I believe it was the great Monty Python who made famous the phrase, “And now for something completely different.” If you have ever read this blog, you will know that this article fully qualifies.
I enjoy watching the Military History Channel, and for whatever reason I particularly enjoy the programs dealing with ancient warfare. And so when I noticed that a program about the great samurai swordsman Miyamoto Mushasi was just starting, I watched it with enthusiasm.
At some point, the question occurred to me: how would a Japanese Samurai fare against a European knight, and vice versa? And, in this modern age where vast amounts of information are instantly available to curious minds, all I had to do for immediate gratification was to take out my gizmo and enter the question and hit enter.
I examined about a dozen sites before drawing a few conclusions. I had expected that there would be an overwhelming favorite in such a matchup – and there was. But I was surprised at who that overwhelming favorite turned out to be.
In short, it turned out to be the European knight (this link merely being one example where a lot of individual opinions were offered). I had expected that, given the mythological treatment that Hollywood has given to Asian fighting styles in general and Japanese samurai and ninja warriors in particular, that most people would say without batting an eye that the samurai would cut through the knight like a shiskabob wrapped up in tinfoil.
I found what I learned interesting, and thought I’d share it with whatever small segment of the universe cares about such topics.
Knights and samurai never got together as either friends or foes in the real world. And that was because they literally lived and fought in different worlds that didn’t even know the other existed. That said, both groups of warriors were the absolute best in their respective world. And they unceasingly trained themselves to fight the enemies of their respective worlds. Which is to say they never developed the sort of tactics that each would have had to develop were they to encounter the other.
Given my experience with Hollywood lore, it did not come as much of a surprise to learn that Japanese samurai were highly trained warriors. But I was surprised to learn just how incredibly well-trained the European knights (such as the Teutonic knights) truly were. Yes, as some point out, knights generally had to come out of the noble class – if nothing else for the reason that their horse, armor and equipment were so incredibly expensive – but becoming a knight was not nearly so easy as being born a noble. It turns out that these warriors began their training as early as the age of FOUR YEARS OLD by beginning their service as squires. Like the Japanese samurai – who also almost exclusively came out of the noble class as well for the same reasons – training did not begin with combat instruction, but upon learning a system of honor and duty.
In both cases, it took years of incredible hardship to master the training to serve as the most elite warriors in their worlds. And that training was reserved for men who had literally been born to it.
Let me put it this way: if you didn’t have an assault rifle on you, you would NOT have wanted to go up against EITHER of these warrior groups. Both were highly skilled killing machines.
Both groups of warriors had codes of honor and a determination to prove themselves worthy in combat to which they adhered to the point of fanaticism. Both lived to fight; and both LOVED to fight.
One of the reasons the Crusades came about is that there were no wars at the time, and bored combat-bred knights with nothing to do was a dangerous and explosive situation. One of the things that happened in 1095 was that the Pope made Europe’s problem with a professional warrior class the Middle East’s problem.
So in a battle between knights and samurai, who would likely have prevailed against the other?
On my view, the European knight would have been the victor. Let me explain why in a few key points.
First, allow me to argue by way of a couple of historical analogies: although “knights” and “samurai” never faced off against each other, history does actually provide what I argue is a similar matchup as we consider the heavily armored knights versus the comparatively more lightly armored samurai: the Spartans of the Greek city state – the elite of the Western world – versus the Persian Immortals who were the elite warriors of the Eastern world.
It must have been a massive shock to the eastern Persians to find warriors who could easily destroy what they had come to believe were the greatest warriors on earth. But the Immortals fell like wheat before the scythe against the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Spartans’ superior armor combined with their phalanx system of fighting were absolutely devastating to the Persian Immortals. The Immortals had simply never encountered anything like the Spartans and had neither the equipment nor the tactics to deal with their heavily armored enemies.
The second anaology actually comes from the greatest of the samurai swordsmen, Miyamoto Mushashi. In his most famous duel against the other greatest samurai of his day, Sasaki Kojiro, Mushashi was forced to confront the dilemma of his opponent’s incredible reach. That was because Sasaki Kojiro was famous for using an unusually long katana sword. Musashi ended up overcoming this dilemma by fabricating his OWN even longer katana that he carved from a boat oar. Mushasi ultimate won the duel by psyching out his opponent and winning the duel of the fighter’s minds – and a key way he did so was to surprisingly turn Kojiro’s advantage into a disadvantage.
