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Thread: evolution of the western katana

  1. #76

    Thumbs up learning

    I have been reading this thread as it has gone on and echo what Mats says - this is interesting, and illustrates SFI at it's best as a learning and discussion tool.
    If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. - Shunryu Suzuki

  2. #77
    Since I'm taking a break from polishing as my Thermacare back wrap heats up (I love those things), I have a few things to comment on. This is going to be relatively stream of consciousness because I don't have much time. So I apologize in advance if I go off on too many tangents...

    With respect to blade shape and the various (very good) depictions of blade changes over time, you need to keep in mind that these are very rough generalizations. Let me try to explain that a bit...

    Last year at the West Coast Tai Kai Mike Yamasaki (Ricecracker.com and a member of the NBTHK-AB board) put out a fantastic display of swords with tameshi-mei. Seven or so swords if memory serves. And I think all of them were made in the so-called "kanbun" shinto timeframe. And if you look at the various books and guides you'll see that one really distinctive thing of this time period was the virtually straight blade. I've heard all sorts of explanations of why this was, but you will see these in virtually every guide.

    However, every single one of the Kanbun Shinto era blades on display had a fairly conventional 2/3rd to 3/4" sori. Someone at the presentation commented on that and Mike pointed out that while there were smiths making virtually straight katana during this period, many, many more were making them the way they had been for a while already -- i.e., the pretty typical shinto era shaping of moderate sori, chu kissaki, etc...

    So the point of this is that if you find a straight shinto era katana it was probably made during the Kanbun era. However, that doesn't mean that most anything else couldn't have also been made at the same time... Heck, right now some smiths are making bigger, wider, heavier cutters due to some degree of popularity of the design. But that doesn't mean there aren't many, many more being made that are quite different.

    So to put a college "logic class" spin on it, while all dogs may be animals, it does not follow that all animals are dogs...

    So sword shapes distinctive of certain times are important to know because they can be points to help you understand what you're looking at. But it is only one small starting point of a vastly larger picture.

    And fwiw a few token kai's ago someone had a really interesting Sokan katana that was flat as a board... Kanbun shinto shape to be sure, but Shinshinto smith... In a craft with 1000 years of history that is full exceptions, exceptions become the rule. It sure makes life interesting...


    On polishing and cutting ability... That is a complex issue actually. I've long found it interesting that one thing Hanwei has done very well over the years is get a reasonably traditional cross section on most of their blades. Bugei wanted big, Kamakura styles early on. Lots of niku which reflected where James Williams was at that time in terms of what he wanted to see in his swords for training. So he was pretty adamant about that. No bevels, no flat blades, but actually quite robust blades. And that became the norm for most all of Hanwei's blades for quite some time.

    But if you look around at other production blades and even some custom blades I've seen, one thing that often suffers is the shaping. My very old article on Niku on Rich Stein's site came about from me trying to understand shaping and how it all fit into the larger scheme of things (and actually started as a post here on SFI). Anyway, from my understanding of the quenching process the smith leaves a fairly thick "blunt" edge to help prevent fractures. After yaki-ire the traditional method is to get down on a really coarse stone and start rolling in the niku. Basically you cut in the edge angle you want then work on "pushing" the center of the niku up the surface of the ji. Depending on style, shape, etc. that location, magnitude, etc. will vary. But suffice to say it shouldn't be centered down at the edge.

    So what does this have to do with anything? Well, a blade made with the edge cut in but the niku not "pushed" up traditionally can still cut and cut very well. It can obviously be just as sharp at the edge. But users will sometimes notice that the blade kinda "clunks" at it goes through some targets. They don't tend to get that satisfying clean cut that one would associate with a really good sword. The problem is that the shaping just isn't quite subtle enough to get a really smooth pass through. So while both will cut, one cuts "better", cleaner, with a smoother feedback to the swordsman.

    Obviously this isn't an issue on a totally flat blade. No niku, no clunking. And super thin flat ground blades tend to cut really well.

