Sharp Steel Sword ( redux

My sword arrived from the USA and got caught in customs for a while, I went to collect it and pay the import tax on the 2nd January. Since then I’ve been looking at it quite carefully. I was relieved customs had not opened it (not because of any legal concerns, it is all perfectly legal, but because in the past I have witnessed people all to keen to play with these items, to potentially distastrous consequences).

First of all SwordStore itself handled everything excellently, with perfect courtesy throughout, and seemed genuinely eager for feedback on the new arrival. These swords are constructed in Japan with, I think, parts from both Japan and China. The sword was carefully packaged.

I carefully checked all the fittings before removing the sword from its saya (scabbard); they were all of a good standard and fitted well, there was no damage apparent from shipping. The tsuka (handle) is longer than my current sword, which is good, since my hands are quite large, the same (shark skin) is nice, and the ito (wrap) is extremely tight and well finished. It is blue silk and so the handle feels a little less bulky than my current sword that is wrapped in cotton (incidentally that sword, from Tozando in Japan, still has exceptionally tight wrap after 7 years). I am very pleased with the cherry blossom tsuba.

So, on to the blade. I drew the blade carefully (not Iaido style) to ensure everything was in good order. The blade is beautiful, with a nice pattern in the steel, the hamon is pretty, and could be polished up even more beautifully at some later stage. This sword is 2.5 shaku, a little longer than my old 2.45 shaku sword, and is heavy. Obviously it’s a little longer and made of steel, but the blade has a lot of meat, the sword is fairly thick and the thickness doesn’t diminish much (or maybe at all) until it reaches the boshi, just before the kissaki (tip). The balance feels further along the blade than a regular iaito, and perhaps it will be too much to wield. Having said that, every time I pick the sword up it feels lighter to me now. The blade is very sharp, and when I tried to place it back in its saya, again carefully for now sliding the mune (back) carefully into the saya, and found that the blade bound up in the saya very slightly when about 10 cm of blade was still out. After a few more insertions this problem has gone, the blade has literally cut a little of the material in the way free. The sword locks tightly in its saya when pushed fully home (importantly), and I next carefully cleaned the blade, applied fresh clove oil, and fitted the scabbard protector that had been awaiting its arrival.

Sword comparison. Alumium alloy iaito on top, carbon steel below.
Sword comparison. Alumium alloy iaito on top, carbon steel below.

I placed my two swords down side by side as you can see here (click for a larger image), the new sword is below. You can see its fittings are generally silver. The new sword has a longer hi (groove) that goes right under the habaki. The new sword has silver lilies as menuki, the other fittings are chrysanthemum except for the tsuba which is, I think, iron, fairly small, round with a large cherry blossom pattern. The meguki (bamboo peg) holding the blade in is tight, and trumpet shaped, looking a lot less like the dowel of my old sword. Also, both ends are easily accessible, where in my old sword the peg is partly obscured on one side by the ito.

Grain pattern on steel iaito
Close up, artificial halogen light

Paddy very kindly brought down his superior camera power so we could capture some pictures of the grain in the sword. Again, these are thumbnails you can click on for larger images. The structure of the steel is very pleasing, and one of these photos even shows tiny pits in the steel in the centre of the frame.

Another close-up, flash used this time.
Another close-up, flash used this time.

I’ve used the sword for training for about four hours now. It is heavy. I checked it against John’s sword which is the same length, also from swordstore some years ago. The two blades are quite different, mine appears to be folded, where John’s is perhaps not. Mine is much heavier and the balance is further along the blade. In all the time I’ve used it I’m rapidly growing accustomed to the weight, and as I’m bigger than most perhaps I can more easily wield a heavier sword for now, but more time will tell I think. At first I found I could not perfectly get the cutting angle of the sword right, but I seem to have adapted quickly to the new sword, and if anything cutting more correctly (with more left hand for example) seems to improve the angle.

