Throughout human history and across every inhabited continent, most cultures used handheld shields for defense during combat. But what about the Samurai of feudal and early modern Japan? Did they use shields?
Samurai rarely used handheld shields due to their primary function as mounted archers and lance cavalry. They did, however, use shields mounted across their shoulders and portable barricades.
This article will explore the Samurai’s use of shields and other types of armor and weapons.
Also see Did Samurai Use Shuriken? to learn more.
Why Didn’t Samurai Use Shields?
Samurai didn’t use shields because of the way they fought. Handheld shields like the Roman scutum and buckler of Medieval and Renaissance Era Europe were impractical for their combat styles (mounted archers and lance calvary).
Before the introduction of horses to Japan in the mid-4th century A.D., Japanese armies consisted of feudal Chinese-style infantry. The Samurai are believed to have developed from foreign mounted mercenaries who moved into Japan following the failure of the Ritsuryo centralized state. The actual Samurai emerged as mounted archers and lance cavalry in the Heian period, circa the 8th century A.D.
The primary role served by Samurai throughout their 11-century existence was mounted archers. Mounted archers were often the shock troops of ancient armies. They were able to attack enemy forces at range while being highly mobile.
The Samurai bow, called the “yumi,” was an exceptionally tall asymmetrical recurve compound bow. At about two meters (6.56 feet) long, it was much taller than its typical user. The origin of its asymmetrical shape is disputed.
The secondary function of Samurai was lance cavalry, commonly referred to as “lancers” in European militaries. Rather than ranging enemy soldiers from horseback, the spear-armed Samurai would charge directly into enemy foot soldiers. This is similar to the heavy cavalry used by medieval European armies.
Both mounted archery and lance cavalry combat required both hands. This was especially true for Samurai using the yumi, as it had a very long draw length. Later, after the Portuguese introduced matchlock firearms, the Samurai largely switched from bows and spears to guns.
Another reason Samurai didn’t use handheld shields is that they trusted the protection offered by their armor.
Also see Did Samurai Use Kunai? to learn more.
How Did Samurai Attire Protect Them?
Samurai attire protected them by the spaulders included in their armor sets and mounted across their shoulders. Japanese armor technology was among the best in pre-industrial world history. It was made of either lacquered leather or iron scales sewn together with leather cords.
Samurai armor was derived from armor introduced from China during the classical era of Japanese history, around the 4th century A.D. Japanese armor was comparable to the scale mail and lamellar armor used by Mediterranean and Near Eastern empires at the same time. 
Japanese armor was constructed of many iron (Tetsu) and/or leather (nerigawa) scales (kozane) and/or plates (ita-mono), connected with rivets or cords made from either silk or leather. The plates were mounted on a leather or cloth backing to form moveable panels.
Samurai armor was designed to be as lightweight as possible and preserve the range of movement. A full set of Samurai armor could weigh over 70 lbs (31.75 kg), but it did allow relatively easy horseback riding and archery.
The Samurai used two types of armor throughout their history, the Ō-yoroi (“great armor) and Dō-maru (“body wrap”). Ō-yoroi pattern armor was heavier and more expensive armor designed for mounted combat.
Dō-maru pattern armor was closer fitting, lighter, and less expensive, making it better suited for dismounted combat.
Dō-maru armor gradually became the primary style of armor used by Samurai and their retainers due to its lower cost.
Both styles of Samurai armor featured spaulders, called “sode,” which protected the wearer’s shoulders and upper body. Unlike most armor styles throughout history, Samurai spaulders were not attached to their arms, which preserved the arms’ range of motion. Sode hung free from the Samurai’s shoulders.
In the late 16th century, after the Portuguese introduced matchlock firearms to Japan, the Japanese developed bullet-resistant armor, tameshi gusoku (“bullet tested”). This consisted of a solid plate of iron worn on their chest.
Samurai were not supposed to fight while dismounted. That was what peasant levies, essentially conscripts, were for. But if forced to fight on foot, Samurai could use two types of proper shields: the handheld Tedate and a portable barricade called the Tate. Both types of shields were constructed of iron strips riveted to a wooden backing.
The Tedate was a rectangular handheld shield large enough to protect a soldier’s upper body. It had a simple one-handed grip comparable to most European post-Roman shields.
The Tate was a rectangular shield that was large enough for a soldier in full armor to cover behind it. Rather than hand grips, it had wooden stands that could keep it upright without human intervention.
Also see Did Samurai Use Katanas? to learn more.
What Weapons Did Samurai Use in Combat?
