I don’t like to write on topics that involve violence between people, but in a survival situation, there will always be violence between people. This being GunsAmerica, I’ve already addressed the topic of inexpensive real firepower. You should make sure that you have a rifle, and not just a handgun or even a shotgun. There is no substitute for a high powered rifle round when one is required. But what about when your mags are empty? What about when your firing pin snaps in two? I would never suggest anyone bring a sword to a gunfight, but I think that a good quality sword should have it’s place in your preparations for the breakdown of our civil world.
Some time ago we looked at “What is Your Fighting Knife?,” where I considered the differences between the classic American Bowie Knife vs. the Kukri, or Ghurka curved blade knife. I favor the latter, but the knife I’ll always reach for to stick in my belt is a Bowie, so go figure. Belt knives have some reach and some weight, but ergonomically they won’t stop an attacker before they can get there hands on you. That is where a sword is best.
Mall Ninja Alert
I’d bet that many of you will scoff ridiculous at such a proposition as buying a sword for post collapse. That was my reaction at first, mostly because for this column I try not to be sensationalist or speculative. I saw a recent print magazine for preppers that had “Medieval Weapons” on the cover, and the article was complete hogwash. They didn’t even explain the quality differences between the weapons out there, and what constitutes a battle quality mace vs. a for display mace. Lame.
So for us, I decided to stick to swords for now. Other weapons, like a staff, a mace, and even nunchucks require skill, and a good deal of physical strength to use effectively. I’m actually pretty good with nunchucks and over the years I’ve hit my head full speed while practicing, and didn’t suffer any injury (though I’m sure many of my readers would argue that). There is a reason why armies were most fitted with swords (and spears). Even a little guy can fight good with them.
Not that I am personally trained to fight with a sword, but I certainly know how to use one. Most sword training is about sword on sword. In the real world this will almost never happen, because one of you is going to be smart enough to steer clear of the guy with the big sword, even when that person also has a sword. The physical advantages of a sword are fairly straightforward, as compared to what I would call a fighting knife:
- Reach – For my stature, a huge, Lord of the Rings style broadsword is a bit much, but a normal broadsword, katana, or Chinese dynasty period broadsword (see the video) extends my reach by a good three feet. I can hit and stop a threat much further away than I can with a long knife.
- Weight – Under the momentum of even a one handed swing, most things will not hinder a battle quality sword’s progress forward. Some swords are meant to be heavier and less likely to be deflected. Some are specifically designed to be lighter and faster, but all are meant to get the job done. The thick Kukri I like to carry is just under 2 lbs., which is double most belt knives.
Why Do I Need a Sword?
I don’t expect to find myself in a sword fight with a ninja, or a knight. (Not even one who says Ni.) The idea of having a long blade is to keep the person attacking you from getting his hands on you. One someone gets their hands on you, no matter how skilled a fighter you are, anything can happen. And against a much bigger guy, even a big fat guy, all the fighting skills in the world won’t save you from the damage that strong powerful mits can do. To mortally wound an attacker before they reach you is the idea of a sword, and nations have been won and lost at the end of one. Ideally my personal defense weapon is a rifle, but absent a firearm, I’ll take a sword over any other weapon.
You get a lot of flack in the prepper world if you buy into things that scream “Mall Ninja,” and there will be lines of ex-military guys and wannabees who will tell you that a sword is just another hand weapon that will be taken away from you and used against you by a trained opponent. I think zero of these people have come at someone who swung a sharp sword at them, and I think zero of them would comme at someone who has the ability to swing a sharp sword at them, trained or not.
Guns break. And you can only carry so much ammo. A rifle is 7 pounds or so. Each box of ammo or full AR mag is pushing a pound. How much benefit is a 3 pound sword compared to 3 more boxes of ammo?
Opportunity crime is like electricity. It always seeks the path of least resistance. Just because you have never been in a fight for your life doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for one. When that day comes that the jig is up, the jig is up. It is going to be pandemonium, and nobody can be guaranteed safety, no matter how “prepared” they may be. Prepare for a fight for you life. You’ll be better off.
I don’t look forward to the day when I just emptied my last magazine and now it is just me and the sword, but if such a time comes, I hope I have my sword.
I’d like to start with this sword because I think it is the most misunderstood. It’s funny because when I was younger and interested in a career in law enforcement, I read the book on Charles Manson. One of the oddball details about him that was a for sure clue that he was deranged was that he had a katana in his car. These days who doesn’t have a katana lol? I was in Disney a few weeks ago and they sell them in Epcot.
