Katana Primer for the Zombie Apocalypse


“Sabre (Saber) Bob”

Disclaimer: The following material is strictly for entertainment and educational purposes. Readers should be knowledgeable and compliant with all laws and regulations in their jurisdictions regarding the possession and use of deadly weapons, yada, yada, yada. The author and any publisher of this material are not responsible for any misuse, harm, or damage resulting from the following material—in other words; it’s your own damn responsibility.

I. Traditional Katanas

1. Developed in Japan circa 1000 AD. In legend, attributed to a single legendary smith (Amakuni), however it is very likely metallurgy and design features were borrowed from China.

2. The basic design of single-edge slightly curved profile with a small circular hand-guard and two-hand grip remained stable for a millennium

a. Progression of earliest “Tachi” swords, Warring States katanas, and Tokugawa era katanas reflected particular requirements of the periods.

b. Allowing for these period and tactical variations (No-dachi, Chisa katana, wakizashi) Japanese culture is admittedly highly conservative and, as an island archipelago, somewhat isolated even before the Tokugawa period (circa 1601 to 1877). Change and innovation in weapon design did occur but it tended to be very gradual and controlled by the ruling elite. Once the samurai settled on an effective basic sword design there was very little motivation to change.

c. Despite the “cult of the sword” mystique, swords were always back-up weapons in Japanese warfare. The full development of katana technique took place during the enforced peace of the Tokugawa shogunate when private duels and other unarmored combats were the normative encounters.

d. Adherence to tradition kept questionable katana features present even when they were arguably tactical weaknesses: ¾ tang held in grip by a single bamboo pin; choice of grip wood subject to rot; traditional cord wrapping needed frequent maintenance to keep tight and needed to be replaced if soaked with blood; and the blade could not be re-sharpened in the field.

3. Traditional Nippon blade forging is not unique. Laminated steel, composite “sandwich” blade construction, and differential tempering are found in every steel-blade culture across the globe.

a. Extreme lamination forging is a necessity for traditional Nippon blades because of impurities in the traditional ore-source (iron sand). Multiple folding and weldings drive out impurities like sulfur or silicon which would weaken a blade if left in. This was not necessary for European blade smiths to do as they had purer iron-ore sources.

b. Japanese blade smiths took laminations well beyond necessity and into art. The highest grade blades are esteemed as much for aesthetics as well as for performance. The subtle variations of laminated welded forge-lines have no effect on performance.

4. Traditional katana blade geometry in great part accounts for its performance and for its limitations.

a. Maberry, in his book Zombie CSU, happens to be flat out wrong in stating katanas are thinner and lighter than European swords. A katana is especially strong and durable because it is thicker in comparison to other swords. Per unit length Japanese swords are heavier than actual period or accurate reproduction European swords.

i. Allowing for “distal tapering” (blade gets slightly thinner towards the point) in both Japanese and European swords, Japanese swords average ¼” thickness and European swords 3/16”. Thicker=Heavier

b. Any hard-edged tempered steel with the same blade and edge geometry of a katana will cut the same as a traditionally forged katana. “Steel is steel”.

c. After 800 layers of high-low carbon steel layers are achieved by laminated forging, any further folding will result in significant carbon migration, resulting in a de facto homogenous carbon steel blade. Since a traditional forged katana has 15,000 to 25,000 supposed layers, each thinner than the molecules the blade is composed of, any supposed hard-soft advantage is pure myth[1].

d. Almost all traditional katanas are of composite construction—welded together “sandwiches” of laminated steel blanks of particular high or low carbon amounts and anywhere from 2 to 9 piece composition. The most common and actually most battle proven was the three piece “san mai” where two lower carbon blanks were forge welded to either side of a high carbon blank. The lower carbon blanks provided a springy support for the higher carbon and more brittle middle blank, which projected out beyond the lower carbon pieces to provide the hard cutting edge. The “san mai” construction is essentially the same as found in the industrial mass produced Swedish laminated steel.

e. Without getting into the tedious details of katana blade and edge geometry, it is sufficient to say the katana is an excellent design for two-hand draw cutting but somewhat less so for longer-range slash-cutting. It is a poor design for chopping attacks.

f. The edge on traditional katanas is long lasting, but once it starts to go dull it has to be re-sharpened by the same sort of professional who put it on in the first place—a “sword polisher”, who with specialized “water stones” and years of training and experience can be trusted to restore the blade without ruining it. In a zombie apocalypse, after cutting down a hundred or so walking dead, the katana user is going to find it harder and harder to cut down zombies—an increasing effect where a “failure to stop” becomes inevitable. In a full collapse of civilization scenario, air-shipping one’s katana to Japan or California for re-sharpening will not be a viable option.

