Samurai fighting styles

Written by matthew anderson
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Samurai fighting styles
A Samurai carrying only his ceremonial weapons. (Samurai warrior image by patrimonio designs from

The Samurai were a class of warriors in Japan that were dominant on the battlefield from the 9th to 19th centuries. The Samurai caste as it is commonly depicted was not established until the late 16th century. Over the almost thousand years of Samurai dominance, several different Samurai fighting styles were prominently used. Samurai were almost always proficient in several different fighting styles. Archery, spearmanship, and marksmanship were the most prominent fighting styles, despite swordsmanship being the most well known Samurai fighting style.

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Archery was the fighting style of choice for almost the entire history of the Samurai. The Yumi bow, a compound bow, had an effective range of about 50 meters. It could shoot about twice as far, but this was at the expense of accuracy. A Samurai could hit targets with pinpoint precision within the effective range on foot or horseback. Samurai on foot would usually use mobile bamboo walls, called tedate, for cover when using the Yumi.


Contrary to popular belief, spears were the weapon of choice for close combat during battle. The longer length of the spear made it a more effective weapon than the typically shorter swords. The naginata was usually the spear of choice for this Samurai fighting style. This was a 1.5 to 2 meter long spear with a curved, single edge blade used for slashing. The Yari, a 1 to 3 meter long spear with a straight blade, mostly replaced the naginata as the spear of choice in the 15th century. This was due to it being better suited for tighter combat formations than the naginata.


Marksmanship is an often overlooked Samurai fighting style. The value of the matchlock rifle varied greatly between Samurai, but eventually greatly changed how Samurai fought. Contrary to popular belief, the introduction of the rifle has nothing to do with the decline of the Samurai, who were the first to embrace the new weapon when it was introduced from Europe. Nobunaga Oda was notable for being among the first to use large numbers of rifles in combat. He organised his rifles into three lines. Each line took turns firing, which compensated for the long reload time. Many Samurai also specialised in sniping enemies.


Swordsmanship is the most famous Samurai fighting style, but was far less common than typically depicted. The katana, along with other swords, were mostly symbolic weapons. Samurai were well trained in their use for this reason, but they were less commonly used in actual combat. The nodachi and odachi were long enough to match many spears for range, but so difficult to forge that both were rare. The introduction of firearms made the katana a much more common Samurai fighting style in combat. The value of spears dropped significantly as firearms became more commonly used. Many Samurai chose to simply use the katana in close quarters combat rather than carrying a spear, in addition to their rifle, bow, sword, and any additional weapons. Some Samurai, such as Shingen Takeda, would only carry a katana into battle. This was a demonstration of confidence in their troops rather than a confidence in this weapon.

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