By David Rilley-Harris, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, November 2019
The third oldest edged weapon in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History collection is the Japanese Tachi from the early 16th Century.
In testament to the quality of Japanese sword production, our Tachi was still in use during the Second World War when it was surrendered by a Japanese officer. After over 400 years of readiness for combat, the Tachi was donated to the museum in 1947 by Admiral Viscount Mountbatten of Burma.
From the signature (mei) on the tang, we can ascertain that this Tachi was made between 1521CE and 1528CE in Harima of the Sanyôdô Province (Sunny Mountain Road) region. The signature also shows that the sword was made by the Kiyomitsu swordsmiths of the Kaga clan.
The positioning of the signature also tells us that the sword is a Tachi as opposed to a Katana. Both the Tachi and the Katana were Japanese swords (nihonto) that were worn by the samurai class in feudal Japan. Authentic Tachi were made during the Kotō period between 900CE and 1596CE and were worn with the blade facing down. The signature was made to face outward showing this sword to be a Tachi.
Tachi were made more for cavalry and more for cutting than thrusting. While the Katana is generally heavier than the Tachi, Tachi started being made thicker and wider after the first Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274CE.
It should be added that the word Katana is often used as a generic term for Japanese swords, especially longer swords. Also, swords of a lower quality that were quickly made for the Second World War were based on the Tachi but were called Shin-Guntō meaning New Military Sword.
During the lifetime of this Tachi, the hilt would have been changed at least a couple of times, but the blade held up well enough to look like a sword made well into the 20th Century.
To make a Tachi blade, the smith repeatedly heated, quenched, broke, and re-fused the steel in order to purify it. The prepared steel was then repeatedly heated, beaten out, folded, and welded back onto itself. The core steel was folded fewer times while the surface steel was folded up to fifteen times. The core and surface steel were then beaten into long bars and the skin was folded around the core and welded on. The combined bar of steel was beaten into shape, heated, and quenched. The blade was then polished by a separate person before the maker shaped the cutting edge.
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