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Samurai Sword Buyer's Guide
How to Choose a Samurai Sword
Buying a new samurai sword can be intimidating, especially if it's your first time. You don't know what's a good sword, what's a bad sword, how much to pay, what features to look for, etc. I hope this samurai sword buyer's guide will help you get a nice Japanese Samurai sword with as little pain as possible.
There are a few questions you need to ask yourself first, and this lens will help you come up with the right answers and find the sword you want!
1. What kind of sword do you want?
In other words, do you want a functional sword that can cut targets, a decorative sword that looks nice for home furnishing, or a practice sword for martial arts? Or, maybe you want some combination of the three: a functional sword that looks nice too.
Let's define what each type of sword is:
- Functional Samurai Sword. A functional sword is a sword that can cut through soft or hard targets repeatedly and not get damaged. Most Samurai sword hobbyists cut through rolls of bamboo mats called tatami or stalks of hard bamboo. Others like to cut things like watermelons or water bottles. Either way, deciding if you want to actually cut stuff will determine what kind of sword you want. A good functional sword must be made of heat-treated, high-carbon steel (preferably folded steel).
- Decorative Samurai Sword. A decorative sword is usually much cheaper than a functional sword because it's typically not designed to cut through targets: it's meant only to be put on display. Decorative swords are usually made of aluminum or stainless steel; neither of which is safe for cutting regular targets.
- Practice Samurai Sword. Practice Samurai swords are usually called Iaito. They are typically made of stainless steel or aluminum and cannot be sharpened. Martial artists use these for realistic training without the danger of a sharpened edge. Most Iaito are also quite beautiful and can be used equally as a decorative piece. A good Iaito is made just like a functional sword, but without the sharp edge.
Decorative Katana Swords
This katana-shaped letter opener is a great decorative item for your home or office.
Beautiful (and very inexpensive) samurai sword set consisting of three swords (katana, wakizashi and tanto).
Another sword set for a very reasonable price.
Functional Katana Swords
Functional katana swords are great if you want to do some backyard cutting of water bottles or bamboo mats.
Practice Katana Swords
These swords are for practicing martial arts such as Kendo or Iaido, and not for any kind of cutting so keep that in mind.
2. Is the Samurai sword made of high-carbon steel, aluminum, or stainless steel?
The type of metal a sword is made out is one of the most important elements of a sword. High-carbon steel is really the only choice for a fully functional Japanese sword (a higher carbon count is better than a low-carbon count, but as long as it's made from high-carbon steel - that's what's most important). Aluminum or stainless steel is suitable only for decoration or practice.
Trying to cut with a sharpened stainless steel blade can be extremely dangerous (see video clip below). The blade is not strong enough to stand up to the rigors of hard cutting and can break, putting you in danger of sharp flying metal.
Only heat-forged, high-carbon steel is good enough for cutting and the only thing that will hold an edge after repeated use (if the sword maker says that the sword has been hand-forged and/or folded, that's even better).
3. Has the Samurai sword been heat-forged, folded, or stamped from a machine?
The best functional Japanese swords are heat-forged and folded. However, some good blades can still just be heat-forged alone even if they haven't been hand-folded. But swords stamped from a machine are typically not strong enough for multiple cuts. They may hold up for awhile, but stamped metal is considered poor craftsmanship and should be avoided.
If the sword is heat-forged and/or folded, the sword maker will certainly tell you since its an important selling point.
Test cut with a Paul Chen sword
4. Does the Samurai sword have a full tang?
What's a tang and why do I need one? The tang is the part of the steel that extends inside the handle. A full tang stretches the entire length of the handle.
Most decorative sword makers use a shortened tang to save on production costs, but a full tang is an absolute must for cutting real targets. It basically ensures that your blade stays attached to the handle (tsuka) since it's really all just one single piece of metal from tip (kissaki) to pommel (kashira).
Full Tang Katana Swords
Folded Steel Samurai Swords
Highest quality samurai swords will be made of folded steel, and if you plan to do any serious cutting that's what you want to purchase.
5. What are you going to cut with your Samurai Sword?
There are three basic categories of cutting: light cutting, medium cutting, and heavy or hard cutting. Most sword makers will tell you what each sword is designed for:
- Light Cutting: pool noodles, beach mats, water bottles, etc.
- Medium Cutting: regular cutting of light targets and occasional cutting of tatami omote.
- Heavy or Hard Cutting: regular cutting of Tatami and occasional cutting of heavy targets such as 3"+ bamboo, multiple rolls of tatami, or mats wrapped around an oak dowel.
A good rule of thumb is that more expensive swords are more durable and suited for heavier cutting, but it depends on the manufacturer and specific product, so be sure to read the descriptions and reviews before you commit to buying.
Test cut with a Paul Chen sword
There is one other sub-category of functional swords usually referred to as "Goza" cutters. Most beginning sword buyers shouldn't worry about this type of sword, but I felt I should mention it since I've cut with and liked some Goza-cutters.
What is a Goza? A Goza-cutter is a sword specifically designed to cut through tatami mats alone and not much else. The steel is pounded flatter and thinner so the sword can cut through tatami mats more precisely and more easily. They look a little fatter than "normal" swords because of their broad blade width.
