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Sword Spotlight: The Japanese Guntō

September 05, 2017

Sword Spotlight: The Japanese Guntō

The guntō is a style of traditional Japanese swords that were produced for military use after the samurai era, beginning in 1868. This was a critical time for the island nation of Japan, as its historic culture emphasizing samurai armor, weapons and ideology began to phase in favor of western-influenced culture.

Among the countless changes that occurred to the Japanese culture was the addition of a new standard military sword: the guntō. While samurai swords were the standard during feudal Japan, the guntō took its place thereafter.

The Origins of the Guntō

Towards the mid-to-late 1800s in Japan's Meiji Period, the samurai class was disbanded, resulting in new laws that prohibited the majority of the Japanese population from carrying swords. This led to a decline in swordmaking, as many swordsmiths no longer had work and were subsequently unable to feed their families. However, Japan's militaristic approach towards Russia and China during this era spawned a newfound demand for swords, with swordsmiths being called upon to produce the guntō.

Different Types of Gunto

  • Kyū guntō: meaning "old military sword," the kyū guntō was the first official sword of the Japanese military. It's believed that Japanese general Murata Tsuneyoshi was the first person to begin mass-producing the kyū guntō. The kyū guntō was used extensively in the Japanese military from 1875 to 1934.
  • Shin guntō: meaning "new military sword," the shin guntō was the officer's sword that succeeded the kyū guntō. It featured a traditional Japanese hilt with silk wrappings and a cherry blossom design on the guard. The scabbard for the shin guntō was made of metal and wood, a combination that's was intended to protect the blade from damage.

In addition to the shin guntō and kyū guntō, there were multiple variations created. The type 94, for instance, was a variation of the shin guntō that was made specifically for non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

Of course, guntō swords lacked the quality of swords produced earlier during feudal Japan. This was largely due to the lack of high-carbon tamahagane steel. Japanese swords produced during the feudal era were prized for their exceptional strength thanks to the use of high-carbon steel. Tamahagane often contained 3 to 4.5% carbon content, allowing for a superior level of strength. As supplied of tamahagane diminished, however, Japanese swordsmiths were forced to produce the guntō using cheaper, lower-carbon steel.

Furthermore, inexperienced blacksmiths with little-to-no knowledge of the craft were called upon to make guntō swords, resulting in an even lower quality. For these reasons, the guntō is considered inferior to Japanese swords produced during the feudal era.

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