Table of Contents

Best Chokuto Swords and Their Use in The History

Written by: Abigail Cambal
Published On: August 25, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The chokuto were prehistoric swords with straight single-edged blades, predating the typical Japanese sword with curved blades. Despite its crudely manufactured design, it later inspired the advancement in Japanese sword making, which is now a highly refined and sophisticated art form.

Let’s explore the unique characteristics of the chokuto sword, its use in ancient times, and how it differs from other Japanese swords like the katana and the ninjato.

Characteristics of the Chokuto Sword

The distinguishing feature of the chokuto sword is the straight blade, similar to ancient Chinese swords. Produced in Japan’s ancient times, it predated the so-called Japanese sword because it did not have the unique Japanese features that would develop later.

Here are the unique characteristics of the chokuto sword:

Metal and Construction

Blade for a Straight Single Edged Sword Chokuto
( Source)

The steel for these early blades was homogenous and not folded or combined to create greater flexibility and strength. Chinese in design, some chokuto swords, along with the technology in constructing them, likely originated in China. By the end of the 5th century, Japanese swordsmiths had mastered the techniques of contemporary Chinese and Korean smiths, so they probably produced some chokuto swords of the time.

Some chokuto blades recovered from kofun tombs were partially polished and featured hand-forged steel and hardened cutting edges. However, many were too thin and bent from their own weight when held parallel to the ground, so they likely served as ceremonial swords instead of weapons.

Blade Appearance

Chokuto Sword displayed at museum
( Source)

The chokuto was straight and had a single cutting edge but may vary in cross-section design. The kirihazukuri blade has parallel sides but features a large bevel or ridge line called shinogi near the cutting edge, so the side of the blade tapers down. It also has a very narrow point area.

The other blade type is the hira-zukuri, a flat-sided blade without shinogi and yokote line or defined point area. While the kirihazukuri was more efficient in thrusting and hacking, the hira-zukuri had more advantage in slicing due to its tip design.

Early chokuto swords had a narrow and straight hamon or temperline pattern that usually lacked strength and clarity. Some fine chokuto of the late 5th century featured silver and gold inscriptions, usually the name of an emperor. Some were also decorated with motifs featuring flowers, horses, and birds.

Size and Length

Many chokuto swords had a blade length of about 70 to 80 centimeters. Including the tang, some swords could be about 100 centimeters in length.

Sword Mounting

Japanese Chokuto Blade on display
( Source)

Historical chokuto swords had wooden scabbards with gilt-copper fittings or silver-clad fittings. Some probably had lacquered scabbards, but only the metal components survived. Iron swords with ring-shaped pommels were not uncommon in Japan during the 1st or 2nd century as in China. Later, the mounting became a separate component and featured a decorative pommel. 

Kofun-period straight chokuto swords equipped with a set of mountings, such as a hilt and scabbard, are sometimes referred to as tachi (大刀)—not to be confused with the curved tachi sword written as 太刀. Initially influenced by Han-dynasty Chinese designs, these mountings later copied those from the Korean Peninsula.

Chokuto sword mountings are distinguished based on the shape of their pommel:

Kanto Tachi

Sword with Scabbard Mounts
( Source)

The most common Kofun-period mounting, the kanto tachi features a ring-shaped pommel that encircles the heads of phoenix or dragon. Historical examples also featured decorative patterns engraved on the hilt and scabbard, both covered in a gilt-copper sheet. However, they lacked the rounded sword guard or tsuba of later Japanese swords.

Kabutsuchi Tachi

Japanese Sword with Scabbard Mounts
( Source)

On the other hand, the kabutsuchi tachi has a bulbous pommel, resembling a stylized human fist. Some featured small rounded sword guards similar to Chinese swords. While the kanto tachi originated in the Korean Peninsula, the kabutsuchi tachi is unique to Japan.

Koshirae Mounting

Straight sword with no sign a.k.a. Suiryu ken
( Source)

Some historical chokuto blades were later remounted in koshirae with elaborate metal fittings, such as the decorative menuki on the hilt or tsuka and traditional sword guard or tsuba. The mounting also features a lacquered scabbard or saya instead of a plain wooden shirasaya.

