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Tanto vs Katana: The Samurai Dagger and Sword Differences

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: February 17, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The tanto and katana swords are famous Japanese swords used by samurai warriors for everything from fighting to ceremonial rituals. 

This article will cover the differences between the tanto and katana, including their designs, terms, and historical significance. We will also compare their uses in battle to determine which will be the victor.

Tanto Comparison
Tanto
Katana Comparison
Katana
Origin
Tanto
Japan – Heian  and Kamakura Period (11/12th century)
Katana
Japan – Muromachi Period (14/15th century)
Use
Tanto
Warfare, Thrusting, Daily Self-Defense, Ceremonies
Katana
Warfare, Slashing, Daily Self-Defense, Duels, Ceremonies
Average Length
Tanto
10 – 16 inches (25 – 40 cm)
Katana
33.4 – 43 inches (85 – 110 cm)
Weight
Tanto
0.8 – 1.2 lbs (0.3 – 0.5 kg)
Katana
2 to 2.9 lbs (0.9 to 1.3 kg)
Blade Type
Tanto
Curved, Straight
Katana
Curved
Handle
Tanto
One-Handed
Katana
Two-Handed
Construction
Tanto
High-Carbon Steel, Tamahagane Steel
Katana
High-Carbon Steel, Tamahagane Steel

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Tanto vs Katana Characteristics
The major differences between a Tanto and a Katana sword

The tanto is a “short sword” or “short blade” in Japanese, usually meaning a small dagger. Today, it is known as the dagger-like sword used by the samurai.

In Japanese, Katana means “sword” and describes any curved, single-edged blade. Today, the term refers to the samurai sword developed during the 14th to 16th centuries, known as the Muromachi period. This sword is worn with the edge facing up, called uchigatana.

In Japan, katana means “sword.” This is why the tanto, a short blade, can sometimes be referred to as the shortest type of katana.

Blade

Hanwei Practical Tanto Martial Arts Blade
Hanwei Practical Tanto Martial Arts Blade” featuring a ray-skin hilt and a straight blade

The tanto and katana are Japanese swords with single-edged blades, sharp on one side and pointed for stabbing. Their shapes and tip designs, known as zukuri and kissaki, can differ; some tanto have straight edges. 

Both swords are made from tamahagane, a high-carbon steel from iron sand. This steel is folded to form the blade, creating visible layers called jigane. The tanto has a thicker spine for extra strength in stabbing, while the katana is more flexible.

During forging, they undergo clay tempering. This technique involves applying clay to the blade’s edge, making it harder than its spine. This process also creates a distinctive hamon line on each sword. 

They may have grooves (hi) to reduce weight. The tang, the part of the blade inside the handle, often features the swordsmith’s signature (mei) and may include details of the sword’s cutting tests. 

Japan continues to honor its sword-making traditions by allowing only blades made using traditional techniques and materials. These swords, known as nihonto, include well-known types like the Japanese tanto and katana.

Hilt

Thaitsuki Hoso Kumiage
Thaitsuki Hoso Kumiage” Katana with authentic fittings and a traditionally-made blade ideal for cutting

The tanto and katana have parts called koshirae. The tanto has a shorter grip for one hand, while the katana’s longer handle, or tsuka, is secured with a bamboo peg, mekugi.

For better hold, the trips might be wrapped with silk, cotton, or leather over a rough ray skin base. The tanto’s handle can also be fully covered in ray skin and tightened with the metal collar, habaki

Handguards, or tsuba, are mainly round but can be square, adding protection and decoration. Tanto without handguards, called ai-kuchi, are for stealth or carrying in a kimono. Ones with guards for combat are mae-zashi or hamidashi.  Most katana have a handguard, but some do not, like the sword wielded by Uesugi Kenshin.

Scabbard

1 9260 Steel Shobu Zukuri Katana Sword with scabbard
9260 Steel Shobu Zukuri Katana” displayed traditionally with the sharpened edge pointing up

Scabbards for Japanese tanto and katana swords are called saya and are designed to fit the blades perfectly, often with a shiny lacquered finish. 

Scabbards have a loop called kurikata, near the top. The tanto uses this for a small rope or lanyard, while the katana has a sageo rope that can be tied around the waist.

Depending on the style, the tanto can be worn beside a longer sword, like a tachi or katana, in the obi rope, placed inside the kimono, or worn on longer sleeves. 

