Updated: Nov 20
Like the Green Berets, the ninja operated in small bands in which each man was a specialist in some form of ninjutsu training. They had such a huge assortment of ninja weapons they were expected to master that it was only natural that some men became more adept at specific ninjutsu weapons. Nonetheless, they were still expected to be proficient in all the ninja weapons in their arsenal. They were highly skilled in the use of standard weapons like the sword, spear, and bow and arrow, of course. But it was the array of specialized ninjutsu weapons that made them such feared fighters.
Ninjutsu Weapon #1: Shuko
One was called a shuko. It was made of a small metal plate that slipped over the knuckles. It also had four spikes extending from the palm. Thus, a ninja could rake an enemy’s face with a front palm swipe or break his jaw with a blow with the back of the hand. It was also useful for gripping while climbing trees and walls. Whenever ninja started out on a mission, they invariably stuffed their pockets with tonki, a class of small weapons used primarily for escape tactics. It included a bewildering assortment of dirks, daggers, darts and throwing weapons.
Ninjutsu Weapon #2: Caltrops
Ninja used a particularly vicious item called the caltrop. When ninja were being pursued, a favorite trick to slow down the enemy was to strew a number of the four-pointed caltrops behind them. They were designed so that no matter which way they landed, one sharp point always protruded straight up. Since in those days the Japanese typically wore straw sandals, one step on a caltrop was usually enough to stop a pursuer. The caltrops were also spread around encampments or along castle walls and approaches to stop ninja spies from entering.
Ninjutsu Weapon #3: Shuriken
Shuriken were also an indispensable part of the tonki. They were star-shaped weapons held between the thumb and forefinger and tossed overhand or side-armed with a quick, spinning motion. Ninja constantly practiced throwing them at tree trunks, posts and other fixed targets. Accurate aiming and swift throwing eventually became second nature to them.
Ninjutsu Weapon #4: Kyoketsu Shogei
Another potent weapon was the kyoketsu shogei. It had a metal ring at one end of a cord and a double-pointed knife at the other. The end with the ring was thrown and wrapped around an opponent’s arm, after which the ninja pulled him close. They then cut down sharply with the curved knife edge across the enemy’s neck and followed through with the straight knife by thrusting upward into a vital spot. The ring could also be tossed around one leg so the ninja could pull their attacker off-balance and spring on him with the knife.
Ninjutsu Weapon #5: Bamboo Staff
An innocent-looking bamboo staff used by a seemingly helpless priest could be a powerful weapon when wielded by ninja. If attacked by a swordsman, they would suddenly stoop low and swing their staff along the ground with their right hand. Out would come a weight and chain that wrapped itself around the enemy’s leg. The ninja would then jerk him forward into the ground. Moving in quickly toward their quarry, they would slam the opposite end of the staff into the enemy’s head. Some bamboo staffs were equipped with small feathered darts at one hollow end and weighted with lead at the opposite end. Presumably going on the defensive by bracing themselves for a sword attack, ninja would suddenly flick their staff forward and let fly a dart in the enemy’s face. If the opponent ducked out of the way in time, the ninja would rush in for the kill, reversing their staff and clobbering the enemy on the back of the head with the weighted end.
Ninjutsu Weapon #5: Explosives
Interestingly enough, the ninja were also skilled in the use of explosives. They used smoke grenades, mines, and flashing balls to confuse their opponent while they escaped, as well as explosive arrows and firecrackers. Until gunpowder and firearms were introduced by Portuguese traders in the mid-16th century, the ninja were pretty much limited in the use of fire and smoke to signal fires. But they did develop a sort of gun made from bamboo that had a range of up to 60 feet. After the Portuguese arrived, the ninja also used derringers and other handguns.
Ninjutsu Weapon #6: Bamboo Bows
Arrows were a favorite weapon of the ninja, and they used all kinds, including explosive and poison-tipped ones. Their bamboo bows were small and light to make them easy to carry, but they were very effective. Much as American Indians shot flaming arrows into forts and log cabins, the ninja also had fire arrows. They used them not only to start fires but also to shoot into enemy ranks to frighten them and their horses.
Part Three: Ninja History 101: Ninja Gear
Part Five: Ninja History 101: Ninjutsu Training