Best Battle-Ready Katana Swords for Tameshigiri
Several Japanese martial arts involve tameshigiri or test cutting, which was extensively practiced in feudal Japan. Today, martial arts practitioners who train in Japanese swordsmanship use live blades or shinken to hone their sword skills. Battle-ready katana swords are sharp and functional swords suited for cutting stationary objects such as tatami mats, bamboo, and so on.
We’ve compiled a guide on choosing a fully functional sword, the modern practice of tameshigiri in martial arts, and where you can get battle-ready katanas online.
How to Choose the Best Battle-Ready Katana?
Unlike decorative swords, a battle-ready katana must be crafted to a higher standard and suited for test-cutting practice. Practitioners must have their old Japanese samurai swords examined by experts as the deteriorated wooden hilt, rivet, hilt wrapping, and scabbard could be dangerous.
Here are the factors to consider when choosing a fully functional katana sword:
Metal and Construction
Japanese swordsmiths craft the katana sword from traditionally smelted tamahagane. Traditionally-made katanas have clay tempered blades with soft cores that give added toughness and hard cutting edges. The clay tempering process allows hardening only of the cutting edge by coating the blade with clay. If the entire blade is hardened, it would be very brittle and likely break upon heavy blows.
Katanas made outside Japan are replicas, often constructed from high-carbon steel blades and modern steel-production techniques. Some non-traditional swordsmiths also use spring steel and damascus steel, with the latter featuring a watery streaked appearance. However, stainless steel katanas are only designed for display and are not suited for tameshigiri.
A handmade katana is superior to mass-produced machine-made swords. Generally, battle-ready katanas are properly forged and have no visible flaws. Also, the gaps, open welds, and pockets on the steel are signs of poor construction.
A high-quality Japanese katana has a durable, sharp blade that won’t bend and break on impact. The curvature and hamon also contribute to its cutting power and durability.
The katana has a single cutting edge and a shallower curvature than the tachi sword. Generally, a curved blade efficiently cuts when a swordsman wields the sword correctly. When conducting tameshigiri, practitioners utilize the monouchi portion of the cutting edge for striking targets.
The monouchi is about 25 centimeters long and begins about 15 centimeters from the tip or the kissaki. However, if the impact occurs too close to the kissaki, a blade may break or would not cut deeply enough.
A genuine hamon or temperline pattern is not only an aesthetic feature of the katana, but also shows that the swordsmith hardened the cutting edge. Older Japanese swords usually had a straight and narrow hamon, which easily chipped laterally across the broad portion of the cutting edge.
On the contrary, the gunome type of hamon, resembling a row of teeth, prevented the chip from spreading laterally. Generally, any temperline pattern with projections or ashi will limit the size of the nicks and damage on the cutting edge. A properly-made hamon, wide enough to allow polishing, would make an efficient sword for tameshigiri.
However, many katana replicas today only have an etched hamon which does not improve the quality of the blade. While a genuine hamon features dots or specks along the hardened edge, an etched temperline pattern tends to be smooth and lacks internal features. Also, a hamon is not visible on Western swords as the entire blade is usually heat-treated, not just the cutting edge.
Size and Length
As the long sword of the samurai, the katana generally had a blade length of more than 60 centimeters. Some practitioners may utilize the wakizashi sword with a blade measuring 30 to 60 centimeters if the katana is cumbersome to draw from scabbard and to cut with. In the samurai era, a young student, usually a son of a samurai, would utilize the short sword until he could wield the katana.
Katanas designed for test cutting practice also have functional sword mountings. They often come in a koshirae mounting that includes a sword guard, a lacquered scabbard, and other metal components.
Hilt or Tsuka
The wooden hilt or tsuka must be constructed from high-quality wood, as a weakened handle could result in splinters, disintegration, and possibly a launched blade. Generally, the mekugi (a bamboo rivet) secures the tang in the wooden hilt. A katana used in tameshigiri must have a tightly fitting mekugi made of new bamboo. If it falls out during practice, the blade may fly off the handle and injure someone.
Sword Guard or Tsuba
A battle-ready katana comes with a functional sword guard called tsuba, which is large enough to protect the hand of the swordsman. Most designs are disk-shaped or four-lobed, but ones with high-relief carvings and elaborate cut-out designs tend to be more ornamental than functional for tameshigiri.
Scabbard or Saya
The scabbard or saya protects the sword and can be a plain wooden shirasaya or a lacquered scabbard. When fully sheathed, the cutting edge is not touching the wooden surface of the scabbard. To be mounted properly, a katana has a sword collar called habaki, which holds the sword snugly in the mouth of the scabbard. The habaki is traditionally made of copper or a copper alloy and has a tapered shape. However, ill-fitting habaki could cause the sword to fit loosely and fall out from the scabbard.
Type of Target
The traditional materials for tameshigiri are tatami mats which replicate the consistency of human tissue. Beginners usually cut a single mat and later, cut two or three tatami mats together as their technique improves. Some use a piece of bamboo around 2 to 6 inches in diameter and water-filled bottles.
