Tachi Sword: Types of Mounting, History, and Use
Designed for use in slashing, the tachi was the first type of Japanese sword with a curved blade. The early samurai used it from horseback and wore it suspended from the belt with its edge down. Eventually, it became the pattern for all Japanese blades developed during the later periods.
Let’s explore the history and characteristics of the tachi sword and how it differs from the katana, wakizashi, and odachi.
Characteristics of Tachi Swords
The distinguishing feature of the tachi is how it was mounted and carried. Generally, tachi swords were produced during the Koto period, before 1596, and worn slung from a belt with its cutting edge facing down.
Here are the characteristics of the tachi sword:
Metal and Construction
The methods used in making Japanese swords today are very similar to the techniques used by ancient swordsmiths. Generally, a sword had to be hard to maintain a sharp cutting edge. However, hard steel is brittle and will break under heavy blows.
Early tachi swords had a single piece of forged high-carbon steel blade. Later on, swordsmiths incorporated a soft core of low-carbon steel into the blade to make them durable yet not brittle. They also hardened the cutting edge though heat treatment.
An authentic tachi, a nihonto, is made from tamahagane by licensed Japanese swordsmiths. Some collectors also obtain replicas and so-called battle-ready swords with full tang and clay-tempered blades, often of spring steel and rarely damascus steel.
Most recognized for its pronounced curve in the blade, the tachi allowed sweeping cuts against enemies on the ground or mounted on horses. Later tachi blades were generally wider, thicker, and heavier.
A tachi blade also features the hamon, the decorative pattern of the hardened edge. Kamakura-period blades usually had broader hamon and allowed re-polishing several times.
Size and Length
A tachi is a long sword with a blade length of over 60 centimeters (24 inches). Blades longer than 90 centimeters (35 inches) are known as odachi (long tachi), while those shorter than 60 centimeters are called kodachi (short tachi).
The tachi swords were traditionally fitted with ornate mountings (koshirae), with their tsuka (hilt) and saya (scabbard) lacquered and gilded. A tsuba (sword guard) protected the hands, while the same (rayskin) hilt-covering provided a secure grip for the swordsman.
Tachi swords were designed to be drawn and wielded with one hand, usually from horseback. Their scabbard featured hangers (ashi), which allowed it to be slung from a belt with its edge-down. However, there are several variations of tachi koshirae.
Types of Sword Mounting
Swords could be mounted either for ceremonial or battlefield use. The term gijo no tachi refers to a ceremonial sword, contrary to the hyojo no tachi or war sword. Under the category of ceremonial swords are the kazari-tachi and hosodachi. However, mountings used for tachi swords were also sometimes used for other types of swords.
1. Kazari tachi
Meaning ornamental sword, the kazari-tachi was used by members of the imperial family and high-ranking nobles at court ceremonies. As a symbol of rank and status, it could only be worn with special permission from the emperor.
Generally, the kazari-tachi was not mounted with a steel blade but with a substitute of bamboo or wood. Still, it was elaborately decorated, usually with gold or gilded silver, and featured openwork designs.
The kazari-tachi also had an unwrapped hilt covered with rayskin, Chinese-style sword guards, scabbard, and decorated with mother of pearl and gold lacquer.
Meaning narrow or slender tachi, the hosodachi is the stripped-down version of a kazari-tachi. It was worn by lower-ranking aristocrats, who were not allowed to wear a kazari-tachi. It usually had silver fittings instead of gold.
3. Kenukigata tachi
The kenukigata-tachi was among the swords of the Six Guards. Its name comes from kenuki, meaning tweezer, a reference to the opening of its hilt. It is notable for its open tang design, decorated with carvings.
Later examples lacked the openings but featured a typical hilt with a menuki ornament in the form of a kenukigata openwork design. They were common during the Heian period and remained used as ceremonial swords during the Muromachi and Edo periods.
4. Hyogo-gusari no tachi
The hyogo-gusari no tachi is characterized by its scabbard’s hanging straps which are made of braided metal instead of a cloth string. During the Heian and Kamakura periods, they served as practical weapons used by warriors and nobles. In later periods, they served as offerings to temples and shrines.
