How pop culture will get us all killed. (Part 4)

While watching a recent episode of everyone’s favorite zombie show, (with the exception of George Romero and my friends at DeadMen Talking), Michonne was caught in the middle of a hallway when a zombie suddenly burst out of a room. She swiped at it with her Katana and the zombie was quickly dispatched. Michonne didn’t pay it a second thought. She didn’t even break her stride. One clean swipe and done.

Many zombie enthusiasts are proponents of bladed weapons, going so far as to state that they offer a better chance of survival during Z-day. And the granddaddy of all blades is the Katana; legendary sword of the Samurai. The Katana is known for its blade strength, razor sharpness and is distinguished by a single–edged curved blade and long grip handle. This handle is specifically designed to be held with both hands due to the Katana’s length (generally around 24 inches long, with some older known Katanas in existence being upwards of 27-28 inches long).

While there is no denying the deadliness of the Katana in the hands of someone who has been properly trained in its use, maintenance and has spent years honing those skills… it is nowhere near as deadly, or even useful, in the hands of Joe zombie-survivor. And that is where the problem lies. Pop culture has made it seem like anyone can just grab the thing and swing it around with the effectiveness of a Samurai, when in reality they’d only end up with a broken sword and soiled underwear.

First of all, while the Katana is used for close combat, it is not actually useful in a closed combat situation. The sword is simply too long to use with any real effectiveness in hallways, small rooms, etc. The blade is only useful to someone who knows how to swing it. Its unique handle style makes it difficult to even grip comfortably, (if you have not held a Katana, go grab one and take a swing). The blade itself is high maintenance and requires a lot of attention in order to keep it from getting dull, rusted and to maintain its strength.

Not only is using a Katana something that requires training and skill, but its difficult to even find one that has the high standards that the sword is known for. Most of us have seen them in head shops, fantasy stores and cheap five and dime trinket stores. But those aren’t real. A lot of the Katanas in museums aren’t real; they are replicas. And while they might be better than those swap shop blades, it probably isn’t by much.

At the end of the day, while Katanas are very cool looking and equally deadly in the hands of a trained martial artist, the average person has a better chance of surviving with a plain old machete. I’d rather be alive than sexy.

What do you guys think? Is the Katana the best sword for the apocalypse?

I just wanted to take a second and thank my friends Ben “Rambo” Morgan and Zombi Gunslingr for their help with this article. Check out their podcast Zombie Ryu if you get a chance on TalkShoe.com!

Contributing author Alfredo Torres is an adjunct professor of communications at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA where he wrote his master’s thesis on the metaphoric representation of zombies in the films of George Romero.


  1. There are so many variables to this whole scenario as well. Excluding “The Walking Dead” aspect of things and looking at this as an actual zombie apocalypse situation the first question should be, were you one of the people prepared for this to happen or were you one of the “this came out of nowhere” people.

    I feel if you are a “prepper” then you most likely have already acquired your main tools of survival, which means there is a high chance you studied it and bought quality. Then as a few people here have said it’s all about training, yes anyone can pick something up and use it as a weapon, but to wield it skillfully is key. If you pick up a katana and swing it like an axe yes it will do damage but that of course is not the proper form.

    Now a true katana will not break with on your first swing, if it did then it was fake. Many people don’t realize that the katanas you see in stores are made from generic stainless steel and in most cases the Tsuka (handle) isn’t even at a proper length and the tang (part of sword in handle) doesn’t carry through the handle as a real katana would. A real katana is going to run you a couple grand and take months to make. On top of that you have to find truly skilled artisans, a katana is not made by one man.

    I have trained in Martial Arts for over 21 yrs now, anytime I have a friend who wants me to teach them the first things I tell them are, it’s going to be extremely repetitive and it will take years before they are able to do anything correctly. Most people don’t wish to really dedicate that kind of time. The way you grip a katana is very important, almost everyone I have ever seen pick up a sword with no training holds it tight like a baseball bat, which is completely wrong.

    The katana as well as any weapon of skill is an extension of yourself as a whole, that means every aspect of your body affects the effectiveness of the katana, the way you grip the katana, the placement and movement of your feet, awareness of your center, so on.

