Production Katana swords:
A Discussion

By Marc Ridgeway

Practical Pro Katana by Hanwei

Japanese katana swords have achieved legendary staus in imaginations throughout the word. Even people with no more than a passing interest in swords will repeat myths about the Katana. It is reknowned to be the best, sharpest, most durable sword ever made.

That, of course, is not true. Cultures all over the world created great swords, and each excelled for the uses that the design was optimized for.

Genuine Japanese Nihonto
The beauty of a genuine antique Nihonto (Katana made in Japan)
Nihonto What is true is that the Japanese sword was refined for hundreds of years to be the best that it could be. The Japanese sword represents the relentless pursuit of perfection in the human spirit. From making the steel to finishing the blade, to mounting it, each step was achieved by seperate craftsmen who apprenticed years to learn their craft. The very best of Japanese Katana swords are paradigms of both form and function. They are both weapons, and works of art.

Perhaps that is why they are so ensconsed in popular culture, or perhaps it is the unbroken sword tradition in Japan that exists even today. Whatever the reason, it is very likely that the katana is the most replicated sword in the world.

When considering replica katana swords, one must realize that they will never equal the originals in beauty and attention to detail. One must also be aware that the quality varies greatly, just as the quality of true nihonto varied greatly.

The production of replica katana to sell at market involves sacrifices and shortcuts to save time and money. In this discussion we will endeavor to explore the varying levels of production katana swords and examine the sacrifices made at each level. It is by examining and understanding these sacrifices that one can make an informed decision as to which sword provides the cost/value ratio that is right for you.

Of course the market is always in flux, so we cannot be 100% accurate , but we can make useful generalizations, and once you develop a knowlege of the shortcuts used, you will develop an eye for looking at a sword and picking them out.

The areas where shortcuts are taken in production are usually as follows:

  • Manufacturing Methods
  • Quality of Materials
  • Attention to Detail

It's dangerous to group offerings according to price, because good katana swords can be bought for little, and bad swords can be priced dearly. Instead we will attempt to subdivide the market into groups. Again, this is not 100% accurate, as quality and value vary even amongst the same brand, but for the sake of this discussion it will do.


Group One:
Non-functional Decorative Katana Swords

In this group the shortcuts are taken across the board. In all areas they are substandard and not fit for use.

VIDEO: The infamous 'Home Shopping Network' Incident

Unwittingly demonstrates just why these cheap stainless steel swords are unsuitable for useÂ…

Some of these may be easy to spot, or even honest about what they are. Some may be grossly overpriced, and misrepresented. Some may even be recreated in expensive and exhaustive aesthetic detail, with justifiably high prices, and still be unusable as a sword.

Shortcuts taken include materials, construction methods, and attention to detail. These katana swords will often be made from stainless steel, polished by machines, poorly heat-treated or not at all, and use the cheapest fittings and hardware availiable. Blades may be machine stamped from sheet metal.

These types of katana swords are available all over ebay with assurances that they "can chop iron". Some examples of companies selling wallhanger katana are United Cutlery, Samurai Sword, and Ryan Sword. Of these three only United is honest about the intended us of their swords.

Generic examples are found all over the net. They are not branded, or may be rebranded, but will be sold with names such as Sword of the Daywalker, Presentational Katana, Brides Sword, Samurai 3000, or almost any anime sword. This types of "swords" are flash eye candy, meant to attract the money of people with no knowlege of swords, but perhaps a passing interest in swords in popular culture.

Samurai 3000


The Samurai 3000 Katana by United Cutlery


Companies such as Marto may recreate a wallhanger katana in exquisite detail. It will be high priced, and justifiably so... but still a wallhanger because of the materials and methods used to create it.

