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The Battle of Nagashino: Samurai matchlock guns and armor

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The Battle of Nagashino: Samurai matchlock guns and armor

Japan had long been at civil war in June of 1575 when the much-feared Takeda clan invaded Mikawa Province in far eastern Aichi Prefecture, with an army of over 15,000 men. It was not the first time the Takeda clan had attempted to take the province, and from previous incursions were well aware of the lay of the land. Before they could attack the provincial warlord and future Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu in his castle at Okazaki, to protect their hind quarters and supply routes, they had to capture the northern Tokugawa-held Nagashino Castle, defended by around 500 samurai. Laying siege to the small but rugged castle, they attempted to bring it down, but to no avail. During the siege, a low-ranked ashigaru foot soldier named Torii Sune'emon had volunteered to get help, sneaking out of the castle at night, swimming the raging rivers that formed a natural moat around it, and ran 35 kilometers to Okazaki Castle, home of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Old map of the Nagashino Castle layout.

  • Nagashino Castle
  • Nagashino Castle moat

▲ Photo: Old map of the Nagashino Castle layout.
▲ Photo: Site of Nagashino Castle, defensively positioned above the fork of two rivers.
▲ Photo: Nagashino Castle’s dry moats and earthen ramparts.

Having completed his mission, the brave Torii then returned to Nagashino, however, he was captured by Takeda and executed in front of his friends, but not before shouting to his comrades that help was coming!

Upon hearing of the intrusion, Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to his ally, the daring and powerful Oda Nobunaga for assistance. Together they formed an army of 38,000 and marched to a small valley near where the Takeda forces camped during the siege of Nagashino. Here they set up a rudimentary log palisade some two kilometers long and taking positions along the western side of the valley, watched as the Takeda made their advance.

  • Palisades
  • Palisades

▲ Photo: Reconstructed palisades along the western edge of the narrow Shitaragahara Valley, scene of the Battle of Nagashino.
▲ Photo: Looking towards the Takeda encampments across the killing fields of Nagashino Shitaragahara from behind the barricades.

The Oda forces had over 3,000 matchlock guns in their possession. Guns had been used in samurai skirmishes before, but never on this scale. The Takeda leader, Takeda Katsuyori underestimated both Oda Nobunaga and the new weapon to the samurai arsenal. Katsuyori ordered the first wave of men to attack. To get to the Tokugawa/Oda samurai behind the flimsy looking log barricades, the Takeda cavalry and troops had to cross the valley’s open flat land, cross muddy rice paddies, ford a small river, then wade through more mucky rice fields. Before they could make it to the palisades, they were brought down by a thunderous hail of lead shots. Katsuyori sent the next wave, but they too were decimated by round after round of gunfire. Any Takeda warrior reaching the stockade were speared or cut down with swords. The next, and the battalion after that were also mowed down until eight hours later, when the defeated Takeda having lost around 10,000 men, turned and fled.

Being a gun battle, it was among the most exciting of samurai battles and remains among the best preserved samurai battlefields in Japan.

  • Matchlock gun
  • Matchlock gun
  • Matchlock gun

▲ Photo: Ready, aim… Fire!
▲ Photo: Firing from the palisades at Shitaragahara Battlefield.
▲ Photo: Antique gun firing demonstrations take place a few times annually at Nagashino Castle and on the old battlefield.

Matchlocks guns!

Matchlock guns had been introduced to Japan some twenty years previously by Portuguese traders. The shogun at the time had obtained a number of the firearms and demanded working copies be made. The wooden stocks, the steel tube barrels, even the complicated firing mechanisms were soon perfected. The main problem was replicating the screw threads in the breach, important for the cleaning and maintenance of the firearms. Once that had been overcome, Japanese-made matchlock guns were being churned out in their thousands. In fact, by the time of the Battle of Nagashino, Japanese blackmiths—particularly those of the Kunitomo region of Omi (Shiga Prefecture) and Sakai near Osaka—were producing better quality forged guns than their counterparts overseas, and more of them!

Chris Glenn

▲ Photo: The author testing an antique matchlock gun at Shitaragahara Battlefield.

  • Matchlock gun
  • Matchlock gun

▲ Photo: Detail of the firing mechanism showing the serpentine and the open flashpan.
▲ Photo: Detail of the breach screw and threading.

To meet the demand, gunsmiths formed cooperatives. Some members would concentrate on the barrels, others on the intricate firing hardware. Others made the wooden furniture. Proud of their work, the smiths would sign their pieces like an artist signs his work, engraving their names and regions on the underside of the gun barrel.

  • Matchlock gun
  • Matchlock guns

▲ Photo: The engraved signature of a Kunitomo smith.
▲ Photo: Selection of guns on display at the fascinating Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum.

The matchlock guns were muzzle loaded, with around 10 grams of course blackpowder poured down the bore, followed by a lead ball rammed home after it. To the right of the gun, from the gunners’ position, was a small lid fitted flashpan below a serpentine rig. The pan had a very small hole in the bottom leading to the main chamber, and was filled with very fine gunpowder then closed to prevent the powder from spilling or blowing away in the wind. The serpentine held a length of smoldering saltpeter impregnated fuse rope or match. It was cocked back, arming the trigger. To fire, the samurai took aim, left leg forward and slightly bent, right leg held straight behind him, with the wooden gun stock positioned high to the right cheek. To ready, he would thumb open the cover of the flash pan, and on the shouted command of “Utte!”, or “Fire!”, would pull the trigger, releasing the burning rope in the serpentine down into the flashpan. This would instantly ignite the blackpowder in the chamber, sending the lead shot flying out of the barrel with a huge fiery flash, a thunderous roar and clouds of billowing white smoke!

