Ichijoji blog. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.
The spear is a weapon that has been used in some form in virtually every
corner of the earth, and must be, after the club and the rock, one of
the most basic weapons devised by mankind. Japan is no exception, and
has a long tradition of the use of various pole arms, including spears,
dating to way back before the 'samurai' era. However, as far as samurai
are concerned, the spear was not even the principal pole arm until the
15th or 16th century. For some reason, it was the naginata that assumed
that role, while the spear languished until the time of the Namboku-cho
(1334-1392) when it gradually gained popularity. This popularity
increased during the early Sengoku period, until, by the time of the
famous warlords of the mid to late 16th century, it had assumed the
position of one of the main weapons on the battlefield. This was
partially due to logistical considerations, and indeed, the growing size
of armies meant that it provided a cheap and easy to use armament for
levies and other
Though individuals became famous for their use of the spear, on the
battlefield, their particular forte was in tactical deployment. Walter
Dening, in his The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, tells the story of how
Hideyoshi got caught up in an argument to see whether long or short
spears were superior. Oda Nobunaga's spear instructor favored short
spears (short in this case means up to 8ft long) whereas Hideyoshi
favored the longer type.
A trial was arranged: both men would train a group of fifty men in the
use of their chosen length of spear,and after three days, the two groups
would compete against each other. To cut a long story
short, while the spear instructor taught his men the techniques to
oppose the longer weapons, Hideyoshi told his men they had the advantage
anyway, so they could attack any way they liked, and wined and dined
them. He also divided them into three units so they could make forward
and flank attacks. On the day of the contest, Hideyoshi's men made
mincemeat of his opponents.
Although this is probably an apocryphal tale, it does indicate the
tactical value of the spear on the battlefield. That is not to deny that
a shorter spear offers definite advantages to the individual warrior,
but in battles employing formations of troops, longer spears offered a
decided advantage. In fact, Nobunaga employed longer than average spears
in his formations, and even on an individual level,
some warriors made use of the longer spears. Maeda Toshiie, for example, used one that was reportedly 6m in length.
The differences on such weapons also lead to certain specializations in
the way they were used. For the ashigaru, who made up the bulk of the
armies in the Sengoku period, spear usage was comparatively limited.
Among the most common techniques was a downward strike aimed at knocking
the opponent's spear downwards. This was particularly useful in tight
formations, and contemporary writing suggests that this was seen as
preferable to thrusting.
In fact, despite it's efficiency as a thrusting weapon, on the
battlefield even the shorter spears were, as often as not, probably used
to knock down an opponent and then despatch him. The triangular
sectioned blade of the su yari (straight spear) was particularly
effective for this, and this may also explain the popularity of the
tanged spear head over the socketed type – the tang running deep inside
the shaft gives greater durability as well as weighting the head, making
it more effective for sweeping and striking movements.
Practice with long weapons quickly brings an appreciation of the
difference in their range and speed compared with the sword. Facing
someone with a spear (if they are using it well) allows one to realize
the advantage it has – it is said that the spear gives its user a 3x
advantage. When you see the speed with which a spear can be extended and
retracted, how quickly the blade can shoot out at different targets,
you appreciate how difficult it would be to face one in earnest.