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Thread: Iaito versus Shinken

  1. #46

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    Well, I will say I've heard people studying various arts who tell me their sensei says you can break/bend/damage blades quite easily with a jo. I've heard of different places where you're supposed to hit it to do this thing. I've also heard experienced swordsmen tell me their sensei says that hitting a sword on the (ji/mune/ha) (please fill in the blank) will be the safest place to deflect another sword or jo. I'm certainly not going to argue the point because it is much like being in a room with people of varied religions. Logically speaking someone in the room has to be wrong because they all seem to have different ideas as to the nature of reality. But logically they can't all be right. So I'll just say "My, look at the time", grab a drink at the bar and mosey my way out of the room...

    I'll just say given my experience with stress testing swords myself I think they often, um, overstate the likelihood of success when it comes to doing damage with a jo.

    Edge to side and the blade taking the impact to its side is going to have more of an issue. The cross section of a Japanese swords makes for the strongest direction being back to edge. The weapon wasn't made to "slap" people with the sides. But remember, when we're talking about hitting a sword with a jo we're not talking about a blade held in a vice. Nor are we even talking about someone holding a blade as hard as they can braced for a side impact.

    I'm sure you could do some damage if one person held it out in front of them sides parallel to the ground. Then if they braced themselves well and held it as strongly as possible another strong shot to the side with a jo might cause a bend. Or even *possibly* a really strong snapping strike *juuuust* at the right spot.

    And again there is the notion that all things are not equal. A thick blade without bo-hi and ample niku is going to be significantly harder to put a tweak into compared with a very thin modern "optimized for mat cutting" production blade with deep bo-hi. Those things will bloody near bend if you just hold them out sideways... Slapping a big nambokucho era robust daito with a jo will likely just dent up your jo...

    Of course you can do some damage to a blade if the conditions are right. I'm not arguing that at all. But I think some might need a reality check when it comes to how easy it would be to do.

    And the myth busters episode was using some of the cheapest production blades around. Fairly durable, but not example primo examples of the craft of the Japanese sword.

    And fwiw we also tested out a Howard Clark L6 (very tough swords) against a 5160 (a very tough steel) production blade with a thick cross section. We used that blade because these overly thick 5160 blades are often described as being "super tough beaters". And besides, since they are relatively inexpensive it didn't put a dent in the wallet to get one just to tear up. Anyway, we literally bolted the 5160 blade to one of the supports of a large water tower. The first strike edge to mune put a gash in the mune. The second one ripped the bolts out of the wooden support (which shows how hard Tony was cutting) sending the blade flying (duck!). Once we got it bolted again Tony hit it a few more times on the mune. No bends, just some deep (a couple mm) gashes. We flipped it over and went edge to edge. The first one left a deep notch in the blade. The second strike cause the blade to snap but not where it was hit -- one of the mune cuts propogated and it snapped there further down the blade. We had two swordsmiths there watching (and an emergency room physician just in case). It turned out the 5160 blade was very poorly heat treated -- the grain was very large which meant it had been soaked at high temperatures for a long time. That makes swords brittle. But it took a *lot* of shots before the blade snapped.

    I struck the Clark L6 bainite blade a couple times full force on the side with a oak jo while Tony was holding the sword. Even someone as strong as Tony couldn't keep the blade still while I did that. The L6 wasn't damaged, but the L6 blades are clearly an exception anyway. So it isn't a good test here since we knew full well it wouldn't bend (and so I didn't hold back at all). The more important factor was that Tony couldn't support it enough to keep it still with me slamming it with the jo. It is a very different scenario between holding a sword in hand and bolting it to a solid support.

    I'm not saying you can't damage a blade with a jo. I'm sure a really talented fella could possible do some damage with a jo if the conditions were just right and the blade was thin or of low quality. But people need to realize that it is very difficult to damage steel. Especially a solid piece with a good cross section using just a piece of wood. Generally it is hard to damage something with a high tensile strength with something that is an order of magnitude softer and weaker. I'm just trying to point out that some of the jo vs. sword discussions where "breaking" a sword is mentioned is probably overstated. And most evidence I've ever seen for this has involved mogito being broken. Which is not exactly a good data sample given the nature of mogito...

