I had always been interested in swords, but it wasn't until I had watched the Kenshin OVA that I had become fascinated with Samurai and the Katana enough to buy a sword for myself. Like most people, I knew nothing about swords, and purchased several "wall hangers" off ebay. Wall hangers are objects that look like swords, but are purely for decorative purposes. Any 'Katana' made of 440 stainless steel and a rat-tail tang is a wall hanger. Usually, the seller will tell you it's stainless steel, or the blade itself will have it stamped on it's side. While stainless steel is good for knives, it is too brittle for objects as large as swords. A rat-tail tang means that the part where the blade goes into the handle is thin very thin and shaped like the tail of a rat. If you were to actually swing it, chances are the tang would snap and your stainless steel blade would become an airborne projectile.
Real swords are full tang and made of carbon steel, which is much stronger and can hold it's edge better than stainless steel. Traditional nihonto (Japanese Katana) were made of carbon steel that was folded multiples times in order to get rid of impurities. The blade was then differentially hardened so that the edge of the blade was harder than the spine. This allowed the blade to be sharper with better edge retention, while the softer spine would allow the sword to absorb strong impacts without breaking. The hardened edge is called the Hamon, and can take the form of many different patterns. While I would love to own a nihonto, a good one would cost about as much as a new car.
Luckily, modern day metallurgy has improved to the point where it is very easy to produce high carbon steel that is pure. The recent high demand for Katana means that there are many forges pumping out quality production Katana these days. It is pretty common to find decent Katana from $100-$300 USD, making it actually affordable to build up a collection of good swords.
Hanwei Tori Elite - $1349 USD Retail
I fell in love with the aesthetics of this sword the moment I saw it. The entire theme has a very subdued and traditional look. This sword is elegant and high quality, without looking gaudy like all the other swords on the market. Besides the great fittings, the blade is made of high end Swedish powder steel which has been folded to produce beautiful grain patterns. I had been wanting this sword for a few years, and finally managed to buy it brand new during a sale for 1/3 of its retail price.
The saya (sheathe) is unique in that it has a black lacquered rattan wrap for the top portion, and a speckled dark, dark brown finish for the rest. The rattan is stylish and provides better grip, while the textured finish prevents fingerprints and scratches from showing up. The mouth, tip and knob of the saya are made of buffalo horn. The tsuba (hand guard) has a flying crane which is where the sword’s name comes from, as Tori means “bird” in Japanese.
The tsuka (handle) is wrapped in brown leather which feels much nicer than the usual cotton wrap found on other swords. Real rayskin that had been dyed black was used, and the Menuki decorations are of kabuto helmets.
The blade has very fine hada (grain) patterns produced from the folding procedure, which look much like the grain patterns of wood. Traditionally, folding was done to get rid of impurities in the steel. Modern metallurgy has made pure steel easily attainable, so folding is only used for high end swords to make them more traditional. Because the tori was differentially hardened by a claying process, the edge of the blade is harder than the spine, producing a nice hamon.
There is a real yokote at the kissaki (tip) of the sword, meaning that there is an actual geometric change. On most production swords, the kissaki is simply counter polished because creating a real yokote is much more work. The overall blade geometry on the Tori Elite is quite different from most production katana on the market. It is a thin and wide blade that is meant to maximize speed and cutting ability. In the hands of a master swordsman such as Kenshin, this sword would quickly cut most targets with ease.
The Tori is an amazing sword with intricate details and high-end qualities. It is very subtle, classy, and traditional, and is my favorite production sword on the market.
Masahiro Bamboo - ~$80 USD Retail
This was my first real Katana, and it was such an awesome sword that it kind of spoiled me in terms of my expectations towards other Katana. The blade was very sharp and well polished high carbon steel. There is a fake hamon, but it still looked great because it was acid-etched instead of wirebrushed on. The fittings were simple and elegant, and made of some sort of darkened alloy that looked great. The handle came with real same (rayskin), which was wrapped with black cotton ito. The handle is longer than normal swords, at about 12 inches, with the menuki arranged so that they go under the palms, enhancing grip. There is a bo-hi (blood groove) along the blade, which makes the sword lighter and produces a whooshing sound whenever it is swung. This sword handles like a dream, cuts well, and looks awesome. It is still my favourite sword, but it is no longer being produced.
Cheness Delux Iaito - $200 USD Retail
After getting the Bamboo, I wanted to get a blunt sword that I could swing around without the risk of cutting or dismembering myself. The blade construction and bo-hi are of higher quality than the Bamboo, but the fitting were very plain and poor quality. My tsuba (hand guard) has cracked in several places, because of the weak alloy and delicate design. For over twice the price of the Bamboo, I was expecting a bit more.