Katana Suggestion?

Discussion in 'Sword Arts Talk' started by Christian Soldier, Jul 2, 2012.

  1. Christian Soldier

    Christian Soldier Orange Belt

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    Howdy. I'm looking into getting a nice katana in the next couple years. I don't want like a 50$ one from BudK, I'm more in the $100-400 range. I figure If I'm going to get one, I'll wait and get a really nice one.

    I searched awhile into it and I'm having trouble finding nice ones. I was looking into Cold Steel's Warrior series but I read some bad reviews that were discouraging.

    If you guys know any place where I can get a nice katana with a great blade and a tight fitting handle and hilt and you told me, that would be great.

    Thanks!


    Dan
     
  2. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master Black Belt

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    I'm afraid you've asked for two contradictory things here. You've said ...
    Decent quality Chinese made katana can be had from somewhere like Bugei starting about $800. A really nice katana can be custom made by a good American smith and put together by American craftsmen for about $6000. A really nice katana made by a decent Japanese smith and put together by Japanese craftsmen will start at about $10,000, and can go up to $100,000 depending upon the smith and the craftsmen chosen.

    In the $100 to $400 range, you can get a minimally functional Chinese made katana that will hold togther well enough to be used occassionally, but not every day. It will more than likely be poorly balanced, and the shortcuts taken to make it so inexpensive will reveal themselves with prolonged use. If you keep that firmly in mind, and tell people what you plan on using it for, perhaps someone can direct you to one or another manufacturer whose shortcuts are slanted in other directions.
     
  3. Neddog

    Neddog White Belt

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    The majority of japanese-style katana produced today are from China. The reason why is that Japan has strict laws governing their swordsmiths, which only allows them to make a very small number of katana each year. This means that the price of an authentic nihonto (forged in Japan) has become astronomical.

    That doesn't make the Chinese katana so inferior though. A nihonto will inherently be better by virtue of the care and manufacturer put into one of these limited blades which a Japanese swordsmith must charge an arm and leg for in order to keep his living. However, there is nothing magical about the processes or materials used. In fact, most of the forging methods which define a traditional Japanese sword come from China in the first place. China has the methodology, Japan has the art. The Chinese taught the Japanese how to make swords the way they do now, but the Japanese perfected the art around it. You could almost say that a Japanese styled katana from a Chinese forge gives you the "best of both worlds". I use a Japanese katana because of the martial arts that are built around it, which give me proper instruction to master the use of that sword, right from the draw to the swing. However, I am more than happy to get these Japanese styled blades from a reputable Chinese forge.

    Most of the Chinese swords in the market today come from forges in Longquan, known as "the City of Treasure Sword", which is steeped in historic sword smithing legacy (as well as porcelain, off topic). Most of these Chinese forges use very traditional methods, even for inexpensive blades. Mind you, these are mass-produced blades by smiths who reside in a country where it is easier to become a sword smith. Not in a country where becoming a sword smith requires extreme dedication and an impovershed life for the sake of your trade. They may be hand-forged with traditional methods, but that doesn't make them better than any carefully crafted, limited quantity Nihonto. It does however, make them very fine blades for general purpose use.... which are cheap enough that you won't be afraid to use them! You may get cheaper fittings and wraps, probably a cheap saya, etc. As long as you find a well-forged blade though, that is the heart of the katana. All the fittings and such are very easy to disassemble and change up on any katana made through traditional methods.

    If you know what to look for you can actually get a well-crafted Chinese katana in the price range you're looking for, but you have to be careful and knowledgeable or you could also end up with a non-functional wall hanger. Of course I'm talking about the UPPER range that you listed, not the lower range. Don't even look at swords near $100 if you want more than a wall-hanger.

    First of all, you need to know just what you're actually looking for in a Katana. There are functional cutters that use modern steel methods such as unfolded steel (folding steel into layers to beat out impurities is a traditional method found in Japanese swordsmithing), through-hardened (as opposed to the traditional clay tempering, aka differential hardening - yet another technique the Japanese learned from the Chinese), using modern steels like spring steel (high yield steel that will return to its original shape), tool steel (very hard, durable steel), or high-carbon steels like 1045, 1060, or 1095.

