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Introduction 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"[1]. 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[2]. 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[3]. 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[4].

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[5].

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[6].

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[7]. Ammunition for the teppo came in a variety of sizes, which was measured in weight instead of diameter[8]. 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[9].

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[10].

The First 30 Years

  • 1549
    • The Shimazu is said to have been the first to use Portuguese arquebuses in battle on Japanese soil in the Siege of Kajiki.
    • Oda Nobunaga's father placed an order for 500 arquebuses.
  • 1553
    • Oda Nobunaga's army paraded before Saito Dosan. Nobunaga's army included 500 teppo ashigaru.
  • 1563
    • Christian Juan Ichibu Kageyu used arquebus against pirates raiding Ikitsuki island, sinking two of the three pirate ships. Examination of the dead pirates showed all had died from bullet wounds.
    • The Mori clan lost 33 men to gunfire attacking a castle. The next year the Mori used arquebuses in attacking Toda castle.
  • 1564
    • The second Battle of Azukizaka, Tokugawa Ieyasu leading his men against the Ikko-ikki was hit several times during the battle. Bullets were lodged in his undergarments, spent after penetrating his armour.
  • 1570
    • Oda Nobunaga's army of 30,000 were forced to withdraw by a fierce counter attack of the Ikko-ikki of Ishiyama Honganji. 3,000 Ikko-ikki matchlockmen used controlled volley firing against Nobunaga's men.
  • 1573
    • Oda Nobunaga's matchlockmen went against Ikko-ikki matchlockmen of Nagashima. Nobunaga lost and was forced to withdraw. An Ikko-ikki bullet narrowly missed Nobunaga's ear, killed one of his retainers.
  • 1576
    • The year after the battle of Nagashino. Oda Nobunaga's troops withdrew after testing the defensive firepower of the Ikko-ikki in Ishiyama Honganji.
    • Nobunaga's navy was defeated by the Mori navy at the First Battle of Kizugawaguchi. Both sides used large numbers of arquebuses aboard ships.

Edo Period

Firearms continued to be used by both samurai authorities and by peasants & commoners in the Edo period. Sakai and Kunitomo continued to be the chief sites of production, and matchlocks continued to be the dominant form of firearms used; firearms technology did not advance much within Japan over the course of the 17th to mid-19th centuries. Flintlocks, which had replaced the matchlock in Europe, were known and occasionally produced, but the matchlock remained dominant in Japan, possibly in part because they produced less recoil. These sorts of muskets were by far the most common form of firearm in the country, with some estimates claiming that roughly 150,000 to 200,000 firearms were in circulation at any given time in Tokugawa Japan. Peasants' weapons generally fired shot two to three monme in weight, equivalent to .440 to .495 caliber, in today's terminology. At the request of the shogunate, gunsmiths also on occasion produced handguns and small cannon.

David Howell argues that over the course of the period, within the countryside at least, firearms came to be seen less as weapons (i.e. for military purposes) and more as essential agricultural equipment. Peasants maintained possession of their guns after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Sword Hunts in the 1580s-90s, which specifically targeted swords, and not firearms. It was only in 1657 that regulations on peasant ownership of weapons began to be put into place; even then, hunters, and farmers who claimed they needed guns to help defend themselves and their crops against wild boar and other such threats, were permitted to continue to own firearms. Physically identical weapons came to be divided into categories according to their use, with ryôshi teppô being used for hunting, and odoshi teppô being used for scaring away animals, i.e. for protection of people, homes, and crops. Once labeled as being dedicated to one of these two uses, a given weapon would continue to possess that identity, even as it was passed down through the generations, and would not generally be seen as something to be used for the other purpose.

Three months after the death of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in 1709, whose reputation today continues to associate him with compassion policies for the protection of animals, gun policies changed somewhat, and farmers were permitted for the first time to employ live ammunition rather than blanks in scaring away animals. A series of edicts issued in the 1720s not only permitted the use of weapons by peasants year-round, but actually encouraged their use, and the borrowing of weapons, for the purposes of scaring away animals.

However, the use of firearms for this purpose, and their use in hunting, were still maintained as starkly different categories in the eyes of the authorities. Hunters hunted as their chief source of livelihood, and so for them guns were seen as necessities, and as symbols of their identity, and they were thus permitted to own guns outright. For farmers, however, guns were seen as something needed only temporarily, in those instances when threatened by animals, though in point of fact this "temporary" need might recur season after season, down through the generations. Farmers' guns, therefore, were generally not owned by the peasants, but were instead on loan from the authorities, at least nominally; in some cases, peasants physically borrowed the weapons from samurai, but in many cases, they kept the weapons, passing them on down the generations, though they were still nominally not seen as the property of the peasant household. Some guns were designated "two-season guns," to be used only at the height of the growing season, and to be, in theory at least, returned to the authorities during the rest of the year; other weapons were considered "four-season guns," though even these, in theory, were to be returned for a few days out of each year, and then re-borrowed if circumstances in the new year demanded it. Most likely, more often than not, guns were not physically returned and re-borrowed in this way, but were simply kept, as if on extended loan.

As a result of not officially owning the guns, peasants had to request formal permission to repair or replace broken weapons, as well as when transferring weapons, and their associated licenses (written on small wooden boards), to their heirs or to others. Shogunal authorities exercised relatively direct control in these matters initially, in the 17th century, but after the 1720s, in at least some regions of the archipelago, villages began to take greater control over such matters, authorizing their residents to make such repairs, replacements, and transfers of ownership.

In the early 19th century, the shogunate began to worry about the amorphous imagined threat "bad guys" - including rônin, jobless commoners, and the like - hoarding weapons and planning violence or other criminal activities. Numerous edicts banned peasants from engaging in martial activities, including firing practice. Surveys uncovered a considerable number of "hidden" unregistered guns in peasant villages, most of them being kept in plain sight and (we might presume) used in a normal fashion, but simply not properly registered, as a result of the complexities of shogunal requirements on these matters. The shogunate thus gained a more solid, or accurate, impression of how many guns were in circulation, and confiscated many of them, reducing the number available to undesirable elements (as well as to upright citizens).

Notes to the Text

  1. Bryant 2002
  2. Baker 2004
  3. Turnbull p.g.135
  4. Bryant p.g. 49
  5. Bryant page 49
  6. Turnbull p.g. 137
  7. Bryant p.g. 49
  8. Bryant p.g. 35
  9. Turnbull p.g. 135
  10. Samurai-Archives 2005; Nihon no Bijutsu #390


  • Samurai 1150-1600 Anthony J. Bryant 1994, New York
  • Sekigahara 1600 Anthony J. Bryant 1995, New York
  • Arms and Armor of the Samurai: History of Weaponry in Ancient Japan Ian Bottomley and A.P. Hopson 1996, New York
  • David Howell. "The Social Life of Firearms in Tokugawa Japan." Japanese Studies 29:1 (2009), 65-80.
  • 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