What is Tachi? A complete guide to understand the Japanese long sword


What is Tachi 太刀?

Tachi is a long, curved Japanese sword. Compare with Katana (Uchigatana), Tachi is usually longer, more curved, and the shape is more like a saber. Tachi was mainly used as weapons for horseback combat for samurai, there are many types of tachi and comes with various fittings. We will introduce what is Tachi, History of Tachi, types of Tachi and bring you some famous Tachi from history in this article.

What does Tachi means?

Tachi (太刀) literally translated to "Big sword". The character "太 (ta)" means big,  it can also imply something grand or significant, When used in the context of Japanese swords, it emphasizes the substantial and grand nature of the sword.

The character 刀 (chi) means "sword" or "saber." It is a common character used in Japanese to refer various types of blades.

There are various theories regarding the origin of the name, but the most popular opinion is that it came from the word 'tachi' (断ち), meaning 'to cut through.'

Tachi is a type of Katana, before you get all confuse, in Japanese, Katana (刀) refers to all types of Japanese bladed weapons, that includes Tachi, Uchigatana, Wakizashi, even polearms like Yari, Naginata or Nagamaki. But because Uchigatana (打刀) is the most popular one, in English we always called Katana to refer to Uchigatana. We will stick with using Katana as Uchigatana in this article, but we should bear in mind the correct terminology for Japanese swords.

Characteristics of Tachi

The tachi is characterized by its longer and more curved blade compared to the katana, making it well-suited for slashing attacks from horseback. It is distinctively worn and displayed with the blade edge facing downwards, a practical feature for cavalry use. Additionally, the tachi is notable for its ornate koshirae, which are often more decorative than those of the katana, reflecting the high status and artistic preferences of its samurai owners. 

How long is a Tachi?

Tachi typically has blade length around 75.8 to 78.8 cm (29.8 to 31 inches, or about 2 shaku 5 sun to 2 shaku 6 sun). Variants include the shorter 'Kodachi 小太刀' (around 60 cm or 23.6 inches, approximately 2 shaku) and the longer 'Ōdachi 大太刀 or Nodachi 野太刀.

Kodachi were mainly used for ceremonial purposes, while Ōdachi, significantly longer, were often crafted for shrine offerings. Notable Ōdachi examples are the 'Shida Ōdachi 志田大太刀' (224 cm or 88.2 inches) and 'Nenekirimaru 祢々切丸' (216 cm or 85 inches).

Nodachi 野太刀, designed for actual battle, are over 90.9 cm (35.8 inches, or more than 3 shaku) in length, known for their thick and sturdy build. An example is the 'Kibitsumaru 吉備津丸' by Norimitsu of the Bizen Osafune school, measuring 226.7 cm (89.3 inches), notable for its lighter weight and improved maneuverability. 

The longest & biggest Tachi is Haja no Ontachi (破邪の御太刀)

The longest & biggest Tachi is Haja no Ontachi (破邪の御太刀) , with a total length of 465 cm (183 inches)  and a weight of 75 kg (165 lbs). It was made in the Edo period (19th century), now keeping at the Hanaoka Hachiman Shrine (八幡宮)

History and development of Tachi

History and development of Tachi

The history of Japanese swords began with straight blades like 'Chokutō' (直刀) during the Yayoi period, influenced by Chinese Dao. These were straight-bladed swords without any curvature, quite different from what we associate with traditional Japanese swords today.

The major transformation in sword design began in the Kofun period when Japan started producing its own iron weapons. This period marked the development of the 'Wantō' (湾刀), a curved sword that resembled a bow.

Wantō led the development of the Tachi, a sword designed for cavalry use due to its curve. When slashing from horseback, the impact when cutting with a straight sword was strong and difficult to manage. By adding a curve, it became easier to slice by pulling rather than pushing, making it a more manageable weapon from horseback. 

Another unique feature of Tachi compare with previous Japanese swords, is the ridge line (shinogi 鎬). It is believed that swords with shinogi (Shinogi zukuri 鎬造り) were more robust and superior in cutting than the traditional flat blades.