One final type of this sword that should be mentioned is the counterfeit WWII katana swords that seem to permeate the market. These almost always come from Chinese "antique" dealers and are made poorly and artificaily aged. They look dirty and cheap. Horrible fake hamon ("temper" line), gaudy tsuka (handle) and saya (scabbard), and malformed kissaki (point) give these away. They are usually priced at $.01 to $199 with $100 shipping tacked on. These swords are fake, not made to for actual use, and the tactics used to advertise them is fraud.


Group Two:
Entry Level Collector's Katana Swords

I'm going to get myself in trouble here because many people are going to recognize sword the've bought, and resent me classifying them here. Please understand the classifications are my own invention, and are subjective.

In my opinion, an entry level collectors katana is a sword that is minimally functional to moderately functional but still consists of too many production sacrifices for Martial Arts use.

Some examples of these type katana are Musashi, Masahiro, Kawashima and the new United Black.

Masahiro Shadow Warrior

The Masahiro 'Shadow Warrior' Katana entry level collectors Katana


While these brands usually are made from acceptable steel, and heat-treated, they still represent huge cost saving measures. Often they are claimed to be "Hand Forged" but are much more likely the result of rolling mills. They are usually through hardened with fake hamon, but in some cases may indeed be dirrerentially hardened, which is a scary thing in this price range. So many microfractures, cracks, and stresses occur in a water quench, that $100 water quench sword will very likely not have the level of QC that would be ideal.

Sword of this level almost universally have cheap zinc-oxide or mixed metal fitting, the ito-maki (handle wrap) does not alternate, and no hishigami (paper triangles) are used to shape and support the diamond folds.

The swords are made in a factory setting and things like saya (scabbard) and tsuka (handle) are as well. They are not fitted properly, just made to tolerances and matched as best possible. This usually means lots of tight, loose or rattley saya.

The Tsuka(handle) are made too small or too large. The ones made small are hammered on with a mallet, and may seem tight and well made at first perusal, but this results in many cracked handles. The ones made too large are shimmed to fit.

Cracked Tsuka

While cracked tsuka occur on all but the highest end sword, they are almost standard at this price point


Often these sword feature a bo-hi (blade groove) that just sort of fade away before the kissaki (point). The reason for this is simple, the same machine that cuts the bohi also mirror polishes the blade. It is an enormous cost-saving step.

Sword in this catagory provide a moderately functional sword for casual collectors, but should always be well checked and perhaps modified if to see more than casual use.


Group Three:
Martial Arts Grade Katana Swords

Making a Katana

Martial Arts Grade katana swords come in varying levels of quality and varying prices as well. Many suppliers make Martial Art Grade katana, but the giants of the industry are Fred Chen and Paul Chen. Fred Chen's Huanou Factory, or spinoffs from it make katana swords for many, many brands. Paul Chen is the man behind the industry giant Hanwei, and also supplies sword for Bugei Trading Company.

There are many brands of good reputation supplying Martial Art grade production katana swords. Some of these are Hanwei, Dynasty Forge, Last Legend, Cheness, Imperial Forge, Ronin Katana, Kensei (formerly Oni Forge), Kris Cutlery, Citadel, Bugei, Martial Art Swords, and Sword Store. There are of course many others.

A couple of retailers offer a pretty decent katana that serves well as a training sword, as well as being a pretty good piece for collectors, because of the customization availiable. These include Ronin Swords and the SBG Custom katana.

Martial Art Grade swords are almost all truly hand-forged. Some are made by stock removal like the now defunct Atrim/ ASA katana.

VIDEO: Martial Arts Grade Sword Forging

A rare insight into how martial arts grade Katana are made by Cheness Cutlery

At the bottom of the spectrum is what many call beaters. Examples of this include the Hanwei Practical series, Dynasty Forge Musha Series and Cheness. The shortcuts taken to provide a dojo acceptable sword at low costs vary. The Hanwei Practical Series employs utilitarian fittings, synthetic materials and a lower level of polish. Dynasty Forge's Musha Series makes its concession in offering a through hardened blade, as did some of the old Oni Forge swords such as the Tonbo and Imperial. Cheness puts a lot of effort into a tough blade, and makes its sacrifices in the area of tsuka-maki and fittings. All of these also have cosmetic kissaki.

