A Short History of Samurai Armor!

Samurai Armor

Samurai armor played a significant role in ancient warfare. During combat, simply wearing armor, regardless of its defensive strength, would always give an advantage over those without armor.

Therefore, in many Asian countries during the feudal era, private ownership of weapons might not necessarily be illegal, but private possession of armor was definitely illegal, and the charge was treason.

The development of productivity determined the development of armor, and the development of armor also benchmarked the development of weapons. From a modern perspective, early armor may seem a bit “shabby”, but don’t forget that the power of contemporary weapons was not great either. In addition, the local geography and climate must be considered.

The Japanese archipelago has few plains, high heat, and a lot of rain. Armor that is too heavy is not conducive to movement and can lead to physical exhaustion. In this article, we will introduce the history and development of Japanese armor:

The First Period

Ancient times to the early Heian period (until the 10th century), due to the constraints of the productivity conditions at the time, armor was mainly simple and unadorned, such as short armor and hanging armor. The so-called hanging armor refers to armor plates that are connected and layered by ropes, with the lower armor plate covering the bottom end of the previous one, thus forming an armor style where the lower layer is wider than the upper layer.

The two-gear hanging armor of the Nara period is the precursor of the later large armor. Short armor is armor that links leather or metal plates into a whole to protect the main parts of the torso. This period spans thousands of years, but because it is too far from the present, not many original objects have been preserved.

The Second Period

The middle Heian period to the Kamakura period (11th to 13th centuries), armor with a strong Japanese character such as large armor, Do-maru, and Hara-ate began to develop. At that time, it was an era when samurai wore helmets with shovel-shaped front stands, small star helmets or muscle helmets, wore fur boots on their feet, and fought on horseback using bows and arrows.

From the end of the Heian period to the end of the Edo shogunate, the time span of the existence of Japanese samurai was very large, almost seven to eight hundred years, and weapons and armor evolved with the times. Since the entry into the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333), the nature of Japanese samurai (called “household members” at the time) was closer to that of lower feudal lords, basically all of whom had their own manors or territories, just like the knights of medieval Europe.

These people prepared their own samurai armor and weapons for war, and received rewards according to their military merits. At that time, a set of heavy armor, a war horse, a finely crafted bow and arrow, and a handy katana were the top equipment on the battlefield.

The Third Period

The era of the Northern and Southern Dynasties to the Muromachi period (13th to 16th centuries) was a time of political turmoil and the expansion of local forces. Do-maru and Hara-ate were widely used during this period. These armors were relatively light and practical, suitable for infantry combat. In this era, where foot soldiers gradually replaced mounted samurai as the main force in wars, changes in the development of armor were brewing.

In the late Muromachi shogunate, due to the frequent and civilian nature of wars, the introduction of gunpowder weapons, and other reasons, the status of heavy armor was gradually replaced by Do-maru, Hara-ate, and Gusoku. The lightweight Hara-ate and Do-maru gradually rose from foot soldier equipment to the mainstream of all classes of armor.

In the late Muromachi and Sengoku periods, the introduction of Nanban-do made Do-maru further solidified and tightened. It was a practical item. After the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Gusoku evolved into contemporary Gusoku. Except for Nanban-do, which can block bullets, other Do-maru are easily penetrated by bullets, but due to the shooting speed and accuracy of the guns at that time were not very good, so the war still maintained a balance.

The Fourth Period

The Sengoku to Momoyama era (16th-17th centuries), in this glorious and chaotic era, the contemporary Gusoku, which is sturdy and lightweight, was widely welcomed and became the mainstream armor. The contemporary Gusoku appeared in the middle of the Muromachi period, and its meaning is “modern armor”.

However, this name first appeared in the Edo period, when people at that time called the armor before the Edo period “old armor”, and the armor at that time was called “contemporary armor”. With the use of the matchlock gun known as “Teppō”, the style and performance of the armor were greatly affected, and the Nanban-do, which was influenced by Western armor, also began to appear. Various styles of Do and helmets coexisted in this era, which was a great prosperity era for armor.

With the introduction of guns into Japan, Nanban armor also entered, and various Daimyo also collected Nanban armor. The main composition of Japan’s Nanban armor is still the metal breastplate of Nanban armor (later generations jokingly called “tin can”), and the traditional Japanese style is still continued in other parts, improving mobility under the premise of ensuring protection.

This is the famous “contemporary Gusoku”, which gives a lot of creative space to the Sengoku Daimyo. For example, Naoe Kanetsugu’s “Helmet of Love”, Ii Naomasa’s “Hikone Red Armor”, and Oda Nobunaga’s “Overlord General Armor”.

In Japan, low-ranking infantry are called Ashigaru. The hat that looks like a straw hat seen in movies, games, and comics is called a Jingasa, which is made of iron. Paired with a straw coat, it is pretty much the standard equipment of an Ashigaru foot soldier. It provides protection from the wind and rain during marches, and can defend against flying stones and arrows during battles.

Some Ashigaru also tie cloth bands around their heads, which are called Hachimaki. Usually, a piece of iron is sewn into the position of the forehead on the Hachimaki, providing some minimal protection.

Due to economic constraints, the Ashigaru’s armor is quite poor. Lower-ranking soldiers rarely possess complete armor, leading to the legendary practice of tying bamboo pieces to the body with hemp rope as makeshift armor, let alone having standard armor. There are all kinds of diverse equipment, and to distinguish between friend and foe on the battlefield, Ashigaru all have flags on their backs.

Article and permission to publish here provided by Leonardo Goods. Originally written for Supply Chain Game Changer and published on November 10, 2023.

Cover image by delo from Pixabay