Zatoichi Sword/Sticks for Hiking

The only reason I don’t carry a Zatoichi sword at all times is that in most localities sword canes are considered concealed weapons and require a permit. The legality of this beautiful concept ought to be first consideration for anyone thinking of using one. Local and state laws vary considerably so don’t automatically assume you’re in the clear when in the wilderness.

Setting aside that major concern for a moment, let’s talk about one of my favorite trail items since I was five and first caught sight of my grandfather’s sword collection. I’m not sure why I first paid attention at that age, because the collection was certainly there before that. His swords and canes filled an entire wall of his living room, and back in the days before electric lights came to the area it was a dramatically spooky place, with dark cedar walls that sucked the light out of the air. The sword room was always in shadows, gloomy even in the daytime and glowing with flickering ruddy light from a kerosene lamp at night, and smelled of leather chair seats and chewing tobacco. On the wall just out of a child’s reach were tier after tier of ancient weapons in all classes, from Scottish broadswords that may actually have seen battlefield use to shillelaghs, surplus bayonets and souvenir katanas that just looked good. Down at the bottom was an innocuous looking walking stick that I was occasionally allowed to handle while strictly supervised.

Weapons Quality Zatoichi Katanas

I remember that it was well used, with the stains a wooden cane gets when it’s been leaned upon for some years. If you tugged on the carved handle just so, the upper portion slipped from the shaft with a satisfying shing! and about two feet of brutal triangular steel spike came with it. Everybody around me was nervous when I held it, because it demanded to poke things and I wasn’t known for following the orders of my elders very well. Possibly that sword cane is the reason I’m so interested in the Zatoichi style stick sword; I may have imprinted on the first weapon I was ever allowed to touch.

Although I love the concept, I do not find the Zatoichi stick sword the most practical trail item for today’s world. A katana requires considerable skill to use effectively and is hard to apply without doing serious degrees of damage. For dealing with wild animals a staff is better, very threatening visually and able to convince most intruders to keep their distance. Trail spears add a backup level of mayhem for the very rare instance when that doesn’t work. If I were allowed to choose a trail weapon based purely on mystique I’d carry the Zatoichi sword stick, but that’s not a reasonable choice today. As I get older and less concerned about consequences I may graduate to it, but I’m not quite old enough to start disregarding basic rules of society.

The Zatoichi sword stick is mainly for the collector of weapons and wouldn’t practically be a concealed blade today, although it is one legally. Most passers-by would recognize it as unusual, and no one with any degree of professional experience would miss it even without a metal detector. The days when these things were surprises are past. Especially in lower quality and less impressive versions, the junction between hilt and scabbard is clear. Economy models will vibrate each time the “walking stick” hits the ground.

Souvenir Zatoichi Katanas

The lowest levels of Zatoichi sword sticks are display-only souvenirs. If you did use them as walking sticks they wouldn’t last long. The friction joint may not hold, and even the tang of the blade may not be securely set in the handle. High carbon stainless steel blades, either 420 or 440, are polished and shaped like swords but often have few of the abilities of swords. Both edge and blade may bend when swung against a hard target. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous — they just aren’t efficient or durable. On the trail they’d fall apart.

You have to spend a little money to get one that’s functional. One of the key features to look for is plain old carbon steel like 1065 or 1095. Buying from a reputable manufacturer like Handmade Swords or Hanzo Steel is a good guarantee of quality at this basic level. Some good swords forged from 420 HC stainless could be found, but it’s tough to tell the difference between the good ones and the cheap crap without testing them. Usually that’s not allowed at the knife counter in the mall. High carbon — non-stainless — blades almost always mean the sword was made to cut, or at least was built to survive punishment. Wushu quality swords aren’t as stiff as the old combat versions but their high carbon blades do hold an edge and take a hit. The good Wushu blades are nearly all high carbon spring steel, not stainless steel.

In the better grades of Zatoichi stick swords you find all the improved blade features of other good katanas. Some good cutters use a single bar as the forging stock, yielding a hot-shaped blade of a single layer. The easiest way to temper that simple sword is by heat-treating in an oven, yielding a blade with an even temper throughout. That’s a compromise in quality, because one level of temper doesn’t work quite as well everywhere in the blade. You get a sword that is pretty tough and holds an edge fairly well. How well does depend on the alloy as much as the temper. With all the improvements in modern steel, a simple process like this may produce a very good functional sword, but not a refined one. Basic swords designed by Paul Chen and manufactured by Hanwei Forge in China meet these standards, and much high level weapons are available from this same supplier.

