By Mike Maikeru Baker
A popular misconception about the Samurai we often find in the West is that the gun was a dishonorable weapon for the samurai to use, and that they had despised using them at any cost, even if it meant their life. This could not be further from the truth. The Japanese matchlock rifle or teppo had been in service in Japan from the first arrival of European sailors in 1545 up to the arrival of Americans in 1862 (at 317 years the teppo has the longest service time of all firearms).
Though before the introduction of the teppo the Japanese people had been lightly exposed to the earlier Chinese firearms and pyrotechnics. But for simplicity we will only be looking at the European variant, which in its simple design had a greater impact on the Japanese military.
The matchlock is introduced to Japan:
The introduction of the European matchlock began in 1545, during the appropriately named Sengoku Jidai (“Period of the Country at War”). At this time Japan had found a trading partner in the Europeans. Spaniard and Portuguese sailors who had sailed through Indian and Asian oceans had crash-landed on the small island of Tanegashima, in 1543. “While on this island the Portuguese had offered one of their matchlock rifles as a gift to the local lord” (Bryant 2002).
After that the Portuguese had begun to openly trade with other cities in Japan; Nagasaki had become a major trade port between the Japanese and Portuguese the traders had brought along with them various novelties, such as wool, velvet, tobacco, clocks and even eyeglasses. But the most popular and less novel item brought to Japan by Europe, was the matchlock rifle.
Many of the Daimyo were impressed after seeing the European matchlock; that by 1549 many Daimyo had ordered their weapon smiths to copy and mass-produce this advanced weapon. (Baker 2004) One Daimyo in particular who saw potential in this weapon was Oda Nobunaga, he had placed an order for 500 rifles, the largest order to date (Turnbull p.g.135).
Soon the Japanese demonstrated not only their ability to quickly assimilate objects from other cultures, but also their ability to improve upon it. Many metal smiths went to work and even improved the teppo. This weapon had found to be more powerful then the bow, and easier to use. Eventually the teppo had replaced many archer units. (Bryant p.g. 49).
A look at the teppo:
Manufacturing of this new firearm was simple; the barrel of the rifle was simple to create, simply by wrapping hot iron around a rod and force welding it shut made it, then fitting it into the stock of the gun. The gun’s firing mechanism was made from solid brass. (Bryant page 49)
The Japanese teppo was not only easy to construct but also simple to operate. The gunner would simply hold the teppo straight using his shoulder as a brace. After opening the priming pan and pulling the trigger a spring would release the serpentine, which holds a lit fuse. As the burning fuse hit the priming pan full of powder, the matchlock would fire. Excess lengths of fuse could be wrapped around the stock of the gun or the gunner’s forearm. (Turnbull p.g. 137)
Compared to the Japanese bow, the teppo had a more superior range. The matchlock had an effective killing range of 50 meters and a maximum range of 500 meters, compared to the bow, having a killing range of 30 meters and a maximum range of only 380 meters. (Bryant p.g. 49)
Ammunition for the teppo came in a variety of sizes, which was measured in weight instead of diameter (Bryant p.g. 35). Sizes ranged from as small as 1 monme (8.5mm) to as large as 100 monme (48mm, or nearly 2 inches in diameter). Many large caliber teppo (also known as “wall guns”) had large recoil, that bails of rice were used to support the gunners back.
Although the teppo came in a variety of calibers, many daimyo standardized their teppo’s bores; this allowed for quick loading and allowed soldiers to use each other’s ammunition, when ammo became short (Turnbull p.g. 135).
Ammunition for the matchlock was made from casting solid lead. The lead that was being used for the ammunition was a major import from Europe. It was a suitable metal because of its malleability and high density (Samurai-Archives 2005; Nihon no Bijutsu #390).
During the Sengoku Jidai the teppo was a versatile weapon when it came to battlefield operation. It could be used both on the offensive and defensive. The gun found a home both on the field and in castles.
Many modern castles have their walls pierced with square and triangular ports; these were used to allow soldiers to fire both the bow and teppo, from behind the castle wall. Even the gates to Fuke castle had these ports (Turnbull P.g. 10). These defended firing positions allowed for a besieged garrison to utilize snipers. For example at the siege of Noda in 1573, Takeda Shingen was shot and killed by a sniper, while listening to flute music that came from within the castle (Turnbull p.g. 224).
