The much-hyped style of Japanese knife harkens to the Samurai Era, but modern renditions often mistake the shape and the purpose of this classic warriors’ tool.
The use of knife in close-quarters combat is as old as time. Throughout the world, there have been countless types and styles of knives used by different cultures over the millennia.
Out of all of these blades only a few stand out, perceived as superior to the rest.The Japanese tanto is such a blade.
From the intricate forging and folding process, to the sophisticated differential heat treating, to the extensive polishing that both reveals the beauty of the steel and gives it its deadly edge, the tanto is a true work of art.
And not just a thing of beauty, but an extremely effective close-quarters fighting blade.
Due to the beauty and function of the Japanese tanto, the genre has received a great deal of attention from the American market in recent years. It is an interesting fascination with the legendary swords of the Samurai. The beauty of Japanese blades and their legendary cutting ability has fostered much imitation.
The interpretation of the Japanese tanto design by American makers, however, has been for the most part historically inaccurate. The use of the name “tanto” or “tanto design” has been used more as a marketing ploy than an accurate description of the knife.
Types Of Tantos
The tanto has been forged in many different blade shapes over the last 700 to 800 years. In this article, we will highlight some of the more common shapes and mounting styles used by the Samurai.
The are three commonly used mounting styles: The tanto with a guard called a tsuba; the aikuchi style with no guard; and the hamadashi style with a small guard. Blade lengths of the tanto ran from about 5″ to 12′. Blades that were around 13″ to 14″ were designated as ko-wakizashi, or “small short sword.”
Aikuchi and hamadashi styles of the tanto were very popular. They were easily carried and rapidly deployed without the potential hindrance of a tsuba. Since the tanto was not used in a fencing type of manner the guard was, for the most part, unnecessary.
Blade styles for the Japanese tanto took several common shapes and numerous shapes that were not commonly used. Hira-zukuri was the most common shape. The blade was almost flat ground from the mune (spine) to the ha (edge). This shape enabled the blade to have greater slashing capability. The hira-zukuri tanto was designed for armor piercing. The blade was both narrow and very thick for strength when penetrating.
Shobu-zukuri (with ridgeline but no yokote) was the next most common style of blade. The photos that accompany this article show both of these styles of blade.
On the battlefield, the tanto was used to penetrate feudal-era armor when warriors were up close and grappling. The distinctive shape with the long, narrow blade and very thick spine that tapered to the kissaki (point) was punched under or through the armor. There are numerous examples in Samurai art depicting warriors engaged in this type of struggle.
This type of combat was frequent enough that Samurai spent part of their training specifically devoted to grappling in armor.
The katana and tachi, or sword and long sword, were not designed to penetrate armor. The kissaki (point) of Japanese swords are cutting points. Much of the cutting in combat or dueling was done with the first few inches of the blade.
Modern makers who attempt to design Yoroi toshi, armor piercing points, are historically inaccurate at best: In fact, the only examples of the abrupt 45 [degrees] angle prevalent on many modern designs is on blades of the early Nara period in the 8th century before the distinctive Japanese sword had evolved.
Tanto almost never had defined points like katana or tachi. The distinctive point of the katana, as defined by the yokote, is almost non-existent on tanto. The point on the katana comes under enormous stress when cutting and the change in angles helps to support it.
This is not necessary on a small knife whose primary function is slashing and stabbing.
The tanto was carried in the obi (wide cloth belt) with the edge up and the tsuka (handle) slightly to the right. This allowed for rapid deployment of the weapon in time of need. Tanto were frequently worn in place of the wakizashi (short sword), especially indoors.
While most tanto had some slashing capability, stabbing was the most effective method to bring down an opponent. There are several methods of gripping the tanto when both slashing and stabbing.
Unlike the fighting styles of other cultures, tanto were commonly used with the edge out and the blade laying along the forearm, point towards the elbow, in a reverse grip. This method facilitates the deflecting of longer blades when the Samurai faced an opponent whose weapon had greater reach.
Samurai woman were also taught how to use the tanto. With it they were expected to defend their honor or, if violated, to take their own life.
Samurai men used the tanto to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) when honor or circumstances dictated this course of action, The revenge of their lord by the 47 Ronin is one such historical instance in Japanese history where, even though their act was admired, the sentence of seppuku was handed down.
The nagasa (length of blade) for seppuku was about 11. After cutting (kiri) across his belly (hara) from left to right, the blade was turned in the cut and a slight upward cut was made. At this point, if the Samurai had the strength and courage, he bent forward at the waist and the kaishakunin (his second) would take his head with a sword.
The tanto served the Samurai well throughout centuries of close-quarters battle. When properly carried and used, it is no less efficient in the modern lethal force engagement environment.