Weapon Name: Katana, Samurai Sword


This is black belt Danielle.
And this is her katana.

Description: A sword with a slightly curved, thin blade and a two-handed handle with a small crossguard where they meet. Only one side of the sword is sharp. You want to hold the weapon with one hand just beneath the crosspiece and the other just above the bottom of the hilt.

Where Can You Get One? They originated in feudal Japan, but are still manufactured today for display and martial arts training. Many modern ones are made using updated methods, and you can get one of these from many weapon distributors. Traditional katanas were made with folded steel, which according to this article by a bladesmith, actually kind of sucks. (Seriously, go read it. It’s fascinating.) Ownership is restricted in some countries, so check your area’s laws before buying.

 


Katanas make for pretty choreography.

Natural Genres: Historical fiction, martial arts stories.

Unnatural Genres: Anything set in the modern day, anything set in scifi or fantasy. There is no legitimate reason for your elf mage to wield a katana in the mythical land of Kophiriszjkoth. Just give them a regular sword, or if you really want something that looks like a katana, a curved sword. But don’t call it a katana.

What’s It For? Slicing things. Particularly body parts.

How Long Can You Fight With It? With both hands on the hilt, a fairly long time. Single-handed, it depends on how beefy your forearm muscles are. But probably not too long.

What Muscles Wear Out First: The wrists/forearms, especially if you’re wielding it one-handed. That gets old real quick.

Lethal: Oh yes.

Can it leave enemy debilitated but alive long enough to deliver a monologue? Yes.

Learning Curve: A very, very long time.

Will You Hurt Yourself With It? You really don’t want to do that, hence the long learning curve. You’ve got to be careful while practicing.

Things Your Characters Can Do With It:

1. Slice across, upward, downward, or diagonally.

2. Stab things.

3. Pose in pretty ways before stabbing things.

4. Pose in a cool tableaux while drawing or sheathing the weapon.

5. Use the butt of the hilt to bludgeon things.

6. Use the sheath as a bonus weapon.


This is just insulting.

7. Swing the weapon in figure eights.


Note how she successfully did not cut off her own arm.

8. Cut pool noodles in half.


Rest in peace.

Things Your Characters Cannot Do With It:

1. Unsheath the weapon perfectly every time. Sometimes they get stuck, and it’s awkward.

2. Block another blade edge to edge repeatedly. This is possible, but it will dull the blade and might even shatter it.


“Are we still capable of slicing each other’s limbs off?”
“I doubt it.”

3. Throw it. Swords are not ranged weapons. Do not throw them.

4. Ignore your other defenses. Just because you’re holding a weapon, doesn’t mean you’re immune to punches, kicks, or dirt being thrown in your eyes. Have your characters use their brains, not just their blades.


“Seriously. Block your face.”
“Yes, sensei.”

5. Slice people/trees/obstacles in half. Swords are sharp, but objects are sturdy. The blade would probably get stuck somewhere along the way. Also, see #2 about dulling the blade.

6. Swing back and forth wildly and accidentally win a fight. Remember, katanas only have one sharp side. You need to know what you’re doing to use one well.


This is why we don’t block swords with sticks.
(Please note that this is not a real sword. Don’t do this at home. Or anywhere.)

Conclusion:

Katanas are cool swords, but there’s nothing in particular that makes them better than other blades of comparable size. Drop the mythos of the katana and just write cool sword fights with the weapons that would be reasonably available in your setting. Katanas are effective for slicing and slashing, but only when used by trained professionals.

This information is provided for assistance in writing fight scenes only, not for real-life application.

What weapon should I feature next?
Suggest one in the comments!

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16 thoughts on “Weapon of the Week: Katanas

  1. I’m a little late commenting on this post, and I wanted to start by saying I love your “Weapon of the Week” series. It’s fun, fascinating and enlightening (not to mention helpful).

    But I had to add my two cents to this post… you note that katanas are an unnatural fit for the fantasy genre. And I want to cry. I agree that it’s unnatural for the standard euro-western medieval fantastic setting. And I have to admit, those of us who write diverse fantasy–and by that I mean fantasy with a diversity that goes beyond elves, gnomes and trolls–are few and far between. But the heroine of my fantasy novella series, if she lived here and now, would be Japanese Arab (holy mackerel, she’s biracial!). Her parents’ cultures, as well as many others, are present in my writing. So why not? Why not a katana? It’s an absolutely perfect fit. … I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you’re right in that the average fantasy novel published in the US has no place for a katana–but that’s a call to action more than anything, and a reflection on what’s missing. 🙂 Sorry, I think I just needed to let that out. Thank you for a fantastic series on weaponry!

    1. Hi Intisar,

      Glad you’re enjoying the posts and finding them interesting!

      You have a point about fantasy novels that fully incorporate the Japanese culture, and not just the katana. It sounds as if you’ve written a world where they would fit without feeling like just a flashy prop. (Incidentally, could you post a link to your novellas? They sound like something I’d enjoy reading!)

      I’m curious to know if you call them katanas, and if so, if you use other Japanese words in the stories as well.

      1. Hey Amy, Thanks for not being offended by my little diatribe! 🙂 I actually haven’t incorporated katanas (yet!) — though your post may just bring that about. I do have some more traditional magical beings, and then a traditional Japanese shapeshifter–a tanuki, or raccoon dog, in the first book. Plus an initial setting based loosely on historic Zanzibar. I do use some swahili words, traditional names, and traditional foods, but I hadn’t gotten too much into weaponry.

        If you do check out the story, I’d love to hear what you think of it. It’s here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Sunbolt-The-Chronicles-Book-ebook/dp/B00DE2RXEM/ and on B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/sunbolt-intisar-khanani/1115656459?ean=2940016797007

        (If you’d like a review copy, just shoot me an e-mail at booksbyintisar (at) gmail.com–it would be my pleasure!)

        1. No offense whatsoever taken. 🙂 Concrit is helpful and appreciated, and you made a good point. For instance, katanas would totally work in Avatar: The Last Airbender, given the heavy Japanese cultural influences.

          Your book sounds like you’ve done a lot of cultural research for it – very cool. I’ll buy a copy and look forward to reading it!

          On an unrelated note, who did your cover design? It’s gorgeous.

    1. I will definitely do daggers/knives eventually! If they don’t win this week, I might just insist on doing them the following week. You can vote in the sidebar on my website to help them along. 🙂

      In the meantime, if you have any specific questions, I’d love to try to answer them.

      1. That would be great. I’ve been looking for somebody who knows their weapons. I have made unfortunate errors in asking some of my male friends questions such as “So, do you think a .22 caliber pistol that’s powered by splitting very tiny parts of atoms would render a person deaf for an hour or four?” Without any reason why. And I think I might have scared them a bit… So thanks! And very cool post about the katana.

        1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I totally understand asking questions like that. I’ve done the same thing. So no worries, ask away, and feel no awkwardness!

    2. Hey gifteddaisy, the daggers/knives post is up! Just thought I’d let you know in case you didn’t see it yet. If you have any questions about specifics of using those weapons, feel free to post them and I’ll do my best to answer.

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