    A thin blade with bo-hi being struck by a jo? Yeah, sure, it is possible you'd bend it. A thicker blade? Increasingly unlikely. But breaking a blade? VERY unlikely. Of course these are just my experiences in actually striking blades against hard objects to the point of destruction. Maybe there are special spots you can hit them, or special ways of snapping at them with the jo. I'm not saying it ain't possible.

    I'd love to see it done. Heck, I might even be convinced to donate a blade... Hmmm, maybe someday I'll set up a video camera and beat the hell out of an early Paul chen blade I've used for testing new polishing stones for years. It is a shadow of its former self but it might make a good test...

  2. #47

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chidokan View Post
    Eguchi sensei used to have a couple of shinken that were 'welded' together at the contact points when the blades were struck edge to edge... Side strikes seem to do the most damage, which makes sense I guess... thin wall section rather than across the deepest section.
    The side to side dimension is the weakest in the sense of resistance to taking a set (a permanent bend).

    Any significant edge to edge always damages both edges. I would guess that the two swords he has are more mechanically "locked" together -- steel won't weld until you get up into some super high heat ranges. But that is very cool nonetheless.

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    Thanks for all that useful info, Keith. I have another question along the same line.

    Which would be more likely to break/fail/bend: a modern katana or one from, say, the Shinto era? I know that's a pretty general question, but I'm wondering whether it's smarter/safer for iaidoka to use an older shinken for (hopefully non-contact) practice, or to use a newer blade. I guess the same question applies to tameshigiri training, although I realize that anyone who uses a collectible Nihonto for cutting probably should have his/her head examined.

    I've read several of your discussions about how modern-day smiths (i.e., Howard Clark) can easily create a blade that will outperform a Nihonto (L6 bainite), but the majority of us can't afford those. So leaving out the low-end (Chen-type) blades & Howard's work, can you give me an educated answer?
    Ken Goldstein
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    "A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it'll annoy enough people to be worth the effort."

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  5. #50

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    Just fwiw the swordforum.com reviews are about 9 years old now and totally out of date.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken-Hawaii View Post
    ...whether it's smarter/safer for iaidoka to use an older shinken for (hopefully non-contact) practice, or to use a newer blade.
    Swords are like snowflakes. Each one is different. It is smarter/safer to use one that is constructed properly and whose fittings are snug, well made and properly fit. This must be checked on an individual basis. If you aren't cutting with it or clashing the blade (AHHH!!), the metallurgy is likely far less important the the quality of its fittings.

    If you are cutting with it, then metallurgy/geometry becomes a factor. But not as big a factor as people seem to think.

    There is one overwhelming reason, if you can have only ONE shinken, to choose a nihonto over other swords... (other than it's $$ value)

    You cannot take a non-japanese sword IN to Japan to train. (you probably knew that though)

    I guess the same question applies to tameshigiri training, although I realize that anyone who uses a collectible Nihonto for cutting probably should have his/her head examined.
    If I had a truly collectible blade, I wouldn't use it for kata or batto either. (oil damage, rust, saya & fittings wear, and the dreaded "iaidoka drool" when your sempai handle it...).
    Michael Mason
    Shinkendo New York @ Brooklyn Dojo
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  7. #52

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    Yeah, Michael has good points.

    Most blades be they antique or *quality* modern made Japanese style swords are generally "up to the job" so to speak. Edge geometry and metallurgy will be a factor depending on what you cut. Many of the modern made "mat" cutter geometry blades so popular in tameshigiri (wide mihaba, narrow (relatively) kasane, no niku) tend to chip on anything harder than tatami. And if your angle is poor *and* you're cutting something tough like decent bamboo... Well, think taco shell with chunks knocked out.

    The interesting thing to me is that the Japanese sword had about 1000 years to evolve. It fairly quickly "settled" into a form with moderate sori, moderate niku, a nice balance between kasane and mihaba, usually with a chu or extended chu kissaki. The reasons are if the blade is thinner they tend to chip and bend more easily (less edge support and less cross-sectional strength). They're great for cutting mats, but anything more significant and they have issues. Combine that with an occasional misaligned cut and you're looking at blade damage. And these blades weren't "disposable" tools for those guys. So we see the overwhelming majority of blades with a fairly narrow range of attributes. Yes, there are exceptions, many as a matter of fact. But that said well over 90% of the katana worn and used as katana actually fit into a rather narrow set of specs. Why? Because it was a very good balance of cutting efficacy, balance, and durability. Heck, even the kissaki is something that relates. Earlier ko or ikubi kissaki were great, but if you snapped a small bit off the tip you might actually knock *all* the hardened material off. Rendering the sword useless for thrusting. There just wasn't enough material to affect a repair. Some of the O-kissaki also tended to be problematic because there was too much hardened material often ending in a thinner end on that long point. So they tended to snap easily as well. Chu or extended chu kissaki allowed for a nice level of niku in the kissaki along with a nice fukura. Then with a proper turnback you'd have a point that was hard to damage but still had enough "meat" for a repair if you happened to damage it.

