What is Gunto?
When we talk about Gunto (military swords), we refer to the swords that soldiers have been carrying since the Meiji era. The bearers of swords transitioned from samurais to soldiers, but the sword remained a symbol of the warrior's pride. Despite resource shortages during the times of the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa wars, the Gunto continued to meet the needs of the military. These katanas were distinct from those of the Edo era and are considered a new breed of Japanese swords. While current laws make possession of such swords challenging, they are valuable artifacts that hold the elegance of a Japanese sword and the functionality of a weapon.
This article discusses the origins, characteristics, types of Gunto, and basic knowledge about owning them.
A Gunto is a weapon designed for combat and ceremonial purposes. There are two main types of military swords: one for officers and another for non-commissioned officers and soldiers. They were used in battle, and for directing troops and performing rituals.
Officers were required to carry a Gunto as part of their official attire. However, the rules regarding the sword they carried were related only to its exterior and material, allowing a certain level of flexibility in its making. In the begining, Gunto were seen more as ceremonial weapons, but over time, their combat capabilities were recognized and valued.
Non-commissioned officers and soldiers were not required to carry a gunto. Their gunto, designed for actual combat, were made in factories and issued as government supplies.
After the establishment of the Meiji government, the military was set up, and along with it, a suitable military sword was required. In 1876, a dress code for officers was established, which mandated the carrying of a sword. These swords were patterned after French models for the army and British models for the navy. Both styles were ceremonial, primarily for command and rituals, as officers were not expected to engage in frontline combat.
In 1876, a ban was imposed on wearing katana in public, except for soldiers and police officers. This caused a sharp decline in the production of Japanese swords, leading to the closure of iron-making furnaces used for sword-making. However, there was a growing demand for swords that resembled traditional Japanese swords from soldiers, resulting in the creation of new swords using old blade designs but with a saber-like mounting.
With the advent of the Showa era, military swords' design changed to resemble traditional Japanese swords. After World War II, the Allied powers saw these swords as symbols of militarism, casting a negative light on them. However, the fact remains that the swordsmiths revived the art of Japanese sword-making using their best techniques at the time.
The exterior of military swords varies significantly, primarily between saber-like and traditional Japanese katana designs. Saber-like swords feature a knuckle guard and typically have a metal sheath, unlike swords from the Edo era. When entering the Showa era, swords were created that were adaptations of ancient Japanese longswords, complete with a ring on the scabbard allowing them to be worn from the waist.
The performance of military swords:
Military swords were manufactured during the eras of Meiji, Taisho, and Showa, times when modern wars took place. The performance required on the battlefield were "durability" and "sharpness". The swords needed to resist bending and rusting, and had to be easy to maintain. On the battlefield, there may be situations where maintenance cannot be done properly. Therefore, various materials were researched, and military swords that could be used even in cold climates were created. Sharpness is, of course, an important factor. Swords were made that were equal to or surpassed the famous swords of ancient times.
Types of gunto:
The type of gunto varies depending on whether it is for officers or non-commissioned officers, and also differs between the Army and Navy. Here, we will only introduce representative ones.
Murata Sword: An industrial sword born in the early days of military swords. Easy to handle with both hands and relatively inexpensive due to mass production, this excellent product had unified performance. Its sharpness and toughness are said to have surpassed the ancient Japanese swords. The blade was of a Japanese sword, but the handle had a guard like a saber.
32nd Year Style Military Sword: A military sword established by the Army in 1899 (Meiji 32). Manufactured by the Tokyo Artillery Factory (later the Arms Factory), it has a saber-shaped exterior with a one-handed grip. The blade and metal handle were sturdy, and the metal scabbard could also be used as a weapon even if the blade broke.
Kyudan Sword (Yasukuni Sword): This sword was created by the Japan Sword Forging Association, which was established in the precincts of Yasukuni Shrine in 1933 (Showa 8). It is commonly known as "Yasukuni Sword". They planned to revive the Japanese sword and placed a traditional Japanese-style furnace within the precincts of Yasukuni Shrine, producing Tamahagane steel and forging swords.
Showa Nine Year Standard Army Sword (Type 94 Military Sword): A sword established as a Tachi type military sword in 1934 (Showa 9). There were versions for officers and for non-commissioned officers and below (Type 94 military sword). The guard, a feature of the saber military sword, was removed, restoring the exterior appearance of a Japanese sword.
Showa Twelve Year Standard Navy Sword (Tachi Type Military Sword): This sword was established as a navy officer's sword in 1937 (Showa 12). In the case of the navy, the military sword plays a strong role for ceremonial purposes, so it is characterized by its ornate exterior. Many of the blades were made of stainless steel as a measure against salt damage.
Zoheito: Swords developed and made as weapons by the Army Arms Factory. With the expansion of military demand, it became possible to finish them with machines, making them mass-produced swords with standardized performance. They were durable enough to not break and could be used as weapons even if their sharpness deteriorated.
Mantetsu Sword: A sword made by the South Manchuria Railway Company using their railway parts manufacturing technology. Despite being a mass-produced item, it was strong even in cold climates and had a very high quality, including its sharpness. It was later named the "Koa Isshin Sword" and became engraved.
Shinbu Sword: Also known as the "Cold-resistant Sword". Developed by Tohoku Imperial University's Institute of Metal Materials as a cold-resistant military sword, and manufactured by Toyo Cutlery Co., Ltd. It could withstand even cold climates like Siberia, which would break ancient Japanese swords.
Gunmizu Sword: A sword made using "Gunmizu Steel" developed by Gunma Hydroelectric Power Co., Ltd. The characteristic of this sword is that high-quality steel is produced by electrolytic refining, not by human-powered forging.
Koshiki Hankatanren Sword: A sword born in Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, famous for its production of swords and blades from ancient times. Developed by the Gifu Prefectural Metal Testing Center, it was a mass-produced sword boasting high quality, stamped with a mark certified by the Seki Cutlery Industry Association. Handmade swords were inefficient to produce, so they semi-automated forging with an air hammer, dramatically improving production efficiency while maintaining quality.
Rust-resistant Steel Sword (Army), Stainless Steel Sword (Navy): These are so-called "stainless swords" that use stainless steel as the material for the blade. They were particularly popular in the Navy as a measure against salt damage. One of the weaknesses of ancient Japanese swords is that they rust easily, but stainless swords can be said to have overcome this weakness.
Showa Eighteen Year Standard Army Sword (Type 3 Military Sword): A sword for senior officers established in 1943 (Showa 18). With the deterioration of the war situation, the exterior was simplified, and lacquer was applied to the handle to strengthen it. The Type 3 military sword had specifications not only for the exterior but also for the blade, and those that passed inspection had a pentagram engraved on the tang.