Test Cutting Assumptions

This Forum is a place for students of swordsmanship to ask advice from moderators Paul Champagne & Scott M. Rodell on how to practice test cutting in a manner consistent with how swords were historically used in combat. Readers use this Forum at their own risk.

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Test Cutting Assumptions

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Wed Sep 21, 2005 1:48 pm

Recently, I presented two talks on Chinese swords and swordsmanship at a sword smiths symposium. Two other historical swordsmanship traditions also presented talks and demonstrations, including one on tameshigiri, Japanese test cutting. The teacher demonstrating tameshigiri used two handed cuts to slice through bamboo staves, bamboo staves wrapped in grass mats, cat tails and into, but not through, a thick card board tube.



For anyone who has been around historical swordsmanship, this was not a particularly unusual demonstration. Test cutting is common to many types of historical swordsmanship. In China, swordsmen cut "grass men" (cao ren). However, tameshigiri is more widespread and systemize today than test cutting in other systems. Given that test cutting of other culture's swordsmanship is largely unknown by the general martial arts community, it is not surprising that the presenter's accompanying hand out included the statement concerning Japanese swords:



"Historians of swordsmanship have always been divided over the relative merits of swords that were designed as cutting weapons and swords that were used for thrusting All however agree that among swords primarily intented as cutting weapons the Japanese sword stands supreme. This partly due to the curvature of its blade, which allowed the very hard and sharp cuting edge to slice into an opponent along a small area, which would then open up as the momentum of the swing continued cutting through to the bone."



No offense is intended when I say these are questionable words as the events immediately following the tameshigiri demonstration showed.



As soon as the official demo had ended, people started out on to the field to try their blades on the left over halves of mat wrapped bamboo. None of these eager test cutters were trained swordsmen, yet many easily cut through their targets. One smith I observed wanted to test a short double edged sword of his. This sword was a replica of a Viking age sword and very similar in blade profile to Chinese duanjian. On his first, single handed swing, he cut clean through the target. In comparison to the longer and heavier Japanese katana, which was welded with two hands, any observer would be hard pressed to notice any difference in cutting difficulty or efficiency. Others were also on the field testing their knives, most with blades about 6 inches in length. As I walked by one, who was, slashing with his sheath knife, he remarked, "believe it or not, I just cut right through." I replied, "Why not?"



There are several useful observations that can be draw from the planned and spontaneous demonstrations. One is the notion that there is a great difference in effective cutting ability between a straight blade and a curved blade is false. Certainly, the geometry of a curve blade cuts more efficiently, but the observable difference is inconsequential given human strength and the targets cut. To put it crudely, a man shot through the heart with a 9 mm is just as dead as one shot with a .45, it doesn't matter the hole is a bit bigger or not. What is more likely is that swords were curved or not and of what curvature, based on planned use, not cutting ability. For example, cavalry sabers were more likely deeply curved not because they cut better, but because while slicing through a target from the back of a moving horse, one is less likely to have one's arm pulled out of joint by a more deeply curved blade than by a straighter one. Modern practitioners of historical swordsmanship need to look again at sword blade design from the stand point of specialized use, such as the Chinese goose quill saber (yanmaodao) verse the ox tail saber (nuiweidao) instead of the old cutting efficiency argument.



Also the above statement that "All agree" on the superiority of Japanese swords must be viewed as out of date. But perhaps the most important point to glean from these demonstrations is that we must test all our notions concerning historical swordsmanship. For many decades, Japanese swords and swordsmanship were all most were familiar with, practitioners of other types of swordsmanship were simply not known. Statements were made, taken on face value, and repeated until they became the gospel of swordsmanship. These impromptu tests should these statements to be either false or exaggerated. As the horizons of historical swordsmanship from all cultures spread, we should remember to put all statements of "fact" to the repeated test.[/i]

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semi-related question

Post by Cat » Thu Sep 22, 2005 10:49 pm

Do you do any work with test cutting at your seminars? (If this is too far off-topic, I apologize.) I have tried some test cutting on extremely soft targets, mainly milk jugs and 2-liter coke bottles, using a Kris Cutlery jian, a KC dao, and a Paul Chen dadao, and I have not been particularly impressed that any one blade performed better than the others. However, I freely acknowledge that this may be a reflection of the softness of the targets or my own lack of skill, rather than the merits of the blades in question.



I had planned to bring both a bokken and one of the GRTC practice jian with me to the seminar in Australia. Is there any point in bringing the KC jian as well, or would that just be wasted space?



Thanks,

~Cat

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Post by B.Ko » Thu Sep 22, 2005 11:29 pm

I have test cut 2L bottles with a KC Gim and a D.Guertin Bat Jian with 1070 steel with differential heat treatment. The bottles were filled with water.



