Katanas are the most iconic weapon of the samurai, and for good reason. Besides being a tool for close-range combat, swords represented social status and had great ceremonial importance. However, when they were on the battlefield, bows were the samurai’s weapon of choice.
Samurai used bows and arrows. In fact, bows were the main weapons of samurai during battle. Shooting arrows on horseback was considered the highest martial skill for a samurai. Samurai bows were called yumi. They could measure as long as 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and had exceptional shooting power.
Yumi, the Japanese bow, had some unique characteristics. They were an essential part of samurai training, as well as their weapon of choice in war.
Also see Did Samurai Use Spears? to learn more.
What Kind of Bows Did Samurai Use?
Samurai used a kind of longbow called yumi. At lengths of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet), it was a powerful weapon. It was asymmetrical, perhaps to allow for more comfortable horseback shooting. The yumi was made of laminated bamboo covered in lacquer.
Samurai used the Japanese bow wakyu, more often called yumi. The yumi might date back as far as the 3rd century. However, bows and arrows were likely used in Japan even before that.
The yumi went through many changes across the centuries. It took its characteristic form toward the end of the Heian period, in the 12th century.  The design continued to evolve and reached its final form in the 16th century.
The Yumi’s Shape and Huge Size
The first thing that catches the eye about yumi is their size.  They could reach a length of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and had a draw length of around 1 meter (3.3 feet), which gave them amazing shooting distance.
Another distinctive feature of yumi is their shape. Unlike other longbows —like the well-known English longbow—yumi were asymmetrical. The upper limb of the bow was much longer than the lower one.
The yumi had outward curves at the end of each limb, which bent away from the archer. This shape is called “recurve,” and it existed in other cultures before appearing in Japan.
There’s much speculation around the asymmetry of the yumi. Perhaps this shape was ideal for horseback shooting: the short lower limb allowed the bow to be passed quickly from one side of the horse to the other.
However, the yumi predates horseback shooting by a wide margin. It’s also possible that the shorter lower limb helped foot soldiers shoot while kneeling.
Whatever the case, the fact is that this shape, combined with its massive frame, gave the yumi great range and shooting power. The recurve, asymmetric design also allowed the samurai to use less energy while drawing an arrow.
Also see Did Samurai Use Shields? to learn more.
How Yumi Were Made
Another theory for the yumi’s asymmetry states that the first yumi were made of tree branches. These pieces of wood were stiffer towards their start and more flexible towards their end. Having the grip at one-thirds of the bow puts it at the center of the bow’s elastic movement.
However, that would only apply to older yumi. After the 12th century, the process of making yumi changed drastically. Instead of carving out a single branch, now the bow was made by gluing several layers of laminated bamboo. Then it was covered in lacquer to increase its durability and protect the glue from the elements.
What Did Samurai Use Bows For?
Samurais used bows as their main weapons in combat. The highest martial skill for a samurai was shooting arrows while on horseback. Bows were also used in target shooting during religious ceremonies.
Samurai weren’t the only ones to use arrows: bows were the main tools of warfare in feudal Japan. In fact, around 82% of all combat wounds were caused by arrows.
How Samurai Used Bows in Battle
Samurai were clad in armor, an effective barrier against light arrows. This led samurai to use heavy arrows that could pierce their opponent’s defense.
Naturally, this weight meant arrows couldn’t go as far. Still, as heavy as these arrows were, yumi could throw them at a distance of around 100 meters (330 feet). For lighter war arrows, the shooting distance could be as far as 200 meters (660 feet).
With that in mind, samurai likely used yumi as short-range weapons.
Samurai were often on the ground—especially after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, when foot soldiers became the most important part of Japanese armies.  However, even after that, the peak martial skill for a samurai was shooting from horseback.
When talking about horseback shooting, an image of mounted archers from the steppes of Europe may come to mind. However, this practice looked very different in feudal Japan.
Firstly, native Japanese horses were much smaller than European horses. They were closer to what we would consider ponies, measuring under 1.47 meters (4.8 feet).
Secondly, samurai used their horses as movable shooting platforms. They usually didn’t shoot while galloping. Horses were clad in armor and had a small frame, which meant they couldn’t reach high speeds to begin with.
Also see Did Samurai Invade China? to learn more.
How Bows Were Used in Ceremonies
The martial art of archery in ancient Japan was known as kyudo. Kyudo was deeply connected with bushido—the samurai code of honor and way of life. Often, kyudo reaches a spiritual level, so it’s not surprising that some religious ceremonies involve target shooting.
Bows and arrows appear in many Japanese myths, and they are used in several religious ceremonies.  The well-known Shinto ritual yabusame involves shooting while riding on horseback. Obisha, another Shintoist ritual, is a ceremony of stationary archery held to pray for good harvests.
What Kind of Arrows Did Samurai Use?
Samurai used arrows called ya. Ya could measure as much as a meter (3.28 feet). Their point was forged in steel, their shaft was made of bamboo, and they were fletched with feathers.
Ya arrowheads were called yajiri. Simple, conical yajiri were used for target practice, but war arrows could have varied designs—even barbed ones.
Yajiri were forged using the same techniques found in sword making. They could even have the signatures of their smiths, just as with katanas.
There was also the kaburaya, a special type of arrow designed to make a loud whistling noise.  They were used to signal the beginning of a battle or to instill fear in enemy troops.
Also see Did Samurai Did Samurai Exist? to learn more.
Bows were an integral part of warfare in feudal Japan. Japanese bows—or yumi— were a Samurai’s most used weapon during battle.