    Okay, so the long digression was to make a point. The old stuff assuming they're not tired from over polishing and assuming they don't have major flaws like hagiri (edge cracks) or fukure (blistering steel) or deep ware (minor ware aren't a problem usually, but major ones mean the blade might be delaminating) are more than "up to the job". The work just fine. Most swords work just fine assuming you're using them correctly and not trying to cut water bottles, ceiling tiles, or cement blocks. So in the context of normal traditional training methods the swords are more than able to do the job.

    So that said the most critical aspect of all of this is what Michael mentioned. The integrity, fit and finish of the mount. That starts with the habaki. It should fit snuggly and securely. Then the tsuka and fittings should fit snugly with no rattle or movement. When movement develops (and it always does) tighten it back up. A little dental floss wrapped around the nakago between the seppa and the tsuba can take out a very tiny, slight rattle. Small hand cut piece of "leather" seppa can create a nice snug fit if it gets worse. Once it's even more add another seppa.

    A tsuka that "clicks" or "clunks" should be inspected by someone who knows what they're doing. If it is just internal compression of the wood causing a slight bit a movement judicious placement of a wood shim can fix it right up. But again, let someone who knows what they're doing do that kind of repair. If the tsuka core is cracked or too loose -- you need a new tsuka. And antique tsuka should never be used. The wood degrades over time, the glues used degrade quickly (especially antique rice glue), etc. A well made tsuka, however, can last years if you're attentive to it and address any looseness as soon as it starts. The longer you let it go the faster it degrades.

    Same basic idea with the saya. Fit is critical and it is generally easy to address slight looseness at the koiguchi. Shims can be placed on the ha side and also on the mune side if you know what you're doing (and don't interfere with the ramping action of the habaki going in). Never shim the sides as that isn't where tightness of fit comes from. If it is so loose it is "swimming" around in the saya you need a new saya. If the saya gets cracked you can wrap it with samekawa, copper, any number of things. If you cut through the saya, well, stop it. Get some help with your form. That's bad...

    So, the bottom line is that most any *well made* Japanese style sword is going to be fine. I have reservations about some of the super cheap swords coming out of China for any number of reasons, the primary one being poorly fit habaki and really crappy shaping. Mount them up nicely and all you have (to quote a friend) is a gold plated dog turd. Get a good quality production blade or even a decent antique. There *are* some antiques of little artistic value that could be great training tools. Remember that there were "production" blades even back then (so-called kazuchimono swords) and some of the blades from WWII work just fine. But if it is a decent antique, well, remember that the guy who made your sword ain't making them any more. So you damage it and you've destroyed history. It belongs in a shirasaya on display or in a safe. We take care of historic artifacts. But that said, there is a continuum involved. Never assume the rusted thing you bought at a yard sale is just a piece of junk. Make sure someone who knows what they're doing looks it over and helps you identify what it is before whacking at stuff with it. A year or two ago I saw a marvelous Rai school katana. It was a gorgeous sword and over 700 years old. And it was bought at a Salvation Army store taped together with two cheapo repros for $29.95. It had probably been there for years. The good thing was that a woman bought them for her husband who was into Nihonto thinking he'd at least get a kick out of them. He certainly got that and more...

    Really, there are some nice gendaito in Japan made for practitioners if your concern is traveling to Japan and back. I have a good user piece I'm about to put up on my moderntosho site -- traditionally made blade fully mounted. Good size and a big blade (good blade for a gaijin as I was told). So they're not impossible to find. And getting them remounted isn't terribly difficult -- just don't cut corners on quality mounting. Reproduction fittings are fine. There are actually some pretty nice parts out there from various places. And after all, this is going to be a tool. But the difference between a production saya or a generic iaito saya and a handmade saya custom fit to your blade is like night and day. And a production tsuka with tight but not so symmetric wraps is usable, but won't last nearly as long nor feel nearly as good as a carefully carved, fitted and tsuka made by someone who knows what they're doing.

