10 Things You Should Know and Consider Before Buying A Samurai Sword
Your purchase of a Samurai sword may be a once in a lifetime event. Before you buy, please take a little time to study these few items. We would encourage anyone interested in owning an authentic samurai sword to use all of these facts in deciding what sword you should buy.
The Steel: The most important consideration you should make regarding the purchase of a Samurai sword is with the steel. It is after all the extraordinary steel that the Japanese smith made with the forging and folding process that beat the impurities out of the raw iron ore. Over the past 100 years, metallurgy technology has progressed to the point that pure steel is available as a beginning material. Swedish Powdered Steel is one of these new steels. It is the purest form of steel with the least impurities.
Picking steel with the most even distribution of carbon will insure that there will be no weak spots in the finished forged blade. Beginning with very clean Swedish steel allows for a very controlled and precise heat treatment regimen that results in a very fine grain structure. It is this fine grain that creates a blade that is stronger and less prone to deflection and breakage.
Forging: This process defines the Samurai Sword. Authentic Samurai Swords are forged. Many companies are selling stock removal steel swords. These blades are not forged and do not have the integrity of a forged blade. Ask for forged steel blades when purchasing your Samurai Sword.
The one real benefit of a forged blade often overlooked is that each blade is unique and made by a skilled craftsman. Unlike modern blades that are stamped or milled out by the 1000s, each identical to the last, every forged blade is a one of a kind piece.
Forging allows the smith to determine how much each blade needs to be worked in order to obtain the best results. As each piece of steel is worked, it is folded repeatedly. This process tightens the grain pattern of the steel making for a more beautiful blade. This personal forging means that your sword is unique. No other blade will be the same as yours. Each forged and folded blade is an individual expression of the steel, the fire, and the smith.
- Heat Treating: The authentic Samurai Sword has a differentially heat treated edge. (Ha) The pattern you see at the sharpened edge is the signature of the heat-treating. (Mon) The name of this attribute of all Samurai Swords is the Hamon. This heat treatment changes the molecular structure of the steel into martinsite at the edge (Ha) and a softer more ductile pearlite body. The heat treated Hamon allows you to look into the steel and see the beauty of the activity and the different crystalline structure. Always demand a truly differentially heat-treated Samurai Sword. Some manufactures either try to polish on this look or use a chemical etching to achieve this look. This only gives a cosmetic look to the blade and has not achieved the purpose of heat-treating which is to change the steel into the different molecular structures.
Design and Shape: The design and shape of your Samurai Sword should be historically correct. Authentic samurai swords follow historical tradition. There are many shapes and designs in the market place today that have very little in common with the feudal era sword. The shape and balance of a properly made Japanese sword evolved over centuries. The life of the warrior depended upon his sword and he depended on the smith to make a blade that he could rely on in the direst of circumstances. You should purchase a Samurai Sword from those that honor this tradition and manifest these qualities.The evolved shape of the authentic samurai sword determined the strength, the cutting performance, and the balance. You want all these attributes in your Samurai Sword.
- Balance: Rarely considered by most is the balance of the sword. This is a very important factor in choosing a Samurai Sword. You should think of balance as functionality. Remember that the Samurai was a highly trained warrior and his sword had to be able to function in an extreme combat situation. Many modern swords are no longer made with this function in mind and are not capable of withstanding the stresses and strains of serious use. As you practice and train with your Samurai Sword you will acquire the strength to wield it properly. It is balance that will give you this benefit of strength when using a traditionally balanced blade in your training.
Polish: Polishing the steel brings the Samurai Sword to its final shape. The shape of the sword determines its success as a cutting instrument. Polishing a Samurai sword is a painstakingly long and tedious process requiring all surfaces of the sword to be refined and brought into harmony with each other, while maintaining the shape the sword smith originally intended for the sword. It is a process that requires hand finishing. Many swords today are finished on machines, which do not contribute to the swords efficiency or final beauty, but are merely made mirror bright with rounded lines and no visible characteristics of the forging and heat-treating the smith created in the blade.
Beware of some sword sellers who say that their blades are in cutting polish. The reality is that they don't finish them at all beyond a simple and poorly done foundation polish. (It's kind of like selling a car in working finish, however, in reality it would be just primer.)
The Japanese have a tradition of stone polishing by hand. This process takes days if not weeks of individual work. A traditional polish today would cost thousands of dollars per each blade done in this manner. This process is not practical today, however, the blade that you purchase today should be fully finished to display the hamon, folding pattern of the steel, and the various activities in the steel. It takes a great deal of extra time and care to finish blades to this level. If you are serious about the sword you are buying, you should expect no less than a full finish.
Mounting: The Samurai sword has many specific characteristics that make it what it is. The scabbard (saya) is made of wood. The opening has a water buffalo horn ring that reinforces the wood which helps prevent splitting at the area. A water buffalo horn part is attached to the saya allowing for the cord (sageo) to be attached. The metal fittings (tsuba, fuchi/kashira, menuki, and shitodome) should be of the authentic materials including steel, copper, silver, and gold. The handle (tsuka) should be a proper length to balance the blade and be held with two pins (mekugi). The under wrapping material should be ray skin (same) with proper cording (ito) or leather wrapping the handle in a traditional pattern.
A Samurai sword is vastly more than the sum of its parts. It is not enough to have a decent blade with cheap fittings, or a nice blade, but poorly executed tsuka. A Samurai sword is a synthesis of the blade, habaki, tsuka, and saya. With all the fittings matched in such a way as to ensure a proper flow and function. Everything needs to be of good quality to make it a good sword. Any one part not being of good quality and the entire sword suffers.
The overall success you have with your training will be a direct reflection of the mounting of the sword and the materials used.
- Testing: Your seller of swords should have a working knowledge of the swords they sell. Have they tested the actual sword? How do the swords stand up under cutting and practice? How will you know if the sword you purchase will perform to the highest standard? Make sure that you purchase your Samurai sword from someone who knows the swords they sell, someone who makes thousands of cuts each year with each and every style of blade. This type of seller will take the input received from cutting back to the smith with this direct feedback from actual use allowing the smith to refine his technique. This will ultimately benefit you, as you will receive the benefit of years of refinement.
- Quality Control: Your seller should provide extensive quality control. All steel blades can have imperfections. Does your company find these imperfections before the buyer? Many times, sellers will be in a hurry to deliver you a product to finish the sale. Demand that your Samurai sword be inspected. Your seller should make sure the saya fits, the habaki seats, the wrapping is tight, the fittings don't rattle, and the steel is properly forged with no cracks or blemishes. There is a difference between some sword loving fellow inspecting a sword and a professional swords craftsman doing the same. The synthesis of all the parts is a subtle balancing act. Hence, for someone to properly inspect a sword, they need to understand how all the parts work together, how these things are built, and how they should be built. The average Internet sales outlet doesn't know much about Japanese swords. Therefore, even if they do look them over, what value does it add? Demand professional and experienced quality control.
- Unconditional guarantee: Your seller should support the confidence in your purchase by providing you with a written warranty. You should ask your seller about the warranty against manufacturing defects and what policy the seller has.
Sometimes we as buyers discover that the product we purchased was not what we expected or that it was more than we could handle. Does your seller have a short term (7 day) no questions asked policy if this should arise? Allowing the customer time to be completely at ease with their purchase, or to return it in original condition for full refund, is a reasonable expectation that your seller should provide.