The Samurai were the hereditary military nobility of Japan and were adept at a multitude of both armed and unarmed combat techniques. They were skilled in the use of the longbow, the Naginata – a long bladed pole weapon, and the Yari – a straight headed spear. However, it is perhaps the sword that embodies the culture and soul of the samurai warrior class. There were a number of different types of sword and in this article we look at Katana vs Tachi and what the difference is between these two types of sword.
Early Japanese swords were known as Chokuto and were straight, double-edged bladed weapons designed for a form of combat involving stabbing and thrusting motions. They were based on Chinese and Korean designs and, in fact, were initially imported to Japan from mainland China. Japan encouraged Chinese craftsman to move to Japan to assist in the production of these swords and, in time, Japanese learned the techniques to make these swords themselves.
So the legend goes, the Japanese sword maker, Amakuni, in c.700 AD grew dispontant at the number of Chokuto that he made which were broken in battle. After much experimentation, he developed a thinner, curved sword with a single-edged blade. This design was one of the first Tachi and was more suited to Japanese swordsmanship which involved cutting and slashing motions.
Over the next few hundred years, the design was perfected. By combining different types of steel with different levels of hardness, the swordsmiths were able to produce a blade with a strong cutting edge with a soft core body, which not only made the sword lighter but also provided cushioning to deflect blows.
Combat during this time was largely done on horseback for which the Tachi was well suited, although the bow and arrow was the samurai’s preferred fighting weapon.
This fighting style would change largely as a result of foreign invaders.
In 1274 and 1281 Japan was invaded by Mongol armies. The samurai had to adjust their traditional fighting style to be able to deal with a mongol infantry who fought together in small groups.
In addition,the Mongols had arrived on ships and the samurai would climb aboard and attack the Mongol soldiers present.
Both situation triggered a need to be able to fight in the cramped surroundings at close quarters. The traditional Tachi was just too long and unwieldy to be able to cope. The samurai fell back to using a shorter dagger for this purpose (the Kogachi or Tanto). A true short sword had yet to be designed.
Over the few hundred years, became less curved and shorter and by the early 1400s, short sword technology in the Katana had risen to prominence providing a light, responsive blade that still had almost the reach of a Tachi.
Tachi were the first curved, single-bladed sword to become mainstream in Japan from approximately 700 to 1200 AD. It was designed to be used when on horseback. This was gradually replaced from c. 1300 – 1550 AD by the Katana, a shorter, lighter and less curved sword which was more suited to combat on foot at close quarters.
A Katana sword consists of a curved, single edged blade that is about 23.5 – 31.5 inches in length. It has a small square or circular guard (Tsuba), which is about the size of an adult’s palm. The guard not only protects your hands from being struck by your opponent’s sword but also stops your hands sliding up the sword and being cut on your own blade. Beneath the guard is a long grip to allow the sword to be held with both hands.
The curved design is more suited to the slashing motions in Japanese swordsmanship and enables the sword to be drawn quickly.
The katana was generally suited to close quarter combat, as opposed to on horseback. It was a shorter, lighter sword that could be wielded in quick, rapidly changing motions.
The Tachi was a longer sword with an average cutting edge length 28 to 31.5 inches and when compared to the Katana was proportionately lighter and more curved.
Its greater length allowed it to be used on horseback where a longer reach was required in order to reach the opponent. The increased curvature allowed it to be drawn more easily with one hand.
Some Tachi were even shortened to the size of a katana so that they fitted the new fighting style of fighting on foot as opposed to horseback..
The Katana was a shorter, less curved version of the Tashi that was more suited to close quarter combat than on horseback.
The Tachi was hung horizontally from the belt from a tachi koshirae from the left side of the samurai’s belt with the sharp edge pointing downwards. The curvature of the sword gave the appearance of a shallow U-shape which, when the fighter was on horseback, prevented the metal end of the sheath from hitting the horse he was riding which would have interfered with the horse being ridden properly.
The Katana was pushed through the belt of the kimono with the sharp edge pointing upwards. This allowed the sword to be drawn quickly in a slashing motion if the samurai was suddenly attacked. This is perfectly demonstrated in the 1966 film, the Sword of Doom:
The Tachi was hung horizontally from the belt of the Samurai with the sharp edge facing downwards. The Katana was pushed through the belt of the kimono with the sharp edge facing upwards.
Swordsmiths would write or etch their signature (mei) on the tang (Nakago) of the sword – the part that descends into the wooden hilt. Even though it was covered by the hilt, it was carved into the side that would face outward when the sword was worn on the samurai’s left side. On the other side of the tang, the sword maker would write the date that the sword was made.
Summary: Katana vs Tachi: what’s the difference?
There are a number of key differences between these two swords:
- Tachi were made before the Katana from 700 to 1200 AD. The Katana came later from c. 1300 – 1550 AD.
- The Katana was a shorter sword that was more suited to close quarter combat than on horseback.
- The Tashi was more curved that the Katana allowing it to be drawn singlehandedly whilst on horseback.
- The Tachi was hung horizontally from the belt of the Samurai with the sharp edge facing downwards. The Katana was pushed through the belt of the kimono with the sharp edge facing upwards.
- The swordsmith’s signatures were written on different sides of the tang of the sword.