Yeshua-Do

The following are three articles by J. Clements, ARMA Director

1.    The Medieval European Knight vs. The Feudal Japanese Samurai?

2.   Longsword and Katana Considered

3.   Katana vs. Rapier: Another Fantasy Worth Considering

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The Medieval European Knight vs. The Feudal Japanese Samurai?

By J. Clements, ARMA Director

From time to time it is interesting to ponder the outcome of an encounter between two of history's most formidable and highly skilled warriors: the Medieval European knight and the feudal Japanese samurai.  The thought of "who would win" in an actual fight between these martial experts of such dissimilar methods is intriguing.  Who would emerge victorious or who was historically the better fighter is a question occasionally raised, but it is really a moot question.  In the case of comparing a knight to a samurai, each warrior used armor, weapons, and methods oriented towards the particular opponents of their day and age.  Therefore, neither can be looked upon as being universally more effective under all conditions against all manner of opponents.  In one sense, it is like asking who are better soldiers, jungle fighters or ski troops?  It depends upon the situation and the environment. Still, it's an interesting encounter to consider.  Having some small experience in the methods and weaponry of each, as well as a few cross-training opportunities, I offer my humble thoughts on the matter.

The Scenario

First of all, we must ask where is it these two lone warriors would meet? Under what circumstances? Since the conditions of this imaginary fight could play a major factor, it can be proposed that such an encounter would best take place on a flat, firm, open field with no cover and plenty of room to maneuver. Though each is an accomplished horseman, it would also be conducive to have the single-combat duel occur dismounted, alone, on foot and without use of missile weapons. Interestingly, the same climate and weather for each would be just about right.

There are a great many intangibles to consider here. The ability of each combatant to read or size up their opponent and the threat they posed would be an important consideration.  Are both to be briefed on the nature of their opponent and his armaments? Or will the encounter be a blind one in which neither knows anything about their adversary?  We might want to just assume that each of our ideal combatants has been informed to some degree regarding the other and therefore mentally prepared and composed.

Of course, if we are supposing a clash between two "typical warriors", we must also ask exactly what will be considered typical?  The knights of circa 1100 and the samurai of circa 1200 were roughly evenly matched in equipment.  But the same comparative warriors during the 1400's for instance, were quite dissimilar. Each of the two historical warriors in question did fight with equivalent technologies, under fairly similar climates and terrain, and for similar reasons.  But it's difficult to think in terms of a "generic" Medieval knight or a "standard" samurai warrior.  With respect to a European knight, it's not easy to choose what nationality, and what type of warrior from which portion of the overall Middle Ages.  With the samurai though, we are dealing with a single, homogenous culture and one in which versions of their historical martial traditions have survived, in one form or another, fairly intact.  Thus we have a somewhat better idea of the average samurai's training and ability through the centuries than compared to contemporary European warriors.  Then again, it's sometimes argued that today's version of modern civilian budo ("war ways") is not equivalent to the historical military bujutsu ("war skills") of the samurai. At the same time, while we may not have an extant tradition of knightly martial arts any longer, we however do have volumes of actual training manuals from the era describing in technical detail for us just what their skills and methods at the time were all about.

As for the knight, are we assuming he will be a maile clad Norman with sword and kite shield from the year 1066?  An English or French chevalier of 1350 in partial plate with arming sword ready for duel in the champ clos?  Will he be an Italian condottieri from 1450 resplendent in full regalia? Or will he be a Teutonic knight of circa 1400 in a head-to-toe suit of articulated Gothic plate-armor and bastard sword?  Will the samurai be wearing the older box-like Muromachi armor and armed with a tachi blade?  Or will he wear the later close fitting Kamakura period do-maru armor and use the more familiar katana?  For that matter, would the samurai be allowed to use both his long katana and his wakizashi short sword together? These are significant matters that get at the heart of why such a question as who would "win" or who is the "better" fighter (or even whose equipment was better) really is unanswerable. 

Of course, for the sake of engaging discourse let us hypothesize just what would happen if these two comparable individuals, each highly trained and experienced in the respective fighting skills of their age, were to meet on the battlefield in single combat to the death (!).  As an amusing historical diversion we can at least make an educated guess to what would possibly be, not the result, so much as some of the key decisive elements of such an encounter.

The Warriors


We can reasonably assume that the personal attributes such as individual strength, speed, stamina, age, health, and courage, are fairly consistent between such professional warriors.  Assuming we can somehow control for these attributes, we could match combatants with some equality.  It would not be unrealistic to believe on a whole that neither was likely decisively stronger or faster than the other. Although, we can't discount physiology as a factor and this reasonably would be an advantage for the European (16th century samurai armor examples are sized for men around 5'3"-5'5", while European armor from the same period and earlier would fit men ranging from just under 6' to about 6'5"). Although, other evidence suggests average European heights in the 16th century were just above 5 feet. Interestingly, while the European concept of physical fitness among knights by the 15th century emphasized the classical Greco-Roman youthful physique of a narrow waist and broad shoulders on a lean frame, the Japanese ideal was one of a more mature man having a wider base and broader middle no doubt reflecting the natural ethnographic characteristics of each race, but also influencing the fighting techniques they employed.  To what degree this occurred is worth contemplating.

We might also want to consider the forms of warfare each swordsman was experienced in and focused upon. The early samurai engaged in a ritualized style of warfare where individual champions might fight separate battlefield duels following established protocols, as opposed to a later mounted archery style of combat amidst pike formations of lesser foot soldiers. Their clan warfare was decidedly feudalistic yet with acquiring and honor and renown also being a goal. Skirmishing was not also uncommon and there were a few large scale military expeditions to Korea and surrounding islands. But most combat occurred in the environment of the home islands.

Whereas in contrast, knights emphasized mounted shock warfare with couched lances, and off the field a concern for chivalric and judicial duels as well as tournaments of all kinds. The Western way of war for knights was directed more at a traditional battle of annihilation as part of an overall campaign of conquest. Yet, individual challenges, whether to the death or not, were frequent. Knightly arms and armor were the result of a dynamic interaction of Latin, Celtic, and Germanic cultures as well as Turkish and Arabic influences. The environment knights fought under was extensive and diverse, ranging from the cold of Scandinavia to the deserts of the Middle East, from the plains of Western Europe to the deep forest of the East, and the swamps, fields, and mountains in between.

There is also no question that athleticism, physical fitness and conditioning were integral parts of knightly chivalric virtue as considerable literary and iconographic evidence from the period testifies. As a youth, Samurai were not generally trained for any longer length of time than were knights or in any greater diversity of accomplishments. Along with combat training and courtly graces, a knight was typically taught to dance, swim, read poetry, play chess, to hawk and to hunt with a team, as well as fight as a unit in battle. Yet, in tournament and joust he was also tutored to excel as an individual. 

We cannot overlook the role that culture might play in this contest.  Samurai warriors existed in a hierarchical and conformist culture that rewarded obedience and loyalty over individuality. Knights existed in a more complex and fluid society that emphasized self-expression with a long tradition of reliance on individual initiative. Both cultures had experience fighting against outsiders and foreigners: the Europeans encountered the Turks, Mongols, Saracens, and others; the Japanese encountered the Koreans, Chinese, Mongols, and others.  Thus, in considering the historical record on cross-cultural collisions in different locations, would we want to give the edge to the more socially diverse Europeans on this?

On an individual basis then, we must consider what effect might be played by the quality of fatalism within the samurai code of bushido, or rather the resolute acceptance of death that motivated the fiercest samurai.  But then, we cannot overlook the quality of piety and faith that could motivate a noble knight to great feats, or of the ideals of chivalry that he might uphold to the death.  It's possible a Medieval European knight would have a certain disdain and scorn for his foreign, "pagan" adversary.  Of course, the Japanese warrior's well-known attitude of proud invincibility and readiness to die for his lord could equally make him vulnerable to an unfamiliar foe.  Contempt for life and contempt for a dangerous, unknown opponent you might underestimate can be a disastrous combination. While courage is important, fighting spirit alone is insufficient.  There are surely intangibles here that we cannot be measured with any reliability.  These and other non-quantifiable, psychological factors aside, we are left with weapons, armor, and training.

