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What is the Value of an Authentic Samurai Sword?


For the novice collector, knowing what qualifies as an authentic samurai sword can be difficult, unless they know what to look for. Because an authentic sword can be pricey, knowing what qualities to look for can protect them from buying a fake sword. Japanese swordsmiths utilized folding, claying, lamination, differential hardening and other methods to make the swords that the samurai of old used in battle. Other indicators include the markings, although fake swords do have some markings that can fool collectors.


While replicas have been made well enough that they look authentic, the materials used, such as aluminum instead of steel, cheapen the sword. Experienced collectors know, for instance, that a serial number stamped on the blade indicates that the sword was made by machine and is more likely a World War II NCO sword. In the end, it may take removing the sword handle from the blade to determine whether a katana sword is authentic or a replica. Replicas with painted wood figures on the handles are clearly not authentic and should be seen as the memento items that they are.


Aluminum versus Steel

Novice collectors of Japanese swords need to educate themselves on the materials and qualities that make up true samurai swords.


ü  One of the first comparisons comes with the blade itself. True Japanese swords have blades that have been made with steel while replica swords can be made with aluminum blades. Still, the presence of a steel blade doesn’t definitively mark it as an authentic samurai sword.


ü  Here is a second precaution for novice samurai sword collectors: examine every sword carefully because it could be too easy to pick up a Chinese sword rather than one made by a Japanese artisan.

ü  Next, collectors who hear of or view ninja swords need to know this: a Japanese sword is a Japanese sword. Ninjas didn’t use specially designed swords. This belief is completely fictional.


Visible Grain

Martial arts swords that were made by Japanese swordsmiths should have a visible grain in the blade’s steel. The collector should be able to easily spot a lengthwise grain that has been produced by the method of folding that the smith used. While it won’t always be very easy for beginner collectors to seek out and spot the grain, they can ask for assistance from a veteran collector.


Collectors should also know that not every authentic samurai sword will have a visible grain. This doesn’t mean that the sword isn’t authentic. But the presence of the grain does mark it as handmade and authentic. The grain won’t tell collectors the age of the sword. Some better-constructed World War II-era swords will have a visible grain.


Visible Temper Line

Collectors who know what they are looking for can more easily separate authentic katanas from replica swords. By using a magnifying glass, they can find an etched temper line. True temper lines will have tiny specks that show up along the border and between the border and the remainder of the blade.


In contrast, replica swords and machine-made swords from the World War II era will display an etched temper line that has none of the speck characteristics which can be viewed under a magnifying glass. The etched temper line looks more like a smooth cloud.



Japanese swordsmiths learned that, by hammering and folding the sheet of steel with which they were crafting samurai swords, they could increase the strength of the steel. Using this method, the artisans crafted their swords by folding the steel up to 15 times, although, on rare occasions, a smith would fold the steel up to 30 times. To get an idea of how strong a folded blade could be, folding the steel 15 times creates well over 30,000 layers.


Back in the medieval days, iron ore was not of a good quality. Knowing this, the swordsmiths used several different types of impure iron as they began to make their swords. First, they heated the iron over flame for 72 hours in a special furnace. This allowed them to create Tamagahane or jewel steel. Next, the swordsmith would hammer the steel out and fold it. Why? He knew that the steel still wasn’t as pure as he wanted. Instead, he used the steel’s impurity to advantage by evening out the carbon content within.



Laminating actually influences the physical characteristics of the katana. Skilled swordsmiths used several methods of lamination, from Kobuse, Shoshu, Sanmai, Maru and Kitae. Lamination enabled the sword smith to create billets of varying hardness levels to fuse them together, creating a blade that would hold its sharpness without breaking apart.


The principle behind lamination was to fabricate a sword blade with a hard edge and a flexible jacket. The most complicated lamination methods should, if done right, produce the more valuable samurai swords.


Clayed and Differentially Hardened Blades

Swordsmiths worked hard to find ways of hardening the exposed edges of their swords while keeping the flexibility of the blade’s jacket. While the blade was being forged, the artisan would cover it in a layer of clay. He painted a thicker layer on the spine of the sword with a much thinner layer on the sword’s cutting edge.


Once this was done, he heated the blade to a specific temperature–750 degrees C–and plunged the heated blade into cool water or oil. As a result of the clay-painting, heating and water cooling, the artisan caused the edge to transform into martensite, which is the hardest known steel available. The resulting steel blade keeps its sharp, hard edge while the spine retains its flexibility. Both of these qualities are vital in the authentic katana swords, which all collectors should know.


Blade Markings

Novice collectors need to know two things.


ü  Blade markings can contribute to determining the authenticity of a sword. These markings include carved signatures, which were usually made by the sword’s craftsman. Markings could also show how the sword had been used and in which era it was crafted.