g. Some of the vaunted reputation of traditional katana cutting performance can be laid to traditional hype. “Sword testers” were (and are) highly specialized professionals, who used extra-long handles for increased torque, getting results a normal grip couldn’t match. Pre-Mejji era “Body cutting” of deceased or living prisoners was done by very big and strong men (“eta”, untouchables) who did that sort of “work” day in and day out.

h. A new, absolutely traditionally forged katana will now cost you at least as much as a new full-size automobile, and the Japanese “living artifact” sword smiths have a years-long waiting list and most won’t or are reluctant to export their products to non-native Japanese. Genuine Japanese antique (and still battle-worthy) katanas are really only to be considered by millionaires with cash to burn. There are some “ganjin” sword smiths who do very, very fine work, who use some modern tools (like a power hammer) that doesn’t really effect the performance in anyway, but their work is still within the thousands of dollars range and the best smiths have considerably long waiting lists.

I. Non Traditional Katanas

1. Most modern “katanas” are that in name only. Better than 90% of what is sold over the counter and through the mail is junk, barely suitable as a wall hanger, and downright dangerous to the user who attempts any vigorous movements, like kata, let alone attempts test cutting on forgiving media like cardboard shipping tubes. The basic rule of thumb for a modern katana is if it costs less than $300 retail, it is not a weapon. Expect to pay at least what you would pay for a new, reliable defensive handgun.

a. If a “katana” is made of stainless steel, there’s a better than 99% chance it’s worthless as a weapon. If a katana (or any other sword) is made in Pakistan, its trash. If it’s made in Pakistan of stainless steel, the abysmal quality has to be experienced to be believed.

2. Most modern katanas share the traditional katanas’ tactical weaknesses (see I.2.d.) with the exception of their edge geometry. Partly as labor-savings, and partly as convenience for the owners, most modern katanas have an edge-profile identical to other quality reproduction swords. When sharpened they will cut as well (for practical purposes) as traditional katanas, but will grow dull faster and are slightly more prone to chipping if they hit a hard target (like a skull) off-angle. These disadvantages might be offset by the ability to be user re-sharpened with no more than an easily available diamond-hone set and a steady hand.

a. Some modern katana makers produce very good weapons that a purist will sneer at but are much more suitable for a Zombie Apocalypse scenario. Notable among them is Phil Hartsfield, who uses A-2 tool steel ground to shape (not forged) full length tangs, durable synthetic grips, and he pre-soaks the traditional grip wrapping in epoxy, which when it dries becomes a permanent non-slip surface that doesn’t become loose or ruined by hand sweat (or zombie gore). Additionally, Hartsfield issues his blades with shape-formed aluminum blade covers, which are much more durable than the traditional lacquered wood scabbard (saya). The end result, while very non- traditional, is very rugged, much lower maintenance, and with wicked cutting performance (Price range $4000-$7000).

b. WWII era “Gun-to’s”, or military issue katanas, are easily found at gun and knife shows and pawn shops. Before the advent of decent (and below $1000) modern reproductions, many “Shinkendo” enthusiasts turned to these mass-produced swords as starter-level weapons. The actual period weapons were issued with traditional edge geometry (hybrid convex) so have to be re-sharpened by a professional[1]. Price range$300-$500

c. Consumer demand finally prompted manufacturers like Hanwei and Cold Steel to offer traditional-looking but affordable weapon-quality katanas, wakizashis, and other Japanese-style swords. Price range $500-$800

I. Using Katanas in the Zombie Apocalypse

1. Katanas are NOT Star Wars® “lightsabers”[1]—not even close. Katanas cannot be slammed into concrete pillars with only a “minor” edge chip; they cannot “cut” other swords let alone machine gun barrels[2]. They cannot, under combat conditions, reliably cut through historical samurai armor[3], let alone far more resistant European mail and plate[4].

2. It takes practiced skill and muscle to cut cleanly with a katana. Robert Hickman got it SO right in his series graphic novel The Walking Dead when “The Governor” (using Mchone’s katana) takes a long time to hack through the neck of a prisoner. In real life, author Yukio Mishima’s famous seppeku was being botched the same way by his follower until an officer of the Japanese Defense Forces took the sword from the youth’s shaking hands and completed the “mercy cut” for him. A would-be zombie killer with a weapon-quality katana but no training is going to be zombie chow in very short order.