The Armor

Armor changes things in swordplay. If you've never trained in it, you can't imagine how it affects your movements and execution of even simple actions. It has been said that while Europeans designed their armor to defeat swords, the Japanese designed their swords to defeat armor.  There is a certain truth to this, but it's a simplistic view.  The better Japanese armor was constructed of small overlapping lacquered metal scales or plates tied together with silk cords in order to specifically resist the slicing cut of the katana. It allowed good freedom of movement while offering excellent protection. But if it got wet, the silk cords soaked up water and it became terribly heavy.  Though the earliest styles of samurai armor were designed with large square plates more as a defense against arrows, the later forms were intended primarily to be used by and against similarly equipped swordsmen and to lessen the tremendous cutting capacity of their swords.  It was durable, effective, and provided for ample movement. But how would it hold up to the stabs of a narrowly pointed knightly sword? This is an important question.

Medieval European armor was designed and shaped more to deflect strikes and absorb blunt force blows from lances and swords. A knight's armor varied from simple byrnies of fine riveted maile ("chainmaile") that could absorb slices and prevent cuts, to well-padded soft jackets, and metal coats-of-plates which were designed equally to protect from concussion weapons as penetrating thrusts. Maile armor existed in numerous styles and patterns but arguably reached its zenith in 15th century Western Europe, where closely-woven riveted links could resist any drawing slice as well as being proof against many slashes and thrusts from swords. Maile of such equivalent was not used in Japan.

Generally speaking, European plate armor was designed primarily as a defense against sword points and other bladed weapons, whereas, Japanese armor was primarily designed more as a defense against arrows and spears. Significantly, it frequently had open feet and hands and a design that permitted archery. The knight's encased armor by contrast was idealized more for mounted charge with lance and or for dismounted close-combat. Japanese heavy armor contemporary with the period of the High Middle Ages knight was not considerably lighter than European plate.

A complete suit of fully articulated rigid plate-armor, which has been described as unequaled in its ingenuity and strength, was nearly resistant to sword blows and required entirely different specialized weapons to effectively defeat it. With its tempered steel and careful curved fluting it was just invulnerable to sword cuts-even, it can be surmised, those of the exceptionally sharp katana (some high-ranking 16th century samurai lords actually owned pieces of contemporary European armor, gifts and purchases which they even wore into battle -they did not prize them merely as exotica). Plate-armor for foot combat was well-balanced, maneuverable, and sometimes even made of tempered steel. It was well-suited for fighting in, and is far from the awkward, lumbering cliché presented by Hollywood. Unless you've worn accurate well-made plate of this kind, it is impossible to really know how it influenced the way a knight would move.

Without the necessary weapons designed intentionally to face and defeat plate armor, any fighter armed with a sword alone would have difficulty (katana or not). Indeed, full European plate armor with maile might very well damage the keen edge on particularly fine katanas. After all, we should not forget that despite the katana's vaunted cutting ability, the samurai were able to successfully rely on their armors as defense against it. There is every reason to imagine knightly armor would have been just as, if not more, effective. If we therefore assume the armors to be more evenly matched, say maile and partial plate for the knight as used around 1250, things would get more interesting. However, the samurai did often carry an excellent thick dagger which would have been quite useful. Curiously, each warrior was highly skilled in using their respective armor-piercing daggers and with close-in grappling (something not generally known about actual knightly fencing skills).

The Shield

We must consider whether the knight in this hypothetical duel will be armed in the familiar shield and short sword style or will use only a single long-sword? If armed with a shield, we must ask what kind?  Will the knight employ a center-gripped type with front umbo or one worn by enarme straps?  Will the shield be the highly effective "kite" shape with its superb defense or one of the smaller, more maneuverable convex "heater" styles?  How about a thick steel buckler (a fist-gripped hand shield)?

There's a reason virtually every culture developed hand-held shields for close-combat and why they continued to be used literally for thousands of years. They were very effective. In 15th century Europe, it was only the combination of the development of full plate armor and two-handed swords combined with heavy pole-arms and powerful missile weapons that finally reduced the long reigning value of the shield in warfare. The Medieval style of sword and shield fighting is distinctly different from the two-hand grip and quick full-arm slashing cuts of Kenjutsu.  Medieval short swords are properly wielded with more of a throw of the arm and a twist of the hips while making passing steps forward or back.  Strikes are thrown from behind the shield while it simultaneously guards, feints, deflects, or presses. A sword and shield is a great asset over a single sword alone. Fighting with sword and shield offers a well-rounded and strong defense that safely permits a wide range of both direct and combination attacks. 

A sword can cut quite well from almost all angles around or underneath a shield.  Indeed, since the shield side is so well guarded, the opponent is the one limited to attacking to only one side the non-shield side.  While a large shield does indeed close off a tremendous amount of targets to an attacker, it also limits, to a far smaller degree, freedom to attack by the shield user.  As it comes out from behind their shield to strike, an attacker's weapon can be counter-timed and counter-cut and this is indeed one tactic to employ against a shield user. Yet a shield user's attacks are not at all one sided. A shield can be used offensively in a number of ways and at very close range.

Katanas are powerful swords used with strong techniques, but thinking they could simply cleave through a stout Medieval shield is absurd. Even with a katana a shield cannot simply be sliced through. Medieval shields were fairly thick wood covered in leather and usually trimmed in metal.  Not only that, they were highly maneuverable, making solid, shearing blows difficult.  More likely, a blade would be momentarily stuck in the rim if it struck too forcefully.  Unlike what is seen in the movies, or described in heroic literature, chopping into a shield's edge can temporarily cause the sword blade to wedge into the shield for just an instant and thereby be delayed in recovering or renewing an attack (and exposing the attacker's arms to a counter-cut).  Shields without metal rims were even favored for this very reason.

Kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship), though consisting of very effective counter-cutting actions, also has no real indigenous provisions for fighting shields. Although a skilled warrior could certainly improvise some, those unfamiliar with the formidable effectiveness and versatility of a sword and shield combination will have a hard time.  The shield was not used the way typically shown in movies, video games, stage-combat, or historical role-playing organizations such as the SCA.  Fighting against a Medieval shield is not simply a matter of maneuvering around it or aiming blows elsewhere. If a warrior does not really know the shield, or hasn't faced a good shield fighter, then they cannot be expected to know how to ideally fight against it.

The Samurai's Sword

Lion Dog Katana

In major battles among each warrior, a suit of armor was typically worn and a sword wielded in one or two-hands. For the knight, the primary weapons had always been the long lance and the sword, and to a lesser degree the polaxe, dagger, and mace.  The sword was always the foundational weapon of a Knight's fencing training.  For the samurai however, the sword was but one of three major weapons along with the bow and arrow and the yari (thrusting spear). We should consider that, despite their later acquired reputation for swordsmanship, the samurai's primary weapon was, in fact, not the sword. The sword really did not even become a premier weapon of samurai culture and reach its cult status until the mid to late 17th century when the civil warring period ended. It is something of a myth that every individual Japanese samurai was himself an expert swordsman (no more true than every wild West cowboy was an expert gunfighter). After all, the expression so associated with bushido is "the Way of the horse and bow", not "the Way of the sword." Besides, unlike knightly chivalric tales and combat accounts, the majority of single combats between samurai described in feudal Japanese literature took place with daggers not swords. But for sake of discussion, let us assume such for both fighters in this imaginary case. 

As a sword, the Japanese katana is unmatched in its sharpness and cutting power.  Furthermore, it is particularly good at cutting against metal (but no, it only cuts through other swords in movies and video games!).  However, Medieval plate armor is well known for its resistance to cutting, and cutting at a moving target hidden by a shield or a greatsword is not easy.  While the edge of a katana is very strong with a sharp cutting bevel, it is a thick wedge shape and still has to move aside material as it cuts.  Though this is devastating on a draw slice against flesh and bone, it is much less effective against armors. Realizing this, several styles of Japanese swordsmanship devised specific techniques not to cut at armor, but to stab and thrust at the gaps and joints of it just as the Europeans did against their own plate armor. The primary technique for fighting nearly any kind of armor with most any kind of sword is not to cut but to thrust at the gaps and joints.

