As sword makers we are often asked about the differences between European and Japanese swords. These questions run the gamut from the unabashedly technical, "does the presence of cementite needles in Viking swords imply large scale trade with East Asia?", to the silly, "Why are katanas soooooooooooo much more awesome than medieval swords?". The main question most folks are getting at, however, is "how and why are these types of swords different?".
An Ulfberht Viking sword, like those in this NOVA documentary.
This question is fraught because pretty much every culture that has a history of using or producing swords has a cultural mythology built around them. Swords are particularly important pieces of technology that are a critical part of many cultures self-conception... swords represent a romantic martial spirit. Being more expensive to produce than other antique weapons like spears, swords represent an elite category of warrior in many cultures. From the medieval European knight, to the Japanese Samurai, swords are a symbol of nobility.
A 16th century Wakazashi by Bizen Takamitsu, famous smith, photo taken professionally by Eric Bossick for Unique Japan
This means that most questions about which kind of sword is 'better' are tied up with much larger ideas of national or cultural importance. This is further complicated by the cultural embrace within certain communities in the West of a kind of cult of the Katana. Dating back at least to the fantasy program The Highlander, and accentuated by the popularity of Japanese anime cartoons and various Internet forums, traditional Japanese swords have acquired a reputation as "the best" type of sword. This is, of course, totally subjective. Both Japanese and European swords are great.
How are they different?
The most visible difference between Japanese swords and European swords is that single-edged swords were more prevalent in medieval Japan, while double-edged swords were more prevalent in medieval Europe. Of course, there were double-edged Japanese swords such as the Tsurugi, and single-edged, curved European swords such as the Messer or Falcion. So, this differentiation may not be particularly useful in discussing the differences between these types of swords.
Custom Grosse Messer after German Original by Arms & Armor Inc.
Perhaps, then, the primary difference between Japanese and European swords is in the manner of their production. Japanese swords are traditionally made in a famously complex manner, utilizing several different types of steel and iron of varying carbon-content, forge welded together to create blades with a very hard edge and a soft and flexible core. In Japan traditional swordsmiths are highly revered and the multi-step process of producing the highest quality blades is imbued with deep cultural and religious significance.
But this differentiation is less clear cut than it has been popularly understood. Many European swords were made in similar ways. Viking period swords, for instance, were frequently made with a hard, carbon steel edge and a softer iron core. So called Damascus, or crucible steel was also used in swords of this same period and these patterned blades also took on religious or deep cultural significance.
A samurai in armor from ~1860
A depiction of a 13th century knight
These similar approaches to making high quality swords developed due to similar physical constraints and similar design goals, to produce a sword that would retain a sharp cutting edge while avoiding brittleness that might lead to breakage. This desire was frustrated by the relative scarcity of high quality carbon steel in both situations.
Traditional tatara conducted at U of M in 2004 in which A&A participated.
Bloom from 2004 tatara smelt at the University of Minnesota
When producing steel using artisanal methods iron-containing materials are heated with coal or charcoal to separate the iron from some impurities. This process produces iron blooms with highly variable internal carbon content ranging from low carbon soft iron, to carbon steel, to very high carbon cast or pig iron. Check out this great video from our good friend Ric Furrer in which he demonstrates the process of iron smelting and bloom forging. This process creates relatively small quantities of high quality steel, and relatively larger amounts of iron and pig iron, making carbon steel expensive and something to be conserved. At least some of the impetus for forge welding metals of different carbon contents into a single blade is the desire to make the high quality steel go further, to conserve it by using different materials on parts of the blade that don't really need to be as hard as the edge. If it had been easier for them to produce highly consistent high-carbon steels in large quantities, as it is today, it is doubtful that any of these strategies and techniques would have emerged.
Two iron blooms, one cut to show the interior
What is interesting is not so much how different Japanese and European swords are, but how sword makers of different cultures and time periods developed similar strategies to dealing with similar challenges, and the created mythos around those strategies that gave them added significance.
Stay tuned for further posts on sword making techniques, and the differences between period and modern materials and processes, as well as some explorations of the cultural values that were assigned to these processes.