While attacking forts and castles, gunners had makeshift defensive positions. Soldiers found protection behind straw rice bales, filled with sand, or bundles of green bamboo. They also had moveable wooden shields. Or if they managed to take over an outer tower of the castle, it could be used against the enemy (Turnbull P.g. 82).
On the battlefield teppo squads found a home in the front ranks of the army, alongside the archers. The missile troops had their flanks, front and rear flanks protected by spearman positioned behind them. As noted above many spearman and archer squads were changed to rifleman. Dr. Stephen Turnbull notes that in the “Matunara Kakemono” teppo soldier outnumbered archers almost 13 to 4. And a majority of these teppo squads consisted of ashigaru (Turnbull p.g. 114-115).
The teppo squads received their commands from a Teppo-Taisho (“rifle commander”). The Teppo-Taisho gave the commands for the rifleman to fire and to reload. In the case of Nagashino a Teppo-Taisho was vital in maintaining a constant rate of fire. Support crews, stationed behind the rifle squad were utilized so that soldiers had a steady supply of ammunition and gunpowder (Bryant p.g. 58).
With its excellent range and power, protection against the teppo was often difficult. The first and most obvious defense soldiers had, was hoping they were not in the line of fire. A bullet could easily penetrate light and poorly made armor. To increase protection against the matchlock, soldiers created defense in the form of rice bales or rolled green bamboo. This allowed them to create quick defensive positions on the front lines (Turnbull p.g. 82).
Another defense against this weapon was newer armor. With the appearance of the matchlock, innovations in armor were inevitable. This new armor came in the form of the okegawa-do. The armors breastplate was modeled after European armor, in which solid plates were riveted together. This armor was more solid than older forms of Japanese armor, and could absorb most of the force from a bullet
In this passage, Anthony Bryant gives an example of the Okegawa-do’s defensive capabilities.
“At the end of the battle Tokugowa Ieyasu removed his armor only to have a handful of bullets fall out.” This demonstrates that even though the bullet impact may pierce the armor, the force could be dispersed in the process, still protecting the wearer” (Bryant p.g. 34-35).
In the Nihon no Bijutsu #390, the protective capabilities of the Okegawa-do were confirmed by ballistics tests, where two Okegawa-do that were shot by a teppo, both armors showed signs of large indentations, but no penetration by a bullet.
Though the teppo may have many advantages it does still have an equal amount of disadvantages. The most noticeable problem with the teppo was it’s slow reloading time. Due to the steps required to load a matchlock, it could take a gunner anywhere from 15 to 20 seconds to load and fire the teppo. One way to counteract this on the battlefield was to use archer units to support the riflemen while they reloaded. The Japanese also developed pre-made cartridges, these packets of bullets and powder lowered reloading time significantly (Turnbull p.g. 137-138).
The second disadvantage the teppo carried was its moisture sensitive mechanisms and powder. Large amounts of moisture and water could potentially render the teppo inoperable. The only way to get past this disadvantage was to keep the teppo and powder covered and dry, and also waterproofing the ignition match (Turnbull p.g. 138).
“The battlefield, Shitaragahara, was five kilometers southwest of Nagashino Castle. Key terrain in the area included Nagashino Castle, Tobigasuyama Hill across the Toyokawa River, and Mount Gambo, which anchored the Oda flank. Obstacles to movement were the Onogawa and Takigawa Rivers, which joined together at Nagashino to form the Toyokawa River; these framed the battlefield. Woods extended from the Onogawa to about 200-400 meters from the Tokugawa and Oda lines near Mount Gambo, and 100 meters from the lines was the Rengogawa River, a small little stream with high banks that would break up a cavalry charge.” (Ledbetter 2005)
The wooded areas allowed for protection of the Tokugowa/Oda flanks, while the Rengogawa’s banks would be able to slow down a cavalry charge. Also since the field between the palisade and the tree lines were clear, the Takeda army would have no added protection. Oda Nobunaga decided that the best course of action would be to use his 3,000 gunners. He would place them on the front line in three rows, with a command for them to fire in a rotating volley, allowing for a continuous rate of fire. In order for this to succeed the armies front lines would need added protection from the cavalry’s charges. Nobunaga had a loose wooden fence constructed 50 meters from the Rengogawa. The wooden palisade was constructed in a zigzag pattern, across the entire front line. It was also built high enough to stop the enemy horses form leaping over it (Ledbetter 2005).
