Tanto Blade – Powerful Small Japanese Swords

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Name:  Tanto
Blade Length: 15 to 30 cm
Handle Length:  14.28 cm
Weight: 0.50 kg – 0.63 (1.1 lbs. – 1.4 lbs.)
Used By:   Samurai Warriors
Function: Used for Stabbing especially for hard materials. Can be altered for better ergonomics
Place of Origin: Japan
Date Produced: Heian Period from 794 to 1185

Japanese Tanto – Everything you wanted to know

The Tanto blade is one of the oldest and most respected samurai weapons by Japanese and lovers of Japanese history. It is a weapon that often looks like a knife and many others looks like a small sword. And that, throughout history, has always accompanied the samurai in their lives as warriors.

The Japanese Tanto uses have varied significantly throughout history, alternating from combat weapon specialized in piercing armor, to weapon to carry out the famous seppuku, and in turn to ceremonial weapon to worship the gods.

In this page we will delve into everything that makes the Tanto blade so special. We will start with the Tanto history, observing its origins and uses in feudal Japan, its evolution throughout history, and then talk about the Japanese Tanto characteristics and uses in the past and in modern days.

Let us begin.

Japanese Tanto Blade
T10 Folded Clay Tempered Steel Tanto Blade

History of Tanto

The Tanto is one of Japan’s most famous traditional swords. Its uses have varied over the years, as have its designs and combat techniques.

From its creation, to its rise as a backup weapon, to its struggle to maintain its position -which was increasingly usurped by the novel Wakizashi-, the history of Tanto is a history of ups and downs.

But let’s start with the first thing.

Origin and creation of Tanto

The history of the creation of the Tanto —whose name means “short blade”— dates back to the mid-Heian period (794-1185). It was then designed to be a short-range murder weapon.

The Heian period was dominated by the Fujiwara family, who had seized power through their political strategies to exert control over the emperor. At that time, they were in charge in Japan.

But no mandate comes without opposition, and the Fujiwara family was threatened by many enemies. A wide variety of rebels and dissidents had risen up against them, growing in number and threatening their power more and more. With this reason, the Fujiwara began to relegate their security into the hands of professional warriors, capable of protecting their territories and facing their enemies.

Those men who served the Fujiwara, among other noble families of the time, defined themselves as “those who serve”. Definition that would be included within the word “samurai”.

With the increase in conflicts and the increase in levels of violence, the need for these warriors to be armed and ready for any kind of fight at any time had become vital.

Tanto Blades
Tanto Blades made of T10 Clay Tempered Steel with Rosewood & Ebony Wood Saya

At first samurai had their reliable Tachi, which had proven to be more than effective as a combat weapon in great open-field battles. However, this enormous sword had proved rather inefficient when it came to attacking and defending in confined spaces, where it could easily stumble upon furniture and see its efficiency hindered.

To remedy this problem a shorter personal weapon was created, no longer than a foot long. This new “small sword” was light and small, but strong, designed to stab an opponent in a close combat. Its name was Tanto.

Once the samurai established their military power in feudal Japan, the Fujiwara family was dethroned by the first sogun (the first military government). Then, at least for a period of time, the samurai experienced calm.

With these political changes, before the conflicts in Japan and the Mongol invasions were renewed, the history of Tanto blade would take a 180-degree turn.

This small sword, which had once been a vital weapon for samurai, gradually lost its value as a combat weapon and was transformed into a weapon much more ornamental in appearance and function.

During this time, different blade styles were developed in order to enhance the artistic qualities of the Tanto or to try to make it more relevant to combat. One of these would be the Nanboku-cho, which stood out for having a blade of about 40 centimeters.

During this time artisans experimented with different blade lengths, different hamon styles, and different types of steel. Sadly, however, all these modifications in the Tanto would not get this back to be seen as an ideal weapon for combat.

This changed, however, when the first attempts to unify Japan began to appear, replacing the violent clan war that had been going on for hundreds of years with a new way of doing politics. Who was in charge of this, and who went down in history as “the great unifier”, was none other than Oda Nobunaga himself (one of the most resonant names in Japanese history).

But just as in order to unify the yolks to make an omelette it is necessary to break a couple of eggs, in order to unify a country plagued by clans at war —sunk in grudges, dramas, and plots of revenge— it is necessary to break a few bones.

In these new periods of war, where a fight could take place anywhere, the Tanto again was a needed weapon. However, the quality of these was bad due to its mass production.

With the limited quantities of steel available, the Tanto became shorter and thinner. Many blacksmiths still made Tantos of quality, but the vast majority had simply given in to the pressures of unprecedented demand.

After the death of Oda Nobunaga, severe political conflicts, and the arrival of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tanto would receive one of its latest modifications.

Many advances in armament took place during this time. Among them was an improvement of the Katana and its now faithful companion, the Wakizashi; a combination that would be adopted as the favorite by the samurai, leaving the Tanto aside.