Some people scoff at Goza-cutters because they are not traditional-style swords, but I say to each his own. Would a Goza-cutter hold up on the battlefield cutting through armor and flesh? Probably not, but I don't plan on fighting any sword battles soon.
One more thing to mention about Goza-cutters is that the sword makers tend to make them slightly tip-heavy for better cutting. I personally don't like that. I prefer a balanced blade. So, ask the sword maker if the blade is balanced or weighted forward if you're interested in a Goza-cutter.
So, there you have it. Most Samurai swords aren't even offered in the "Goza" style, so don't even worry about this sub-category if you're now confused.
6. Does the Samurai sword have a real hamon, or an acid etched or brushed hamon?
This is probably the hardest thing for the first-time sword owner to determine. Private sellers will often claim that the hamon is real, when in fact it's been acid etched, or brushed with steel wire. A real hamon is an indication that the sword has been heat forged.
What is a hamon? The hamon is the wavy design that runs the length of the sharp-edge of the blade. A traditional or "real" hamon is a result of the heat-forging process which gives a Japanese sword its unique strength. Since many sword makers don't use this traditional process, they often make a "fake" hamon that is either brushed on or acid etched.
Don't worry too much about the sword having a "real" or "fake" hamon since the sword may still be a perfectly good cutter either way (the hamon typically makes no difference in how a sword performs). Just make sure the sword is high-carbon steel and heat-forged and you should be fine.
Cold Steel Katana Demo
7. What's your budget for a Samurai sword?
A decent cutting sword will start in the $200 range. They can range in prices well up into the thousands of dollars if you really want to get fancy. A $200-$500 functional sword is more than suitable for the beginner sword owner. You'll be quite pleased with most swords in this price range.
Basically, if you're just out to buy your first katana don't go overboard with the price. Unless you're looking for a truly remarkable collector's piece, $500 is the maximum you should pay in my opinion.
Paul Chen Swords - (aka Hanwei - same brand, different name)
Paul Chen (Hanwei) swords are some of the best, functional, affordable, and well-rounded swords in the business. They're strong, high-quality swords. You can't go wrong with Paul Chen.
8. Are you buying from a private seller, or a sword-making company?
If you're buying from a company that has a physical forging facility somewhere, you can be sure that they want to protect their reputation and won't try to pull the wool over your eyes. However, that doesn't mean that a company-manufactured sword is automatically superior to something a private seller might be selling. It just means that you're less likely to get ripped off by an established company. Buyer beware.
There are reputable online katana shops that can sell you a quality sword, but until you actually hold it in your hands you never know what you're getting. One helpful tip I can give you is to never buy an expensive sword ($200+) from eBay, as people are often reselling lower-quality swords there.
Cold Steel Swords
Cold Steel is best known for their high-quality knives, but they also make a mean Samurai sword. Cold Steel has been in the blade-making business for a long time, and they only produce high-quality steel.
Beautiful traditional-looking samurai sword by Cold Steel, well worth the price for any serious practitioner.
9. The X-Factor
There's that one element that can't really be described when picking up a sword for the first time. It's that "X" Factor. There have been times where I picked up a sword that looked fantastic, but just didn't "feel" right in my hands. Then there were other times that an average-looking sword felt fantastic!
It's often hard to tell until you pick it up with your own two hands. So, my advice is to ask the seller if they have a return policy for swords that you simply don't like once you hold it in person.
10. Still not sure what to buy?
If you're still just not sure what to buy, or if you're feeling nervous about spending $200-$500 dollars on a Samurai sword for the first time, here are a few brand names that have stood the test of time and are always high-quality, functional, cutting swords:
Any of these brands are great for the beginner swordsman. They range in price from $200-$1000, but are high-quality swords at any price and most reliable and consistent for their quality.
Good luck, and be careful!
If you'd like to learn more about Samurai swords, check out this site: Samurai Sword Site. This article should give you another view on how to purchase a good sword.
Masahiro & Ryumon Katana
Masahiro & Ryumon swords are my favorite brands. They are fully functional and sharpened swords, very affordable to beginner collectors and strong enough for most cutting you might do. If you don't know much about samurai swords, these are very good options.
Samurai swords are dangerous weapons that can hurt, maim, or kill people if not handled properly. If you don't know how to handle a samurai sword responsibly, don't try. Always use supervision when handling a samurai sword. The author is not responsible for any accident or injury resulting from improper use of a samurai sword. Always obey the laws of your state regarding samurai sword purchase and samurai sword use.
Katana Sword Books
If you're looking to learn more about the history, proper handling or training techniques with samurai katana, be sure to check out some of my favorite books on the topics.
Cheap Decorative Samurai Sword BREAKS - This is why you shouldn't use a cheap, decorative sword to cut with
I couldn't resist. This is too funny.
Swords on eBay
eBay often has extremely cheap katana swords, so it doesn't hurt to have a look.
- Japanese Sword - Wikipedia
More facts and history on the Japanese Sword.
Tell me what you think of this lens!