5. Kokushitsu no tachi
Meaning black-lacquer tachi, the kokushitsu no tachi refers to a sword worn during funeral services, usually of court aristocrats or persons of the sixth court rank and below. It generally had a lacquered black scabbard with black or dark-colored fittings. The term also applied to a black-lacquered sword used on the battlefield.
6. Hirumaki no tachi
The hirumaki no tachi refers to a tachi mounting where its scabbard is wrapped with a strip of metal in a spiral. The metal plate was often copper or silver. This type of koshirae was common during the Kamakura and Nanbukocho periods.
7. Nishiki-tutsumi no tachi
The nishiki-tutsumi no tachi refers to a tachi with a hilt or scabbard covered with nishiki (brocade). However, surviving examples often lost their brocade coverings.
8. Kawa-tutsumi no tachi
The kawa-tutsumi no tachi describes a tachi mounting whose hilt or scabbard is wrapped with leather (shibokawa). The term also applies to the battle-oriented swords of the Kamakura period onwards with leather-covered scabbards.
9. Itomaki no tachi
The itomaki no tachi has the upper portion of the scabbard wrapped (maki) with fabric (ito). Some believe that the fabric wrapping provided a better grip for the hand when drawing the sword. It also protected the scabbard from scratching against the armor.
The itomaki no tachi was a practical mount used during the late Kamakura to the Muromachi period. However, by the Edo period onwards, it became a ceremonial mounting, worn with formal dress.
A handachi, which means half tachi, was a hybrid form of a tachi and an uchigatana. Generally, a tachi sword was carried hung from the belt with its cutting edge down. On the contrary, an uchigatana was thrust through the belt with its cutting edge up.
In some instances, a tachi sword had removable hangers to allow the thrusting through the belt. Also, some uchigatana-koshirae allowed wearing the sword thrusted through the belt with its cutting edge downwards.
Facts About the Tachi Sword
The term tachi comes from tachikiru, meaning to cut in two. It refers to the early curved swords of Japan that were primarily used from the Heian to Muromachi periods. Here are the things you should know about the tachi sword:
- The tachi is a single-edged sword with a curved blade.
The tachi is the earliest single-edged sword that succeeded the two-edged ken sword in Japan. Unlike the straight blades of older swords, it functioned as a slashing weapon rather than a thrusting tool. The tachi is quite similar to its successor, the katana.
- The term tachi was also used to refer to chokuto or straight swords.
The name tachi was used for straight single-edged swords produced during the Jokoto era, the earliest historical period of Japan. To avoid confusion, modern scholars use the term chokuto, though some sources use jokoto tachi. The straight jokoto tachi of the Nara and early Heian periods likely served as a cavalry weapon, like the curved nihonto tachi of the later Heian and Kamakura periods.
- The tachi sword was designed for mounted warfare.
The long, curved blade of the tachi allowed for an efficient cutting technique when used on horseback. The tachi also served as a primary sidearm when a warrior ran out of arrows or was unable to use his bow.
- The tachi sword also had an accompanying blade or hakizoe.
The kodachi, sometimes called hakizoe-kodachi, served as a companion blade to the tachi sword. It was also worn edge-down suspended from the belt through two hangers.
- Only a few early tachi have survived today.
During the medieval period in Japan, many tachi swords were cut down to make shorter swords like uchigatana and katana. One of the earliest tachi swords to have survived intact is the Kogarasu-Maru of the Taira family that is now part of the imperial collection.
Tachi in the History of Japanese Swords
Every period in Japanese history saw gradual changes to the shape and design of tachi swords. Eventually, several types of swords emerged, including the odachi, uchigatana, wakizashi, and katana.
During the Kofun period from the 3rd to 7th centuries, swords were straight and short, modeled after the blades of China and Korea. These swords are straight and called chokuto. There are various types of chokuto, including the double-edged tsurugi and the single-edged jokoto tachi.
During the Heian period, between 794 and 1185, swordsmiths began to develop curved and different tempered blades. Since the Tachi was the first Japanese sword to have a curved blade, it shifted from a hacking and stabbing tool to a slicing weapon.
