Samurai had an impressive variety of weapons, ranging from the well-known katana to the powerful yumi bow and the deadly naginata glaive. There are records of battle axes in Japanese warfare, but did samurai hold them in the same importance?
Samurai occasionally used battle axes called masakari to fight. Masakari had a wide, curved edge that allowed for cutting. However, samurai preferred to use bows, glaives, and, if necessary, swords. Axes didn’t allow for the mobility and range needed while on horseback.
There’s more than meets the eye behind the relative lack of axes in samurai warfare. Axes were certainly common among laymen, but they didn’t offer many advantages to a samurai.
Also see Did Samurai Fight Ninjas? to learn more.
What Kind of Axes Did Samurai Have?
Samurai had a kind of battle ax called masakari. Masakari were about 1.8 meters (6 feet) long and had wide, curved blades. There’s not as much variety in samurai axes as in other types of weapons.
War axes in Japan were known as masakari, which is the Japanese word for battle ax. They were also called ono, the generic word for any kind of ax. There are a few examples of battle axes in samurai culture, both in battle records and art. 
Masakari had a heavy head and a wide, very curved edge that allowed cutting. Their heavy weight allowed them to be used as percussive weapons. Masakari were around 1.8 meters (6 feet) long. Some axes called ono su yari also had a spearpoint at their top.
As in other civilizations, axes in Japan were primary tools. They were used by laymen to chop wood and do other manual labor. When common people were brought to battle, axes were sure to appear. These axes were simple tools not designed for combat as masakari were.
Meanwhile, the samurai were an aristocratic class of warriors.  They could afford armor and more refined weapons, like bows, katanas, and glaives. They had the option to use masakari, but they didn’t often do so.
Still, there are a few instances of samurai using axes in battle, notably in the Taiheiki.
The Taiheiki was a chronicle written during the Heian period in Japan. It registers a variety of military events and customs of samurai warfare. In one passage, Akamatsu Ujinori faces a foe wielding a battle ax.  He is said to smash helmets with his ax while riding on horseback.
Also see Did Samurai Have Tattoos? to learn more.
How Did Samurai Use Axes?
Samurai likely used battle axes to bash enemies while on horseback and tear down shields. However, axes were an uncommon weapon among samurai, and not as much is known about them as the katana and yumi.
Even though samurai preferred other weapons in most battle situations, there was still a place for axes in Japanese warfare.
Axes were likely used to break shields. Tate shields were extremely large—they could be as tall as 1.5 meters (4.9) feet. Archers used them to take cover while shooting and occasionally by foot soldiers. However, because of their weight, tate shields didn’t afford much mobility.
Axes would have been useful against these large wooden shields. Foot soldiers might have used them to break through shielded enemies and tear down wooden defenses.
However, the use of shields was sparse among samurai. A samurai’s primary skill was mounted archery. When they fought with melee weapons, they mostly used glaives and spears.
These arms allowed them to fight while on horseback but also required a great deal of mobility and visibility. Using a shield would have been too cumbersome.
Shields weren’t that common among regular foot soldiers either. Spears were the most popular melee weapon during the samurai era, and they were more effective when wielded with two hands.
Since shields weren’t very common, there weren’t many occasions where axes were the best choice of weapon.
Also see Did Samurai Use Bows and Arrows? to learn more.
Why Samurai Rarely Used Axes
The relative lack of axes purposefully made for battle is connected to how warfare worked in feudal Japan. A good example of this is the fact that shields weren’t as widely used as in medieval Europe.
The main reason why samurai didn’t use shields is they needed enough mobility to quickly use a bow or a spear, as well as high visibility to aim at their enemies from a distance.
However, there’s another reason: shields weren’t very effective in Japanese warfare. Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, in their book Secrets of the Samurai, point out that weapons made in feudal Japan were of higher quality than their contemporary European counterparts. 
For that reason, blades and spears were much more likely to tear through armor. Samurai armor could deflect most attacks, but it wasn’t nearly as tough as the plated armor of European knights. Again, this is partly due to the importance samurai gave to mobility.
This was combined with a certain fatalism regarding battle: any armor or shield could be pierced, so properly wielding a weapon was more important than covering oneself in defensive gear.
All this might have made axes not very useful outside of their cheapness and availability. There weren’t many shields to break through, so that use wasn’t as important. They could be used as percussive weapons, but maces were better suited for that purpose. They could cut, but not as well as a sword.
Many of the depictions of samurai holding enormous axes might be a matter of legend rather than fact.
Also see Did Samurai Carry Two Swords? to learn more.
What Other Offense Weapons Did the Samurai Have?
Samurai had a variety of offensive weapons. Bows were their weapon of choice and were mostly used for horseback shooting. Glaives were often used for horseback melee fighting. On the ground, samurai would use glaives, maces, spears, or swords.
Samurai had plenty of weapons to choose from. Kyudo, the martial art of archery, was their most prized skill. Samurai would typically stay on their horses and shoot from a short-range using their yumi—the Japanese longbow.
After the Mongol invasions, melee combat and foot soldiers became more important in Japanese armies.  Organized groups of soldiers started using naginata, which are equivalent to the European glaive. Naginata had the shaft of a spear with a blade instead of a point. They had thrusting, bashing, and cutting capabilities.
On the battlefield, naginata was the most common melee weapon for mounted samurai. Over time, naginata were replaced by the more effective yari—the Japanese spear.
Samurai sometimes used maces called kanobu, which were effective against armored enemies. They were around 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long and most weighed 2 kg (4.4 pounds).
Katanas are the most iconic samurai weapon. However, they weren’t as frequently used in battles as other arms. They were mostly reserved for duels and close-quarters fighting.
Also see Did Samurai Use Kunai? to learn more.
There are instances of samurai using battle axes, but they weren’t their weapon of choice. Samurai preferred glaives, bows, and maces when in battle.