Edge tempering is a next step up the quality ladder. Traditional blacksmiths didn’t apply one temper to all parts of a blade. When making a bowie knife, for example, the first step in the tempering process was to harden the entire blade to a temper you couldn’t even cut with a file. At that hardness the blade is about as sharp and strong as a piece of glass and reacts to a blow in the same way, by shattering into pieces. Polishing the blade to a mirror finish allowed reduction of the temper by reheating or annealing. As the polished steel heats, a patina forms on the blade. Different shades of color from light straw yellow to dark blue represent the spectrum of tempers from hard to soft. Dark blue means you’ve messed up terribly. This doesn’t work if you don’t start from the right original temper — any polished piece of steel will go through the color changes even if it was soft to begin with. The colors mean temperature reached a certain level at that spot in the blade, reducing the temper to a particular useful degree. Peacock blue represents spring steel strength and would be appropriate for the spine. A darker yellow represents the temper of a good cutting edge — straw yellow is too hard and might chip. A good smith varied the temper appropriately for each section of the blade — spine, tip, main edge, and junction with the tang.

***For more about stick swords and survival hiking staffs visit Jimmy’s Staff Market — info on the Crawford, the Canemaster, and the Big Survival Stik.***

In Japan smiths used several types of edge-tempering to produce that tough spine and hard edge. I’ve read that some smiths placed the edges of hot swords in snow to quench the temper, although I’ve tried that myself and never gotten good results. There are many legends about the process of sword-making, and not all the information is accurate. Another literary source mentions a quenching technique which involved placing the hot blade in the body of a live prisoner. I can imagine they got very few volunteers to work in the prison foundry in those days. Tempering becomes a process as mystical and illogical as alchemy if you dig into the old methods deeply. Some concepts were logical and some not. An employer of mine with traditional experience in these things used to entertain me with stories of the search for a way to temper bronze. Some of the ancient bronze artifacts show unusual hardness, not attributable to alloy content, and in foundry circles the story goes that the ancient masters of the craft knew a mysterious tempering process for that metal. Blademakers do get spooky — it’s a tightly knit and closed society at the higher levels.

The main type of traditional edge tempering still used today is clay-hardening. These aren’t all the details, but the idea is to coat the cutting edge with mud, delaying the rise of temperature in that part of the blade. The spine heats faster, becomes tougher, and the temper of the cooler cutting edge remains hard. The difference in hardness shows as a wavy pattern on the edge of the blade, called the hamon.

Not all hamons mean the blade is edge-tempered. Edge-tempering is tricky and time-consuming. Cheap swords mimic the hamon with etched or polished fakes. If you think you’re getting a good deal — a true hamon on a cheap sword — you’re probably not. If perchance you’ve had an interesting conversation with a shop owner in Hong Kong and he made you a really special deal on “the good swords I keep in the back, don’t sell just to anybody! but you my friend, I like you . . . .” — a clue to the real quality of the sword you just acquired is that the doors locked behind you when you left the shop. Not that that’s ever happened to me (grin). The real hamon does make a huge difference in blade quality, even in a sword of only one steel layer.

Take another step up and you find folded steel. Folded steel could mean many things. Forging in the old days was not simple, as it usually is today. Today a forged knife usually means the steel billet was heated, placed on the table of a hammer press, and smashed into shape by a machine. Works fast but it only shapes the metal. In other times, so I’ve been taught by mysterious people, smiths thought of forging as elongating the symmetrical crystals which form the original poured and cast metal. Hammering stretches the crystals into long strands instead of blocky bits, increasing the strength of the blade by changing the crystalline lattice. Probably modern metallurgists don’t think of steel in that way, and this may not have been what actually happened in the steel. If you overheat the metal between forgings, the crystalline lattice breaks down and reforms, creating a blade as brittle as it began. Modern cast steel may be as strong as old forged steel simply because the components of the alloy are better and temperatures are more accurately controlled.

Where forging definitely makes a difference is at the folded steel level. Taking the concept of a tough spine and a hard edge to a higher extreme, Japanese smiths separated steel into high and low grades of carbon content. A bar of tough mild steel became the spine of the blade, extremely resistant to impacts but not tempered to a good cutting edge hardness. A bar of high carbon steel folded around three sides of this spine became the stock for the cutting edge and the sides of the blade. Either steel used alone and at the same final temper wouldn’t stand up, but together the pair made a better blade. It takes a lot of expert forging to shape that type of blade, and all sort of things can go wrong along the way. If impurities get between the two layers the connection won’t hold. It’s not quite the same as a weld. Timing is very important, because oxides (rust) form very quickly on exposed steel surfaces when steel is that hot. Fluxes wick away the oxides and create a firmer bond between the two discrete layers.