The katana is worn on the left side of the waist, blade up, for quick drawing and striking, effective in close combat.  

Samurai carried the tanto and katana in a daisho set, symbolizing their status with these “short and long” blades. 

When not displayed or used for a long time, tanto and katana are stored in a shirasaya. This plain wooden scabbard protects the blade from rust and corrosion without any decorations. 

Size and Weight

Main Osoraku Zukuri Tanto with scabbard
Z-SEY Osoraku-Zukuri Tanto” with a very short size but a deadly blade

The main difference between the tanto and katana is their size. The tanto is a short blade, less than one shaku (about 12 inches or 30.3 cm), making it a dagger. The katana is longer, over three shaku (about 24 inches or 60.6 cm), classified as a daito or longsword.

Some tanto are in the short sword range, 1 to 3 shaku, and are known as ko-wakizashi.

The tanto is lighter, usually about 12 inches (30 cm) long, and weighs around 1 lb (0.4 kg). A traditional katana is about 39 inches (99cm) long and weighs about 2.7lbs (1.2 kg)

Historical Significance

Tanto vs Katana Historical Significance
Morimoto Gidayu depicted carrying a long tachi and a short tanto sword – Credits: Utagawa Kuniyoshi

After Japan stopped trading with Tang Dynasty China in the 10th century, it developed its own sword styles, leading to the creation of curved swords.

The tanto, developed during the Heian Period (8th-12th century), was used alongside the curved tachi sword. It became popular among samurai and commoners. Initially larger, the tanto was a key sidearm in the Kamakura Period (12th-14th century) and was also linked with ritual suicide known as seppuku.

Main Ghost of Tsushima Cosplay Daisho Set
Ghost of Tsushima Cosplay Daisho Set” comprising of a long Katana and a short Tanto

The katana emerged in the Muromachi Period (14th-16th century), favored for close combat, especially after the Mongol Invasions (late 13th century). It began to replace the calvary sword,  tachi.

During the Sengoku Jidai (16th century), the larger wakizashi replaced the tanto to meet the demands of combat, making the katana the primary samurai weapon.

During the peaceful Edo Period (17th-19th century), larger swords were limited, elevating the katana and tanto as key self-defense tools linked to martial arts, legendary swordsmiths, and ceremonies, with some serving purely symbolic roles.

Summary
Japan developed curved tanto and tachi swords after the 10th century, the key to samurai life. The tanto was used in combat and rituals, while the katana became the main samurai sword in the Muromachi Period. In the Edo Period, both were used for defense and ceremonies.  

Combat Preference

Tanto vs Katana Combat Preference
Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most popular samurai, who wielded a Katana and used a Tanto as a throwable dagger – Credits: Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The tanto is a short, one-handed sword used for stabbing and slashing. It was important for samurai to pierce gaps in armor, and could be hidden, making it useful for ninjas. Tanto are handy in close combat or as self-defense knives, carried even under casual attire. 

The katana, a longer two-handed sword, excels in slashing and can also thrust. It served as a backup weapon on the battlefield, replacing lost primary weapons like bows or spears. In the Edo Period, its size made it an ideal self-defense weapon for samurai. 

Both swords are still used in Japanese martial arts, such as tanto-jutsu, Iaido, or kendo.

Tanto vs Katana (Duel Winner)
In a duel, the katana usually has an advantage with its reach and power. However, a skilled tanto user can overcome a beginner katana wielder using the tanto’s speed in close combat. The katana is superior in open fights, while the tanto excels at close range.
Sources Cited
  1. Maynard, R. (1986, January 1). Tanto. Action Pursuit Group. 
  2. Turnbull, S. (2011, March 15). Katana. Bloomsbury Publishing. 
  3. Yumoto, J. M. (2013, January 8). Samurai Sword. Tuttle Publishing. 
  4. Sinclaire, C. (2018, January 30). Samurai Swords – A Collector’s Guide. Tuttle Publishing. 
  5. Kapp, L., Kapp, H., & Yoshihara, Y. (1987, January 1). The Craft of the Japanese Sword. Kodansha International. 
  6. Sharpe, M. (2009, January 28). Samurai Battles. Chartwell Books. 
  7. Cunningham, D. (2012, August 21). Samurai Weapons. Tuttle Publishing. 
  8. Sesko, M. (2014, September 30). Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords.
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