Compared to historical zanbatō, the one Sanosuke wields is unrealistically oversized, with a full length nearly twice his height and a blade several times wider than normal. He claims that his "partner" is an antique from the Ōnin War, making it over three hundred years old, and its age is apparent from the faded weapon's multiple fractures. Due to the blade's complete lack of an edge, it can no longer cut and can only be used to smash or crush opponents and objects, however, it is shown cutting Hiruma Gohei's cheek when thrown. Sano's great strength allows him to wield his zanbatō with relative ease but its size limits it to simple vertical and lateral attacks, making it easy to read.
At the end of his first duel against Himura Kenshin, Sanosuke's zanbatō is cut in two near the hilt and retired. However, it reappears in Act 185 when the Kamiya dojo comes under attack by Kujiranami Hyōgo of the Six Comrades. To combat Kujiranami's cannon, Sano has refastened the pieces of the zanbatō's blade with iron bolts, but the blade breaks in two again when Sano successfully uses it to deflect a cannon shell. Sanosuke uses the stunted zanbatō one final time against Kujiranami's comrade Inui Banjin, shattering the man's Invulnerable Gauntlets; however, the powerful strike also shatters the remains of the sword and Sanosuke is forced to say goodbye to his long-time battle partner.
In the kanzenban version of the manga released in July 2006, Watsuki included a possible redesign for Sanosuke, in which he wielded a more historically accurate - and, therefore, smaller - zanbatō. A more accurate and wieldy zanbatō has also been featured in production stills for the Rurouni Kenshin (Live-Action Film).