For several years Chris Scoggin from Ronin Katana has been working with two highly skilled Master Smiths based in China to produce his line of 'Ronin Elite' swords.
But in late 2011, after working with Chris myself for several years, a project was put on the drawing board - to create the very best quality Katana that could be made by these Master Smiths at a reasonable price point.
The end result of this collaboration is called Project X - and is
basically a very special, limited availability run of made to order, semi custom Master Smith
forged Katana available one or two times a year on average.
You see, one of the main problems with Ronin's elite line was that they
rarely stayed in stock long enough to give everyone who wanted one a
fair chance to actually purchase one. But we solved this problem with
project X for those who are patient enough to wait for each batch to open - with priority going to people who have signed up for the Project X Special Announcements Newsletter.
As such, we think we solved several a major issues for the serious collector of high quality Japanese swords.
But to fully explain what this project is, how it came about, and why it is so special, we need to dig a little into the backstory behind it all - and take a look at what a real Master Smith actually is (as it is a term baldy abused within the industry), how the sword making industry in China has evolved over the years and exactly what the fuss about Project X is all about anyway..
Over the years I have seen a lot of "Japanese styled swords" made in China.
Most have been 'okay'. Some pretty solid and dependable. But so many more just left me shaking my head wondering ‘what WERE they thinking when they made this piece of crap’.
I’m sure if you have been collecting for a while, you know what I mean. From stainless steel, one screw holding it together, rat tail tang horrors to carbon steel blades that just felt WRONG and the geometry was so messed up they couldn’t cut their way out of a paper bag..
In 2005 when SBG started, you had to look pretty hard to find good quality swords.
Choices were limited to stainless steel wallhangers (which cost as much as today's REAL swords) and then just pretty much the Hanwei Forge PPK, Cheness (which had just started in earnest), Last Legend (long gone) and the occasional diamond in the rough like the legendary Masahiro Bamboo discovered by Marc Ridgeway on SFI.
By 2008, there were new sword designs, brands, sellers and sword makers were popping up all over the place!
eBay swords and going direct with the Chinese forges started something
revolution. Some people got some really amazing stuff. Others, got
ripped off (an unfortunate side-effect – hey, it’s the interwebz!). Most
got something in between - not great, but not that bad either. And a few, well they just got ripped off completely or wondered why the guy who had been so helpful leading up to the order was suddenly no-where to be seen if there was a problem..
Personally, I didn’t really like this so much - and I imagine a lot of other enthusiasts didn't like it very much either. So I decided to try my
hand and design a few swords and work with some people I had met over the years to see what could
be done. The end result was the SBG custom Katana and the Proswords
collaboration (you can read about all the various projects we have been involved with here).
While the swords I made with Proswords were well received and quite impressive, the business itself kind of fell apart when it branched off from SBG and collapsed completely a few years later. Same story with the SBG Custom Katana, thought it lasted many, many years (44 batches) in the end eBay took away its sales and it died a slow and painful death..
While these projects were different, the problem was as good as they might have been – these swords are ALWAYS held back by the final price point we had to aim for. We achieved a lot, like alternating ito, real boshi, a clearer (but not 100% geometric) yokote, etc but when you are trying to keep the price close to $300-500 – normally there are a lot of options you have to leave on the table.
Take, for example, laminated blades. Cheness tried this with the Higo, and while the product was good, they had to trash too many swords each time they did a production run, and it just got too expensive, because it is not the kind of process blue collar workers can consistently perform.
Ultimately, to make a complex laminated blade or even a good folded one, you need a master smith to make it or you end up with slag, poor micro welds air pockets and various weak points.
The word ‘Master Smith’ has been BADLY abused by sword marketers over the years.
Who can forget this classic line of total BS marketing:
“Ryumon Swords are hand Forged and by master craftsman with years of experience from Longquan.
These master sword smiths (my italics) combine modern knowledge with traditional secrets to produce superior quality handmade Samurai Swords with enhanced durability, sharpness, and exquisite craftsmanship. Each Ryumon Sword is a fully functional, battle ready Samurai Sword” – all yours for only $180..
We wish..And CEO's get the same salary as managers right?
Long story short, there is no way that a Master Smith COULD sell a sword for ANYWHERE NEAR that price.. Heck, most of them wouldn't even get out of bed for that much.. (the highest level masters in China can literally charge millions of dollars to extremely wealthy clients - so be very cautious when you hear the word 'Master Smith' being bandied about on swords at entry level prices).
