The Japanese and arquebuses

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By Simon Frame

From martial arts I acquired an interest in things Japanese, particularly the C16th Sengoku Jidai, or ‘Age of Warring States’, which was odd because I wasn’t following a Japanese martial art. Anyway, because the Japanese kept some detailed accounts and for the basis of this article, used arquebuses and muskets differently to the way we do, I thought some odd bits of info may be of interest to musketeers.

Note that just as the arquebus was replaced by the musket in Europe, so it was in Japan, but translations of works don’t seem to distinguish between the two, so the term ‘musket’ is used throughout.


The Japanese obtained firearms from the Chinese initially, where they were called niao zui chong or ‘bird beak gun’ from the action of the serpent coming down (compare that to the European ‘snaphaunce’ for an early firelock, possibly derived from ‘snapping hen’); Chinese weapons were initially used in limited numbers. With the commencement of the Sengoku period the competing Daimyo (literally ‘Big names’) needed lots of common soldiers or Ashigaru (‘light feet’) to supplement their Samurai armies, and the use of the new weapons grew. When the Portuguese introduced their arquebus in 1543 these and their copies replaced the Chinese models and they began to receive attention from the chroniclers. Oddly, it was the so-called Warrior Monk (Sohei or priest-soldier) armies which adopted them first and in the greatest numbers. Not all of the soldiers were monks, being more like lay brothers although more often than not they were just soldiers recruited to defend the temple complexes. The improved weapons were taken back to China by Japanese pirates. Muskets, like swords, spears and armour, were owned by the Daimyo and issued to the soldiers, giving them the name of ‘honourable loan weapons’. You get an urge to say that in a comedy accent for some reason.


Japanese arquebuses and muskets differed from European ones in a number of ways; the serpent was of brass, and faced away, and fell away, from the user. The lid of the pan, often made from brass too, opened forwards, and usually had a matching plate which went under the pan, connected by a spigot to the upper lid. The spring which returned the serpent was external to the lock, and often of brass. There was a problem with getting the strength of the spring just right; make it too strong and the slow match was stubbed out in the pan. Too weak and it couldn't make the pan. The Japanese figured out how to get the strength just right. The Europeans didn't and that was why the Snap-Matchlock didn't last too long in Europe.

Cartridges were rapidly adopted, and the Japanese standardised the bores very early when they began to produce their own. According to Stephen Turnbull, the leading expert on this period, experiments have shown that an 8mm ball (less than 20 bore) could carry 45 ken (c.80m) and pierce 24mm board and 1mm iron plate at 50m. The scales of a typical do-maru iron plate armour were of c.0.8mm iron. The same experiment had the musketeer firing 6 times in 100 seconds, although the clock started when the first shot was fired.


Match was issued in lengths the equivalent of 4 times the length of the outstretched arms, and short lengths of 60cm to 1m were often wrapped around the musket stock, or the right forearm of the user. A recipe for making the match more rainproof involved ‘tooth blackening powder’, whatever that was, and an illustration survives which shows a box cover mounted over the pan and serpent which was intended to keep the rain off. How you primed with this in place is anybody’s guess.


Bullets were carried in bags at the waist, and these had a nozzle which resembled a beak in that it had two long prongs along which the bullet rolled when loaded. Powder flasks were carried next to them and had a small cup-like measure attached by a cord which doubled as a lid. A contemporary account mentions the powder solidifying and having to be shaken apart by striking the flask, else ‘the bullet may only fly less than 5 ken’ (c. 9m). A C17th introduction was an odd form of cartridge. These resembled bandolier bottles (and could be worn as such) and were made of thick paper or wood. They tapered so that a musket ball was wedged into one open end (and visible) and the other end had a lid, attached with a string or chain to the body of the ‘cartridge’. Removing the lid from the cartridge allowed the powder to pour into the barrel, the ball following it in.

Charging seems to have occurred before priming, but one illustration show priming occurring with the match cocked so I don’t know how accurate this description is. On the other hand, it is recorded that to stop the flash from the pan blowing the match from the serpent (which generally lacked the screw found on ours) a small bamboo peg could be inserted through the end of the serpent, implying that it was kept there.