Except for major interaction in Korea and encounters against the Mongols, the katana developed in comparative isolation and is not quite the "ultimate sword" some of its ardent admirers occasionally build it up as.  The katana's exceptionally hard edge was prone to chipping and needed frequent re-polishing and its blade could break or bend the same as any other sword might (...and no, they won't slice through cars or chop into concrete pillars either). It was not designed to take a great deal of abuse, and is not as resilient in flexibility nor intended to directly oppose soft or hard armors as some forms of Medieval swords had to be.

The katana's design was not set in stone. It was changed and altered over the centuries like any other sword, being slowly improved or adapted to the different needs and tastes of their users in terms of cross section, curvature, and length. In the 13th century for instance, their points had to be redesigned because they were prone to snapping against the metal reinforced "studded" leather armor (essentially equivalent to European brigandine or armor) of the Mongols and Chinese. By the 18th century their blades, no longer used earnestly against armor, tended to be made longer, lighter, and thinner for classroom practicing.

True, the Japanese feudal warrior did have their own form of greatsword in the long no dachi blades, these however were employed specifically by lower ranking foot-soldiers against horses (and presumably, on occasion against pikes). So, we cannot draw an equivalency between these and Medieval greatswords used in knightly fencing arts or to the true two-handers of 16th century European battlefields.

Over all the katana was a very well-rounded design: excellent at cutting and slicing, yet good at thrusting, and suitable for armored or unarmored fighting on foot or horseback, either one or two-handed.  It was a carefully crafted and beautiful weapon reflecting generations of artistry and fearsome necessity, but it was still only a sword a man-made tool of well-tempered and expertly polished metal. Though the details of manufacture differed, they were made by the same fundamental scientific processes of heating and hand-working metal by shaping and grinding as were other fine swords around the world throughout history.  Regardless of how they are designed or constructed, all swords have the same goals and perform the same functions: that of guarding against attacks while delivering their own lethal blows.

The Knight's Swords


Having equipped our samurai, we must turn to the sword to be used by our knightly combatant. It must be understood there was such a great diversity of knightly swords and armor types. European swords were, in a sense, always specialized rather than generalized designs: there were ones for foot combat, ones for horseback, single and double-hand ones, straight and curved ones, ones for armored and for unarmored fighting, ones for tournaments, ones for civilian duelling, ones ideal just for thrusting or for cutting only, and ones only for training.

A knight's arming sword was typically a one-handed weapon originally (but not always) intended specifically for use with a shield. Their blades are wide and fairly thin and rigid, with chisel-like edges intentionally designed for cutting through maile armor and deep into flesh and bone with a quick, forceful blow.  They were light, agile, and stiff, yet very flexible to withstand the trauma of use. They too varied with time from the wider, flatter kinds to those rigid, tapering, sharply pointed and well suited for stabbing both plate and laminated armors. The later wide-based and acutely pointed style of bastard sword was superb at thrusting. So, even though Japanese armor for the most part was made up of the same quality steel as went into their weapons, European blades would likely not encounter anything especially difficult with it that they didn't already face. 

Although the Medieval sword and shield combination was fairly common, longer blades useable in two hands were in widespread use from about 1250 to roughly 1600 in Europe. When we talk about Medieval European longswords or war-swords (or even greatswords), we are not dealing with a single uniform style. There were wide, flat blades with parallel edges well suited to powerful cuts. Later, swords specifically designed for facing heavier armor had narrower, much more rigid blades of diamond or hexagonal cross-sections that tapered to hard, sharp points. They were used to whack and bash at armor before stabbing and thrusting into joints and gaps. They were also employed as short spears and even warhammers, yet were still capable of cutting at more lightly armored opponents.

The difference between these two European blade forms is significant and once more underscores the distinction between the manner of using a katana and a straight Medieval European sword. The tapering blade form has a different center of balance and is often a lighter blade. Its point of percussion is located farther down the blade and its fine point is capable of making quick, accurate, and strong thrusts. The wider style can make a somewhat greater variety of strikes and delivers more effective cuts overall. But the later is more agile and easier to guard and parry with. It can also more easily employ its versatile hilt in binding, trapping, and striking. Its proper techniques and style of use is rarely depicted with any accuracy in movies and staged performances. Almost never is the proper historical usage shown with its tighter movements, various thrusts, and infighting with the hilt.

The reach factor also cannot be overlooked. Although a skilled fighter can effectively use a short blade against a long blade or vice versa, and although neither longswords nor katanas had standardized lengths, overall the katana in general is significantly shorter than European two-handed swords and great-swords. A longer two-edged weapon does have advantages -especially if used by a taller man against a smaller with a shorter single-edge weapon. Surprisingly though, the weights between the two weapons are actually very similar and vary within the same degrees.

Surprisingly, the longsword or greatsword is arguably a more complex weapon that the katana. Though there were single-edge versions, it generally has two edges that can be used, as well as a versatile crossguard and pommel permitting a variety of specialized techniques. Another element to consider is that European swords could be used in "half-sword" techniques where the second hand literally grips around the blade itself to wield the weapon in bashing, deflecting, binding, and trapping in all manner of ways that virtually make it a pole-axe or short spear. This was especially effective in fighting against plate armor. We must ponder would this be unusual for the samurai or just very similar to fighting with a short staff? Either way, with its especially sharp edge, a katana is not employed quite like this.

Knightly blades could be excellent swords, but are often denigrated merely as crude hunks of iron while samurai swords are venerated and exalted sometimes to the point of absurdity by collectors and enthusiasts (something the Japanese themselves do not discourage).  Bad films and poorly trained martial artists reinforce this myth.  The bottom line is that Medieval swords were indeed well-made, light, agile fighting weapons equally capable of delivering dismembering cuts or cleaving deep into body cavities. They were far from the clumsy, heavy things they're often portrayed as in popular media and far, far more than a mere "club with edges." Interestingly, the weight of katanas compared to longswords is very close with each on average being less than 4 pounds.

The Swordsmanship


It can be difficult for those not familiar with the nature of a Medieval longsword or greatsword to understand its true manner of use, since the general public as well as martial artists of Asian styles are far more familiar with the katana's style. So, if instead of a shield and sword we match a knight with a longsword or greatsword against the katana armed samurai this could make a significant difference. But, we must not fall into the mistake of judging the Medieval longsword in terms of what we know about classical Japanese fencing. It is a mistake to think the straight, double-edged Medieval sword with cruciform-hilt is handled like a curved katana.

While there are certainly similarities and universal commonalties between the two styles of swordsmanship (such as in stances and cuts), there are also significant and fundamental differences. They each make the same basic seven or eight cuts and can thrust. But as a curved blade with an especially keen edge, the katana is superior in the potential use of quick, short slices. Yet, as a long, straight blade tapering to a keen point, the longsword is a better thruster. Additionally, its dual edges, enabled by a graspable pommel, allow it to attack along more lines than just eight standard cuts. Having two edges to work with can quickly permit back-edge and reverse cuts. This permits a far larger number of strikes from different angles. These back edge cuts make up a significant portion of how the straight longsword was wielded and have seldom been appreciated or correctly demonstrated.

The katana is wielded in a quick-flowing manner with a torque of the grip as well as a push of the hips. Pulling a curved blade in this way makes it slice as it shears. The footwork is more linear with short quick hopping (even shuffling) steps. In contrast to the slicing slash of a curved, single-edged, Japanese blade, Medieval swords were made for hacking, shearing cuts delivered primarily from the elbow and shoulder and employing wide passing steps. The actions are larger with more fast whirling actions as the two edges are employed, the pommel alone gripped, or the hands changed to different positions on the hilt (such as placement of the thumb on the flat of the blade or upon the lip of the cross). As a straight blade it strikes more with a point-of-percussion on the first 6-8 inches of blade down from the point as opposed to the curved katana which uses more of just the first few inches. If we bring into the equation the Medieval bastard-sword with compound-hilt of side-rings and bar-guards as well as the waisted or half-grip handle using various methods of holding, this could also be a significant factor. Such hilts allow for a variety of significant one or two-hand gripping options and gives superior tip control for thrusting and edge alignment.