However, as warfare shifted from horseback to foot soldier combat, swords evolved to become thinner, lighter, and less curved. This change gave rise to the 'Uchigatana,' a more practical sword for infantry, leading to the decline in the use of Tachi. This evolution reflects Japan's adaptation to changing warfare needs over the centuries.

The Shape of Tachi

The shape (姿) of Tachi changed over time. Each period had its own unique style:

Late Heian to Early Kamakura Period: Tachi was slender and elegant. It had a strong curve at the base, known as 'koshizori' 腰反.

Kamakura Period: The Tachi became robust and grand. It was straighter with a middle curve ('nakazori'中反), wide and thick, with a shorter point ('chukissaki'中切先). This period faced challenges in sword making due to issues like heavy weight and brittleness.

Late Kamakura Period: Influenced by the large Chinese swords used by the Mongol invaders, Tachi became more extravagant yet lighter, with a longer point, making it better for thrusting. This period saw technical and artistic advancements in sword making.

Nanboku-chō Period: Tachi became very large, with blade lengths reaching 3 to 5 shaku (91 to 150 cm), likely carried on the back or by servants due to their size. These swords were lighter, with thinner cross-sections and grooves.

Early Muromachi Period: Tachi returned to a slender and elegant shape, moving away from the oversized style of the Nanboku-chō Period. Blade lengths settled around 72.73 to 75.8 cm, with a high curve and a slight forward curve near the tip (Sakizori 先反).

How to use Tachi

How to wear and display Tachi

When worn, the Tachi is hung from left side of the waist with the edge of the blade facing downwards. This orientation was particularly practical for samurai on horseback, enabling them to draw the sword quickly and efficiently during combat.

In displays, such as in museums or private collections, the Tachi is typically shown with the blade pointing downwards and handle pointing left. 

How Tachi was used

One common misconception about Tachi, or all katana swords, is that they are extremely sharp and able to cut thought anything. But that isn't correct, at least not entirely correct. Tachi in ancient Japan, was more about "striking" than "cutting", we will explain more:

In the late Heian period, when Yumi was still the mainstream choice of weapon on battlefield, the use of Tachi on horseback increased a lot. From the Nanboku-cho to the Muromachi period, Tachi became more important in battlefield, When fighting enemies with Yari or Naginata, the lightness of the tachi was an advantage, allowing quick movements to exploit the enemy's vulnerabilities.

However, it was nearly impossible to kill a mounted warriors in full samurai armor with sword attacks only, so the focus was on striking power. The common way to use a tachi was to first hit the enemy's helmet (kabuto) to stun them, then jump in and use a Tanto to decapitate them.

Types of Tachi

Types of Tachi by the blade

Ōdachi 大太刀

The "Ōdachi" is a very long tachi, measuring over 90 cm (about 35 inches). It's also known as "Nodachi 野太刀". These tachi were sometimes offered to shrines, but samurai also used them in battles. Usually  high-ranking samurai use Odachi, and their servants would carry them during battles.

When a samurai needed to use an Ōdachi, their servant would either hold the sheath while the samurai drew the tachi out, or the servant would first remove the tachi from the sheath and then hand it to the samurai.

Kodachi 小太刀


The "Kodachi" is a small tachi, usually less than 60 cm (about 24 inches) long, first made in the middle of the Kamakura period. It might look like the "Wakizashi" because of its size, but it's different since it's shaped is more like a normal tachi.

Some people think Kodachis were just tachi re-made smaller, but they were actually made small from the beginning. The origin of the Kodachi has several theories: Nobles during the Kamakura period wanted a sword that was stylish and easy to carry, or Kodachi was designed for children or women for self defense.  However, there are not many historical records, so it's not clear exactly how they were used, we can only guess it's similar to Wakizashi. 

Different Tachi by Koshirae

Kebari-gata Tachi (毛抜形太刀)

Kebari-gata Tachi (毛抜形太刀)

Known as "Efu no Tachi" or "Noken", this sword has a blade and hilt made as one piece, with a unique hilt designed like ancient tweezers. Influenced by the Warabite sword, it was used by high-ranking samurai. Modern versions keep the tweezer design on the hilt.