Musketeer groups or squads were arranged with 1 archer per five musketeers, with a number of these groups being commanded by the teppo ko gashira (lieutenant of the firearms squad). His badge of rank was a red lacquered case which contained a scouring stick, thicker than the musketeers', and used to ram down bullets wedged in the bore. He was also supposed to carry the tetsu no gyoyaku, or ‘final cartridges’ which were 2 or 3 held back for each musketeer, to be issued only in an emergency, such as when you were surrounded. Real ‘save the last round…’ stuff.


The Zohyo Monogatari, written in 1638-49 by a Samurai who had commanded ashigaru, offers the following advice about using the musket; 'First, the leather bag in which the musket is carried is to be placed to one side. Secondly, two or even three scouring sticks are taken from the bag and thrust into the belt on the right side of the body. Bullets are to be distributed from the bullet box (carried by another soldier) when on the field, and placed into the small belt pouches. The order to cock the match will be given when the enemy are 1 cho (109m) away, and many spare fuses (match) should be kept in case it goes out. When ramming up and down do it as far as the brim of the jingasa (an iron helmet, shaped like, but smaller than, the comedy Chinese ‘coolie’ hat). Lift it up and down rather than to one side else there is a danger to the eyes of one’s comrades. Use scouring sticks made of oak. Small bullets must be bitten (held?) between the back teeth. [Writing about what to do post hand-to-hand fighting] When the enemy are at a distance, swab the barrel. At such a time it is not wise to put powder and ball into the musket for about half a minute. Even though the enemy are out of sight don’t carry the musket on your shoulder.'

Another illustration shows rope slings being used to level the muskets at pre-selected targets at night. The sling was long enough that the musketeer could stand on the centre of it with his left foot, and could then raise the musket until the sling was taut. This meant it was at the right level to fire. One contemporary cure for gunshot wounds was to apply pulverised leeks.

In some of the first battles the muskets weren’t relied upon; in 1548 at Ueda-hara, in order to repel the famous Takeda cavalry, Murakami Yoshikiyo (note that Japanese names give the surname first) chose his 200 best ‘shooters’ and gave them 150 bows and 50 matchlocks. The matchlocks were given 3 bullets each and ordered to fire after the bows, after which `they all were to throw down their bows and muskets and use their swords'. (They won) Each 5 ‘shooters’ had an officer in charge. One captioned drawing from this early period notes the range as 5 cho, or about 500m, although the tactic here implies that they were used at very short range. Later on the ranges were increased and the bowmen provided covering fire whilst the musketeers reloaded.

Volley fire is first recorded at the siege of Muraki Castle in 1554, when relays of ashigaru are used to keep up a constant fire upon the castle. After seeing the effective use that the Ikko-Ikki religious leagues made of 3000 muskets at the siege of their temple in 1570, in 1571 Takeda Shingen was impressed enough to order yari (spears) to be replaced by muskets. However, this didn’t stop the Samurai class from deciding that ‘the ashigaru…fire…volleys into the midst of the enemy…as for the muskets owned by the Samurai…they are for shooting and bringing down an enemy of importance’.

The most famous use of firearms in the Sengoku period is recorded at the battle of Nagashino in 1575, immortalised at the end of Kirusawa's film Kagemusha. Oda Nobunaga used massed musketeers, placed behind loosely spaced out bamboo barricades, to destroy the cavalry of Takeda Katsuyori (son of Shingen) before counter-attacking with infantry and cavalry. Despite what the film The Last Samurai shows, muskets were retained as weapons after the Portuguese and Dutch were booted out of Japan, and the rebels in the film (the Satsuma Rebellion, led by the Shimazu clan) certainly used the most modern weapons they could obtain.

As a slight aside, Giles Milton (author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, about the C17th spice trade) has written a book entitled ‘Samurai William’, about a London Merchant, William Adams, who settled in Japan in the early C17th. Worth, like Nutmeg, a read.