When contrasting these two styles of sword we should probably also keep in mind a number of points. We classify each as longswords because both were blade weapons designed for the same purpose, killing. It is from this fact that they even have any similarities we can compare. Differences between them are result of the particularities of their functions and the ways they accomplish their goals. We should also keep in mind that Japanese swords and sword-arts reflect a living tradition, and one with a long standing interest group in the West promoting its study. While in contrast, our Medieval heritage has for decades had virtually nothing but Hollywood fantasy and role-players misrepresenting it.

From this, it can be seen that a direct comparison of a European sword to a Japanese one is not possible. They are "apples and oranges", so to speak. They're both fruit, both delicious, but you can do different, though very similar, things with each.

Educated Guesses

As our hypothetical fight ensued, any number of things might happen.  In the course of striking at one another, a chance blow by either side could possibly end the fight.  The katana may or may not be able to make a lethal or incapacitating cut (something difficult to do against plate armor, let alone a maile coat with a shield).  But the knight, unfamiliar with the aggressive style or nature of his opponent, might throw out a strike that makes him vulnerable to a well-timed counter-attack.  Of course, the samurai might also underestimate the power of the Medieval sword's cleaving blows and agile thrusts, even against his armor. The average European two-hand sword is longer in handle and blade than the average katana by several inches to as much as a foot or more and is not at all slow. It has a versatile hilt used for binding, trapping, and parrying. But the katana is also a fast weapon that cuts strongly and guards well and comes in a variety of lengths. 

Despite its considerable reach though, there are numerous techniques for infighting using the long-sword's "half" guards and there are many techniques for striking with a shield.  But then the katana is very good at close-in slices, which a straight blade cannot effectively do nearly as well.  Of course, against good armor such actions can be negligible and fighting against shields was relatively unknown in Japan. So on one hand, the knight's fighting style either of close-in sword and shield clashing, or large passing steps with long-reaching shearing cuts and plunging thrusts with a longsword or greatsword might prove decisive. On the other, the intense, focused, counter-cutting style of the samurai with his razor-keen blade and own experience in armored fighting might prove decisive. Then again, maybe they'd kill one another?

It could be argued that the samurai by nature could have a tactical advantage in attitude and fortitude as a result of the psychological elements of his training and fighting methods.  He is well- known to have integrated unarmed techniques into his repertoire as well as having a keen sense of an opponent's strengths and weaknesses.  Still, much of this is intangible and subjective.  Besides, although not widely appreciated, it is now well-documented (particularly from Medieval Italian and German fighting manuals) that European knights and men-at-arms fully integrated advanced grappling, wrestling, and disarming techniques into their fighting skills.  They also studied considerably on tactics and the military "sciences." There is no evidence to the myth that knightly martial culture was any less sophisticated or highly develop than its Asian counterparts its traditions and methods only fell out of use with the social and technological changes brought about by advances in firearms and cannon.

While it is known that the average samurai had a large inventory of unarmed fighting techniques at his disposal, these too would be unlikely to play a part against a shield wielding warrior.  Some could suggest that the samurai was simply a better swordsman and more tenacious warrior and would likely out-fight his European counterpart.  Others could say, "No way," and argue a skilled, superbly conditioned knight in full plate armor using either a sword and shield combination or a longsword would be near invulnerable and brutally overpowering.  Still others could rightly point out that such over-generalized statements either way are un-provable conjecture.  There are so many elements to address and practitioners who are experienced in one form of sword art or familiar with only one type of blade and not others will tend to favor what they're familiar with.  It is rare to find individuals with a deep grasp of the attributes of each method and the arms involved. 

Those who think the Medieval sword and shield was and is just a "wham-bam, whack-whack" fight are as greatly misinformed as those who imagine the katana was handled in some mysterious and secret manner and can cut through anything as if it were a light-saber.  Those who presume the use of Medieval long-sword merely involved a brutish hacking are also under a tremendous delusion.  It is a mystery how such beliefs can be held independently of those who today assiduously study and train in the subject as a true martial art, and spend years in practice with the actual weapons. Perhaps this ignorance is due to watching too many movies or the influence of fantasy-historical societies with their costumed role-playing. 

Medieval and Renaissance sword fighting is often viewed by the uninformed as a wholly subjective matter either consisting of merely brute force and ferocity, or else incapable of reasoned analysis and discernable principles.  Both are equally inaccurate.  It is sad when leading modern fencing masters (experienced only with the dueling style of light foils, epees, and sabers) will issue naïve, unschooled statements about how Medieval swords "weighed 20 pounds" or could only be used for "clumsy" bashing and chopping.  There is a definite prejudice that the modern refined fencing sport is "superior" to earlier, more brutal methods.  Without going into the history of warfare, it's important to state it is a myth that personal combat in Europe was entirely crude, cumbersome, and never an art.  It may perhaps be true that, only in a modern cultural context, it cannot compare to the surviving systematized traditions of feudal Japanese sword arts. However there is sufficient evidence surviving that when paired with contemporary research has given us a much better under-standing of the function and use of Medieval and Renaissance European arms and armors to confirm that they consisted of a highly effective and dynamic "Science of Defence."

Keeping our hypothesis broad

To be fair, while there is an extraordinary amount of nonsense and fantasy surrounding historical European swords and sword arts, there is a good deal of myth and ignorance on the true teachings of historical Japanese fencing.  While there is today an active subculture promoting and preserving historical Japanese bujutsu or practicing modern budo and a great deal is also known about their practice, the equivalent can not yet be said for "lost" Medieval or Renaissance fighting arts.  But, at least for the latter, there are dozens of surviving technical guides from the period describing the actual methods and techniques of knights and men-at-arms in great detail.

So, given the complexities of the question of what kind of knightly arms and armor from what period we could consider in a hypothetical knight-samurai encounter, it might be easier to just imagine an unarmored duel, sword against sword, without shields. Let's assume that our gladiatorial fantasy would be fought by two respective 15th century warriors with single swords alone.  In this way we essentially have two fighting men both experienced in using a long sword as well as fighting unarmored.

This solves a lot of questions. But even here the issue is problematic. We still need to ask what kind of katana and what kind of longsword?  What length of blade and handle? There was no standard generic model for either weapon, after all. So, assuming that we choose two weapons of comparative dimensions, we could make the knightly longsword of the cruciform-hilted, double-edged, slightly tapering variety.

Under this scenario, the katana would have a slight advantage, we could imagine. It's adept in unarmored cut and thrust fighting where the slightest wound from its keen edge could perhaps sever a hand or disabled an arm. It could also thrust well and might even threaten a pressing or slicing draw if close in. The half-swording techniques of the longsword would also not be nearly as viable here, though its hilt design might prove very useful. While the longsword would be menacing in its quick and long-reaching thrust, its stabbing attacks would perhaps not be that unfamiliar to a samurai use to facing spears. On the other hand, the knight would himself not be that unused at all to facing a curved single-edged blade, likely being skilled in or familiar with such ones as the falchion, badelaire, messer, long Grossemesser, and even Turkish scimitars. So again, the outcome of the match would come down to intangibles of personal attitude and individual prowess. As to the issue of the deadliness of thrusting wounds versus cutting ones, well, the historical and forensic evidence does favor the lethality of stabs--but only in contrast to lacerating flesh wounds not deep cleaving blows.

