Firepower: The Battle of Nagashino

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The movie Kagemusha depicts the Battle of Nagashino of 1575 as a tragic charge by Takeda Shingen’s cavalry into Nobunaga’s army of musketeers. Historians have recently shown that the Takeda side had as many guns as the Oda forces did. The real lesson of Nagashino is that a large force ensconced behind field fortifications can defeat a small force attacking it. It was an advantage of defense over attack, given those technologies and strategic ideas. That is not to say that that a blitzkrieg could not have worked with the same technology.


It is well known that the Portuguese introduced firearms shortly after their arrival in Japan in 1542, and significant tactical changes have been ascribed to the introduction of these weapons. Nevertheless, the change from cavalry to massed-infantry tactics had occurred well before the Portuguese arrival, as too had the expansion in the size of armies. Although use of these weapons in Japan was not unprecedented-Okinawan guns had arrived first in 1466-the Portuguese harquebuses represented an improvement over the earlier weapons. They were disseminated widely: The daimyo of Tanegashima gave one to the Ashikaga shogun, while the priests of Negoroji gained control of another and quickly learned how to manufacture these weapons.

Equally important to making the weapons themselves was possession of a good recipe for gunpowder. Ashikaga Yoshiteru received such a recipe from the Portuguese, via the Tanegashima daimyo, and he notified an ally, Uesugi Kenshin, about these new weapons. Uesugi Kenshin was not an administrative innovator, but he fought well. Armed with these new weapons, Kenshin proceeded to attack and defeat his Hojo rivals.

The efficiency and accuracy of the matchlock musket have recently been assessed in a series of practical experiments carried out in Japan, using Japanese arquebuses made at the beginning of the Edo Period. The first test was an assessment of the gun’s range. Five bullets, each of 8mm calibre, were fired at a target in the shape of an armoured samurai from distances of 30 metres and 50 metres respectively by an experienced matchlock user. At 30 metres each of the five bullets hit the target area of the chest, but only one out of the five struck the chest area at 50 metres. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 the guns began firing at a range of about 50 metres, but as they were firing at mounted men they had a much larger effective target area, and to unhorse a samurai and subject him to the spears of the waiting defenders would be a useful result in itself. So it may well have been that at this range all that was desired was to disable the horses.

Even at 50 metres, however, a bullet that struck home on a man could do considerable damage, as shown by the results of the second experiment. Bullets of 9mm calibre were fired using a charge of 3 grams of powder at ranges of 30 and 50 metres against the following materials:

  1. 24mm wooden board;
  2. 48mm wooden board;
  3. 1mm iron plate;
  4. 2mm iron plate.

At 30 metres each was pierced cleanly. At 50 metres a. and c. were again pierced through. The bullet entered the 48mm board for threequarters of its depth, and also entered the 2mm iron plate, causing a dent on the inside, but not passing through. As the iron scales of a typical do-maru armour of the Sengoku Period were about 0.8mm thick, the armour could be holed by a bullet fired at 50 metres.

Notwithstanding the above comment about the primacy of firearms, few of the warlords properly appreciated that the successful employment of firearms depended only partly on technical skills concerned with accuracy of fire and speed of loading. Just as was the case in contemporary Europe, a skilled archer could launch many more arrows, and with considerably more accuracy, in the time it took to fire a succession of arquebus balls. But to use a bow properly required many hours of practice, and a degree of muscular strength, implying the need for an elite archer corps, whereas the arquebus could be mastered in a comparatively short time, making it the ideal weapon for the lower-ranking ashigaru.

The secret of success with firearms therefore was the same as the secret of success with any infantry unit: army organisation and a considerable change in social attitudes. But to achieve this there had to be a recognition that the ashigaru were anything other than a casually recruited rabble, and a commitment had to be given to their training and welfare. Only then could the warlord expect to receive the long-term service from these men. It took a further leap of the imagination to give them pride of place in a samurai army, because traditionally the vanguard of an army had always consisted of the most experienced and trusted swordsmen. Yet for firearms to be effective, they had to be placed in the front ranks in large numbers. All that was needed was a demonstration of how successful this method could be.

Firepower The Battle of Nagashino

It is usual to state that the first such demonstration was provided in 1575 at the Battle of Nagashino. But, as will be shown in the final case study, volley firing had been used five years earlier against Oda Nobunaga by the Ikko-ikki monk armies at the Ishiyama Hongan-ji. This, the first use of organised large-scale arquebus work in samurai warfare, provided exactly the demonstration that the samurai needed of how ashigaru might best be employed. We see Nobunaga using the volley method himself three years later at Nagashima, but it is surely no coincidence that the impetus came from the Ikko-ikki. Being composed largely of low class troops, their mere existence showed the power of well-organised ashigaru armies, and their use of firearms was simply one very dramatic way of expressing it. Lacking any of the social constraints likely to impede a samurai’s appreciation of the potential combination of ashigaru and guns, the monk armies simply adopted a new weapon on military grounds alone. Guns helped defend the Ishiyama Honganji for eleven years, and five years after its fall, in 1585, the military strength still maintained by the monks of the Negoro-ji, which centred around their musketry, required Toyotomi Hideyoshi to bring 7,000 muskets of his own to subdue them.

