Choosing a sword

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SahBumNimRush

SahBumNimRush

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As for the original intent of this thread, I would like to sincerely thank everyone for giving me some insite and information on swords and sword arts. Although I would love to learn, I do not have access to an instructor of the sword arts, nor do I have the money.. .

However, I have got a good start of information to atleast point me in the right direction for reading material. Since I cannot train, I can atleast read until I have the time, money and opportunity to possibly travel and train.

I welcome any further info/opinions you all have to offer! Thank you very much!
 

Langenschwert

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I was under the impression that the Japanese samurai sword (katana?) was the holy grail of swords.

Indeed not. The katana is just a nice two handed sabre when you get right down to it. It's not magical, and there is no "best" sword. As long as it is well-made, a sword is a sword, and they all do the same thing to greater or lesser degrees. There are some VERY specialized types (smallsword and estoc for example), but that's the exception, not the rule.

The most important thing when pursuing swordsmanship is finding a good teacher. Sword arts from all over the world share the same basic principles. For example, I study both European and Koryu Japanese swordsmanship. While to a certain degree you really do have to "empty your cup" to learn a different art, the similarties are enough that I really do believe Hanko Dobringer's statement (in 1389) that "there is but one art of the sword". I started HNIR years after I started German longsword, but I was able to hang all the gross motor movements and principles from HNIR on my longsword "framework" to help me remember it. After that, I'm now working on the specifics of the art. Likewise, if an HNIR practicioner wanted to learn German longsword, he could use the identical process, only in reverse. :) After all, a cut is a cut and a thrust is a thrust.

What I'm saying is, don't get hung up on Japanese/German/Korean/Italian or whatever. Find good instruction above all.

Best regards,

-Mark
 

Sukerkin

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Quite right, Mark.

The techniques and applications in various arts can be very different but the core principles of 'sharp bits of the blade in the quishy bits of the other guy' mean that certain things are foundational whatever kind of sword you are using.
 

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I was under the impression that the Japanese samurai sword (katana?) was the holy grail of swords.. . .

Yes and no.
When it comes to using the sword as a tool, then I suppose a traditionally made Japanese sword can be just as good / effective as a modern korean made sword.

However, the true beauty of a japanese sword -to me- is in the process of making it. Because of the strict adherence to the traditional ways in all aspects (from smelting the ore to smithing to polishing and sharpening), the sword is really a work of art and something to be admired in its own right.

I can look at a naked blade without any of the fittings and be awed and humbled by the mastery that went into its making. That feeling goes beyond the tangible value of the katana as a weapon.
 

MBuzzy

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Yes and no.
When it comes to using the sword as a tool, then I suppose a traditionally made Japanese sword can be just as good / effective as a modern korean made sword.

However, the true beauty of a japanese sword -to me- is in the process of making it. Because of the strict adherence to the traditional ways in all aspects (from smelting the ore to smithing to polishing and sharpening), the sword is really a work of art and something to be admired in its own right.

I can look at a naked blade without any of the fittings and be awed and humbled by the mastery that went into its making. That feeling goes beyond the tangible value of the katana as a weapon.

The thing is, many of things that you mention here are done the same for Korean blades from a good forge. From a lesser forge, the Japanese and Korean blades are made the same way, with just as little reverence. It ALL depends on the forge, not the country of origin or usage.
 

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The thing is, many of things that you mention here are done the same for Korean blades from a good forge. From a lesser forge, the Japanese and Korean blades are made the same way, with just as little reverence. It ALL depends on the forge, not the country of origin or usage.

It depends. Some of the traditional things are omitted because of cost effectiveness or efficiency. A blacksmith friend of mine has visited the place where Japanese tamahagane is smelted, and he has had (interpreted) conversations with the master smelter.

The smelting process is still done entirely by hand and the master determines the correct points of adding ore and charcoal solely by the sound of the air blazing in the furnace, and the color of the flames. I know from my friend that the temperature window he has to hit is very small. Yet the accuracy with which he does this is at least as good as can be done with modern thermal equipment in a modern steelmill.

