Ninjas inspired fascination across generations and cultures. Properly called shinobi, ninjas were spies in feudal Japan. The iconography of ninjas with swords on their backs came from a need to distinguish shinobi from samurai.
Ninjas carried their swords on their backs only when they were climbing. The rest of the time, they carried the swords in the fashion of the samurai. The weapons had short blades making them easy to conceal within their robes.
Shinobi valued stealth and secrecy, so few documents exist from their peak era. The mystery surrounding ninjas allows people to mythologize and project. This article will provide more information about Ninjas and their swords, including the various types of swords as well as other weaponry used.
What Kind of Swords Did Ninjas Have?
Ninjas carried one of two types of swords; the ninjato or katana. However, ninjas were secretive by nature and design. Despite peaking in purpose and power from the 15th century until 1603, they evaded documentation until the 1950s. As a result, myth and speculation diluted their history.
Below is a deeper look at these swords.
The ninjato is a legend accepted as fact.  While the ninjato certainly exists now, no record of the sword exists before 1956. A picture of a ninjato appeared in The Ninjutsu, a pamphlet written by Heishichiro Okuse about ninja practices.
As ninja legend dominated popular imagination, the ninjato gained legitimacy. The mythology of the shinobi overtook the need for historical accuracy, and accounts about the ninjato became credible.
Ninjatos have short, straight blades. The American writer and martial artist Stephen K. Hayes credits the shape of the ninjato to a reliance on primitive forging methods.  The weapon, he speculated, had to be ground against stone, and straight edges were easier to achieve.
The katana is more historically probable than the ninjato.  Samurai traditionally used the katana. Many shinobi were former, disgraced samurai. They used shorter katanas they were prepared to abandon.
The samurai valued their swords deeply. More than merely weapons, the blades were symbols of status.
The shinobi harbored no such sentimentality – their swords existed solely for use. Ninja katanas were not ornate like samurai blades. Shinobi prioritized utility and comfort over aesthetics, so their swords were disposable. If a ninja needed to abandon their katana, they would.
The shorter length of the ninja sword served two purposes. A smaller blade was easier to conceal, and ninjas valued stealth. Shinobi also used their katanas to climb rock faces. They stabbed the edges into the stone and pulled themselves higher.
What Were Ninja Swords Made Out Of?
Ninja swords had blades made of steel. While no definitive record of ninja swords exist, there’s a strong likelihood that their swords were similar to the samurai’s katana.
Samurai katanas were distinctive and beautiful symbols of status. These swords were made of tamahagane, or “jewel steel.” This metal was extremely beautiful and highly expensive.
Ninjas wanted to avoid drawing attention, so they fashioned their swords from less ostentatious steel.
What Other Weapons Did Ninjas Use?
Ninjas used an incredibly vast array of weapons. The shinobi favored devices that were effective as tools as well as weapons, hence they often repurposed farm tools. Shinobi were primarily spies and mercenaries and needed weapons they could quickly and discreetly conceal.
Ninjas additional weapons included the following:
A kunai was a wedge-shaped steel weapon. The kunai was pointed on one end, with a circular hole on the other. Shinobi used kunai for many purposes and in many ways. These included:
- As a sword in close combat
- Thrown, like shuriken
- Making holes in a wall to aid in climbing
- As a grappling hook
- For digging
- As a flint, to start fires
Ninjas often coated the kunai in poison, making it a more effective weapon.
The shuriken is a widely-recognized weapon. Popular culture warped these tools into “throwing stars,” but in reality, there are many types of shuriken. These are:
Ninjas seldom relied on simply throwing the shuriken. They dipped the edge of shuriken in poison, and if that was not available, coated shuriken in dirt or dog feces. They also rigged the higuruma-ken with gunpowder and a fuse. Shinobi lit these to create small explosions.
Throwing shuriken is called shuriken-jutsu and is still taught and studied to date.
Shaped like a bear claw, the tekko-kagi was functionally a set of iron claws attached to a ring. They originated as farm tools, but ninjas wore them as weapons. Shinobi gripped a tekko-kagi in each hand and used the spikes to tear at their opponents. The tekko-kagi was often used against an armed opponent.
Kakute were spiked rings that ninjas wore to incapacitate their enemies temporarily. The spikes faced the palm of the shinobi. When a ninja grabbed their enemy, the kakute ripped the skin and caused immense pain. Kakute were small, easily concealed weapons, suiting the shinobi’s need for discretion. Like many of their sharp weapons, ninjas often painted kakute with poison.
Manriki-gusari were simple, multi-purpose weapons. The design was simple. They were medium-length chains with a weight on either end. The manriki-gusari was easily concealed and suitable for myriad uses, including:
- Swinging the chain and hitting the enemy on the head with the weight
- Disarming an opponent by throwing the chain at their arm
- Strangling an opponent using the chain
- Throwing it at an enemy’s feet, thereby buying the ninja time to escape.
The tekken was a set of iron knuckles worn for both offensive and defensive blows. These small and easily concealed weapons allowed ninjas to inflict significant damage with a simple strike. As a means of defense, the tekken was used to block an opponent’s weapons.
A ninja’s blowgun was a particularly clever weapon, as duplicitous as the spies themselves. Shinobi designed their blowguns as functional musical instruments. The weapon was a playable flute.
Ninjas disguised themselves as street performers, and when their quarry arrived, they placed their fingers over the flute’s holes. Closing the gaps on the pipe turned it into a gun. The shinobi used it to shoot triangular pointed needles.
Kusarigama originated as a weapon for farmers, merchants, and artisans. Feudal Japan forbade these people from carrying samurai swords. The kusarigama was a sickle with a weight attached by a length of chain. Carriers used the weight as a projectile to disarm their enemies. The sickle then dealt the final blow.
Shinobi appreciated the size of the kusarigama. Ninjas quickly concealed the weapon in a robe.
Ninjas remain largely mysterious. They valued stealth, and what is known of their weapons reflects that.