Christian Warrior Academy

 The following are three articles by J. Clements, ARMA Director

1.    The Medieval European Knight vs. The Feudal Japanese Samurai?

2.   Longsword and Katana Considered

3.   Katana vs. Rapier: Another Fantasy Worth Considering

The Medieval European Knight vs. The Feudal Japanese Samurai?

By J. Clements, ARMA Director

From time to time it is interesting to ponder the outcome of an encounter between two of history's most formidable and highly skilled warriors: the Medieval European knight and the feudal Japanese samurai.  The thought of "who would win" in an actual fight between these martial experts of such dissimilar methods is intriguing.  Who would emerge victorious or who was historically the better fighter is a question occasionally raised, but it is really a moot question.  In the case of comparing a knight to a samurai, each warrior used armor, weapons, and methods oriented towards the particular opponents of their day and age.  Therefore, neither can be looked upon as being universally more effective under all conditions against all manner of opponents.  In one sense, it is like asking who are better soldiers, jungle fighters or ski troops?  It depends upon the situation and the environment. Still, it's an interesting encounter to consider.  Having some small experience in the methods and weaponry of each, as well as a few cross-training opportunities, I offer my humble thoughts on the matter.

The Scenario

First of all, we must ask where is it these two lone warriors would meet? Under what circumstances? Since the conditions of this imaginary fight could play a major factor, it can be proposed that such an encounter would best take place on a flat, firm, open field with no cover and plenty of room to maneuver. Though each is an accomplished horseman, it would also be conducive to have the single-combat duel occur dismounted, alone, on foot and without use of missile weapons. Interestingly, the same climate and weather for each would be just about right.

There are a great many intangibles to consider here. The ability of each combatant to read or size up their opponent and the threat they posed would be an important consideration.  Are both to be briefed on the nature of their opponent and his armaments? Or will the encounter be a blind one in which neither knows anything about their adversary?  We might want to just assume that each of our ideal combatants has been informed to some degree regarding the other and therefore mentally prepared and composed.

Of course, if we are supposing a clash between two "typical warriors", we must also ask exactly what will be considered typical?  The knights of circa 1100 and the samurai of circa 1200 were roughly evenly matched in equipment.  But the same comparative warriors during the 1400's for instance, were quite dissimilar. Each of the two historical warriors in question did fight with equivalent technologies, under fairly similar climates and terrain, and for similar reasons.  But it's difficult to think in terms of a "generic" Medieval knight or a "standard" samurai warrior.  With respect to a European knight, it's not easy to choose what nationality, and what type of warrior from which portion of the overall Middle Ages.  With the samurai though, we are dealing with a single, homogenous culture and one in which versions of their historical martial traditions have survived, in one form or another, fairly intact.  Thus we have a somewhat better idea of the average samurai's training and ability through the centuries than compared to contemporary European warriors.  Then again, it's sometimes argued that today's version of modern civilian budo("war ways") is not equivalent to the historical military bujutsu ("war skills") of the samurai. At the same time, while we may not have an extant tradition of knightly martial arts any longer, we however do have volumes of actual training manuals from the era describing in technical detail for us just what their skills and methods at the time were all about.

As for the knight, are we assuming he will be a maile clad Norman with sword and kite shield from the year 1066?  An English or Frenchchevalier of 1350 in partial plate with arming sword ready for duel in the champ clos?  Will he be an Italian condottieri from 1450 resplendent in full regalia? Or will he be a Teutonic knight of circa 1400 in a head-to-toe suit of articulated Gothic plate-armor and bastard sword?  Will the samurai be wearing the older box-like Muromachi armor and armed with a tachi blade?  Or will he wear the later close fitting Kamakura perioddo-maru armor and use the more familiar katana?  For that matter, would the samurai be allowed to use both his long katana and his wakizashi short sword together? These are significant matters that get at the heart of why such a question as who would "win" or who is the "better" fighter (or even whose equipment was better) really is unanswerable. 

Of course, for the sake of engaging discourse let us hypothesize just what would happen if these two comparable individuals, each highly trained and experienced in the respective fighting skills of their age, were to meet on the battlefield in single combat to the death (!).  As an amusing historical diversion we can at least make an educated guess to what would possibly be, not the result, so much as some of the key decisive elements of such an encounter.

