What is Gunto? A guide to understand Japanese military sword


What is Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword) 

Gunto (Japanese military swords) refers to the swords that Japanese soldiers carry since the Meiji period, because they are widely used in WW2, often times they are also known as Japanese WW2 swords.

Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword) from museum

The design of Gunto has many things in common with Katana. It is because after the Meiji Restoration, the new Japanese government adopted Western swords and sabers for military and police use in order to establish a modern army. However, Japanese soldiers are still unfamiliar with Western swordsmanship, struggled with handling these Western blades.

After the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, when the effectiveness of the "Battōtai" (抜刀隊 Sword-drawing Regiment) led to a reevaluation of Japanese swords and swordsmanship. as a result, a type of military sword that utilized the blade of the Japanese katana, styled with traditional Japanese fitting design, became widespread. This uniquely Japanese weapon remained integral to the Japanese military until the disbandment of the armed forces in 1945. The wielder of swords transitioned from samurais to soldiers, but the sword remained a symbol of the Japanese culture.

Who wield a Gunto Japanese Military sword? 

Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword) wearing example

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.

History of Gunto Japanese Military sword

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.

Under the instruction of French instructors, the army fully embraced French methods, leading to a decline in traditional Japanese swordsmanship and spear techniques. Historically, the Japanese were accustomed to handling katana with both hands in the traditional Japanese style, finding the one-handed French sabre technique difficult to master.

Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword)  with western style handle

During the Satsuma Rebellion, there were instances where the newly established government forces, despite being equipped with the latest weaponry, were forced to retreat in the face of Saigō's army. Saigo's armor is mainly made up of experienced samurai, they are experts in close combat. This situation fueled a movement to incorporate traditional swordsmanship and spear techniques into a newly established "Japanese-style military swordsmanship." In 1889, when the Japanese Army shifted to a German-style military system, Japanese-style military swordsmanship was formally established, initially adopting a one-handed approach for sword handling.

However, during the Chinese war of resistance against Japanese aggression and Russo-Japanese Wars, the Japanese military learned the effectiveness of traditional Japanese swordsmanship and spear techniques in close combat situations where firearms alone were insufficient. This led to an increased emphasis on Japanese-style military swordsmanship. Throughout the Meiji era, the method of handling the military sword with one hand remained unchanged. However, during the Taishō era, the technique was revised to use both hands. The one-handed technique continued to be used, but it was limited primarily to the cavalry units.

Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword) in traditional japanese sword style

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. Gunto was abolished after WW2. 

Production of Gunto

In 1876, the Sword Abolishment Edict (廃刀令, Haitōrei) was imposed, except for soldiers and police officers, no one is allowed to carry sword in public anymore. This caused a sharp decline in the production of Japanese katana, leading many iron-making furnaces used for traditional katana-making shut down. The demand for Gunto increased, but majority of them were not forged in traditional way.

Gunto can be broadly categorized into two types based on the materials used in their construction. One type uses tamahagane, the same material traditionally used for Japanese swords. The other type is made from alternative materials such as stainless steel or Western steel. As warfare intensified, cheap, fast and mass production is required, and with material shortages, Gunto can be made of many type of steel, as long as its functional and cheap. 

Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword) production
Examples of the latter include swords made using steel developed by the South Manchuria Railway Company, commonly referred to as "Mantetsu Swords," and those fashioned from materials like sickles and kitchen knives.

The traditional definition of a Japanese katana requires the katana blades must be forged from tamahagane, produced using ancient Japanese iron-making techniques, specifically the tatara method, and crafted through a process of repeated folding and forging. This is not suitable for Gunto. As a result, Gunto made from materials other than tamahagane are often times can not be recognized as authentic Japanese swords.

The Fitting (Koshirae) of Gunto

The fitting (Koshirae) of Gunto 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 katana, complete with a ring on the scabbard allowing them to be worn from the waist.

This trend towards a "return to Japanese swords 日本刀回帰" in military weaponry grew significantly following the recognition of the Japanese sword's effectiveness in close combat during conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War. Entering the Showa era, changes first appeared in the scabbards used by officers. Traditional sabre scabbards were replaced with tachi-style (a type of Japanese sword) scabbards. Subsequently, military swords for non-commissioned officers and other ranks also began to adopt tachi-style scabbards with Japanese sword blades.

This shift is believed to be influenced by the rise of nationalism amidst intensifying warfare. The Japanese sword, a continuous symbol of Japanese culture since its emergence in the Heian period, became a significant emblem of the spirit of Japanese soldiers. It is said that enemy soldiers felt fear when facing Japanese combatants wielding military swords with fierce expressions. These developments eventually led to the post-war disarmament of Japanese swords by the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces (GHQ), known as the "Shōwa sword hunt." 昭和の刀狩.

The performance of Gunto

Gunto 軍刀 (Japanese military sword) for cavalry

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:

There are many types of Japanese military swords, we will introduce the most famous ones:

Murata Sword 村田刀

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.

Type 32 Military Sword 三十二年式軍刀

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) 九段刀(靖国刀)

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.

昭和9年に、太刀型軍刀として制定された刀 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.

昭和十二年制定海軍制式軍刀(太刀型軍刀)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.

造兵刀 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.

満鉄刀 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.

振武刀 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.

群水刀 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.

古式半鍛錬刀 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.

耐錆鋼刀(陸軍)、不銹鋼刀(海軍)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.

昭和十八年制定陸軍制式軍刀(三式軍刀)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.

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