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A tantō (短刀, "short sword") is one of the traditionally made Japanese swords (nihonto) that were worn by the samurai class of feudal Japan. The tantō dates to the Heian period, when it was mainly used as a weapon but evolved in design over the years to become more ornate. Tantō were used in traditional martial arts (tantojutsu). The term has seen a resurgence in the West since the 1980s as a point style of modern tactical swords, designed for piercing or stabbing.
What is Tanto?
The average blade size of tanto is only 5.9 to 11.8 inches (15 to 30 cm), making it the smallest traditional Japanese sword. However, it was still a weapon commonly used by warriors throughout the region during the feudal period. Many samurai wear tanto around the belt (obi) and use it in melee scenes.
Tanto was invented in the Heian period (794 to 1185) in Japan. During this time, the samurai found that a smaller "mate" sword was needed. Before the invention of tanto, the samurai carried a larger sword, such as a katana. Although effective in open spaces, katana is difficult to use in small spaces, which prompted the swordsmith to create a new and smaller sword: tanto.
In the mid-Heian period, most samurai began to carry long swords such as katana . This versatile combination allows the samurai to fight in small spaces and open spaces.
Tanto design improvements
After the Heian period, swordsmiths perfected the design of tanto. Swordsmiths began to add additional aesthetic features to the tanto, such as the carving on the handle and the pattern on the blade. They also used higher-quality steel to create stronger, more versatile blades. For example, instead of using standard steel, they use tamahagane steel. Due to the higher carbon content, tamahagane steel has higher strength and durability, thus achieving a better all-round tanto.
Like many traditional Japanese swords, tanto began to fade away. In the late Edo period, only a few swordsmiths still produced this iconic traditional sword. One of them was Masahide Mizushin. Today, tanto is no longer used for combat purposes, but for collection and martial arts.