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Tachi vs Katana: Design, History, and Combat Differences

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: February 9, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The tachi and katana are famous swords from Japan used by the samurai. They are often seen in video games and anime, which can easily cause confusion between the two. 

This article will explain what each sword is called and what it means. We will also discuss how they are designed, what makes them unique, and compare their differences.

Tachi - Comparison
Tachi
Katana - Comparison 1
Katana
Origin
Tachi
Japan – Heian  and Kamakura Period (11/12th century)
Katana
Japan – Muromachi Period (14/15th century)
Use
Tachi
Warfare, Cavalry, Ceremonial
Katana
Warfare, Daily Self-Defense, Duels, Ceremonial
Average Length
Tachi
33.4 – 47.2 inches (85 – 120 cm)
Katana
33.4 – 43 inches (85 – 110 cm)
Weight
Tachi
2 to 2.9 lbs (0.9 to 1.3 kg)
Katana
2 to 2.9 lbs (0.9 to 1.3 kg)
Blade Type
Tachi
Single-Edge, Stronger Curve
Katana
Single-Edge, Softer Curve
Scabbard
Tachi
Worn Edge-Down
Katana
Worn Edge-Up
Handle
Tachi
Two-Handed, Stronger Curve
Katana
Two-Handed, Softer Curve
Construction
Tachi
Tamahagane Steel, High-carbon Steel
Katana
Tamahagane Steel, High-carbon Steel

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Tachi vs Katana Characteristics
The major differences between Tachi and Katana swords

The tachi is an early samurai sword named after the Japanese word meaning “to sever” or tachikiri, meaning “to cut in half.” It may have been influenced by China, coming to mean long sword.  

The word katana in Japanese means “sword,” “blade,” or “single-edged cutting tool.” In Japan, it is called “uchigatana” as it is carried with the edge up. 

Outside of Japan, the term “katana” is common and refers to a Japanese sword with a gentler curve that came after the tachi.

Blade

Main Autumn Leaf Katana by Dragon King Sword
Autumn Leaf Katana with Japan’s Ancient Tree” paying tribute to Japanese traditional craftsmanship

The tachi and katana are made from a high-carbon steel called tamahagane.  The steel comes from iron sand called satetsu, which is turned into a blade with a sharp edge.  

Both swords have a single-edged blade with a curve, called sori, but the tachi’s curve is more pronounced than the katana’s. 

Some tachi and katana blades are flat, while others have a groove called hi, often bohi, which decreases the sword’s weight and produces a distinctive sound when swung, known as tachikaze. This groove also adds to the sword’s look.  

Japanese swordsmiths created various blade shapes called zukuri, some of which had two edges. Clay tempering was used to harden the edges, making them sharper and creating a visible line on the blade (hamon).

The part of the sword under the handle, the nakago, had an inscription from their smiths called mei.  The position of this inscription differs between the tachi and katana due to how they were carried. 

To tell the katana and tachi apart, look at how the sword is held with the edge up. If the mei inscription is visible on the side facing you, it’s a katana. If you can’t see the inscription, it’s a tachi. 

Summary
The tachi and katana are Japanese swords made from tamahagane steel. They have a curved edge and a groove to make them lighter. Each sword has a special mark called mei that tells them apart.

Hilt

Main Tachi Sword Hazuya Polished Full Tang
Japanese Tachi” featuring Tachi-koshirae with a hazuya stone polished blade

The tachi and katana have fittings called koshirae. Their handles are covered with ray skin wrapped with silk, leather, or cotton and are in various patterns called tsukaito.

Both swords have handles long enough for two hands and have a round or square handguard, called tsuba, for protection. They are secured with two blade collars: the habaki and fuchi.

Katana have small, hard-to-see pommels called kashira. The tachi has a cap on the handle called kabutogane, with a movable ring named sarute for attaching to things. 

Tachi fittings vary in combat and ceremonial use, with popular types including the early kenukigatatachi, ceremonial kazaritachi, and the war-ready kawatutsumitachi.