  • Matchlock gun
  • Matchlock gun

▲ Photo: Exciting live firing demonstrations are held a few times each year at the Nagashino Castle ruins and old battlefield.
▲ Photo: The battle festivals and memorials attract huge crowds and make for great photo opportunities.

It is a sight, a sound, and a smell to experience! In fact, you can see these exciting live firing demonstrations a few times each year at the Nagashino Castle ruins, and at the nearby site of the actual battle where a section of the palisades have been recreated along the western edge of the narrow valley of Shitaragahara. Members of the local teppotai, matchlock gun corps re-enactment groups gather in full samurai armor and with antique matchlock guns in hand to fire off round after round of well-drilled precision shooting for various festivals and memorial events that attract huge crowds.

These guns, although rudimentary, had a range of around 150 meters, and an effective range against samurai armor within 30 to 50 meters.

Samurai armor

Samurai armor at the time weighed an average of 15 to 20 kg and was made primarily of steel parts that had been shaped and repeatedly lacquered to make it not only rust-proof, but thicker and stronger, while adding to the aesthetic value of the piece.

  • Samurai armor
  • Samurai armor

▲ Photo: Samurai armor weighed around 15 to 20 kg. Ruins of Nagashino Castle History Museum display.
▲ Photo: Strong and imposing samurai armor. Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum display.

Samurai armor

Samurai kabuto helmets weighed an average of 1 to 1.5 kg a piece. Attached to the helmet bowls’ lower edge were shikoro, neck shields of concentric semi-circles of steel, suspended by silk, cotton or leather braiding. This provided full protection for the neck while allowing for free movement of the head during close combat.

The main body armor too was deep lacquered steel strips averaging 0.5 to 0.7mm in thickness, slightly overlapping and riveted or laced together to form a well-fitting shell around the samurai’s torso, upper chest and back. Below the main body armor were overlapping plates suspended by braiding to protect the hips and upper thighs. In some cases, these plates, called gessan, were made from lacquered rawhide, providing strong yet lightweight protection. Below this, to further protect the thighs was a split apron-like piece called a Haidate.

▲Photo: Lightweight munitions armor for lower ranked samurai. Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum display.

Cloth backed chain-mail sleeves, often interspersed with steel plates and with steel splint wrist and hand guards were worn under large upper arm shield-like protectors called sode. Vertical steel splints attached to cloth and leather leggings called suneate were worn to protect the shins.

Although it appears bulky and heavy, the weight of the armor was not carried on the shoulders, but was borne on the hips with the ensemble held in place with a tightly tied thick waist sash, allowing for a lower center of gravity and making it much easier to walk, run and importantly, fight in.

Matchlock gun downsides

The downside of matchlock guns is, they do not work well in rainy, moist conditions, nor on days of strong winds. Another major problem is that even under ideal conditions they take at least around 45 seconds to reload. That’s 45 seconds the enemy has to cross the no-man’s-land between you and them and attack! And once you see the Nagashino battlefields, you’ll realize just how narrow an area it was and just how desperate the fighting must have been!

Oda Nobunaga was aware of this problem. At the Battle of Nagashino, he was able to arrange his men in such a fashion that they could maintain a steady volley of fire at the Takeda forces. The story is he arranged his men into lines of three behind the palisades facing the enemy. After the first line fired their guns at the approaching Takeda, they would move to the back and start reloading. The second line would fire, and they too would move back to reload as the third line moved into position and shot. By this time, the first line were reloaded and ready to go. The effect was devastating for the Takeda.

Two main sites and two fine museums

There are two sites to visit and two great museums to see: the remains of Nagashino Castle and the adjoining Ruins of Nagashino Castle History Museum, and the nearby site of the battlefield itself with the larger Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum.

  • Nagashino Castle History Museum
  • Samurai armor
  • War drum
  • Matchlock guns

▲ Photo: Ruins of Nagashino Castle History Museum.
▲ Photo: Impressive range of samurai arms and armor on display.
▲ Photo: Blood-spattered war drum.
▲ Photo: Matchlock guns, as used at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575.

Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum.

Nagashino Castle’s museum explains both the siege of Nagashino and the battle itself, and contains a number of sets of samurai armor, weapons, matchlock guns and accessories. A blood spattered war drum said to have seen action at Nagashino, carried on the backs of foot soldiers and used by the warlords to signal commands to their men in the field can be seen along with other relics.

  • Nagashino Castle History Museum
  • Nagashino Castle History Museum

▲ Photo: Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum.
▲ Photo: The museum holds an extensive selection of weapons and armor.
▲ Photo: Part of the gun display in the fascinating museum.

The Shinshiro Shitaragahara Historical Museum on the eastern hillside overlooking the site of the most violent of fighting on the day features an extensive collection of various gauged matchlock guns and what could be described as mini hand-held cannons. A fine selection of armor and other weapons as used at Nagashino is also on display, along with historical maps and documents, video presentations and dioramas outlining the gun battle that changed the course of history, Nagashino!

Chris Glenn

Chris Glenn is a bilingual radio DJ, TV presenter, producer, narrator, MC, copywriter, author and columnist, and Japanese historian, specializing in samurai castles, battles, armor and weapons. He is an inbound tourism advisor, and is often called upon as a lecturer and speaker on Japanese history and topics. He was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1968, and has spent over half his life in Japan, most of that time in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. Chris is dedicated to promoting and preserving Japans’ long history, deep culture, traditions, arts and crafts.

Chris Glenn

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