Considering the many issues brought out in describing the modern reconstruction of historical European martial arts, contrasting them with the practice of Asian fighting arts is a legitimate area of speculation.  If we had a time machine and for depraved research wanted to go back, grab a hundred random Medieval knights and an equal number of samurai, match them one on one and throw them at each other, we might be able to come up some statistical averages (and some serious ethical problems, as well).  In one sense we are talking about very different approaches to armed personal defense in this comparison.  But, then again it's all the same when reduced to two armed combatants facing one another in antagonistic combat. There are many universal commonalities and shared fundamentals between both European and Japanese feudal warriors, but there were also significant technical and stylistic differences in their respective approaches. If not, their martial histories and their arms and armors would not have been so distinct.

So what can we really know?

As can be seen, there are just far too many variables and unknowns to make a judgment either way for such a theoretical question as who could defeat whom between knights and samurai. The fight cannot be reduced to any generalized statements about who had the overall historical advantage in skill or who had the superior array of arms and armor.  In matters like this we certainly cannot not invoke mystical principles or endless "what ifs" and still engage in intelligent conjecture. All we can do is give an opinion of questionable value. Still, it is an intriguing comparison to ponder objectively. 

There is so much unnecessary emotion encountered when fervent proponents of one or the other schools of swordsmanship speculates wildly on this topic. Amusingly, before reflexively reacting with a strong opinion one way or another when thinking about this subject, we might want to stop and ask ourselves to ponder the same imaginary contest between two samurai, for example, a Muromachi era versus say, a Kamakura one. Or we could do the same for the knight, posing the problem of who would defeat whom, an 11th century Flemish knight or a 14th century Burgundian one?  By doing this simple mental exercise we can see the inherent problems of arguing one way or another over such imaginary fights.

Keeping in mind that live demonstrations speak louder than any words, hopefully this writing has cleared away some of the prejudice on behalf of both kenjutsu students and Medievalists.  I personally give only limited credit to occasions of cross-sparring by modern practitioners of each respective art, as they seldom can meet under mutually agreeable or equally advantageous conditions for very long. Personally, while I admire the techniques and principles of kenjutsu as generally being highly effective (but not specifically its modern methods of instruction), I cannot disregard the proven efficacy of the sword and shield method. Nor can I ignore the formidable utility and versatility of an excellent European longsword or great sword when combined with superior European armor and the difficulty it offers when posed against the single sword.  But a fine katana can be a truly awesome sword. I have long been an admirer of its form and function. However, not all of them were superb weapons and typically the quality of European blades is erroneously denigrated and dismissed. Also, my own understanding of the German and Italian longsword and great-sword methods of fence from the late 14th to early 17th centuries gives be considerable doubt that a skilled knight of any era would encounter anything too unfamiliar in facing a samurai swordsman of any era. 

There are many other factors that still could be raised when speculating on a hypothetical combat between a knight and a samurai.  In the end though, my own answer to the question of who would win is that it is unanswerable...but would be an awesome experiment.  Being a great warrior is a matter of individual ability and technical factors that are not exclusive to any one culture or time period.  The better fighter wins a fight, and whoever does win is therefore considered the better fighter or at least the luckier one.

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Longsword and Katana Considered

By John Clements


They are two of the world's most recognizable and iconic weapons in history: the European double-handed knightly sword and the feudal Japanese double-handed samurai sword. Each of these famous sword types owes its design to the marriage of pragmatic function with technological form. Each evolved to answer specific challenges in their own particular martial environments. Each was tested and improved upon over time through the unforgiving trial of war and duel. Each proved itself in expert hands. The idea of evaluating one against the other is undeniably intriguing. Although the attempt can be an amusing intellectual exercise, an objective approach to comparing the longsword and the katana, however, is highly problematic. The issue is actually far more complicated than simply asking, "Which is the better sword?"

Bamboo Mat Katana

Contrast and comparison of these two sword types as functional tools is difficult foremost because neither weapon exists as a "generic" ideal. There really is no such thing as a generic longsword or a generic katana any more than there is a generic "rifle" or a generic "car." True enough, for each of these famous sword types there are certain quantifiable characteristics. But these qualities vary to such a measure that there really is no standard for what could be considered "typical." Each comes in many varieties.

Even though they are easily identifiable to us now, as artifacts both sword forms - the straight double-edged long-handled war-sword with cruciform hilt, and the curved single-edged Nippon-to - differ considerably in their intrinsic traits. In blade cross-section or hilt configuration even swords of the same "family" or typology are not all of uniform design. Since both styles of sword in question existed in countless varieties, each with numerous atypical variations, it is nearly impossible to consider either in terms of some standardized representative archetype of an entire species of sword.

Yet, both models of sword have certain self-evident aspects that define them as being part of a classification of historical bladed weapons. Among their attributes, each of these objects has a particular length, weight, shape, and blade geometry as well as edge, point, and hilt configuration. When properly handled each sword also possesses a certain center of gravity and inherent balance (matters which can themselves be subjective).

Thus, while any two individual sword blades can be scientifically tested for certain metallurgical properties, any style of sword is more than the sum of its physical parts. As a weapon, a sword is a holistic combination of certain qualities matched together to optimally perform certain physical actions in the hands of a human user. There really are no objective criteria then which can be put forth to quantify specific styles of historical swords in terms of their mechanical properties. There is no real possibility today of performing neutral tests that would proportionally match each type of sword to the historical requirements either was called upon to meet. Striking with a bladed weapon is, after all, not equivalent to dispassionately testing the performance characteristics of two automobiles or two firearms under laboratory conditions.

Besides each of these sword patterns having its own dedicated community of loyal fans and ethnic interest groups of aficionados, there are those today whose beliefs in either weapon's mythology are unassailable by either enlightened reason or educated fact. This effort is not directed toward those audiences. The attempt here is to offer some impartial criteria by which to conversationally evaluate these two noble weapons through those shared elements that define each sword's parallel utility. Any such attempt is fraught with the difficulty of dealing in such generalities.

The discernable elements that can be assessed in any sword are: cutting ability, thrusting ability, guarding capacity, speed, technical versatility, and durability. None of these factors is without controversy, let alone uncertainty. Each is still a generality. But relative to such criteria we can attempt to judge both sword specimens. We might appraise them by scoring one sword or the other for each category:

Cutting Ability - This is the blade's capacity to deliver powerful shearing and cleaving edge blows. Despite it being the fundamental purpose of most swords, this category is still challenging to determine. The katana, with its living tradition of practice, is well known for demonstrating its cutting power. Its single, hardened, wedge-like edge has long been shown to be capable of extraordinary sharpness. The longsword, which has not been practiced or studied for centuries, has not acquired a similar reputation. Indeed, its utility and cutting ability has suffered from considerable disregard by fencing historians and arms curators (despite historical accounts documenting its formidable edge blows having been corroborated by modern experiment). It is certain that both weapons successfully faced opponents wearing soft and hard armors without great difficulty. Nonetheless, a curved blade is mechanically superior to a straight one at delivering edge blows to produce injury. And due to its hardness, the single curving edge of the katana is very good at penetrating even hard materials with straight-on strikes. Verdict: Katana.

Thrusting Ability - This is the capacity for a weapon to make penetrating stabs with its point. Whether against armored or unarmored opponents, a thrust has long been recognized as more difficult to defend against, easier to deliver a fatal wound with, and quicker and farther reaching than a cut. As has been known since ancient times and shown by fencers since the mid-16th century, the geometry of a straight weapon means its thrust hits more quickly and deceptively than does a curved or semi-curved one while also leaving the attacker less exposed. A longer blade can also stab out farther than a shorter one, and a narrower-point thrusts more quickly and with greater penetration than does a wider blade optimized more for cutting. The longsword's inherent design, particular center of gravity and hilt configuration, as well as its manner of fighting, take full advantage of this. Though the katana is certainly adept at thrusting, its configuration as a dedicated cutter gives up advantage in the thrusting department. Verdict: Longsword.

