I am sorry, but there are several glaring problems with this writeup that I simply cannot let lie. Anyone reading this node with a serious interest in sword collecting would be led far astray by the points it makes, thus it must be corrected. A collector without a great deal of financial clout, like myself, would end up buying swords that are more or less worthless if they followed the above advice. This writeup will focus on my particular area of expertise, Japanese swords, although the above writeup hints at this by including the advice on differential tempering.

The Blade

Ok, for a start, 5160 spring steel is NOT the best steel for a blade. AISI 5160 is a decent form of carbon steel, at 0.55-0.60% carbon, but is far from the 'best' material. It is frequently the choice of economy blade factories who want to be able to write 'carbon steel' in their marketing literature. AISI 1095 is 0.95%, and will outcut 5160 every time. However, more important than the metal is the skill of the bladesmith and the technique used to forge the blade. I know several good bladesmiths who can forge a blade from plain stainless steel that will cut straight through a factory-made carbon steel blade. However, your average collector cannot afford such highly-crafted blades, so we will focus instead on plain facts. Factory-made blades are commonplace, but useless for combat. Even blades factory-produced from 5160 are often riddled with slag inclusions, and are frequently recycled from automobile parts etc which weakens the produced blades considerably.

The serious collector should aim for no less than hand-forged blades, and if possible pattern-welded. A hand-forged blade is made using no more than a hammer, chisel and sand wheel, and yes there are many blades out there like that, I have recently bought two myself. Such blades are invariably stronger and better crafted than their factory made counterparts. Pattern-welding is a very expensive process, also called fold-forging. This technique involved using layers of metal, folding over and pounding them together with a hammer while red-hot. The metal is then folded again and so on. This lends the blade enhanced durability and internal homogeneities, which will extend the life of your sword many times over. A pattern-welded blade should show many irregular light and dark lines along the blade, where the metal has been folded. However, some cheap blades also display these lines as a natural formation of alloy banding, which is the sign of a bad blade. Only experience can show you the difference.

However, the big thing to look out for is differential tempering. Through this process, the blade is packed in clay which is thicker at the back than at the front, and then tempered. This causes the blade to cool at different rates, creating hard, sharp steel along the edge and soft, flexible steel along the spine. This allows the sword to take repeated heavy blows without bending or chipping. An ideal hardness distribution is RC60/RC40 from edge to spine - look for these numbers before buying a blade. Harder than RC60, the edge become too brittle and will chip off when used. Differentially tempered blades are recognisable by the distinctive 'hamon' or temper-line, which resembles a wave-like border between light and dark all the way along the length of the blade. Beware fake blades with over-regular hamon, as the line in this case has been acid-etched and is not authentic. Fullers, shallow channels also incorrectly termed 'blood grooves', are often seen in more expensive blades, and are used to make the blade lighter with no loss in strength.

The Handle

The above writeup offers no mention of the handle on the sword, so I will attempt to compensate. The handle can be the most important part of the sword, because a good blade on a bad handle equals a dead swordsman. Authentic swords are made with handles constructed of wood with rayskin over the top, then wrapped in the traditional diamond-wrap method. A good way to check for a well-wrapped handle is to look for small, triangular pieces of paper within the wraps. These are used to maintain the pattern, and are part of the traditional Japanese method. Cheaper swords often have handles made either entirely of wood or worse, of hollow wire-wrap. Either of these could get you killed in a sword fight, or get you laughed at by the first serious collector to get a good look at your swords. Always ask what the handle is made of and more importantly, can it be removed from the blade. A good sword will have two or more small pins which attach the handle to the blade. Removal of these should reveal the tang, the unsharpened part of the blade that retreats into the handle. If the tang is signed, then you generally have a very good blade in your hands. The tang should fit snugly inside the handle with no wobble, without the application of vast quantities of wood glue, often seen in replica blades.

The Tang

This is where the above writeup commits its greatest sin - declaring the 'rat-tail' tang to be the best. This may be due to his misunderstanding of the definition of what a rat-tail tang is. A rat-rail, generally, is named as such because it is thin, not because it screws onto the pommel. By this definition, the pommel-less Japanese katana could never have a rat-tail, and yet many cheap blades still do. A rat-tail should be avoided at all costs for anything but a decorative blade, because it will most likely snap straight off as soon as you try to cut something. Rat-tails are used in cheap swords to save money, and are generally thin bars of cheap steel spot-welded onto the bottom of the blade. The end of the tang is also usually threaded, so that a pommel may be screwed on, but this is for reasons of economy rather than strength. A rat-tail creates a weak-point in the sword, focusing all of the force onto a tiny little weld. I have seen rat-tailed blades snap straight off their handles after one strike, after which their sullen owners never again buy such swords. In general, a tang should be 3/4 to 1/2 the width of the blade, and extend at least 7" into the handle. Less than that and you are risking serious stress fractures over time. As stated above, a good sword will allow complete removal of the handle to allow inspection and/or cleaning of the tang, to prevent rust buildup. Always look for the magic words - "full tang".

The Collar

Another fact not mentioned is the blade collar or 'habaki'. This is the small, rectangular piece of metal that secures the blade to the handle, and is of absolutely vital importance. Cheap blades like those made by Paul Chen/Hanwei have habaki constructed of plastic and coated in metallic paint, which results in an unusable sword. You dont make a whole car out of steel and then make the axles out of plastic, because it makes the whole car useless. Always check that the habaki is well secured into the handle, and that it is made of either brass, bronze or even better steel. Otherwise, no matter the quality of the rest, you have just bought a very expensive wall decoration.

The Scabbard

Also not mentioned but important is the scabbard. Whilst the external decoration of the scabbard is up to personal preference and/or sword purpose, the inside of the scabbard is of great importance. Cheap swords come with roughly hewn wooden scabbards which will over time damage the blade inside and destroy its polish. A well-made scabbard should be finished both inside and out, to prevent this. The sword must be easily drawn but not loose in any way, or it will likely fall from the scabbard randomly.

That concludes this writeup, hopefully I have put to rest some of the poor advice seen in this node. However, there is no subsitute for real experience, so search the internet for the really in-depth information before purchasing. I would advise visits to sword shows and clubs etc, where you will have the opportunity to handle dozens of well made and balanced blades. Use this knowledge as a basis for buying your next swords, and avoid buying from catalogues if you can. Companies like Battle Orders sell great replica gear, but nothing that can be used in a fight or for sword training.