Same for heat treatment of the blades. The temperature window for getting the optimum heat treatment characteristics of tamahagane is only 5 degrees centigrade. And the smith is able to hit that just by interpreting the moving color gradients of the steel. That sort of thing is amazing.

I am not saying that there are no korean masters who can do this. If you know of them, I would be glad to learn more about them. The only ones I know of who do everything the old way are Japanese. I do know that the majority of non traditionally made blades (regardless of the smithing) is made using modern thermal equipment. This is the reason that quality blades can be made in affordable price ranges, in adequate numbers to fulfill the demand. And while those blades may be a functional and technical equivalent to the handmade blades I revere, they do not represent the art and skill that went into those handmade blades.
 

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As I said, it depends completely on the forge. That, and how much you are willing to pay. I don't personally know of any Korean smiths, but that is mainly because I order my blades through my instructor. They have a number of forges in Korea and Japan that they use. Depending on the quality of the blade and the price that you are willing to pay, different forges are used. I can't personally name any Korean OR Japanese smiths....but without knowing every source in both countries, I can't speak for the methods used.

Also, I am willing to bet that it is not easy to find a smith who uses the completely traditional processes and when you do, chances are, you will be paying for it. To me, a sword that takes 3 months to make and is done completely traditionally is cost restrictive. I'll settle for the forges that are readily available and can make blades at reasonable prices. When I AM willing to pay 10-15K for a sword, I'll be more worried about which smith I use.
 

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Just to bring it back to the country of origin thing, there are said to be a number of reasons for the quality of the Japanese blade, relating to the steel itself. Tamahagane has a number of requirements in order to attain that title, ranging from the smelting process (and the use of a Tatara furnace) back down to the specific type of iron ore sand used in the first place. This sand is said to be found in only one place (or a few places), along a riverbank in Japan, and has far fewer impurities such as sulphur than other iron ore deposits. So the country of origin does actually come into it, at the most essential level.
 

Ken Morgan

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It is very often less expensive to buy an antique blade then a new one. An inexpensive new blade, from a newer smith, with polish, saya and fittings will run you, starting at 5 or 6K. They are after all limited in the production they are allowed to produce a month.

To me a traditional Japanese forged blade is an investment in art. It is not something I would ever use for iai or cutting.

I worked in the steel business for 10 years; you can buy some amazing steels that the Japanese smiths of old would have loved to have gotten their hands on.

If you want a blade for cutting or iai, a Chinese, American, or what have you, machine made blade will do just fine.
 

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Ken, that is a great point - although there are some "levels" of cutting that require the more expensive/better made steel. If you want to do the advanced trick cutting through more than just bamboo, you may need to look at some of those expensive blade. I know some masters who do use very expensive blades for cutting and demonstrations...but these are also blades of such quality that it is very difficult to damage them just going through bamboo (if you are of the right skill level and not just a really really rich beginner).

I would love to talk more intelligently about the forging methods in different asian countries, but unfortunately, I can only speak from anecdotes, wikipedia, and assumptions at this point. I will certainly return to Korea and hopefully Japan in the future and with any luck get a look at some forges. Until then, I'll have to respectfully let you guys finish the discussion.....although I would be VERY surprised if there wasn't a single "traditional forge" in Korea. The Japanese certainly don't have the market cornered on their method, if they did Korean swords would look differently. Plus, how do you avoid it after you occupy a country for 40 years and trade people back and forth?!
 

Ken Morgan

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Don’t misunderstand me, it’s the polish that gets marked up, not the blade in cutting!! Considering an art polish can run you thousands and thousands of dollars, I’d rather not ruin it!

You don’t have to have a traditional forged Japanese blade to have a “great” blade. Many modern steels are in many ways far superior to traditional formed tamahagane blades.

If I’m telling you information that you already know, tell me and I’ll shut the hell up!!

