It calls to you like a whispering siren from the sea. The cold steel with its gentle curve and stoic lethality. Its design dates back over 1300 years and is still considered the gold standard of blade design. It is the classic Japanese Katana in all its epic history and coolness. For most steel aficionados, it is simply the finest sword ever made. These swords sit in homes around the world of simple admirers of the design. Each of those collectors however share a secret desire to slip the blade from its sheath and cut something. Well today is your lucky day because we are going to look at a beginner’s guide to cutting with a sword.
First thing first is the obvious disclaimer. These swords are designed to remove human limbs and heads. They will have no problem in cutting you wide open if handled incorrectly. Be conscious of where the edge is as well as your environment. Let’s avoid attempting a fight scene from “The Last Samurai” until we at least have the basics. Our first step is to get a grip on the handle.
To the frustration of many south paws, the katana is designed to be wielded with the right hand forward. There are a few left-handed styles out there, but today we are sticking to the right. The right hand should be as far up the handle as possible and sitting against the handguard or tsuba. The left hand is at the very base of the handle. Your wrists should be oriented to try and align the radius bone of your arm over the handle. This will put most of your grip on the top of the handle as opposed to the sides.
There are several official stances with the sword, but let’s keep it simple to start with. Our first position is called Chudan-no-kamae. This is a basic defensive stance where the sword is held low in front of the waist as you point the tip up towards the opponent’s throat. Body wise we have our right foot forward and the left foot slightly behind it. Both feet are parallel and our hips are squared forward. You must have great posture with your balance set between both feet. Most stances with the sword are designed to allow you to explode forward and cut your enemy.
Now onto the main reason you are reading this. We start our cut by raising the tip of the sword then continuing until the sword is above your head. You should be able to see clearly between your elbows. The tip of the sword should be aligned just slightly behind your head. The actual cut is the most important part of the motion. Remember that we are cutting with a sword and not swinging a baseball bat. Our goal of to slice through the target with about the first six to eight inches of the blade.
If you try to club the target, the cut will fail. The cutting motion is very similar to casting a fishing pole. We want to lead our motion with the tip. A great visual I was taught decades ago was to imagine a small tomato on the tip of the sword. You must try to flick it off. Melt all this together as you drive the tip through the cut and into your target.
There are a couple things I need to add here. First is that blade alignment is critical to a successful cut. The blade must follow a straight path with the edge always in line with the spine of the sword. If you twist the sword as you cut, you will lose all the power and fail in the cut. I have even seen people bend blades when they cut incorrectly. The second point is following through. Your goal is not to cut the target, but through the target. Just as we do with tennis and golf, you need to follow through with the cut.
Target wise, there are a few options. First is the more traditional tatami cutting targets. These are tightly rolled rice straw mats that have been soaked in water. If they are wrapped around bamboo, they closely replicate a human limb. Another less complicated target is a water bottle. They are obviously easier to get and can be a decent test of your cutting prowess. One last thing before I unleash you on your backyard is sword choice. The market is full of what we call wall hangers.
These are purely decorative swords that are never meant to be used. They do not have a full tang inside the handle and are not assembled well. These can be extremely dangerous because they tend to break during cutting. A 28-inch piece of flying sharp steel can ruin just about anyone’s day. If you paid $28.95 for your masterpiece katana with a dragon head and flames, it needs to stay on the wall. There are good training style swords out there in the $300 range that will serve you well. Once you get addicted to cutting you can then start looking at more exotic blades that can reach the $50,000.00 mark.
It is hard to describe the feeling when you make your first successful cut with a sword. There is an adrenaline rush like nothing you have experienced. At that moment you will be hooked. Cutting safely and correctly can make tamishigiri (cutting) one of the most enjoyable things in life.