Can samurai armor stop bullet


Samurai armor, with its intricate design and imposing presence, has long been a symbol of the fearless warriors of feudal Japan. These armors, often decorated with intricate patterns and symbols, were not just for show. They were meticulously crafted to provide the utmost protection in battle. But the question arises, were these armors just for show, or did they possess the power to withstand the force of a bullet?

Can samurai armor stop bullet?


Can Samurai Armor Stop Bullets

The short answer is yes, Samurai armor was designed to withstand the impact of the firearms of their era, which is the Tanegashima matchlock gun. However, it’s important to note that these armors would not stand a chance against modern firearms like the AK47. The advancements in firearm technology have far surpassed the protective capabilities of traditional Samurai armor.

To be more precise, the type of samurai armor that could withstand matchlock guns is Tosei Gusoku. Other types of samurai armor, such as Oyoroi, Domaru, and Haramaki, were invented before the use of matchlock guns and were designed to protect against cold weapons, like bows (Yumi), spears (Yari) and swords (Katana). Even among Tosei Gusoku, not all sets could defeat bullets. Only those with extra thick steel plates, rather than small iron or leather plates, offered such protection. These armors were expensive and usually only affordable by daimyo. The majority of low-ranking samurai and Ashigaru remained vulnerable to firearms.

The Power of matchlock guns in Japan

The earliest matchlock guns, known as Tanegashima(種子島), or hinawajū (火縄銃), were introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders around 1542. These firearms were initially met with skepticism, but their effectiveness in battle changed this perception very soon.In just a few decades, the Japanese started making lots of their own, even better versions of these guns. These matchlock guns came in different sizes. Some were long muskets used by foot soldiers (Ashigaru), while others were short carbines and even pistols that could be used by samurai on horseback.

The maximum range of a Yumi (Japanese bow) in normal combat is about 400 meters, with an effective range of 80 meters, and an effective killing distance of just 40 meters. However, the effective range of a matchlock gun can reach 200 meters, with an effective killing distance of 50 meters. Although the effective killing distance is only 10 meters more, the power is much greater. As the book "Zouhyou Monogatari 雑兵物語" mentioned, hit by a matchlock meant certain death.

Samurai Armor development for matchlock gun

The Japanese armor makers, or katchū-shi, were quick to adapt to these changes. They learned from the experiences of European armor makers and were able to produce highly effective bullet-proof armors within a short period of time.

In the Japanese Warring States period, the mainstream firearms were 3-monme tsutsu (匁筒) hinawajū, mainly used by farmers for hunting and self-defense, but also used in battle formations, 6-monme tsutsu hinawajū (professional foot soldiers with firearms), and 10-monme tsutsu hinawajū (heavier, known as samurai barrels, used by some taller and stronger samurai). Faced with these firearms, the thickness of the armor of Japanese foot soldiers and ordinary samurai was generally 0.8 to 1.5 mm, which could only withstand a 300j energy bullet.

tsutsu (匁筒) hinawajū
十匁筒 Image source

In response to this situation, Japan actively introduced thicker Nanban-do (European plate armor breastplate), its thickness of more than 2.5 mm is enough to withstand the shooting of 3-monme and 6-monme hinawajū, in fact, at that time the Japanese also mentioned that “except for Nanban-do (a type of samurai armor Dou), other armors will be penetrated by firearms”. Additionally, Japanese armorers also adopted a simple method of thickening, such as the black lacquer five-piece armor of Date Masamune, the thickness of its breastplate is as much as 4 mm.

nanban armor

Real life bullet proof Armors

A good example of the effectiveness of Samurai armor is the famous daimyō and later Shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. After a battle, he discovered several bullets embedded in his do and kabuto. Although the bullets had pierced the armor, they had lost so much force that Ieyasu remained unscathed and hadn’t even realized he’d been shot. 

The armor worn by Tokugawa Ieyasu is approximately 22 kilograms in weight, which is notably heavy. Generally, as time progressed, armor tended to become lighter. However, the armor of the Tokugawa family was made with thicker iron plates, possibly as a precaution against sniper attacks, making it heavier. From the photo, you can still see the bullet marks:

Samurai armor with bullet marks

Bullet Testing on Samurai Armor

Some Daimyo will conduct bullet testing on armor, which is rare in their era. Testing armor with gunfire was likely noted by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who might have adapted it for use in Japan during the era of firearms warfare. Specifically, this involved testing the iron plates of armor torso against gunshots. It's believed that this practice was adopted by Date Masamune in the Date family, along with the five-plate armor (go-mai dou gusoku), and was subsequently perpetuated throughout the Edo period exclusively by the Date family.

In 1611, Date Masamune encountered the Spanish ambassador, Vizcaino, in Edo. Masamune requested to witness the firing of a European long gun. The resulting loud explosion startled the horses of Masamune's entourage, causing them to throw their riders and fall, leading to Masamune laughing heartily at the incident. Masamune's vivid curiosity and interest in such weaponry might have inspired the practice of bullet testing in the Date family, a tradition that continued for two hundred years.

These findings were further confirmed by tests conducted by the esteemed Japanese armor maker, Miura Shigetoshi. He discovered that a Japanese cuirass dou, the major Samurai armor part, made from a plate just 3 mm thick, could stop and deflect a bullet fired from a tanegashima-type firearm from a mere 15 meters away.

Here is an image of a Nanban Do Gusoku "南蛮胴具足" with bullet testing marks. Image from ふくやま美術館:

Therefore, Samurai armor, while visually striking and intimidating, was far from being just a decorative piece. It was a testament to the skill and creativity of the Japanese katchū-shi, who crafted armor that was not only visually appealing but also highly functional and capable of stopping bullets.

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