One famous example is the chokuto blade from the Nara period. Originally housed in Shosoin, Emperor Meiji removed it and kept it as his own. In 1873, metalworker Kano Natsuo created a koshirae or elaborate mounting for the blade, with a suiryu or water dragon pattern inlaid on the metal fittings. Since then, it became known as Suiryuken, meaning Water Dragon Sword.

Best Sword Alternatives for a Chokuto

Ancient sword designs, like the Japanese chokuto, are hard to come by. So, we rounded up the best sword alternatives for tameshigiri or test cutting practice and cosplay.

1. Best Overall: Custom Ninjato

Custom Ninjato Sword

Just like the chokuto, the modern reproduction of a ninjato has a straight, single-edged blade, making it the perfect alternative for the ancient sword. Historical chokuto swords were rarely clay tempered, but you’ll be able to choose the steel and construction for your sword, from folded spring steel to high carbon steel. For a budget of around $400, you’ll be able to get a chokuto-inspired sword for tameshigiri practice, cutting bamboos, and tatami mats.

Unfortunately, the customization does not include the Chinese-inspired pommel and hilt, though you can make the rest in a koshirae-style mounting similar to the famous Suiryuken. Instead of the traditional hilt wrapping on a Japanese sword, opt for something plain or monochromatic, then decorate it with a menuki. Also, think of a lacquered scabbard design that doesn’t look too modern or Japanese-inspired, as chokuto swords often had traditional Chinese motifs.

2. Best Premium: Hanwei Kouga Ninja-To

Hanwei Kouga Ninja To

If you’re looking for a chokuto-inspired blade rather than a Chinese-inspired mounting, this ninjato may fit the bill. It features a straight blade with a razor-sharp edge constructed from high carbon steel. It has a blade length of about 57 centimeters, though it is a bit short for a chokuto sword that usually had a 70- to 80-centimeter long blade. Still, for a budget of less than $500, you’ll own a battle-ready sword to channel your inner warrior.

3. Best on a Budget: Ninja Sword in Shirasaya

Straight Blade Huali Wood Shirasaya

If you’re looking for a versatile sword for cosplay, this ninja sword in shirasaya can be a great choice. Even if it doesn’t feature the Chinese-inspired design of the chokuto sword, it has a straight, single-edged blade similar to the ancient sword. For safety, you may have its blade unsharpened, making it perfect for cosplay and costume props. For a budget of around $200, you’ll have a sword to mix and match with different outfits.

Chokuto Sword vs. Samurai Katana Sword

Katana's Saya or scabbard
( Source)

The chokuto had a straight, single-edged blade and functioned as a thrusting weapon, while the Japanese katana sword had a curved blade efficient for slashing. Also, the former is a pre-historic sword used by the Kofun-period warriors, and the latter was one of the preferred weapons of the samurai in feudal Japan.

The chokuto sword also had a different construction from the katana. The katana swords are one of the finest blades ever made, as swordsmiths of the time managed to create blades that were hard but not brittle. Comparatively, historical chokuto swords likely originated from China. Some blades had hardened cutting edges but were too thin and could hardly be used as weapons. 

The katana represents the quintessential Japanese sword, both in the blade shape and mounting. On the other hand, the chokuto swords were of Chinese design. The Japanese samurai sword in koshirae or elaborate mounting consists of a lacquered scabbard and decorative metal fittings. Some historical chokuto blades were also remounted in koshirae, with the most famous example known as Suiryuken or Water Dragon Sword.

Chokuto Sword vs. Ninja Sword

Ninja Warrior Japan

Any sword the ninja used can be referred to as a ninjato, and these covert agents of feudal Japan usually relied on straight blades—rarely on curved ones. Modern reproductions of ninjato feature chokuto-style blades, but it would be misleading to refer to them as chokuto swords.

The term chokuto refers to straight, single-edged swords of ancient Japan. On the other hand, the ninjato swords were relatively modern and were not always a straight-bladed sword. Also, historical chokuto swords usually had long blades of over 60 centimeters, but the ninjas preferred shorter blades. Still, both swords were efficient thrusting weapons.

Also, the chokuto swords were more of Chinese design, particularly on the pommel and mounting. In contrast, the ninja sword often reflects Japanese features, such as the tsukamaki or the Japanese art of sword handle wrapping. Modern ninjato often feature a square sword guard and braided hilt, which are not the features of historical chokuto swords.