I’ve watched a number of fights and duels, and whether we’re talking about boxing or some other hand-to-hand form, or whether we’re talking about weapons, having the advantage of reach over your opponent is incredibly significant. If you have the reach advantage, you can literally strike at your opponent without exposing yourself. While not insurmountable, you are simply on very dangerous ground if you find yourself holding the shorter weapon in a fight – whether those weapons be arms and fists or swords.
And thus it becomes significant to note that a Japanese katana – used by the shorter Japanese – was usually 36 inches long, versus European broadswords that usually measured between forty and fifty inches. Even the four inches of difference is significant. But when it’s a full FOOT it’s huge. Imagine how hard it would be to land a punch on Shaquille O’Neal versus how easy it would be for that giant fist on that giant arm to smash your face to get an idea.
That said, analogies – even based on genuine history – can only take us so far, and so I’ll move on.
Let’s talk about the swords and the armor of each warrior.
Samurai swords are famous – to the point of mythology – for their quality and their razor sharpness. But it may be surprising to learn that an English broadsword cost the equivalent of $70,000 in today’s currency to make (and the cost of outfitting a knight with horse, armor and weaponry would have amounted to the price of a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood in today’s dollars). The European broadswords were incredibly fine weapons as well, believe me. They were longer and heavier than Japanese katana because the combat situations that the knights fought in necessitated a longer, heavier weapon. [And here let me point out that while fine Japanese battle katanas - which were produced in the tens or even hundreds of thousands during World War II - are numerous, actual combat broadswords are far, FAR more difficult to come by as they ceased being manufactured centuries ago. In any test between swords, any valid comparison would have to compare an actual combat weapon to an actual combat weapon, rather than comparing an actual Japanese combat katana to a "weapon" that was made to serve as a wall ornament. Take as an example the katanas WWII Japanese officers were issued. These were weapons intended to be actually used in combat. Versus the "swords" Marines were issued with their dress uniforms - which routinely sell on eBay for less than $40. And no: Marine officers and NCOs did not charge into Japanese lines waving their ceremonial swords, did they?].
I argue that the decisive issue to answer the question of broadsword versus katana isn’t the quality of the swords themselves – which itself is highly debatable – but the rather the types of swords that they were relative to the type of fighting that would need to take place were knights and samurai to face one another.
The Japanese katana was a curved weapon, ideal for a quick explosive draw from a sheath and ideal for slashing or cutting. In a “quick-draw” contest, the katana wins, hands down. A straight-bladed broadsword takes longer to draw from a scabbard.
To this day, katanas are all about their capacity to make incredible cuts. It was designed to be a slashing weapon rather than a thrusting weapon.
The problem is that slashing would have been nearly entirely ineffective against European plate armor. And the reason the knights didn’t use curved swords is precisely because they would have been ineffective weapons against other knights.
Their swords were straight and heavy-bladed weapons designed to pierce through rather than slash through armor and the few very small gaps between plates. It wasn’t that knights didn’t employ hacking/slashing/cutting techniques on a battlefield; it was just that they would have used a different weapon such as a mace to do it.
The European broadsword has the advantage in being sharp on both sides, which opens up the tactic of being able to attack from more angles versus a single-sided blade such as a katana.
I believe that were the Japanese to encounter armored knights, they would have quickly began to alter their swords. It isn’t that the katana is inferior to the broadsword, it is merely that katanas were never designed to face that sort of armor. And I would guess that a giant broadsword wouldn’t have been the ideal weapon in the Japanese world of the samurai, either.
It should also be stated at some point that neither the samurai nor the knights fought only with swords. Both warriors were proficient with a frankly mindboggling array of lethal hand weapons. Knights fought with swords, axes, lances, pikes, maces and hammers as just part of a very long list. These highly skilled warriors were capable of killing with damn near anything they could get their hands on. And the same was true for the samurai.
