Now normally I would not be inclined to argue with a certain Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant by the name of R. Lee Ermey, but I stumbled across a video taking him to task for certain inaccuracies regarding comparisons between Japanese katana and old-school European longswords that made me sit up and take notice:
The criticisms here are accurate and valid. It is very difficult to compare Japanese swords with European ones and conclude unequivocally that Japanese weapons are categorically better.
When it comes to ancient and mediaeval weapons, there are a number of popular misconceptions that have to be dealt with and then put aside. Foremost among them is this notion- inculcated through decades of popular films about samurai and ninja in feudal and imperial Japan- that katana do not break or snap. The objection to mediaeval European swords that is often raised in this context is that such swords are used for brute-force attacks, wielded like clubs and spears, and are prone to chipping, flaking, and breaking when used with too much... enthusiasm. The argument is often made that Japanese katana, being altogether more refined weapons and forged by truly superb swordsmiths who know how to work a piece of steel (a sentiment with which I do agree), are better, stronger, and more effective weapons.
This is in fact untrue. It is quite possible to break a Japanese katana; the weapon is made for very specific types of strikes and is only truly effective when used in those contexts. If you try to use a katana like a club, you'll very likely end up breaking it.
From what I remember of a quite fascinating special on the subject from several years ago, katana are made using two types of steel. The key thing to remember is that the carbon content of steel alloy is what determines how well the resulting steel weapon will hold its edge. As with everything else in life, there are trade-offs here. High-carbon steel holds an edge beautifully- but is very brittle; if you apply enough force, and it doesn't necessarily take much, you can actually snap a high-carbon blade in half. Low-carbon steel cannot hold an edge very well at all- it's "soft" and bends easily (relatively speaking, anyway), but it isn't brittle.
What makes Japanese sword-smithing unique is the way that these two types of steel are combined into a single weapon.
The katana starts out as a core of low-carbon steel, around which is "jacketed" the high-carbon blade itself. The result is a blade that, when made with skill and used with care, can retain its edge and quality for decades after it was originally forged.
Like any weapon, a katana has its strengths as well as its weaknesses- as does the longsword. To understand why the comparison between the two isn't a very good one, you have to delve into a little bit of history.
What interests me about sword-fighting- purely from an amateur's perspective, mind you- is the way in which sword-fighting techniques have evolved over the centuries.
Back in the days of the Greek phalanxes- basically, the assault troops and shock infantry of their day- the primary weapon used in combat was a whacking great spear, which was perfectly adapted to the othismos or "pushing" tactics of the phalanx itself. The hoplite sword, typically called a xiphos, was a pig-sticker of a blade- maybe 60cm long at most, designed to be wielded in close quarters within the confines of the typical pushing match that was the phalanx engagement.
And thus swords stayed for quite some time. The Roman legions used a short sword known as a gladius, about 60-80cm long and designed, again, for close-quarters fighting. As far as I can tell- and I could very well be wrong- the concept of using long, heavy swords with two-handed grips and heavy, powerful swings didn't really come into common practice until the Dark and Middle Ages.
Sword-fighting tactics, though, seemed to stay more or less the same for centuries in the West. The basic idea was to close with your enemy and then use your sword to hack, slash, stab, or bludgeon him to death. If you read the works of certain blademasters of the past- such as Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, for instance- you'll find very heavy emphases placed on diagonal slashes and these concepts of "circles"- in the air and on the ground.
It really wasn't until the advent of gunpowder that sword-fighting techniques changed, and infantry soldiers starting using longer, heavier swords that were really better used almost as clubs and spears. This is where we get the infamous European longsword.
The problem with comparing that longsword to the katana now becomes immediately obvious. The two weapons are in no way intended for the same uses or tactics.
The katana, and its shorter, dagger-like counterpart, the wakizashi, are primarily slashing weapons. They are extremely effective when used at specific angles against specific parts of the body, which maximise the velocity of the sword-edge as it makes contact with the target.
But that is not to say that a European knight in full plate-armour, chain-mail, and leather bodkin using a longsword could not defeat a heavily armoured bakumatsu samurai wielding a katana. There are certain specific ranges and tactics that are optimal for each weapon.
While we're on the topic- there is something rather interesting to be noted about sword-fighting in general. The concept of simply poking hokes in people with refined, light, thin weapons designed to be more flexible and useful in combat has outlasted all of the other sword-fighting techniques in the West, while Japanese sword arts (kenjutsu) still revolve primarily around the same types of hack-and-slash techniques used when katana were the primary bladed weapons available.
You know who we have to thank for that particular style of fighting?
Mostly the French.
Yep. That's right. The Frogs. The world's most useless laughingstock of a war-fighting culture gave us the style of sword-fighting that basically made everything else obsolete.
And that is how knife-fighting is done to this day. The goal of modern knife-fighting isn't to bash your opponent into a bloody ruin; it isn't to pick up your knife and hurl it at him like a spear; and it isn't to shove a two-foot-long double-edged sword through his guts.
Instead, the goal is simply to poke holes in him, in as many vulnerable places as you can, as fast as possible.
Whoever would have guessed that the French were responsible for giving us that approach to fighting?