    But a well polished blade with properly shaped niku can be thicker (hence much stronger with respect to lateral strength) and still cut with much that same satisfying "thwack" feel. But it requires that subtle attention to detail both by the smith making the blade and by the polisher being willing to fix it if it isn't right to begin with. And it is a lot of work if I have to address it at the polishing stage.

    So does a good shaping matter? Sure. How much it matters is really a difficult question to answer. And that answer begs a lot of other questions.

    Remember this is a highly refined blade shape that evolved over a long period of time. Also remember that the way a sword cuts also involves what you're cutting and how you're cutting it. Nothing in isolation. If you're cutting water bottles and pool noodles in the back yard you'll probably develop some certain sort of form and most any blade that is reasonably sharp and not over-thick will cut them really well. But if you're cutting traditional targets with a traditionally shaped blade you cannot also ignore the cutting style of the practitioner. These things all evolved together. The low niku (almost secondary bevel) shaping some get with their swords probably work just great especially if the swordsman is using it like a baseball bat. And the edge is probably well supported for that sort of use. But talk about proper form with the types of targets traditionally used and the importance of the shaping will become more manifest.

    Hope that all makes sense because I need to get back to polishing. I'm way too far behind on too many projects.
    Keith Larman
    Summerchild Polishing and Modertosho Modern Japanese Swords
    "They say I have ADD, but ... Hey, look, a chicken!"

  3. #78
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    Keith,

    thanks for taking the time out for such a thoughtful reply. One of the things I love about this forum is that folks with unique experiences are so willing to share.

    tk

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    Dave,

    couple of thoughts....

    I have significant experience with the use of sword and knife in other martial arts, but the JSA cutting practice is somewhat unique, and something I intend to become more familiar with. I was down at the Tai Kai this past weekend (as a spectator) and found it quite interesting.

    >>Deciding that shorter blades were more likely because people were shorter is a bit glib, and rather insulting, IMO.

    This was not my comment. And while it may be glib, I suspect there's an element of truth in it. Sword length generally correlates to the style or technique, and because of that, the physical size of a person is a factor. In the style I studied, sword length was a factor of arm length, which allowed me to use longer swords than many because of my orangutan-length reach <g>.

    Another member here sent me a link to website with comments from a Japanese sensei suggesting that the proper way to measure a sword was from the palm to just above the ground level. So at least some JSA employ similar standards. So it may be a legitimate observation that, all else being equal, katanas targeted at Americans would be longer because Americans tend to be taller.

    But as you point out, there are numerous other factors as well.

    The point of my admittedly over-generalized assessment was that blade length and style had to generally correlate to usage; new enemies, new tactics, and the rise of firearms.

    I said “Sword sugata lightened up, got heavier again, and then evolved into the modern katana.”

    You responded, “succinct, perhaps somewhat accurate, but not at all complete.”

    That may be an overly kind assessment. In re-reading my post, I realize that I used a very poor choice of words. I was referring to the general changes in blade shape over 600 years that led to the development of the katana. I really didn’t intend to characterize how the katana itself developed during the koto, Shinto and shinshinto.

    Sorry for the confusion

    tk

  5. #80
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Drawdy View Post
    Deciding that shorter blades were more likely because people were shorter is a bit glib, and rather insulting, IMO.

    Dave

    Hi Dave, I think you may have misinterpreted why I wrote and attributed it to Tom.

    To clarify, I was talking about proportional size and weight, not "They were short so the blades were shorter". As always, it's a general comment to elicit debate, which seems to have worked considering Keith's marvellous response.

    Glib is a bit harsh really as we are merely talking ideas through.
    Last edited by Mat Rous; 03-04-2008 at 01:22 AM. Reason: Punctuation.
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    shorter gunto blades

    Ive often wondered why the military gunto sword of the pre war era had a nagsa of only 25" - 26"
    when there is a wealth of earlier blades in existence around the 27.5" length - I hope its safe to assume the average 20th century japanese male was taller than his 17th century counterpart so why the digression back to shorter blades ?

