The Equipment of the Samurai – Fearsome Warriors Armed to the Teeth

 
Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period, circa 1867. Hand-colored Photograph by Felice Beato.
 

Samurai were the elite warriors of feudal Japan; as dominant as knights were in Europe. Their equipment was as much a display of their status as it was a matter of military necessity.

These were some of the most crucial parts of their armor.

Bow and Arrows

The samurai started as archers, and it was an important part of how they fought for hundreds of years. As well as bows, they carried small quiver boxes on their belts, from which the arrows protruded for easy access.

Katana

As in Europe, a sword was the primary weapon of the feudal nobility. The katana was a single bladed longsword with a slight curve. The samurai wore them on their left hip. The best katana were the creations of master craftsmen with blades of incredible strength and sharpness. They were usually worn with the edge facing down.

Samurai Warrior on horseback, armed with a bow.

Wakizashi

A shorter sword than the katana, the wakizashi was often paired with it, enabling the samurai to own a decorative set of swords. Together with the katana, it became the iconic weapon of the samurai.

Naginata

The naginata, a long-bladed polearm, was a traditional weapon throughout the history of feudal Japan. It was especially popular with the sohei, a sect of warrior monks. It was also common among infantry and sometimes used by samurai, giving them extra reach.

No-Dachi

Being somewhere between a katana and a naginata in design, a no-dachi was an incredibly long sword, sometimes as tall as a man. It was wielded with two hands and carried across the back in a long scabbard.

Tanto

At the opposite end of the scale from the no-dachi was the tanto. Most samurai carried one of these short, sharp daggers. Some carried two.

The tanto was not a primary weapon of war. Given its length, it was of little use against swords and spears. It had a ceremonial and decorative function. It was also a weapon of last resort and was used in the suicides of many samurais who ended their lives after battlefield failures.

Samurai with sword, ca. 1860

Helmet

As in most conflicts, a helmet was one of the most important pieces of armor a samurai warrior could wear. Based on a metal bowl shape protecting the head, the first samurai helmets had wide fukigayeshi (turn backs beside the face) and shikoro (a neck guard). Over time, both shrank, although some form of shikoro remained. Late in the development of the samurai, men of high status added plumes, horns, or other decoration to their helmets.

Yoroi Armour

Early samurai wore a type of armor called yoroi. It was made by binding small armor scales together using leather thongs then lacquering the resulting plate. Thick silk cords were bound together overlapping yoroi plates. A samurai usually wore armor on the body, as a skirt over the upper legs, and as shoulder flaps that left the arms free for archery.

Agemaki

The agemaki was a knot of silk cords that bound yoroi armor together at the back. It became a decorative status symbol and was still worn on armor long after it was no longer needed to hold it together. It was displaced by the more visible sashimono banner.

Kote

A samurai who was not using a bow could wear armored sleeves called kote under his shoulder pads. Early on, these were cloth bags with metal plates sewn on. Later, as samurai gave up the bow and fought up close, other types of kote emerged, including chainmail.