Shin-gunto, army officers swords, are the most common style of sword mountings from the World War II era. There is an enormous difference in quality of both blades and mounts of this period. Many, perhaps most, of the blades found in shin-gunto mounts are NOT traditionally made swords. Many are machine made and therefore are of interest only as military relics, not as art swords. Some blades made during the war period were handmade but not by traditional methods. These are classified as either Showato, Muratato, Mantetsuto, Hantanzo or Yotetsuto depending on method of production.
There were swords made during this period that were made using traditional methods; these are termed Gendaito or Kindaito. Some of the smiths making traditional swords during the war era are the Yasukuni Shrine smiths, those of the Gassan School, Chounsai Emura and Ichihara Nagamitsu among many others. Swords with stamps on their nakago (tangs) were made using non-traditional methods or materials, possible exceptions being some gendaito which bear star (Jumei Tosho) stamps, although this too is debated. (Check the list of Gendai swordsmiths for some of the major smiths making swords by traditional methods during the WW II period.) Some WW II era sword companies used specific logo on the scabbards and/or koshirae which they made or sold. These sword company logos do not necessarily indicate that the company made the sword. Some of these logo are simply of shops that sold swords during the war. The scabbards (saya) of shin-gunto swords are usually brown painted metal, although it is not uncommon to find tan, navy blue or black saya. Many will have leather field covers as well. Antique blades are occasionally encountered in shin-gunto mounts.
Late in the war era, two other styles of shin-gunto mounts were produced. These late 1944 style swords, sometimes (although incorrectly) called "Marine mounts" have dark brown, rough textured lacquered wood scabbards; dark brown, lacquered "burlap" ito and iron fixtures with a stippled finish which are painted black. All manner of blades are found in these mounts, from machine-made to gendaito.
The other variation of the late 1944 swords has either a light brown or a tan iron scabbard and light brown or green wrapping (ito) over cloth. Blades found in these mountings are invariably of low quality and are machine made.
By 1945, there were numerous "desperation" end of war varieties of shin-gunto being produced both in Japan and in the areas of Japanese occupation. These swords have plain copper, brass or iron mounts, simple wire tassel loops, low grade brown/tan/green ito, and poorly constructed black painted wood saya, some with leather scabbard covers. Swords of this type are all of the poorest quality, made from low grade materials. None have traditionally made blades. They are swords in form only and of interest only as historical artifacts.
Prior to 1945, NCO shin-gunto, non-commissioned officers swords, have all metal tsukas (handles) made to resemble the traditionally cloth wrapped shin-gunto swords. The first model had an unpainted copper hilt. On later models the hilts were made of aluminum and painted to resemble the lacing (ito) on officer's shin-gunto swords. These swords will have serial numbers on their blades and are ALL machine made, without exception. The serial numbers are simple assembly or manufacturing numbers; they are not serial numbers of blades as issued to specific soldiers. If the sword is all original, the serial numbers on the blade, tsuba, saya and all other parts should match.
In 1945, the NCO sword was changed to a simple wooden hilt with incised cross-hatching (no same' or ito) and plain, black painted iron mounts and a light brown to tan metal scabbard. Blades in these mounts are ALL machine made.
Kyu-gunto swords, also called Russo-Japanese swords, were used by Army, Cavalry and Naval officers during the Russo-Japanese War and WW II. This style of mounting was used from 1883 until 1945. Like shin-gunto, a great variety of quality in both blades, traditional and machine made, and mounts is seen in kyu-gunto swords. Many variations are found in the scabbards of kyu-gunto swords including chromed metal, lacquered wood or leather covered wood with brass fixtures. Any style scabbard may have a leather field cover. Those swords with elongated hilts and mekugi (peg for holding blade into hilt) are more likely to have hand forged blades, while the swords lacking mekugi generally are machine made and may have chromed blades.
Different styles of kyu-gunto are often confused. The backstraps of naval kyu-gunto swords have no side pieces while army kyu-gunto and colonial swords have side pieces with various emblems on the backstrap.
As the Japanese occupied various territories in the 1930's and 1940's, they issued special swords to the colonial occupation officials. These swords were basically kyu-gunto with slight modifications. Each colonial region had a different emblem on the backstrap and sides of the backstrap representing the specific region. Colonial swords generally have machine made, chrome plated blades with etched hamon; however, a hand-forged blade may be found in colonial mounts. Saya may be chromed or leather with brass mountings.
Kai-gunto swords were more commonly used by Japanese Naval officers. They may have rayskin covered saya which have been lacquered black or dark blue or black lacquered scabbards without rayskin. Some will have only a single hanger (ashi). The tsuka (handle) has same' (rayskin) of the same type and black or navy blue ito. The metal mounts are gilted brass. Blades found in kai-gunto mounts may be machine made, some are stainless steel, while others may be traditionally made.
Many of the stainless steel (taisabiko or sabinaito) kai-gunto were made at the Tenshozan Tanrenjo in Zushi near Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture. These blades were made exclusively for the Navy and sold through the Tenshozan store. They are signed on the nakago "Tenshozan Tanrenjo" (see nakago at left) and marked with an anchor stamp. The other main source of blades for the Navy was the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal. Many of these blades are unsigned except for an anchor stamp (different from the Tenshozan stamp) either alone or in a circle or sakura blossom (see common tang stamps above). Stainless steel blades are all considered machine made. Some maybe oil tempered (?), but on most the hamon is purely cosmetic. The Tenshozan Tanrenjo also made Naval dirks.
Shin-gunto swords are sometimes found with a colored tassel (left) attached to the kabuto-gane (hilt buttcap). The officer's rank that carried the sword can be determined from the color of the tassel. Blue/brown tassels were used by company grade officers (lieutenants and captains), red/brown by field grade officers (majors and colonels), red/gold tassels for general grade officers. Tassels can be easily switched from sword to sword and reproduction tassels can also be added to WW II vintage swords. A new general grade tassel on a poor quality sword is indicative of a "made-up" story. NCO swords had a leather sword knot (right). Kyu-gunto swords had a ball type corded knot.
REPRODUCTIONS AND FAKES
There are numerous other styles of Japanese military and civilian swords from the war era; including diplomatic swords, court swords, cavalry sabers and others. Refer to the excellent work of Jim Dawson "Swords of Imperial Japan, 1868-1945" or some of Richard Fuller and Ron Gregory's numerous books on Japanese military swords.
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