    A little off topic and I do apologise for that but it does tie in with the current conversation .

    Thank you

    Mick
    " Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."



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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Kehoe View Post
    ... "Deciding that shorter blades were more likely because people were shorter is a bit glib, and rather insulting, IMO. "
    This was not my comment. And while it may be glib, I suspect there's an element of truth in it. ...
    Hi Tom. Yes, I knew that was not your comment, that was just a drive-by, target of opportunity. My comments about training were not specifically directed at you, again just taking an opportunity to try and put some of the discussion in the context of actual use and training, which I believe changes things. Mat, yes, 'glib' is a bit harsh, I apologize.
    All, my problem with the characterization of shorter blades for shorter people is that those who do not train will take it as a bottom line, and a start point, when it really should not be. The start point should be in class, in training, a) learning the specific requirements of a style or school and, more importantly, b) learning what you are capable of with training. Case in point, we cut in class last night. Almost everyone has their own cutting sword, a fairly wide spectrum, mostly modern production katana, most initially driven by what is affordable within the guidelines of what is acceptable. Eventually getting to what is 'right' is a really interesting learning curve. Yes, we go with "in a relaxed grip, from the palm to just above the ground level" as a guideline. But it is just a guideline, subject to difference in relative arm length (orangutang?), body size and composition, some gender issues, affordability and availablity (blades longer than 2.5 shaku tend to be more expensive). Someone just starting training cannot handle the heavier blades preferred by some of the more seniors. No muscle in the right places, no sense of where the sword is or where their body is in the mechanics of moving and cutting. One senior recently moved from an (award-winning) high-end production cutter to a lighter, better balanced, custom (very sweet). One of the customs I use is incredibly slim and light, cuts like a laser, but demands focus. Someone new would not be able to consistently track the blade in the cut (and I'm not consistent with it yet either). Another is the monster hira that Keith mentioned, about 5 inches longer than my normal blades, demands all kinds of focus for the draw and noto. Not something I would recommend for beginners. Our dojo cutters are around 27 inches, used by students tall and short, experienced and new, and length is less an issue than disparity in weight and balance. And all of those factors are affected by what training makes possible, natural. Those of you that have seen Ueki sensei train, very thin, elderly Japanese gentleman, swings an enormous blade, no problem. My first sensei, about 5' 6", loved longer blades, joked about putting luggage cart wheels on the end ot the saya because they were so long.
    So, yes, length may be a factor, and perhaps on average taller people use longer blades, but I really don't see a causal or determining link there. But that's just my opinion. Sorry for the rambling, I spend way too much time thinking about this stuff.

    Dave
    Last edited by Dave Drawdy; 03-05-2008 at 12:27 PM.
    Dave Drawdy
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    in a doomed attempt to get back on track ...
    ... blade length and style had to generally correlate to usage; new enemies, new tactics,
    Maybe, in general terms, but again, I'd argue that local usage, clan preference, ryu requirements, affordability and availability played a greater role, especially after the warring states period. Most modern blades for users are for iaidoka or the growing band of backyard cutters. Still not seeing 'evolutionary' forces at work, just personal preferences, again leaning towards inexpensive and (lately) towards 'cheater' geometry. The 'evolution' seems to be more of an individual journey of the smith, with whatever fallout may eventually reach a broader base from educated users and raised expectations. I think the Yoshimitsu family are perhaps an aspect of those evolutionary forces. Research, experimentation, pushing envelopes.

    Dave
    Last edited by Dave Drawdy; 03-04-2008 at 11:59 AM.
    Dave Drawdy
    "the artist formerly known as Sergeant Major"

  9. #84
    Let me toss in a note of agreement with Dave on the issue of length. One point I was trying to make in my earlier discussion is that the variations are actually quite large even though you *can* identify trends within those things. The problem is that the generalizations tend to be the things we focus on even if the reality is there is a rather large deviation from that norm.