POB for KC Gim about 4" from distal side of guard, 5" for D. Guertin Sword. I have actually bent the KC gim (mind you this was before I learned sword form) with a poorly placed blow. I find that with the KC gim my technique must be perfect (loose arm muscles, waist generating power, no 'muscling' that slows the blade or else it bounces off). With the Guertin sword, one hit...one cut bottle. This was with both edges of the sword utilizing proper movements from the form but it seems more forgiving to less than perfect technique



My theory is the more distal POB lends power to the cut, plus the superior heat treatment of the steel led to this. Sometimes I'm tempted to try with my antique jian which weighs about 2.5lbs but then common sense stops me!!! :wink:



At some point I'm buying pork parts and testing on those. I will keep on making sure I can cut the bottles with hit before I try more difficult stuff.

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Re: semi-related question

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Fri Sep 23, 2005 8:38 am

Cat wrote:Do you do any work with test cutting at your seminars? ... tried some test cutting on extremely soft targets...


I encourage student to practice whatever test cutting they can, but we don't get into it at seminars, most people just aren't that far along & most also do not have steel swords sharpened & up to the task.



In general, I would note that, I am much more impressed by cutting soft targets than hard ones like bamboo. Honestly, I do not find it difficult to use a short pi cut to slice cut thru 3" of 1 1/2 to 2" thick bamboo, but it is no easy task to do the same to 1/2" thick green tree limbs 6" away from the tree's trunk.



I've also found that while I have test cut far less than I would like & certainly far less than someone in my position should have, I don't have a problem when I do get the oportunity to test cut because I put my time in mindful basic cuts practice, paying attention to my blade angle at all times.


Cat wrote:...to the seminar in Australia...any point in bringing the KC jian as well...?


Its not necessary, but steel, even modern, less than prefect swords, play differently than wood, so why not bring it along.



Looking forward to meeting you in Australia...

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Test Cutting Knives Page

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Fri Dec 02, 2005 2:38 pm

As part of a sword product test I'm running, I've been doing a bit more cutting than I usually have time to squeeze into my schedule. Wondering who else might be doing this work, I came across this website concerning test cutting knives:

http://www.alliancemartialarts.com/testcutting.htm, food for thought...

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Post by josh stout » Tue Dec 06, 2005 11:43 am

Scott-

I have been meaning to ask you about cutting for a while now. Was cutting something that you were trained to do as part of learning the sword, or was it something you found you knew how to do as a consequence of your training? I don't think traditional Chinese styles teach cutting, though I could easily be wrong. I know that in the Qing military they had straw dummies to cut, but is there anything like this in the civilian or temple based styles? Are there Chinese styles that still teach cutting as a formal practice?



The Japanese styles seem to place allot of emphasis on breaking boards and cutting mats, while Chinese styles work on the movements alone. Was this due to legal restrictions, or is it more of an attitude where the ability to cut or break a board is just expected to come naturally? When I watched a Karate class breaking boards, I asked my teacher about this. He told me that I could break a board if I wanted. I tried, and breaking boards turns out to be surprisingly easy. Nevertheless, my teacher thought it was funny that I wanted to. In your experience, do traditional CMAs have a similar attitude toward cutting?

Josh
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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Tue Dec 06, 2005 3:21 pm

josh stout wrote:...Was cutting something that you were trained to do as part of learning the sword, or was it something you found you knew how to do as a consequence of your training?...


To my knowledge, there has not be a continuous traditon of test cutting in China as there has in Japan, & so all direct knowledge of this practice has been lost. When Master Wang was teaching basic cuts, I asked him about cutting practice. As you noted above, he said that in the past, Chinese practiced cutting on cao ren (straw men). I never had the oportunity to cut under Master Wang's supervision, but to tell the truth, I haven't found cutting to be difficult. During recent discussions with a friend who is an accomplished swordsmith, who tests his own work, I said I didn't find cutting bamboo to be very difficult & didn't find it that impressive. He told me that cutting bamboo of 1 1/2" diameter is about the same difficut as cutting thru bones & that I'm doing well if I can do it without difficult. I'm not saying this to brag, but because I believe this is relatively easy for me because I did my homework first. That is, lots of time with the basic cuts solo & mindfully practicing the forms. So yes, it is a consequence of my training. This is not to say that I haven't found cutting practice useful, I have. It helps one learn a great deal about mind intent, focusing power, the effect of different cuts, etc.

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Most Impressive Test Cut.

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Tue Dec 06, 2005 3:25 pm

I'd have to say the most impressive test cut I ever saw was a smith take a short knife, which was very, very sharp, cut cleanly thru a slack, hanging rope about 1 1/2" in diameter. He positioned the blade about an inch away from the edge of the rope & cut thru it with a flick of his wrist. Think about that the next time you watch a video of a test cut where the tester swings his or her sword thru an arc of about 290 degrees.

