Friday, June 18, 2010

The Katana

Mikey Taylor, President of the Omaha Chapter of the ZRS caught up with up with Lyle L., a Katana and Swordsmanship instructor, to ask him about this weapon.

It’s a weapon we hold in high regard; just not as a tool for fighting zombies.

(A katana. Notice the blood groove or "fuller" on the left. This allows the blade to be lighter and thinner by reducing stress from leverage, and can help release the vacuum caused when a flat blade enters flesh. Many modern weapons have now incorporated a fuller. If your katana doesn't have one, you're already one step behind.)

How many years of sword training do you you have? This would include any katana training.

Eleven years not including all styles. If you include all styles, seventeen years.

Is that the total number of years you’ve been holding a sword; being familiar with the basic operation.

Total years holding a sword would be... well, almost eighteen years.

What was your sword question?

(A katana and its saya (scabbard.) When kept in the saya unmaintained the blade loses combat readiness. To be combat ready, a katana must be properly oiled, powdered and polished to maintain the blade and prevent corrosion or mold from forming. To use against zombies properly for the duration of an outbreak, a number of non-essential items would need to be carried in quantity.)

We have a couple, actually. The first is about the difficulty an inexperienced person might have trying to remove a blade from a body (due to the vacuum that's created.)

Well according to the fella that did a bit of stabbing in Vietnam, it requires roughly ten times the energy to withdraw the blade as it does to insert it.

He said that he would put his foot on the body and pull the bayonet out.

(Bayonets, various styles. A bayonet is a stabbing tool or knife attached to a rifle with a "bayonet lug."  Some models are attached permanently. Many modern bayonets now have a fuller at the top to reduce weight. It should reduce vacuum.)

I would think twisting the blade would create some air between the flesh and the body as you pull out. You planning on stabbing someone?

Nope, doing research regarding using a blade against zombies for the Omaha Chapter of the Zombie Research Society. I'm trying to change people's minds about any untrained person using a katana in combat.

The katana is everyone's fantasy weapon in zombie combat. I'm trying to discourage its use in untrained hands.

Would it be hard for an untrained person to break a blade?

Well I can tell you from experience that anyone can cut using a sword. But (and this is a big but,) without proper training they will not be effective more than once in a combat situation. The angle of the blade; the grip; the stance; how you project the cut, and more. They all need to be near-perfect.

When in battle, even the most skilled swordsmen in Japan would break or at the very least damage their blades. Contrary to popular belief when two metal objects meet damage will be done.

Not to mention an inexperienced person making a fatal error and injuring themselves.

During World War II there were a high number of Japanese solders that were injured by swords.

American soldiers didn't carry swords. The officers were wounding themselves because they were not trained in the sword. This was due to the samurai being outlawed and the Imperial Japanese army was then made up of regular folks. These regular folks had no formal sword training.

(A shin gunto katana, the type used by Japanese NCO's in World War II. This is a "type 95;" this or a "type 98" would have been used, (though officers were issued a "type 94" of higher quality.)  These katana were created in the 1930's to replace the kyo gunto, a sword with a grip similar to a modern military dress sword; the style was considered "too western.")

How about improper cuts hitting bone?

An improper cut hitting bone will at the very least get your sword stuck in the bone. Then you no longer have your weapon. It will also at the very least be bent, if not broken.

The other thing to keep in mind; most of the swords used by untrained persons are probably wall hangers. These would likely break and they’d stab themselves in the process of cutting. The type of metal and how the sword is made; whether it is forged, folded, or just stamped out is a monumental difference.

(How your stamped katana will behave in combat.)

Here's a question from my research team. “In a situation where you were surrounded by a dozen humanoids at close range who don't respond to pain, must be destroyed by beheading or the destruction of the brain, and have no fear: would you use the katana?”

If it was all I had I would have no choice. It would depend on how quickly they could move. A very skilled swordsman wouldn't have any problem with just a dozen. If he could control the maai well enough, I would think...but then, it also depends on terrain and surroundings.

(Editors note: Maai is a very difficult to concept to explain to a non-swordsman. It can mean numerous things like distance between two opponents, and/or how quickly one can cross that distance. It can also mean independently or jointly: the rhythm of the attack, or the angle. For the purposes of this interview, consider maai to mean “tactical positioning" for simplification.)

I mean Zatoichi wouldn't have a problem... and he's blind.

But unfortunately he’s a fictional character.