The curved blade of the tachi was likely a response to the military tactics that included more cavalry usage. Since the curved blade resulted in sharper swords and easier cuts, warriors on horseback used them to slash down from a higher position.
The tachi with curved blades also became the standard weapon for the Heian warrior, who wore the sword with its edge downward. Some Heian-period tachi had a strong curvature, complex hamon or tempering pattern, and blade length around 80 cm.
In the 12th century, the samurai class of feudal Japan had a strong demand for efficient and functional swords. Therefore, the Japanese sword-making craft reached its zenith, and differences in styles emerged. The Bizen school, centered near modern-day Okayama, was the most productive area for sword-making, likely because of the availability of good iron ore called satetsu and wood charcoal.
Japanese swords continued to evolve and improve during the Kamakura period, acquiring more curvature and better construction. The tachi blades from this period ranged from 69 cm to 79 cm in length, and many of them are still in existence today.
From 1333 to 1392, the samurai fought on foot rather than from horseback, a factor that influenced the design and size of swords. The odachi or nodachi with a cutting edge of 90 centimeters in length or more were made.
These blades were longer than a normal tachi, so the samurai carried them on their backs. Hence, they were also referred to as the seoidachi, meaning back-carried tachi. Some of the odachi swords that have survived to this day functioned as an offering to a temple rather than a weapon for combat.
Within the Muromachi period emerged the Sengoku period, when Japan was in constant civil war. It was customary for samurai to carry swords in the tachi style: slung from the waist with the cutting edge facing down. The samurai wore tachi suspended from the belt and a mid-length sword called uchigatana inserted through the belt.
The tachi blades ranged from approximately 66 to 72 centimeters, but they were too long to be drawn or wielded comfortably. Since the fighting was mostly in enclosed spaces, many soldiers favored the mid-length sword uchigatana over the tachi. Initially, the uchigatana was around 42 centimeters in length. Towards the end of the period, it ranged from 54 to 60 centimeters.
Later, it became fashionable to wear swords through the belt—with the cutting edge facing up. For this reason, many wakizashi, a short sword between 30 and 60 centimeters long, were produced. In the late Muromachi period, katana swords replaced tachi swords.
Tachi Sword vs. Katana Sword
Although both swords are single-edged and curved, the tachi blades tend to have a more pronounced curvature. They were often longer than katana blades, which measure over 60 centimeters long. Today, both tachi and katana are considered long swords or daito.
The Japanese tachi swords were also distinguished from katana because they were worn differently. The samurai wore the tachi with its cutting edge facing down, while the katana with its cutting edge facing up, tucked into the belt. It also means that the tachi functioned better as a cavalry sword and the katana as an infantry sword.
The Mei or Signature on the Tang
In the 15th century, many tachi swords were shortened and worn as katanas. In some cases, the only way to tell whether the samurai sword was a tachi or a katana is to examine the mei or signature of their makers inscribed on the tang.
For tachi, swordsmiths traditionally carved their signatures on the side of the tang that would face out when carried. On the other hand, the katana had the signature on the opposite side of the tang.
However, shortening the tachi involved shortening the tang, so some swords would often lose the signature of their makers. Also, when it became the norm to wear tachi as katana, swordsmiths would respond by intentionally placing their signatures on the opposite side of the tang.
The Tachi Sword in Modern Times
An authentic tachi is an object of art and a piece of Japanese history, so sword connoisseurs value them in their collections. If you are a beginner in sword collecting, it is unlikely you’ll spend thousands on antique swords. Replica swords can also make great collection pieces, as well as for other activities such as cosplay.
Battle-ready tachi have full tang blades, so they are often used in tameshigiri which tests both the blade and skill of the practitioner. While most Japanese martial arts use wooden swords called bokken, some schools also use tachi for demonstration, such as to cut bamboo, tatami mats, and other objects.
In Japanese history, the samurai warriors wielded different types of swords in battles. The curved tachi was worn edge down and used from horseback. With the introduction of European firearms in Japan in the 16th century, the military use of Japanese swords declined. Today, tachi swords remain an object of fascination for collectors, sword enthusiasts, and martial arts practitioners.