    I would have to agree that pop culture fools people that you can pick up a katana and survive. Most of what people see in shows and movies is for “flare and show” and not proper technique. I often run into performers who do some beautiful moves with weapons such as swords, staves, nunchaku, and so on but put a person or obstacle in front of them and most of what they know and do is useless. Now put a Zombie who will not become scared by fancy moves and what does the get you? Dead.

    It’s all about training and complimenting what you carry and what you need. It’s just like the cross bow over a compound bow or long bow, most people can pick up a cross bow aim and hit a target, not so much with a compound or long bow, not to mention it takes much longer to load a crossbow over the others, but without any actual skill you’ll most likely be better with the crossbow.

    Also as Miyamoto Musashi states “Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful” as well as “You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter. Too much is the same as not enough. Without imitating anyone else, you should have as much weaponry as suits you.”

    That being said my three weapons would be a katana (close to mid range) , compound bow (mid range to long range), and a rope dart/meteor hammer (all range multi function) approx 20lbs weight all together.

  2. Yall should pick up Bill Bagwell’s book, “Battle Blades.” Bagwell is one of the foremost knife makers of our time, and responsible in large part for the resurgence in popularity of the Bowie knife.

    He explains in great detail why a 10″ (+\-,) Bowie is perhaps the best overall edge weapon & tool. (I should note, he’s only referring to true Bowie designs, not inaccurate ornaments or heavy choppers.)

    The combination of speed, backcut, penetration and slashing power is unmatched. Plus, it doubles as a survival tool.

    Of course, a Busse knife ain’t a bad choice, either!

  3. The reason that Samurai took so many years to master the katana was for one simple fact: they knew that the people they would be fighting would have the same skill sets as they did. Not to mention the fact that their enemies weren’t rambling, grumbling morons that ate flesh but rather they were trained killers. If you can get a katana, learn how to use it properly and train for a zombie epidemic. Either way, have a shorter sword like a machete to go with the katana just in case.

  4. most blunt weapons would be equally hindered in similar circumstances. Go pick up a baseball bat and swing it in your hallway, hell go pick up a hammer and try to swing it with brain bashing force in your hallway. the benefit of a tanto cut/ cross cut bladed weapon is that it can be used to stab, it should also be noted there are many kata(stances/moves) that can be used with the katana in close quarter environments. the hip swing for instance, sword starting at your thigh is then drawn up . this mimics one of the most deadly strikes of the samurai’s arsenal which is actually done during the unsheathing of the sword itself, though i do agree that no one who is not trained as an expert swordsman should ever pick up a katana hoping to defend them self it should be pointed out that almost none of the points the author of this article brought up are valid. katanas are made of high quality steel, they are in essence two pieces of steel wrapped around one another. the outer layer a hard rigid steel, designed to hold a razor sharp edge, even when striking armor(not so easily dulled). the inner layer is softer more pliable giving the sword its flexibility and also its curve since the inner layer is cooled less than the outer layer they expand at different rates. most modern high quality katanas are made of steel that inherently resists rust, but rust only requires a small amount of oil to prevent anyway, any blade owner knows this. and the point that the blade will simply snap well I already covered that, the metal is forged to be both pliable and rigid, this dual characteristic makes it very difficult to break. it IS more likely to break than bend, unlike a machete, but the force required is more than a swing would generate. and to anyone questioning if they could in fact behead and dissect people/walkers like she does in the show. well the test of a blade was wether it could decapitate someone (usually a corpse{ironic huh},or an inmate{yes a living criminal} ) in a single swing. again I fully agree that untrained individuals should not arm themselves with a katana before familiarizing them self with the weapon (I should point out this is true of any weapon), but maybe the author should educate them self a bit before rambling about the subject. “tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it”

    • also think of it this way, maybe the show is interesting people in weapons like the katana and inspiring them to learn to use these weapons.

