I struggled to find the ideal katana length for my size when I was a complete beginner. You know what they say “The first one is always special” so it must be perfect. So, let me help you pick the right katana size and size for your body measurements.
I have been researching this for some time, and I never heard anyone ask: “How long should my short sword, kukri, or machete be?”. For some reason, it’s always the standard katana that presents the most difficulty.
Are you searching for general katana buyer’s guide? Check out our samurai sword beginner’s guide, which also features a selection of the best swords on the market today.
Before we understand how to calculate the correct katana length, we need to look back at the samurai practices, to comprehend solutions to the problem of choice.
Several Swords of Different Size!
A Samurai is a master in all combat situations: from close-quarter fighting to expert marksmanship with the bow and arrow.
It is our misconception that they only fought with swords. In fact, they only used the katana in battle and duels since it was most effective on the battlefield, against other infantry troops.
In daily routine (non-combative, normal circumstances) they only carried a short sword (wakizashi) and a knife (tanto). These blades were similar in design compared to the katana. Same geometry, same look, and feel. Probably, the same craftsmen did the blade-smiting.
The katana was too long and heavy for normal routine, so wearing it all the times easily became cumbersome. The samurai carried a wakizashi (shorter sword) for daily use and civilian lifestyle. Of course, the tanto (long knife) was a necessary companion as well.
These blades represented social status, financial power, and rank. The wakizashi was effective indoors, in close-quarter for self-defense in unforeseen encounters. It was also more maneuverable and swift than a much longer katana. Those were turbulent times back then, especially for elite warriors loyally serving the Emperor.
That is how the Samurai solved their problem of choosing the right sword type and length. Aside from the katana, they had three or four different blade choices, depending on the situation. Let’s see how they measured and categorized these swords, in the next chapter.
Categories of Japanese Swords – Length and Function
What differentiates these Japanese blades is length. The bladesmiths used to measure them in units called “shaku”. Here is an easy way of memorizing this:
1 shaku = 1 foot
That is a close approximation and it is quite reliable. We can use it from now on as an additional unit of measurement, especially for nihonto (authentic hand-made katanas). For people who prefer the metric system:
1 foot = 30.3 cm
Depending on the length, the Japanese sword-makers divided their blade into three categories of items:
|Blade Length||Blade Type||Examples|
|1 shaku||tanto||Long knives and daggers (tanto)|
|1-2 shaku||shoto||Short swords (wakizashi, kodachi)|
|2+ shaku||daito||Long sword (katana, nodachi, tachi)|
There were no general standards for the katana length. They had a system of classifying different blades according to purpose: ceremonial, domestic, duel and battle-field weapons.
As far as katanas go, each bladesmith school had its own standards when making a sword. A typical katana would have measured somewhere between 60-70 cm, excluding the handle, and about 100 cm total. Keep in mind that the average height of a medieval-era Japanese male was much smaller (around 155 cm).
Why Does Sword Length Matter?
The answer is physics! A blade is made from steel, and steel is heavy. Therefore, inertia and momentum are important factors to consider. Of course, reach is an equally important factor – it tips the balance in favor of long swords.
I hope you remember from 5th grade the first law of inertia: Things in motion tend to stay in motion. And stationary objects want to resist moving. Imagine pushing a car, the most difficult part is making it move at all, the first inch. After it gains momentum, it becomes much easier. Now imagine trying to stop it… since the car is so heavy, it will pull with it rather than stop in its track!
The meaning of inertial laws is simple – the heavier the object is, the more force and exertion you must expend to change its state (or its course).
So, when you give your sword a good swing, it takes some effort to initiate the motion, and then to stop. The heavier the sword, the harder it is to influence its movement. Imagine swinging a sledgehammer. That massive thing will pull you down rather than stop on command.
Long swords contain more mass than short swords, which makes them less maneuverable. On the plus side, they keep your opponent at distance. They would have to step dangerously close to hurt you, thus risking their own lives in the process.
Short swords weigh less, their mass is smaller, which allows you to swing faster and change direction more effectively. You can move more swiftly a shorter blade towards your enemy, change its movement fluidly mid-motion, or parry an attack. Every extra inch of sword length is a millisecond delay, which can cost you your life.