    In order to be functional as a sword, the steel must be heat-treated, which is usually defined as either Through Hardened or Differential Hardened. Differential hardened blades are clayed during the heat treat process in order to protect the back of the blade from over-hardening while allowing the edge to gain maximum hardness. That keeps the structural integrity of the blade without losing its edge. If swords were treated all the way as hard as they were in the past, then they would be brittle and break easily. That is why the clay tempering system was originally developed, was to prevent so many blades breaking in battle. Nowadays swords are made softer with durability in mind over edge hardness. If swords are hardened all the way to modern standards, then they will not have the hard edge that swords of old with very high carbon content had. Thus, differential hardening allows a modern sword owner to keep a better cutting edge than most other modern swords. In other words, in the past Differential Hardening was used to allow a softer back, but today it's used to keep a harder edge. :)

    That clay tempering process is what creates the hamon line (temperline) that runs along the edge of the blade between the two differentially tempered steels. However, this hamon line is such a classic signature of a Japanese sword (in fact, it's literally like the signature of the bladesmith as the clay is often carefully placed for an aesthetic pattern) that many through-hardened blades will have a hamon line artificially added through wire brushing or acid etching. Wire brushing is the worst, as it will leave scratches in the metal which will encourage rust. If a cheap sword has a hamon then the seller should tell you that the sword was "clay tempered", "differentially hardened", or has a "natural hamon". If they ever use the words "aesthetic hamon", then you know it's been faked. Again, that's not to say that a Through Hardened blade can't be a durable cutting sword... but if it's through hardened it should look like it's through hardened, in my opinon. It's only good if it's true to itself. ;)

    Folding is another traditional method used in Japanese swords, known by the Chinese from at least the Han Dynasty and is thought to have been introduced to the Japanese around the Tang Dynasty, but its use is not so important anymore with the purity of modern steel. Back in the day other steels had many impurities which a folded steel blade did not. These days, folding steel is more often used to create an appealing hada (grain) in the steel, as the steel comes quite pure already and doesn't necessarily need folding to beat it out. Nonetheless, you can't go wrong with well folded steel. Generally a blade is folded up to about 10 times, which creates 1024 layers. These layers increase exponentially with each fold, so by 20 folds you have about a million layers, which offers no further benefit to the steel. 16 is about the maximum number of folds you're likely to see.

    So if you want a traditional katana, then look for one that's clay tempered and hand forged in folded steel, then hand polished and sharpened (this will be done with water stones). Many Chinese forges in Longquan will perform these traditional procedures. However, although these traditional methods are certainly desired they are not a "necessity" for a sword to be a durable, balanced, good cutting sword for tameshigri (test cutting) or other practices (ie, iaido, etc.). I personally always go for the traditionally made swords, as that is simply my preference. Tameshigiri however is performed with many swords forged in non-traditional steels and reviews will show that such swords can be even more durable than a more "traditional" katana.

    As for the rest of the sword... the samegawa panel should be genuine rayskin, as this is what helps to hold the ito (braid on the tsuka) in place. Silk is the best material for ito (with the best stretch and grip), but cotton is also good. Synthetic materials are of course not good. The sageo (the cord attached to the saya) should be a much heavier fabric than the ito. An authetic nihonto or a very well crafted katana should only need one mekugi (bamboo peg) to hold the blade into place with the tsuka, as the tsuka should be well fitted and tight. However, you can't expect that much from a cheaper Chinese katana, so common practice on a good "production katana" is to use two mekugi instead. Double pegs is a good thing to look for in the price range you're after, even though you'll see much better swords with only one mekugi. The mekugi should be bamboo and not wood. Granted, mekugi are easily replaced (and should be inspected on a regular basis), so if you did get one with wood mekugi you could replace that easily if the rest of the blade is to your liking. However, to find the rest of the blade suitable when even the mekugi are that cheap, is probably unlikely. ;) Tsubas may come in copper, brass, iron, or even steel. Iron is the most common material while copper is the most common "cheap" material used. There is nothing wrong with copper tsuba (or fuchi and kashira), but an iron tsuba, fuchi, and kashira will balance the blade more towards the tsuka and less towards the blade. About 5" from the tsuba is generally a preferred point-of-balance, but point-of-balance should really be a personal thing and not one that somebody else can tell you.

