Perhaps you first heard of nagamaki through the video game Elden Ring or Final Fantasy XIV. However, this is not a fictional weapon; it is a Japanese war equipment that truly existed, and was very popular between the 12th and 14th centuries during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Like many others, it eventually fell into disuse. But what did this weapon look like? What was its purpose? Which warriors used this Japanese sword? If these questions interest you, then continue reading our article about the nagamaki.
What Does the Nagamaki Look Like?
The nagamaki or 長巻 is an ancient Japanese weapon that no longer exists in our time, or at least, its modern version bears little resemblance to the original. The kanji characters that make up its name mean "long wrapping". It was known as a pole weapon, characterized by a long handle with a blade or point attached to it. The nagamaki consists of a handle that measures 3 to 4 shaku, approximately 35.43 to 47.24 inches, covered with a strip of leather, brass, or bronze. This strip covers the first half of the shaft and may extend to cover its entire length. Initially, there was no wrapping on it; later restorations added this feature.
The blade's length is approximately the same as that of the handle, measuring from 27.56 to 39.37 inches. There is a version with a shorter blade and modified shape known as nagamaki-naoshi. In this case, the tang, the metal extension of the blade into the handle, may also be smaller. Besides its size, nagamakis have other differences compared to katanas. Katanas have a less pronounced curvature, and they lack the yokote, the perpendicular ridge that separates the point (kissaki) from the rest of the blade. Additionally, nagamaki blades have a relatively wide groove on their first third and a thinner one running through the middle of the blade's entire length. These features do not exist on katanas, nor does the back edge found on nagamaki blades.
What Was the Use of the Nagamaki?
The nagamaki was primarily used by foot soldiers against cavalry. Its blade's shape, resembling a scythe, was highly effective in cutting the legs of horses and sometimes the riders as well. Due to its size, this sword required two-handed use, demanding a certain level of physical strength considering its weight. That's why, by the end of the Muromachi period (1333-1582), these weapons disappeared and were replaced, notably by the naginata. Naginatas had a shorter blade but a longer handle, making them lighter, faster, and easier to handle.
Furthermore, with their slightly longer length, naginatas better kept opponents at a distance, reducing the risk of self-injury. The nodachi, a long sword, also replaced shorter nagamakis. Gradually, as firearms developed, they contributed to the decline of these types of weapons.
Who Used the Nagamaki?
The nagamaki was used by warriors known as bushi, who were different from samurais. Bushi were considered less refined than samurais, who belonged to the high nobility. Their roles also differed. While samurais had an unbreakable bond with their lord, the daimyo, bushi were responsible for protecting family clans. The nagamaki was also part of the equipment of the ashigaru, the basic foot soldier in Japan. Initially composed of peasants, armed in a disorganized manner with minimal armor, these infantry units represented the majority of foot troops.
Additionally, Japanese warrior monks also used nagamakis before eventually replacing them with the naginata, which required different handling with a distinct grip. A famous warlord from the Sengoku period, daimyo Uesugi Kenshu (1530-1578), had a special guard composed of men equipped with nagamakis. He ruled the province of Echigo and was renowned in Japan for his combat skills and legendary life.
As we can see, the nagamaki was one of the ancient Japanese weapons that evolved and gave way to others that were more functional, eventually making room for firearms, which revolutionized warfare. Fortunately, many enthusiasts in Japan and other countries contribute to preserving the history of Japanese swords through their passion.