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Post by josh stout » Wed Dec 07, 2005 10:27 am

... lots of time with the basic cuts solo & mindfully practicing the forms. So yes, it is a consequence of my training. This is not to say that I haven't found cutting practice useful, I have. It helps one learn a great deal about mind intent, focusing power, the effect of different cuts, etc.


Thanks, that helps put things into perspective. Cutting is useful for testing ones skill and developing understanding of the martial applications, but it is not an end in itself in traditional CMA. Perhaps it was always that way, with the emphasis on cutting in the military being something of a shortcut (so to speak) that was not needed so much in styles where training had a longer time horizon. Many styles left China before the crackdown on overt martial techniques in the Cultural Revolution, yet none of them seem to have an explicit cutting tradition.

Josh
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Post by G-Man » Wed Apr 05, 2006 10:29 pm

Recently, Laoshi encouraged the sword students to get a free promotional DVD distributed by the company Cold Steel, which sells a variety of bladed weapons. The DVD consists mainly of them going through their catalogue (which includes Japanese katanas, Chinese single- and double-edged swords, Europeans swords, large knives, etc.) and performing cutting demonstations with each weapon to show off their quality. Each blade was tested against the same general set of targets, usually a hunk of meat, some bound cutting mats, and a wooden cut-out in the shape of a torso. What was telling from the POV of our practice is that all the blades faired equally well in application. A 10"+ butterfly knife cut through a tightly wrapped cutting mat as easily as the 30" katana; the same goes for their jian relative to the rest of their product line. For those (including myself) who had associated size, heft, and geometry with cutting power, this DVD showed that a sharpened blade of any type has more than enough cutting power to get the job done with ease.
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Cutting At Huanuo

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Sun Apr 16, 2006 3:31 am

Reporting in from Tunxi, China...



I'm traveling around China at the moment & last week visited the Huanuo Sword Factory & met the owner, Fred Chen. Not surprisingly we ended up cutting thru a pile of nice thick bamboo. Once I'm back I'll post some video of the cutting if it is clear & in focus.



In the meantime, I noticed one interesting difference between cuttng with a jian verses a fairly curved niuweidao. The jian always cut thru the bamboo (about 2" in diameter) well, as did the dao. But sometimes, when the bamboo didn't fit tightly in the stand, it slipped back when being cut by the curve bladed dao. In these cases the bamboo was typically cut about 3/4 of the way thru from the front to the back as it slipped away from the curved blade. This never happened with the straight bladed jian. This might have been a consideration when attempting to cut an armored target, some food for thought...

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Re: Cutting At Huanuo

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Fri May 12, 2006 3:15 pm

Scott M. Rodell wrote:...visited the Huanuo Sword Factory & met the owner, Fred Chen. Not surprisingly we ended up cutting thru a pile of nice thick bamboo. Once I'm back I'll post some video of the cutting...


The video is up at:

http://www.grtc.org/video/huanuocutting.html

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Post by Tomita » Wed May 17, 2006 2:22 am

It is a nice clip, and I found the pointers about not letting the blade go wild very neat. Getting ready for a follow up is something I always tend to look out for, be it with a sword or a staff.



Thank you for putting it on site, laoshi...



Kind regards,



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Post by ben hanawalt » Wed Jul 26, 2006 8:11 am

I went to the coldsteel to check out the dvd, (which looks awsome) but while there started looking at the machetes. My jian was made by kris cutlery. And (for my budget) was extremely expensive. so Im a little leary of using it for test cutting.. and a walmart machete was so cheaply made as to be almost unusable. I don't have a file set to check, but a spark test would say it's not even a highcarbon steel... =( -maybe- 30 points. but cold steel had an extensive line of machetes, for around $20 dollars (that equals 5lbs of rice, 6lbs of beans and a case of beer, so Im a bit undecided as yet)



My question would be. Has anyone on the forum checked them out? I thought perhaps to send one to Laoshi for the 'Roddell Ringer'. It would be fairly amusing to me to see the review next to the battle dao =)



Russian thistle, and cockle burs have been my duifang of choice. (no herbicides for me. Im saving the environment, one pi cut at a time.) and they fold the edge a bit on my kris jian. =( so any advice, on this or another good inexpensive blade for test cuts would be awsome.



Thanks!
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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Thu Jul 27, 2006 11:37 am

ben hanawalt wrote:... a walmart machete was so cheaply made as to be almost unusable...


Anything that cuts can be used for training, just make sure you do a structural integrity test first to make sure it is sound. Many machete will work for cutting practice, look for one that is as close in blade form to what you want to simulate as posible. The problem with blades of soft steel, is the really soft ones will bend (our structural integrity test will tell you whether your blade is that soft), & that you will have to sharpen it more frequently.



A cheap sword alternative I have heard of, but not tired, is cutting a blade out of a two man saw blade. You could get several jian blades from one 2 meter long saw. If you are good at working with your hands & can find an old blade with broken or woren out teeth (you don't want to destroy a good saw) you could experiment with cutting a blade from it.

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