Anyone who has ever watched an old-school ninja movie is familiar with shuriken (ninja stars); in fact, shuriken are so well-known that even some people who haven’t watched ninja movies know what they are. What most people don’t know is that ninjas weren’t the only Japanese people who used them.
The samurai used shuriken in battle, but not as the deadly weapons people often see in movies. Instead, samurai usually threw shuriken at non-lethal parts of their enemies’ bodies, such as the arms, feet, or groin areas. Sometimes they threw them at their rivals’ eyes and faces.
This article will provide more detail on the different types of shuriken that samurai used. It will also outline how samurai used their shuriken in combat and talk a little more about other fighters who used these small but effective weapons.
Also see Did Samurai Use Axes to Fight? to learn more.
What Are Examples of Shuriken?
There are two primary examples of shuriken: bo shuriken and hira shuriken (also called kurumaken). Bo shuriken were straight like sticks or small arrows; hira shuriken were the more popular “wheel type” shuriken which were vaguely circular in appearance and had multiple blades.
The differences in the two types of shuriken go beyond how they look, though. Their design also affected how the samurai would throw them.
Both weapons had a throwing range of about 30 feet (9.14 meters), but bo shuriken flew in a relatively straight or slightly arched direction when thrown, much like throwing a dart or spear. Their straight, cylindrical shape is also reminiscent of those weapons.
Hira shuriken (wheel-type shuriken) spun and rotated when thrown; these are the shuriken most often seen in movies – the type many people refer to as “ninja (or throwing) stars.”
Typically, samurais threw both styles overhand, but they could also throw them backward or with a sideways toss. 
Wheel-type shuriken were flat and usually had four distinct blades with sharp, pointed ends; however, today, weapons dealers sell hira shuriken with three blades, eight blades, or another number.
Also see Did Samurai Carry Two Swords? to learn more.
How Did Samurai Use Shuriken in Combat?
In combat, samurai mainly used shuriken as a nuisance, distraction, or irritant. Shuriken were sharp and could cause damage, but they were small and unable to penetrate most armor, so samurai rarely aimed them at vital areas. Instead, they targeted their enemies’ eyes, hands, legs, faces, or groins.
The weapons were lightweight and didn’t require a ton of skill to throw, although samurai were trained in the art of throwing them correctly – a discipline known as shurikenjutsu. As mentioned above, fighters could throw them overhand, sideways, behind them, or any way they wanted. (To be fair, some methods of throwing them were more effective than others.)
Either way, shuriken weren’t designed to be deadly, primary weapons. Instead, they were small, easily concealed weapons that samurai could pull out and use quickly. The word “shuriken” translates to “hidden (or concealed) hand blades,” which is precisely what they are. 
Some sources claim that samurai coated the blades of their shuriken with poison to further injure (and potentially kill) their opponents or with feces and other waste so that the wounds they caused would become infected.  Unfortunately, little scholarly research exists to validate the truth of these suppositions.
They may have also covered them in cloth and flammable material to set things on fire, but this, too, lacks evidence to back it up.
Also see Did Samurai Use Shields? to learn more.
Why Did Samurai Prefer Throwing/Ranged Weapons?
Samurai preferred to use ranged weapons and weapons that they could throw because they spent most of their time on horseback. Despite how the movies portray them fighting, samurai preferred to remain on their horses and shoot and throw things at their opponents.
Other prominent ranged and throwing weapons the samurai used include the following:
- Yumi (a longbow) and ya (arrows)
- Naginata (a long, javelin-like pole with a blade at the end)
- Throwing darts (though some people use this term interchangeably for shuriken)
- Tanegashima (a matchlock gun)
Samurai were famous for their skill with the katana, and they did use that weapon and many other Japanese swords, daggers, and knives. However, they preferred to use long-range weapons and reserve their blades largely for ceremonial purposes or to commit the ritual act of seppuku if needed.
Also see Did Samurai Have An Honor Code? to learn more.
Were Samurai the Only Fighters That Used Throwing Stars?
Samurai weren’t the only fighters who used throwing stars (shuriken). They were also a popular weapon of ninjas, and Chinese warriors and assassins often used them. Some women likely used the shuriken, as well.
As with most things in life, shuriken didn’t exist in a bubble. Though they weren’t “deadly” weapons, nor were they the most powerful tools in a samurai’s (or ninja’s) arsenal, they were effective, not to mention cheap and easy to manufacture.
Whenever someone has a good idea and creates something great, it isn’t long before other people want to start using it, making their own, and improving it. While ninjas, and to a lesser extent samurai, certainly made the shuriken famous, they weren’t, by any means, the only fighters who used it.
Can People Buy Shuriken Today?
Shuriken were expendable; once a samurai threw one, he didn’t necessarily expect to get it back. Because they weren’t prized possessions like samurai’s katanas, most smiths made them with cheap, readily available materials. As such, not many ancient ninja stars survive into the present day.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any shuriken out there.
People can buy modern shuriken online, from weapon dealers, novelty and foreign goods shops, souvenir shops across Asia, and even some sporting goods stores.
There are even some authentic shuriken dating back to the time of the samurai, but because they’re so rare and hard to find, they have incredibly high price tags, which knocks the average consumer out of buying them. And that’s assuming they pop up somewhere for sale in the first place, which is rare.
Ninjas may have made shuriken famous, but samurai frequently used them, too. They weren’t as deadly as other weapons, but they served their purpose well.