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Katana Sword: the Ultimate Lethal Weapon

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

katana swordThe katana sword is believed to be ultimate cutting weapon by many collectors of swords around the world. The katana sword is a gruesome looking weapon and its history tells the story of a weapon designed strictly for war, but ownership meant so much more to the samurai and possessors. The katana was mostly made famous by the samurai who were undoubtedly masters of sword warfare. The samurai could unsheathe their katana and cut through just about anything with the precision of a surgeon in a matter of seconds.

The katana was created by forging pieces of carbon steel with tungsten and molybdenum inclusions together. They were then heated and pounded together. The steel would be folded many times and the pounding would continue for several days until almost all traces carbon were removed from the steel. Strips of steel were continuously added to the product and hammered hundreds of times. At this stage it is only slightly curved or may have no curve at all. The gentle curvature of a katana is attained by a process of quenching; the sword maker coats the blade with several layers of wet clay slurry which is a special concoction unique to each sword maker, but generally it is composed of clay, water, and sometimes ash, grinding stone powder and/or rust, that's why the blade often remained immersed into the muddy swamp waters for several weeks.

The next step of the katana creation process was to temper the blade. This would be done by reheating the blade so everything but the edge would be reheated. The blade would be coated and covered by a hardened charcoal paste, clay and a powdered grinding stone. This would allow only the edge to be heated during reheating.

The edge of the katana would be heated to an extreme red hot glow. The edge only, would be dipped into cool water allowing it to cool much quicker than the rest of the blade. If cooled slowly, the material will break back down into iron and carbon and the molecular structure will return to its previous state. However, if cooled quickly, the steel's molecular structure is permanently altered. The reason for the formation of the curve in a properly hardened Japanese blade is that iron carbide, formed during heating and retained through quenching, has a lesser density than its root materials have separately. As a result, the blade is very flexible preventing snapping during combat. This also enabled the blade edge to be very fine. The final step was for the edge to be honed and sharpened even more to produce the equivalent of a razor.

After the blade is forged it is then sent to be polished. The polishing takes between one and three weeks. The polisher uses finer and finer grains of polishing stones until the blade has a mirror finish in a process called glazing. This makes the blade extremely sharp and reduces drag making it easier with which to cut. The blade curvature also adds to the cutting power.

After the sword maker is finished polishing and glazing the blade, he puts his signature on the hamon, a distinct swerving line of the blade curvature. The katana sword was highly prized and passed from generation to generation, with a special mention in the will. It was not infrequent that the katana cost more than all other possessions of the samurai together. A true samurai would rather die of hunger (which, incidentally, was very rare) than part with his sword as katana was believed to contain the soul of the samurai. The katanas bearing forger's signature are highly valued and sought after by the collectors though not as a lethal weapon but as a piece of art.

The katana smith's job was done when he put his signature on the blade. However, the blade is not the whole katana sword which can be viewed as a sort of meccano set where all pieces were replaceable. Moreover, various parts of the katana swords were made by different artisans each of them master of their own trade. For instance, only katana's blade was usually bequeathed, while all the remaining parts were furnished by the next katana owner. This was due to the belief that katana holds the samurai soul and therefore the sword has to reveal the soul of its current owner. As a result, one and the same katana sword could be «customized» to match its holder's attitude.

The tsuba is the katana's sword guard.  Its function is to keep the sword balanced as it is held in a fight, and to prevent the wielder from slipping his hand across its blade and injuring himself.  In a lot of sword fighting techniques, the tsuba is also used to block an incoming slash from the opponent's sword. The tsuba was typically 1 inch to 2 inches in diameter around the blade.

The tsuba can be of two types.  One type is made of iron and is called tetsu.  The other type is created using softer metals like gold, copper and silver, or alloys.  This other type is called kinko.  Both the tetsu and the kinko tsuba can be adorned with carvings, cutouts or other kinds of decor. Tsuba can be found in all kinds of shapes, both regular and irregular.  Artists specializing in the crafting of tsuba have license to be as whimsical as they wish on their work. 

Since the samurai class is now gone and obsolete in this modern era, tsuba have come to exist separately from the katana as objects of art.  There are art collectors who specialize on the tsuba and there are many schools of tsuba craftsmanship in Japan, with each school using methods that have been handed down for generations.  Some families in Japan who have ancestors in the samurai class often hand down tsuba as heirlooms depicting family mottos, seals and insignias in stylized designs. The prices for tsubas range from $300-400 to several thousand dollars.  

Another popular collector's item related to katana sword is menuka, a small metal figure inserted underneath the handle string, a sort of talisman to bring good luck to katana's owner. Collectors might also appreciate fuchi kashira - traditional fittings for the tsuka (the handle of a katana, approximately one-fourth to one-third the length of the blade) that help hold the tsuka together.

The katana was paired most often with the wakizashi or shoto, a similarly made but shorter sword, both worn by the members of the warrior class. It could also be worn with the tanto, an even smaller similarly shaped knife. The katana and wakizashi when paired with each other were called the daisho and they represented the social power and personal honor of the samurai.

The katana's unique design and in particular its sharpness necessitate quite a few specialized precautions to handle it. Failure to observe these precautions can easily lead to damage to the weapon or severe injury.

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