Cheness Kaze Katana


The Cheness Cutlery Kaze Katana, reviewed here on our sister site SBG.


The general fit and finish is pretty good on these, but tsuka-ho are still usually carved a bit big, and shimmed.

The mid-range of Martial Art Grade Blades is rich with choice. There is little doubt that this area is ruled by Hanwei, but many other choices exist, such as the Dynasty Forge Bushi Series, Kensei, Imperial Forge, Last Legend and others.

Shortcuts are still taken, though not as many, nor are they as crucial. In this range we begin to see better fitted tsuka and saya, better fittings, better polish and differentially hardened blades. The tsuka-ito alternates and employs hishgami, real samegawa (stingray skin) is used and in general fit and finish is at a higher level. Hanwei in particular has geometric kissaki.

Kissaki



The Geometric Kissaki of the Hanwei Practical Pro Katana compared to the Cheness Cutlery Kaze
with a cheaper and untraditional finish.


The most common shorcuts are still cosmetic kissaki, the use of some shimming in tsuka-ho and enhanced hamon. The process of polishing a blade to make a hamon present well is arduous and costly, as such several enhancing methods are used. The blade might be etched with acid to highlight the differing hardness of the steel in the hamon and that of the rest of the sword. The blade might also be maked off with a template and bead blasting done to simulate a hamon, leaving the real hamon hidden underneath. Or in the case of some like Kensei, the blade is left in a working polish, with a natural hamon using no enhancement methods.

The higher end of this class of Katana swords is ruled by Bugei, Hanwei and competitors Citadel, and Dynasty Forge Imperial Series. There are also others like Martial Art Swords and Sword Store.

Tori Elite Katana

A high end Hanwei Katana, the magnificent Tori Elite


These blades usually costing around the $1000 mark, will show markedly less blatant shortcuts, though of course they are still taken. Fittings will usually be of quality material, blades often folded, or at least in good polish and geometry, and more care is taken in fitting the mounts. Often these will have dedicated tsuka and saya carved for each blade. Still as a shortcut, tsuka will be precarved to a point, and then later finished when fitted to the blades. Of course mistakes are made, shims sometimes still used, and poor mounts slip through the QC cracks. A $1000 sword does show some level of refinement, but you cant expect the level of care taken in the production of a $6000 one off custom forged and mounted by skilled craftsmen.


Group Four:
High End User/Collector Katana

These are usually produced in very much the same way as the katana I classify as Martial Art Grade, and by the same name brands. The difference is that they are specialized in someway.

Hanwei offers a high end tamahagane katana, with exquiste fittings, as does Bugei. Dynasty Forge offers tamahagane as well.

Hanwei and Martial Art Swords offer blades made of L6 differentially hardened using special processes to create martenstic/bainitic compositon. These are known to be remarkably tough.


Conclusion

This discussion has only been a generalization of the brands, and manufacturing methods used. The market varies wildly, as do manufacturing techniques. The catagories, and brand placement in them is entirely my own contrivance, and as such is subject to being incomplete, opinionated, pigheaded and just flat-out wrong.

When considering purchasing production katana swords, education and due diligence is the key to success, as with any purchase. By familarizing yourself with the various offerings availiable, and the shortcuts taken to keep costs down, one can begin to decide what katana will best suit you for your intended purposes.

For this purpose I hope the generalizations and opinions I've offered in this discussion will be of some use.

Thanks for reading and happy collecting.


Marc RidgewayABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Marc Ridgeway is well known (some would say infamous) personality on both Sword Forum International and the SBG Sword Forum. He is also the author of an honest and straightforward guide to buying Japanese swords on ebay.




I hope this guide to the world of production Katana swords has been helpful. To return to the SMG Homepage from Production Katana swords: A Discussion, click here




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