The primary weapons used by Samurai throughout history were ranged weapons, initially the yumi longbow and later the tanegashima matchlock firearm. Their secondary weapons were the yari long spears. The katana swords, which Samurai and ninjas are most famous for, were only used when dismounted.
Under normal battle conditions, Samurai would only fight from horseback. Most of the time, they’d loose arrows at enemy combatants from horseback. Still, they could also serve as the equivalent of lancers. They would only draw their famous swords if surrounded by foot soldiers or dismounted.
The Samurai used a wide variety of weapons, but some of their more famous weapons are listed below.
The primary Samurai weapon for most of their existence was the yumi; an asymmetrical composite recurve bow. Its span was over two meters (6.56 ft), considerably taller than the average height of a Japanese man from the feudal and early modern eras, 1.6 meters (5’ 2”).
Yumi are traditionally constructed of laminated layers of bamboo, wood, and leather.
Unlike most bows, the yumi was not symmetrical if folded across the arrow’s trajectory. According to the All Nippon Kyudo Federation, the primary traditional Japanese archery organization in Japan, the handgrip of a yumi must be two-thirds of the way from the top end to the bottom. 
The origin of the asymmetrical shape of the yumi bow is disputed. It has traditionally been attributed to mounted combat. But there are depictions of asymmetrical yumi-style bows dating back to before horses were introduced to Japan.
Tanegashima (Matchlock Long Gun)
While firearms had been known to Japanese culture since the 13th century, they were never developed into practical weapons and rarely used. That changed when the Portuguese Empire reached Japan in 1543. The Portuguese introduced practical matchlock firearms to Japan, and the Samurai quickly adopted them.
The Tanegashima (“matchlock gun”) was a stylized copy of Portuguese smoothbore arquebuses. The gunpowder was ignited by a slow-burning wick inserted into the powder charge through a hole in the combustion chamber.
The Japanese developed several variations on the original Portuguese matchlock arquebus, which could serve as everything from pistols to antipersonnel siege guns. The Samurai clans produced so many firearms that there were more guns in Japan at the end of the Sengoku Jidai (“Warring States Period”), a prolonged series of civil wars lasting from 1467 to 1615, than in the whole of Europe.
Also see Did Samurai Use Guns? to learn more.
Yari (Long Spear)
If the Samurai could not use their preferred range weapons in battle, they would use a similar attack strategy to European lancers. For this, they used a long iron-tipped spear called the yari.
There were many variations of yari, but they generally consisted of a long hardwood shaft, covered in lacquered bamboo, tipped with a large iron blade. The blade was forged from the same steel as the more famous Japanese swords and could be anywhere from a few centimeters to over a meter.
Yari were used by both Samurai cavalry and foot soldiers (ashigaru). Historically, polearm-type weapons like spears, pikes, and staffs proved to be superior weapons for poorly trained peasant levies and conscripts compared to swords.
Katana (Curved Sword) and Other Handheld Blades
Ironically, the most famous weapons in the Samurai arsenal were the least ones they used. Samurai swords, specifically the katana, have been made famous in recent decades due to Japanese and Western popular culture.
The word “katana” refers to any sword with a single cutting edge. The swords most often referred to as “katanas” are called “uchigatana.” Still, for the sake of convenience, we will continue to refer to them as “katanas.”
A katana is a moderately curved single-edged sword with a blade at least 60.6 cm (23.66 in, almost two ft) long. Technically there is no upper limit to the length of a katana, but a few examples were more than 90 cm (35 in, almost three ft) long. While the sword’s grip is large enough for two hands, katanas can be used one-handed.
The famous curve of a katana is produced by coating one edge of the sword with heat-resistant clay and inserting the blade into the hardening furnace. The bare side of the blade expands, causing the sword to curve toward the coated side. The sword is then quenched before the metal cools, freezing it in a curved shape.
Katanas and other Japanese swords were typically only used for close dismounted combat, which a well-trained samurai would avoid. There is an old saying of disputed origin, “If a cavalryman is dismounted, he’s already dead.”
Historically, the Samurai used their katanas and other swords more for rituals rather than combat. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was controlled by the Tokugawa Shogunate and interaction with other cultures was strictly banned, katanas were part of the compulsory Samurai uniform. Under the Tokugawa, the Samurai were converted from warriors and generals to bureaucrats.
One of the most famous rituals uses of katanas, along with the tantō dagger, was the act of ritual suicide committed by disgraced Samurai, seppuku. The disgraced Samurai would sit in a lotus position and disembowel himself with their tantō. When the Samurai had done sufficient damage to himself, one of his retainers would decapitate him with a single swing of their katana.
Due to their primary function as mounted archers and lance cavalry, the Samurai rarely used handheld shields. Their armor provided them with sufficient protection.