Katanas, often known as samurai swords, were made famous by the ancient warriors who wielded them. The samurai, members of the Japanese warrior class, used katana swords as their primary weapon. Characterised by their curved blades, katanas were designed to be used as stabbing and slashing weapons. Today, they are used primarily by marital artists in competition, but are still considered to be the weapon of a master.
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The samurai originally used blades that were imported from China and Korea. Early katanas had a straight blade. The curved blade was developed as samurai began fighting on horseback more often. A curved blade turned the sword into a weapon that was ideal for slashing as well as stabbing, and was easier for the Samurai to wield on horseback. The straight bladed version of the katana continued to be widely used by the legendary Japanese assassins known as the ninja.
During battle, the samurai carried two or three different blades. The first was the traditional length katana. The second, a smaller (but otherwise identical) blade, was known as a wakizashi. The tanto was an even smaller blade, similar to a dagger, which could be concealed or used as a throwing weapon. The katana was the primary weapon, with the others being used as sidearms. The wakizashi blade was used in close quarters combat. Together, the blades were known as daisho.
The curved steel blade of the katana ends with a sharpened point. Each blade contained a blood-groove along the top (unsharpened) edge of the blade, for an enemy's blood to flow freely off of the sword. The steel blade extends all the way to the bottom of the hilt, or handle. This was for stability, to keep the blade from breaking away from the hilt during a fight. In samurai times, katanas were handmade. Because they were expected to have the highest quality blades possible, they were tested on corpses or condemned prisoners. A katana that could not make a clean cut was considered inadequate.
Katanas were carried only by samurai warriors in Japan. They were considered a status symbol, and anyone of lower class that was caught with one was put to death. To samurai, the swords were an extension of their very souls and were only to be used when necessary. Traditionally, each samurai named his sword because it was an extension of his being. When a samurai fell from honour (often by losing a fight), he committed ritual suicide with either his katana or wakizashi.
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