Check out this amazing article to see an odachi field-sword can weigh you down because of its massive size. So, the katana length debate is actually a discussion about trade-offs: speed and control, versus distance and safety.
The challenge is the following: How do we combine the best aspects of both sides? A long blade that is fast, efficient, and well-balanced? Sword-makers have found some potential solutions which allowed them to improve their bladed weapons:
1. Curve the swords backward. This is one of the reasons why samurai swords are so swift to draw and attack with. The curvatures make them fast and deadly, by moving the center of mass slightly towards the user’s grip.
In contrast, sledgehammers and axes are painful to wield because their center of mass is located on the top-side (axe-head), very far away from the grip. This makes them unwieldy and slow.
However, by slightly curving the katana blade you preserve its length while lowering its center of gravity. You can see that curved geometric shape in Middle-Eastern and Renaissance swords as well.
The swords that offer the best handling and speed are the ones with a backward curvature.
An axe delivers a much more powerful blow because of the bulky head. One good swing can take down anything. But a katana is much more elegant. It sacrifices power for speed.
2. Groove out some mass from the blade. When you look at the European broadsword (right side), you can see a beveled groove running down its middle. It looks like a hollowed section, where some metallic mass has been removed, thinning the sword spine. They call this a “fuller”.
By designing it that way, you remove some mass from its spine, which allows you to extends its length, without sacrificing too much maneuverability. Other cultures used this feature to improve their blade handling too. Many samurai swords feature a fuller or a “bo-hi” in Japanese.
3. Make a longer, heavier handle. A long handle allows you to grab it with both hands, so you can swing with more force. Generally speaking, two-handed swords are longer than their one-handed counterparts.
Instantly, the katana length can be increased. But the handle needs to be heavy enough to counterbalance the longer blade and give you more control over the weapon. Otherwise, your sword will behave more like an axe (exerting inertia over each swing).
The blade and the handle should be balanced together for improved equilibrium. If the blade too long and heavy, it will generate the same centrifugal force an axe does.
I hope you now realize why length is important, and how crucial it is to optimize your katana size. In a battle to the death, it is unwise to make physics an enemy. Make it your ally! Every split second counts!
How To Choose Blade Length?
For the most part, swords are not “one size fits all“. When looking to buy a katana, you should be aware of your physical condition and body size. You can make the right choice base on your height, strength level, fitness, and speed.
Here are some ideas and tests you can use to make sure you pick the best katana length and size.
Method 1 – Stand Up With Katana To the Side
Hold the sword to your side, and the tip should reach just below your ankle bone. That is the standard test for beginners. If you prefer a slightly longer sword, that’s OK. But make sure there is at least an inch between the tip and the floor. Don’t go any further than that, you wouldn’t want to mop the floor with your new katana!
Method 2 – User’s Height
Depending on your height, check the following table. It provides accurate measurements for your sword, based on your own length. These values are optimized to match your needs and physical capabilities.
|User’s Height||Samurai Sword Length|
|4 ft 11||150 cm||26.2”||66.7 cm||2.20|
|5 ft 1||155 cm||26.8”||68.2 cm||2.25|
|5 ft 3||160 cm||27.4”||69.7 cm||2.30|
|5 ft 5||165 cm||28.0”||71.2 cm||2.35|
|5 ft 7||170 cm||28.6”||72.7 cm||2.40|
|5 ft 9||175 cm||29.2”||74.2 cm||2.45|
|5 ft 11||180 cm||29.8”||75.8 cm||2.50|
|6 ft 1||185 cm||30.4”||77.3 cm||2.55|
|6 ft 3||190 cm||31.0”||78.8 cm||2.60|
|6 ft 5||200 cm||32.2”||81.8 cm||2.70|
Please note that the table lists only the length of the blade, handle not included. So, the actual katana will be 30% longer, on average.
Use the table according to your needs. It can be helpful when you buy your first samurai sword. Its blade size should be specified under the product description section, on the retailer’s webpage. Our table allows you to complete your online order with the right measurements. Keep in mind that most sword-producers don’t offer a wide range of choices, perhaps only a couple of different options in terms of katana length.