    If a katana follows all these traditional processes and materials then it should hold up to regular use, and if any particular parts are inferior they can be replaced since a traditional katana is made to be disassembled. A samurai disassembles his katana to remove the koshirae (funiture, such as tsuba and tsuka) every time he sharpens or maintains it, and stores it in shirasaya (plain furniture) when not in use over a long period of time. These methods and materials were developed over countless generations of Japanese martial arts and study. To get most of these traditional processes done in a sword however, is time consuming and will generally keep a sword within the upper ranges of price. However, I have seen smiths who offer an awful lot for much less than you'd expect. If I go to the local retail stores in my town then I will not find a sword such as I described for less than $1200, even mass produced from a Chinese forge. However, I have seen a number of swords with these same specifications selling from online retailers for not more than your stated price range. So I do believe it is possible. Hopefully knowing a little more about what a "proper" katana should and shouldn't have will help to aid in that search.
     
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2012
  4. jks9199

    jks9199 Administrator Staff Member

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    Just in case you think that was some sort of biased reply -- look through the Sword Arts forum. Some variant of this question pops up with some regularity; there're even a few sticky posts there related to it.

    This oughta get you started...
    "Is my sword real?" Some useful reading material and other links
    The anatomy of a *wallhanger* katana
    Best Place to Order Tournament Iaito from?
    CAS Hanwei swords question
    nee info about swords and swords martial arts
    Please help me understand
    New and old Katana
     
  5. Christian Soldier

    Christian Soldier Orange Belt

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    Man, that's messed up. I can get some of the nicest knives the world has to offer for under $500 but that will only buy me a wall hanger of a katana. That's very unfortunate. I want a user not just a wall hanger. I'm now considering the Swam Rat Waki just because It's a hard use blade I can actually afford. And it's custome made! Though it's a little shorter than I'd prefer. IDK, I guess I'll have to look into it awhile longer. Thanks.
     
  6. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master Black Belt

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    I have to disagree quite loudly with this statement. Just because a sword handle is hand made does not mean that the hands that made it are any good at it. I've used a great many different Chinese made katana from just about every forge that is producing them over the years. The most common problem I've seen is that in most of the Chinese made swords, the blade does not align exactly with the tsuka. This is not good for a daily use blade as you will teach your body to compensate for the difference. The second most common problem I see is cracked handles. Either the wood used is too hard or the slot carved for the nakago is too small, but they force the handle on anyway resulting in a small crack which will widen with use. Third problem I see a lot is the ito loosening over time. You can use the best materials, but if it isn't wrapped tightly and evenly, it will loosen with use. While the first problem I mentioned is not catastrophic, the other two are and can result in a sharp blade flying across the room.

    Only part of the expense of a modern made Nihonto is due to the blade itself. The rest of the high price is due to the number of highly skilled craftsmen (who first served a number of years as apprentices) it takes to properly assemble a Japanese sword. The Chinese companies are much less expensive because they cut corners by using machines where possible, and minimally trained workers for the parts where machines can't be used. The quality of the sword you get is directly attributable to the knowledge and experience of the various people working on it, and that quality can vary wildly from one sword to another in the same model line.
     
  7. Sukerkin

    Sukerkin Have the courage to speak softly

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    As my fellow JSA practitioners here know by now, whenever a question comes up about where to obtain a good sword from, a bet of £10 that I will mention Tozando will probably net you £10 :lol:.

    So, not being one to disappoint, I would suggest to CS that a browse around the Tozando site will give a good idea of what is available for what sort of price.

    http://tozando.com/international/shopping.html
     
  8. Flying Crane

    Flying Crane Sr. Grandmaster

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    The best blade, made by the god Vulcan himself, is not very useful without a good, well made, well fitted, durable and reliable hilt.
     