The closest the market ever got to a true 'cheap' Master Smith sword was Musashi swords Wind Katana
(pictured right) which was made by senior apprentices under the direct supervision of Master Smith
Chris Zhou – but was canned by Mr. Zhou because he thought it was being
sold TOO cheaply and damaging his reputation in the process.
But while it was definitely an impressive sword, it certainly wasn’t MADE by a master smith.
Master smiths almost always only make one off custom work, or small runs at the most. These guys are few in number, university educated, and extremely PROUD of both their position at the forge and the blades they hand forge.
Anyway, it was during these heady days that I had my own first encounter with the kind of work these master smiths can do in the form of a Chinese Dao - which WAS made by Mr Zhou..
I’ve never reviewed this Dao, because it’s not a production piece and never actually went into production – but I actually consider it to be one of my favorite swords in my personal collection. From memory, it was priced close to the $2000 mark. But it was incredibly fast, felt
totally solid and cut like a dream.
Even though it is a single handed sword, it cut better than ANY of the Katana I have ever reviewed at SBG until recent years. So it begged the question, what would one of these Master smith made Katana be like!? What else could they make?
No-one was selling them, and I imagined how cool it would be to be able to offer swords like this to the to the SBG community so they could experience how cool and well made these blades can be!
True enough, they would not be for everyone, but they were also developed in response to a question I was asked ovet and over and over again..
On the SBG Japanese swords page there is a ‘caveat and disclaimer’ that more or less can be summed up as 'you can’t get a Ferrari for the Price of a Pinto'. And its the same with swords. You can't get a $300 sword and expect it to keep up with a $5000 Nihonto.
But for around $1000, a lot of options for high quality swords start too open up. So the next logical question is, what are you supposed to buy for that $1,000?
You see, spending more money is not necessarily a guarantee of getting a better sword. And it certainly isn't a guarantee of getting one that was made by a master smith. But already one company had established itself a solid reputation for complex laminated swords around $1K that were so well made, some Sensei mistook them for Japanese made Nihonto many, many times the price..
The ELITE line of swords made for Ronin Katana by the master smiths, the Ronin Elite line..
Chris Scoggin from Ronin Katana had been working with some of the qualified, bona-fide Master smiths, recognized officially by Longquan province for some time to create his Ronin Elite line.
Chances are, you have probably heard of these extremely popular swords or perhaps read Marc Ridgeways review. If you haven’t I STRONGLY recommend you do to get an idea of what we are talking about here – it will give you a much clearer idea of what these swords are like, how and why THEY came about, and an insight into how the sword industry and master smiths in China operate.. (seriously, have a read – I’ll wait for you).
One of the things that makes these blades truly stand out is they are made using the most advanced lamination method ever created - it's invention credited to the legendary Masamune (click here to read more about famous historical Japanese sword smiths). A lamination technique known as Soshu Kiate (5 panel laminate)
The concept is to create a blade with a hard and sharp edge with a jacket of hard steel over a medium, durable layer and a soft, flexible and shock resistant core. When combined with differential hardening, the effect maximizes the blades cutting ability (many people think it is FOLDING that makes the difference, but these days folding is purely cosmetic). Lamination, when done correctly, can take a well made differentiallly hardened traditional style sword as close to a Nihonto as you can get.
The problem with Ronin's elite line is, only so many are made each run – and the coolest looking designs sell too fast, leaving only a handful of designs that no-one really likes the look so much.
But it came to pass that in late 2011, Chris asked me a question that would change all of that..
Chris said he asked me if I was interested in partnering with him to create a product similar the Elite line – but made to order and pulling out ALL the stops. The goal was to create a Katana line that was as close as possible to a Japanese made Shinken, but at a mere fraction of the price..
Needless to say, we started making plans to implement this exciting project. We already knew the smiths and what they were capable of making. And so, in time, the plan for Project X as you know it today started to come together.
Originally, as we quickly worked out what we needed we were excited to get it off the ground as soon as possible and aimed for the first swords from project X to be available in Jan/Feb 2012. However, the timing of the launch wasn't quite right. It was close, but there were a few additional tweaks were needed one the first prototypes, so we could get the weight, balance, etc spot on.
We already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. But we needed to see first hand how each upgrade would improve the sword - and when it came to upgrades, we held nothing back. Instead of setting a target price and working backwards, we told them what we needed, nearly fainted when we heard the total costs - and said 'go for it' adding the smallest mark up to cover our time and expenses.
These swords have it ALL - nothings is held back and we made it clear we ONLY want the best they have. So the end result was a carefully hand crafted Soshu Kitae
laminated blade with real hamon, premium top of the line fittings, and then every extra you can imagine - topped off with Buffalo horn saya, premium quality full
wrap rayskin, Black iron fuchi/kashira, Premium black silk ito,
(alternating, with hishigami triangles to ensure perfect shaping) over a FULL rayskin wrap with EVERY sword..
