You’ve talked before about how katana’s weren’t that great due to the low quality of the metal used way back when. But what if someone made one today? If you primarily used titanium instead of low-quality steel, plus modern forging techniques, could you develop a much better sword that a real person could use in a fight?

The poor quality iron that Japanese smiths had access to is
part of the problem, but it’s not the only issue. The design was (in part) a
result of that limitation. You can work around those, using high quality steel
forged directly from a billet, with a grip you can actually use in a variety of
situations, but you wouldn’t have a katana, you’d have a saber.

Those design flaws are intrinsically what defines the katana.
Folding the blade is extremely fetishized in defining the quality of a katana.
It’s not just a defining characteristic, you will see people using the number
of folds as an indicator of how skilled the sword smith was. This is probably a large part of why they continued using the technique, while other cultures, like the Vikings, abandoned folded blades once they had access to better smelting technologies.

In fact, a lot of modern, “katanas,” you can buy, aren’t.
They’re not produced with the proper metal, and they’re using machine forged
blades. They’re just sabers. Ironically, even the junk ones are superior weapons
to traditional katanas. (For one thing, you can actually parry with the blade.)

Using titanium as your base material for a sword isn’t a
good option. It’s light weight, strong, and won’t hold an edge without becoming
incredibly brittle. Heat treating it is either functionally impossible or prohibitively
expensive (maybe a little of both). It’s a fantastic option for a lot of
applications, but combat blades don’t make that list.

I don’t really have a lot to say on the subject of titanium,
because I don’t do metalworking directly, but (nearly) everything I’ve read on
the subject says, “don’t.”

There
are titanium alloys you use, but the metal, in general, just doesn’t have the
characteristics you’d want in a sword (or machete).

It is an
excellent choice for items that need to survive excessive thermal shock and
constant wear, which is probably why you will find aftermarket titanium parts
for firearms, it just doesn’t work well for swords.

If you’re really dead set on getting a titanium blade, you
can buy titanium kitchen knives. Though, holding an edge while slicing carrots
and slabs of meat isn’t quite the same as doing so while slicing through
screaming slabs of meat who are trying to return the favor.

You can make excellent blades from high quality steel. No
folding required. Actually, please, don’t fold high quality steel. The entire
folding process was originally an act of necessity, to get functional steel out
of the iron the Japanese had access to.

You’d also probably want to add a functional hand guard to
the thing, and contour the hilt. These aren’t mandatory, but
they would help. The thing is, none of this is really necessary.

Real people did use actual katanas forged from tamahagane
(pig iron), and killed each other in the real world. Humans are very inventive
about making sure they have a way to kill each other, and the katana is an
excellent example of this.

Limited by their available resources, Japanese swordsmiths
found a way to turn the iron they had into something they could use in weapons.
Japanese swordsmen developed and refined techniques that allowed them to take
the resulting blades into combat while working around their inherent fragility,
and they used the things for centuries. They turned the blade into a symbol of
their identity.

To be honest, I don’t even hold this against the Japanese, the
katana is a symbol of their ingenuity. It’s not a particularly good sword, but
that’s kind of missing the point. It is, their
sword. It is a symbol. Hell, it is literally a holy icon.

What you can’t do is take a katana out of its natural
environment and expect it to flourish. Weapons are designed and adapted to deal
with the environment they’re used in. On the global scale, the katana was about
four centuries obsolete when it was first developed. Which, really doesn’t
matter, because the Japanese weren’t using them against anyone who had a
decisive technological advantage.

The problem is, a lot of people, look at how the katana
functioned in its native environment, and how the people from that culture
regarded it, and then assume that a civilization which had never engaged in
long range exploration and had no frame of reference, were able to accurately
assess that they had created, “the best swords,” in the world.

It’s a sword. You can make vastly superior ones by changing
the design, at which point it’s still a sword, but it’s not the same sword. The
katana was an excellent weapon for Feudal Japan, not because it was somehow the
best blade design ever envisioned, or because it had some superlative quality,
but because it was a symbol of who they were as a people.

Take it out of that environment, drop it into a world that
has moved beyond swords entirely, and you’re left with an object that can still
have cultural meaning, and personal importance, but trying to cling to it is to
deny the changing world.

Icons like that are still important to point to and say, “this
is where we came from; this is a part of who we are,” but, that’s not the same
as saying, “progress is irrelevant, this will always be the best solution.” And, yes, that second part is an element when discussing the katana. Folded steel was not, strictly, a Japanese invention, other civilizations did use that method to produce early steel weapons. They faced the same issues with fragile blades, and continued searching for better smelting methods and higher quality materials. The Japanese didn’t, and instead fetishized the blades. Make of that what you will.

I’ll still say, actual katanas are beautiful pieces of art. It’s
the entelechy of how a civilization viewed conflict. They’re an example of
serious ingenuity and craftsmanship. If you take it out of context, it’s not a
particularly good weapon, but that’s missing the point.

-Starke

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