Nerd School: Off With Their Heads- Katanas in a Post-Walker World

by Joe on October 12, 2012


Swords are an interesting and complex weapon both in concept and execution (no pun intended). Essentially the first tool manufactured to be solely used in combat without auxiliary purpose,  The sword is the ultimate symbol of survival in combat. However the mere possession of a sword does not mean automatic success in any arena, alongside the hacking and slashing of melee is the finesse necessary needed to wield the weapon effectively, and that requires training and discipline.

As this season of The Walking Dead is set to begin this week, it would seem appropriate to talk about the preferred weapon of choice of the shadowy figure seen near the end of last year’s finally. The Katana’s of Michonne.

In a world overrun by zombies, or in the case of this article the walkers from The Walking Dead, a sword can be an asset. In many ways, a sword is the exact opposite of a gun.  Two of a swords main strengths in a world like The Walking Dead is its silence and its durability.

In the first two seasons of the show, we see the drawbacks of using firearms. They are noisy and their sound  draws out walkers. Though walkers are sometimes encountered individually, they often can travel in packs. Killing one with a gun can draw the attention of the others.  Daryl uses his crossbow as a counter to this. The silence of a sword is similar to this. An individual could kill a walker with a sword without being detected by others.

Another drawback to guns is that they are limited to the amount of ammo needed to be useful. As any marksman would tell you, guns are not accurate, people are accurate. Unless you train yourselves with a firearm, hitting and incapacitating a walker  (ie shooting them directly in the brain) is a fairly difficult shot. That means, that an average person will miss and waste ammo. Though the show does take place in America which means you can get more ammo at your local Walmart, inaccuracy means wasted shots, and wasted shots mean reloading, and reloading means vulnerability. Guns also require regular cleaning, which means disassembly. To an untrained person this could mean unfortunately timed jams. Like guns, swords need to be maintained as well. Blades must be kept clean of blood and moisture. They must also be properly oiled. The blade must also be sharpened. Though there is an art to sharpening a blade correctly, a sword is fairly low maintenance in comparison to a firearm. Also no one ever died reloading a sword.

There are literally hundreds of variations on the sword, with each culture and region putting their own spin on the weapon. Michonne is armed with a Japanese Katana, a weapon with deep history in both Japanese culture and American pop-culture. Outside of fans of anime and manga, American audiences are probably most familiar with the katana as being the weapon of choice for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Leonardo. They may also be familiar with the bride’s Hatori Hanzo sword from Kill Bill vol. 1-2.

For those unfamiliar, the katana is a  curved, slender, single-edged sword with a circular equipped for use with two-hands. Starting in the Muromachi period of Japan (1337 to 1573), the katana  was the weapon of choice of the samurai class of warriors until the Haitōrei Edict in 1876 which made it illegal to carry swords in public. This led to a decline in swords produced, and many tradesmen who were making the swords moved on to produce other goods. However, with the revival of Japanese military ambitions during the Showa period (1926–1989) the swords were produced again in greater quantity and less quality for use by military officers.

The quality of swords made pre 1876 are often considered the pinnacle of sword making. These katanas were made from a specialized Japanese steel called “Tamahagane” which is a combination of hard, high carbon steel and tough, low carbon steel. The high-carbon steel able to hold a sharper edge but it is more brittle. The low-carbon will allow the steel to be more malleable, making it able to absorb impacts without breaking. The sword maker would fold and weld pieces of high and low carbon steel several times to work out most of the impurities. There would then be a process of heating and cooling (quenching) the blade using specialized mixtures. Using this technique, Japanese sword smiths were able to produce a blade that had a soft body and a hard edge. The sword would then be sent to a polisher who  uses finer and finer grains of polishing stones until the blade has a mirror finish. The final blade is extremely sharp and swift making it easier to cut with. The length of the finished katana blade varied, but tended to be between 23½ to 28½ in.

