Concordia sophomore Colin Johnson sets up two mini water bottles on a makeshift ta- ble in his backyard, then looks over his shoul-der to make sure everyone is at least 10 feet behind him. In his hand he holds a sword — a cutlass-machete hybrid to be exact.
Colin brings the sword back then swings at the first target: with the sound of metal hitting plastic, the top half of the bottle goes flying, leaving the bottom half, brimming with water, behind on the table — the sign of a good cut. Without pause, Colin goes for the second but his precision isn’t as strong. He ends up just breaking the cap off more from sheer force rather than proper use of the blade, indicated by the jagged edges of plastic.
Now it’s his brother, Garrett Johnson’s turn. As Colin throws the plastic remains in the recycle bin, Garrett sets up two mini water bottles on the plank, just like Colin did.
“I love how we do this,” Colin says, his leather jacket standing out against the white sky. “I do a cut, then you do a cut.” Colin moves out of range behind his brother.
Hood up, blue sweatshirt arched across his back, Garrett hunches over the targets, knife in hand, doing a few practice taps. Then, twisting his whole body, he slices at one water bottle, then the second: one cuts in an explo- sion of water, the other one goes flying.
Colin goes to pick this one up, examining it. “Ha!” he says, holding up the intact bottle. “You didn’t get this one.”
“We’ll call it a draw,” Garrett says, running a rag along his bowie knife, wiping water off, to keep it from rusting.
What the Johnson brothers are doing here is called test-cutting.
Definition and Purpose
“A lot of people seem to think that test cutting is something you do like in your basement with like sheets of paper,” Colin said. “It’s more bad-ass than that.”
According to “An Introduction to: Back- yard Cutting” by Paul Southren found on swordbuyersguide.com, backyard test-cutting involves using swords to safely cut up anything from the box the sword came in, to pool noodles — for the purpose of having fun.
Test-cutting is also used more formally in martial arts — like the Korean sword art, kumdo. Master Dave Schimmelpfennig, fourth degree black belt in taekwondo, third degree black belt in hapkido, first degree black belt in kumdo and instructor of Concordia’s taekwondo club, has experience with test-cutting in Korea as part of his kumdo test.
According to “Haidong Kumdo: Korean Sword Art” by Turtle Press, test-cutting is used by martial artists to practice accuracy, focus and clean cuts on targets like bundles of straw.
Colin uses recyclables filled with water as targets and said water bottles are one of the favorites of the sword community.
“Because they’re very easy to get and they have just enough challenge to them,” Colin said.
If you don’t line up the edge of the blade properly, you will probably just send the target flying without cutting it, Colin said, which is what happened to Garrett.
When Master Dave went to Korea in 2004, their targets were straw soaked in water, packed together about 5 inches wide and bound in a few spots, set on a stake.
Master Dave said the historical reason they use this as a target is kind of morbid to think about.
“It’s supposed to be the same consistency of a human neck,” Master Dave said.
The kumdo swords Master Dave used were about 3 feet long, slightly curved, sharp on one edge and tapered at the tip.
According to Master Dave, good kumdo swords are hundreds of dollars if not more.
For Colin, a decent sword means a $200 sword, which is considered entry-level by some people. His first sword was a $40 katana for Christmas when he was 17.
“I decided the only thing on my list was going to be the sword,” Colin said. “And it worked.”
Three years later, Colin has added to the collection; his preferred weapon to use for test-cutting is his cutlass-machete hybrid because it’s lightweight, it’s fast and it’s what he’s most used to. The single-blade is about 2 feet long, slightly curved and made of high carbon steel with a handle just big enough for one hand.
Garrett prefers to use his bowie knife.
“It’s mine. And it’s also small and fast,” Garrett said.
The bowie knife is just over a foot in total length, with a curved blade about 2 inches wide that slopes wider at the striking surface of the blade.
“There’s something more satisfying about using a sword you own,” Colin said, with the metallic sound of the blade sharpener running along his longsword.
Colin’s longsword is a straight blade that’s sharp on both edges, 3 feet long with a bit more weight to it — 3 pounds — wider and thicker toward the handle and tapering toward the tip.
If Colin wants a challenge or wants to feel powerful, he uses one of his bigger swords.
“I have an odachi which is a sword almost as tall as I am,” Colin said. “That one is a beast to use. … I’m not good enough with it to get clean cuts all the time.”