The Japanese used sand iron, simply because that’s all they had. Hence also why Japanese armour is leather with multiple coats of lacquer, they did not have access to the iron ore deposits we had in the west. The folding of a Japanese blade had/has two purposes, it burned off the impurities in the steel and it added carbon to the steel. Those cool patterns on the blades visible after polishing? Those are impurities. Modern tool steels or even some high carbon1090 steels, make great blades, they just don’t have those cool patterns. Honestly, if you’re a Japanese smith of old, I’m sure you’d rather use a homogenous steel then Tamahagane, it’s much, much less work to make a blade.

Traditional Japanese blades were not unique in their construction. A soft inner core and a hard outer jacket, were used for example by the Vikings and Saxons too.

I use a Chinese made steel shinken. The balance is great, and it cuts like a SOB. When I do buy a traditionally made blade, I will consider it an investment, something to pass on to my children.

You don’t need to buy a good baseball bat from the US, a good hockey stick from Canada, a good cricket bat from the UK, a good cheese from France or even a good Scotch, (blasphemy!), from Scotland. You do not have to go to Japan to get a good Japanese sword.
 

MBuzzy

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The Japanese used sand iron, simply because thats all they had. Hence also why Japanese armour is leather with multiple coats of lacquer, they did not have access to the iron ore deposits we had in the west. The folding of a Japanese blade had/has two purposes, it burned off the impurities in the steel and it added carbon to the steel. Those cool patterns on the blades visible after polishing? Those are impurities. Modern tool steels or even some high carbon1090 steels, make great blades, they just dont have those cool patterns. Honestly, if youre a Japanese smith of old, Im sure youd rather use a homogenous steel then Tamahagane, its much, much less work to make a blade.

Fully agree with everything you said - especially the part about not needing to go to Japan to get a good sword.

A few minor things though, first, another reason to fold the steel is to ensure a homogeneous product.

Also, the hamon is not caused by impurities. It is caused by the differential hardening of the blade. During the quenching process, clay is applied to the back of the sword to control the speed at which the softer metal hardens. The hamon is just a side effect, although it is also a sign that the blade has been differentially hardened and is therefore generally of a higher quality.
 

Ken Morgan

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Fully agree with everything you said - especially the part about not needing to go to Japan to get a good sword.

A few minor things though, first, another reason to fold the steel is to ensure a homogeneous product.

Also, the hamon is not caused by impurities. It is caused by the differential hardening of the blade. During the quenching process, clay is applied to the back of the sword to control the speed at which the softer metal hardens. The hamon is just a side effect, although it is also a sign that the blade has been differentially hardened and is therefore generally of a higher quality.

Yes, beating out the impurities and adding carbon to get a homogeneous steel

And yes the pattern on the hamon is created by the addition of clay and the different cooling/quenching tempertures.

But I'm not refering to the hamon specifically, I'm talking about the patterns that can run through a blade itself, more specifically seen in damascus.

ummm, what are we talking about again? Looks like we're both preaching to the choir....
 

MBuzzy

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It is christmas, maybe people are doing christmasy stuff! At least we're still on topic....kind of.
 

Brian R. VanCise

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Hey Ken and Mbuzzy,

The real issue with a blade made from Japan and in contrast from China, Korea, America, etc. is generally found in the fittings. My experience in owning blades from all of the above is that the fittings, saya, etc. are of a much higher quality in general when you purchase directly from Japan. Now that is not saying that a few places in the US do not produce fittings on an equal level but in general the fittings, craftsmanship coming out of Japan is fantastic. Just my 02.
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jks9199

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Fully agree with everything you said - especially the part about not needing to go to Japan to get a good sword.

A few minor things though, first, another reason to fold the steel is to ensure a homogeneous product.

