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Swords, Cutting and Military History

On realism and wound effects in test cutting

On realism and wound effects in test cutting

photo by Rick Gordon

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Generally speaking, when tameshigiri practitioners — Eastern or Western — perform test cutting, their objective is to cleanly cut through a target of a set diameter.  The level of difficulty and skill required for a cut is judged by several variables:  the thickness or density of the target medium, the by the angle and type of cut, by the cut’s cleanliness (a smooth cut like a razor would make being the objective), and by the number of continuous cuts in a particular pattern.

Tameshigiri gives us experience in the technique, focus, balance, target ranging and the timing needed to make effective cuts.  Yet, by itself, test cutting has little direct connection to the fencing skills we practice in the dojo or hall.


credit: John Glenn

Often test cutters use wide swings, broad strokes, with large wind-ups, all as an aid to concentration and power.  In actual fencing practice, even with heavy swords, swings tend to be smaller to reduce the chance of providing your opponent an opening;you’d certainly never pull your sword out of line for a big wind up in the middle of combat… at least, not unless your opponent was already defenseless.

Short cuts, slashes and thrusts strike for what would be unarmoured or less-armoured body areas, with the objective of causing major bleeding to weaken an opponent, or to cripple them by cutting muscles or tendons.

What this means is that some cutting practitioners are treating tameshigiri as an art totally divorced from formal combat study.  This isn’t new;  in fact, it was commented on almost 100 years ago by one of the great figures of Kendo:

“Tameshigiri allows one to adapt the iai kata to real cutting practice. In other words, iai should be the core, and the application of the kata in tameshigiri should be secondary. However, today many people totally ignore the preservation of correct sword methodology and technique and merely cut things. As a result, tameshigiri has unfortunately come to be thought of as an independent practice.”

Nakayama Hakudo – Tameshigiri for Maturing One’s Iai
Thoughts on Tameshigiri from Famous Swordsmen – Blog Kenshi24/

Which is  not to say there’s anything wrong with treating cutting as an interest;  test cutting is challenging, fun and enjoyable.  Serious practitioners of the various sword schools, however, may find it useful in allowing their cutting practice to influence their in-class sword-work, as commented on in the following video:



In other words, try to widen your formal skills by special practices:  intentionally making short cuts to see how far you can cut into (not through) a target without a wind-up.  Attempt thrusts, one or two handed, to learn effective penetration and recovery techniques.  Practice draw cuts:   in the Western martial arts, these are shallow cuts — usually targeted to areas of the body where major blood vessels are just below the skin’s surface — where the sword is extended, edge down on the target, then quickly drawn back or down, creating a sliding cut.

There are similar techniques in both German long sword and the Japanese / Korean sword arts, where both draw cuts and sliding thrusts are found.  Sliding thrusts these are made with the blade’s edge pushed outward along the edge of a throat or wrist, creating a relatively shallow slice meant to cut blood vessels.

Some serious practitioners have commented that test cutting is sometimes performed as if it were a sport like golf or baseball;  the practitioner makes the swing and steps back to see the result and accept the cheers of his friends.  This is also unlike actual combat, or even sport competitions, where you would keep your fighting mindset until you were absolutely certain there was no more threat.  In the Japanese arts  the term “zanshin” is often used to indicate this practice;  while some people translate this concept as “follow-through”, a more precise meaning is “continuation of the technique”.

In other words, the term doesn’t refer to the physical follow-through of the cut, but to the practitioner keeping their focus on the situation, not dropping their combat posture when the cut is made, but only after they have moved back to a safe distance and sheathed or safed their weapon.

This is why Iaido has the tradition of making the formal chiburi or “blood flick” of the sword before re-sheathing the blade and then taking several steps back.  This is all to maintain the practitioner’s mindset, relaxed only at the end of the very end of the kata when they drop their hands.

Realistically, in a real-world fight you wouldn’t drop your guard until your opponent was permanently down and there was no other sign of danger.

Why?  The ability of any single blow to put an opponent down is unpredictable, shy of total removal of a limb.  An excellent article on this topic is Legs, Wounds, and Standing Fights in Historical Fencing – John Clements,  For example:

“Anecdotes of duels fought with rapier, sabre, or smallsword, and forensic literature based upon present-day coroner’s reports of homicides in which knives and other sharp instruments were used convincingly showed that mortal wounds to the major vessels and even to the heart itself do not always lead to instant incapacitation of the victim. The veracity of these accounts is supported by a 1961 survey conducted by Spitz, Petty and Russell which found that of seven victims stabbed in various regions of the heart, none expired immediately. While two were quickly incapacitated, the remaining five were not, and of these one, despite a two-centimeter incision in the left ventricle, walked a full city block, armed himself with a broken beer bottle, and collapsed only after he returned to the scene of the crime to re-engage the individual who had stabbed him.”

The Dubious Quick Kill, part 1 – Frank Lurz,


Following are a couple of excellent short videos discussing, and graphically showing how, in real life, cut opponents were often able to continue fighting.




Creating true realism in test cutting is extremely difficult, short of investing a lot of money in the latest high-tech, room-temperature-stable, blood-simulant filled, ballistic gel dummies as have often been seen on the television shows Mythbusters (Discovery Channel) and Deadliest Warriors (Spike TV).



While such might be nice for realism — as in to see the effects of our cuts — this “blood and guts” approach takes us far away from the idea of practicing for technical development of our skills, leaving us in the the arena of fantasy butchery;  not a positive development.

Test cutting should add to and widen your knowledge and ability in your chosen art of study — allowing you to alter your fencing / katas with knowledge of how to making effective movements —  and not replace it solely with the ability to cut targets.




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