If you don’t have a katana, or any sword, it is tough to beat the traditional Japanese Samurai weapon when it comes to ending what would otherwise be a hand to hand street fight. They are also the best sword to get a high quality and highly effective example for cheap. You can get a “battle ready” katana right now for under $100, if you know where and how to look (see my links). Substantively and functionally it won’t be that much different from a blade at two to ten times the price.
If you own a katana already and you don’t have a lot of emotional attachment to it, test out its basic construction. Sheath it in its scabbard, and crank sideways on the handle as hard as you are able. If you bought it at a smoke shop or flea market, probably you’ll feel some give. That usually means it was built cheaply, with a “rat tail tang.” If the handle breaks free and turns, you just figured out that your sword probably wasn’t ready for prime time. If it seems solid, like the tang is as wide as the blade, you probably have a decent sword. Sharpen it with a decent stone and see how sharp you can get it. Often cheap swords are stainless steel and it can be hard to get a good and long lasting edge.
Expensive vs. Inexpensive
If you don’t own a sword, but have always thought that you couldn’t get a good one for cheap, check out the options I have shown you in the links above and in the video. There is a ton of disinformation out there about what blades should cost, and I think it is mostly disseminated by people trying to get big money for handmade blades. What takes an individual a huge investment and hours in the garage can be cranked out by experts by the dozens in a fraction of the time. There is no difference between a high carbon forged expensive knife and a high carbon forged inexpensive knife, and that goes for swords as well. All steel comes out of one of only a few factories worldwide. A small bladesmith buys the same billet of steel that a large factory buys. They just pay more for it. I have never in many years of looking found a sound explanation of why any blade should cost more than a couple hundred bucks, yet they do. Don’t get hornswaggled by bad advice from knife aficionados who are just kidding themselves. If anything, modern metallurgy has made the whole concept of high quality vs. low quality steel obsolete.
In China there is a region called Longquan in the region of Lishui City in the Southwest of Zhejiang Province. There are a number of both private and government swordmaking factories there, and the tradition has been built over more than 1000 years. World leaders have traveled there for generations to purchase high quality blades, and those same shops produce the swords you see on Ebay for $100-$500. It is a misconception that China makes junk. Historically, Western engineers and importers order junk, designed as junk, to sell to us, and they make it in China because labor is cheap there, and there are no restrictions on factories and materials. The Chinese people take a great deal of pride in things that they make themselves.
A big misconception is that they are selling stamped, mass produced cheap junk. But I can promise you, when you order a sword from China, even for under $100, it is hand made on order for you in one of only a handful of shops, and it will get to you within about two weeks. Most of the sellers have pictures of the swords being made, and you can order customizations from most of them. The most prolific on Ebay is Hanbon Forge, and I’ve seen that in the knife discussion boards the participants have had to acknowledge that the blades are top quality and a killer deal.
The problem is, you have to order it directly from China, and if you haven’t done this before, it’s a little scary to Paypal a large chunk of your paycheck to a stranger on the other side of the world. What I can share with you is that the people on the other end of the keyboard may be strangers, but they are actually individuals, not computer automation programs. Communication with them is difficult, because they are using mostly canned pre-written text, but when you ask them questions, they do answer as best they can using Google Translate.
I have an interesting story that proved the point that these swords are being individually made for the buyers. In the video I will show you my black blade, red edge katana. When I ordered it for this article, it was one of only a few that came with the “Michone” scabbard, which I’l get to later, but the interesting thing was that there Asian writing on the sword in the ad. I didn’t care for the writing, but it was so cool overall, and cheap, that I could live with the writing. Two days after I ordered it, the Chinese guy contacts me to ask if I wanted the writing, because the pictures had come from a custom order and that guy’s name was what the writing said. I said nah, skip the writing. Obviously there are only two of this option in existence. These swords are not stamped out and mass produced. They are made for you on order.
Cheap swords, even the sword you may already own, are mostly made from stamped out sheet steel. I am not a purist, and I feel like as long as the handle is secure and the blade is as sharp as you can get it, that’s a pretty effective weapon. I almost included a stamped $17 sword in the video, just because I think it is a joke that people balk at inexpensive sharp pieces of steel with solid handles. Buy what you can afford. If it says “full tang” most likely you’ll not be disappointed with what is out there on Ebay and BudK right now. If you can stay away from stainless steel and look for high carbon steel, even better. Don’t get hung up in the $100 plus range when the benefits from a survival perspective are dubious. I linked above to $40 swords that BudK claims are hand forged full tang high carbon.
High Carbon Steel – 1060 vs. 1095 vs. T10
Don’t get lost in all the carbon steel terms. In my experience, Ebay is the best place to get high quality swords. But the words that they use to describe the swords have been molded to what sword collectors search for online. That goes for BudK as well.