Scabbard

Tachi and Katana Scabbard Difference
The different ways of carrying a Tachi (left) and Katana (right) – Credits: Sasaki Kojiro

The main difference between a tachi and a katana is how they are carried and shown off. The tachi was worn with its edge down, the sharp part facing the ground, while the katana was worn with its sharp edge facing up.  

Both swords have wooden scabbards called saya, which could be simple or elaborate. Tachi scabbards have straps called ashi, where the sword hangs from the belt.  

Katana scabbards used a cord called sageo, and the sword was tucked into the belt or sash (obi) worn around the waist. 

Samurai warriors carried their swords in a pair known as daisho, meaning “long sword and sword short.”  This includes a longer tachi or katana and a shorter blade like a wakizashi or tanto. In modern times, the daisho sometimes includes three swords instead of two. 

Size and Weight

Main Nodachi 1095 Steel Full Tang
Traditional Nodachi” with a massive size of almost 55 inches (140 cm) length

The tachi and katana are considered daito, or long swords in Japanese. This means they are longer than two shaku (24 inches / 60.6 cm). Both swords are between 35 and 39 inches  (90 and 100 cm) long, though some can be up to  43 inches (110 cm). The tachi may be larger because it was used in calvary. 

Their weight varies, depending on the decorations, but generally, they weigh between 2.2 to 2.9 lbs (1 to 1.3 kg).

When Japanese swords have the prefix “o,” it means they are larger. For example, the okatana or the odachi (sometimes called nodachi) are larger swords. On the other hand, “ko” indicates shorter swords, like the kokatana or kodachi.

Historical Significance

Tachi and Katana History
The Sengoku Jidai had widespread use of the tachi and katana – Credits: Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum

The tachi was a curved longsword first used by Japanese warriors in the late Heian period (794-1185). It was inspired by earlier, straight, single-edged swords called chokuto, similar to the Chinese dao. 

After diplomatic ties with China ended during the late Tang Dynasty (618-907), Japanese blacksmiths developed their own methods and styles for making swords. This led to the creation of the tachi, a curved sword initially used in ceremonies by the emperor and later becoming the main weapon of the samurai. 

The tachi was effective in battle, but after the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274-1281), weapons for close combat were highly needed. This led to the creation of the katana, a shorter, less curved, and more compact sword. 

It was worn with the sharp edge facing up, making it easier to draw. The katana soon became the preferred secondary weapon for warriors using larger weapons such as a naginata or yari spear.

After the tumultuous Sengoku Jidai period (1467-1615), the peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) began. During this time, larger tachi swords were converted into katana blades, turning the tachi into a sword used mainly in ceremonies.  

The katana was not just used for self-defense. It was also used for kenjutsu, a martial art to maintain the samurai spirit. It also became a symbol of feudal Japan, valued as an art piece and for cultural significance.

Katanas are still made in Japan today, preserving the samurai traditions. They are also used in martial arts like Kendo and Iaido.

Summary
The tachi, a curved sword from Japan’s Heian period, evolved into the katana, symbolizing samurai culture and remaining significant in martial arts and Japanese history.

Combat Preference

Tachi and Katana Combat Preference
Samurai warrior mounted on horse with a bow as his main warrior and a sword as his secondary – Credits: Wiki Media

The tachi and katana are swords designed for two hands but can be used with one and a half hands. They served as secondary weapons for samurai in battle alongside larger spears, bows, and rifles.

The tachi has a significant curve, better suited for slashing rather than thrusting. Its longer curve and handle made it perfect for attacks in cavalry. 

The katana has a softer curve, great for slashing but also effective for stabbing. Its design allows for precise control to target vital points on the enemy.  

Its compact design and unsheathing made it a powerful infantry and an everyday self-defense weapon. Even some later tachi designs were shortened to achieve these flexible combat traits of a katana. 

The katana was easy to carry and could be used on foot or in calvary for slashing. The katana’s design allowed it to become a primary weapon easily. 

Tachi vs Katana (Duel Winner)
The tachi sword is perfect for calvary but has limitations in versatility. The katana was a reliable sidearm in combat. The katana would likely be the victor in an unarmored duel due to its flexibility and design. 
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