All in all, I’m very pleased. The service from swordstore was excellent, the steel is beautiful and the hamon although beautiful could probably be improved even further at some future time with a further polish. It seems like it would be a spectacular sword for test cutting, and indeed SwordStore sell two variants of these, one for such test cutting without a hi, and one for Iaido with a hi. My only minor worry – the blade may be too heavy and thick near the point for ideal Iaido training. Time will tell, as I said, I’m getting more used to it all the time.


Today (15th January 2008) I got an interesting email from SwordStore that confirmed a number of things:

  • the steel blades can only be made under license in Japan, as in a fully fledged shinken, so the blades are made in China and the whole thing is assembled in Japan to keep the costs down;
  • the tsuba is not made of iron, but of “patinated jewelers bronze” which doesn’t have the rust problem, can more easily take the details from the antique originals and will also mellow with use attractively;
  • the blades are not fully polished since this would put the cost up substantially (polishing is a very time intensive, skilled activity), also the emphasis is quite rightly on an affordable, functional sword;
  • the blades do come in a number of weights, and a heavier one was specifically requested for me in order since I had mentioned in an email that I would probably use the sword for cutting as well as for standard iai practice.

So there you are, if you were thinking of buying a sword from SwordStore I would strongly endorse them, and be aware that they can select from weights of blades somewhat (each one will be unique) for your requirements.

“Imitation” Samurai Swords Banned

So, it finally has been confirmed, the Home Office will ban “imitation” samurai swords in England and Wales, and I expect the rest of the UK will soon follow suit.

First of all, most students of the martial arts hate the “samurai sword” name, so let’s call them Japanese swords. I understand that attacks with these weapons are very high profile, and although in the past I wrote in support of the sale of these weapons by Battle Orders, I am becoming uncomfortable of seeing them on sale in almost every gift shop in every town, often upside down or back-to-front. Having said that, in the main shopping area in Barcelona, every other shop sells them. It’s a shame no-one can legitimately appreciate even these cheap swords as a work of art.

My appreciation for swords is now a bit more refined I suppose, and I prefer the zen-like minimalism of real Japanese swords, and my current training sword reflects that, as does the new one on its way, but where will the dividing line be cast?

“Real” swords, shinken forged under license with appropriate paperwork and signed tangs cost thousands of pounds, and are both well outside the price range of beginning Iaido students, but are also far too dangerous to train with since they are razor sharp. The “iaito” most Iaido students train with are, by very definition, imitation swords, made of non-steel alloys and either fully blunt or “semi-sharp” (not filed flat, nor polished to a razor sharp edge), and cannot be sharpened. These are around £300, will they be banned? If so it will destroy Iaido.

And what about my new sword, still on its way, which is in the middle ground, just over £1200, made of unfolded steel, sharp but not signed and licensed. Will I now need to buy a real shinken to be able to train?

Steel Sword

So, I’ve been practicing Iaido for seven years now. For almost all that time I’ve used my trusted Iaito or training sword. Like most Iaito it’s got a zinc alloy blade coated in chrome to look like the real thing. It’s a lovely sword, but slightly too short for me, and has taken a bit of a beating over the years. It’s also semi-sharp.

I have some decorative (reasonably sharp) steel swords, and I sometimes practice aspects (usually drawing and sheathing the sword) with those, but in many ways they are inferior to my Iaito, so I’ve long considered buying a steel sword, and have been deciding between three sellers, Nine Circles here in the UK, in the USA, and Bugei. This week I discovered that nine circles have removed their better steel swords from sale, in fear of coming legislation to ban sale of swords. No-one knows yet when and what shape that legislation will take. It could, at a stroke, totally destroy a martial art like Iaido in the UK, since only those who already own swords will be able to train fully.

Anyway, this all worried me, so this week I finally ordered a (very) sharp steel sword from SwordStore (which are a front for a company in Japan). It will apparently take four months, and I’m looking forward to it immensely; I spent several hours poring over which fittings I wanted, and I’m sure the result will be beautiful as well as practical.