The Warriors

We can reasonably assume that the personal attributes such as individual strength, speed, stamina, age, health, and courage, are fairly consistent between such professional warriors.  Assuming we can somehow control for these attributes, we could match combatants with some equality.  It would not be unrealistic to believe on a whole that neither was likely decisively stronger or faster than the other. Although, we can't discount physiology as a factor and this reasonably would be an advantage for the European (16th century samurai armor examples are sized for men around 5'3"-5'5", while European armor from the same period and earlier would fit men ranging from just under 6' to about 6'5"). Although, other evidence suggests average European heights in the 16th century were just above 5 feet. Interestingly, while the European concept of physical fitness among knights by the 15th century emphasized the classical Greco-Roman youthful physique of a narrow waist and broad shoulders on a lean frame, the Japanese ideal was one of a more mature man having a wider base and broader middle no doubt reflecting the natural ethnographic characteristics of each race, but also influencing the fighting techniques they employed.  To what degree this occurred is worth contemplating.

We might also want to consider the forms of warfare each swordsman was experienced in and focused upon. The early samurai engaged in a ritualized style of warfare where individual champions might fight separate battlefield duels following established protocols, as opposed to a later mounted archery style of combat amidst pike formations of lesser foot soldiers. Their clan warfare was decidedly feudalistic yet with acquiring and honor and renown also being a goal. Skirmishing was not also uncommon and there were a few large scale military expeditions to Korea and surrounding islands. But most combat occurred in the environment of the home islands.

Whereas in contrast, knights emphasized mounted shock warfare with couched lances, and off the field a concern for chivalric and judicial duels as well as tournaments of all kinds. The Western way of war for knights was directed more at a traditional battle of annihilation as part of an overall campaign of conquest. Yet, individual challenges, whether to the death or not, were frequent. Knightly arms and armor were the result of a dynamic interaction of Latin, Celtic, and Germanic cultures as well as Turkish and Arabic influences. The environment knights fought under was extensive and diverse, ranging from the cold of Scandinavia to the deserts of the Middle East, from the plains of Western Europe to the deep forest of the East, and the swamps, fields, and mountains in between.

There is also no question that athleticism, physical fitness and conditioning were integral parts of knightly chivalric virtue as considerable literary and iconographic evidence from the period testifies. As a youth, Samurai were not generally trained for any longer length of time than were knights or in any greater diversity of accomplishments. Along with combat training and courtly graces, a knight was typically taught to dance, swim, read poetry, play chess, to hawk and to hunt with a team, as well as fight as a unit in battle. Yet, in tournament and joust he was also tutored to excel as an individual. 

We cannot overlook the role that culture might play in this contest.  Samurai warriors existed in a hierarchical and conformist culture that rewarded obedience and loyalty over individuality. Knights existed in a more complex and fluid society that emphasized self-expression with a long tradition of reliance on individual initiative. Both cultures had experience fighting against outsiders and foreigners: the Europeans encountered the Turks, Mongols, Saracens, and others; the Japanese encountered the Koreans, Chinese, Mongols, and others.  Thus, in considering the historical record on cross-cultural collisions in different locations, would we want to give the edge to the more socially diverse Europeans on this?

On an individual basis then, we must consider what effect might be played by the quality of fatalism within the samurai code of bushido, or rather the resolute acceptance of death that motivated the fiercest samurai.  But then, we cannot overlook the quality of piety and faith that could motivate a noble knight to great feats, or of the ideals of chivalry that he might uphold to the death.  It's possible a Medieval European knight would have a certain disdain and scorn for his foreign, "pagan" adversary.  Of course, the Japanese warrior's well-known attitude of proud invincibility and readiness to die for his lord could equally make him vulnerable to an unfamiliar foe.  Contempt for life and contempt for a dangerous, unknown opponent you might underestimate can be a disastrous combination. While courage is important, fighting spirit alone is insufficient.  There are surely intangibles here that we cannot be measured with any reliability.  These and other non-quantifiable, psychological factors aside, we are left with weapons, armor, and training.

The Armor

Armor changes things in swordplay. If you've never trained in it, you can't imagine how it affects your movements and execution of even simple actions. It has been said that while Europeans designed their armor to defeat swords, the Japanese designed their swords to defeat armor.  There is a certain truth to this, but it's a simplistic view.  The better Japanese armor was constructed of small overlapping lacquered metal scales or plates tied together with silk cords in order to specifically resist the slicing cut of the katana. It allowed good freedom of movement while offering excellent protection. But if it got wet, the silk cords soaked up water and it became terribly heavy.  Though the earliest styles of samurai armor were designed with large square plates more as a defense against arrows, the later forms were intended primarily to be used by and against similarly equipped swordsmen and to lessen the tremendous cutting capacity of their swords.  It was durable, effective, and provided for ample movement. But how would it hold up to the stabs of a narrowly pointed knightly sword? This is an important question.

