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The Soul of a Samurai: What to Look for in a Sword

Soul of A Samurai

The Soul of A Samurai

One of the most common questions I get is: What do I look for in a sword? And they expect a simple answer, but there are many important elements in a good samurai sword. First of all, the steel itself is important since it is the steel that will be forged and folded. Some people have a fascination or fixation on antique swords, but the truth is that metallurgy technology has progressed tremendously over the past 100 years to the point that ‘pure’ steel is readily available as a beginning material. Swedish powdered steel is an example of these new steels: the purest form of steel, and with the least impurities. You want steel with the most even distribution of carbon to ensure there will be no ‘weak’ spots in the finished forged blade, and very fine grain creates a stronger blade that is less prone to deflection and breakage.

Next, forging is important to consider, but many modern companies sell ‘stock removal’ steel swords, milled out by the thousands, but they are not forged and thus lack the integrity of a forged blade. Forging allows the smith to determine how much each blade needs to be worked on to obtain the best results: each piece of steel is folded repeatedly, tightening the grain pattern, resulting in a unique sword, with the individual expression of the combination of steel, fire, and smith. Thus, the old saying: no authentic sword is like another, or an authentic sword is unique and is a one-of-a- kind.

Next, an authentic sword has a differentially heat-treated edge: heat treatment changes the molecular structure of the steel into martinsite at the blade edge and a softer ductile pearlite body. Some manufacturers try to ‘polish on’ this look or use a chemical etching to simulate this look, but this cosmetic look to the blade contradicts the whole purpose of heat treatment in the first place, which is to change the steel into the tremendously important different molecular structures.

Next, an important factor often neglected is the ‘balance’ of the sword, but balance is very important as it pertains to functionality. As you train and practice with your sword, you will eventually develop the strength to wield it correctly, and it is the balance of the sword that affects your technical swordsmanship and allows it to withstand the stresses and strains of serious use. Unless you plan to own a sword just for looks, display it, and let it collect dust, you can neglect the issue of balance.

Next, polishing the steel leads to the sword’s final shape, and the shape of the sword has significance in its ability to cut. Polishing is a painstakingly long and tedious hand finishing task that requires all surfaces to be refined and brought into harmony with each other, while still maintaining the original shape that the swordsmith had intended. Many modern swords are finished on machines and thus lack the efficiency and final beauty of a hand-forged and -treated blade. If you are a serious sword buyer, you are shelling out a lot of money and you should expect nothing less than a full finish.

Next, mounting is important because the final sword is vastly more than the sum of its parts. The saya (scabbard) is made of wood, and the opening has a water buffalo horn ring to reinforce the wood and helps avoid splitting, with the sageo (cord) attached to the saya and the horn. You want metal fittings, such as tsuba, fuchi/kashira, menuki, and shitodome, of authentic (rather than cheap) materials like steel, copper, silver, and gold. The tsuka (handle) must be a proper length to balance the blade, and the blade and handle are held together with 2 simple pins/pegs or mekugi. The under wrapping material should be ray skin with proper ito (cording) or leather wrapping the handle in a traditional pattern.

Everything needs to be of good quality material to make a fine sword, and it is unwise to just have a nice blade, but poorly executed tsuka. The sword’s function is only as good as the weakest link, so you do not want a sword with cheap or ill matching parts and fittings.

Also important is testing the sword to determine if it cuts to the highest standard. The test cutter should be experienced and knowledgeable, and provide direct feedback to the smith (if he doesn’t perform the cutting test himself), which helps him to refine his technique and become a better artisan. Quality control and getting an unconditional guarantee from the seller are other issues you may want to consider. Hope this helps, and may you find a well-matched functional sword that you are proud to call the soul of a samurai. Add a caption

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