    Or as one of my mentors told me back when I was working in a research environment -- while the statement that the average human being has a single testicle and a single ovary is true in general, it is of little help when it comes to understanding any individual human.

    Folk often talk about all these ideal means of measuring for a sword. That's cool if you have that as an option. So most will get measured to get a ballpark idea. Then they go out and try to find something close to that (usually constrained by availability and budget). Over time as they "mature" as practitioners their abilities and preferences almost *always* change as well. Some will "upgrade" at that point. And on it goes.

    But most today (and probably most folk throughout history) likely had little choice with respect to what to use. You use what you had. Of what the armoury handed you. Or what you could afford. And then you worked really hard to get good with it.

    That said around certain areas groups would have their "preferences". So most of what was available to the fellas doing Yagyu Shinkage-ryu around Owari Province would be geared to some extent to their preferences. And that might be somewhat different from the guys from the Kagoshima han in Satsuma or the fellas hanging out in the court in Edo.

    Usually what happens is that the new guys buy what their teachers are using because obviously those are the best swords for what they're doing.

    It is a really complicated issue but at the same time really quite simple. Complicated in that there are a large number of factors involved getting to that point. Simple in that usually the choices a new practitioner will have that are really appropriate, cost effective, available, etc. are very, very limited. And it varies from dojo to dojo, style to style, etc.

    And to me... I don't really see all that much evolution going on. I see some gravitating towards larger blades (as in long and heavy) because of perceived "power" of those things. But that's something that folk figure out over time. I see others going for things that are somewhat "optimized" for certain targets. That's fine too, but I think the case there is overstated. Remember that the overwhelming majority of purchasers of production swords have zero traditional training. So what the market demands there is pretty much just a reflection of modern consumer culture. What the experienced guys want tend to reflect the personality and preferences of their sensei. And that is a small scale thing that has little to do with overall evolution. I've personally seen the pendulum swing a couple times.

    Where I see evolution in the western version of the katana is where smiths take the time to *both* work on the ideas of modern metallurgy, materials and methods along with a good, strong foundation in traditional shaping and design. Combining those two things makes for some interesting results. Trying for traditional "looks" with traditional substance or modern fine tuning seems like putting eye-liner on a pig. Going for material performance only without attention to shaping, balance and traditional normsl of usage is the same thing as well.

    Most of what I hear folk complaining about as unfortunate directions swords are taking aren't talking about good swords to begin with. And those swords are generally not the ones being used in training contexts anyway. That doesn't mean they don't have their place -- of course they do. But those inexpensive swords do chip away at the ability of the higher end makers to make ends meet. But that is probably as it should be -- why force someone who only wants a sword to cut water bottles with to pay a lot extra for traditional shape and features they aren't even equipped to notice in the first place? The market evolves, the makers evolve to make ends meet, but the Japanese sword already has a 1000 years of momentum built up. I've seen some interesting blips of variation and innovation, but really, what makes a "good sword" in a training or historic appreciation setting hasn't really changed much at all.

    Hope that all made sense -- I'm typing through a migraine haze right now.
    Keith Larman
    Summerchild Polishing and Modertosho Modern Japanese Swords
    "They say I have ADD, but ... Hey, look, a chicken!"

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    Thumbs up Not rambling !

    just personal preferences, again leaning towards inexpensive and (lately) towards 'cheater' geometry.

    Dave if you consider what you have said up to now to be rambling ,
    then please sir - ramble on .

    I am sure all the guys involved in this thread are thinking the same as me in that I can lap this stuff up all day long - great thread - I am so pleased you kept it open earlier on - cheers .

    BTW - your comment above , I am glad you said it as I am sure its crossed many other minds recently - I think the current influx of them is just the market playing to the backyard cutters in the gallery.

    Mick
    " Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."