  9. Neddog

    Neddog White Belt

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    I think you quite misunderstood the purpose of that statement. The whole idea behind identifying with the construction of a katana and knowing what a proper katana should and shouldn't have is to avoid those corner-cutting, machine-finished katana that you describe. Of course poorly-made katana exist, and I will add in much abundance. However, there are still many well-crafted blades made from dedicated forges who make their katanas all by hand from forge to polish to assembly, who fly under the radar at prices comparable to or cheaper than other poorly crafted, machine finished, mass-produced blades.

    You say the cost of production is as much in the assembly as in the forge of the blade, but in reality the total cost of production itself is only a small portion of the retail price we're presented with. The big markup comes after it's left the forge, whether it's a large mass-production forge or a tiny, humble, low-overhead operation. A sword doesn't have to be a certified nihonto made in Japan to be hand-crafted by a dedicated swordsmith who cares about his work. I'm trying to educate Christian Soldier in order that he can make informed decisions for himself and get the best in his price range without being fooled by things which are not as they seem. He should be able to buy a katana based on the construction of the katana itself, not based entirely off the notoriety of a famed swordsmith or forge.

    It's also good to discern what parts are good about a blade and what's bad. Like for instance, you mentioned loose ito... well, that is easily fixed by re-doing the wrap yourself, and tsuka-maki happens to be a very useful skill that any owner of a Japanese katana would do good to learn for himself.

    You can always throw money down to be sure of the quality of your sword with little research or risk. However, it takes knowledge and discretion to play in the poor man's field, but that doesn't mean the poor man does not have a right to play. Christian Soldier just wants a sword he can use.

    I'm a professional photographer with tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. I would not expect any new photographer to jump in with that kind of investment. If a new photographer only has $1000-$1500 to spend on a new system, that system would never meet up to my needs for the work I do. However, in that price range there are many cameras which I would suggest and many others which I think would be a total waste of money and will only produce poor quality, sub-standard images for the price you pay. With my decades of experience in the field of photography, I can tell the difference. That new photographer cannot, and without guidance most likely will buy that junk camera that the fliers and store reps say is awesome.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  10. Christian Soldier

    Christian Soldier Orange Belt

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    There's one more qualifer I forgot to metion. Although I'm sure there are some great blades made by those little known manufactures, I perfer bigger name blades. I want to be able to read a lot of reviews on something before I buy it. Just a personal thing.
     
  11. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master Black Belt

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    No, there aren't. If you believe that, you are terribly misinformed.

    And how is he supposed to know if a particular sword is of good quality or not? I've used a great number of them, and I can say from my own experience that you don't really understand what you're talking about. You show a good grasp of what you have read or been told, but you do not understand Japanese sword construction.

    While you're entitled to whatever opinion you wish to hold, there are very few lower end Chinese made katana that I will allow through my dojo door because of the safety issues rampant in the inexpensive Chinese made swords. Personally, I've tried properly wrapping handles. I know people that do it for a living. there's a reason that the Japanese insist on a multi-year apprenticeship to learn the craft, and I find it doubtful that I would allow someone to wrap their own sword handle and use it in my dojo because it's pretty difficult to do correctly. Bear in mind that a junk camera is not likely to fly across the yard and impale your wife, but a poorly made sword will.

    There are probably hundreds of thousands of folks out there playing with these inexpensive Chinese made katana without killing themselves. However, I cannot condone them doing so, as I see it as an accident just waiting to happen. A sharp sword is a dangerous weapon designed for the sole purpose of killing people (which it has proven very good at throughout history), and it has no safety. A brief moment's inattention or an unexpected movement can cause serious damage to a person or those around him, and a sword wound can easily allow a person to bleed out in under a minute. Therefore, I always urge people to get legitimate instruction, and err on the side of caution. If they choose to ignore my advice, that is their prerogative, but I'm still going to give it as it is what I firmly believe.
     