Suddenly, the Tanto was considered obsolete for battle. The need for it declined and its manufacture collapsed; the blacksmiths were now too busy forging Wakizashis. During this period, most of the Tantos that were forged had artistic purposes, many imitations of great blades of history.

When World War II came, there was a renewed fervor to emulate the ancient warriors. The ancient weapons of the samurai were in demand again, and Tantos experienced a momentary resurgence. It was short-lived, and the quality of those mass-produced Tantos was very low.

However, after Japan’s defeat to the Allied forces, the production of weapons, and especially those associated with strong political movements, was banned.

The history of the Tanto would have ended there were it not for the combined efforts of thousands of people throughout the world to see these swords re-emerge. Thanks to which, from 1960 to the present day, it is possible to obtain authentic Tantos as the samurai would have used in feudal Japan.

Samurai Tanto
T10 Clay Tempered Tanto with Burgundy Saya

Changes in the design of the Tanto

Throughout history, and especially during its “golden age”, many different designs have appeared for it. Some of them have a clear benefit, like piercing armor, but others seem made like that just for style. In this section we will take a look at some of its variations.

Shinogi: This is a common design for swords, but rare to see in a Tanto. If a Tanto somewhat possesses this blade design, chances are it was created from the remains of a larger sword.

Hira: These are usually the most common ones. They do not have shinogi (that line that runs through the blade of the sword, characteristic of Katanas). That’s why most of them are flat.

small japanese Tanto sword Shobu: Tanto with this blade similar to shinogi are more common. Unlike the shinogi, which has a more abrupt finish, it curves progressively at the tip of the blade, giving a smoother finish.

Kanmuri-otoshi: The Tantos with this design are similar to those with a hira or shobu design, with the only difference that they have a second edge at the top near the tip of the blade.

Unokubi: It’s unusual to see a Tanto with this design. Its back becomes thinner in the middle of the blade. Usually it also comes with a small groove. Apparently, these Tantos would have been pretty fast, but not good for a fight against an armored enemy. Due to its scarcity, this is also one of the most expensive designs when it comes to antique swords.

Kissaki-moroha: This is another type of Tanto very rare. It also has a double edge, like the one mentioned above, but with the difference that here it is more curved. Sometimes they come with a wide groove in the middle. These little swords would have been used for slashing and chopping.

Hochogata: One of the favorites of the legendary Masamune. It is like the hira, but shorter and wider. It allows fast stabs, but, unlike the one above, it can’t be used for slashing.

Osoraku: In the middle of the blade, this type of Tantos have a long and pronounced o-kissaki. That gives to it a recognizable design.

Katakiriha: This is a rare type of Tanto, with an asymmetrical edge on only one side of the blade. It’s characteristic edge makes of this a unique design.

Moroha: This is another double blade, with the difference that it has a thick diamond shaped center. This adds to the blade a extra consistency, and makes it look strong.

Kubikiri: This is one of the rarest Tantos. It has a curved design, similar to the famous kukri. It also does not have a sharpened tip, so it does not serve to stab. It is known as a “head cutter”, and just looking at it is easy to identify why. Its shape is perfect for severing, but it doesn’t seem too effective in combat. In fact, it is believed that those who owned it were doctors or high-ranking officials.

Yoroi toshi: This Tanto is specifically made for penetrating armor and has a thick cross section in the body.

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Characteristics of Tanto

The Tanto, depending on the size of its blade, can be considered both a knife and a short sword. Its blade is single-edged, although there have been cases of double-edged Tantos, and the size of this varies from 5.9 inches (15 cm) to 11.8 inches (30 cm).

At first, the Tanto is a sword for stabbing, but its sharp edge can also be used for cutting. Thus, they can be used even in cutting test as tameshigiri, cutting cleanly through tatami. Some Tantos, in the other hand, are designed completely straight and with particularly thick cross sections with the aim of penetrating armor.

It should also be noted that most of the Tanto are produced without that thick line in the blade that gives its particular shape to the Katana (ridgeline), so they are usually flatter.

The size halfway between a knife and a sword of the Tanto makes it an ideal combat weapon for enclosed spaces, or even an excellent choice to use it a self-defense weapon in varied situations. Some Tantos are even so small that they can be carried inside the folding of the clothes —thing that may have been done during the feudal japan—.

This is a fast weapon, with a longer range than most knives, but not big enough to be a nuisance to use.

Clay Tempered Tanto Blade
T10 Clay Tempered Tanto Blade with Rosewood Saya

In addition to this, thanks to its consistent structure, it is a weapon that can withstand a lot of damage and many types of blows without resenting. It has no weak points, unlike other knives, in which it is especially vulnerable. This doesn’t mean that it can be used a some of those “survival knives”, but it surely can endure a lot of damage, so it’s definitely a blade in which one can trust.

In case of a combat, the Tanto can be used either in the conventional way or grabbing it with an inverted grip, which decreases its range, but improves its defensive capacity, and makes it ideal in hyper closed environments, when you have the enemy so close that you can feel his breath.