ü  A tachi made in the Heian era by Sanjo Munechika is probably the earliest signed sword. In contrast, Masamune signed very few of the swords he made. Swords may have been signed by their makers and, over time, the signatures were lost.


During World War II, machine-made swords were signed just as a way of adding prestige to the sword. Collectors who are in doubt about the authenticity of any particular sword should seek the assistance of a veteran collector.


Carved Bone Sword Mounting

Just because a sword has a carved bone or carved ivory marking doesn’t mean it is the authentic article. Swords made with these mountings have blades made of soft, un-tempered steel. It is likely that these swords were made for tourists who came to Japan between 1870 and the 1930s.


Rather than being bought for the value and authenticity of the blade or its history as a samurai sword, this type of sword was bought only for the carving’s quality.


People looking for Japanese swords made with ivory mountings should examine the mounting carefully. Bone mountings have no grain while ivory mountings should have an easily distinguishable grain.


Blade Sharpened Up to the Base

A good indicator for both novice and veteran sword collectors is that, if the blade has not been sharpened all the way to the base, where it joins the hilt, this is one of the first indicators that the sword is a World War II era sword. Even the newer samurai swords (Shinshinto) are not sharpened all the way down.


Inspect the Tang–Remove the Peg

If a vendor allows this, collectors can carefully remove the peg or screw that holds the handle to the blade. However, if doing so would damage either the handle or the blade, this should not be done.


Once this has been done, the handle can safely be removed from the blade, allowing the collector to inspect the tang. By doing so, the collector can learn much more about the age of the sword blade. Not every samurai sword will have only one peg. Some have two pegs, with one located near the guard and the second closer to the end of the hilt.


Collectors should never force the handle from the blade. They risk damage to one or the other by exerting too much force.


Rust Can Authenticate a Sword


Older swords will be coated with rust on the tangs. This rust will be either brown or a deep black. The oldest swords will have this black rust. The rust on newer swords will be less rusted, with their tangs appearing a metallic gray. Rust accumulation on these swords will be smaller and the rust itself will be red.


The rust should not be removed. This helps collectors to authenticate blades. Collectors should also look for file marks to be less smooth and distinct. On newer Japanese swords, these marks are sharper. Experienced collectors know never to clean the tang of a samurai sword. Doing so reduces the sword’s value and makes it more difficult for the sword’s age to be determined.


Tang Stamp

During World War II, machine-made swords were signed, adding prestige, but not authenticity to the instrument. Just because a sword contains a signature, this does not make it an authentic, hand-made sword.


Of course, just because a sword isn’t signed doesn’t mean that it was made on a machine. Not every sword artisan signed the swords they made. In addition, signed swords may have lost their signatures over the years. If collectors are unsure about the pedigree of the sword they are considering buying, they should consult with a veteran collector.


On the other hand, if the tang bears a stamped number close to the blade’s collar, this signifies that it is a World War II-era sword. The stamps placed on these swords are called arsenal stamps, which do not appear on sword blades made before the 1930s.


Paper Spacers

Collectors who are examining swords and thinking of buying one should examine the handle and blade. If there is paper wrapped around the handle and placed between the blade and handle, this is there just to assist the sword’s artisan to position the handle’s wrapping properly. The bits of paper are placed between the handle’s wrap and the rayskin.


Lore says that the papers bits are prayer papers that helped protect samurai while they were in battle.  But that is all that is, lore.


Experienced and veteran collectors know it is not recommendable to unwrap the sword handle from the paper piece. This is a complex art and the wrapping is impossible to duplicate. The silk cord shrinks over the years and frays with time. If a collector buys an authentic sword that needs to have the handle rebuilt, he or she should hire a skilled handle wrapper (tsuka-maki) to reconstruct the handle with new silk cords.


Sword Cane

Sword canes have straight, very thin blades. The blades themselves are of low quality, with several significant flaws. It is rare to find a high-quality sword blade in these mounts. These swords were made in the late 19th century through the early 20th century and have hilts and scabbards that look like either bamboo or old sticks. The sword mounts may have been constructed with spring-loaded guards.


Sword mounting shouldn’t have any bearing on determining the authenticity or age of a sword. More modern swords may look exactly like antique swords. It doesn’t matter what kind of replica the collector is looking at. It could be a wakizashi, tachi, tanto or katana. If it has been made with attention to detail, a replica sword could look very much like its authentic forebear. Sword blades made in the World War II era have been remounted in samurai mounts by collectors.


Samurai sword collectors have to know what features and indicators to take into account as they determine whether a sword they are interested in is authentic or a replica. Until they know exactly what to look for, novice collectors should rely on more experienced collectors’ advice.