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Samurai swords are weapons used by the warrior class of feudal Japan, the samurai. They made use of various types of swords, each with its own features and function, from the small tanto to the grand tachi.
Different types of samurai swords
Katana. Katana samurai swords are single edged, two handed swords with a slender, curved blade. This extremely sharp, effective cutting weapon has a close historical association with the samurai warrior class; hence, it is often referred to as a samurai sword.
Wakizashi. Similar to the katana but shorter, the wakizashi was often worn together with the katana by the japanese samurai. It served as a backup blade and side arm and was sometimes used to perform seppuku.
Tanto. The tanto is a knife or dagger that was used for stabbing and slashing as well as committing seppuku. It first emerged during the Heian period.
Tachi. The samurai used this sword prior to the development of the katana. The tachi was mostly used on horseback for cutting down enemy foot soldiers.
Kodachi. Kodachi literally means “small tachi”. It is similar to the wakizashi in terms of size and technique, but its construction was different; the kodachi has a greater curve and a longer handle than the wakizashi.
Nodachi. The nodachi looks like the tachi but it is much longer. It was generally seen on open battlefields as its size made it difficult to use indoors. Nodachi means “field sword”.
Samurai sword sets are composed of a katana, a wakizashi and a tanto, which are displayed on a sword stand. Traditionally, when swords are not expected to be used for some time, they are stored in a plain wooden storage scabbard called shirasaya. Mock or imitation katana, which is used in practicing some Japanese samurai sword arts, is referred to as iaito.
The zatoichi or Japanese cane sword was used more by ninja and Meiji government officials than samurai historically, but it was popularized in modern times by the fictional samurai Zatoichi, hence its name. The actual term for the Japanese cane sword is shikomizue.
Classifications by length Samurai swords can be classified by blade length. Shaku is the traditional unit of measure used for handmade samurai swords, and one shaku is approximately 30.3 cm or 11.93 inches. The length of a blade is determined by measuring it in a straight line across the back from the tip to the munemachi (the point where the blade and tang meet). There are three main divisions of Japanese blade length. These are:
Tanto (knife or dagger) – 1 shaku or less
Shoto (short sword) – 1-2 shaku
Daito (long sword) – 2 shaku or more
Examples of shoto are the wakizashi and kodachi. The katana and tachi fall under the daito category. While the lower limit of the length of a daito is clearly stated, the upper limit is not well defined. Some historians and swordsmiths say that swords with a blade length of more than 3 shaku are “longer than normal daito” and should be classified as odachi. An example of odachi is the nodachi. Because odachi are abnormally long, they are usually worn across the back.
Samurai sword periods
The history of samurai swords can be divided into the following main periods:
Chokuto or Straight Sword (pre-800). Swords of this time had unusual shapes and were straight bladed in general.
Koto or Old Sword (pre-1596). Swords forged during this period are considered the best in Japanese history. The five schools of Japanese sword making, collectively known as Gokaden, were founded as well.
Shinto or New Sword (1597-1780). This period was deemed “new” because forging techniques underwent changes. Swords of this time were ornately engraved with dragons, flowers, and other designs.
Shinshinto or New New Sword (1781-1876). Old forging techniques were rediscovered and reintroduced, and samurai swords were made in the koto style, though they do not match the quality of the original koto blades.
Gendaito or Modern Sword (1877-1945). Military swords hand forged using traditional methods are called gendaito.
Shinsakuto or Newly Made Sword (present). Shinsakuto are modern swords made traditionally.