Now let’s discuss the armor. I earlier said that Japanese armor was “lighter,” but it – surprisingly – wasn’t lighter by very much. The Japanese armor was primarily made from leather and wood. And it turns out that leather is pretty darned heavy. Both suits of armor weighed in in the ballpark of about sixty pounds. Nor is the Japanese armor much more flexible. That isn’t because there’s anything wrong with Japanese armor, but rather it is a matter of how incredibly balanced and well-distributed the weight of a suit of European plate armor truly is. And the range of movement is simply remarkable. If you are ever fortunate enough to put on an actual suit of combat Medieval armor, you will feel a) invulnerable and b) badass.
The steel plate armor of the European knights was simply superior. Most likely because steel was simply available in considerably larger quantities in the West, it was used to make armor in the West and it wasn’t in the East. Obviously, today Japan has a huge steel industry, but it was very late to develop that industry relative to the West. Japan didn’t begin extracting iron until the 7th century AD, and they didn’t have a significant steel industry until the 19th century. The West simply had the technological advantage that had frankly began a millennia before, just as they continued to have it AFTER the age of the knights and samurai ended with the advent of rifles (which transformed the most base peasant into a knight or samurai killer without a great deal of training).
Technology is rather important (see here for that proof). And the Europeans had the advantage in armor technology.
Just to finish this point, when the Japanese began to trade with the West in the 16th century, it didn’t take them very long to acquire Western-style armored helmets and breastplates (i.e. the cuirass). Which is another way of saying Japan updated its outdated armor technology. But by then the knight in Europe had largely already been replaced by guns and had abandoned armor.
But there is more to say: the European knights and the Japanese samurai had entirely different uses on a battlefield.
Both were at their best on horseback. And it was on horseback that their true purpose was most revealed.
The European knights were the prototypical heavy cavalry – and there was no greater force on earth to charge an enemy phalanx shield wall such as had been developed by the previously mentioned Greeks and Spartans. Their impact on the battlefield was to mount a crushing attack an enemy formation with the aim of breaking apart its unit cohesion with crushing force, scattering if not routing the enemy in decisive charges.
You can only imagine it: a European knight cavalry charge, as something on the order of 1,500-plus pounds of armored muscle raced toward you at 35 miles an hour. And there was a nine to eleven foot-long lance pointed right at you. Roy Cox, an expert in jousting, calculated the force at the spear tip of that lance as being as much as 50,000 pounds per square inch. Can you even imagine that kind of devastating weight and power coming at you at that kind of speed? When the ultimate tanks of the ancient world came at you, you either got out of their way or you died.
And that unrivaled speed, power and force was the essence of the European knight.
That was why the knights evolved in Europe; they were the ultimate heavy cavalry of the age. Their purpose was to scatter an enemy formation. And there was no warrior on earth that could do a better job of that.
That was not how the samurai fought.
For one thing, the samurai were superb archers (this was a skill that the knights did not tend to learn, since Western fighting had developed a specialized class of archers known as longbowmen who fought in their own formations behind the foot infantry. They were specialized because like the knights, they were trained from childhood to reach their required skill level. So, if we wanted to, we could re-introduce analogies by returning to a different East meets West conflict a.k.a. the Crusades. The Eastern style of fighting was to use horseback-mounted archers, and the Western style was to use heavy cavalry to smash infantry formations.
Both tactics had their place on the battlefield. You can’t say that one was necessarily always “better” than the other because it depends on the terrain and frankly on the quality of the warriors employing either tactic. But suffice it to say that it is simply a fact that the knights had encountered the tactics that the samurai would have employed because they had fought eastern armies; whereas the samurai had never before seen the tactics of the knights. And I submit that the samurai would have been shocked and routed by the sheer shock and awe of a mounted heavy cavalry knight charge into their ranks. And I claim this supported by the fact of history that in the First Crusade, the knights prevailed because their horse archer enemy could not defeat the shock and awe power of a knight cavalry charge. Even when the knights were vastly outnumbered and even when they were on terrain that favored their enemy.
