A Short Sharp Shock

The most well-known form of Japanese bow is usually the long war bow which was the original prime weapon of Samurai warriors on horseback. These impressive bows were constructed from a layer of deciduous wood sandwiched between layers of bamboo, and could measure up to two and a half metres in length. The eighteenth-century Japanese bow shown here, however, is made from whalebone and is much smaller, measuring a mere 63cm when strung.

It is a kago hankyu, also known as a riman kyu after Riman Hayashi of Kii province who invented this miniature device. The bow fits into a lacquered carrying frame, and eleven arrows are slotted in alongside it. The arrows are constructed from dark red bamboo, and most of them have gilding between the fletchings. Six of them retain their small armour-piercing heads, whilst another has a small broadhead pierced with a heart shape.  The base of the case is decorated with a triple overlapping diamond kamon (family crest) in gold.

Palanquin bow

Palanquin bow

The diminutive proportions of the kago hankyu could almost suggest that it was made for a child as a plaything. However, the bow and arrows were actually fully functional and potentially lethal. Indeed, their small size was a crucial part of their practical use. They had to be short because they were carried as defensive weapons by Japanese daimyo (nobles) and their senior staff when they were travelling inside palanquins (a covered sedan chair).

During the Edo period (1603–1868), the daimyo had to spend a lot of time in transit, complying with the demands of sankin kotai, the enforced biannual attendance at the court of the shogun. This resulted in a lot of long journeys in procession with large retinues of samurai and servants. If they were attacked on the road, a daimyo would be confined inside the palanquin, folded up into a kneeling position, and therefore had to be able to use his bow and arrows rapidly and effectively in very cramped conditions.

Kago yari short spear

Kago yari short spear

The daimyo also employed other weapons made on a smaller scale for the same reason, such as this kago yari (short spear) from the early Edo period, which is just over 80cm long.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Quoit Dangerous

This cumberjung is a unique weapon within the collections of the Royal Armouries. It is a double-ended flail, consisting of a wooden shaft turned with mouldings for gripping, and sharpened discs or quoits attached to the brass chains at either end. The faces of the quoits are padded and covered with knotted thread in concentric bands of white, faded red and blue. In its entirety, the flail weighs just over 1 kilogram. It was made in Gujarat on the west coast of India in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

Gujarati quoit flail

Gujarati quoit flail

To use the cumberjung one would grip the handle at either end and manipulate it so that the quoits whirled through the air at either side, slicing into an opponent. It could be a ruthless weapon in close combat, but much skill and practice were needed for it to be properly effective.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Weird and Wonderful

At first glance, this surprising object could almost be mistaken for an impressive piece of skeleton from a whale or something similarly enormous. In actual fact, it is an extremely rare preserved example of a late 15th/early 16th-century German jousting saddle, which was used in the form of joust known as the ‘Gestech im hohen Zeug’. The saddle supported knights in a standing position rather than seating them on the back of the horse.

German jousting saddle

German jousting saddle

The saddle consists of a large wooden shield, forked for the horse’s back. Behind this barrier projects a seat made up of a central bar with a ring on either side. The rider would insert their legs through the rings, so that they were secured and protected by the shield. The knight would thus be anchored firmly into a standing position from which to joust, although the rigid stance must have increased the potential for serious injury if he received a forceful blow.

Mounting was probably quite difficult; John Hewitt speculated in 1858 that ‘Into a saddle of this kind the knight must have crept from the back of the horse’! The saddle is covered in rawhide and still retains some traces of paint. It is one of only a very small handful known to survive.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant