Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Shields were considered useful in Europe until the development of full plate armor. Despite the fact that they never had anything comparable to plate armor, shield use was apparently abandoned by the Edo period. The freestanding tate was used to protect archers, but aside from this, shields don't seem to be used at all.

Some argue that shield use was obsolete by the Edo period because they were clumsy, and because Japan lacked Hellenistic influences. While I'm not sure I agree with that, I am unable to evaluate that assertion.

share|improve this question

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Wow, where to start.

Basically, ignore anything in the previous answer regarding Europe and shields.

As far European metallurgy goes, pattern welding was in use as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The technique continued to be used up until about the end of the viking era (mid 11th century) when quenching and tempering basically took over.

As a general rule, shields got smaller as armour got better and became more common. Far from being a secondary defence in melee, shields are not clumsy and are excellent for both attack and defense. As I said, they fell out of use in Europe because improvements in body armour made them superfluous. NOT because your off-hand can be put to better use. Unless you are extremely well trained, using two swords is simply an invitation for a humiliating death. I think it's important to note that the wakizashi was a back up sword, used for close quarters/indoor fighting and beheading defeated opponents.

But getting back to the question (finally), shields were used in ancient Japan but fell out of favour. I think the main reason for this was the predilection of Japanese warriors for two handed weapons, most notably the spear and bow. Both of these are important battlefield weapons, for obvious reasons, and were the preferred weapons of samurai.

So basically, two handed spears and bows were hugely popular in Japan and hand held shields aren't particularly useful for archers and spearmen.

share|improve this answer
The katana is a hand-and-a-half sword. Those with sufficient strength and dexterity hold a second sword in the off hand (as Miyamota Musashi). Those without use it as a two-handed sword and block opposing blows with the blade and hilt of the sword as in modern fencing. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:26
Here is a link to Musashi's Niten Ichi-ryu, or two swords as one, style of two-sword fighting: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hy%C5%8Dh%C5%8D_Niten_Ichi-ry%C5%AB –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:36
re "hand held shields aren't particularly useful for archers and spearmen." Kindly explain why Greek hoplites and Alexander's sarissa-armed phalanxes found them so useful then. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:47
If I remember correctly, Musashi didn't usually use two swords when fighting duals. As I stated, it takes a LOT of training to fight effectively with two swords and even then, as battlefield technique it is of dubious value. In a well balanced sword, strength is less of an issue. Using a hand and half (or bastard) sword one handed sacrifices speed, control and leverage. –  Hux Oct 4 '13 at 12:13
@Pieter Geerkens - Japanese battle was based around single combat - a samurai picking an opponent and going after them. Phalanx, maniple and hoplite warfare depended on massed infantry in close formation, where a shield is right handy. Also, note that Musashi was a duelist and not a particularly accomplished soldier: two-handed technique was not practical in combat. Katanas were not practical in combat - pole-arms were far more common and effective primary weapons on the battlefield in medieval Japanese warfare. –  RI Swamp Yankee Oct 4 '13 at 13:16

Because they used a wakizashi instead. The inferior quality of medieval and pre-medieval European metallurgy (compared to Japanese) may have been the cause of the real question:

Why did Europeans continue to use a shield so late, instead of the more efficient use of a sword-catcher, second sword, or buckler?
[edit] Or a second hand on the main sword to steady and strengthen it.

When modern European metallurgy started to catch up with Japanese, modern fencing styles had begun developing as well, resulting in the shield being incorporated in the sword itself, as it's hilt.

It is also important that a shield is primarily a defence against missile fire, and only secondarily a defence against melee weapons. As noted here (page 107) the quality of Japanese armour combined, with the failure to utilize crossbows and the relative weakness of their strung bows, meant that a samurai was well protected against missile fire by his armour:

Japanese bushi confronted very different technological as well as geographical and organizational circumstances. To begin with, they were forced to make do with bows distinctly inferior to those available on the continent. The kiyune and fusetake-yumi of the tenth to twelfth centuries were particularly weak and, used in conjunction with the heavy oyoiroi armors favoured by early medieval samurai, forced warriors to shoot only at very close range - usually less than 10 metres - and to target with precision the gaps and weak points in the armour of specific opponents.

share|improve this answer
This surprises me. Can you provide references on your claim that Japanese metallurgy was better than medieval and pre-medieval European? –  Sardathrion May 22 '14 at 7:34
Of course he can't. This answer is total nonsense. –  Evan Harper Sep 27 '14 at 10:07
Here is a detailed comparison of what is believed to be typical high-end Viking, Damascene, and Japanese sword qualities of the Medieval period: tameshigiri.ca/2014/01/21/razor-edged-3-comparing-metallurgy –  Pieter Geerkens Sep 28 '14 at 14:36
Japanese did use shields. See here: books.google.com.au/… –  deathlock Oct 13 '14 at 19:06
Shield was very much part of melee type combat (e.g. Viking shields) as well as used in heavy-infantry bottle formations (e.g. Greeks, Romans). –  Greg May 11 at 5:52

Pole arms/spears were the favored weapon on a true battlefield for 95% of cultures. Knight, samurai, Greeks, etc. The Romans are a bit of an exception in that the pilim wasn't their primary. But a soldier would still own a pole arm.

A sword is more like a pistol. A reliable side arm for close quarters or if your primary weapon breaks (or jams.) but when a man with a rifle meets a man with a pistol, the man with the rifle is a dead man. Just aim for the heart.

Swords were also used in Japanese duels as a ceremonial weapon. Another reason to use a sword is because theres a risk of getting into a fight and you want to be prepared but you aren't for sure entering a battle and can't carry a spear all day.

share|improve this answer
The pilum is a projectile weapon, not a pole arm. In the early republic the third line, the hastati used a long spear. –  Oldcat May 21 '14 at 21:56

The reason is most likely very simple, as stated before shields are primerily an arrow defense. But in order to make a good shield you need raw hide and glue, two things the Japanese didn't have much of.

share|improve this answer
This answer would be improved by references. –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 30 at 10:57

I think the comment is valid, I've always thought that shields weren't used based on the honor culture of Samuri - and considered cowardly to hide behind. Because they didn't regularly do battle with external enemies fighting could have been reputation based?

share|improve this answer
Welcome to History.SE! You may be right, but this is more like a comment than an answer. Its okay for comments to end with a question mark, but answers are generally better sourced/researched than this. Once you get to 50 reputation, you can comment. –  two sheds Nov 16 '14 at 22:31

well first of all samurai used two hands to weld a katana cant hold a shield at the same time. the second thing is they were not cowards to hide behind shields they were straight up fighters.

share|improve this answer
We are looking for scholarship, not argumentative judgemental opinions –  Mark C. Wallace Sep 26 '14 at 23:39

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.