What is Nagamaki A complete guide to understand this versatile Japanese weapon

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What is Nagamaki 長巻

Image of a Nagamaki 長巻

"Nagamaki" (長巻) refers to a type of Katana (Nihonto), featuring a long, slender blade similar to a katana, paired with an unusually long handle, allowing for two-handed grip and greater control. Nagamaki looks very similar to "Naginata" (薙刀), but there are many difference. This article introduce the basic knowledge of Nagamaki, a long with its history, types and comparison with other Japanese polearms.  

How long is Nagamaki

How long is Nagamaki

The standard Nagamaki typically measured approximately 180 to 210 centimeters (about 71 to 83 inches) in total length, In Japanese measurements that is  six to seven shaku. The blade itself was around 90 to 120 centimeters (35 to 47 inches) long, or three to four shaku. Historical records also reveal the existence of significantly larger variants known as "Ōnagamaki" (大長巻), which were notably longer than these standard sizes.

Parts of Nagamaki

Parts of Nagamaki

Nagamaki is like a katana with extra long handle (Tsuka), many of their components are pretty much the same, we can also divide them into the blade, and the fittings (Koshirae), here are the major parts introduction: 

Blade (刀身, Tōshin): The Nagamaki's blade was originally similar to the Odachi (大太刀), but later versions became broader and thicker, resembling the Naginata in shape, like "Shōbu Zukuri" (菖蒲造り) or "Kanmuri Otoshi Zukuri" (冠落造り),. The tang (茎, Nakago) was exceptionally long, usually as long as the blade. Nagamaki usually don't have groove (Bohi)

Inscriptions (銘, Mei): Early Nagamaki blades had Tachi-style inscriptions (太刀銘, Tachi-mei), while later ones mostly featured Katana-style markings (刀銘, Katana-mei). Many blades were unsigned (無銘, Mumei).

Curvature (反 Sori): The Nagamaki's blade typically had a moderate curve (鳥居反り, Toriizori) or was almost straight, unlike the more curved Naginata. This contributed to its length and distinct appearance.

Nagamaki Koshirae: The Nagamaki featured various fittings, these fittings ranged from simple to highly elaborate, reflecting the wide variety of users and purposes. In the beginning, many fittings are same as tachi , but the "monkey grip" (猿手 sarute) and "hilt cord" (手貫緒 tekagashira) typically found on "Nakamaki no Tachi 中巻野太刀" were often omitted in later versions. 

Handguard (鍔, Tsuba): The guards varied significantly in size and design, from large and ornate to small and plain.

Handle (柄, Tsuka): The handle was often wrapped in thread or leather for a better grip. Some handles were metal-wrapped (蛭巻, Hirumaki) and lacquered, while others were simply coated in black lacquer.

Pommel (石突, Ishizuki): The pommel was typically shaped for slashing, often in a half-moon form, suitable for the Nagamaki.

History of Nagamaki

Samurai on horseback with Nagamaki

The Nagamaki first appeared during the turbulent times of the Nanboku-chō period in the early Muromachi era. It evolved from the "Nakamaki no Tachi 中巻野太刀", a large Tachi sword with a part of its blade near the guard wrapped in leather or cloth for better grip. This period marked a shift in Japanese warfare, Nagamaki was widely used among samurai and foot soldiers.

In early times, in the Heian and Kamakura periods, Yumi was the primary weapons for mounted warriors, with the Tachi serving as a secondary weapon. However, as battles grew in scale and complexity, the need for close-quarter combat increased, leading to the emergence of larger weapons like the Nagamaki. This evolution was a response to the increased importance of infantry and hand-to-hand combat, where large striking weapons became the new status symbol for warriors.

The Nagamaki's popularity continued through the Sengoku period, where it was used alongside spears by various samurai clans and mercenaries. However, with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo period, swords with a blade length of over three shaku were classified not as "katana 刀" but as "military equipment 戦道具", the personal ownership of large swords like the Nagamaki was restricted. Many existing Nagamaki were then modified into shorter swords or regular-sized katana, a process known as "Nagamaki Naoshi. 長巻直", and antique Nagamaki is hard to find in modern days. 

Difference between Nagamaki 長巻 and Naginata  薙刀

Difference between Nagamaki 長巻 and Naginata  薙刀

At first glance, it's not too difficult to distinguish Nagamaki and Naginata. Nagamaki is like a katana with extra long handle, and Naginata is a more of a polearm.  

