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the frequency of using the sword on a battlefield

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  • the frequency of using the sword on a battlefield

    Hello guys,

    I recall that quite some time ago I have stumbled upon a text that was telling about some specific archeological-historical research that took place in japan. Apparently, that research was able to determine the approximate amount of injuries and their origins that were sustained by the fighting samurais and their minions during the pre-edo period.

    As far as I recall, the researchers even presented numbers such as

    70-80% - were injured by arrows.
    10-15% - were injured by naginatas, spears and other polearm weapons.
    ~5% - were injured by swords.

    The numbers are only written by my own memory.

    I am now looking for the original research, or at least a more detailed review.
    Did anyone hear of something like this?

  • #2
    I believe that the numbers that you are quoting come from Dr. Karl Friday's essay in Budo Perspectives , edited by Dr. Alex Bennett and sold on this website. I believe that Dr. Friday list his sources, but they are all in Japanese. Hope this helps.


    • #3
      Look for

      Conlan, Thomas. "State of War: the Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan" (Ph. D. diss.) Stanford, CA, Stanford University, 1998; and "Innovation or Application? The Role of Technology in War," paper presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, 13 March Boston, MA, 1999.

      Suzuki Masaya, 刀と首取り 戦国合戦異説. Heibonsha Shinsho, 2000 and 鉄砲隊と騎馬軍団. Yosensha, 2003

      Friday, Karl, "Off the Warpath." Budo Perspectives, ed. Alex Bennett, Auckland, New Zealand: Kendo World Publications, 2005.

      Friday's article references the above four. According to his article, Conlan examined 1302 14th century battle reports, and found 721 identifiable wounds, which broke down like this:
      73% - arrows
      25% - swords
      2% - spears

      Suzuki examined 175 14th century battle reports and found 554 casulties, broken down thusly:
      87% - arrows
      8% - swords or naginata
      3% - rocks
      1% - spears

      Examining 1291 reports from the 15th and 16th centuries, Conlan found:
      439 arrow wounds
      343 gunshot wounds
      192 spear wounds
      79 injuries by stones
      50 sword cuts

      Suzuki found for 1501-1560, 620 battle wounds broke down like this:
      61% - arrows
      21% - spears
      16% - stones
      3% - swords

      while for 1563-1600 (after the introduction of the gun), 584 casualties broke down as:
      45% - gunshots
      21% - arrows
      17% - spears
      6% - cutting injuries
      5% - rocks
      4% - combos of the above


      • #4
        Thanks a lot guys!


        • #5
          Dr. Friday (he gave a nice talk about this at MSU a few years back) uses statistics like these to make his point that from a very early stage, the study of swordsmanship was not as a practical fighting method for the battlefield, but as a method for self-development. He did note, however, that the sword was used 'around town' as a personal protection weapon.


          • #6
            One question about the statistics that I have is how were the wounds determined? For example, if it is a product of examination of skeletal remains, things would be skewed to a) projectile weapons b) arrow heads remaining in the wounds c) spears that would be more likely to strike bone. Consider this - it is very likely that many warriors were wounded and finished off with tanto. A cut to the neck would result in soft-tissue damage. Would this be found in skeletal remains hundreds of years later.
            I think there it is doubtless that the sword was the equivalent to a side-arm in a modern soldier's kit - but I wonder if these statistics do justice to the use of bladed weapons (naginata, sword and short sword/tanto).
            Ellis Amdur


            • #7
              That's a very good point. It's something that I've wondered about for years, ever since he first wrote down his casualty statistics on Iaido-L some time in the late 90's. Mr. Friday has always mentioned "casualty statistics" in his articles, but where do they come from? I figure that they were either from skeletal remains as you mentioned, or written reports of those treated by army physicians. If skeletal remians, then it would be subject to the possible errors you pointed out. If physicians' reports, then we would be missing all of those that were too badly wounded to be treated by the army physicians.


              • #8
                Um, it's right there in my post, but all these numbers, at least, come via contemporary battle reports and casualty lists.