Also, the hamon is not caused by impurities. It is caused by the differential hardening of the blade. During the quenching process, clay is applied to the back of the sword to control the speed at which the softer metal hardens. The hamon is just a side effect, although it is also a sign that the blade has been differentially hardened and is therefore generally of a higher quality.
There are different markings. The hamon is a clear, fairly easily seen line, created, as you said, by the differential hardening process. As I understand it, each sword maker has their own pattern of applying the clays, making it recognizable.

Within the steel itself, you have lines that look kind of like wood grain; that's caused and created in the folding process.
 

MBuzzy

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Hey Ken and Mbuzzy,

The real issue with a blade made from Japan and in contrast from China, Korea, America, etc. is generally found in the fittings. My experience in owning blades from all of the above is that the fittings, saya, etc. are of a much higher quality in general when you purchase directly from Japan. Now that is not saying that a few places in the US do not produce fittings on an equal level but in general the fittings, craftsmanship coming out of Japan is fantastic. Just my 02.
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Good points, Brian...but I still maintain that it is SO much more about the smith than the country. There are probably a higher volume of good smiths in Japan, making them easier to find. Of course, maybe I'm being idealistic, but I'm also not willing to dismiss Korea, US, China, etc as "good" sword makers simply because they are not Japan. I really think that a lot of it is simply in the perception that Japanese blades are so much better.

hehe, I suppose I'll get back to you in a few years when I have more experience with forges from different countries! I may be WAY off base and Japan IS the only place to get a truly quality sword. Although I still have the anecdotal evidence of my Instructors who have incredibly high quality blades forged in Korea.
 

Bruno@MT

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The folding of a Japanese blade had/has two purposes, it burned off the impurities in the steel and it added carbon to the steel. Those cool patterns on the blades visible after polishing? Those are impurities. Modern tool steels or even some high carbon1090 steels, make great blades, they just don’t have those cool patterns. Honestly, if you’re a Japanese smith of old, I’m sure you’d rather use a homogenous steel then Tamahagane, it’s much, much less work to make a blade.

This is not correct.
Carbon is lost during the folding process, due to the decarburization caused by the heating cycles that are necessary for the folding process.

The folding is indeed necessary to make the tamahagane homogenous and to remove the impurities. The carbon content of the raw steel for the outer skin is very high. 1.4% or something. This makes it almost unusable for use as-is, but it is perfect for the folding process because even after the lengthy decarburization, the carbon content is still high. I think it was 0.7 to 0.9% but don't pin me down on those numbers. It was lower than the starting value.

You are right though, about the reason for folding: it was to make the steel usable. Back in those days, swords were made for their primary purpose: to kill with. If those smiths could have cut their production time in half by using steel without impurities, they would have done so.

This is what is done by many traditional smiths today who manufacture knives, chisels, etc. They use a type of swedish steel that is virtually identical to folded tamahagane. This makes it possible to manufacture those tools using their traditional methods without requiring genuine tamahagane (the good stuff) that is virtually impossible to get for non-sword smithing purposes.
 
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Brian R. VanCise

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Good points, Brian...but I still maintain that it is SO much more about the smith than the country. There are probably a higher volume of good smiths in Japan, making them easier to find. Of course, maybe I'm being idealistic, but I'm also not willing to dismiss Korea, US, China, etc as "good" sword makers simply because they are not Japan. I really think that a lot of it is simply in the perception that Japanese blades are so much better.

hehe, I suppose I'll get back to you in a few years when I have more experience with forges from different countries! I may be WAY off base and Japan IS the only place to get a truly quality sword. Although I still have the anecdotal evidence of my Instructors who have incredibly high quality blades forged in Korea.


Hey MBuzzy,

I am certainly not saying that you cannot get a great sword some place else. However, having held multiple jingum from Korea, katanas from China, etc. I can tell you there is a difference in quality of the fittings, saya, etc. I personally have several Korean swords and not one matches up with my best Japanese blades. That does not however mean that their is a smith/forge in Korea producing blades on equal or better it just means that in my experience the fittings, etc. are of a higher quality when they come from Japan. I do however cut tameshigeri with a blade from China. (you have to save your best blades)
 
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