword. Although katanas are single-edged. And the hardness itself isn’t actually a sword, it’s a part of a… I … there’s… my God, it’s full of stars… I may have just broken the space-time continuum with that analogy.
Anyway, the harder a steel becomes the better the edge it can hold, but the more brittle it gets. Japanese sword makers were well aware of this. So how to get a brilliantly sharp sword that can cut through a dead prisoner—yeah, that’s reportedly how they tested the edge of their katanas, on executed prisoners)—and still get a strong sword that won’t break when struck? Yeah, it took a while for me to get there, I’m sure you’re there already. If you heat the sharp edge at a higher temperature, and the rest of the sword at a lower temperature, you get a super-hard edge, and a strong, more flexible spine.

But how do they heat a curved sword at different temperatures? A round kiln? No, silly, with mud! Alright, technically it’s called *clay*, which is just an uppity word for mud. Sword makers paint the non-edge parts of the blade with a thick mud. When the blade is heated, the parts with the mud on them don’t get as hot. Tada. Differential tempering. Blades that have been treated in this way are left with a beautiful line pattern between the edge and spine. This wavy line is called a hamon, which means ham in Spanish. Why Japanese swordmakers named this line after a pork product from the Spanish language is a mystery to this day. The hamon usually undergoes a regime of polishing to make it look even better.

What else makes katanas such good weapons? Well, steel folding, of course. Swordsmiths fold the steel of Japanese katanas over and over again. Most likely because most sword makers started life as origami artists, and it’s good that they did. Because all this folding does two things—it pushes out the impurities in the steel, and it reduces the carbon content. Japanese blacksmiths weren’t the only ones who folded steel, of course, pattern-welding is a type of steel folding that goes back to the Celts, and possibly earlier. But Japanese swordmakers used the technique to perfection, getting just the right amount of carbon in their blades and creating brilliantly strong blades.

Image converted using ifftoanyAnd now for the illustrated portion of our blog post. I have listed some of the most common parts of a katana below, and spoken briefly about each of them. Have a close look, because these will be on the test.

Kashira – Buttcap. Google does not have a great sense of humor when it comes to any joke that I think of when describing buttcaps. In the interests of good ranking, I will simply say that buttcaps are the cap at the end of a katana hilt. And repeat buttcap again while I snort.

Ito – This is the silk wrapping that covers the same of the hilt. The combination of silk and rayskin gives both grip and comfort. I have shoes made from silk and rayskin for just this reason.

Same – I’m not going to make the same old joke about the same. I’m just going to say it is the material that covers the hilt of a katana. Traditionally, this is made from ray skin, because of the rough texture. Because of this ray skin, Many modern martial artists have changed their strike cry to, “Remember the Croc Hunter!”

Menuki – a decorative charm wrapped into the ito. These serve a few purposes. They cover the wooden peg (called a mekugi) that secures the tang to the hilt of the sword. They also provide the swordsman with additional grip and allow for more creative expression.

Tsuba– A huge brass instrument played in Japanese bands. Also, the guard of a sword. This guard keeps enemy blades from riding the steel highway down to your knuckles. Tsuba are typically either rounded or square.

Habaki– A metal collar that keeps the katan firmly in it sheath (sheaths are called saya).

Shinogi– a ridgeline in the blade. Not to be confused with the hamon. Or Shinobi, which was a late-80s video game that I was two quarters short of finishing at the mall arcade.

Mune – the back edge of the blade.

Hamon Line – remember that differential tempering stuff I was talking about? The hamon is the line differentiating the higher-temperature temper and the lower-temperature temper. Every traditional katana has a different hamon line. In fact, swordmakers could be identified by the unique hamon line they created in their swords.

Ji – While we’re talking about differential tempering, I should mention that the softer, back section of the katana is called the Ji.

Ha – While we’re talking about differential tempering, I should mention that the harder, front section of the katana is called the ha.

Kissaki – The tip of the katana, always slightly rounded.

There are many other parts to a katana. In fact, pretty much every inch of a katana has a name. The groove (hi) the grain of the metal (hada), the tang (nagako), even the hamon line, where it curves up into the tip, has a name (boshi). The anatomy of Japanese swords is a breathtakingly deep subject, and this post is only the first step on your journey, Grasshopper.

Did I miss something? Did I get something wrong? Feel free to challenge me—but bring your sword, tough guy. Because… well… because we can look at it and talk about it and swing it around and stuff.

See you next time, when we talk about the anatomy of the gladius!

The Zombie Survival Manual — Part One

ZombieSurvivalLogoSo you’re hanging out at the mall food court with your best friend—talking about football or space probes landing on comets, or maybe about the merits of The Evil Dead 2 versus Army of Darkness—when you hear a scream. Not a Jerry-Springer, I’m-gonna-whoop-your-ass-in-front-of-Abercrombie-and-Fitch scream, but an H-P-Lovecraft, Dear-God-his-entrails-are-coming-out-of-his-ear sort of blood-curling howl. You shove another handful of fries into your mouth and turn to look, then stop chewing.

One of the fries falls from your open mouth and lands on the red plastic tray.

It has begun.

The hungry dead have risen, and you’re fresh out of fries.