If you are of average height but well-built and strong, then don’t hesitate to pick a slightly longer blade, if that is what you want.
I am 6 feet 1, and my first katana measured about 29 inches. A bit small for my size, but it didn’t feel awkward swinging it. Of course, I have been going to the gym. And I was doing push-ups like mad!
A Perfect Balance – Blade / Handle
Swords have two functional elements: the sharp part (the blade) and the gripping part (the handle). For all purposes, the length proportion between these two elements is the most important aspect for making sure you pick a suitable blade. Aside from that, steel quality is another crucial criterion.
Real sword-fighting is out of the question in the 21st century! However, not very long ago, times were much harder. Friends were few and scarce. Thieves and predators were many and everywhere.
Being a harmless little lamb was not an option! You needed to be able to defend yourself. Of course, most people didn’t own swords. But those who did own a blade made sure their weapon worked for them, not against them.
A sword needs to feel like an extension of your body. That’s why perfect proportions and even-weight distribution are very much encouraged.
If you have a sword that is too large, then you will have trouble swinging and controlling its movement. A delayed swing is deadly in a real sword fight. Uncontrolled swinging is the main cause of injury and accident, to you and to your training partner.
On the other hand, if your blade is too small, then you won’t take full advantage of its capabilities. Did you see “the Mountain” in Game of Thrones? He was an enormous 8-foot tall, immensely powerful knight and his great-sword was the size of a fully-grown man (too bad he was evil). Imagine how ridiculous the Mountain would appear, with an average short-sword. It would look like a toothpick in his gigantic fist.
I would like to repeat this little disclaimer: Don’t train or practice with a partner unless both of you are well-educated and properly trained in sword-fighting. Be very careful… Even when practicing by yourself. Don’t take cutting stuff as pure entertainment, it carries a high risk of accidents. Be aware of the damage you can produce!
We explored how to determine your ideal blade size. But what about the sword grip? What is the best size for the “tsuka” handle?
How to Pick The Best Katana Handle Length
There are several ways to measure the handle. These take into consideration your own body ratio. Let’s take a closer look.
Method 1 – The Forearm Formula
Measure your forearm, from elbow to wrist. That will provide a very close approximation about how long your tsuka should be. Most katanas measure about the same size, so there won’t be much difference in the length of their handles. But this method will give you good feedback and confirmation of results.
Method 2 – The Grip Gauging
A second method I found useful goes like this: Sit down and place your hands on the table. Orient your palms perpendicularly, forming a 90-degree angle with the table surface. Then clench your fists. Put one fist on top of the other as if you were gripping a sword right now. Then add 3-4 inches. That will give you a good estimation of your grip size and handle length requirements.
Method 3 – The Wielder’s Verdict
Another practical approach is to pick up a (katana sized) wooden pole like you would a sword. Notice how well it fits in your hands. Feel how comfortable the grip is, how far it should go. Where should you place your hands? What size should the ideal handle length be?
Keep in mind that a katana weighs about 1.25 kg. The larger models can go up to 1.4 or 1.6 kg (in very rare cases).
To make the most informed decision possible, by all means, go through all three methods and most likely the results will converge. Take the average of the three measurements as the best possible handle size for you. And it really makes no difference if the margin of error is plus or minus half an inch.
If you read this post thoroughly, then you truly are into Japanese swords. Which is great for me, because I love writing about this stuff. And I offered you an incredibly detailed handbook on how to pick the best length for your katana (blade and handle).
Choosing the size correctly is important! Just as crucial as making sure your blade is forged from quality steel. Both these criteria emerge from the physics of motion and material resistance, which are fundamental laws of nature.
I know we don’t live in the feudal, war-ridden time of the samurai. Most likely you want a sword for display, basic training or learning a new skill. Maybe the size is not important since you will not be fighting. But then again, you never know when the long-awaited zombie apocalypse will arrive, do you?
Michonne from “The Walking Dead” was an effective zombie-killing machine precisely because of her choice of weapon. The katana found its way into this top-rated TV series and proved its effectiveness.
Photography credits: Capt. Christopher Love (photo of a soldier with sledgehammer and truck tire).