Most ads will just say “high carbon steel,” which is the more honest term than giving you a hard number. The numbers, when available, are 1060, 1095 etc., and when it starts with a 1, that means it is carbon steel. The rest, .060, .095, is supposed to be the percentage of carbon in the mix. The more carbon, theoretically the harder the steel, and the better it will hold an edge. This also makes it harder to sharpen, and it makes the sword more brittle if striking a solid object, especially from the side.
When you see “spring steel,” it is meant to tell you that the sword will take sideways pressure without snapping. “Tool steel” is usually just a high carbon steel. “T10” is a standardized and highly available high carbon steel in the Chinese foundry market. There is no regulatory obligation on Ebay or anyplace else to be truthful in these descriptions, but in my experience, the Chinese take a great deal of pride in selling you what you agreed to buy, and the ads generally reflect the best possible explanation of what you are getting.
Oil Quenched, Clay Tempered
A few of my swords for this article are specifically “clay tempered.” This is a process by which they cover the main length and thickness of the blade with clay, and leave the edge open. The blade is heated for tempering, and quenched with the clay on it. This delays the hardening process for the majority of the blade, making it less hard and more flexible, but the edge tempers hard, to hold sharpness. Cool stuff. Probably more than you need to know, but there is not a big price discrepancy on the clay tempering if you want it. Look for the wavy pattern on the blade, which they also call a Hamon.
Some blades seem to have the wavy pattern, but aren’t advertised as clay tempered (like the Hiro Nakamura sword). Who knows what the case really is, because the pattern looks cool and is easily faked. I researched around a bit and it looks like a fake Hamon is pretty common in machine made stamped swords. Stick to the large sellers on Ebay with a lot of positive feedback and you won’t get a fake sword.
Oil quenched, water quenched, or even the term “tempered” itself seem to be just keywords that they are using to attract sword aficionados. The katana that you bought in the smoke shop most likely is not tempered, and will dull quickly on use. It also is probably not as sharp as the Ebay swords, which will cut paper. As I said above, try to stay away from stainless. On a sharpening stone stainless is like trying to sharpen toothpaste. It gums up the stone with particles, and it is tough to get really sharp. Then it gets dull pretty quick.
The “Michone” Katana
You know the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction? Well fiction is often cooler than truth and truth can learn a lesson from fiction. .I think that was what they hit in the design of the sword that the Michone character carries in The Walking Dead. Regular scabbards on katanas are lame. Prior to the Michone sword, I don’t know why the people out there making swords didn’t figure out that most people don’t wear traditional Japanese garments, and that we have nothing to tie them to for practical use and everyday carry.
I bought my first “battle ready” katana for about $250 back around the time of the first Kill Bill movie. Mine is actually a replica of that sword. Since then I’ve accumulated a couple more, and they all have the same design for the scabbard, which is really lame unless you are carrying a backpack that you can strap it to. Then it’s tough to get off quick.
Since The Walking Dead sword and it’s slung scabbard, the swordmakers in China have latched onto the concept of a katana with a sling, and I have to say, they are really awesome. As you’ll see in the video, I bought several for this article to get an idea for the differences in price vs. quality, but the scabbard slings seem to be all similar quality, even though some of the actual swords vary in price from $150 to over $350.
From what I can tell, even the $150 ones are full wide tang, and high carbon steel. The scabbard and sling vary a lot in the way they look, but they are all about the same in how secure they are. I wish the hardware was more beefy, and thick leather would be nice too, but for the price, for a high quality sword you can carry on your back, it’s kind of a no brainer if you can afford it.
The only other sling katana that I have found is the Hero Nakamura sword from the TV show Heroes. BudK sells it for $130. On Ebay the same United Cutlery sword goes for as much as $700.
Torture Testing Your Sword
If you notice, I didn’t make the obligatory bamboo cutting video because my neighbor who has bamboo in her front yard didn’t want the ugly stubs, but at least I did ask, just in case you doubt the honesty of those Chinese capitalists on Ebay. To me the whole concept of torture testing a sword is a waste of the hard work that went into it, but if you have some bamboo that isn’t in someone’s front yard, have at it. No amount of torture testing is going to tell you if there is .095% carbon in your blade or .030%. I think that these Chinese guys are pretty straight up, and the blades are what they say. Look around Youtube and you’ll find plenty of fools torture testing Chinese swords and ruining their investment. And most likely they paid more than you will lol.
What is the difference between a $100 katana and a $300 katana? From what I have seen, it has something to do with the shape of the blade for one. The more curved the blade, the more work it takes to build it apparently. There are also differences in the metal for the hardware on the sword, and the scabbard. I don’t use the traditional Japanese terms here because I am not Japanese, but you’ll see on many of the ads that you can swap out more expensive parts that are made of metals other than the bronze alloy that seems to be the default. Besides the clay tempering and specific listed steels as I’ve explained, price difference seems to be mostly cosmetic.