    Ephesians 6:11

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    Dave,

    you're not rambling, you're just passionate about your art. I think most people here appreciate that. In fact, I think that's why many of us ARE here -- we're passionate about these things, and it's hard to find kindred spirits.

    I don't doubt your observations about blade usage and trends. And I think there's a video of Ueki-sensei on youtube, doing some very impressive cuts with what appears to be quite a large blade. And he handles it very easily.

    Keith,

    sorry about the migraine, but thanks for the post. Perhaps some of those interesting trends in custom makers will spill over into the production market (like it did with Hanwei's L6 blades).

    tk

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    It's all good as they say

    As I mentioned in a different thread, I had a go with a SGC on some nice old, Japanese Wara. It was horrible to cut with - no balance and decidedly not good for cutting with. For something supposedly designed for Wara and Goza, it was useless.

    The Tori cut well but there were a few cuts from people who lost their angle and the thin blade meant it "Zipped" down into the target before stopping halfway through.

    Interestingly, the much maligned, Cold Steel Warriors cut easily.
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    Mat,

    I'm not really familiar with the Cold Steel swords -- why are they much maligned? And what is their edge geometry like?

    BTW: I was reading an article over the weekend that noted your point about the length of gunto, but it didn't offer an explanation.

    tk

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    gunto point

    Hi Tom

    The gunto point was mine mate - any chance you can remember where you saw the article ?

    Thanks

    Mick
    " Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."



    Ephesians 6:11

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    Mick,

    apologies. too little sleep last night. brain functioning on autopilot this morning.

    I thought it was in a journal, but actually, it was in a book I picked up this weekend -- "Cutting Targets with the Japanese Sword," by Richard Babin and Bob Elder (who reads and contributes here).

    Let me plug this book: There's an amazing range of information in this book on the construction of swords and how that relates to cutting (especially interesting in light of this thread). He has one chapter on gunto, and a second that discusses how to tell if a blade is collectible, which delves into the attributes of gunto.

    you're probably already familiar with these pages
    http://www.h4.dion.ne.jp/~t-ohmura/

    mostly in japanese, but some in english.

    tk

  16. #91
    With respect to Gunto lengths, I've never been exactly sure why it keeps coming up.

    Gunto were mass produced. Fittings, saya, etc. were done in a large assembly line fashion. So there was a standardized size.

    Most who were issued gunto had precious little if any training whatsoever with the sword. For many of them it was probably the first "real sword" they'd ever held.

    Most can't draw a sword worth a darn regardless of length. But if the sword is longer, well, form and training become more important as the length increases. Gunto being relatively short are easy to draw but still large enough to be a good length for use.

    And finally, some bureaucrat sitting behind some desk is probably the one who rather arbitrarily set the length.

    The length of WWII mass produced gunto has precious little to do with what length is "correct" for someone training in a traditional art. Or for a smith making swords. Gunto were coarse tools spec'ed to a certain size for any number of reasons, many probably petty bureaucratic reasons at that.
    Last edited by Keith Larman; 03-05-2008 at 10:55 AM.
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    Keith, I wasnt tryng to sway the thread around to gunto - as I agree its an entirely seperate animal altogether , I guess I was just thinking out loud when the conversation swung around to blade length and wether or not its a factor in the evolution of the sword .

    If I have anymore gunto questions I'll start a thread in the appropriate forum

    Thanks

    Mick
    Last edited by michael wilson; 03-05-2008 at 03:41 PM.
    " Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."



    Ephesians 6:11

  18. #93
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    actually, this is probably the right forum for most gunto, as they were mostly modern production blades.

