Compared to the English longsword, the Japanese Samurai sword, or Katana, looks dwarfish. Yet, no other bladed weapon is more mythical and legendary than the 8th-century Nippon creation (except perhaps Excalibur).
The Japanese Katana might be shorter than its Western counterparts, but this pride of the Rising Sun and Orient Seas can outclass other medieval swords.
But, how long is a Katana? And why do we see different Katana lengths? How about the dimensions of the Katana components or elements, such as the blade, scabbard, handle, and sword guard?
What would we consider the average or “ideal” length of Katana swords? Does length matter in a Japanese Katana? How do you measure Katana length? And more importantly, how do you pick the right Katana length for your needs?
This article answers these questions and offers other insights into the mystical world of the Katana through one of many dimensions – its length. Let us start.
3 Katana Lengths
The Katana, or Samurai sword, is a medieval weapon originating from 8th-century Japan. Warriors during the Heian Period needed a curved sword to replace the straight-edged Chokuto.
The requirement saw Amakuni develop the Tachi, the Katana’s predecessor, giving rise to a single-edged, curved sword. The Tachi proved quick to draw, making it an excellent weapon for mounted warriors (those on horseback).
The Muromachi Period saw the development of the Uchigatana, making the Tachi’s blade curve less pronounced. Two Uchigatanas were available – one short (Wakizashi) and one long (the Katana).
There’s actually a third one.
However, before we dig deeper into the three Katana lengths, it’s vital to understand the Shaku.
The Imperial measurement system was only available in 1826, while the Metric system predates it by more than three decades in 1795.
So, the medieval Japanese couldn’t provide precise measurements of the Katana and other Japanese swords in the values we understand today.
Instead, the ancient Japanese borrowed the Chinese Chi system to approximate Katana length. The Shaku reflects the distance between the pointer or index finger’s tip and the thumb’s outermost edge.
Today, we consider 1 Shaku approximately 30.3 centimeters or 11.93 inches. Samurai sword experts use the Shaku methodology to classify Katana lengths into three Samurai sword types.
These Japanese swords have a blade length exceeding 60.6 centimeters or 23.86 inches and can include the Katana, Tachi, Nodachi, and other types of traditional Daito blades. Katana swords exceeding 2 Shakus are popular in video games, manga, and similar media. Samurai warriors used these weapons as backups.
The Daisho and Wakizashi Japanese swords are excellent examples of a 1- 2-Shaku blade. These weapons have blades as short as 30.3 centimeters or 11.93 inches or as long as 60.6 centimeters or 23.86 inches, but never exceeding the mark.
Warriors carry these weapons with the cutting edge facing up, allowing lightning-quick draw-and-slash action in one swift motion. Its relatively small size makes these Samurai swords a worthy backup weapon.
These Katana swords are the smallest, never exceeding 30.3 centimeters or 11.93 inches in blade length. Examples are Tanto blades and daggers, making them ideal for self-defense. These bladed weapons’ short lengths also make them suitable for children.
Lengths of Katana Elements
It’s worth pointing out that the three Katana lengths discussed above only reflect blade length. There’s also the hilt (the sword’s handle), sword guard, and scabbard. These components have their respective lengths, contributing to the overall Katana length.
The Katana blade or Nagasa measures at least 60.6 centimeters or 23.86 inches from the blade’s base to the tip and can extend up to 80 centimeters or 31.5 inches. It is not uncommon for some Katana-kajis (traditional Japanese swordsmiths) to create a longer Katana, but these are rare.
The Katana hilt or sword handle is about half the blade length. If one looks at the Samurai sword from the side along its horizontal axis, the hilt will be about a third of the Katana overall length. The Tsuka is about 30 centimeters long or about 11.8 inches, making it ideal for a two-handed grip.
Sword guards protect the hands from accidental cuts while also safeguarding the user against attackers wielding a bladed weapon. The Katana sword guard measures 6 centimeters or about 2.4 inches across its widest section. It’s worth noting that most Tsubas are disc-shaped, while others have a rectangular form with smoothened or rounded corners.
Because the scabbard or Saya protects the Katana blade, it should be slightly longer than the blade length. Hence, if one has a 60.6-centimeter or 23.86-inch Katana blade, the Saya must be at least 61 centimeters or 24 inches.