There are full tang kantanas for less. BudK is offering forged katanas from $40 right now. They say it is hand forged. I don’t know. Retail is really dead. I have zero idea what is the difference between these swords.
If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, or the medieval period in general, you probably have considered purchasing a “battle ready” broadsword. You will also see the larger ones called a “Claymore.” My advice on these swords is the be very careful to read what you are buying. There are some high quality, truly battle ready broadswords coming out of India right now, but most of the ads under $100 will say that it is “perfect for reenactors” or “great for cosplay,” and you should stay away from them. My first ever purchase from BudK, an otherwise great blade site, was a William Wallace Claymore. One twist and the handle broke away from the rat tail tang. They are made of stamped stainless, and if they come sharpened at all it isn’t very sharp. I wouldn’t call it a quality issue as much as that they just aren’t swords meant for defending your life.
The “hand and a half” broadswords that you’ll find on Ebay from India are, I think, a pretty good buy. Compared to a katana, they are about a pound heavier, at just over 3 lbs., and the dynamics are different. If I was a trained swordsman perhaps I could explain it better. Any sword is a little awkward to heft, but a broadsword has a certain power to it that is tough to find in other types of blades.
Generic “high carbon” is the best you’ll find on these swords when it comes to the grade of steel. They are sharp, but not as sharp as the katanas, and there are no detailed options for clay tempering and what not. The handle is thinner than the blade, which is the nature of the sword of course, and the handles are wood or leather wrapped and apparently held with bolsters and sometimes epoxy. The scabbards come with a belt stud. Ideally you would get a sword frog for these swords, but they will hang from your belt just fine, or strap into your pack.
If you are in the market for a sword of this type, I would do some research before jumping on the ones I got from India. I’m not nuts about finding epoxy holding the handle together, and I did on one of them. If you watch the video, you’ll see that I also won an auction on Ebay for three broadswords, and they seem to be much more “for real” than the India swords.
I am not going to dwell on the European medieval broadswords because I personally like the Chinese designs of the same era much better. As I’ll show you in the video, right now on Ebay you can find some amazing pieces of hand craftsmanship at the price of a Budk stamped knockoff a year ago.
The Chinese broadsword seems to split along the different dynasties. I won’t pretend to have researched this deeply, but from from what I’ve seen, there are two eras in popular sword designs. The Han dynasty sword is called the Han Jian. It is a double edged design with a long straight blade. I’ve also seen this referred to as the sword of the war between the states.
Generally the blade on a Han Jian is thick and some have one or two “blood grooves” to reduce weight. The handle is round, wooden and boltstered into a full length tang. The scabbard is wood with cast bronze fittings. I find the sword really well balanced, comfortable to swing, and it is roughly a pound more than a katana of the same length. I’m a pretty big guy and I like the extra weight. With the leverage of the long handle and a shorter, thicker blade, the Han Jian feels absolutely devastating in your hands.
The other sword that has several variations is called the Kang Xi, from the Quing dynasty. These also feel really brutal in your hands, and they also come with a wooden scabbard and either a short or really long handle. The difference in the Quing swords is that they are single edged, and they have a thick, like 1/4″ thick, blade with cool looking hooked tip.
The hardware castings on the Quing swords make them seem like they are for display, but at $150+, they are not. These are 100% battle ready, and for me, the most “wieldly” of all the swords I own. In a hand to hand, fight your life kind of fight, I want something that is fast, yet heavy enough to chop through clothing. Take a look at the video. These single edged Quing swords are really special.
The Survival Paradigm
It is really hard to think that I’d have to hack at a human coming at me, and I’m sure that most of you feel the same way. But there are people out there looking for a fight when this all burns down. I was in a gunshop a few months ago, and this macho idiot was explaining how he was all ready to bug out with his rifle and backpack, and how he was going to enjoy killing people for what he needed.
That’s why I have emphatically stressed that everyone should plan to “bug in” if you really expect to have a shot. It could be that radiation will force to leave a secure location, or other factors, so being ready to bug out is important. An AR is 7 pounds. A loaded AR mag is 1 pound. A box of handgun ammo is roughly a pound. Even a large sword is 3 pounds.
On a battlefield, as part of a squad with supply lines and backup, I don’t think a sword is worth the weight or the awkward size. But out on your own, or with a small group, on sentry duty for a small group, etc., a sword has a good deal of merit. It is a brutal weapon, when brutality will be all around you. And remember, ten years early is better than one minute too late.