    Dave
    Dave Drawdy
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    Hi guys,
    My opinion for what its worth, please don't shoot me down in flames too badly. many moons ago, I got my brother a mass produced gunto blade of 26",which was purchased very cheaply(that was its apeal) as a bare blade, he had it mounted by our local koshirae maker, and used it for training. I have used this sword for training myself, it is very choppy in it natural cut, and as a result it will sail through most targets, with realative ease, and little skill, from my point of veiw its an axe, in the hand this sword is not unlike the feel of a lot of the modern mass produced heavy cutting swords, and apart from being shorter and slightly uglier, the blades overal form is the same as a lot of the ones I have handled. So being that the gunto was evolved more or less for officers with a relatively low level of skill(the good swords men mostly taking traditionaly smithed blades), have production swords evolved to do the same? I think that the cutting culture of most clubs at the moment is very important to most manufactures, if you go back about 15 years, affordable cutting swords were almost non existant in the uk, don't know about elsewhere, but they do all seem to be designed for mat cutting. I have had a couple of PC katana, and they were great for mats, but when used on targets from the local butchers, they didn't cut like my old sword. So I would say that Modern martial arts katana is a sport tool, which is fine if you want to be able to cut a stationary target twice a second, if however you train from the point of veiw of this is a combat art, I train authenticaly as if I were going to battle one day, that will never come, these swords are far from what you need, more people practise the first way, until they get to advanced levels of skill and thinking, and this is what the big producers are making for, no point in making a product you can't sell lots of.
    If you look at the instructors out there at the moment, if they are good, they tend to have the sword they like, and they take many forms short, long, fat, thin, broad, shallow, long point, short point. If you look at students they seem to be more interested in what new at the moment. until reacently, I have been more influenced by what is available for my pocket money, so I have something to train with, than finding the ideal sword for my style. If the guy in the shop lets me try a few, its a case of, can I left side noto with it, does it feel good in the hand, how does it move, can I afford it. So really look around, you will find that the guys that really know what they are doing, are either using an older blades or have had their swords custom made to personal tastes, after all its an extention of your arm, and your arm is different to mine.

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    gunto

    Andy,


    My understanding (and if any of the genuine experts here want to chime in, that's great), is that gunto were really not intended to be weapons -- they were more badges of office for the officers. That's not to say that they weren't sometimes used as weapons, but that's not what they were principally designed to be.

    What do you mean when you describe your sword as "choppy?"

    tk

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    My first Japanese sword was an oil tempered gunto that was a good deal lighter than a lot of shinto and shin shinto I've handled since.
    I also have a WWII gendai made in the Okayama prison forge that while a pretty beefy blade, (kinda like a 26 inch Nambokucho-era sword) handles marvelously well even with one handed cuts. I've also owned an oil-tempered gunto with koshizori, significant fumbari and bohi. Granted, I've also seen gunto that look like the worst variety of the CAN CUT IRON swords advertised on ebay (minus the cheesy fake swirly hada of course). My point is there are a lot more variations of gunto than there seem to be in the modern production ring.

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    Tom,
    Don't think of myself as an expert, and appreciate that there are a lot of people with more experience here than I. By chopy, I mean high point of ballance, or point heavy, when cutting the point whips out when stopped. sword has a natural tendancy to pull and extend the arm, making a correctly drawing of the cut difficult, and not a comfortable movement as found with a lower point of balance. On the other side point heavy swords chop in rather than cut, if they are kept sharp, they will split tatami with little effort, resulting in a clean looking surface, but the remains on the stand are normaly arced over rather than straight and unmoved( as you would find with a correct cutting action).
    My comparison made to my old blade, was in ref to a shin shinto katana I used to use, the gunto was my brothers.
    Last edited by andy jones; 03-11-2008 at 03:23 PM. Reason: after thought

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    Interesting comments Andy - I appreciate them.

    Ive spoken to a few UK JSA guys who remember the 'bad' old days when all that was available was remounted gunto or the most poorest of stainless steel wall hangers .

    They talk about the choice we have now on the production market for affordable user blades - with a joky air of you dont know how lucky you are - I often think it may have been easier back then when options where more polarised and hype ,hollywood and demand had not driven costs
    through the roof

    Mick
    " Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."



    Ephesians 6:11

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