  5. As a sword…swords owner and properly trained, I do agree you need proper training. And that a sword is highly impractical in close quarters. During one of the seminars that I attended it was mentioned that Samurai carried more then one sword and had swords of different lengths for close quarters. There are different types of swords and some of the are suited for hacking and some for slicing. Knowing the difference does make the difference. While The Walking Dead is a great show and Michonne is portrayed as being trained, I have noticed some extremely bad technique, AKA hacking. The katana is meant for slicing and not hacking.

  6. I don’t the article is in regards to Michone or the katana in particular, I think they are using it as an example of how pop culture makes something look cool, and millions decide that it’s a great idea, when in reality it just isn’t that practical. The katana craze would get people killed if SHTF. Katana fans would be rushing out and grabbing up the swords they see in novelty shops and collectibles stores. Sure there are real, high quality katana around, they’re just very few and far between while the cheap imitations are a dime a dozen, and many people don’t know how to tell the difference. Then there’s the skill and strength involved, if you don’t know a swords limitations, you’ll snap or shatter the blade, and it is incredibly difficult to hold a sword up, even a short sword, if you’ve never had much training or experience with one. They are quit heavy, and your arms quickly tire, leading to sloppy movements. Another point the article didn’t even touch on, weight is important, when you are traveling umpteen miles a day, carrying lots of heavy supplies, every ounce matters! An extra ten pounds of weapon is ten pounds less food, which means you’ll need to forage sooner, putting yourself back in danger again. The more weight you carry, the less far you can walk, the harder it is to run or jump over obstacles, the sooner your muscles cramp up and give out completely.
    I think when it comes to your main doomsday weapon, it should be something silent, smallish, and something you are familiar with using.
    I like hatchets, not as my primary weapon, but as a constant backup, always in my belt. They only weigh a couple pounds, and can be used to get into or out of places, hack up firewood, and close combat. The blades are thick and sturdy, and easy sharpen, and I have lots of experience with a hatchet. But that’s just my two cents, lol. I’m by no means an expert.

    • I am confused by your weight comment, sense most katanas come in at 2.5lb – 3lb it is not a heavy weapon, actually quite light compared with the options.

      On quality, that is a bigger deal with longer weapons, and very important with a katana.

  7. Completely agree, I have always been a proponent of heavier blunt weapons or short stabbing weapons. I think if I could only carry two weapons during the entire ordeal I’d carry a 10lbs sledge (re-enforced handle) as well as/or a proper full tang Gladius as made famous by the Romans. The O/A length of the typical Gladius is average 32″, which is long but it’s main advantage is that it’s a thrusting weapon which makes is easily used in close quarters. The sledge is to my advantage as well because I have a larger frame and can gain the momentum needed to cause real damage, I grew up swinging a baseball bat so I have sufficient technique to get the job done and can work on refinements as necessary, practice only prepares you for the real thing, once youre there you need to hone your skill.

  8. So where do I find an original samurai katana? Japan? I do admit I’ve wanted one before walking dead made them a “cool” must have.

    Also a machete is praised as the easiest to use sword weapon however realistically theres different quality in machetes. You’d want one that is not a thin blade. I’ve seen weapon stores selling them and being thicker then the ones I used for gardening purposes. One must seriously compare the garden tool to the military and war use ones. Either way a machete helps you both in nature and a fight. A Katana is just good in a fight.

    • You can probably get o good high quality one in U.S., and not all that come from Japan are high quality. I would suggest trying to find a reputable arms dealer or a highly skilled blacksmith. You should also become as knowledgable as you can about what makes a good katana, what to look for in the blade and hilt, or find someone who is knowledgable, that way you can inspect the gear before you buy it. I’m not very knowledgable about katanas in particular, but I do know a bit about blades in general. Different sword types have different standards for the quality of material, and the processes by which it tempered, resulting in certain amounts of flexibility in the blade and slightly different appearance of the metal (color, sheen, texture). So find out what the best qualities are and what the worst are, so you can make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

    • You can get real hand made katana s from cas hanwei ,there great swords but I do recommend getting formal training on how to properly use it.