Traditionally the Katana was worn on the belt, or Obi, blade faced away from the samurai. This was for quick easy draw. This goes against traditional western views of the katana which is worn on the back. The katana would often be paired with a smaller sword such as a wakizashi or tanto in what the samurai called a daisho. The use of the katana was very real, and martial arts in which training with katana is used still exist. These include battōjutsu, iaidō, kenjutsu, Shinkendo, kendo, Aikido.

So let’s assume you have an authentic-well taken care of katana, and you have basic knowledge (not necessarily a black belt) on how to use it. Is it really effective against walkers?

Part of the effectiveness of a curved blade like the katana is in its ability to slash. While European blades from the same time period where more designed for piercing armor, the katana would slice through skin on the perpendicular. This is important, in terms of how to kill a walker. If we assume the basic premise that the a sword would work in two ways against a walker, the first way would be to pierce the skull and drive the blade into the brain (preferably through an eye socket), the second would be to cut through the neck and sever the spinal cord (aka decapitation).

In the first example a katana would not be very effective. A 2 1/2 foot long curved blade makes stabbing a bit difficult, so we can ignore the first option. So that leaves us with severing the neck.  Swords were used for beheading for many years, but they were not always “one chop”.  The biggest problem is weight. Even though a blade may be sharp, unless it goes directly through a vertebral disk (which is mostly cartilage) it would either have to slice through a solid vertebrae, or displace it enough to go through the other side. Swords just didn’t have the force to do this, they would need several strikes.  This is why executioners moved towards axes, as it would be far less cruel that way. Axes were much heavier at the head, unlike swords where the mass was lower.  The head would use gravity and the force of the swing to cut. Weight/mass is huge in force, as force equals mass times acceleration.

The average katana from the period would weigh close to 2 ½ pounds, an executioner’s sword from relatively the same time was around 4 pounds, and as we already discussed it would often take several chops to decapitate the victim. A guillotine blade from the 19th century weighed close to 80 pounds plus extra weight on top. (however it is important to note, that now outside force aside from gravity was applied to the guillotine blade as it fell) So to cut through the vertebra of a moving walker may be difficult even with the best of blades.

Videos do exist on the internet of people cutting heads off of dummies made of ballistics gel, pumpkins, pigs, and show that it can be effectively done. However all of the examples available show this happening from a stationary position. Walkers move, and in some cases they move quite fast. Because of their “un-living” status, missing with your slash, or even hitting off target can be costly for the katana wielder due to close proximity. How red would your face be when you get your sword stuck in a stray skull? The idea of survival in this post-walker world revolves around effective means of survival. Though it may be possible to kill a walker with a katana, it is nearly impossible to have the consistent accuracy for it to be your primary weapon.

Obviously the watcher of The Walking Dead are unfamiliar with Michonne’s background, hopefully she shows real training in her past, and the swords she wields are authentic. Overall, the idea of a katana is far cooler than its effectiveness at killing walkers.  Like all weapons, its only really effective with quality and training. Your “Kill Bill” replica Hatori Hanzo and the moves you learned from playing Samurai Showdown will not get you very far.



Read some other stuff from Joe, hear him on the Planet Arbitrary podcast, or follow him on Twitter @planetarbitrary


Read Joe’s other articles:

Doctor Who: Doctor Who Season 6 Round Up, An Alternate History of the DoctorDoctor Who Season 6 primer, Psychology, and Regeneration, The Pitfalls of Paradoxical Storytelling

Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer IIGame of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros

Star Trek: Evening the OddsStar Trek Blu-rays 1 and 2 Trek in your Queue 1 and 2, Obama TrekStar Trek: A Different Generation, Failed Star Trek Spinoffs

Misc: Sci-Fi ComposersThieving Sci-Fi, Paranormal Activi3The Walking Dead Primer, The Genre Problem, Conan Primer, Mutant Fatigue, Sci-Fi A-Team, A Love Letter to Natalie PortmanThor Primer

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