Others also utilize rounded fruits such as apples and watermelons tossed in the air, which could be occasionally useful for improving accuracy and eye-hand coordination. In the past, swords were also tested on steel plates which simulates helmets and armor. However, cutting objects that are too hard could damage the blade, usually beyond repair.
Best Battle Ready Katana Swords Available Online
To help you find the best sword for tameshigiri, we rounded up the best battle-ready katanas suited for both beginners and masters. Some also double as a sword for collection with their decorative mountings.
1. Best Overall: Clay Tempered Katana Sword
Clay tempered blades are the best quality you can get from a replica sword as good tempering improves the average steel. This katana already has a 1095 high carbon steel blade which is already of good quality. As a battle-ready sword, it has a full tang and a razor-sharp blade that can withstand test cutting practice, from bamboo to tatami mats.
However, the blade has a polished mirror-like surface, contrary to the darker color of Japanese steel. It may be a good choice for martial artists but less appealing to sword collectors who value the aesthetic features of Japanese blades. Still, it has a genuine hamon which could eliminate the need for other unique features like wood grain patterns.
For a budget of around $500, you’ll have a high-quality katana sword to hone your skills in Japanese swordsmanship. It also comes in an elegant scabbard decorated with inlaid shells and does not look over-the-top compared to other samurai swords. It also includes premium copper fittings, like the habaki sword collar, sword guard, and ornaments on the side of the hilt.
2. Best Premium: Folded Steel Katana Sword
Fully functional and decorative, this samurai katana sword is perfect for both martial artists and collectors. It features a clay-tempered blade of 1095 high carbon steel, suited for cutting soft and medium targets. It also has a cloudy hamon similar to those of traditional Japanese katanas.
While folded steel does not make modern blades more durable, it replicates the grain patterns found on traditionally-made katana blades, adding artistic appeal to your sword. For a budget of around $700, you’ll have a katana that gives the best of both worlds.
However, the folding process sometimes results in air pockets, bad welds, and numerous weak points, compromising its structure. Also, a practitioner may opt for a fully functional blade without the possible consequences of the folding process.
Another advantage is that its decorative mountings are not cumbersome for test cutting practice. It features an ornamental tsuba, patterned habaki, and hardwood saya. It measures about 103 centimeters with its blade around 70 centimeters, the average length of a katana sword.
3. Best on a Budget: Hand-Forged Katana Sword
Handmade Japanese swords are generally better than those mass produced blades. Clay tempered and razor-sharp, this katana features a wavy hamon and a shallow curvature. The sword blade also features a fuller to lighten it without compromising its structure, making it ideal for practicing cutting strokes. For a budget of less than $400, you’ll have a functional sword for tameshigiri.
This katana sword has an overall length of 103 centimeters and a blade length of 70 centimeters. It also has all the typical features of a samurai sword mounting, especially the brass fittings like tsuba, habaki, and menuki. Its hilt comes with a ray skin underwrap and braided hilt wrapping, similar to Japanese swords.
4. Best for Collection: Katana, Wakizashi & Tanto Set
Are you looking for fully functional swords to jumpstart your collection? This set already includes the samurai long sword katana, the short sword wakizashi, and the tanto dagger. A great thing, these blades are clay tempered and made from 1095 high carbon steel, making them suitable for tameshigiri.
Apart from the matching sword mountings, the sword set also allows personalization on its hilt wrapping and blade engraving, from the smith’s name to kanji characters and custom symbols. Their blade lengths also correspond to the standard sizes of Japanese swords. The katana measures 70 centimeters, while the wakizashi and tanto measure about 50 and 29 centimeters, respectively.
5. Best for Beginners: Dragon Samurai Sword
Whether you want to play the role of your favorite anime character or try the tameshigiri test cutting practice, this samurai sword is perfect for you. It has a sharp 1095 high-carbon steel blade suitable for cutting fruits and other softer targets. However, it is not clay tempered and may not be able to withstand tougher targets. For a budget of less than $300, you’ll have a fully functional sword for fun backyard cutting practice.
The Tameshigiri in Martial Arts
In feudal Japan, the tameshigiri practice utilized bodies of executed criminals to determine the slashing abilities and durability of swords. Until the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, it was unregulated, so almost everyone who owned a sword could perform the cutting test. During the Meiji Restoration, the law banned the use of bodies of executed felons and inanimate objects took their place.
Nowadays, several martial arts training in Japanese swordsmanship consists of tameshigiri, along with waza techniques and partner exercises. The tameshigiri allows the practitioner to apply the lessons learned such as proper swinging technique, timing, distance, and footwork. When executed correctly, the sword blade would slice cleanly and effortlessly through the target.
Before students perform the tameshigiri, they first have intensive training to refine their cutting strokes and sword techniques. In iaijutsu training, the tameshigiri is often reserved for masters and live blades or shinken are not allowed to be used without permission.
Battle-ready katana swords have high quality construction and are more durable than decorative swords. They often have sharp carbon steel blades with good tempering and stronger tangs. Still, a battle-ready katana sword does not mean indestructible, though it can withstand tameshigiri or test cutting practice.