  9. I owned a katana once, broke the 1st time i hit something with it. So needless to say it won’t find it’s way into any zombie survival kit I have. Im going to have to sick with the extended warhammer for my melee zombie encounters, lol.

  10. !!SPOILER ALERT!! for anyone who has not seen the season 4 mid season finale of The Walking Dead.

    As far as The Walking Dead is concerned I think it shows that a Katana can not be used by just some un-trained survivor. As mentioned in the other comments it clearly shows Michonne is disciplined and is properly trained. In contrast to that in the season 4 mid-season finale of The Walking Dead when The Governor uses Michonne’s Katana to chop off Herschel’s head his first swing only cuts through half his neck. He then later hacks the crap out of him taking several repeated swings until his head finally comes of thus proving that an un trained person i.e The Governor cannot chop of someones head with a Katana as smoothly as a trained person i.e Michonne.

    • Great observation!

    • exactly! thank you for pointing that out, I was too busy pointing out technical details on the sword itself that I forgot the show entirely.

    • Not only is “michonne” trained with a Katana, but Danai did some major training with the Katana before she ever went before the cameras. She has said in interviews she has trained with swords but training with a katana was a whole different level and a completely different set of muscles to use.

      It was a very interesting interview, it was on the “Tealking Dead” I think, she was very funny about her aches and pains.

  11. Regarding the use of a machete…

    There are several types, with different strengths & weaknesses, but the bottom line is, if you have never had to use a machete for, say, clearing brush from a field, you have no idea of how tired your arm will get after even a few minutes of swinging that thing around. To say nothing about how accurate your swings need to be, after your arm gets tired, in order to NOT chop off your own leg.

  12. “Pop culture has made it seem like anyone can just grab the thing and swing it around with the effectiveness of a Samurai, when in reality they’d only end up with a broken sword and soiled underwear.”
    Stop misinforming people about katanas! You should be informing people about the quality issue, and suggesting that people who prefer this weapon take several years of Kendo training. Anything else is irresponsible.

    This article appears to be about Michonne. I don’t know what show you’re watching, but in the Walking Dead, Michonne is represented as having extremely disciplined habits. She exercises regularly and has clearly had some kind of training. Her character does not suggest to me that she simply grabbed the first sword she saw and magically knew how to use it. It suggests that people who use katanas have rigorous self-discipline, and that some swords are better than others.

    As for the hallway scene, you obviously don’t have any Kendo experience (or probably any martial arts experience). There are several strikes in Kendo that can be done at close range, and all strikes are finely controlled. If I was caught in a narrow hallway, I could definitely land a “small kote” to sever a grasping hand without getting my sword stuck in a wall. Of course she doesn’t break stride! Martial arts trains your movements to be pre-conscious. That means that you recognize the body language of your enemy and react before you have time to think. If you spend the time going “gee, I better step out of the way and attack”, you’re already dead. You have to be able to act without thinking.

    Please stop misinforming people. It’s embarrassing.

    • I completely agree Aaron and with the basic premise of the author. The katana itself is not overrated. It is really a matter of not being able to realistically find one in a post apocalyptic world. If you do find a sword in a mall store or on display in someone’s home, it will most likely be a cheap stainless steel model designed to look cool. It will not be able to stand up to any abuse. That is why from a survivor’s standpoint there are much better options to look for. I mean you can find a machete at your local hardware store or a baseball bat at a sporting goods stores. Quality sword shops just are not common.

      Next, training is obviously a major issue. Most people probably will not be able to use a sword effectively if they never have had training. However, if you have never played baseball, you also will have a hard time swinging one with any real confidence, power, or skill. (I am not comparing the amount of skill required for either, obviously a katana requires much more, just pointing out that training and practice are required to use anything effectively.)

      Luckily, we are living in a pre zombie world. We have time to prepare. If you think you are going to survive the apocalypse by finding a katana and using it like Michonne, you are a moron. However, you have time now to get proper training and eventually buy an appropriate sword to match your skills if you so choose. In the right hands a katana is truly a deadly and efficient weapon, not overrated or useless.

    • genius! I know more about the blades themselves, glad someone has kendo experience and can point out the other major flaws in this argument

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