Both swords rarely had clay tempered blades, but modern reproductions of ninjato feature high carbon steel blades, with some blades crafted from damascus steel, t10 steel, and spring steel. Today, the ninjato swords are more popular than the chokuto, as they often appear in films and anime and also became an integral part of ninjutsu martial arts.

Facts About the Japanese Chokuto Sword

The chokuto swords were the usual straight-bladed swords of the Kofun and Nara periods. Here are the things you need to know about the ancient Japanese sword:

The straight chokuto sword and its mountings are sometimes referred to as tachi.

In Chinese, the term tachi for the chokuto or straight swords is written as 大刀 to set it apart from the famous tachi sword with a curved blade, written as 太刀. The mounting of the straight sword is also called tachi, such as the kanto tachi and the kabutsuchi tachi. Some scholars refer to it as a straight tachi or jokoto-era tachi to distinguish it from the curved tachi sword.

Straight swords, like the chokuto and ken or tsurugi, were not uncommon in ancient Japan.

Blade for a Double Edged Sword Ken
( Source)

The Kofun period spanned from around 250 to 552 CE and got its name from the kofun burial mounds created during the time. Many weapons were recovered from these tombs, including chokuto swords and ken or tsurugi swords with a straight double-edged blade, similar to the Chinese jian. The tsurugi was used in Japan from the 3rd to the 6th centuries, but the single-edged chokuto gradually replaced it.

Scholars believe that some chokuto swords were produced in China.

The Wei Zhi, a Chinese historical text, mentions swords dealing with the country of Wa—the oldest known name of Japan in foreign sources. In 239 CE, Japanese ruler Himiko, also spelled Pimiko, accepted gifts from ancient China, including swords, mirrors, and silk. Modern scholars believe that Kofun-period swords, especially the chokuto, were of Chinese origins due to their style and blade inscriptions on some of them.

In the late Kofun period, swordsmiths experimented with blade hardness and durability.

While a very hard blade retained its cutting edge, it easily broke in combat. On the other hand, the softer blade was more flexible, but required frequent re-sharpening. So, Japanese swordsmiths started tempering the blades differently. Hardening the cutting edge more than the rest of the sword eliminated the need for re-sharpening, while the softer steel towards the back of the blade prevented it from becoming too brittle.

At the end of the Nara period, the true Japanese sword design emerged.

During the Nara period from 710 to 784, Japanese swordsmiths experimented with folded steel, which produced highly resilient and razor-sharp blades. By the end of the period, curved and differentially tempered blades, constructed of folded steel emerged.

By the Heian period from 794 to 1185, the curved and differentially tempered blades became the standard practice of swordsmiths. Other changes include the steepened blade surfaces for easier cuts, transitioning away from the bulky straight designs of previous periods.

The chokuto blade designs contributed to the development of curved swords.

Blade and Mounting for a Slung Sword (Tachi)
Blade and Mounting for a Slung Sword (Tachi), ca. 1640 ( Source)

Some scholars believe that the chokuto’s blade designs—the kirihazukuri and hira-zukuri—were combined to create the first tachi, the first Japanese sword to have a curved blade. Straight swords like the chokuto, continued to be produced into the mid-Heian period when the curved sword made its first appearance. However, there was some overlap between the two as straight swords remained in use until at least the late 10th century.

Straight chokuto swords served as thrusting and hacking weapons.

The kofun-period warriors were not samurai per se but the military elite of early clan groups, and they used straight swords for warfare. Until the 10th century, warriors had fought mainly on foot. Straight blades were efficient for close-range fighting, mainly for hacking and thrusting. 

As the samurai warriors established themselves as a ruling class, military tactics also changed. Since fighting on horseback required curved swords, many improvements were made to manufacture them.

The chokuto-style blades rarely appeared on later Japanese blades.

Some Kamakura-period tanto daggers had a hira-zukuri blade similar to the chokuto. However, long swords like the tachi and katana, the extra-long sword nodachi, and the short sword wakizashi had curved blades. The appearance of the ninja sword or ninjato is likely the invention of modern Hollywood, but modern replicas often feature straight blades similar to the chokuto sword.

Conclusion

Throughout history, the Japanese adapted their swords based on technological advancement and military strategy. The origins of the curved Japanese sword lay in the straight-bladed swords of ancient Japan. From the chokuto sword, the tachi evolved and became the blueprint for all swords produced in later times.

Sources Cited
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