This doesn’t seem like it should work. In older times it was explained again in terms of crystalline structure, that this process joined metal by eliminating gaps between two different crystalline layers. There was no actual blending of metal as in true welding, but molecular bonds became strong because gaps were reduced to normal molecular distances. Blacksmithing looks like coarse work, but it works at an invisibly delicate level. You do see this in traditionally made tools today. I own a set of Japanese chisels built in two layers which appear to be different parts of the same metal. There’s no glue, no gap, and it’s completely a forged steel product. The backs are hollow ground, which means that eventually you sharpen the cutting edge into the hollow. To extend the tool’s life it’s possible to tap the cutting edge away from the back, very slightly and very carefully, because of that purely molecular bond. An instructor of mine in college pointed out that if you machine two pieces of steel perfectly flat and place them together, they become one piece of steel except for that one directional weakness, the spot where all the crystals line up. No wonder people believed steel was a magical metal in the old days.

In short, if you find a sword that’s made that way, you can depend on getting a good sword. Amateurs don’t make them like that.

At the highest level we find swords with many layers of steel, not just two. While people do call this Damascus steel today, it may not actually be the same as the old Damascus steel. Today’s Damascus-like steel, as it’s often called, folds a steel billet back upon itself, forges the two layers together and stretches out the bar; folds the bar again and again stretches it out; and continues that process until the highest grades of Damascus-like steel may contain over a thousand discrete layers. In the old terms, the crystals of steel have been stretched many times their original length, so that the blade strength depends nearly entirely on the wall strength of the crystal and not the bond between crystals. This greatly increases the strength of the blade and it’s resilience. I don’t know whether that agrees with modern metallurgical thought, since I learned these things from the old school, but it is a fact that Damascus-like steel is much stronger than ordinary steel if properly worked. Plus, it looks really good, with a rippled structure like wood grain. You’ll not mistake it for anything else. Damascus has become so popular that it’s now available as machine-forged stock, recognizable by its regular pattern and cheap price. Hand-forged damascus shows a random layer pattern and is well beyond the price range of anyone looking for a good hiking stick.

One of the interesting things about Damascus-like steel is that it may be completely different from ancient Damascus steel, not just different in small ways. Other factors in the old processes may be lost to history; some steps might have been based on useful concepts, and others on incorrect ideas. Either type might have yielded unusual and useful properties not represented in modern steel.

Since I’m from Arkansas, I always think of James Black when pondering this possible mystery. James Black made the first Bowie knife, a custom order for the Texan frontiersman Jim Bowie. Actually he made two, one in the requested pattern and one that he thought was better. Bowie took the second.

Black’s knives were exceptional, and depended on a process he worked behind a curtain and showed to no one, according to the legend. Some suspected that he knew the secrets of Damascus steel, but he never actually admitted to that. Possibly it was just good for business to be mysterious, and I know now that working behind a curtain is a practical thing, since a smith judges the heat of steel by the color it glows when hot, and you can’t see the color properly if you work in daylight. You need a shaded area, so leather curtains that don’t catch fire easy are necessities. If anybody opens the curtain to talk to you, you get really mad and chase them off, because you’ve got only seconds to do the work right or an entire day’s labor may be lost. Maybe even more than a day, if you’re working on something tricky.

At any rate, Black never told his secret while he was working his trade, and eventually a personal dispute caused his skull to get smashed in with a club. It didn’t kill him, but he did go blind. After some years he decided to write down his processes, to hand on to someone else in the family, but found that it wasn’t in his memory any more. What took out his vision also wiped out his skill. As the story goes, his family downstairs heard him wail out in despair, “My God! It’s all gone from me now!” (or words to that effect, I’m not guaranteeing I recall this word-perfectly). Even though he did want to pass along his secret, he couldn’t. Possibly it was the secret of Damascus steel, which others speculated he had rediscovered on his own. Possibly he was only a highly skilled blacksmith paying attention to details no one else took seriously. At that point, he didn’t know, either. I do know that photos of his original knives don’t show the layering of Damascus-style metal. Maybe it isn’t apparent in the photos, or maybe that wasn’t his secret. Mr. Black made a damn fine Bowie knife in his day, but in a simple and practical style that most buyers at a modern gun and knife show would just walk past. The best knives aren’t always the pretty ones — actually they’re usually not.

Zatoichi stick swords appeal to me for that reason — simplicity and function is their true beauty. Most of the time they’re nothing more than a good walking stick. In emergencies they transform into an entirely different beast, something from another time and place. Zatoichi swords are available in all grades, from cheap souvenirs to collector’s pieces too good to use. I like them all.

Fans of Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman will find several episodes of the popular Japanese TV Series starring Shintaro Katsu available for free online viewing at Joost.

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