The Tanto is a weapon that successfully combines the best of a portable weapon, such as a knife, with the range and power of ancient samurai swords, such as the Katana.

And also, just as the Katana, it’s a form of art; with its engravings, its ito and ray skin, its designs for the blade.

It is as beautiful and emblematic as it is lethal.

Tanto with Choji Hamon
Clay Tempered Tanto with Choji Hamon

Getting to Know More about the Tanto Blade

Throughout the world, there have been knives made by different cultures, however, what makes Tanto stand out is its style. Tanto blade is used at close quarter combat. Japanese Tanto is a perfect specimen of a superior blade.

This is a Japanese dagger that is worn on the sleeve or belt. The intricate process of forging, folding, differential heat treating and extensive polishing to create such a unique blade makes it a work of art.

The Tanto might be a thing of beauty but, it is lethal when used during close quarters fighting. This knife is a perfect example of form and function. No less than the American market has a close fascination with this genre of legendary swords of the Samurai.

Custom Tanto
You Can Create Your Custom Tanto Here

Classifications of Tanto

Samurai Tanto can be classified based on its different blade shapes and mounting styles:

  • Tsuba – that has a hand guard
  • Aikuchi – Style which uses no hand guard
  • Hamadashi – style that has a small hand guard

Among these three mounting styles, Aikuchi and Hamadashi style are more popular than tsuba. The use of tsuba is not popular because it creates a hindrance in carrying the Tanto blade.

Bear in mind that Samurai Tanto is not use in fencing hence there is no need for a guard like those found in tsuba. In terms of shape Hira-zukuri is the most common shape. This type of shape is specifically designed for armor piercing where the blade is narrow and is very thick.

This shape allows the blade to penetrate even hard armor. The traditional Japanese Tanto short sword uses the blade geometry of a normal blade with curve edge and flat back. This back is dull to allow the fingers to concentrate force.

This makes the Tanto heavy and strong for its size. An advantage of having this shape allows this knife to be capable to chop, pick and slice.

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Unusual Tanto

  • Fan Shape. This simulates a folded Japanese fan. These have low grade blades although there are cases when there are manufacturers who produce good quality ones. Legend states that this style was used by women and retired Samurai. In some cases even doctors and monks use this unique knife. Since it does not look like a weapon whoever carries it feel safe because it is conspicuous even if they are arm
  • Ken. Rare type with double edged blades. This is made for Buddhist rituals. Some top swordsmiths made these are offerings for different temples
  • Pistol type. These are considered as rare as well. The pattern that inspired this knife came from the matchlock gun introduced by the Portuguese during the 15th century. These were used for military combat and as a form of personal defense
tanto blade
T10 Clay Tempered Tanto with Full Ray Skin Saya and Handle

Tanto Evolution

The Tanto was invented in the Heian period. However, it was during the Kamakura period when this knife was forged to look aesthetically impressive. The more popular styles includes hira and uchi sori.

In the middle of the Kamakura period, more artisans were seen which create an abundant supply of this weapon. The designs were wider and longer. Hachiman faith inspired carvings on the hilt. Even the length was forged to be as long as 40 centimeters as opposed to the standard length. The blades became thinner.

Two styles of hamon were employed which are: older style; subtle and artistic and the new style; more popular one. During the Muromachi period, due to constant fighting there rose a demand in the production of these blades. This only mean lower quality blades. Blades must be custom forged to avoid failing. At the end of this period, the average blade became narrow and the curve shallow.

Tanto On The Battlefield

The Tanto blades was used by warriors to penetrate feudal era armor when they were up close and grappling their opponent. You can see some Samurai art depicting this scenario where warriors are engage in such a struggle.

A part of the Samurai training is devoted on learning how to do grappling in armor. Even if the Katana and Tachi were more popular than Tanto these swords are not designed for armor piercing purposes.

The kissaki Japanese swords for instance were design for cutting points. the Tanto knife was designed to serve a greater purpose. Tanto can be used both for slashing and stabbing. Even Samurai women were taught how to use the tanto.

This hopefully protects them from those who will attempt on their honor or anybody who might want to take their life. Tanto is also used by Samurai men to commit seppuku or ritual suicide. This only happens when their honor is at stake or circumstances dictates that it is the only option that they have.

Suffice to say, that the Tanto has serve the Samurai throughout the centuries during close quarter battles.

Peace Time Onwards

Two hundred fifty years of peace unified Japan. This means there is less need for Tanto. There were less Tanto forged.

The only ones produce during this time were copies from the earlier era. During the Meiji period when the Emperor was restored to power, members of the Imperial Court began wearing this knife once more. This gave way to the growing number of existing knives of this kind.

However, during World War II, restriction was place on forging this knife causing production to go down. It was actually the demand from the American and European market that created a demand for Japanese Tanto from the 1960s up to the present.

There is a difference in the Westernised knife. It has somewhat chisel like point which is thick towards the point.  This makes the spine that strong. At this point it has similar points on most Japanese long and short swords.