The odachi has a curved one-sided blade and is about 4 feet long in total with the handle being almost half of the entire length.
With long blades, it’s hard to strike with the edge of the blade — especially the longer the handle — because it’s more difficult to control, Colin said.
Yet on the Johnson’s patio, Feb. 21, Colin holds the odachi, hands spread apart on its long handle, drawing the weapon back then leveraging it forward at a bleach bottle — one of the tougher targets because of its thickness — and cuts right through, leaving the bottom half on the table, water rippling within the white plastic.
Colin said this is one sign of a good cut.
“Usually if the bottom half remains, that means it was a pretty clean cut,” Colin said. “You also want to look at the surface where the blade actually hit to make sure it’s smooth. If it’s jagged that means it wasn’t necessarily a cut, it could have been a break … pretty much you just hit it with so much force that the thing cracked in half.”
Master Dave said there’s a difference between hacking and cutting.
“You can’t hack through whatever you’re cutting. You have to let the blade do the work. If you try to power through it, it just won’t cut,” Master Dave said. “It’s not an ax, it’s a blade. … You let the blade slice through,” he said, motioning in a forward arc with his arm as if holding a sword. “Without that, you can’t get the penetration through the target.”
For Master Dave’s kumdo test, he started 5 to 7 steps away from the target, drew the sword as approaching, stepped and cut, swiped the sword to the side as if to flick off blood, then resheathed the sword.
In Korea, Master Dave had the experienceof training with a very good cutter, Grand Master Chan Joo Jung.
“He is considered one of the best cutters in the world,” Master Dave said. “He taught us technique and he tested us for black belts.”
Master Dave remembers many amazing cuts by Grand Master Jung.
One time, Grand Master Jung was knelt down meditating in front of the target with his back to the target and his sword sheathed, Master Dave said.
“Eventually he jumped up — and I can’t even describe how quick it was — but he jumped up, spun, drew his sword — and this is one motion — drew his sword, cut, put the sword back in the sheath incredibly fast and turned around and was back down on his knees,” Master Dave said.
To use a real sword requires focus. According to Master Dave, ki-kum-shay — body mind and spirit all active at the same time — is particularly important in kumdo.
“It’s everything all at once and your body is just guiding the sword. It’s more like an extension.”
Besides proper focus and control, Master Dave said it is important to have a secure training location so that random people don’t wander in.
“The risk for injury is a lot greater. And that’s why color belts don’t train with real sword — it’s black belts that train with real sword.”
Leading up to using a full sword, kumdo students practice the basic cut many times with wooden swords, until they really have that down, Master Dave said.
Colin said it’s important to have a good test-cutting environment where everyone is at least 10 feet behind the test-cutter and the ground is not slippery.
“If there’s a chance you can slip, you don’t want to do it.”
Colin said it’s important to be old enough to safely use a sword.
“If you can drive a car — like if you reach 16, I think that you can own a sword, but be- fore that, no.”
The sword also needs to be good enough quality that it won’t snap.
“If it’s a cheaply-made sword … hang it back on the wall,” Colin said.
Even with good-quality swords, the blade becomes a little bit duller with every cut, so it’s important to take care of the blade, Master Dave said.
Colin also emphasizes good sword care. He cleans his swords by first drying them with a paper towel, then oiling them with a cloth while not touching the blade directly because skin oil is very bad for the blade, Colin said.
When rust happens, steel wool is the trick.
In his basement, Colin rubs steel wool in one direction at the hilt of his longsword to remove any rust that may have developed from it being out in the elements. His swords are propped on a white table, a little bottle of oil to the side.
Colin reaches and clicks on a lamp, shakes out a sleeve of his sweatshirt, grips the sword — bare hand on the hilt, sleeved hand on the blade — and moves it under the light to check for rust.
For Master Dave, he has talked among his martial arts community about maybe one day getting a sword that would stay in the family for generations.
Meanwhile Colin looks forward to the next sword on his wish list: a shamshir, which is like his cutlass-machete hybrid but a bit longer and with more weight to it.
When faced with misconceptions about why someone would collect and test-cut with swords, Colin said the purpose is not to imagine cutting a person.
“No. I’m imagining cutting a water bottle,” Colin said. “It’s about the skill and the technique.”