The katana (samurai sword) is one of the world’s most popular weapons because of its unique features and creation process. Yet, most of the sword fans like me have many questions about katana strengths and weaknesses.
These days antique katanas belong to museums and collectors who cherish these unique swords. But thousands of ever improving models flood the market every year, giving people like us things to look forward to.
The Japanese army used their swords in the Russo-Japan war (only a few centuries ago) and after that, the katana became a well-known symbol in the Western world. It was like a trophy for Western swordsmen. They had written various journals describing katana as the superior weapon. But was it so majestic?
On every forum, there are endless discussions about the katana strengths and weaknesses, and these trigger lots of sword enthusiasts. I had tried to find answers to various questions about katanas, but it wasn’t an easy task.
After lengthy research, I had gathered various facts, opinions, and some material to prove at least to myself – that the katana is worth its metal. I hope this will help answer all your questions and provide precise information. Let’s not waste any more time and get straight into the matter.
Basic Intro to Katana Strengths and Weaknesses
There are so many contradicting opinions about Japanese blades. Some claim the sword is one of the best in the world while others say it’s inferior, and it has lots of flaws. Basically, every discussion I read left me uneasy and confused, I didn’t get what I wanted.
I doubt I will make a case why katanas are the best swords; they are best at certain things and terrible at others. Instead of making a definitive case, I would rather list everything that is good and bad about them – and maybe you will reach a conclusion yourself.
I am not saying that katanas are bad. However; it is overrated. There are many katana fanboys who idolize the sword – I am one of them. It is because of the popularity of Japanese manga and anime. At the same time, that is probably also the reason lots of people don’t like katana. Let’s see what I could dig up.
Always start strong and end stronger. What are the good things about samurai swords? Are some of the legends true? Is the blade stronger than the symbol it represents?
We are going to list all the strong points, but please note that every katana is different, based on the quality of materials and forging methods. Check out these product comparisons for some of the most popular samurai swords on the market. There are even more top quality spring and tool steel blades at very affordable prices on this page.
Most Popular Sword
One of the strong points of the katana is its popularity and air of mysticism surrounding it. It is a well-respected sword that has a deep meaning – In WW2, the Japanese soldiers brought swords on the battlefield to strengthen their courage.
At the beginning of the century, Japan experienced a cultural movement that sought to revive the Samurai spirit of loyalty and duty. It was a form of Japanese hyper-nationalism.
That had some ugly effects – many Japanese soldiers became suicidally committed to winning the war. They also develop a sense of national superiority, which led to barbarity and cruelty. Not a good combination.
Back to our sword – the katana was important to protect the Samurai ‘s honor in service of their master and clan. Because of this reason, we may call it a sword of honor. But as we saw in WW2, even that can be twisted into something gruesome.
Effective in Close Quarters
The blade-makers designed the katana for close quarter combat. Battles between small units with hand-held weapons (soldier vs soldier, on foot). This was normal during feudal Japan when katana lived its golden age.
But just to be clear, that wasn’t a samurai’s first choice of weapon – usually, they held back and commandeered the troops and used a bow.
Sharpest Sword, with Best Slashing Ability
Since the sword was used in a close combat environment, its blade was created to slash instead of piercing. Due to the katana’s ability to slash, going into combat without protection or armor was almost a guaranteed death. Also, the slashing movement was quick even under draw.
Another strength of the katana is its unique curved blade. It was sharp enough to break through Samurai armor (light leather plates, bamboo, and iron splints). The curvature made the drawing motion smoother and faster… A curved blade is easier to glide out of the sheath.
One of the major katana weaknesses is its tendency to break or bend. Do katanas break easily? Well, yes, if you smash it against a hard, solid object. So, this kind of blade should be used to parry an attack.
But I have to mention that wasn’t an issue for Samurai warriors. Their armor comprised of light materials, so katana could easily pierce or cut through it. European knights wore chain or plate mail – it wasn’t thick but effective.
High-quality katana are way better nowadays. I saw footage of modern katana swords pierce through car plating and even cut a few inches through tin barrels. But under normal circumstances, you shouldn’t stress your sword that way.
Inferior Steel Requires Superior Forging
Steel quality is another thing to question. The best European and Middle-Eastern blades (same historical era) were Damascus or Wootz steels – these are strong, durable, sturdy and they don’t lose the edge.
A large continent like Eurasia offered plenty of mineral resources, so they made swords from good materials, that were cheaper and more accessible. Damascus was the biggest trading hub at the time.
But Japan was a small, rocky island, poor in mineral ore. The Japanese blade-smiths needed to find a creative way to make good swords from impoverished materials and impure iron.
That’s why they used folded steel. They crafted increasingly high and low-carbon sheets of steel and fused them together. There were many patterns of arranging the sheets, to give the katana superior qualities.
But superior forging skills don’t make up for inferior material. Even though it took a long time to finish a single katana, the steel wasn’t as good.
So, are katanas fragile because of steel? To be honest, it’s difficult to make a guess, but it’s true that the finest Japanese blades weren’t as durable as the best European swords.
The good news is that nowadays, thanks to technology, we can make these blades from the finest and strongest steels available. Much better than what they had centuries ago.
Poor Parrying and Defensive Ability
Some swords collectors mention that the main weakness of katana is that it was designed just to cut. You cannot parry with it. How can you defend yourself if you have to worry about the blade more than yourself?
