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Tanegashima: Guns of the Samurai

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The first Japanese exposure to firearms came from Portuguese traders in 1534, as the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima. They received a matchlock, and quickly recognized its utility and potential – within 10 years matchlocks were in significant production in Japan. The style of gun took hold nationally, and they became known collectively as “Tanegashima”. These matchlocks served as major military arms during the Japanese warring period between 1575 and 1638, and then remained standard arms until the reopening of Japan to the west in the mid 1800s.

The distinctive stock design of the Tanegashima is intended to be held and fired at the cheek, and not rested on the shoulder. The style of armor in use at the time did not easily allow a firearms to be shouldered, and so the cheek was used instead. Calibers varied from 8-9mm at the smallest up to guns well in excess of 1 inch in bore diameter. The example in this video is a very representative common type of about .50 caliber, but specialized versions also existed from short guns for mounted shooting and reloading to massive “wall gun” types.

With the closing of Japan to the outside world for several centuries, the matchlock Tanegashima became set as the standard firearm. Flintlock and wheel lock systems never saw any significant use, and small arms evolution only resumed with the Meiji Restoration in the mid 1800s, when the Emperor reformed the Japanese military along contemporary European lines. Today, the Tanegashima is a distinctive part of Japanese cultural history, although quite rare in the West and not widely collected.

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