Demystifying the original Samurai sword (2023)

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An authentic samurai sword handmade in Japan (called a shinken).seriously), can easily cost anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 and up. Production quantities made in China tend to be at least $1,000 to $2,500 for something semi-traditional.

So why all the effort? What sets the original apart from cheap mass-produced swords like the $60 Musashi Katana pictured below?

Demystifying the original Samurai sword (1)

This article serves as an introduction and overview for beginners to get the gist: an introduction to an authentic samurai sword, if you will. We'll also dispel some myths, and yes - we'll probably piss off some purists in the process (which is always a lot of fun).

So let's get started!

Forge an authentic samurai sword

Ancient Japanese swords, the most expensive handmade swords in Japan, and the top "traditionally" forged katana are characterized by three distinct processes: folding, lamination, and differential hardening (i.e., toning and heat treatment to create the famous sword).what a wasteTemperlines).

But how many of these processes are necessary to produce a katana that works well, especially given the quality of modern industrial steel? Are these processes of creating an authentic samurai sword now outdated and done just for the sake of "tradition"?

Let's go through the procedures one by one...


Folded steel for our very own SBG Custom Katana series

Personally, I think the amount of misinformation and sheer nonsense about folding Japanese swords is incredible. Some people claim that a real katana is folded over 1,000,000 times to produce steel of such high quality that it can cut through gun barrels, armored personnel carriers and literally anything else it touches (good ol' manga and Hollywood strikes again!).

Reasoning aside, however, the truth lies in the traditional forging process: most of the steel pieces that would become swords were rarely folded 15 times, making a still impressive number of 32,768 layers.

But what do these mysterious extra changes actually do? In fact, nowadays at least there aren't many left...

In medieval Japan, the quality of iron ore was not very good. But innovative Japanese metallurgists took the various slags of impure iron and flame-refined them in a large, purpose-built furnace called a tatara for about 72 hours a day, resulting in a steel called tamagahane (jewel steel).

But even this thing was not as pure as it should be. So the Japanese swordsman took it and folded it carefully to try to homogenize and balance the carbon content.

Today, many smiths except those in Japan make the sword this way (Japanese smiths still do it by law), simply because the quality of modern steel or powdered steel is so good that from pure practically speaking you can literally skip this step, or at least skip using the tamahagana and just fold it for delivery and to please the collector who wants a folded, authentic samurai sword.

However, the second and third traditional processes are a little more "handy"...

thin lamina

Unlike folding, which is largely done by tradition, lamination contributes to the basic physical characteristics of the original samurai sword.

There are many different ways to do this and many different names for the methods - such as Kobuse (the simplest), Sanmai, Shoshu Kitae (the most complicated), etc. Some of the more common methods are listed below.

Demystifying the original Samurai sword (3)

However, apart from the Maru style (what we now call a "Monosteel" sword), they all have one thing in common. They essentially take blocks of steel of varying hardness and fuse them together into a blade that will hold a sharp edge without breaking...

Although techniques vary, the general principle is to make a blade with a very hard edge surrounded by a more flexible "sheath". As a general rule, the more complex the technique, the more valuable/expensive the sword (assuming it's done right!).

stimulation and differential hardening

Demystifying the original Samurai sword (4)

So far we have discovered that an authentic samurai sword (by tradition) is folded and laminated to create a hard inner core with a hard, exposed edge and a more flexible 'skin'. And now the idea of ​​a hard edge and a softer back is taken a step further - and along the way the famous Japanese hamon is born...

Reduced to the basics, the blade is covered with a layer of carefully applied clay, with a thick layer on the spine and a thin layer on the edge.

It is then heated to a specified temperature (about 750 degrees Celsius) and quenched in water.

And what happens is that the tip, which cools faster than the spine, turns, as if by metallurgical magic, into a completely different type of steel called "martensite" - the hardest steel there is.

So the end result of this process is that the blade can get and keep a strong edge - while the rest of the blade stays nice and flexible...

Modern Production made swords for a collector on a budget

Most swords made for the production market rarely exhibit all three essential characteristics of an authentic samurai sword, and these typically start at around $1,000...

So if you can only have one of these qualities, what should it be?

I think we can rule out folded swords already. While the designs they create look nice (although generally reduced by polishing an authentic samurai sword), they arguably don't add to the overall functionality of the sword (in fact, cheaper swords tend to be weaker - with poor welds between the folds they create air pockets!).

Thus, the difference is between plasticization and differential hardening. In fact, both achieve roughly the same results - provided the correct steel combinations are used during lamination. However, there is no doubt that differential hardening is the most popular method...


Demystifying the original Samurai sword (5)

Because not only does it achieve an almost identical effect to lamination, but it also creates a real mess as a byproduct, like the wildly popular $300 deviceIt is saidand Kaze Ko Katana, shown on the right.

The downside of a genuine samurai sword is that it tends to permanently bend (lock) more easily than single steel swords, especially in production pieces. The reason for this is that with two or more characters of steel, any significant lateral force can cause the blade to bend permanently - whereas other maru (monohalved) swords should revert to this if they are made of good steel and made correctly. The centers are heat treated.

Pictured below is an illustrative example of a curved authentic samurai sword, in this case a $2,000+ Yasha Katana that has been folded, laminated and toned...

Demystifying the original Samurai sword (6)Often the more traditional and expensive swords are not as strong as the cheap ones.

So why bother with a traditional katana at all? So glad you asked..!

Why bother with conventional blades at all?

While modern replicas are very beautiful in all shapes and sizes, and quite a few have features that make them ideal for beginner dojo cutters, unlike a truly authentic samurai sword, they are a bit lifeless... The truth is that traditionally Made Japanese katana is a unique work of art and the outward manifestation of many craftsmen working together and striving for perfection of form and function.

The videos below will give you an idea of ​​the different levels and their differences - from the cheapest swords to the highest quality Chinese swords to the real Shinken made in Japan...

VIDEO: Sword making in Lonquan

They're on site in Longquan, China, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the katana, from wall mounts to advanced production blades

Now compare this to an overview of the traditional forging process at some of Japan's most respected blacksmiths.

VIDEO: Sword making in Japan

BBC documentary on sword fighting in Japan

And after seeing it, I'll leave it to you to judge whether they're worth the price or not...

More resources

Without a doubt my favorite book on the traditional manufacturing processes of the authentic samurai sword and considered by many to be the 'bible' of Japanese sword enthusiasts.The Art of the Japanese Swordis the best source for more information on this topic.

Simply an amazing read, an absolute MUST for anyone interested in Japanese swords, and provides a solid and reliable knowledge base to draw upon and build upon.


I hope this information about the original samurai sword was helpful.Click here to return to A Beginners Guide to Authentic Japanese Swords from Demystifying the Authentic Samurai Sword

Demystifying the original Samurai sword (7)

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