Monday, March 18, 2019

Rehashing an Internet-Age-Old Debate: European vs. Japanese Swords

Guest Post by Andrew Mitchell of Anuron Ironworks

There is an ancient tradition among online sword enthusiasts of going on the internet and spitting out falsehoods to make the katana out to be a god-sword. The fanboys spreading these myths love the idea of the katana being the god and king of all cutting implements. They make ridiculous claims about the cutting power of the blades, such as the pervading myth that katanas can cut straight through steel plate armor. And while they prop up their hole-filled theories of how the katana works, they turn around and swear that European swords are nothing more than crude chunks of iron that have been beaten into a rough shape and sharpened. The truth of the matter is that both Japanese and European swordsmiths were master craftsmen with similarly lengthy histories of developing and making excellent weapons. The Japanese smiths and their blades were no better nor worse than European ones.

To answer questions about Japanese swordsmithing we must first know what that means. What does it take to be a quintessentially Japanese-style smith? Well, to start with the Japanese are famous for laminating their blades, that is, forge-welding a high carbon edge onto a iron or mild steel spine. These pieces of high carbon steel are called kawagane, and they are usually folded and welded over and over many times to work impurities and extra carbon out of the steel. The most iconic Japanese blade is the katana, a one edged sword made almost purely for their cutting power (As a result of this cutting-forward design they have a slightly blunted point. They will stab but they aren’t made for it.). These katanas have the hard kawagane on the cutting edge and a softer shingane on the blunt spine. The Japanese smiths poured many years into refining the laminating and forge welding technique that makes the katana and other swords perform like they do.

The katana and its brothers are impressive swords, but like all things there is a mix of good and bad forged into them. The laminated blades lead to a huge amount of durability. The mix of soft and hard steel makes a blade that would be nearly indestructible in the combat that they saw. The downside is the shape. The katana was made for cutting, not stabbing. This becomes a problem if you want to fight a fully armored man, which is hard enough under the best circumstances. The blunt tip would have trouble probing and slipping into the gaps in armor, and no sword can cut straight through steel plate. The Japanese sword is not perfect, but it is supremely effective at what it’s made for--killing people.

What exactly is the European approach to swordsmithing? Well, this may surprise you because no one talks about it, but the Europeans also laminated their sword blades. Not only does the laminating technique add strength to the sword, but the high carbon steel for the cutting edges was far harder to make or buy than the iron to go in the sword’s core (the piece of soft metal sandwiched in the blade making up a large part of the structural support for the sword.). The European sword was often double-edged and came to a sharp piercing point (with the exception of some blades like falchions, but they are not the subject of this essay). The longsword, a flagship model for European smithcraft, is an excellent example of this, two cutting edges and a spear-like tip. The shape of the various European swords has evolved and been tested and proven again and again in the hundreds of battles and wars that were fought during the Middle Ages.

Despite their attractive resume, the European blade is not all rose petals and bloody war. European weapons were too heavy or unwieldy to simply tote around on a journey. Instead, a short arming sword most often had to be substituted for the devastating power of a longsword or similar weapons.

I must admit that I had to do some searching before I found anything bad to say about either of these swordsmithing styles though; all the bad is more than made up for by the good. For example: a European longsword, with it’s reach and sharp point, could slip between the plates on a fully armored knight. A Japanese katana is short enough that it may be hung from a belt and comfortably traveled with. I may be able to bring up points where these blades fail, but that’s because they weren’t designed to do those things. The katana isn’t for stabbing through armor, and the longsword isn’t for traveling with.

With these definitions of the various styles of swordsmithing in mind, how do they shape up against each other? To start with, the proponents of the Japanese style lose a major point when we realize that laminated blades were known to and used by both sides. Combining hard and soft metal to save money and increase durability is an old trick known by many smiths. Both European and Japanese weapon types were made for essentially the same purpose, rending flesh and killing people. Both weapon types evolved through thousands of years of fighting and craftsmanship. Asia and Europe have both had expert smiths living and working in them honing the craft of making weapons for centuries. With these credentials and histories in mind, I don’t think a decision can be reached on the subject. We have to simply say that these blades and their makers were equals.

All this is, of course, a generalization of the craft. Not all smiths are equal; some can do things with steel that other can only dream of. Pumping out low quality weapons for the average fighting man was also a responsibility of the smiths. The weapon itself never wins an encounter. A good swordsman with a bad weapon will defeat a bad swordsman with a good one nine times out of ten. The performance of these blades is totally situation based; it depends entirely upon the skill of the smith and swordsman. For the purpose of this essay, I have assumed that we can compare the best of the Japanese with the best of the European, but it is important to note that these criteria fit only a very small percentage of historical situations.

In summation, the ancient and less ancient swordsmithing techniques of both Japan and Europe are equals. If we look at the facts, we see that neither style can be simply better or worse than the other. It depends on too many variables to be objective in that respect. This debate has never been about the facts, however. This debate is about culture and opinion. Though I am not without opinions myself, I wrote this essay for the odd internet traveler who waded into this debate seeking truth and objective facts. I hope you found it.



Editor's note: This article was originally the final paper for Andrew's homeschool writing class this year. It was supposed to be a research paper, and it is, but it turned out to also be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek persuasive essay written in a breezy yet combative style. I enjoyed how Drew, with some playfully barbed language, took on devotees of both sides of the debate to argue for his own conclusion. He packs a lot into nine paragraphs--the longest thing he's written to date. I appreciate his willingness for it to be published here.

For more about my son the blacksmith and his work, check out his YouTube Channel and popular Etsy shop. He is neither an European or Japanese style bladesmith. So far he's more of a retro-Americana tool and craft blacksmith. His newest video is the heating and hammering of a door-pull into existence.