3. You don’t have to be a “master” to make a clean, effective cut with a katana, but you do have to put in time and sweat. The Japanese 20th Century military sword method (“Batto-ryu” which is largely replicated in the current “Shinkendo” schools) for time considerations, had to dispense with the years of traditional student apprenticeship and get to actual cutting practice in fairly short order. With 6 months or less of regular training, a student was expected to cut cleanly through the traditional targets of 6” thick, rolled-tight, rice-straw batting with a core of 1” thick green bamboo. Such targets offer a level of difficulty comparable to cutting a human target, especially a human neck.

4. The katana’s slight curve is ideal for two-handed drawing cuts. Essentially, during the fraction of a second the edge contacts the target, the swordsman not only pushes the blade into the target, he also pulls the blade in a very coordinated action of arm and torso torque. This slicing attack both deepens and lengthens the cut, and is devastating against unarmored targets.

a. It is also rather fussy in execution, and much of the incorporation of Zen meditation or other mystic practices into traditional Japanese sword methods was an attempt to inoculate the swordsman against fear or other stressful emotions which could interfere with technique.[5]

b. It is a LOT harder still to perform a katana draw cut with a single hand grip. Not impossible, but the classic draw from the scabbard and take the head off in a single motion is the mark of a true expert.

c. As David Lowry (Autumn Lightning) has noted, the ultra fast sword cuts in samurai-movies (“chambara”) are only possible because the “swords” are actually chrome plated slats of bamboo and can be drawn and swung far faster than an actual steel blade.

5. One-handed katana techniques are usually reserved for the quick-draw initial cuts of “Iai” (as in “Iai-jutsu” or “Iai-do”). Instead of draw-cuts, these attacks were usually longer range slashes designed to incapacitate an opponent just long enough to set up a finishing off, two-hand draw cut. Much of the “stopping-power” of these cuts would be lost when applied against someone who feels no pain or shock—like a zombie.

6. A good part of Iai training is NOT draw-cutting through one’s scabbard as you make the draw. Since you have to hold the scabbard firmly with your left hand while you draw the weapon with your right[6], shearing through the wood scabbard and into your left hand is going to make a considerable mess. “Wannabe” samurai or ninjas who buy a sharp katana and with no teacher supervision start practicing Iai are comparable to Wild West aficionados who get a “Peacemaker” .45 and just start fast-drawing with live ammunition.

7. A silly concept which has become endemic in movies and literature is wearing your sword (katana or other type) on your back as a “combat carry”. Historically, a samurai or other Japanese warrior , especially on horseback and not expecting combat, might sling by cords his longer Tachi, katana, or No-dachi across his back for comfort’s sake. The shorter wakizashi (or a long “tanto” knife) would still be at his waist. In certain combat operations, especially those involving climbing, a katana would be strapped to the back to stay out of the way and re-slung at the waist once the need for back carry passed.

a. The “combat back carry” seems to come from the dubious historical assertions of “Ninjitsu Grandmaster” Masaaki Hatsumi. As a consultant for movies and television on “historical ninjitsu”, Hatsumi has given the world the impression ninjas always wore their highly-distinctive strait-bladed swords (a non-historical weapon created by Hatsumi himself in the 1950s) on their backs. Since the ninja-hype of the 1980s, the idea of back-carry has spread to into non-Japanese sword movies and stories, such as Conan the Barbarian, Dragonheart, and even Braveheart. “Combat back carry” is done by ninjas so “it has to be good” and besides, “it looks cool”.

b. A few minutes experimentation with a DULL sword will prove the impracticality of “combat back carry”.

a. For any weapon over 15” blade length (classic katanas were in the 27” range) you will HAVE to place the grip on the side opposite your dominant hand. Placing it on the dominant side will end up with you trying to fish the sword out of the scabbard for several moments until you give up and use your off-hand to get the thing out—and that’s if you do NOT tie down the point end of the scabbard with any blade over 18” long. If you DO tie the point end down your arm simply will not be long enough to draw a longer blade up and out of the scabbard.[7] And because you have to leave it untied you have the damn thing flopping into your back all day long—especially if you’re on horseback! (Samurai tied the scabbard end down to avoid just this)

b. Speed draws from back carry are possible in the movies because they occur in the movies. Editing make it seems like the actor is drawing from back carry when in fact it’s already out of the scabbard and the actor’s body is hiding that fact from the camera.

c. If you now see drawing a longer sword from back carry is clumsy and impractical, try sheathing one. Now imagine its blade is near-razor sharp and a few inches from your throat.

d. Remember how Iai training spends a lot of time in NOT draw cutting the scabbard? Think of how much harder that’s going to be from the back carry. Assuming you’re using a single-edge katana with the edge away from your neck, you’re still risking slicing off your deltoid if you do cut through the scabbard. Messy and if zombies weren’t mindless soulless creatures they’d be laughing at you.