    They're all good enough. My 94 Saturn still runs great and gets me to the post office and back. It is good enough too.

    But it ain't a 2008 Lexus either...

    Sorry for the long post...

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    Quote Originally Posted by kdlarman View Post
    Yeah, Michael has good points.
    Mostly stolen and (badly) summarized from your prior writings...
    Michael Mason
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    www.brooklyndojo.com/shinkendo

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    Default National treasures versus everyday swords....

    I don't know much about sword metallurgy, but is it safe to assume that some fairly poor swords were loose in the land in Japan way back when?

    The better swords were protected, maintained, handed down, but there must've been cheaper, more mass produced swords in the Warring States period. Once the great long peace of the Tokugawa era settled in, and swords were largely restricted to the samurai class, it would have been different, but before that wouldn't simpler, cheaper built blades have been cranked out by the thousands? The ashigaru carried something, and I'd bet they weren't great pieces.

    And wouldn't said blades, with inferior material and production methods, be more subject to internal flaws, gross failures, etc., than the painstakingly produced pieces now being discussed?
    ??
    Lance Gatling ガトリング
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    Keith, that most definitely was NOT too long a post!! You've hit on exactly what I was trying to find out when I started this thread. And thanks to you, Michael, for bringing up the topic of fittings - I honestly hadn't really spent much attention on that aspect of Nihonto, or iaito, for that matter.

    Oh, sure, I do my best to ensure that the tsuka is tight on my blades, no loose mekugi, & no saya shavings or rattles, but I wasn't at all aware that fittings played so large a part in cutting. And I certainly hadn't thought about using dental floss or - even better! - a leather seppa to address some of the rattles that seem to occur for no reason. My wife's iaito had developed a "buzzing" sound a few weeks ago, & it took me almost two hours to trim/thin a standard brass seppa to the point where it got rid of the buzz & still allowed alignment with the mekugi-ana. Leather would have been a lot simpler & quicker. Thanks for that great idea, Keith!

    I'm also one of those iaidoka who has managed to crack his iaito's saya with a really rotten MJER Okuden noto. The fit was still okay, but it was obvious that immediate repairs were needed, & I have zero experience (or desire) applying samegawa, copper, or anything else. So my friend Loren Graves from Orochi Shinken took pity on me, & did a great job wrapping the saya with bamboo rattan for about eight inches from the koiguchi. Now the saya's "feel" is a lot better than the original lacquer, as far as I am concerned, & it will take something really stupid to affect the rattan.
    Ken Goldstein
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    Judo Kodansha/MJER Iaido Kodansha/Jodo Oku-iri
    Fencing Master/NRA Instructor

    "A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it'll annoy enough people to be worth the effort."

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    Default my answer

    Ken,
    Long time no see. Sorry I've been away from the boards for so long. As you can see I moved to California instead of Hawaii. Such is the life of a Navy Sailor.
    In my dojo (Toyama Ryu) we use strictly iaito/bokuto. That's just my Sensei's wishes. He has mentioned he would let me use shinken if I had one, but for cost reasons, I don't. I'm a cheap SOB. I pretty much use my iaito a majority of the time, except when practicing kumitachi. Everything else is with my iaito....also because the two bokuto I do have are usually being loaned to some beginners.
    I agree with everyone else's statement above about the liability of having beginners start out with shinken. It just scares me. That L word. Liability. Eek.
    So, for the almost 4-5 years I've been praticing, I've focused most all of my efforts into iaito (back to topic). Hope this helps, Bud. Keep in touch.
    Jon Bracamonte
    Toyama Ryu/Soga Ryu Batto Jutsu
    Former Shorinji Kempo punching bag

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    Hey, Brock, I told Sensei that you might be coming by the dojo last October, & I kinda' did wonder where you had ended up. The Air Force used to send me strange places, too, so I certainly understand how you didn't end up out here. Uncle Sam can't possibly be wrong....

    Iaito & bokken are pretty much the standard dojo training tools these days, but you can see from the responses on this thread that there are a few of us using shinken. In my 57 years of studying martial arts, this is the first time that I've had the opportunity to study under a really senior Sensei (Menkyo Kaiden is about as experienced as you can get, short of Soke!), & if he wants us to train with shinken, including all of the new students, I'm certainly not going to dispute his reasons! I just wondered if there are others with similar training methods.

