That Samurai warrior class of feudal and early modern Japan is most famous for using the katana sword. But what other weapons did they use? Did the Samurai use guns?
Samurai did make use of guns, cannons, and other firearms, though not on the same scale as Europeans. The height of Samurai use of firearms occurred during the Sengoku Jidai, or “Warring States Period.” Following the end of the prolonged civil war, firearms fell out of use as weapons of war.
This article will explore the Samurai’s use of firearms in feudal and early modern Japan.
Also see Did Samurai Use Kunai? to learn more.
When Were Firearms Introduced to Japan?
Firearms were first introduced to Japan in 1290 A.D. from China. These early firearms were too primitive to serve as practical weapons. It was not until the introduction of matchlock firearms in 1543 that their use in Japan took off.
Firearms were initially invented in China sometime before the 11th century A.D., although the exact date is unclear. The earliest firearms were fire-lances, basically Roman candles with added shrapnel. Improvements in gunpowder and the replacing of bamboo stalks with metal barrels allowed the invention of hand cannons and bombards by the early 13th century.
Firearms were first introduced to Japan by Chinese merchants in 1290 A.D. Feudal-era Samurai were not impressed with the awkward and unreliable weapons, and firearms never entered wide use. The Samurai preferred crossbows and recurve bows to hand cannons and bombards.
Firearms were introduced to Europe by the Mongol Empire in the early 14th century. However, gunpowder reached Europe slightly earlier over the Silk Road. The near-constant state of war in continental Europe promoted rapid development in firearm technology.
The first matchlock firearms, firearms that use a long burning wick to ignite the gunpowder, appeared in Europe in 1411 and saw heavy use by civilian militias during the Hussite Wars (a religious conflict in the modern Czech Republic between 1419 and 1434). 
The arquebus, an early large-caliber musket-type firearm, proved to be a superior weapon for poorly trained civilians. The Ottoman Empire’s Janissaries also deployed them, arguably the best trained professional military of 15th century Europe.
Matchlock and wheellock firearms gradually became the standard infantry weapon in the 15th and early 16th centuries. At the same time, to circumvent the Muslim Ottoman Empire’s control of the silk and spice trade, the Portuguese established maritime trade networks around the African continent with destinations are far afield as India and China. The Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543.
At the time of Portuguese arrival in Japan, Japan was in the middle of a prolonged civil war between the numerous Samurai clans, the Sengoku Jidai or “Warring States Period.” The Samurai had ruled the island country in the name of the Emperor since the 12th century A.D., under a system of government called the Shogunate. During the Sengoku Jidai, several Samurai clans fought over who would control the Shogunate.
The Samurai took to practical mass-produced military firearms with the neophyte’s enthusiasm. It took years to train an archer and months to train a crossbowman properly. A formation of raw civilian levies could be equipped with arquebuses in the morning before a major battle and wipe out an opposing army’s cavalry the next afternoon.
Also see Did Samurai Use Katanas? to learn more.
What Kind of Guns Did Samurai Have?
The first firearm used by Samurai was the teppo, a basic hand cannon. They were rarely used due to poor reliability and accuracy. Following the introduction of the matchlock, Samurai gunsmiths developed the vastly superior tanegashima.
The first Japanese-made firearms were the teppo, a stylized copy of hand cannons introduced by Chinese traders in 1290 A.D. The teppo was little more than bronze or iron tubes, sealed at one end, from which large metal balls would be shot with fast-burning black powder. These weapons lacked sights, triggers, tripod mounts, and a high probability of exploding.
Due to the rigid structure of feudal Japanese society, there was little homegrown firearm innovation for the next 350 years. It was not until the Portuguese introduced matchlock firearms in 1543 A.D. that the Samurai discovered the value of firearms as weapons.
Matchlock firearms were introduced to Japan halfway through the extended civil war called the Sengoku Jidai. The Japanese copied and improved the Portuguese arquebuses to produce the tanegashima. The first Samurai clan to embrace the firearm was the Nobunaga.
The tanegashima, Japanese for “matchlock gun,” was a smoothbore snap matchlock firearm and served as the base for a proliferation of Japanese firearms.  Over the remainder of the Warring States Period, the Samurai developed several variations for use by:
- Calvary (bajo-zutsu)
- Pistols (tan-zutsu)
- Wall guns (hazama/zama-zutsu)
- Practice firearms (shateki-zutsu)
Due to the quality and quantity of Samurai firearms, operable Sengoku-era tanegashima are readily available from antique dealers to this day.
Also see Did Samurai Use Shuriken? to learn more.
What Did Samurai Use Guns For?
Samurai and their retainers used firearms extensively as weapons of war during the Sengoku Jidai. But after the Warring States Period, firearms fell out of use as military weapons and were reduced to the status of farm implements.
The Tokugawa shogunate brought an extended era of peace, stability, and prosperity for the ruling class, practically eliminating the need for firearms.
Just as they had in China and Europe in previous centuries, Japanese firearms proved vastly superior battlefield weapons compared to bows. The inherent inaccuracy of a smoothbore firearm prompted the recruitment of large numbers of civilian levies. Rather than aiming at specific targets, these levies would simply unleash waves of fast-moving lead balls on their Daimyo’s enemies’ levies.
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu led his Samurai clan to absolute victory over the usurper Ashikaga clan and the other remaining claimants to the Japanese Shogunate, bringing the Sengoku Jidai to an end. With the endorsement of the imperial family, the Japanese capital was moved to Edo (modern Tokyo).
The Tokugawa Shogunate instituted a rigid class system, binding people to the class and, in most cases, the region they were born into. Peasants were banned from opening weapons of war, and the Samurai were converted from military commanders to bureaucrats.
Foreigners, who introduced firearms to Japan on two occasions, were barred from entry to the nation, other than a single Portuguese trade district in Nakasaki.
Also see Did Samurai Use Bows and Arrows? to learn more.
When Did Samurai Use Guns in Combat?
After matchlock firearms were introduced in the middle of the Warring States Period, Samurai clans swiftly adopted them.
The samurai used guns in combat between 1543 and 1603 when they led armies against each other, including increasing numbers of arquebusiers recruited from peasant levies. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Samurai served as bureaucrats rather than warriors.
The last decades of the Sengoku Jidai saw the height of the Samurai’s use of firearms. Arquebusiers proved to be far faster and cheaper to train than archers.
In the early 1600s, the Tokugawa Shogunate succeeded in stabilizing Japan after over the next 250 years, a period referred to as the “Edo Period” by historians. With no wars to fight, the value of firearms as weapons was gradually forgotten.
During the Edo Period, firearms were used primarily for hunting and scaring wild animals away from farmers’ fields. According to historian David L. Howell, firearms became so common that they were often not noticed.  That came to a sudden end in the 1840s and 1850s.
In the 1840s, the social order enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate began to break down. Many masterless Samurai and peasant brigands started creating trouble in rural Japan. Local Daimyo were forced to raise peasant militias to deal with these disruptions. They might have succeeded in restoring order to Japan, but in 1853 they ran out of time.
In 1853, American Commodore Mathew Perry led a squadron of four ships into Tokyo harbor on orders to reopen Japan for international trade. Faced with the superior technology and industry of the outside world, the Imperial family reasserted control over Japan. Samurai who resisted the modernization effort were swiftly defeated.
While firearms were first introduced to Japan in 1290 CE, the Samurai class did not adopt them until matchlock firearms were introduced in 1543.