Will It Take Full Contact? – Aug 31, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

That’s a question I get a lot because I sell wooden swords for use in practice. Sure it will, it will take the full contact in my practice, but I have no idea at all if it will take full contact in yours. The question in itself does give me a clue, and I usually tell folks that no, it likely won’t take your full contact practice. The very fact that you’re asking tells me that you hammer things together really hard and as I’ve said before, a baseball bat sometimes doesn’t survive a ball, try swinging that two or three inches of ash against a telephone pole and see if it survives.

I am also in the process of yet another return of an ultralight iaito. I say “these are not for regular use”, I say “these are a third the price of an iaito which is intended to be used for daily practice” I don’t know how else to put it, they’re a recovery tool for injury when you can’t lift the weight of a regular blade, or they’re for highly experienced people who want to check the relaxation of their wrists. The one coming back now I’ve been assured has a problem with the saya and I won’t assume it was bought by someone who figured they suddenly found an incredible bargain… but why do I keep seeing these things in the hands of beginners at seminars? It’s a talented beginner who can use one of these without breaking it.

But buying an “iaito” sometimes isn’t much better. Many years ago we bought five Japanese iaito for our club. I broke mine by swinging it. I mean in the air, when I stopped the cut the blade kept going. Fortunately it wedged in the hilt since it broke in the predictable place, the cut corner of the munemachi. The others broke through various things as falling over and also at the predictable place. Turns out they were made of pot metal, you know, the stuff that bathroom stall coat hangers are made of, the ones that are always broken. Some bright light must have figured they could save some money. Hopefully that isn’t happening any more, it was, after all, quite a while ago and I haven’t heard of pot metal iaito recently.

There have been some rumblings about shinken lately, as in “you have to use a Japanese shinken for iaido because nothing else is safe”. Really? I class those statements right up there with the question “Are these blades battle ready?” I dunno, I was always taught not to slam a crowbar sideways into a stud (that’s what a sledge hammer is for) and to wear eye protection when hitting a nail with a hammer. Metal breaks, metal that has been barely smelted with charcoal and barely forged together and folded repeatedly to remove the slag, a blade that is tested by smacking it sideways onto water to see if it breaks isn’t something I’ve got a huge amount of faith in. A blade that is ground out of a coke-smelted standardized bar is something that I’ve got a fair bit more confidence in with regard to flaws.

But it’s iaido, no hitting of other stuff, so we are talking about what? The fittings? I have to admit I’ve booted some Japanese World War II mounts out of my class. Watching powder fall out of the hilt when I grip it isn’t something I enjoy seeing. The issue isn’t where a blade is made, it’s whether or not it’s properly made for the use and I’ll repeat what my old man taught me on the job “the right tool for the right job”.

Tough blades? Mythbusters will attach a sword to some hydraulic machine and clash it up against another sword held in a vice. What does that prove?

Not much.

If you want to safely test a sword and see what it will take, go to http://www.americanbladesmith.com/ and check out how to do their blade tests, especially the bending test. You’ll quickly find out how tough your blade is.

But consider please, for a moment, that you are not a vice grip.

The sword is in the hands of a human being and you can adapt and modify what surface is struck in a block or deflection, and what amount of the opposing force is absorbed by the blade in your hands. The rest of that force can be absorbed by your hands, or avoided altogether by a body shift.

I have long intended to make a bokuto from pine and videotape it being mauled by some tough wood like Ipe while remaining intact and useable. Recently I did just this but with cedar, a wood that’s even weaker than pine. This video is online somewhere for those who chew up bokuto by slamming them together as hard as they can, and then suggest that a tougher wood or a thicker bokuto needs to be created. That cedar bokuto simply lives in the club box now and gets pulled out to be used in Jodo practice whenever someone wants a light weapon. I was going to break it but I got fond of it, and I can break pretty much any bokuto in the box at will. Just slam it against another one held stiffly at 90 degrees.

Here’s a simple test to demonstrate the role of the swordsman in receiving a strike to a sword.

1. Hold a bokuto out at arms length and allow someone to strike down on it at full force at 90 degrees. It will of course be slammed into the ground and likely broken in half.

2. Buy a new bokuto from SDKsupplies.com

3. Repeat the experiment, but this time at the moment of impact between the partner’s bokuto and your own held out at arms length, move backward and pull your bokuto toward yourself so that the bokuto is moving strongly sideways as it is hit.

4. Check the amount of damage inflicted in each case.

5. Consider redirecting the force of the attacking blade in some direction other than 90 degrees to a fixed blade.

It may sound like I’m complaining about my customers but I’m really not. It’s just that you don’t drive nails with a wrench. You can, but it’s not safe. You don’t cut wood with a sword designed to cut flesh, you don’t slam wood into wood and expect it to survive long. Let’s face it, I’d rather refund a few dollars than have someone hurt themselves, I’m only partly in this for the money, mostly I want to see folks enjoy the arts reasonably and safely.

The right tool, used in the correct way, for the right job.

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