Guarding Capacity - This is the weapon's ability to be moved to ward, parry, and block the assorted strikes of other weapons it had to face in combat. A sword is a weapon that has a defensive as well as an offensive value. It is not just intended for attacking. Its design affects the physical mechanics of how the object can be wielded defensively. The resilience and toughness of the blade is a component in this, but, since each of these swords has a proven combat record, that concern is moot. The same may be said for mass as a factor of maneuverability, as both weapons are comparable in their weight. Skill of the user aside, inherent defensive potential then comes down to the tool's geometry, or shape. A hand-weapon is managed in a way that plays to its strength, and certain designs simply offer greater versatility for impeding hits. If we imagine two simple wooden sticks, one curved and generally shorter, the other straight and generally longer, the former with a smaller oval protection for the hands while the latter having a larger cross bar, common sense suggests which would offer more protection against threats. Verdict: Longsword.

Speed - Speed is the velocity at which any hand-weapon can perform defensive and offensive actions to deliver hits or impede blows. Again, this category is a more subjective matter to quantify. The quickness of a hand-weapon depends partially upon the user's own prowess, as the weapon itself does not move, the swordsman moves it. Practice with historical specimens of both sword types suggests neither weapon has any particular speed advantage. Each sword employed a style of swordsmanship that emphasized taking the initiative as well as controlling distance and timing. Since the relative weights of both sword types are nearly equal, the issue comes down to the geometry of how each can be moved. A shorter curved blade can slash more quickly, but a longer, narrower, straight blade can certainly thrust more quickly. Generality, one style purposely emphasized a quick drawing cut and decisive single strike. The other intentionally incorporated long-reaching stabs and quick combination blows. These factors are not decisive to dominate the tempo of a fight. Both were effective, and the circular motion of a cut is still the same whether the blade is long or short, straight or curved. However, the slashing cut of a shorter curved weapon wielded in strong fluid motion can be more maneuverable than the less oblique cuts of a longer straight blade similarly used. Verdict: Katana.

Technical Versatility - This is the mechanical utility the weapon has for being employed in distinct offensive and defensive actions. Surely the most controversial category to rate any sword on is its fighting capacity. Each represents sophisticated and highly effective fencing styles that permit effective application of universal principles and concepts of personal armed combat. In this regard both are limited only by their physical properties and the prowess of the swordsman. However, factored into this is a matter of specialization versus diversity. The katana is the extreme single-edged cutting performer while the longsword is an excellent multitasker. The katana, with its exceptionally hard and sharp edge, is supreme in the one-directional cut department, while the longsword, with its dual tapering edges and cruciform hilt with pommel, is superbly adept at a diversity of striking actions.

Both these swords are established cut-and-thrust weapons. Both are capable of numerous slashing, slicing, and stabbing techniques. Both weapons utilize counter-striking and defensive displacements. However, straight double edges permit cutting along 16 different lines of attack compared to eight with a single-edged curved blade. This lends itself better to agile transitions between assorted cuts, thrusts, and parries. The longsword's well-honed but less keen edge purposely allows it to be "half-sworded" or readily wielded by the blade as if it were a spear, short-staff, or war-hammer. Its hilt arrangement permits different manners of gripping for different specialized affects at different ranges, such as close-in binding and trapping as well as delivering unique one-handed springing hits from a farther distance. Finally, its slim profile and greater length offer a longer reach in both cutting and thrusting.

Through popular media and modern schools of swordplay the katana has acquired a somewhat esoteric reputation for its "secret art" of swordsmanship. By contrast, the little-known ingenuity of the Medieval longsword and its systematic craft of fencing have remained obscure even among modern fencing instructors and historians. Again, considered as if simple wooden sticks, it is self-evident that a longer, straight, staff-like rod is more versatile to wield than a shorter, curved rod. Verdict: Longsword.

Durability - Durability in a fighting sword refers to its general tenacity and its resilience and in delivering blows and receiving impacts over time without breaking or becoming bent. Simply put, a blade that bends too easily will deform too often and build up strains that will lead to its eventual failure (if not hopelessly distort it first). A blade that does not deform would stand up to long term use better, provided its strength is not exceeded. The more resistant to brittle catastrophic failure a sword blade is, however, the more malleable it becomes - meaning the easier a bend will set in. In the most basic terms, a good cutting and thrusting sword blade needs to be able to spring somewhat or else it will snap too easily under stress. To achieve such characteristics indefinitely requires a heat-treatment and cross-section that permits this - one that, if overloaded, will deform slightly rather suffer a sudden total failure. This matter is separate from edge hardness. Toughness is necessary for maintaining a hard edge that can cut well, but a certain degree of "springiness" permits it to resist sudden fractures.

A blade needs strength to resist deformation but toughness to withstand cracking and chipping. A more ductile and pliable blade would have little strength (as it would deform too easily). But, an overly hard blade, while having great strength to resists deformation, would also have no "give." Rather than bend or stretch under stress it would fracture to the point of snapping. An ideal cutting and thrusting sword blade is therefore between these two extremes. Hardness and softness in a blade is a matter of heat-treating, such that it affects it to either bend very quickly under force or else over-flex until it breaks without bending at all. A blade's stiffness, by contrast is solely a matter of its cross-section and its thickness, not its tempering. Together, these factors will achieve a particular sword's intended qualities. Generally, the sword which was least "heat treated" (hardened) would be tougher, but not necessarily the most resistant to fatigue strain. But, hardness in a blade or edge will undergo stress, and stressed material is more susceptible to fracture.

A springier blade, such as on the longsword, is able to endure fatigue and abuse over longer periods. However, a more robust blade able to resist breaking will tolerate greater sudden stress as in cutting powerfully at more resistant materials, which the katana achieves. Katanas tended to be strong essentially because their thick blades and narrow edges were of laminated structures with a differential heat treatment. Katanas typically have a very good combination of strengths due to tensile versus compressive forces from the edge material actually being longer than the spine (forcing its natural curvature). But such hardness is possible on two-edge straight blades as well. The katana will cut soft objects very well with little fatigue/strength issues, but over time it will not handle massive impacts or lateral forces as due to the same heat treatment that gives it such a strong edge (but requires a softer back). Additionally, the fact is, the sharper and the harder an edge, the easier it chips and cracks from use (i.e., suffers brittle failures). A softer edge, by contrast, will fold and dull from use (ductile failures). The katana required more rigidity for its hard-cutting design, while for its utility the longsword was more of a spring. The katana's edge leaned towards more brittleness while its spine was more prone to bending. In both weapons, cross sectional shape compensated for weaknesses while capitalizing on strengths.

Flexibility, or the ability for a blade to deform but return true, though regularly exaggerated in modern times, was actually of very little concern for swords intended for serious combat, and does not enter into the criteria here. Surprisingly, metal fatigue caused by shock and vibrations were not great concerns on swords. While the durability factor is one that should be the easiest to determine categorically by empirical measurement, it is one that has the least information on which to draw firm conclusions. No practical tests have ever been done to record the overall comparative attributes (impact forces and hardnesses) of the different respective blades from either culture. Making generalized estimates is thus difficult. Modern replica swords are typically poor substitutes for the real historical specimens and anecdotal accounts of blade resilience or flexibility are not enough to go on.

Of all the categories to rate, durability is the one, which, arguably, there is the least understanding of among modern sword enthusiasts. We can dismiss the hype that occurs with regularity in cartoons and videogames featuring the katana as a virtual lightsaber cutting through cannons and tanks. Similarly, we can dismiss the ignorant assumptions of Victorian-era-inspired writers of the 20th century who viewed Medieval European swords through the strained prism of isolated experience with flimsy sporting swords.

No sword is indestructible. All are produced as perishable tools with a certain expected working lifetime. There is also evidence both swords styles were made in versions intended for armored combat and versions intended for unarmored combat. This further complicates efforts to discern any overall sturdiness in their design. Which blade historically could possibly be called the more durable in combat is then an exceptionally complex issue to address and perhaps unanswerable. Verdict: Unknown.

