Samurai were more than honorable warriors: they were an aristocratic class. Carrying swords was a way of showing off that status, and it eventually became a highly respected and regulated custom.
Samurais carried two swords, a katana and a short sword called wakizashi. This pairing was called daisho. Only samurai were allowed to wear daisho in public. It was a symbol of their status and honor. Katanas were used in combat, while wakizashi were used for personal defense and ritual suicide.
Katanas were extensions of a samurai’s soul, and wakizashi never left their side—not even when they slept. The daisho was a crucial part of a samurai’s culture, and it has become the most recognizable part of the samurai gear.
Also see Did Samurai Use Guns? to learn more.
What Kind of Swords Did Samurai Carry?
Samurai carried two types of swords: a long sword, which could be a katana or a tachi, and a short sword called wakizashi. This pairing was called daisho.
A samurai always carried his swords. Swords weren’t their primary weapon in warfare—they were mostly used for duels and personal defense. But the key role of samurai swords was ceremonial.
Only samurai had the right to carry swords in public, in times of war and peace. Moreover, they were expected to wear the daisho at any time.
Samurai had carried secondary swords since ancient times, but it was only in the 16th century that carrying them together with their katana became the norm.  The practice became so regulated that in the year 1645, the government issued a strict normative length for each kind of sword.
These normative lengths were modified a few times by later edicts. Eventually, a more lenient measure was reached: katanas were longer than 60 cm (2 feet) and wakizashi were between 30 and 60 cm (1 and 2 feet) long.
The Long Sword
The long sword in the daisho was a katana. In Japanese, the word katana refers to any type of long sword. In fact, the long sword in the daisho could be either a tachi or an uchigatana. The latter is the type of sword people usually associate with katana.
The difference between uchigatana and tachi was slim. Tachi could be slightly larger, sometimes reaching a little over 80 cm (2.62 ft). Uchigatana never went beyond the 70 cm (2.29 ft) mark.
Samurais held uchigatana pointing up, while they held tachi pointing down. Because of this, their signatures were located in different places. Often, the placement of the signature is the only sure way to distinguish an uchigatana from a tachi.
Samurai typically carried katanas on the left side with the edge facing up in a manner called buke-zukuri.  A samurai would tilt the sheath down with his left hand, slightly pull the sword out, and then use his right hand to draw the katana in one quick, fluid movement.
Also see Did Samurai Know Martial Arts? to learn more.
The Short Sword
Samurai short swords could be either wakizashi or tanto. Tanto were always under 30 cm (1 foot), while wakizashi went from 30 cm to 60 cm (1 to 2 feet). Wakizashi eventually became much more popular than tanto, perhaps because they were better suited for indoor fighting.
Wakizashi were carried between the samurai’s sash in a horizontal fashion so that it lay across his waist.
Like katanas, wakizashi had a curved edge, but they could be made with different casting techniques.
Katanas were prohibitively expensive for traders and laypeople. If a non-samurai had a sword, it was usually a wakizashi.
How Would Samurai Use the Different Swords?
Samurais use katanas in combat, duels, and certain ceremonies and rituals. The wakizashi, however, was used for personal defense, beheading, and committing seppuku.
In battle, the yumi bow was a samurai’s weapon of choice. After the Heian period, the naginata, the Japanese glaive, became another of their main weapons. Both yumi and naginata allowed samurai to fight on horseback.
However, if they got pushed off their horse or decided to charge on foot, they could use their katana in combat.
The katana had a curved edge that allowed for better cutting and more precise edge alignment. Since the curve wasn’t too pronounced, samurai could also use katanas for thrusting.
Samurai would also draw their wakizashi for close-quarters fights. However, the main role of a wakizashi was for everyday personal defense. In fact, they never left their samurai’s side. Samurai would even sleep with their wakizashi under their pillow.
When in their own home or visiting another samurai’s house, samurai would remove their katana at the entrance. However, they would keep their wakizashi on their sash.
Wakizahis were also the sword a samurai would use to commit seppuku—ritual suicide by slashing their own stomach.
Katanas were used in samurai duels, although these didn’t happen as often as movies depict. Still, if a samurai’s honor was attacked, he could demand a duel, and the opponent seldom refused.
Duels were usually planned in advance. Often they weren’t lethal—after all, samurai were nobles, and killing them at a whim would have been problematic.
The ceremonial importance of katanas can’t be overstated. They were an extension of their samurai’s soul, a symbol of their honor and power.  Simply touching another samurai’s katana was a great offense, and casting a new sword was a quasi-religious procedure.
Also see Did Samurai Fight Ninjas? to learn more.
What Other Gear Did Samurai Carry in Combat?
Samurai gear was complex and had extensive attention to detail. There was an endless variety of armor designs and weapon variations, but a few major elements remained the same.
Samurai armor achieved a balance between toughness and mobility.  It could deflect most cuts, but at the same allowed samurai to comfortably use a bow and ride on horseback. They were composed of several layers:
- First, the samurai would strap a loincloth.
- On top of that, he would wear a shirt similar to an everyday kimono and trousers.
- Then the samurai would put on thick cotton socks. High-ranking samurai would wear boots. Lower-ranking ones would wear sandals.
- The knee was covered by a metal cup and the upper thigh with a plate made of iron or leather.
- To protect his arms, the samurai would wear tanned skin gloves and a leather sleeve that reached his shoulder. This sleeve was partly covered by metal.
- The upper part of the arm was covered with a metal or mail plate.
- The samurai protected his middle body with a corselet made of metal plates or lacquered leather.
- Finally, large plated guards covered his shoulders. Similar guards hung around the armor’s waist.
Katanas and wakizashi were the markers of a samurai. However, during battle, they used a variety of other weapons.
- Yumi. The yumi was a long, asymmetrical bow samurai used to shoot while on horseback. Archery was their most prized martial skill.
- Naginata. This weapon resembled a European glaive: a spear-like shaft with a blade instead of a point. They were a samurai’s melee weapon of choice and could be used on horseback.
- Kanabou. The samurai mace was similar to a European one, although slightly more lightweight.
- Yuri. Japanese spears were refined over the centuries and eventually outshined naginata.
Samurai carried two swords: a katana and a short sword called wakizashi. This pairing was called daisho and was a symbol of status.
Also see Did Samurai Uses Axes to Fight? to learn more.