If you ever dreamed about becoming a sword collector, you should know that a valuable, historical sword is expensive. And where the money is to be made, counterfeits are to be found. But in this article, I want to explain to you how to tell if a samurai sword is real (an authentic piece of history).
Of course, collecting historical katanas is a hobby that few people can afford. Maybe you are part of that audience, or maybe you’re just curious. In any case, this will be an interesting read, so let’s begin.
A professional dealer or a connoisseur may spot the difference immediately. There are people who are specialized in a certain segment of culture and history, like Japanese medieval craftsmanship.
How to Tell if a Samurai Sword is Real or Not
I remember watching “Pawn Stars”, an American reality TV show. It’s a wildly popular show in which this comedic old-school pawnshop owner interacts and negotiates with the private sellers of antique wares. Interesting conversations, lightweight humor, and unexpected surprises kept me on the edge of my seat, whenever I watched it.
Surprisingly, the show is informative and I always enjoyed learning a thing or two.
Every time a new seller came in, trying to advertise their priceless, antique items, the pawnshop owner would bring an expert to evaluate the price and authenticity of their wares. I remember on several occasions they brought in an expert to determines whether a katana is authentic.
It was even more fun to see how embarrassed, disappointed, relieved or happy the customers were when they found out the truth. In fact, here is another clip:
This is another video, which I like even more. The katana turned out to be authentic, and Rick shows that he is a fair, honest businessman:
I saw the big picture, but I still did not understand how to tell if a samurai sword is real and original.
One of the things that I learned from the katana expert was how much I underappreciated the process of proving authenticity. It insane how difficult it is, and how much knowledge you need to possess, to accurately and confidently tell whether a katana sword is real.
The specialist in these videos could read Japanese characters, understand their meanings. He also knew a lot about Japanese history, at least in the context of swords. He also knew the name of every Japanese swordsmith from the last thirteen hundred years. I only know a few things about the top 5 famous sword-makers!
Bottom line: There is a lot to learn before you become knowledgeable about katanas proofing.
Can You Teach me to Become a Sword Expert?
A single article is by no means enough to make you a competent Japanese sword expert. That is something of a career or at least a long-time hobby.
But I can teach you what to look for. If you can’t tell if a katana is authentic, at least you will be able to spot if it’s a good high-quality cutting weapon, even if it doesn’t have centuries of history. You can become competent at identifying strong, trustworthy katanas – to avoid spending money on cheap beaters!
Of course, I won’t try to teach you the Japanese writing system. Nor will I make you memorize a thousand line-long list of sword-makers, dates, and historical events.
We will be judging the qualitative aspects of the blade, from its sharp tip to its pommel. First of all, I want to make the distinction between:
- Original, authentic Japanese katanas, with high historical value.
- Mass-produced but super-high quality market katanas.
In terms of steel-quality, durability, and cutting power, there might be no difference between the two. Lots of sword-manufacturing companies make excellent, resilient blades that match even the famous samurai swords from museums. Technology leads the way!
The only difference is historical value; that account for the massive price difference. Modern hand-made blades have the added value of manual labor, better finishing, and more personalization!
An authentic katana is at least a century old and is forged by a Japanese blade-smith using the traditional tools, techniques, and methods.
How to Know if a Katana is High-Quality?
There are many factors to consider when judging the quality of a sword. If I am going to buy a high-quality cutter, then these are the questions that I am going to consider:
1. Is the Steel of High-Quality?
What kind of steel is the katana made of? And first of all … Is it made of steel? Lots of swords out there are just sharpened wall-hangers.
If the sword is made of aluminum, tin, or pure iron, then it is designed for decor purposes only. You should never cut or practice with one of these blades. They are just too unreliable and you could get hurt.
A stainless steel katana is another low-end sword. Despite being forged from steel, this stainless alloy is too weak for battle. It can break or chip on your first cutting attempt, so make sure you don’t go over-board with stainless steel katanas. (Stainless machetes are a different story).
High carbon steel (1045, 1055, up to 1095) blades. These are good, pretty durable. Perfect for beginners. But I would not consider them the best. Carbon steel katanas are extremely sharp, but not overly resilient to stress.
Spring steel (1568 or 9260). Very stress-resistant cutting blades with exceptional sharpness. Bendy, shock-absorbent. I like these very much, they are among my favorites because of the durability.
Industrial tool steel T10 or L6 Bainite. This is one of the best metallic alloys for a sword. It possesses all the properties of spring steel, but it is not as bendy. It makes for super-sharp, highly-durable katanas. If tempered and heat-treated properly, these are as good their authentic Japanese counterparts.
2. Is Your Katana Full-Tang?
A battle-ready sword is full-tang. There is no debating this. Even if the steel quality is superior, you need to rely on the sword not to break or fly out of the handle when swinging powerfully.
So, when looking at a sword (below) a part of the blade needs to come through the handle, all the way down to the pommel (but-cap). This hidden piece of the blade body is concealed in the handle. It is called the tang.
The tang should stretch for the full length of the handle, all the way up to the pommel. Full-tang katanas are the only models you should trust and train with!
The tang should also have a thick and sturdy design. Otherwise, your sword will break at the insertion point into the handle. You will be left standing there with a piece of wood in your hand, completely defenseless.
Even if you are cutting stuff, a sharp blade flying across the room is a deadly thing! Image seeing that spinning towards somebody. Try and explain that to the police!.
So, before buying a sword, make sure it is full-tang. Not half-tang, and definitely not a rat-tail.
3. How Sharp is Your Samurai Sword?
The katana is not the best sword in the world. But is the sharpest. Of course, that doesn’t mean it has the best cutting power. That is a feature that depends on many factors such as weight, geometry, skill, style of combat, steel, and sharpness.
So, there are many swords that perform a better cut. But the katana wielder slashes through soft targets by pulling their sword in a drawing motion. This is a specific skill that can be mastered, and experienced swordsmen are extremely effective at it.
Most mass-produced swords are sharpened and battle-ready. Some may require manual sharpening by a person who skilled with the water-stone and knows what he’s doing.
4. Is the Handle Wrap Binding Tight?
Even if the blade is made from the best quality steel, you might want to test your handle wrapping. These things tend to come off. Especially if they are not tightened properly. (See the previous videos).
If you have problems with your handle wrapping, you can solve them easily. But you can’t repair a broken blade so make it your top-most priority to cut wisely and conservatively. There are individual katana parts to buy online from Amazon, including the bindings for the handle, in case it breaks.
So, if you have loose wrappings, a broken wooden handle, or even if you want to redecorate your sword with a change of color, you can do it yourself. There are YouTube tutorials on how to wrap the handle.
I hope this article was helpful. Hopefully, you now know what to look for in a katana. I feel confident you will master the basic principles of how to check if a sword is of solid quality.
If you have any question, I have many more articles on each topic. I go really deep into some of these issues. I also made a selection of what I consider to be some of the best battle-ready katanas at a reasonable price.
Many thanks to the artists and photographs for sharing their work:
- Image “Nakago (tang) of a katana inscribed by Iyonojō Muntesugu” by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
This Post Has 2 Comments
Lynn2 Nov 2019
I was watching an episode of pawn stars when they were assessing an antique Japanese sword and ended up missing what was said about a wooden handle that had something thin and flat slid into a slot in the handle that seemed to be hidden away but the expert knew where to find.
It’s just been bugging me all this time that I did not get to hear what he said about it and I cannot find it anywhere on the Internet.
Did I mistake what I saw?
SimonG4 Nov 2019
Yes, that hidden script was the name of the Japanese smith and school who made the sword. On the metallic handle, underneath the wooden sheath.