Overview:

There is a useful application and a fair market value for production blades. This is not always readily apparent to a beginner in iai or sword collecting. This page is intended to educate the introductory Katana/Iaito sword buyers on the role and value of production blades.

We define the general categories of katana swords as follows:

  1. Authentic Katana Swords (Nihonto)
  2. Modern Crafted Katana Swords (Shinsaku, Shinken)
  3. Modern Production Training Katana Swords (Iaito)
  4. Modern Production Display Swords ("Wall Hangers")
  5. Replicas and Imitations

The swords most used for functional iaido practices are usually within category 2 and 3.

Authentic Katana Swords cost a minimum of a few thousands of dollars and are too expensive to risk damage in most practical application. Swords intended for display purposes are too fragile to sustain the rigors of cutting.

Modern crafted katana swords by know smiths represented in catefory 2 can vary greatly in costs and quality and are usually for higher ranked iaidoka. Since we cannot generalize the characteristics of this category, we will only discuss characteristics of the modern production blades (iaito).

General Market Info on Production Iaitos:

Most production blades today are manufactured in China. A production iaito can be either functional (sharpened for cutting practices) or not (unsharpened for "kata" practices - sword forms). Unsharpened swords used for kata can be made of either carbon steel or zinc/aluminum alloy. We will limit our discussion here to the sharpened functional katana constructed of carbon steel since this is sought after by a much broader segment of the market.

The lower end pricing of a functional katana is currently in the neighborhood of ~$200 while the higher end will range in the low thousands. High end production swords are almost always from well know sword maker/company who are willing to attach their company name to their product. Smaller companies or non-name brand swords almost always come up with inferior products of this category with attempts to lower their production costs.

If you are purchasing a high end production sword from a well know company and have a budget of several hundred to thousands, odds are, you already know what you are looking for and are facing relatively little risk. However if you are limited by your budget to a few hundred, this is where the dangers of sorting through the mess of low end production blade arises.

There is a broad array of offerings with varying quality among the low price (~$200) iaitos on several auction sites. Most forges in China has the capabilities of making a functionally sharpened blade using material ranging from stainless steel, carbon monosteel, to high carbon folded steel. Someone new to iaido or sword collecting will have an impossible time trying to differentiate the quality of metal and to determine if a sword is suitable for a specific purpose.

The Problem:

As a beginner shopping for an introductory katana in the ~$200 range, it is difficult to sort through the jewel from the junk... especially if your choices include individual sellers from places such as ebay.

Several unscrupulous sellers takes advantage of beginners by making false claims that could not verified. Many times, the seller themselves has no idea what they are claiming and are just copying texts from other similar items that are selling successfully... even if their product is inferior (representing a display piece or a replica as a function sword). This is especially a large risk if you purchase from a seller in China directly, which is happening more frequently nowadays.

If you think about the fact that individual sellers are not looking to build brand name, you can see that their ultimate objective would be to complete a sale at the maximum amount of margin possible. This is, more often than not, accomplished by minimizing production costs through use of the cheapest materials possible.

In order to protect the beginners from the unscrupulous sellers, the sword community generally conveys a cynical view towards production blades.

This is not to say that there is no place for a production sword or that they are always a bad deal... Just that you have to be cautious in your purchase, be certain that their applicable function is in line with your intended use, and know their fair market value.

Practical Application and Fair Market Value:

Practical application of a production blade is dependent on its material and construction. Some high end production katanas with high quality steel and unique alloying agents, such as chromium, makes blades which are suitable for many types of uses. However, lower end production blades constructed of slightly softer steel with no major alloying agents and better suited for light cutting only. This is especially the case if the blade is narrow or adopts use of bo-hi to lighten the weight.

We define the quality of a blade by the following characteristics:

  • Ability to resist flex
  • Degree of flex a blade can withstand and still return to center
  • Degree of flex a blade can withstand without shatter
  • Ability to maintain a cutting edge through use without rolling or chipping

Display: Some production blades are only suitable for display. This includes all blades constructed of stainless steel, low carbon content steel, blades with thinned out nakago (tang), rat-tailed tang, and tang whose length is less than 2/3 of the length of the tsuka (grip). Also, there are some blades that are semi-sharpened (partial sharpening), or sharpened from display ("wall hanger") swords... these should not be used for practical cutting. (Many dojos will outright ban the use of non suitable swords so save yourself an unpleasant surprise).

Light Cutting: Swords suitable for light cutting (defined as occasional cutting of forgiving targets such as beach mats, pool noodles, water bottles, etc.) include blades with Rockwell hardness of approximately RC 40 to RC 50. (+/- 1045 carbon steel depending on quench and/or alloying agents).

Medium Cutting: Swords suitable for medium cutting (defined as regular cutting of light targets and occasional cutting of tatami omote) include blades with hardness of RC 50 to RC 60. (+/- 1060 carbon steel depending on quench and/or alloying agents).

Heavy Cutting: Swords suitable for heavy cutting (defined as regular cutting of Tatami Omote and occassional cutting of heavy targets such as 3"+ bamboo, multiple rolls of tatami omote, or mats wrapped around an oak dowel) are usually constructed with higher tolerances and AQL levels using higher grade of steel (i.e.. 5160, 1090, etc.) and will generally exceed the ~$200 to $300 range. Very few production blades are suitable as heavy cutters and will be in the neighborhood of the $1000 price range. It is fairly safe to assume that if you are looking for a blade within the couple hundred dollars price range, you are not looking for a heavy cutter.

If you are purchasing a production blade in the light and medium category, keep in mind of their limitations and make sure that your intended use is within the listed parameters.

Additionally, when purchasing from an individual seller, non-branded production blade, or swords with unknown metal construction, they will fall within one of the first three categories listed above. There are very few exceptions to this and most swords would have a market value in the neighborhood from of +/- $200 to $300.

Sacrifices:

In order for a manufacturer to keep the cost of a production blade down, there are selective sacrifices that will need to be made that will deviate the construction of a sword from an authentic katana. The real question is where the particular manufacturer is making these sacrifices to keep their costs down... does it effect the functionality of the blade or not?

A common places where sacrifices are made with minimal impact to the functionality of the sword is the way the kissaki is finished. To finish a kissaki correctly requires a certain amount of technical knowledge and manual labor. As a result, many lower end production blades will have kissaki geometry and finishing method that is a bit "off".

Additionally, fittings may be another place where sacrifices can be made without too much impact. (This is not necessarily the place that every seller makes their sacrifices though... many beginner select a sword based on tsuba design over blade construction and the sellers know this.)

Frauds:

All of the information stated above is only applicable when the seller is knowledgeable about the product they are selling and are honest in their representation. Unfortunately, this type of dealer seems to be rare to find these days.

The biggest problem with buying a low cost iaido is that you will run across everyone who will say anything to close a sale.

Nearly all of the etched hamon on auction sites are represented as real hamon. Protect yourself by learning how to identify an etched hamon. Take a look at our "ETCHED HAMON IMAGE REFERENCE PAGE" to see how etched hamons look. If a seller is trying to pass an etched hamon as a real hamon, you KNOW that they are not trustworthy.

Signatures on the nakago (tang) can be etched by a professional carver for a minimal cost per character. The presence or lack of a signature does not determine the value of a sword.

If you suspect that the seller is misrepresenting a certain feature on their sword, you would be better off not buying from them since you don't know how many more misrepresentations there are.

This is not to say that you can't buy a good production blade at great value. With a little research and diligence, you can still find some gems for sale.

 

 

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