In my book on Tameshigiri, I am describing a destructive sword testing session, ara-tameshi (荒試し, lit. “rough testing”) in Japanese. I would like to quote from this passage in my book and introduce two “rough tested” blades from that background that have survived.
It was the 24th day of the third month of Kaei six (嘉永, 1853) when Kaneko Chūbei Haku’on (金児忠兵衛伯温, 1818-1888), the arms and armor officer (bubu-bugyō, 武具奉行) of the Matsushiro fief (松代藩) in Shinano province held his ara-tameshi session at his premises. About 120 retainers of the fief had gathered at Kaneko´s residence. Ten of them were selected to act as witnesses and seven to perform the actual tameshigiri. Also present were two sword polishers (to fix bent blades etc.) and, in case someone got injured by a blade snapping, a doctor.
Twelve blades were subjected to ara-tameshi that day, and the testing commenced with Tsuge Kahei (柘植嘉兵衛), a naginata teacher, wielding an ara-nie-deki katana by Taikei Naotane (大慶直胤, 1778-1857) made in Tenpō six (1835). Two bamboo sticks were wrapped together and used as the testing object. The circumference of each bamboo stick was about 15 cm. When the blade struck the target, it penetrated about 80%. Obviously, this was not a complete cut. Then a retainer named Saitō Masukichi (斉藤増吉) tested this katana on a piece of metal that was 0.24 cm thick and 9.0 cm wide. The blade broke in two at an area of about 7 to 8 sun (21~24 cm) from the tsuba. The broken edges looked similar to that of an icicle, very brittle. This katana had been considered well made from its outward appearance…
The second blade tested was another a katana by Naotane. This blade had a nioi-deki hamon. It should not break as easily as the first one. After several cuts by Tsuge Kahei on straw wrapped bamboo sticks, a hagire developed and the blade bent. Five other people also tested the katana but none of them could make a complete cut on the straw wrapped bamboo targets. Takano Kurumanosuke (高野車之助) then took over the testing and used the katana to cut a jingasa helmet filled with iron sand. Another bend developed upon the first cut. Two more cuts introduced another hagire. Deer antlers were used as the next target and three cuts were performed. A piece of forged iron was also used for two cuts. This cutting of hard objects produced many hagire. After that, Kaneko Chūbei cut a kabuto with it and another severe bend was introduced. He then used the blade to hit an anvil, seven times on the mune and four times on both sides and the blade broke.
The third, fourth and fifth blades, tested on dry makiwara, were all nagamaki made by Naotane. They all bent and hagire developed after several cuts. The hagire on the 5th nagamaki, which was additionally tested on deer antlers, caused a big chunk break out of the cutting edge . However, the test continued and the blade was used to hit an anvil, three times with the mune and two times with both sides, and although it had this big opening, it just bent and did not break. Incidentally, these five blades by Naotane were made for the armory of Matsushiro Castle, i.e., they were not special order blades. As only the first blade “survived” the ara-tameshi test in a proper manner, Naotane blades were treated with suspicion amongst bushi for many years.
The sixth blade tested that day was a katana by Tatara Hirokazu (多々良弘一), a contemporary smith who worked for the Matsushiro fief. It was used to cut a piece of forged metal and the blade broke. The seventh blade was also a shinshintō, made by a smith named Asahi Kiichi (朝日喜市). It broke when cutting a kabuto. The eighth blade was a kotō nagamaki and the ninth was a kotō katana from the northern Ōshū region. These two were only tested on straw wrapped bamboo. The first performed well but the second bent strongly. Blade number ten was an unsigned Ōsaka-shintō katana. It was used to cut an ō-sukashi tsuba made of shibuichi with a thickness of 1 bu 3 ri (~ 4 mm). The blade broke in two upon impact at the monouchi section. The 11th blade was a katana by Tanenaga (胤長), a student of Naotane. A hagire developed after three cuts on the body section of an iron armor covered in leather. Thus, the crowd took away from that session that the brittleness of Naotane´s blades had been passed on to his student.
The twelfth and last blade was a katana made by Yamaura Masao (山浦真雄, 1804-1874). Like the Naotane above, it had a hamon hardened in ara-nie-deki. Now an ara-nie-deki was neither the strength nor corresponded to the style of Masao but it is recorded that such an interpretation was dictated by the Sanada (真田) family, the daimyō of the Matsushiro fief, upon the entrance examination for every smith seeking to be employed by them. Side note: Masao was eventually employed by the fief five years later, i.e., in Ansei five (安政, 1858). By the way, Masao was present at that cutting session and it is said that he wore a white kamishimo under his regular kamishimo because in case his blade failed, he would have taken off the regular kamishimo and committed seppuku on the spot.
The Masao blade was used to cut wrapped straw eleven times and each cut went about 80 – 90% through the target. Secondly, bamboo staffs were used for six cuts. Each cut penetrated 70 – 80% through the target. Thirdly, an old piece of iron that was 0.3 cm thick and 2.12 cm wide was used as a cutting target. The piece of old iron was cut in two pieces upon a single stroke of the sword. In the fourth step, deer antlers were used for six cuts. The fifth test conducted was to cut straw wrapped bamboo twice and the cuts went in about 60%. Then two cuts were executed on a jingasa filled with iron sand, an old iron dō, and a shibuichi-tsuba. For next three tests, again a shibuichi-tsuba, a piece of forged iron and a kabuto were each cut once. The blade bent upon hitting the kabuto but was straightened with an iron hammer, and the crowd was amazed that this blade had not yet broken. So far these tests were for testing the cutting ability and durability, but now it was time for the final destructive test phase. For that an iron bar was used to hit the mune seven times and a munegire developed. In the final test, the same iron bar was used to strike each side six times and the mune was used to hit an anvil thirteen times. The munegire became bigger upon the last test. The side of the blade was then used to hit the anvil three times and the blade finally broke in two. This demonstration showed how well Yamaura Masao´s blade withstood the harsh tests. It is said that they also had a nioi-deki blade by Masao ready to be tested next, but after they saw that his work in ara-nie-deki, which, as mentioned, did not even correspond to his preferred forging technique, did so well, it was decided that there was no need to test the other blade. And the very next day Masao received orders from the fief´s karō elder Sanada Shima (真田志摩) for one hundred nagamaki as Naotane´s had to be replaced…
Takase Ukō Shinkei testing a blade on a makiwara. Please note that he is using a kiri/tameshi-tsuka as introduced here.
Well, Naotane’s reputation was rehabilitated later by the publisher, author, hobby swordsmith, and swordsman Takase Ukō Shinkei (高瀬羽皐真卿, 1853-1924), who learned at a tameshigiri event that the Naotane blade he had at his disposal at that day actually cut pretty good – 8/10ths into a makiwara – and was not anywhere near of breaking at all.
In any case, the blades that I would like to introduce are shown below. They are both works of Naotane and were handed down within Sanada family, although they are not the ones used for the 1853 ara-tameshi session.. The first one, see below, is dated Tenpō six (1835) and is made in the Sōshū tradition. As you can see, the cutting edge has suffered pretty badly but the blade appears to be still pretty much usable, and is probably even restorable to a certain extent.
The second blade, shown below, is interpreted in the Bizen tradition. Here too, the cutting edge took some hits but it appears that apart from that, a nasty hagire had developed in the monouchi area, and maybe another one somewhat down (if I interpret that vertical line at the bottom of the oshigata correctly).