And if an individual is facing twelve combatants, that individual will need a great deal of stamina. They would need to be in excellent shape... better than excellent, I think

(Laughs) So in other words, it can be done by the best of the best, but even by them there might be a better choice of weapon in this situation?

(Modern martial artists practicing Kenjutsu, "way of the sword."  To use a effectively use the katana in a zombie outbreak, you'd need to be training like this for multiple hours every day.  This is in addition to time spent maintaining the weapon.  The martial artists in this photo are using bokken, a wooden version of a katana we do endorse.)

Best of the best requires decades of tedious training, and I don't know of anyone that can put that kind of training in at this point (and I train a fair amount myself!)

In close quarters, the wakizashi and tanto, as well as other shorter range weapons could be used; even clubs that could crush the skull.

(A tanto. Note the full tang (the blade extends into the handle.) Most commercially made weapons are not full tang. If your sword is not full tang, don't use it in combat at all. If the blade breaks free of the handle, it will follow the laws of physics and move with the force that's damaged it. In other words, it will move towards you face.  The small spike most commercial display weapons use to attach the blade to the hilt will move in the opposite direction, into your hands.)

A clarification from the research team: “Like the kanabo?”

Not familiar with that one. (Editor’s Note: an image is Wikied and sent.)

Well for multiple attackers I’m not so sure about it. It looks heavy and awkward. If you swing and miss you are very open. Like the sword, it takes some training too.

(A statue of an Oni (demon or troll of Japanese folklore) with a kanabo. A kanabo is a large club made of metal or wood covered in metal spikes.  A ball bat is smaller and more practical.  Regarding missing; don't apply so much force that a miss will take your weapon away from you.  Cracking a skull requires less force than you'd think; there are multiple accounts of bar-fight skull fractures from beer bottles.)

The jutte would be very good though. Japanese police used them for protection against swords and were great for cracking skulls. The metal fan would be good too.

(A jutte (or jitte.) A weapon from Edo period Japan. Note the single pronged tine which could arrest the movement of a sword blade (Whether they could or would attempt to "catch" a sword swing consistently seems to be a topic of heated debate.))

Now considering that statement regarding the decades of training, what are the chances of someone who's done a year of Kendo or Iaido being successful? (In your opinion of course.)

Well, like anything else it depends on the individual, the instructor, and their mentality. I think the odds are not good for the average person. Anything is possible, but not always probable.

But if you can control maai, then yes.  

In short, the one being attacked would have to have the "no fear" attitude that the attackers have in order to overcome the fear and adrenaline dump they are sure to receive.

("Kendoka" practice the martial sport of Kendo. Kendoka shout a  "kiai" (battle cry) when attacking to show their fighting spirit.  Like the Confederate "rebel yell," this shouting also controls fear by focusing the body's fight or flight towards fight.  (If you have time to prepare for combat,) the Kote (gloves) of the armor will protect your hands and wrists from bites and are non slip. The rest of the armor is impractical for zombie combat: the Men (helmet) defends the neck and face at the expense of nearly all peripheral vision, and the Do (chest protector) seriously impedes agility.)

(Editor's note: as someone who played Kendo for a very short time, I feel confident in saying that this is a good sport for conditioning your arms to handle extended melee combat with zombies. A good club's training sessions will leave your arms feeling like jelly.)

So, the last question from the research department: “Would it be fair to say, in your expert opinion, that this is not an ideal weapon for even the well trained in this particular situation, and almost certain suicide in the hands of the barely trained or unfamiliar?”

I would agree with that statement. Well trained is good, but one would really need to be an expert in my opinion.

And the barely trained or unfamiliar would be lunch for their attacker.

(This is you with your store bought katana right around the time you decided we were right.)

Courage and grit will go a long way in a confrontation though.

Amen to that. Thank you for your time

(In a zombie attack, could you draw your (well-maintained, correctly forged, full tang with fuller) katana from its saya, control your maai and fear, use near-perfect technique every swing, and avoid getting stuck in bones or a vacuum?  If not, this is not the weapon for you.)

Our Final Opinion on the Katana Zombie Outbreak Weapon:
(based on this interview and the subsequent research)

1) The katana, while beautiful and deadly, is a poor melee weapon for killing zombies.  Its proper use in combat requires a level of training, technique and stamina that it's unlikely the vast majority of its zombie savvy proponents have; it requires more physical ability and training to use in extended zombie combat than most people are even capable of achieving.