You name it. These swords have it - no holds barred, no expenses spared. And offered only just above our cost price to give you truly out of this world value for money (if you are quick enough that is).
While the first lot of each Katana line could be pre-ordered, the first time around there were no custom options at all. Just the designs we created ourselves.
Why? Well, to quote Chris:
"Project X is a production run of swords using elite blades but with only two different fitting sets. They are made to specs decided upon by Paul and I, and include more bells and whistles. Like the elite line, there are no options for customization. Working with ranked master smiths is very expensive, as these are highly educated and respected individuals. Because Ronin is a large company, I was able to negotiate a set rate per master per day, not per piece."
However, over time it became clearer that people WANTED to ability to customize these stunning blades to truly make them their own. After all, we had already raised the bar in terms of quality and upgrades. So why not take it all the way..?
It took a LOT of pushing, the forge simply did not want to do it - it was too much bother - but we did not give up, and when they finally agreed Project X Japanese came to full maturity.
The original base models were still there, but each one had a selection of suggested customizations (though you can mix and match as you like) - and even added some elite cusomizations such as Horimono engravings (pictured below), leather ito wrap, etc as optional upgrades.
With the average price point for a basic model from the series hovering around the USD1000 level, these swords may be priced too high for many. But the reality of it is, you could charge double for these and still they would have few close competitors..
Indeed, $1000 in many cases would just cover the DEPOSIT, but if we can give a handful of people the chance to pick up something like this just above our cost price - we aren't greedy, and we see no reason to make a huge profit just because we can.
Because this project is really quite exclusive (these swords are ONLY available from SBG, and due to the price and the need for patience while they are made, I don't want every man and his dog ordering unless they know what they are committing to because we are VERY serious about maintaining the integrity of the project, and do not want misunderstandings - especially about lead times).
After all, anything good is worth waiting for..
The only real catch other than the wait time of 3-4 months is full payment is required up front. But then again, considering the full price is close to what others would charge for the DEPOSIT - and the forge requires payment upfront, it is a serious commitment all around.
But oh so worth it in the end.. (we guarantee that you will be satisfied, if not - we will do whatever it takes to make it right). Naturally If you have any questions, feel free to contact us - but the Project X story did not and does not end there.
See the time line below how it evolved and created several spin-off projects, some of which have further redefined the industry.
August 17, 2012 - Pre-orders have commenced! Products listed in the store here
August 30, 2012 - Pre-orders closed - production to commence.
September 26, 2012 - Visit to the forge to inspect production and meet the master smiths personally.
January 3, 2013 - Shipment lands, swords inspected and shipping to pre-order customers commences. In stock orders undergoing inspection and preparing to take orders in late January/early February.
January 29, 2013 - In Stock Order sale begins.
PROJECT X CHINESE (DISCONTINUED)
April 17, 2013 - We take a new and exciting direction with the launch of the Jian of Marquis Yi, a truly world-class, heirloom quality Chinese Gim based on an ancient antique and brought to life by the Jiang brothers, most notably one of the youngest smiths to be recognized as a level 2 smith (there is one more level above 2 - and level 3 smiths are considered to be living national treasures).
30th June, 2014 - after much anticipation, the second Project X Chinese Sword, the Dragon Dao, is made available for pre-order.
Feb 4th-17th, 2015 - Pre-orders commence for a new round of Project X Japanese, including a re-release of model #001 and a new all black styled model #003.
18th May, 2015 - Some pictures from the forge, blades now in the final polishing phase by certified master polishers!
20th July 2015 - Project X Japanese swords clear customs in the USA and are sent to pre-order customers. Landed stock sells out within 24 hours to members of the Project X mailing list..
30th August 2015 - Project X Japanese is offered one last round of pre-orders until September the 24th.
24th March 2016 - Project X launches pre-orders on 3 new Japanese blades (and an upgraded version of the Chinese Dragon Dao) due to arrive late June 2016.
1st July 2016 - Project X branches out with a series of semi custom and made to order models of Japanese and Chinese blades with a new branch under the Project X umbrella - Forge Direct!
There were a few growing pains at the beginning, but this offshoot project based on the same basic principle as Project X later prove to be a big big game changer, and i the end saw 2 huge forges and 1 small but highly skilled Master Smith (Michael Ye) start working with us. More on this later..