  12. Brian R. VanCise

    Brian R. VanCise MT Moderator Staff Member

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    Proper instruction, quality tools generally tend to turn out quality martial practitioner's. Your best bet would be to have a teacher in one of the Japanese systems. Spend time learning how to use the Japanese sword properly and then get good advice from your teacher on what to buy. Other than that Pgsmith and Sukerkin always give quality advice in this department. My advice would be to find a teacher, get a booken, eventually move up to an Iai-to (non sharpened training blade) and then when you are ready purchase a quality nihongi shinken. If you buy cheap you get cheap and anything in the $100 to $500 dollar range is cheapo! Save up and eventually buy some thing of quality and follow a teachers expert advice! If your not interested in learning how to properly use one then you might want to look at buying some thing else! Just my 02.
     
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  13. Neddog

    Neddog White Belt

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    Yes, legitimate instruction is absolutely the key and nobody will argue with that. Control and respect of your sword at all times is the first rule to safety, and is much more important than whether your katana is hand-made in a Chinese forge versus a Japanese forge. ;)
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  14. elder999

    elder999 El Oso de Dios!

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    No, you can't. You can certainly get a good knife for that price, but a great many of the nicest the world has to offer are handmade by various makers and smiths around the world, and not available at prices like that.

    My everyday carry is a Ken Onion Leek-it cost me less than $100, and, except for the steel being somehwat brittle, it's a good knife-it's the right size for my work environment can maintain a pretty fair edge, and if I have to part with it, it's easy to replace.

    The last knife I made and sold fetched $3800, and, as makers go, I'm nobody of any consequence.....

    In the matter of a katana, things are way more complicated than knives-best to simply get what your teacher says to get, and leave it at that.....
     
  15. jks9199

    jks9199 Administrator Staff Member

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    You can get a decent knife for a few hundred. You can even get some custom knives in that range, if there's nothing too special or complicated, more just made to order. A knife has a tiny fraction of the steel of a katana -- and generally are much more directly and simply made. (There are exceptions...)

    Honestly -- the truth is that you don't even want a live blade until you've trained for some time. The exact line will vary from teacher to teacher, but it's often on the order of years. The typical progression is bokken (wooden sword), iato (edgeless metal sword), ken (live blade). Western Martial Arts will do something similar.
     
  16. elder999

    elder999 El Oso de Dios!

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    I agree-he said "nicest in the world," and I just pointed out that-at that price-his standard can't be that high......:lol:
     
  17. Christian Soldier

    Christian Soldier Orange Belt

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    My standards are pretty high. Heck I'm pretty darn sure you can get a hard use knife that will last a life time and sharpen well (Kabar, Ontario, etc) for less than $100!

    Blind horse knives is a Custom and semi custom knife company that sells all of their top notch knives for less than 500. Cold Steel's best knives are also around or less than 500. I cannot see the reasoning behing buying a blade that cost more than a grand. The only reason I can see paying more for a knife is if it is famous or something but I just can't see getting any better performace or durability past a certain point. Unless it's made buy an old japanese guy that's actually decendent of a samurai, it's simply not worth it. For me at least.

    Unless The knife you made was covered in gold or perhaps had the hope dimond embeded in the handle. I'd say the guy got ripped off. You can get 2 custom 1911s for that price! With Custom Handles and small machined and hand fitted parts!

    I'm not planning on buying a katana for at least another year, I just wanted to see if you guys had any good suggestions. Sorry if I upset you.

    Just MHO. I guess I'll stick to kukris for a while. :)
     
  18. elder999

    elder999 El Oso de Dios!

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    Kabar makes a good knife-have for years and years. Casio makes a lot of good watches. Subaru makes a decent automobile.

    You see where I'm going with this?


    I only make a few knives a year, and most of my clients are word of mouth-I turn away about twice as many. When that rather large fellow came to me, and we discussed the knife he wanted, and the materials he was interested in, and the process he desired, we agreed upon a price, once I'd agreed to make a knife for him-I don't make knives for just anyone.

    At the time, my salary was only about $45 an hour. The knife took between 80 and 100 hours, so just on the basis of my time, it was worth that much, but I didn't charge that much for shoptime at that time.

    It was a 15" damascus bowie, hand-forged by me, full tang-boron treated, and other metals in the mix that I'm not going to speak of here, but something close to 90% carbon steel.

    The handle-custom measured for the client-was made-by me- of fossilized mastadon ivory.