It’s worth pointing out that Katana scabbards are blade-specific. One cannot borrow someone else’s Saya to protect and carry the Katana because it won’t be a perfect fit. This observation explains why Samurai swords always come in sets. The components are not interchangeable.
Lengths of Katana components. Photo by The Met Museum.
Average Length of the Samurai Sword
Sheathing the Nagasa into the Saya can produce a Katana that measures about 100 centimeters or 39.8 inches from the Tsuka’s tip to the Nagasa’s pointed end. Hence, the Tsuka can range from 25 to 30 centimeters or 9.8 to 11.8 inches, while the Nagasa extends from 60 to 70 centimeters or 23.6 to 27.6 inches.
The 100-centimeter or 40-inch Katana overall length is ideal for the average Samurai warrior standing between 155 and 160 centimeters or 61 and 63 inches. This Katana length is perfect for exceptional control and remarkable power.
However, it’s worth noting that Katana length varies across traditional Japanese bladesmith schools. Katana-kajis might have their respective interpretations of the “perfect” Katana length.
How Length Influences the Katana
We know how long is a Katana. But do we know why length matters? Here’s a look at how Katana length influences three crucial factors.
Authentic Katana swords weigh about 900 to 1,200 grams or about 2 to 2.6 pounds. They feature Tamahagane steel, mined and forged from ancient iron sand or satetsu deposits. Like everything else, the longer the Katana, the heavier it is.
This attribute is the product of Katana weight and length. Heavy objects are more challenging to move and control than lightweight ones. Hence, swinging a hefty Samurai sword is dangerous to the user and anyone training nearby. Holding a big Katana is awkward and doesn’t look like a Katana.
Likewise, a Katana that’s too small robs the user of the Samurai sword’s immense capabilities.
Katana origins dictate that Samurai warriors be proficient in the art of Iaido. This martial art technique requires the Samurai to draw the Katana and strike or slash an enemy in one fluid and swift motion.
It demands the Samurai to pull the Katana from the Saya and slash it straight against an opponent without unnecessary moves and with lightning speeds. It would be easy to imagine how an extra-long Katana can reduce the speed of drawing the sword out of the Saya. And this can mean the Samurai’s end if the opponent is quicker on the draw.
Moreover, shortening or extending the Nagasa (Katana blade) can shift its center of mass, reducing the Samurai sword’s power.
Choosing the Right Katana Length
Although the average Katana length is about 100 centimeters or less than 40 inches, different variations exist. So, how do you find the perfect Katana length for you or someone you wish to gift?
Standing Katana Method
Grab a Katana and hold it freely at your side. The ideal Katana length places the Saya’s (scabbard) tip slightly above the ankle. Alternatively, you can check if the Saya tip is not lower than an inch (or about 2.5 centimeters) from the floor.
User Height Method
Many Katana shops offer a height-for-Katana chart. For example, a 6-foot, 1-inch person (about 185 centimeters) will do well to get a Katana with a 30.4-inch Katana blade length (about 77 centimeters). Meanwhile, a 26.8-inch (68.2 centimeters) Katana blade would be ideal for a 5-foot,1-inch-tall person (about 155 centimeters).
Measure your forearm from the wrist to the elbow. This distance approximates the Katana’s Tsuka (hilt or handle) length. Given that the hilt is about a third of the Katana overall length, you can multiply the result by 3.
For example, if the wrist-to-elbow measurement is 12 inches or 30.5 centimeters, the overall Katana length should be 36 inches or 91.44 centimeters.
Alternative Katana Method
Check out Bokken, Iaito, wooden Katana, and other Japanese sword alternatives. These objects are training or practice swords you can buy inexpensively. Try them out and notice their feel and fit. You can use these “perfect fitting” alternatives as a reference for getting an authentic Katana.
Measuring a Samurai Sword’s Length
Take a tape measure and position one end at the Tsuka’s section where it meets the Nagasa (blade). Extend the tape measure towards the Kissaki (the blade’s tip). Next, add 30 centimeters or 11.8 inches for the Tsuka or hilt length. These measurements will be your “ideal” Katana length.
The Bottom Line
“How long is a katana?” has no fixed answer. Everything depends on the user, whether they prefer it long or short. Crucially, Katana length matters because it influences the Samurai sword’s handling, control, and stability while ensuring the perfection of the Iaido martial art.