European Longsword vs Katana?

Ryota galloped across the planes after the foot soldiers.  While it was difficult to fire his bow at anything accurately, the enemy soldiers were so numerous that he was sure to hit something. As he continued riding, his horse stepped in a pit in the ground and threw Ryota into the mass of soldiers colliding at the boundary of the two armies.  As he hit the ground, a little dazed, he saw a man approaching quickly, holding a kanabō (steel club). Knowing he might have only seconds to live, Ryota pushed to his feet, wincing at the pain ...

Gavin heard the arrows wizzing over his head from the archers in the rear and saw the line of horseman charging toward him.  He anchored his pike in the ground, one of thirty men whose job it was to hold the line. As the line of calvary reached him, he felt the pike bend as it absorbed the weight of the horse driven onto it.  The horse’s rider jumped off and drew his weapon. Gavin quickly dropped the now-useless pike and drew his own sword…

This question of which is better: the European Longsword or the Katana has been around for as long as sword enthusiasts have known about both swords.  But two important but often neglected facts are that the environment in which they were developed and the circumstances in which they were used were very different.

Samurai

Japanese Samurai carried Katanas as sidearms, similar to how officers in the west often carried swords even after the event of firearms.  It was a mark of identity and not normally used as a primary weapon. However, it was a secondary weapon that could be used in a pinch if the main weapon were damaged or destroyed, thus it was made to be easy to draw and strike with one fluid motion.

Soldiers in Japan wore uniforms that were made mostly of cloth or leather, with not much metal, at least until the introduction of guns.  Relatively shortly after firearms were introduced by the Portuguese, Japan entered a peaceful period and duels became more common that actual fights.  Because of this, the Katana was used mainly against lightly armed or unarmed opponents, and its design reflected that.

Soldier

Soldiers in Europe faced a very different situation.   In combat, the ability to stay out of range of one’s opponent while still being able to hit them gave a massive advantage.  As swords in Europe were more often used as primary weapons, their length could be longer without encumbering the bearer. Their opponents were also more likely to be heavily armored, making cutting less effective and thrusts more advantageous as it was easier to aim for the weak points in an opponent’s armour.

...As the man took one last step toward him, Rytoa drew his Katana in one smooth motion while stepping forward and to the man’s left side.  Holding the hilt with both hands he let the blade continue its motion while rotating the blade around a point between his hands. The blade slashed through the man’s armour and deep into his abdomen.  The man croaked in surprise, too stunned to raise his own weapon. Ryota quickly struck again, a killing blow, and the man crumpled before him.

...With the sword in both hands before him, Gavin looked ahead and to his left and saw the horse’s rider starting to get to his feet.  Gavin rushed forward, looking carefully around for any other enemy soldiers. As he neared the fallen rider, the man started to draw his sword.  Pressing the advantage, Gavin slashed at the man’s hands, causing the man to jerk them away from the hilt. Seizing the opportunity, Gavin grasped his blade halfway down its length and quicky thrust into the man’s armpit, instantly causing the man’s arm to go limp and begin bleeding profusely.  Knowing the man would not last more than a few minutes, Gavin quickly retreated back to the line lest he be caught unaware by another soldier.

Comparison

For the purposes for which they were designed and where they were used, each weapon was superior in its own environment.  But that’s not what you want to hear. So let’s rank each sword based on a few important factors and try to determine which one scores highest.

Cutting

Considered by some to the finest cutting weapon ever designed, the katana wins hands-down here.  Made of harder steel, the Katana flexes less than a longsword and can hold a sharper edge, allowing more force to be applied consistently across a smaller surface area.

Thrusting

Here it’s not as clear-cut.  The Longsword and Katana are both designed for thrusting, however, the Longsword has one of its balance points at the point of the sword, allowing the user to move the sword around easier without moving the point.  Thus, for this round I’m going to give it to the Longsword.

Attacking Variability

The Katana is a single-edged weapon, while the Longsword is double-edged.  The Katana has a bit of advantage in speed, but the double-edge of the Longsword allows the user to use a larger variety of techniques to continually threaten an opponent.  Thus, here I’m going to give it to the longsword.

Defensive Ability

One of the biggest vulnerabilities in swordfighting is the hands and forearm.  These are extended forward with the sword, and if injured, could quickly signal the end of a battle.  Both swords have a guard for the hand, but the Tsuba of the Katana is designed more for offense: it keeps the hand from sliding down the blade in a thrust.  Guards for longswords differed in that even the simplest had a large crossguard that helped protect the hand from forward attacks. The more complex guards would actually wrap around the hand, thus protecting it from all angles.  Both swords were good at parrying. Thus here, I will give it just barely to the Longsword.

Verdict

In this contest, the Longswords won 3-1.  However, while the European Longsword may be a better weapon for extended combat on the battlefield, it is important to remember that the Katana was as much a work of art as a weapon, and was a source of pride and identity for the Samurai.  Furthermore, it excelled in its purpose: serving as a backup weapon designed to quickly start and finish a fight against mostly unarmed or lightly armed opponents. Thus in their respective fields, each sword excels.