    Enjoy sunny California, & keep dodging those quakes!
    Ken Goldstein
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    Judo Kodansha/MJER Iaido Kodansha/Jodo Oku-iri
    Fencing Master/NRA Instructor

    "A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it'll annoy enough people to be worth the effort."

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    it occured to me when I was in Kochi the guys there used shinken all the time... including tachi uchi work! Again based on experience, they started on bokken and moved up. I should have asked when they first picked up a shinken now I think about it...
    Tim Hamilton

    Why are you reading this instead of being out training? No excuses accepted...

  14. #59

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lance Gatling View Post
    I don't know much about sword metallurgy, but is it safe to assume that some fairly poor swords were loose in the land in Japan way back when?

    snip

    ??
    Actually, the mass produced stuff was often done in shops by smiths who were well trained. The swords often lacked the artistic merit of truly great swords but they were otherwise "good enough" for use. Which had always been the point. I have a rather nifty Bungo wakizashi fully mounted. While it lacks anything more than a decent hada and hamon, it is well forged, well shaped and without any flaws whatsoever. It just doesn't have anything more than that.

    They were perfectly good, usable swords. The bar was a lot higher than an awful lot of the cheap low-end Chinese made repros on the market today. Many of the "mass produced" blades in Japan during various warring periods were "generically" signed and were for all intents and purposes generic themselves. But they were usually perfectly decent tools for the job. Just nothing more.

    Today the issue is the same. You can go to some of the lower end and even mid level smiths in Japan and ask for a blade for training. I've brokered these myself. You'll get a perfectly decent blade that will look vastly better than the typical Chinese reproduction. In decent mounts and a rudimentary polish. It will never be more than what it is. You can also spend a bit more and get a much nicer blade in nicer mounts with a better polish. But prices start shooting up at that point. They're all perfectly usable for what they're intended for. Maybe not the greatest, maybe not the best, but decent and perfectly fine.

    Some want traditionally made but don't care about art. Not my cup of tea, but I understand it. So you spend $6.5-8k and get something usable that is still vastly nicer than most production swords. Spend a few thousand more and you can get really nice.

    Quality is expensive. An inexpensive nihonto in a good length in mounts that can be used for a really low price? You better look closer... There is always a reason for the prices on these things. A good saya, a good tsuka, good polish, good steel, good habaki... there is a sort of baseline cost to all of this. That doesn't mean spending less won't get you something that will cut. But you need to figure out what isn't there to get to that point...

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    I had the opportunity this morning to briefly watch our newest SMR student begin his iaido training. This student is a police officer who is 6'2" & must weigh 235, & who is an assistant judo sensei, so he certainly has quite a few years of martial arts training. He is using a Chen shinken that was given to him, & that can't be longer than about 2-2-5, & honestly looks almost embarrassingly short with his reach. His swing was actually fairly decent for someone who has never handled a katana, & he obviously was very, very careful with noto (I counted his fingers afterwards ).

    This was the first time I'd had a chance to watch a student learn with shinken from the very start. There wasn't a whole lot of difference in how he handled the blade than I remember handling my iaito many moons ago when I first started MJER training. That was my first time handling a katana, too, & I treated it just as if it was razor-sharp, although counting my fingers afterwards wasn't needed. It's probably not a bad idea at all to treat all katana as if they are seriously sharp, if for no other reason than to not build up any more bad habits than necessary. I'm probably not the only one who has nicked the web of my hand doing a sloppy noto with my iaito...right?

    While I was practicing with my own shinken today, I kinda' watched to see if I was really handling it much differently than my iaito in MJER, & frankly didn't see or feel much difference. Part of that is of course that I've done my darndest to develop good habits with katana & have also been handling a sword for quite a few years, but I think a lot of the rest is that I'm not "afraid" of the shinken. So as long as I'm not sloppy & don't let my attention wander from what I'm doing, I don't expect a nick from the shinken.

    Oh, & our senior student was working with each of us this morning on the jo side during iaido practice, trusting that we could handle our shinken well enough to leave him with all his body parts. He was right...at least this time. But it certainly made me pay even more attention to what I was doing, & why.
    Ken Goldstein
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    Judo Kodansha/MJER Iaido Kodansha/Jodo Oku-iri
    Fencing Master/NRA Instructor

    "A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it'll annoy enough people to be worth the effort."

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