Here is a critical point that needs to be understood to understand what would happen were the samurai to meet the knights in battle: the knights had fought enemies from all over the world, and had confronted and been forced to adjust to the tactics of horse archers (note this is a Turkish source rather than a “pro-Crusader knight” source). The Japanese samurai never fought anyone but other Japanese samurai. They had nothing even close to the experience in fighting enemies from all over the world that the European knights had.
I state above that a knight would very likely have prevailed in a battle against a samurai, due largely to the superiority of his armor and the additional reach of his sword in addition to the superiority of the sheer power of his tactics. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the samurai would have done better in a duel in which neither participant was allowed to wear armor and fight with nothing but a sword. And this is not necessarily because the samurai would be the better swordsman, but rather because armor was more a part of the Western knight’s fighting style than it was of the Japanese fighting style. As an example, let’s say I am trained to fight with sword and shield (as the knights did), whereas you fight only with a sword (as the samurai did when fighting with katanas). If I use my shield, I will defeat you; but if I surrender my shield, I not only lose an important advantage, but I am at a disadvantage because I have always relied on my shield to block most of my opponents blows whereas you have always only used your sword to both attack AND defend. If we’re both using swords alone and I don’t get to use my shield as I was trained to do, you would likely be better trained to win that battle.
I would suggest that it is simply a fact that a better armored warrior taking advantage of his shield would be far better protected than a samurai – who did NOT fight with shields. The samurai did not use a shield because he also needed both hands free for his bow and because he used the katana as a two-handed weapon. Whereas the European knights DID have two-handed heavy swords, but could use them with one hand as necessary. And I submit that fighting with sword and shield is superior to fighting with sword alone – especially when your two-bladed sword has a significantly longer reach than does your opponent’s single-bladed weapon.
So who would have won in a battle between knights and samurai? I submit that the knight had the superiority of defense with his superior armor and his shield as well as the superior offense with his longer sword. I submit that a knight’s training made him every bit the equal of the samurai. And I submit that, if nothing else, victory would have come down to the superiority of the European knight’s extensive combat experience against many nations and fighting styles. They fought enemies from all over the world and learned how to instantly adjust in order to prevail, whereas the Japanese literally stayed on their island.
I didn’t write this article to in any way diminish the Japanese samurai. Rather, I wrote it to emphasize the incredible training and the magnificent warrior tradition of the European knight, which, due to a hostility to all things “Western” and “Christian,” have largely been overlooked if not despised. As a rather blatant example of this prejudice, I found it interesting that when I used the WordPress spellcheck, it recognized “samurai” but refused to recognize “knight” as a valid spelling term.
Update, August 21, 2014: I learned something about swords watching a program called “Ancient Impossible.” It was the Europeans – and by the way this episode traces the European knights to the times of the Romans who used “cataphracts” – who invented the first composite sword blades:
The Saxon super sword was the first effective use of composite metal in the world.
They used four layers of a mild, soft steel and combined them with three layers of a hard, high carbon steel. And they used their furnaces to melt these layers together and make one piece which combines the hardness of the carbon steel and the softness of the mild steel. The result was a process that combined hard steel for cutting with soft steel for strength. A sword made only of soft metal will bend. A sword made solely of hard metal will shatter. And they twisted them and wielded them together to create a blade that was capable of an incredibly sharp cutting edge but which would not shatter or break.
So the Samurai would have had yet another problem as they faced superior blades.
The cataphracts were fully armored heavy cavalry. The Romans got the idea from the Parthians after suffering a defeat when these first knights routed them. The Romans learned from their defeat and came back with their own cataphracts. And were victorious.
One of the interesting historical discoveries was that every single Roman unit had unique, brightly painted insignia on their shields, which would have identified each unit in battle. Every single Roman unit had their own insignia. But the catalogue of the Roman shield insignia notes NO shield insignia for the cataphracts. And that was because their armor was so impossibly powerful that these Roman knights didn’t use shields.
These heavy armored cavalry – and the horses were fully armored as well – were absolutely unstoppable in battle. They charged with heavy lances and switched to their unbreakable, razor-sharp swords when they shattered the enemy lines.
Just found that fascinating.