26th June 2017 - Project X Japanese, the classic series (models 1-6 and the Ko-Katana/Wakizashi variations) were made available again and orders filled to maximum capacity over a ten day period.
11th October 2017 - A Major environmental overhaul instigated by the Chinese government hits the project hard, effectively causing a temporarily shut down as any polluting forges or component makers are forced to clean up their act or be shut down.
3rd February 2018 - The dust settles from the shakeup, and production not only resumes but is boosted by the addition of several new product lines to Forge Direct with a Mega Sale and special offers on a new Fantasy Sword line by Master Ye 'Michael' Jie in conjunction with a new website in development, "Legendary Swords.com". Unfortunately, the interest by the sword community was not enough to sustain justifying keeping this Fantasy project open and it was cancelled in May 2019.
2nd September 2018 - A new collaboration with Jeffrey Robinson, skilled sword maker, sees us taking a high end Feathersteel/Windsteel blade and decking it out with his amazing custom made bronze fittings as part of the Legendary Swords Project. Below is a picture of the prototype of what became a single one of limited edition run of 20pcs.
19th January 2019 - Seraph Aegis become available to buy.
9th May 2019 - CUSTOM PROJECT X - Or Project X Japanese 2.0 - begins. Limited Trial re-release of the ORIGINAL 6 Project X Katana designs, but now made to order and with a large number of customization options. Made to order with a lead time of approx 3-4 months (though it can be shorter or significantly longer, such is the nature of any custom made item - so as ALWAYS with custom swords made from scratch, don't order if you are not truly committed to your sword).
6th October 2019 - the second round of Project X Japanese begins, this time with 30 pre-order slots available and a longer, more realistic turnaround time (3-4 months) as well as three new models.. At the same time, Forge Direct Japanese - whose swords are made by Project X's biggest competitor, have stepped up to the plate with lower prices, more custom options and a fairer 'only pay for what you need' pricing structure. Want to keep it simple with a saya like the one on the left, you can save $200 and get the whole package for $699.99. But if you want to go crazy with upgrades and handpainted Dragon Saya, it's going to cost a little extra (but in most cases, nowhere near as much as you would expect).
Additionally, forge direct attempts to take it up to the same level as Project X with an option for a truly stunning folded blade unlike any other on the market.
29th November 2019 - One of the largest and most exclusive forges with over 50 smiths (including several level one master smiths) and 200 employees, Baojian Sword owned and operated by level two master smith Zhangshu Ji.
Established in 1956 with over 50 smiths (including several rank 1 Master Smiths) and 200 workers, this forge was selected in 1972 to produce 4 swords that were gifted to President Nixon during his historic visit to China and is renowned throughout the country as one of the best quality suppliers of premium quality traditional Chinese swords and ancient weaponry - and now are part of Forge Direct with 8 stunning designs - some of which have been purchased by wealthy and famous Chinese celebrities.
Here are my personal favorite three, the one one on the left (a Windsteel blade with all Damascus fittings) - made by the Master himself..
Then along came 2020 - and the normal one month Chinese New Year Shutdown continued for month after month as the SARS-COV2 Pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt..
Project X Japanese, which as supposed to take new orders in February was delayed for 6+ months, Forge Direct orders continued for as long as possible until International shipping ground to a complete halt - and supply chain issues bit the industry hard so that by the 23rd of June we had to put a halt to ALL Forge Direct Orders until the backlog was back in control.
However this 'dead' time has not been wasted.
Both Forge Direct Japanese and Project X are getting some serious upgrades. For example, Project X comes with a full wrap by default, now Forge Direct has it as an optional extra here!
The biggest issue(s) - as there are two of them:
It is a tricky time. but persist we must. And persist we did..
23rd August 2020 - Project X Japanese opens for the first and last time in 2020. Fully paid pre-orders maxed out within 4 days.. Below are some pictures of the swords from this batch being polished and assembled over a period of 4 months as advertised.
25th May 2021 - Another round of Project X is offered to our subscribers list and nearly hits maximum capacity before we can make it available to the general public..
30th May 2021 - Forge Direct Chinese comes back online - as does Master Michael Ye who returns from retirement earlier in the year and releases two new very unique designs in the style that he has become famous for.
Project X ALWAYS has something new we are planning, but if you want to have a peek behind the curtain, sign up to our exclusive Project X Newsletter below to stay up to date on the project:
PROJECT X NEWSLETTER
Not only will it keep you informed and up to date, but in it there are subscriber ONLY bonuses, discounts, product deals and a free downloadable eBook with everything Project X related all in one plave.
So even if you are only casually interested, you won't want to miss out on this Project X info it contains.