On June 19th at 6 a.m. Takeda Katsuyori commanded for the charge. Katsuyori’s initial plan was to have the Takeda cavalry break through the main Oda lines, causing a rout. During the commotion and possible retreat the rest of the cavalry and foot soldiers could decimate the Oda/Tokugowa army. Katsuyori showed no concerns about the Oda’s teppo because the day before there was heavy rainfall. The heavy moisture and water would then render Oda Nobunaga’s guns and ultimately his defense ineffective. What Katsuyori did not anticipate was the enemy protecting their guns from the rainfall, they were covered so well that they would function even after the rainstorm.
The teppo taisho waited until the Takeda cavalry made it to the banks of the Rengogawa. The shallow river and its high banks had slowed down the cavalry’s charge. It was at this point that the Oda commanders gave the order to fire. Now most sources give the teppo’s maximum killing range at about 50 meters. Dr. Stephen Turnbull also notes that tests show a 1 in 3 chance of hitting a man-sized target from 50 meters (the Takeda samurai, being mounted on horses and in a slow moving, condensed formation may have gave better odds). Now Oda Nobunaga was noted by Dr. Turnbull as being a master at using firearms, so my hypothesis is Nobunaga estimated the Rengogawa was at a distant where his men could fire and hit a good percent of their slowed targets, and not wasting ammo on blind shots.
This initial volley not only injured and killed many samurai, but the loud noise and smoke from the teppo also frightened the charging horses, again slowing the charge, and lowering the Takeda’s offensive capabilities. The gunners “using a volley fire system with three ranks, quickly fired again and again, destroying the Takeda charge” (Ledbetter 2005). Katsuyori sent wave after wave to the Oda lines only to be stopped by the volley fire. Any samurai who made it to the palisade were cut down in isolated groups. For the next three hours the battle at Shitaragahara was the same. Katsuyori would send in waves of cavalry and the Oda troops would repulse them with their teppo. Then the Oda broke from the palisade and engaged Katsuyori’s troops in hand to hand combat. At 1p.m. the Oda troops were ordered back to the palisades allowing the Takeda army to retreat. Though the Takeda generals fought a rearguard defense many Takeda samurai were rundown and killed. Katsuyori managed to make it back to Kai, where the Tokugowa-Oda army had stopped pursuit at the border (Ledbetter 2005). Out of 15,000 troops roughly 2,000 survived (a causality rate of 67%). Included in the list of killed in action were high ranking Takeda Generals, such as Baba Nobufusa, Yamagata Masakage, Sanada Nobutsuna and Sanda Masateru (Ledbetter 2005; West and Seal 2005).
One point this particular battle illustrates is the use of the volley fire system. By having three rows of gunners, each rotating their volley. Where the first line shoots and then reloads, the second line does the same and finally the third line fires and reloads. By the time the third line fires their shot the first will have already been reloaded, allowing for continuous rate of fire. At Nagashino the Oda troops were able to repel a highly trained and effective Takeda cavalry, utilizing a wooden fence, ashigaru and their guns.
Another point that was illustrated by the battle was weatherproofing. Takeda Katsuyori had relied to heavily on the rainstorm the night before the battle and its ability to render the teppo inoperable. But what he did not think of was Oda Nobunaga’s knowledge of fire arms and his quickness to protect his guns from the water and moisture. By simply covering the gun in a protective container and weatherproofing the match rope the teppo is able to be used even after a rainstorm.
A last point is the ease in which someone can train with the teppo. Nobunaga not only saw offensive capabilities of his Teppo-Taisho, but also in the numbers and ability of his ashigaru. At the battle of Nagashino he had 3,000 men capable of decimating a cavalry and killing generals with no problem.
Samurai 1150-1600 Anthony J. Bryant 1994, New York
Sekigahara 1600 Anthony J. Bryant1995, New York
Arms and Armor of the Samurai: History of Weaponry in Ancient Japan Ian Bottomley and A.P. Hopson 1996, New York
Samurai and Illustrated History Mitsuo Kuri 2002, Tokyo
The Battle of Nagashino Nathan Ledbetter http://www.samurai-archives.com/ban.html
Japanese Castles 1540-1640 (Fortresses) Dr. Stephen Turnbull 2003, New York
Samurai Warfare Dr. Stephen Turnbull 1996, London
The Samurai Sourcebook Dr. Stephen Turnbull 2000, London
Nihon no Bijutsu #360 1996, Tokyo