8. If you’ve still decided to pack a katana for the Zombie Apocalypse you can wear it (in its scabbard)traditional style, thrust at an angle through your belt, edge side upwards, or as the Japanese military did in WWII, hanging down vertically from a “hanger” attachment to your belt (reproductions or antique hangers available through various militaria companies). Or adapting a western-style carry, you can have it slung through a shoulder baldric or sword-belt, edge-up or edge down as you prefer.

a. For considerations of noise-abatement and NOT attracting zombies, the WWII carry may be the most practical. With the other methods you have the scabbard sticking out, banging into walls and what-not.

9. Learn how to maintain your katana, just like you would your firearm. Especially on the traditionally polished carbon-steel swords, oils from your skin will attract moisture and start the blade rusting. Clean the blade of blood and gore as soon as you possibly can and never, EVER re-sheath it when still coated with blood. On a traditional katana, you may have to dissemble it to inspect the “tang” to make sure ick didn’t flow beneath the blade collar (habaki) and inside the grip. When doing this, also inspect the bamboo tang-pin, to make sure the blade and grip will not suddenly part company during a cut.

a. If you have a katana with a traditional cord-wrap grip you will have to:

i. Eventually become good at traditional cord-rewrapping and replacement

ii. Chuck the cord wrapping after it becomes loose or ruined with sweat and live with a bare wood grip

iii. Either do your own version of Hartsfield’s epoxy-impregnated cord wrapping or replace the cord wrapping with some other non-slip but more durable grip.

10. Per Roger Ma (The Zombie Combat Manual) learn the most effective “zombie take-out” cuts. The decapitation cut (or cuts) is primary, but a diagonal cross body cut, especially if the spine is severed, reduces the threat quite a bit. If at all possible, don’t forget to destroy the brain of a decapitated zombie head. When combined with a quick evasive side step, hacking a zombie’s lower leg off can set it up for the neck shot.

11. A katana’s thick blade makes it less likely to become stuck in the skull, unlike thin-bladed machetes. If there is some binding adhesion after a skull or body cut, quickly use your foot to stomp-kick the zombie off your sword. Beware the far more likely “skid off the scalp” miss-stroke and be prepared for an immediate follow-up cut.

12. An undeniable advantage a katana has is its ability to deliver a series a devastating two-handed draw cuts in quick succession, more so than almost any other sword. Many European two-hand swords can deliver the same amount (or greater) of cutting damage but they are slower on the recovery. Ultimately it all comes down to, “Pay your money and live with your choices”

13. Self-training in the katana (or any other sword) IS possible if you are NOT training in swordsmanship but to destroy zombies. Zombies are notoriously deficient in basic defensive actions, like raising their arms to ward off a blow. They are even less likely to come after you with another sword, so in your self-training you can dispense with blocks, parries, thrusts, feints, even extended guard positions. A zombie just wants to grab you and bite you. A zombie won’t notice you “telegraphing” your intended cut by your chambered arm and sword position. All a zombie notices is you are living flesh and it wants to eat you.

a. The basic training tool of learning the katana is the” bokken”. Traditionally, they are made out of durable hardwood to the dimensions of an actual sword (The European equivalent is called a “waster”). One learns all the basic actions of the katana with the bokken before one proceeds to the actual sword. The bokken is a weapon in its own right, and swordsmen, such as the famous Miyamoto Musashi, have used bokkens to defeat katana wielding opponents. Traditional good-quality wood bokken can be quite expensive, which is why synthetic near unbreakable bokkens are now available, such as the polypropylene version by Cold Steel Cutlery.