2) It requires too high a level of quality and design.  To be combat ready it must (at a minimum) be full tang, folded or forged, and have a fuller.  Any katana you scavenge or own is unlikely to meet these specifications and therefore will be as dangerous to you as it is to them.

3) It requires too much maintenance.  Unless you plan to carry all the necessary supplies to maintain it, and have a blacksmith in your group and access to a forge for repairs, a single encounter may destroy its combat readinesses.  Even if you can properly maintain the weapon, that time can be better spent during a zombie outbreak.

4) It will not reliably and consistently penetrate bone in non-expert hands.  To kill a zombie as we currently understand them you must destroy the brain or separate it from the body.  This means you will be encountering bone every time you kill a zombie.  One mistake in technique and your katana will become stuck or break.

5) It becomes awkward at close range.  Its length changes from an advantage to a serious disadvantage the moment you fail to control maai.  If an Edo era Japanese police officer with a jutte was a match against a samurai through use of proximity and a short range weapon, then a group of zombies will certainly overwhelm you.  Zombies advance fearlessly and constantly; losing control of maai just once is enough to put you in mortal danger.  Even if you have perfect control of your maai, when used against a group the other zombies will be advancing as you kill.  It is not a weapon that can multi-task into a short range weapon like a baseball bat, which can be held short or sideways if needed.  It is a weapon designed for a specific range.

6) A katana is a useful weapon against dangerous humans in a zombie outbreak, but still not ideal.  For the well-trained, a proper katana may be useful against aggressive looters and other dangerous survivors.  They feel pain, and will fear the weapons fearsome reputation.  Just remember all the above points.

7) Expertise in swordsmanship can be a useful part of a zombie preparedness strategy. Learning to control maai, and condition your body (especially your arms,) and learning discipline are all useful.  The skills gained while learning this weapon can better prepare you for melee combat using a more effective zombie killing weapon.  But just like a master of Taekwondo is unlikely to choose a butterfly kick in a bar fight, learn the weapon for pleasure and conditioning, then use those skills with the correct tool for the job.

8) For professional swordsman who want to use a weapon that utilizes their skills, a bokken is a better option.  Melee damage is unlikely to make the weapon unusable, and it can easily and quickly apply enough force to fracture a skull.  It can be held short or sideways.  It requires no maintenance to keep combat ready.

9) As always, if a katana is your only option in a zombie outbreak, use it. Something is always better than nothing.  If you have to use it, avoid stabbing if the blade has no fuller, keep out of close range combat, and remember that it is likely to break or become stuck.  Remember that you are handling a dangerous (and if improperly built, unsafe) tool, and find a more appropriate weapon as soon as possible.

In summation: 

A correctly built and maintained katana, in the hands of a trained swordsman, is a deadly and beautiful tool.  It's design changed weaponry forever: many of it's forging techniques and design features were adapted by other culture.  The weapon and the martial arts that were designed around it are both gorgeous and viciously effective.  The katana is an amazing weapon.

But not for fighting zombies.

(Editors Notes: Due to the fact that Lyle L. and Mikey didn’t realize this was an interview until it was halfway over, the text has been reformatted for grammar, spelling and idea organization.  

Follow-up questions were asked at the end for clarifications that have been moved for readability and to avoid redundancy. No text was omitted with the exception of administrative questions and the like. 

Consider italics and bold to be emphasis; we believe these are key points.

Photos are Creative Commons, and attributions will be added shortly where required.  (Still figuring Blogger's system out.)

Items in parenthesis, unitalicized and marked with "(Editor's note-" are added opinions and explanation.  Items in italics and parenthesis next to a photo are notes based on our research and contain supplemental information. Wikipedia and at least one other source was used for research; however, this is an editorial article.

Will Ross, 
Editor and Researcher)


  1. machete

    gardener's and jungle Guerrilla weapon of choice.

    How will it hold up?

  2. We need to research it, but my current hypothesis is very well as beheading weapon (it's already used for that in many guerrilla armies,) very poorly for penetrating the skull on the downstroke (it's very thin with no fuller, so it's likely to get stuck, need a pigs skull from a butcher to check.) That being said, since it's invaluable for clearing debris and high grass, and taking off a head should a zombie surprise you, I expect it to get a fairly good recommendation due to it's multitasking, and low maintenance. Remember, that's just a hypothesis though. We'll have to research, but that's my guess.


We welcome your comments, theories and alternate ideas!