The katana is the most iconic samurai sword and is also the only traditional Japanese sword to have actually been designed for cutting, not stabbing. The blade has an extremely thin profile called a kissaki and a very sharp edge, both of which make it ideal for quick, decisive strikes. In fact, it is this very characteristic that led to its widespread use throughout the ages, from the fabled 300 year Mongol invasions to some of the most infamous battles in world history.
The history of the katana as a samurai sword is a fascinating one, which can be roughly divided into three eras – ancient, medieval and modern. In ancient times, the Japanese didn’t use swords but spears. However, as they began to move away from the simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into agriculture, they needed a weapon that was much better suited to farming – in particular, cutting down trees. Thus was born the hoko , or woodcutting blade. It was a straight sword with a simple, single-edged blade and was probably the first Japanese blade.
The Rise of Swords
As time went on, the Japanese gradually became more advanced and their weapons evolved as well. Eventually, they developed the katana out of a single-edged hoko sword. The first known katana was found in the fifth century and was made by folding steel sheets multiple times until it was very thin. This created a sharper edge and a tougher sword that could cut through even harder substances, such as the hard wood used for the samurai’s armor. In the eighth century, the katana had already become a high-quality weapon and was one of the most popular swords used by Japanese soldiers.
The Type F Sword
Kensa was a fairly common form of sword during medieval Japan’s Heian period and remained so until the twelfth century. It is unclear why this weapon fell out of use but some have speculated that it was because its design made it difficult to wield in close combat, especially in wet conditions, leading to an increase in blade breakages. It was replaced by the type-F sword, which is still in use today. It was a heavy sword with a characteristic rectangular guard and wide hilt. It also usually had two distinct cutting edges and a curvy back edge for parrying.
During the thirteenth century, the katana became even more popular than its predecessors and quite possibly the most popular Japanese sword to date. It was still a single-edged blade but very thin and with a much more curved back edge, which made it easier to cut through armor than its predecessors.