Tanegashima Arquebus

Tanegashima arquebus firearm introduced to Japan through the Portuguese in 1543.

Tanegashima, also hinawajū, was a type of matchlock or arquebus firearm introduced to Japan through the Portuguese in 1543. Tanegashima were used by the samurai class and their foot soldiers (ashigaru) and within a few years the introduction of the tanegashima in battle changed the way war was fought in Japan forever.




The tanegashima seems to have been based on snap matchlocks that were produced in Portuguese India, at the armory of Goa (a colony of Portugal since 1510). The name tanegashima came from the Japanese island (Tanegashima) where a Chinese junk with Portuguese adventurers on board was driven to anchor by a storm in 1543. The lord of the Japanese island, Tanegashima Tokitaka (1528–1579), purchased two matchlock muskets from the Portuguese and put a swordsmith to work copying the matchlock barrel and firing mechanism. The smith (Yaita) did not have much of a problem with most of the gun but “drilling the barrel helically so that the screw (bisen bolt) could be tightly inserted” was a major problem as this “technique did apparently not exist in Japan until this time.” The Portuguese fixed their ship and left the island and only in the next year when a Portuguese blacksmith was brought back to Japan was the problem solved. Within ten years of its introduction, an upwards of 300,000 tanegashima firearms were reported to have been manufactured.

Sengoku period

Much of Japan was involved with internecine wars during the Sengoku period (1467-1603), as feudal lords vied for supremacy. Matchlock guns were introduced about midway through the period, and after their introduction on the battlefield, were used extensively toward the end, and had a decisive role in warfare. In 1549, Oda Nobunaga ordered 500 guns to be made for his armies. The benefits of firearms were still relatively questionable, however, compared to other weapons. At the time, guns were still rather primitive and cumbersome. According to one estimate, in 16th century Japan, an archer could fire 15 arrows in the time a gunner would take to load, charge, and shoot a firearm. Effective range also was only 80 to 100 meters, and at that distance a bullet could easily bounce off armour. Matchlocks were vulnerable to humid or rainy conditions as the powder would become damp. However, one advantage was that a firearm could be manned effectively by farmers or non-samurai low-ranking soldiers.

The Japanese soon worked on various techniques to improve the effectiveness of their guns. They developed a serial firing technique to create a continuous rain of bullets on the enemy. They also developed bigger calibers to increase lethal power. Protective boxes in lacquerware were invented to fit over the firing mechanism so it could still fire while it was raining, as were systems to accurately fire weapons at night by keeping fixed angles thanks to measured strings.

In 1563 the Amako of Izumo province won a victory over the Kikkawa with 33 of their adversaries wounded by tanegashima, as a result, in the year 1567 Takeda Shingen announced that, “Hereafter, the guns will be the most important arms, therefore decrease the number of spears per unit, and have your most capable men carry guns”. Oda Nobunaga used tanegashima in the Battle of Anegawa (1570), and again against the powerful Takeda clan in the Battle of Nagashino (1575), 3,000 gunners helped win the battle, firing by volleys of a thousand at a time. They were concealed across a river and used breastworks to effectively stop enemy infantry and cavalry charges while being protected. The defeat of the powerful Takeda clan brought about permanent changes in battle tactics.

Japan became so enthusiastic about the new weapons that it possibly overtook every European country in absolute numbers produced. Japan also used the guns in theJapanese invasion of Korea in 1592, in which about a quarter of the invasion force of 160,000 were gunners. They were extremely successful at first and managed to capture Seoul just 18 days after their landing.

Edo period

The internal war for control of Japan was won by Tokugawa Ieyasu who defeated his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600. Three years later, he established theTokugawa Shogunate, a powerful entity that would maintain peace, stability, and prosperity in Japan for the following 250 years. This is known as the Edo period (1603-1868). From the mid 17th century, Japan decided to close itself to interaction with the West as well as its close neighbors of China and Korea through its policy of Sakoku. Contrary to popular belief, this did not lead to Japan “giving up the gun.” If anything, the gun was used less frequently because the Edo Period did not have many large-scale conflicts in which a gun would be of use. Often the sword was simply the more practical weapon in the average small-scale conflicts. It should also be noted that isolation did not decrease the production of guns in Japan—on the contrary, there is evidence of around 200 gunsmiths in Japan by the end of the Edo Period. But the social life of firearms had changed: as the historian David L. Howell has argued, for many in Japanese society, the gun had become less a weapon than a farm implement for scaring off animals. With no external enemies for over 200 years, tanegashima were mainly used by samurai for hunting and target practice, the majority were relegated to the arms store houses of the various feudal lords (daimyo).

Today tanegashima are readily available from sellers of antique firearms and dealers of samurai antiques both in Japan and the West. Modern tanegashima gun troops in Japan re-enact the use of tanegashima in battle and black powder enthusiasts use tanegashima for target practice.

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