a. While there is value in the traditional practice of swinging one’s bokken in the air, practicing ones strikes, recoveries, and follow up strikes (if one misses the target one had better know how to recover and keep one’s balance) the most valuable practice time is going to be spent in hitting something. You MUST learn how to impact your sword on a resistant target so you not only hit it full force but do so at the proper angle and to the least shock back into your hands and wrists. Such a target, or “pell” can be dirt-cheap; just scrounge three discarded automobile tires, fasten them together (nuts and bolts, or rope, or even a lot of strapping tape) in a row and then hang from a tree limb or sturdy rafter. Start hitting your pell with your bokken and hitting it a LOT. You can get the basic strikes from Lowry and Obata, but study the free PROOF videos from Cold Steel, especially how the demonstrators do a series of successive cuts against targets, one right after the other.[8] Also, practice your target accuracy as well as force. And critically, practice hitting while evasively moving: side steps, diagonal steps, forward and back.

b. Once you graduate to a real sharp sword, treat it with as much respect as you would a loaded firearm (“Treat every firearm as if it was loaded”). The ritual formality in Japanese sword-arts in how swords (or even bokkens) are treated is meant to inculcate safety at every step when handling a deadly weapon. Inspect your weapon carefully before, during, and after you practice with it—make sure all fittings are tight and the grip wrapping is firmly tied. Make sure your practice area is CLEAR before you take the sword or bokken in hand. Don’t strike inappropriate targets with an actual sword (like the steel belted radials of your pell, let alone a wood post or even a concrete pillar)

c. If you insist on practicing fast-draw Iai, start SLOW, really, really slow. Make sure the thick dull back of the katana slides against the scabbard and not the edge. You should also start off with a dull practice blade, and get the drawing, and even more importantly, the re-sheathing down PERFECT before you try out a “sharp”.

Suggested Bibliography:

Reinhardt, Hank; There is No “Best Sword”;

_____________; Hype… as Ancient an Art as Sword Making;

Perrin, Noel; Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879; 1988

Lowry, Dave; Autumn Lightning; (The) Education of an American Samurai; 2001

__________; Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword (Literary Links to the Orient); 1986

Clement, John; Longsword and Katana Considered;

___________; Fed Up with Inferior Hilts;

___________; What did Historical Swords Weigh?;

Brooks, Max; (The) Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead; 2003

Ma, Roger; (The) Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide for Fighting the Living Dead: 2010

[1] Or a “variable sword” from Larry Niven’s “Known Space” series

[2] There is supposedly a Japanese WWII propaganda film which shows a katana user slicing though the barrel of a machine gun (with water-cooling sheet metal jacket). Never mind how easy it would have been to fake this stunt, this was propaganda—and that’s only a consideration if this film exists at all!

[3] Sensei Obata’s demonstration of enacting a partial cut through an antique iron samurai helmet was done under near perfect conditions and the depth of penetration is shallow enough that only a superficial scalp wound would have been inflicted.

[4] Perrin’s assertion (Giving up the Gun) that katanas easily could cut through plate armor, while long disproven, has a zombie-like tenacity for being repeated authoritatively by katana snobs, especially by those who’ve never actually trained in the weapon.

[5] The late Hank Reinhardt, co- founder of Atlanta Cutlery and Museum Replicas Ltd., used to give sword demonstrations at science fiction conventions. In front of the audience he would have a table full of various swords, and two straw-batting cutting targets. Hank would reverently pick up a katana; ask for the audience’s silence while he “collected his “ki”. Hank would unsheathe the katana in slow motion, raise it above his head in a two-hand grip, seemingly focus his utter concentration, and then slice one of the targets in two to the audiences “Oooohs” and “Aaahs”. But while the audience was still awed by this display of “ki”, Hank would casually, with one-hand pick up a replica Viking sword and easily and with no preparation or drama, cut in half the second target. Hank would then tell the audience “In the West we don’t need “ki”—we just chop em!”

[6] All authentic Japanese swordsmanship schools teach “right-handed” techniques—the right hand is always the forward hand, the sword is always worn on the left so it can be drawn by the right hand.

[7] It’s one thing for fantasy writer Jennifer Roberson (Swordancer series) who admittedly knows very little about swords to have her main characters do back-carry. It is quite another for martial arts experienced S.M. Stirling (Draka series, The Change series) to do the same (this was in his earlier works; Steve seems to have smartened up lately)

[8] You can see them at as well as at YouTube

[1] If one has a very careful attitude, you can try re-sharpening a traditional edge katana per the instructions in Jim Hrisoulis’s The Complete Bladesmith. Instead of traditional water stones, Jim’s method uses increasingly finer grades of sandpaper.

[1] Something the late Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) as a mathematician should have realized

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