(Editorial aside: Please note my use of “the hungry dead,” here, not “the walking dead.” Because it’s not the walking that causes problems. Sure, it would be unsettling—and possibly violate several health codes—if the dead wandered like stray cattle across our cities. But really, what would be the danger? The occasional cost of quarter-panel repairs for your car. Higher dry-cleaning bills in crowded pedestrian areas. Maybe more slip and fall lawsuits in supermarkets. The real danger is the whole eating-your-cerebral-cortex thing.)

At Strongblade, we have always seen ourselves as both providers of fine historical/fantasy reproductions, and educators of the public. And there can be no finer act of education than protecting all of you from . . . The Zombie Apocalypse.

In the upcoming series, we will discuss the most efficient ways to survive an outbreak of the hungry dead.

Some of you know that I wrote a bestselling trilogy about a zombie-like plague in 14th century England. The Scourge is about a knight trying to fight his way through this post-apocalyptic medieval landscape to reach his wife. Where relevant, I will include snippets from the book. Because knights. And zombies (called ‘plaguers’ in my books).

In this first part of the series, I want to talk about the various weapons that can be used to provide undead relief. I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon, and provide a bit of historical, martial and literary insight into each one. Starting with weapon one: The sword.

Let it begin.


Advantages: Multiple edges, decent range, coolness factor

Disadvantages: Difficulty removing from bodies quickly, Awkwardness at close range, poor at penetrating skull.


NostrumCover900x600Tristan stands and straps his helmet on. “More of those things, Edward.”
I stand slowly, stoop and catch my breath.
“What’s wrong, old man?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. “That creature hit my breastplate hard. Just need to catch my breath.”
He stares at me, the great helm hiding his expression.“There are only three,” he says. “I’ll take them. You get the rest of the walnuts.”
I shake my head and stand straight. “You want all the glory.”
I hold my sword in the long guard and take a deep breath.
The demons hurl themselves at us.
I hit the cobbled road again.
The impact blackens my world for an instant and fills the back of my nose with the taste of fire. I struggle against the creature, but I have so little strength. My sword is in its stomach, but it does not seem to care. One of the demon’s eyes is as large as a doorknob. The monster gouges at my visor, its twisted teeth clack against the bevor at my neck. It gibbers as it searches for openings in my armor. Desperate groans and growls. Hands batter my helmet, make my ears ring. I push at its chest. A thin black tongue thrusts out from its neck in a bloody spray. Not a tongue. The tip of Tristan’s sword. I shove the demon’s head to one side hard. Tristan pulls the blade back and hacks two-handed at the neck. Once, twice, and the third cleaves the head from the body. Blood spurts as the misshapen head tumbles to the cobblestones. The arms continue to rake at me for three or four heartbeats before the demon realizes it is dead.
“Excellent strategy,” Tristan says. “Letting it get on top of you so that I could kill it easily.”
“Shut your mouth, you baboon,” I say. He helps me up.
“I’m glad we shared the glory, Edward.”
— From THE SCOURGE:NOSTRUM by Roberto Calas

 In my historical fantasy trilogy, THE SCOURGE, the main characters tend to use swords when fighting the zombie-like demons that have overwhelmed their country. The characters are knights, so this is appropriate. The protagonist, Sir Edward Dallingridge, hacks his way through waves of undead while trying to reach his wife (who is a hundred miles away). In reality, the European medieval sword—while an excellent choice against lightly armored troops or unarmored opponent—is a is a difficult weapon to use against writhing hordes of undead.

sba-warspike1_lSwords are designed, primarily, to slash. Zombies are designed to not give a crap about slashes. See our problem? In most zombie mythos, penetrating the head is the only way to kill them. Sure, a powerful slash can cleave a head, but when you are swarmed by the undead, who has time for powerful slashes? And even if you had the time, you encounter the age-old and highly technical problem of sword-stuckery. A blade that penetrates the skull will remain lodged there until dislodged by an equal or greater force.

Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a master, swords can be as good a weapon as any for fighting the hungry dead—especially small groups of them. Swords actually have a lot of good traits going for them. Well-made, well-sharpened European swords can shear off parts of a skull, so as not to get stuck. Swords have multiple, razor-sharp cutting edges, a good three-foot length to keep opponents at bay, and you get instant street cred just for showing up with one. There is nothing that will make you look cooler in a zombie apocalypse than strapping a medieval sword to your belt. So if you’re trying to be the alpha in your survivors’ group, then a sword may just be the ticket.

But wait . . . there are dozens of swords available. How can I write one post about all of them? Aren’t I generalizing to a ridiculous degree?

Yes and no. A Japanese katana might be a little more effective against zombies. Katanas are quick and curved, which makes it hard to get them trapped in skulls. But the same general principals apply. Swords are slashing weapons. Zombies laugh at slashing weapons. Until you slice the top of their skull off, kick their twitching body, and shout, “Who’s laughing now, lurchy? Who’s laughing now?”

Okay. So maybe it’s worth looking at the various types of swords and their various strengths and weaknesses in a zombie apocalypse. I have added a chart below, complete with a handy cutout line, so you can keep it in your wallet when the hungry dead come to snack. The overall rating is calculated using a point system for each of the categories. The higher the rating, the more effective against the hungry dead.


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 So, the Roman gladius has it. Lethal penetration from the V-tip. Easy to use in close quarters, and blazingly fast. Killing barbarian hordes turns out to be remarkably similar to killing zombie herds. Those Romans were way ahead of their time.

Check back in a few days for the next installment, where we look at hammers, maces and flails!