Hyogo Kusari Tachi (兵庫鎖太刀)

Hyogo Kusari Tachi (兵庫鎖太刀)

Originally military gear, this style uses a chain-woven belt instead of metal hangers. Different from the "Long Covering Ring Tachi", its chain design evolved and became less practical.

Kuro Urushi Tachi (黒漆太刀) / Shirozukuri/Shirozaku Tachi (白造/白作太刀)

Kuro Urushi Tachi (黒漆太刀)

Covered in black lacquer, this style from the Nara period leaves some parts unpainted for a white effect. Worn by warriors and temple guards, it was also used by higher ranks in mourning.

Iwamono Tachi (厳物造太刀)

Iwamono Tachi (厳物造太刀)

A term for decorative and robust battle swords from the Kamakura period, known for their flashy design and solid build. The Hyogo Kusari Tachi is an example.

Nagafukurin no Tachi (長覆輪太刀)

Nagafukurin no Tachi (長覆輪太刀)

A type of Iwamono Tachi with a scabbard fully covered in metal sheeting and secured with long rings.

Hirumaki Tachi (蛭巻太刀)

Hirumaki Tachi (蛭巻太刀)

Part of the Iwamono Tachi, this style wraps the hilt and scabbard with a silver strip in a spiral, filled in with black lacquer. It was popular until the Muromachi period.

Kawatsutsumi Tachi (革包太刀)

Features a leather-wrapped hilt and scabbard, common in the Muromachi period, often with metal fittings for extra protection.

Kawamaki Tachi (革巻太刀) / Itomaki Tachi (糸巻太刀)

Kawamaki Tachi (革巻太刀) / Itomaki Tachi (糸巻太刀)

The hilt and scabbard are wrapped with leather (Kawamaki) or braided cords (Itomaki). Popular since before the Kamakura period, especially for larger swords, because of the better grip.

Famous Tachi:

太刀 銘 備州長船住景光

The "Tachi Mei Bishū Osafune Jū Kagemitsu" is an antique Tachi made by Kagemitsu, a famous sword maker from the Kamakura period. He lived in what is now Okayama Prefecture. Kagemitsu's grandfather started a famous group of sword makers, and his father was also a well-known sword maker. Kagemitsu was famous for making swords with very pretty steel and a special pattern on the blade.

太刀 銘 国行

The "Tachi Mei Kunikuni" is an antique Tachi made by Kunikuni, a famous sword maker from the middle of the Kamakura period. He worked in what is now part of Kyoto. Kunikuni started a well-known group of sword makers. He made two types of swords: one was big and strong, and the other was slim and pretty. This sword is one of the slim and pretty ones.

太刀 銘 来国光

The "Tachi Mei Raikuni-Mitsu" is an antique Tachi made by Raikuni-Mitsu. He was a famous sword maker in Kyoto from the late Kamakura period to the Nanboku-chō period. He was the grandson of another famous sword maker, Kunikuni, and related to Raikuni-Toshi, who was very important in their sword-making school. Raikuni-Mitsu made swords that were bigger and stronger than Raikuni-Toshi's, including many long and short swords.

Tachi VS Katana (Uchigatana)

The Tachi and Uchigatana are two types of traditional Japanese swords with notable differences:

Length Difference: The Tachi is generally longer than the Uchigatana. Tachi swords were made in earlier periods, like the Heian and Kamakura eras, and were designed for use by cavalry. The Uchigatana, developed later, is shorter, making it more suitable for foot soldiers and allowing for quicker and more flexible movement in close combat.

Usage Difference: The Tachi was primarily used by samurai on horseback and was effective for downward strikes against infantry. The Uchigatana, on the other hand, was more versatile and used by foot soldiers. It was well-suited for both stabbing and slashing, providing more flexibility in different combat situations.

How to Wear and Display Difference: Tachi were typically worn hang from the waist with the edge facing down, a style that facilitated drawing the sword from horseback. The Uchigatana was worn thrust through the belt with the edge facing up, allowing for a faster draw and immediate strike capability, which was essential in close-quarters combat.

In summary, the Tachi is a longer, earlier sword type used mainly by mounted samurai, while the Uchigatana is a shorter, later-developed sword worn by foot soldiers for its versatility and quick-draw capabilities.

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