What, therefore is Nagashino’s significance? In spite of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji, it remains important as the symbol of a change in military thinking by the daimyo. In all 3,000 gunners were waiting for the Takeda cavalry. Many of the mounted men were shot down or had their horses killed under them, but the most effective result was to cause chaos and confusion among a formerly disciplined force, leaving them prey to the sharp swords and spears of the samurai, who advanced to engage them. The result was a famous victory for Oda Nobunaga, and an even more famous one for the arquebus. But it was not the first in terms of guns alone, and the significance of Nagashino is more that of demonstrating to other daimyo that the immense power of the gun could only be delivered by a co-operation between arms in a mutually supportive and well-organised army.

By the time of Oda Nobunaga’s death in 1582, approximately one-third of most samurai armies were composed of matchlockmen, their numbers growing as fast as technology and training would allow. It also produced something of a defensive mentality in samurai warfare, with earthworks and palisades becoming a far more common sight on Japanese battlefields. In 1584 the two armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu prepared defensive lines in the area around the castle of Komaki, but the campaign ended in a stalemate, with neither willing to launch an attack, and the Battle of Nagakute which followed it was a direct result of the boredom induced by the Komaki lines, and was fought elsewhere.

Although guns did not cause a transformation in tactics, they did incrementally lengthen the battlefield. This proved noteworthy in the famous battle of Nagashino in 1575, in which the forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu decisively defeated Takeda Katsuyori. This battle has often been cited as a milestone in firearms tactics, with the Oda forces purportedly firing in volleys of three, but no proof exists that this actually happened. Nevertheless, guns did prove effective at killing Takeda commanders, who were not used to the weapons’ range. Trickery, however, was the main reason for the Takeda defeat, for an Oda ally used an offer to defect to entice the Takeda to try to encircle the Tokugawa forces. Expecting the defection of half the opposing army, one wing of the Takeda became overextended and entrapped, and this accounted for the high Takeda casualties.


Tedorigawa was Oda Nobunaga’s only defeat. His greatest victory was the battle of Nagashino in 1575, achieved through the use of firearms, the weapons with which Nobunaga is most closely associated, even though they were already widely disseminated throughout Japan. Oda Nobunaga’s outstanding contribution was his early appreciation of the best way in which these clumsy weapons could be used, which he seems to have realized by the year 1554 when he attacked the Imagawa outpost of Muraki on the Chita peninsula. The Shincho-koki tells us that Nobunaga set up his position on the very edge of the castle moat, and ordered three successive volleys against the loopholes in the castle defences. The arquebusiers appear to have been organized in squads that fired in succession, confirming Nobunaga’s sophisticated battlefield control, and it has been further argued that the Muraki action represents the first use of rotating volleys in Japanese history, a technique with which Nobunaga is credited during his epic battle of Nagashino.

Nagashino, Nobunaga’s operational masterstroke, came about as a result of a move to lift the siege of the castle of the same name that stood on a promontory where two rivers met. It had been holding out against the army of Takeda Katsuyori, the heir of the famous Shingen. The great strength of the Takeda lay in their mounted samurai, whose ability to overrun and disorder foot soldiers, even when they were armed with arquebuses, had been demonstrated as recently as the battle of Mikata ga Hara in 1572. On approaching Nagashino Nobunaga made his plans accordingly. First, instead of simply falling on to the rear of Katsuyori’s army, he took up a planned position a few kilometres away at Shidarahara, where the topography enabled him to restrict enemy cavalry movement. Bounded by mountains to the north and a river to the south, Nobunaga’s position was not susceptible to outflanking manoeuvres. Second, Nobunaga erected a loose palisade of lashed timber that provided protection to his army while allowing some gaps through which a counter attack might be launched. Third, he arranged a welcome for Takeda Katsuyori in the form of massed ranks of arquebusiers.

The popular view of Nobunaga’s victory at Nagashino is that it came about entirely as a result of the third of these factors, with the arquebusiers divided into three sections, firing in rotation. This has become the accepted view of Nagashino, and the notorious final scene depicting the battle in Akira Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha makes the action look as though the bullets were delivered by machine guns. The reality of the situation is somewhat less dramatic, yet it detracts nothing from Nobunaga’s generalship on the day. The first point concerns the number of arquebuses deployed. Mikawa Go Fudo-ki says 3,000. The more reliable Shincho-koki has 1,000. Nor need we necessarily conclude from the observation that different squads of arquebusiers fired alternate volleys that this was an early application of the system of rotating volleys. Such a scheme, associated in particular with the military innovations of Maurice of Nassau, required the front rank to discharge their pieces then move to the rear to allow the second rank to do the same, a manoeuvre known as the counter-march. Yet even the Dutch were to discover that a minimum of six ranks, and preferably ten, were required to keep up a constant fire.

In Total War: Shogun 2, Nobunaga’s matchlock gunners make quick work of Katsuyori’s famed cavalry, just as they do in the tales.


Total War: Shogun 2, while limited by its 3D engine, offered a spectacle that evokes the sense of urgency for the defenders and despair for the attackers at seeing the cream of the Takeda crop laid low. Sengoku Jidai, by offering the most hardcore wargaming, allows players to seek a different conclusion, and better understand the difficulties facing Katsuyori.


Sengoku JidaiNagashino [In Spanish]

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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