Both of these two celebrated sword types have a long martial heritage behind them and considerable lore surrounding them. Both have become symbols of their respective warriors and their military cultures. Both the longsword and the katana owe their modern popularity to a resurgence of interest in historical sword arts and fighting traditions. But each suffers considerably from its share of popular misconception, distortion, and modern misrepresentation (due largely to the unarguable fact that no one today any longer uses these tools for earnest fighting in actual life and death situations). Historical examples of both sword types represent finely engineered cut-and-thrust weapons. Matching them is, then, a bit like asking which is a deadlier gun in a close firefight, a sawed-off shotgun or an Uzi sub-machine gun? There are core commonalities in the use of both but also a significant dichotomy in their manner of application (because neither historical swordsman was built or moved in exactly the same way).

It has been suggested that comparisons of sword designs is meaningless unless it is narrowed down to comparisons of individual sword specimens, and even then only two possible examples have been compared. Just as victory in a duel depends upon the quality of the warrior's skill regardless of his method of fighting, so too does the quality of any sword come down to the skill of the maker whatever his process of manufacturing. We might consider them as a good sturdy truck contrasted with a fine sports car. You wouldn't want the former in a street race or sprint nor want the latter off road or pulling weight. In the final consideration, they are both effective and have their advantages. It is through knowing more about these two swords, both their strengths and their weaknesses, that greater appreciation for their distinctiveness develops.

Any sword ever made is a result of a series of compromises that depends on the desired performance characteristics of the weapon combined with the technology and skill available to its craftsman. There are tradeoffs every time a sword design must place one trait above another. To ask then, what is a "better" sword is to ask, what are your needs for that weapon? The longsword and the katana both were proven answers to very similar yet not identical problems of specific self-defense. Ultimately, any sword is only a tool; well-forged, carefully tempered and honed, but still just an inert piece of handcrafted steel. In the end, perhaps the firmest conclusion that can be reached is that, historically, both the longsword and the katana served its intended purpose with equal success.

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Katana vs. Rapier: Another Fantasy Worth Considering

By John Clements

There is typically a view that the katana and rapier represent the ideal cutting blade and the ideal thrusting blade; the "highest" development of East and West. Every once in awhile it's not uncommon to hear people speculate on what result might occur in a duel between a Japanese samurai armed with his katana and an European Renaissance swordsman with a rapier. It's a worthwhile question to consider.

As someone who has some small experience in both Japanese swordsmanship and fencing (kenjutsu & kendo) and who has been a long-time Renaissance swordsman and previously a sport fencer, I can offer an opinion on this question. From my own experience sparring with cutting against thrusting swords, I have a few insights. While there are certainly no historically recorded accounts (other than unsubstantiated folklore and rumor) as to a one on one duel between an European swordsman with a rapier and Japanese samurai using a katana, I think we can make a few very general suppositions about such a hypothetical encounter.

First, while typical samurai warriors were highly trained soldiers, the average samurai was not an expert swordsman, perhaps only 5% or so were its been suggested. Of this 5%, maybe 5% of those were "master" level swordsmen (not that it matters to the issue at hand whether the figure was over 99% or less than 1%). Whereas the average European rapier swordsman, would more or less be an ordinary urban citizen with or without military experience. He would likely have received some (if any) professional instruction from a master in a private school of fence and then would of course have likely some degree of practical "street-fighting" experience or have been in a duel. The weapon he used would be one of personal self-defence and duel as opposed to a battlefield sword.

There is no question that each swordsman was experienced at armed close- combat. For sake of argument though, let's assume mastery level by each hypothetical fighter. Let us also assume armor is a non-factor in the encounter, as are any missile weapons or terrain factors. Let's additionally assume neither has any major physical advantages over the other. Further, let’s assume that each swordsman is equally ignorant of the other's style of fight. Though the rapier fighter was ideally at home in a civilian environment, he would certainly be far from ignorant of fighting tactics. While it is arguably not relevant to a duel of single combat, cavaliers and knights of this age were often well read in military strategy being familiar with the well-known literature on the subject, such as Vegetius, Frontius, Pizan, and Machiavelli’s art of war as well as countless fencing treatises.

An immediate question that occurs then, is would the samurai's notorious resolute contempt for death and self-disregard lead to an audacious and immediate offensive attack? Would the rapier fighter's presumably cautious, cool-headed counter-thrusting style of fight provoke a simple stop-thrust? The samurai might well hold disdain for his "barbarian" foreigner's seemingly "flimsy" blade. This could prove fatal against a weapon with the speed and reach of a rapier. The rapier fighter himself may also erroneously hold his "pagan" adversary's cutting style equally in contempt. Underestimating both the speed and the force of a katana's deflecting counter-cuts can be disastrous. Even a small snipping cut could often dismember an arm. Simply stepping to evade an initial cut can even place you in the path of a powerful second and third one. For the most part though, since all the psychological factors, although important, are notoriously hard to quantify, we'll have to avoid them for now.

Personally, from my own experience, I think the outcome of such a fight would fall in one of either two directions: The samurai would move directly to make a devastating cut, becoming punctured through the head, throat, or chest as a result, but still having his cut cleave through the rapier fighter's head and torso (or at least his extended arm). Else, the rapier fighter would over time, make multiple quick, shallow punctures at unpredictable angles of attack to the samurai's hands, arms, and face until able to deliver an incapacitating thrust. But at this same time, the samurai would be carefully closing the distance and waiting until the split second he could dash the rapier aside and step in with a slice clean across his opponent's abdomen or face.

Typically, the sword user won't risk stepping into a stop-thrust and the rapier fighter won't risk taking a swiping cut. The heavier blade can usually beat the rapier aside but can't respond in time. While the rapier often can attack but afterwards couldn't recover or parry once it connects. I have seen both forms of outcomes in my mock-fighting practices, but more often the Japanese stylist underestimates the rapier rather than vice-versa. The katana is limited to about 7 or 8 cuts and a thrust -all of which are techniques already contained within the familiar longsword and short sword styles a rapier fencer would be somewhat familiar with. Whereas the katana fighter, in contrast, has no equivalent foyning style of rapier (or rapier and dagger) fencing in their experience. Historically, in the late 16th century, it was the rapier's very deadliness at making unpredictable, lightning fast thrusts from unusual angulation that made it become so popular so quickly in place of all manner of cutting blades.

As is becoming increasingly well known, the rapier is not the flimsy tool of the modern sport version, nor is it used in the same flicking manner. It is longer, stronger, heavier, and involves a greater range of techniques and moves. The rapier's penetrating stabs have great reach and are very quick, particularly on the disengage. But it can still be grabbed and lacks cutting offense. The katana has a well-rounded offence to defence, and is much more symmetrical in its handling. It can make great close-in draw cuts and is an agile weapon with quick footwork of its own. It can be wielded well enough one-handed if need be, too. Obviously, a katana can't match the rapier thrust for thrust. What a rapier does best is fight point-on with linear stabs, and no heavier, wider blade will possibly out maneuver it. Playing to the rapier's strength by using a katana horizontally is a losing game.

While the rapier certainly is a "point-based" threat and does not work well close in, it makes up for this by being able to out thrust cutting swords, like the katana, by about three feet of range using in its foyning method specialized footwork such as the lunge. A long lunge can strike a lethal hit from well outside the effective distance of a man with a long cutting sword.

If a longer, straighter, double-edged sword adept at stabbing attacks could not out-thrust the rapier, we may well wonder what chance a shorter single edged katana, devised for slashing, would have? Besides that, the rapier was devised to outfight blades that could strike with both their edges in sixteen possible lines of attacktwice the number employed by a katanaas well as trap and bind with their large cross-guards which the katana also did not possess.