Medieval European armor was designed and shaped more to deflect strikes and absorb blunt force blows from lances and swords. A knight's armor varied from simple byrnies of fine riveted maile ("chainmaile") that could absorb slices and prevent cuts, to well-padded soft jackets, and metal coats-of-plates which were designed equally to protect from concussion weapons as penetrating thrusts. Maile armor existed in numerous styles and patterns but arguably reached its zenith in 15th century Western Europe, where closely-woven riveted links could resist any drawing slice as well as being proof against many slashes and thrusts from swords. Maile of such equivalent was not used in Japan.

Generally speaking, European plate armor was designed primarily as a defense against sword points and other bladed weapons, whereas, Japanese armor was primarily designed more as a defense against arrows and spears. Significantly, it frequently had open feet and hands and a design that permitted archery. The knight's encased armor by contrast was idealized more for mounted charge with lance and or for dismounted close-combat. Japanese heavy armor contemporary with the period of the High Middle Ages knight was not considerably lighter than European plate.

A complete suit of fully articulated rigid plate-armor, which has been described as unequaled in its ingenuity and strength, was nearly resistant to sword blows and required entirely different specialized weapons to effectively defeat it. With its tempered steel and careful curved fluting it was just invulnerable to sword cuts-even, it can be surmised, those of the exceptionally sharp katana (some high-ranking 16th century samurai lords actually owned pieces of contemporary European armor, gifts and purchases which they even wore into battle -they did not prize them merely as exotica). Plate-armor for foot combat was well-balanced, maneuverable, and sometimes even made of tempered steel. It was well-suited for fighting in, and is far from the awkward, lumbering cliché presented by Hollywood. Unless you've worn accurate well-made plate of this kind, it is impossible to really know how it influenced the way a knight would move.

Without the necessary weapons designed intentionally to face and defeat plate armor, any fighter armed with a sword alone would have difficulty (katana or not). Indeed, full European plate armor with maile might very well damage the keen edge on particularly fine katanas. After all, we should not forget that despite the katana's vaunted cutting ability, the samurai were able to successfully rely on their armors as defense against it. There is every reason to imagine knightly armor would have been just as, if not more, effective. If we therefore assume the armors to be more evenly matched, say maile and partial plate for the knight as used around 1250, things would get more interesting. However, the samurai did often carry an excellent thick dagger which would have been quite useful. Curiously, each warrior was highly skilled in using their respective armor-piercing daggers and with close-in grappling (something not generally known about actual knightly fencing skills).

The Shield

We must consider whether the knight in this hypothetical duel will be armed in the familiar shield and short sword style or will use only a single long-sword? If armed with a shield, we must ask what kind?  Will the knight employ a center-gripped type with front umbo or one worn byenarme straps?  Will the shield be the highly effective "kite" shape with its superb defense or one of the smaller, more maneuverable convex "heater" styles?  How about a thick steel buckler (a fist-gripped hand shield)?

There's a reason virtually every culture developed hand-held shields for close-combat and why they continued to be used literally for thousands of years. They were very effective. In 15th century Europe, it was only the combination of the development of full plate armor and two-handed swords combined with heavy pole-arms and powerful missile weapons that finally reduced the long reigning value of the shield in warfare. The Medieval style of sword and shield fighting is distinctly different from the two-hand grip and quick full-arm slashing cuts of Kenjutsu.  Medieval short swords are properly wielded with more of a throw of the arm and a twist of the hips while making passing steps forward or back.  Strikes are thrown from behind the shield while it simultaneously guards, feints, deflects, or presses. A sword and shield is a great asset over a single sword alone. Fighting with sword and shield offers a well-rounded and strong defense that safely permits a wide range of both direct and combination attacks. 

A sword can cut quite well from almost all angles around or underneath a shield.  Indeed, since the shield side is so well guarded, the opponent is the one limited to attacking to only one side the non-shield side.  While a large shield does indeed close off a tremendous amount of targets to an attacker, it also limits, to a far smaller degree, freedom to attack by the shield user.  As it comes out from behind their shield to strike, an attacker's weapon can be counter-timed and counter-cut and this is indeed one tactic to employ against a shield user. Yet a shield user's attacks are not at all one sided. A shield can be used offensively in a number of ways and at very close range.

Katanas are powerful swords used with strong techniques, but thinking they could simply cleave through a stout Medieval shield is absurd. Even with a katana a shield cannot simply be sliced through. Medieval shields were fairly thick wood covered in leather and usually trimmed in metal.  Not only that, they were highly maneuverable, making solid, shearing blows difficult.  More likely, a blade would be momentarily stuck in the rim if it struck too forcefully.  Unlike what is seen in the movies, or described in heroic literature, chopping into a shield's edge can temporarily cause the sword blade to wedge into the shield for just an instant and thereby be delayed in recovering or renewing an attack (and exposing the attacker's arms to a counter-cut).  Shields without metal rims were even favored for this very reason.

Kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship), though consisting of very effective counter-cutting actions, also has no real indigenous provisions for fighting shields. Although a skilled warrior could certainly improvise some, those unfamiliar with the formidable effectiveness and versatility of a sword and shield combination will have a hard time.  The shield was not used the way typically shown in movies, video games, stage-combat, or historical role-playing organizations such as the SCA.  Fighting against a Medieval shield is not simply a matter of maneuvering around it or aiming blows elsewhere. If a warrior does not really know the shield, or hasn't faced a good shield fighter, then they cannot be expected to know how to ideally fight against it.

The Samurai's Sword

In major battles among each warrior, a suit of armor was typically worn and a sword wielded in one or two-hands. For the knight, the primary weapons had always been the long lance and the sword, and to a lesser degree the polaxe, dagger, and mace.  The sword was always the foundational weapon of a Knight's fencing training.  For the samurai however, the sword was but one of three major weapons along with the bow and arrow and the yari (thrusting spear). We should consider that, despite their later acquired reputation for swordsmanship, the samurai's primary weapon was, in fact, not the sword. The sword really did not even become a premier weapon of samurai culture and reach its cult status until the mid to late 17th century when the civil warring period ended. It is something of a myth that every individual Japanese samurai was himself an expert swordsman (no more true than every wild West cowboy was an expert gunfighter). After all, the expression so associated with bushido is "the Way of the horse and bow", not "the Way of the sword." Besides, unlike knightly chivalric tales and combat accounts, the majority of single combats between samurai described in feudal Japanese literature took place with daggers not swords. But for sake of discussion, let us assume such for both fighters in this imaginary case. 

As a sword, the Japanese katana is unmatched in its sharpness and cutting power.  Furthermore, it is particularly good at cutting against metal (but no, it only cuts through other swords in movies and video games!).  However, Medieval plate armor is well known for its resistance to cutting, and cutting at a moving target hidden by a shield or a greatsword is not easy.  While the edge of a katana is very strong with a sharp cutting bevel, it is a thick wedge shape and still has to move aside material as it cuts.  Though this is devastating on a draw slice against flesh and bone, it is much less effective against armors. Realizing this, several styles of Japanese swordsmanship devised specific techniques not to cut at armor, but to stab and thrust at the gaps and joints of it just as the Europeans did against their own plate armor. The primary technique for fighting nearly any kind of armor with most any kind of sword is not to cut but to thrust at the gaps and joints.

Except for major interaction in Korea and encounters against the Mongols, the katana developed in comparative isolation and is not quite the "ultimate sword" some of its ardent admirers occasionally build it up as.  The katana's exceptionally hard edge was prone to chipping and needed frequent re-polishing and its blade could break or bend the same as any other sword might (...and no, they won't slice through cars or chop into concrete pillars either). It was not designed to take a great deal of abuse, and is not as resilient in flexibility nor intended to directly oppose soft or hard armors as some forms of Medieval swords had to be.

The katana's design was not set in stone. It was changed and altered over the centuries like any other sword, being slowly improved or adapted to the different needs and tastes of their users in terms of cross section, curvature, and length. In the 13th century for instance, their points had to be redesigned because they were prone to snapping against the metal reinforced "studded" leather armor (essentially equivalent to European brigandine or armor) of the Mongols and Chinese. By the 18th century their blades, no longer used earnestly against armor, tended to be made longer, lighter, and thinner for classroom practicing.

True, the Japanese feudal warrior did have their own form of greatsword in the long no dachi blades, these however were employed specifically by lower ranking foot-soldiers against horses (and presumably, on occasion against pikes). So, we cannot draw an equivalency between these and Medieval greatswords used in knightly fencing arts or to the true two-handers of 16th century European battlefields.

Over all the katana was a very well-rounded design: excellent at cutting and slicing, yet good at thrusting, and suitable for armored or unarmored fighting on foot or horseback, either one or two-handed.  It was a carefully crafted and beautiful weapon reflecting generations of artistry and fearsome necessity, but it was still only a sword a man-made tool of well-tempered and expertly polished metal. Though the details of manufacture differed, they were made by the same fundamental scientific processes of heating and hand-working metal by shaping and grinding as were other fine swords around the world throughout history.  Regardless of how they are designed or constructed, all swords have the same goals and perform the same functions: that of guarding against attacks while delivering their own lethal blows.

The Knight's Swords