Exotic ancient weapons: (II) Nagamaki

The Nagamaki ("long-wrapped handle", also known as Nagakami) is a medieval type of Japanese polearm (it can also be considered a sword - its handling art is more sword-like).

European medieval polearms were usually spears with axeheads (halberd), while Japanese ones were usually swords with much lengthened shafts/grips. Europeans also had the latter (glaive), but the importance of both categories was reversed.

The most important and most famous Japanese polearm is surely the Naginata, which is similar to a Katana blade on a very long shaft.
Nagamaki with scabbard
An early rival to the Naginata was the Nagamaki. Unlike the Naginata, it had about as much shaft length as blade length. At least some Nagamakis blades were furthermore straight instead of curved (still one-edged, though) and thus better usable as spears at the small expense of lesser slashing and cutting qualities.

The Nagamaki first attracted my interest because of its look, but it's also an interesting example of a weapon being optimised for a niche.

The long shaft offered some stand-off in melee, while the long blade made it easier to hit difficult targets in slashing movements. Target such as horse legs, for example - a target that was supposedly an important one for Nagamaki wielder in the 12th to 14th century. It did fit the same purpose as the Chinese Zhanmadao, a curved sword with very long blade. The Japanese also followed this path with the Nodachi. The Nagamaki apparently lost relevance when mounted combat lost relevance in Japanese warfare. ("Das Lexikon der Kampfkünste", Werner Lind).

Cost-wise, Nagamakis were more expensive than Naginatas because of the longer blade, but less expensive than the likewise rare Nodachis. Many Nagamakis were probably modified to swords with normal grip length during the 15th and 16th centuries, and it appears as if in part for this reason no extant medieval copies are known.

Two-handed weapons like this had a very different history in Europe than in East Asia.
European two-handed weapons were either spears for close-order tactics (hoplites, Landsknechte), used before body armour was commonly affordable (Germanic frame) or used after body armour became so extremely good that shields became unnecessary (halberds, glaives; late medieval age till 17th century). The European development ended in the bayonet.
The Japanese did use two-hand weapons extensively in the medieval age without fitting into these categories well. Especially the Japanese warrior-monks with their Naginatas left an impression.

Two-hand weapons (especially spears) were also most important in Chinese military history, most likely because of the threat of mounted steppe warriors.
Eventually, East Asia adopted the bayonet as well for a few decades and the northern hemisphere was finally united in regard to two-handed melee weapons. Until then, there were both similarities and differences in two-hand melee weapon development - and the Nagamaki is as far as I know without a close Western counterpart.


edit 2016:



  1. Re no counterpart: Well, a war scythe is quite similar and has a 2500 years history in the West.

  2. similar in type of usage as the flax blade, perhaps?

  3. Dacian Falx and the similar Thracian Romphaia were basically huge sickles swords, with a blade that was curved forward. Very different.

  4. The Scandinavian swordstaff is the European equivalent. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swordstaff