For example, if someone swung a blade – you could use your sword to intercept the attack. If you try to intercept with a katana – you may damage it. That may happen if it is not high-quality, tempered steel (T10, Spring steel, etc).
Katana could only attack and not defend. Samurai contests lasted only 3-4 swings until somebody got injured. Defense was out of the question.
Too Short for a Two-Handed Sword
Weaknesses add up very quickly, don‘t they? Here is another drawback of this sword. For a two-handed saber, it was quite short – only about 70 centimeters. Length is one of the most important factors in any duel. A shorter sword means you must risk getting closer to an opponent who has an advantage over you.
To sum up, katana strengths and weaknesses are hard to define as there are so many opinions. I believe that katana isn’t superior – in fact at times, it is overrated. Yet, it is quite unique and important to Japanese history.
Now let’s try to compare a katana versus a long sword. How does the samurai blade stack against this effective and proven weapon of war?
Case Study – Katana VS Longsword
What are the katana strengths and weaknesses against the European longsword?
Both swords are very effective weapons and would do serious damage. Sharp blades can easily cut through thick layers of cloth and leather. Also, there is proof that both can pierce a metal plate straight through. They can even chop half an inch into the plate. So, the swords are similar in that regard. Here is a short demo:
Modern swords that you can buy on the internet are of better quality compared to the historical models. Better forging techniques, purer and stronger steel are just two of the factors that have improved.
Size and Weight
The original katana had its sharp blade measuring about 70-73 cm (28 inches) and a handle of 20-25 cm (9 inches). That means just under 100 cm in total. It weighs around 1.1-1.3 kg. On the other side, a longsword blade can reach 90-100 cm (35-38 inches) and then add an extra 15-25 cm for the handle (8-9 inches). It weighs between 1.2-1.5 kg.
You can see that a katana is shorter and lighter while the longsword is longer and heavier. Both are two-handed weapons, but the extra reach makes the longsword far superior. If I had to choose a blade for a life-and-death duel, my first decision criteria would be the length.
The Japanese blade-makers had limited access to good quality metallic mineral, so they had to make the best of it. They crafted weapons from steel scraps and pieces, and impure iron ore. After smelting and purification, they added charcoal (carbon) to make soft, medium and hard steel. In fact, several pieces of each, that they folded and fused together.
That is why we say that katanas contain folded steel. I have another post where I explain the process of forging a Japanese blade, and it explains the trade-off and benefits of layered steel. It is supposed to increase durability while keeping the edge sharp.
A folded steel sword, if fused properly can be strong, flexible and sharp. But that is very difficult to do, and it takes months, even for the best blade-makers. This guy explains it best:
While the katana blade contains several layers of steels fused together under extreme heat, the longsword is homogeneous. Longswords are simplistic as far as forging goes: a single, thick piece of steel that is heated, hammered, cooled, and sharpened. Then repeat those steps until you get a sharp and functional weapon.
Mono-steel swords are widespread in the online market because they are easy to make. That doesn’t mean they are less effective than the folded-steel katana.
Plus, mono-steel doesn’t introduce structural imperfections that arise in the process of fusing steel sheets. Common problems that you may find in fusing metals: micro-cracks and fissures that lead to shattered and broken blades.
As I had mentioned before, the katana is primarily a slashing weapon – very effective at doing a quick job against an unarmored opponent. The sharpest sword in the world is the Samurai sword.
Since we are already talking about cutting power, it is worth mentioning that while most katanas are single-edged, longswords are double-edged.
The best way to increase the cutting ability of your katana is to leverage the drawing motion. Pull the sword back slightly as you cut. Longswords aren’t better cutters, they use a different technique: They are heavier and thinker, so you can use a chopping motion, a chop-slice.
Protection and Grip
One big advantage the longsword has is better wrist protection. Your wrists are exposed when you duel with a sword, and if your opponent touches your naked forearms with his sharp edge, it’s game over – you can’t fight anymore. He just needs to nick your muscles and you lose the grip of your weapon.
To prevent that, the longsword has a big, T-shaped hilt. It is very effective at protecting your wrists. Katanas usually have a tiny, round guard (if at all), but it doesn’t do a good job of guarding your hands.
Which of these two feels more balanced? I am talking about mid-motion control. Obviously, this point goes to the Japanese sword.
It is shorter and lighter, and it has a longer handle compared to the rest of the blade. The handle measures 25% of total length.
Longswords are heavier and longer than katanas. Compared to their overall size, their handle is tiny for a two-handed weapon. Only about 16% of the total length. That offers far less control over the motion. It is harder to stop it or to redirect its trajectory mid-motion. Inertia makes it difficult to wield in battle when every fraction of a second can make the difference between life and death.
Given that the handle is shorter, your fists are closer together. Physics teaches us short levers need more force to push-pull for the same amount of momentum. That is the reason you don’t have fine motor control: you reduce the range of your grip.
Katanas are backwardly curved, so their center-of-mass fall closer to your grip – better handling. This is an added benefit of curved blades. Longswords are straight, but their handle is heavy enough to bring the point of balance closer to your grip – this is another way of doing it, I suppose.
I hope you had enjoyed the post; I know I had a field-day writing about it. Is the katana the best sword out there? No, but it is still my number one!
Let me know if I had missed something or if you have more questions.