But in Japanese Katana definition, when we talk about a katana, be it uchigatana, tachi, nagamaki or naginata, we are only referring to the blade (include the tang). It will be more challenge to distinguish Nagamaki and Naginata by the blade only, but there a couple things we can check: 

Difference in size

The size of the naginata varies depending on the era, but the typical blade length of the naginata used in the Muromachi period is about 2 shaku (about 60cm), and the handle length is about 9 shaku (about 270cm), with the handle being longer than the blade.
On the other hand, the blade length of the nagamaki is about 3 shaku (about 90cm), and the handle length is about 3 shaku (about 90cm) to about 4 shaku (about 120cm), and the lengths of the blade and handle are almost the same.
Condition of forward curve

Sakizori "Forward curve"先反

Sakizori refers to the degree of curvature (Sori) of the tip/cutting edge. The naginata has a deep forward curve, while the nagamaki has a shallow one.
Also, one of the features of nagamaki is that there is no curvature in the Yakiba (hardened edge) of the "Boshi" (the side of the cutting edge), which is called "焼詰. Yakizume".

With or without Yokote 横手
"Yokote" refers to the boundary line that enters the lower part of the tip/cutting edge. This is a feature seen in swords made in the "Shinogi-Zukuri 鎬造" style, and it is said that there is no Yokote in the naginata and there is Yokote in the nagamaki.

How to use Nagamaki and Naginata

Nagamaki fighting tutorial in ancient Japan

Both the nagamaki and the naginata are weapons specialized for mowing down people and horses, but their handling was different. Because the handle of the naginata is longer than the blade, the reach is wide and it was suitable for swinging around. However, the nagamaki, with the length of the handle and the blade almost the same, had a high power, but it is said that it was physically difficult to swing around like a naginata.

Nagamaki Naoshi (長巻直し) How Nagamaki was shorten

Nagamaki Naoshi (長巻直し)

In Japanese history, as battles shifted from horseback to foot and from swords to guns, long weapons like Nagamaki (長巻) became less popular. This led to the creation of "Nagamaki Naoshi" (長巻直し), where old Nagamaki blades were reshaped into new swords.

The process involved modifying the Nagamaki's nakago (茎, the part that fits into the handle) to create different sword types, such as Uchigatana (打刀) or Wakizashi (脇差). This was common, especially during the Muromachi period, known for its samurai warlords. Swords from earlier times, like the Kamakura (鎌倉時代) or Nanboku-chō (南北朝時代) periods, were often remade into these newer forms.

One reason for remaking was to make old, famous swords easier to use. It was also cheaper and faster than crafting new ones. A saying about Nagamaki Naoshi is "No blunt swords," meaning they used high-quality, battle-tested blades for this.

An example is the sword "Katana Mei Bishū Osafune Jū Chikakage" (刀 銘 備州長船住近景), a late Kamakura period sword later turned into an Uchigatana. This reflects the skill and adaptability in Japanese sword-making across centuries.

"Nagamaki Naoshi-zukuri" (長巻直し造り) are swords made to look like "Nagamaki Naoshi" (長巻直し). Instead of changing old Nagamaki swords into new types like in Nagamaki Naoshi, these swords were made from the start to be like Nagamaki Naoshi. The exact reason why they made Nagamaki Naoshi-zukuri isn't clear, but people think it might be because Nagamaki Naoshi swords were known for being really good quality, and they wanted to make new swords that were just as good.

Famous Nagamaki: 

The "Nagamaki Mei Bizen Osafune Jū Shigemasa" (長巻 銘 備前長船住重真)

The "Nagamaki Mei Bizen Osafune Jū Shigemasa" (長巻 銘 備前長船住重真) is an old Japanese Nagamaki sword made a long time ago, in the late Kamakura period. It was first owned by a big family called the Niwa in what is now Fukushima. Later, it was given to the famous Tokugawa family and was a favorite of the 15th Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu.

The person who made this sword was Jirobei Shigezane, a sword maker from the Osafune school in what is now Okayama. He was the brother of another sword maker, Motoshige, and he was known for making swords with a special style that mixed two traditions, Bizen and Aoe.

This Nagamaki is known for being wide and not very curved, looking a bit like another type of sword called Shizugata Naginata. It is special because it looks like the Nagamaki swords that were popular in old Japan, during the Kamakura and Nanboku-chō times.

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  • Posted on by Jeremy Thomas

    Very cool information. There has been a lot of confusion lately regarding nagamaki, nodachi, Okatana, etc. I’d very much like to know your sources for this information, so I can archive it for future use/reference, if possible?

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