The katana itself s not a slow sword. It has a good deal of agility as well as being able to thrust some. Kenjutsu cuts are delivered in quick succession using a flowing manner. Its two-hand grip can generate great power by using a sort of "torqueing" method with additional force added from the hips. The katana's cutting power and edge sharpness is also legendary (although often the subject of exaggeration, sometimes absurdly so). It is a sword of war after all, and faced a variety of arms and armors. While not every puncture with a rapier would be lethal, to be sure, virtually every cut by a katana was intended to kill instantly. During the centuries of the Renaissance in Europe (the 1400s to early 1600s), Japan was in its Warring States period; the samurai class were essentially mounted archers with their main infantry weapon being the spear (yari). At this time the sword was a secondary weapon. It was only later, during the peace of the Tokugawa unification when the era of endless civil war had ended, that the “cult” of the katana developed around the samurai as warriors (which in modern times this has grown into something of a pop-cultural mythology). The rapier on the other hand, had but one purpose: dueling another swordsman.

Although occasionally argued by some, I do not believe for an instant that the rapier would be "cut" or broken by a katana. Although katanas were (more or less) capable of cutting through metal, slicing an adversary's very sword, especially one as agile as a rapier, is improbable at best. The rapier really just doesn't offer the opportunity or the necessary resistance to even attempt it. We might wonder however about the rapier's recorded propensity to break when used in cutting. Yet it is necessary to understand that there was considerable diversity in the geometry of rapier blades. Some designs intended to produce an especially light and agile thrusting weapons resulted in particularly thin points that did indeed tend to snap off when a forcible edge blow was struck with them.

The speed and angulation of the highly methodical and calculating rapier and dagger style (quiet unlike the dui tempo Baroque form of modern sport fencing) is also one that would intentionally avoid contact with a wider cutting blade. (Cutting through highly tempered and deceptively swift blade of a thrusting rapier with a one- handed slash from a katana, while an interesting and not inconvenient theory, it must be admitted is certainly one without any physical or literary evidence).

In thinking about all this, I have to admit to a certain bias. Being somewhat familiar with both Eastern and Western systems, I have a good feel I think for the strengths and weaknesses of each. So I may have a slightly skewed opinion. When I have sparred with each weapon against each style of fighter, I know generally what they can and can't do and adjust myself accordingly. Then again, maybe that makes me more objective than biased. My own experiences contrasting the two forms has been in using a variety of implements, including: non-contact steel blunts, semi-contact bokken (wooden sword) versus replica rapier, and full-contact padded sword versus schläger (rapier simulator). Attempting a simulation of sport epee versus bokken though, is a futile exercise as the super light epee, more often than it can flash in with a poke, can be easily knocked around and even end up being bent. As well, shinai versus a foil or epee is just as futile. The virtually weightless bamboo shinai distorts a katana's handling far more so than even a foil or epee misrepresents the performance of a rapier or small-sword.

Very often it has seemed to me, that sport fencers are quite often much too quick to assume that their own speedy feints, disengages, and long reach will easily overwhelm a cutting sword. Frequently, what passes for the kenjutsu that Western fencers have previously encountered was far from competent. Thus, they are habitually unprepared for a katana's agile strength and defensive counter-cuts. The worst thing the rapier fighter can do is to allow his weapon to be bound up with the point off to the side (once you're past a rapier's point, the weapon is almost impotent). He also must avoid fighting close-in where the katana's force and slicing ability will instantly dominate. On the other hand, Asian stylists unfamiliar with what a rapier really is and what it can do, severely underestimate it. They too readily believe what they see in sport epee and foil is the "real thing", or that the Princess Bride and Zorro fans at the local Renn faire represent the best the weapon has to offer. The rapier's deceptive speed combined with its excellent reach and fast, efficient footwork make it a formidable weapon to face in single (unarmored) combat. Essentially, underestimating either weapon is a fatal misperception.*

If we assume the rapier is being used alone, that means the fencer has its left hand free to seize his opponent's grip, handle, or arm. If we assume he is using a companion dagger with his rapier, then when he closes in he has a potential killing thrust at his disposal. Also, the rapier fighter would not have been ignorant of grappling and wrestling techniques any less than his Asian opponent.

It is worth mentioning that the rapier was used more often with a companion dagger. But employing a dagger against a fast katana is extremely challenging as well as possibly self-defeating. Trying to trap or block a sword held in two-hands with a light dagger held in one is not advisable. The samurai might always release one hand from his weapon and grab his opponent's blade. However, some dagger techniques against a sword actually resemble those effectively used with the Okinawan sai --a weapon fully capable of defeating a katana. Also, the respected two-sword nito-ryu style of the famous Miyamoto Musashi seems to be much less relevant against the rapier. In this case, using one hand on two separate swords reduces the katana's own speed and strength advantages while playing to the rapier's. The two swords end up being too slow to employ their combination parry/cut against the rapier's greater speed and stabbing reach.

So, after all this I am reluctant to form an opinion of one over another, but I have to say I really don't know one way or the other. I have tremendous respect for kenjutsu's excellent technique and its ferocious cutting ability, yet I favor the rapier's innovative fence and vicious mechanics. Though it's very fun to speculate on, I think "who would win" between a rapier swordsman and a samurai is a moot question and unanswerable. Thus, what it eventually gets down to is not the weapon or even the art, but the individual (their conditioning and attitude) and the circumstances. Bottom line, it's about personal skill.

*End Note: As students of both combatives and history, we must recognize the limitation that, despite the sincerest attempts, any modern civilianized (even sportified) martial art practiced for recreation and health is not the same as one historically practiced for survival.  Few would assert today that medieval styles of fighting have anywhere been preserved exactly as they once were with the same level of intensity, expertise, and motivation. However, it’s no secret to point out how today's less informed student of Asian martial arts often imagines his modern style (or at least the popular mythology surrounding it) is identical in all respects to the version once practiced in a very different society and culture hundreds of years past (indeed, even when it comes to historical weaponry, some modern day practitioners feel their theoretical version is actually superior to what was done in antiquity for real). What is required then for objective consideration is a willingness to look at the subject more as students of history, rather than as emotionally invested adherents of a belief system. The more a combative digresses from its originating conditions compelling combat utility, the less martial it becomes. The counter-argument to this is that preservation is systemic and endemic to the pedagogy of traditional fighting skills and that the subtleties of martial arts can only be passed on person to person, not via texts and images. However, anthropologically, there can be no question that despite the best efforts, there is no way to ever verifying the veracity of generational verbal transmission which by its nature is subject to change over time.

*Note: Interestingly, the Renaissance cut-and-thrust method (as for example practiced by the Elizabethan master George Silver or described in various early 16th century Italian manuals) naturally has qualities of each weapon. It's not unlike that of kenjutsu with many fundamental principles being the same. It differs significantly of course, in its footwork and in the application of certain techniques and moves (particularly thrusts and parries) which were later adapted to its similar "cousin", the rapier. Cut-and-thrust or side-swords swords were also commonly used along with a buckler or dagger and the flexibility of this two-weapon combination can have some advantages against a single sword in held two hands. It certainly did against European greatswords on occasion, but this was in the age when such war swords were already no longer in wide use.

*Note: Japanese television recently featured a contest between a kendoka and an epee fencer. The epee fencer was declared the victor because he managed a thrust to the thigh or hip a split second before receiving a cut down his forehead. Hardly decisive. But the contest proved nothing as neither combatant really represented a “traditional” sword fighting method with historical weapons. With its featherweight bamboo stick kendo is not definitely not kenjutsu, and modern sport fencing is not a Renaissance style at all but a Baroque one using the featherweight equipment and actions of a method less than 300 years old. Both games purposely use near suicidal techniques to score points, rather than historical moves to win fights. So, the single bout contest was really one between two practitioners of two modern martial sports and, in my opinion, demonstrated nothing of value concerning the weapons and historical methods of swordplay being discussed here.  

About the Author:


Having pursued the craft since 1980, John Clements is one of the world's foremost authorities on Medieval and Renaissance fighting skills. Clements has authored two books and more than a dozen magazine articles on historical swordplay. A leader in historical fencing studies, he has researched swords and sword combat in ten countries and taught seminars on the subject in eight. He has lectured and demonstrated at numerous museums and universities and is a frequent consultant on Medieval and Renaissance combative systems. He works full-time teaching and writing on historical European fighting arts.

  

Blessed be the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands to fight, and my fingers for warfare"

- Psalm 144:2 

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