    There were no jewels to speak of, really, just a couple of polished obsidian chips for the titanium hilt, and to peg into the titanium handle rivets.

    This was, of course, much more than a "nice" knife: I guarantee that even today, years later, if that fellow has taken care of the knife and it has the kind of edge I showed him, he can hack through a 4"X4', then cut through 4" of manila hemp rope and still slice hairs off his arm. It was a beautiful piece, but it was meant to be used.

    When the blade was nearly ready, he came to my shop to finish with the process he paid for-I won't bother offending your Christian sensibilities, suffice to say that there was chanting involved-he really didn't pay nearly as much for that part as I did.

    If you could purchase the like from Mike Ruth, Johnny Stout, Paul Baker or even Dale Baxter-guys who have a name (I know, you haven't heard of any of them, look them up) they'd likely have charged a lot more back then, and forget about it today-you'd have an 18 month wait for a blade like that, and pay up the wazoo-never mind the...er....spiritual aspects that attract most of my clientele-hell, I'm not even a certified master bladesmith, yet.....

    Of course, I make a few plain old "nice knives" every year, just for practice-some wind up as Christmas gifts, or giveaways at ceremonies, and some get sold-never for much less than $650, and never to anyone who hasn't been vetted and proven that they'll take proper care of it.


    I don't think you upset anyone, least of all me. It's like that pen thread I started, though: I have a Mont Blanc pen right now-I paid a little less than $1,000 for it, and I got a deal-it's just a pen, and more than just a pen- I started trying those others to avoid the tactical thing, and have something nice and practical, as well as attractive and stealthy, but, just as my Rolexes are watches, and more than just watches,comparing one of my knives to "semi-custom," or (shudder!) Cold Steel, is like comparing a Casio to a Rolex.....okay, maybe a Casio to an Omega.....:lol:....a Subaru to a Cadillac.........a Bic to a Mont Blanc......you get the idea, here?

    And I'm just a hobby knifemaker, for now-when I retire, I'll open a commercial dojo and a semi-commercial shop-I'll still be really selective about who I sell to.

    Do you know kukhuris? As they go, Cold Steel makes a real nice machete. :lol: There are some Indian spring-steel knockoffs that are okay to abuse, and then there's the real deal-you have the real deal?
     
  19. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Two things strike me as we go through this question again...

    Firstly, and most importantly, Dan. You've been asked in the thread already, but I haven't seen an answer. When you say you want a katana to "use", what do you mean? Use it for what? And, related to that, what experience do you have with swordsmanship (particularly Japanese)? Do you have any training under an instructor at all, or are you planning on getting some before you buy the sword (here's a hint: if you're not currently with an instructor, we won't suggest a sword. If you're waiting to get an instructor, but are looking at a sword for ideas now, wait until you get an instructor and follow their advice. And if you already have an instructor, talk to them)? Can you answer these so we know what we're advising on?

    Secondly, Ned. You're showing some rather odd ideas here... and your profile states that you are a beginner in Battojutsu, as well as listing Iaijutsu, Iaido, Kenjutsu, and Kendo. It's a little odd to have such a list, who are you training with? Just trying to get an idea of where some of your ideas are coming from.
     
  20. Christian Soldier

    Christian Soldier Orange Belt

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    Allright, Allright, I get your point. I'm content with a sub $500 blade, that's just me. I personally use a bic pen almost every day and I'm fairly certain I could still kill someone with it if I had to, and it was free! :D
    I'm also wearing a watch that sombody lost and I found, also free and still tells time just as well as yours.
    I'm content with those things. If you aren't fine, it's your money. I'm just saying there are many very well made knives that can be bought for less than $500 and, in tha hands of a knowledgable user, will work as well as knives that are much more expensive. Though they might not looks as nice. For me, functions and comfortability are more important than aesthetics anyway.

    That knife you described sounds pretty amazing, do you have any pictures?

    The CS Machete is just a KLO and that blade's much thinner than my prefference. I have the Ontario Kukri now which I like a lot, it's a good user/starter kukri. Everntually I'll probably get a nicer one from HI or some similar company.

    You have convinced me I don't need a Katana as much as I thought.
     

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