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Katana vs Longsword: A Tale as Old as Time

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: February 20, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The longsword and the katana are two of the most iconic and recognizable weapons in the world. With a long and rich history, both these swords have caused their fair share of havoc on the battlefield throughout the centuries and have been tested under the unforgiving conditions of warfare.

Although they have a few similarities in terms of their function in combat, they also have distinct differences. Therefore, to this day, sword enthusiasts still debate the age-old question – which one is the better weapon, the katana or the longsword? In this article, we are going to look at their histories, characteristics, and how they would fare against each other.

Characteristics of the Katana and the Longsword

Although these two iconic swords bear a few similarities in terms of their function, they also feature several differences, so it’s best to look at their characteristics individually when comparing them.

OverviewKatanaLongsword
FunctionDelivering strong cutting and cleaving blowsPerforming quick, precise, and unpredictable thrusts
DesignCurved single-edged blade that was relatively short for a two handed swordLong, straight double-edged blade balanced around the tip of the sword for optimal thrusting power
VersatilityExceptional at cutting in one direction, best when used offensivelyExceptional multitasker, able to be ‘half-sworded’ and providing a range of defensive capabilities

Blade

When looking at both swords, the most obvious distinction can be seen in the design of the blade.

Katana's Sori or Blade Curvature
Katana curved blade with distinct hamon – Credits: Met Museum

In order to maintain its high-quality standard, the katana’s blade was traditionally made out of the purest steel which the Japanese refer to as tamahagane, also known as jewel steel. The sword featured a single-edged curved blade that was generally around 23.6 inches long (60 cm).

practice logsword
German longsword, ca. 1575 – Credits: Met Museum

On the other hand, longswords were generally fashioned out of spring steel and unlike the katana, it has a double-edged straight blade. Its reach also extended farther than the katana’s, with the blade length ranging between 33-40 inches (83-101 cm).

Sword Mounting

Th­­e mounting for both swords can be separated into 3 parts: the guard, the hilt, and the pommel.

Guard

Katana's Tsuba
Winged dragon tsuba, 17th -18th century – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The guard of the katana, also known as tsuba, remained fairly standardized throughout the centuries and bore either a circular or squared design with rounded edges. Swordsmiths often used the guard as sort of a ‘canvas’ and included intricate decorative designs.

Longsword guard
Guard of a longsword – Credits: Iron Gate Armory

The crossguard of the longsword on its own offered the same advantages as the katana’s tsuba. Although it didn’t feature any elaborate designs, the addition of the extended quillons provided additional means of protection. The longsword eventually developed a fully swept hilt, making it superior to the tsuba.

Handle

Katana tsuka
The handle of a katana also known as tsuka – Credits: mai-ko.com

Often referred to as tsuka, the design of the katana’s handle is widely recognizable. Fashioned out of wood and measured to be one-third of the entire sword’s length, samegawa or ray skin was then typically used to cover the core of the handle. This was then further enveloped in patterned silk or cotton wrapping.

longsword handle
Handle of a longsword wrapped in black leather with metal wires – Credits: Myarmoury.com

While the katana featured a full tang, the longswords only had a narrow tang, covered inside a hollowed wooden grip. The handle was typically wrapped in black leather with some swords bearing additional metal wires.

Pommel

featured fittings at the end of the tsuka
Featured fittings at the end of the tsuka – Credits: Medieval Swords World

Pommels usually serve the purpose of providing a counterweight to the sword. However, due to the fact that the katana was relatively short for a two-handed sword, it required less counterbalance. Therefore, it only featured fittings at the end of the ­tsuka that mostly served the purpose of keeping the handle and wrappings together.

Longsword pommel that acts as counterbalance
Longsword pommel that acts as counterbalance – Credits: Medievalware.com

Unlike the katana, the longsword was a much larger sword and therefore required more counterbalancing. Most longswords had either brass or iron pommels, with some also being made out of steel. Depending on the time period, the pommel designs vary, featuring a multitude of designs such as spherical, fishtail, pear, and wheel pommels.

How would they fare against each other?

In order to be able to answer that question, we need to assess the discernable factors which are present in any blade.

Cutting ability

A sword’s ability to perform strong cleaving and cutting blows is the primary function of most blades. Over the centuries, the ­katana has become well known for its cutting power. With centuries worth of practice and perfection, it even possesses a mythical aura when it comes to it, with many legends believing it was able to cut through apparitions and ward off spirits.

On the other hand, the longsword hasn’t been around for as long and its cutting ability has often been dismissed by sword historians. 

Although both blades are undoubtedly capable of delivering powerful cutting strikes, it’s undeniable that a curved blade is mechanically superior to a straight one. That’s because the smaller surface of the curvature is able to generate more pressure for a given force than the longer, more spread out surface of a straight blade.

Thrusting ability

What the longsword lacks in its cutting abilities, it more than makes up for it with its thrusting abilities. It comes as a result of its straight blade and the fact that its geometry allows its thrusts to hit more quickly than those of a curved blade. In addition, the fact that the balance of the longsword is focused on the tip of the blade means that it requires much less movement.

Although the katanas thrusts are just as dangerous and deadly if landed on an opponent, its curved edge and shorter blade lacks both the precision and the reach of the longsword.