                • #9
                  Well, that begs a lot of questions:
                  1. Conlan - 13th-14th century. 721 identifiable wounds for the whole period. So how many "unidentifiable" wounds were screened out. Next, were the wounds of higher ranked warriors reported more frequently than lower ranked warriors? Were arrows targeted against those of higher rank, or were they shot in volleys?
                  2. Suzuki's numbers are quite similar - are the 175 wounds part of the 721 of Conlan, or another group altogether? Same questions otherwise apply.
                  3. The most puzzling is the 2nd Conlan: Examining 1291 reports from the 15th and 16th centuries, Conlan found: 439 arrow wounds, 343 gunshot wounds, 192 spear wounds, 79 injuries by stones, 50 sword cuts. That's 1103 wounds in 1291 reports. That's less than one death per report! Who was included, who were left out? What is this a cross-section sampling, or the only reports he could find. It is certain that over two centuries, a mere 1103 deaths are not all that were recorded. So what was the sampling procedure. Were the stones from slings or were they large objects. (If the latter, were they finishing blows - crushing the skull of a downed, injured man, or stones cast down a battlement from a siege.).
                  4 -5. Same questions as above.
                  I have absolutely no doubt that these statistics show trends. I noted some 20 years ago, when I first wrote the first draft of Old School that requests of generals from Korea in the Chosen Eki were for more spears and guns, never more swords.
                  Still, these statistics, with their paucity of detail, remind me of psychological statistics, where a certain therapy claims 30% improvement, but has carved out of the study, the 80% who dropped out early because the treatment was so noxious.
                  So I would be intrigued to find out more about who died, from what class they were in, and who and what kind of person did not have their death explicitly recorded in such reports.
                  Ellis Amdur


                  • #10
                    You're confusing history with religion. You go on the evidence you DO find, not find reasons to discount it and continue believing as you wish without proof.

                    Also... you wrote Old School? I love that movie...


                    • #11

                      I have some training in psych stats, as well, and I agree with much of what you say. Still, the stats provided here are from Friday's cites in his article. I imagine the original studies written up by Conlan and Suzuki go into much more detail.

                      One thing I took from these stats, though, is not the uselessness of the sword on the battlefield, but rather that it was used, and not to an insignificant degree. Heck, 6% of 584 is 35 -- so even from clearly non-comprehensive survey, 35 men had to use their sword in anger. The actual number is surely much more. On a thread regarding Friday's article on E-Budo, I made the comparison to modern warfare. 500 years from now, a historian looking over some of the war records of the late 20th/early 21st century would certainly find that a great majority of casualties were caused by bombings, missile strikes, and heavy artillery. He would be mistaken, though, if he then assumed that the use of personal firearms was not given heavy emphasis in training (and actually used), and hand-to-hand/close quarters combat hardly regarded at all.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by b8amack View Post
                        You're confusing history with religion. You go on the evidence you DO find, not find reasons to discount it and continue believing as you wish without proof.

                        Also... you wrote Old School? I love that movie...
                        I think you're confusing statistics with pop-science. The first thing you learn in any scientific discipline is to determine and eliminate possible causes of bias in your data set. Ellis brings up some very valid points and I 100% agree with him that those statistics show some strong trends, but the exact figures should not be taken at face value. Without getting our hands on the same data sets that were reported and the original author's exclusion criteria we can't really draw any major conclusions from the numbers provided.


                        • #13
                          Sure he does. But then he offers a bunch of conjecture. I can argue that spontaneous combustion which self-extinguishes before reaching the bones would not be reflected in the skeletal remains, or that magic spells that stir the brain up like a big tub of jello can also not be discounted, for the same reason. Or fear induced heart attacks from the sight of giant dinosaurs.... and so on and so forth. What's the point? Should we not instead give Conlan some credit for having actually done his research, rather than just seeking to poke holes?


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by b8amack View Post
                            Should we not instead give Conlan some credit for having actually done his research, rather than just seeking to poke holes?
                            The problem is that without "seeking to poke holes," it isn't clear that the author of a paper did their research. If you don't approach academic claims with skepticism, then you will never notice if people are basically just making stuff up. Moreover, each academic paper is just one more step up -- looking for weak points is how you figure out where to take the next level of research. To that point, poking holes and giving credit for doing the research aren't actually in conflict with each other. Someone can be wrong and still materially advance knowledge. Indeed, this is the typical state of things (see, for example: )

                            The default position is "we don't know." Anyone who asserts that they do know, whether it be that swords are more significant than spears, or vice-versa, or if giant dinosaurs roamed medieval Japan, bears the burden of proof. We shouldn't take Conlan at face value, and neither should we take anyone else's conjecture at face value. Ellis says that it's likely that people were finished off with tanto, and you are absolutely correct in pointing out that there is no obvious reason to believe that to be the case. That doesn't, however, invalidate the questions.

                            BTW, I'm looking forward to the treatise on the use of magic spells and giant dinosaurs in mass combat.


                            • #15
                              So am I. Preferably one of those manga history texts, like they have for kids, here.