Durability, speed, and defensive capacity

A sword’s ability to parry and block strikes from other weapons is a crucial feature in battle. The same goes for the sword’s durability to withstand these blows.

The centuries-old techniques that are used to produce the ­katana made it resilient and able to withstand cracking and chipping when delivering powerful blows. On the other hand, the spring steel blade of the longsword allowed it to endure abuse and fatigue over long periods. Therefore, it’s safe to say that both of these battle-ready swords were quite resilient in their own right.

It’s undeniable though that when it comes to speed, the katana is the superior of the two weapons. Being a much lighter and shorter weapon, it is capable of more agile and fluid movements that the longsword simply can’t replicate.

Defensive capacity, however, is where the longsword gains its edge. The longer reach of its blade creates a natural area of defense and even if that distance was to be closed, its extended quillons provide much better protection than the katana’s tsuba.

History and Origin of the Katana

Katana with scabbard
Katana with scabbard – Credits: Wales247.co

The katana (刀) is a traditional Japanese sword closely associated with the fierce samurai warriors. Believed to be an extension of their soul, it is characterized by its curved, single-edged blade with a squared or circular guard and long handle designed to accommodate two hands.

However, it didn’t always bear the design of the iconic sword we all know today. In fact, most of the katana’s precursors resembled the Jian. They were straight, double-edged swords and were practically indistinguishable from their Chinese counterparts. It wasn’t until the end of the 10th century, when Japan cut its cultural ties with China that the first curved swords were introduced.

Muromachi Period, 1336-1573

Muromachi Period
Depiction of Muromachi Period – Credits: World History

The Muromachi era is characterized by violence and turbulence, due to the rise of the centuries-long Warring States Period within this era. During this time, civil wars and invasions took place on a constant basis. The samurai warriors relied on their tachi, the katana’s predecessor which featured a much longer high-carbon steel blade designed to strike down opponents from horseback.

However, as military strategies changed and the mounted cavalry tactics were abandoned for infantry tactics, the tachi’s greater length proved to be a hindrance in close-quarters combat as it was difficult to maneuver. Therefore, the katana was developed by Japanese swordsmiths in the late 14th century as a response to the evolving necessities in combat at the time.

The katana was designed to address the tachi’s limitations and with its shorter, curved, single-edged blade it allowed for more agile and versatile techniques. It slowly increased in popularity among samurai and effectively replaced the tachi because the quicker draw of the katana was better suited for combat where victory depended on fast response times.

Edo Period, 1603-1867

Edo Period
The Edo Period, a time of peace and stability – Credits: Wiki Media

One of the most significant periods in the history of the katana was the Edo period, characterized by relative peace and stability in Japan.

During this time, the production of the Japanese katana was strictly controlled by the shogunate. Swordsmiths were required to report to the government and abide by strict regulations regarding the quality and craftsmanship of their sword. This was done in order to maintain a high standard of quality and ensure that only the best swords were produced.

In the Edo period, the katana played an important role in Japanese society, not only as a weapon but as a symbol of the social status of the swordsman. It was closely associated with the samurai class and the wearing of the katana became a highly ritualized practice, with strict rules governing how it was worn and used.

History and Origin of the Longsword

Longsword
Replica of a longsword – Credits: blackfencer.com

The longsword originated in the 13th century, evolving from the war swords and great swords of that time period. Making its first appearance during the Hundred Years’ War, it went on to become a crucial weapon in late medieval European battlefields, ushering in a new era of sword fighting.

Medieval Period

Medieval Period
Longsword used by warriors for warfare during the Medieval Period – Credits: History.com

The origins of the European longsword can be traced back to the 13th century when it emerged along with the broadsword as a response to the change in warfare strategies. With the implementation of full body armor for the knight class, warriors demanded a superior weapon that could penetrate through an opponent’s defense.

The first longswords were used by knights and mounted warriors that needed a weapon that could be effectively used from horseback. However, as the use of armor became more prevalent and widespread, the longsword also became an essential weapon for infantry soldiers as well.

The longsword features a lot more variations and was less standardized than the katana, but it never strayed away from its primary purpose. Therefore, throughout all of its variations, its design remained as a cut-and-thrust sword, with the balance of the sword focused on the tip of the blade for additional thrusting power.

Renaissance

Renaissance
Longsword used for fencing and dueling during the Renaissance Period – Credits: Wiki Media

The Renaissance marked a turning point in Europe, including weapons and warfare. During this time the popularity of the longsword began to wane as firearms and gunpowder started becoming more common on the battlefield. However, the longsword remained a prominent weapon for fencing and dueling.

The longsword evolved to be more lightweight and fencing masters started developing new techniques that focused on agility and accuracy, making the longsword an essential weapon in the art of fencing.

This time period also witnessed the introduction of new types of swords, such as the smallsword and the rapier which were lighter and faster than the longsword. Regardless, the longsword remained a prominent weapon and served as a symbol of honor and chivalry, much like during the days when knights were revered.

Conclusion

In conclusion, both of these swords are marvels of swordsmanship. Although they both possess their own advantages and disadvantages, in a head-to-head duel it all comes down to the skill, capabilities, and preference of their wielders.

Sources Cited

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