I’ve always been a fan of the traditional weapons of the Japanese Ninja. Back in the old days, ninja were the Japanese equivalent to the modern day special forces. Special training, special tactics, and, of course, special weapons! Which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is definitely one of my favorite things about them.
Folklore, history, and Hollywood has certainly added to their glamor and mystique, and in many cases elevated them to the status of magicians and super soldiers, who could, some legends have it, make fondue, sans fondue pot, from mouldy gouda. And tame dragons using nothing more but a finger nail clipped from their left pinky toe, and other such fantasies.
But in reality they were only human. What made them special, was that they were very resourceful, had extensive training, were extremely motivated, and possessed a unique set of tools. Of the physical, and mental, in addition to the bladed and non-bladed variety. They understood and employed social engineering tactics long before it became such a popular term, and could in fact turn the most innocuous everyday items into weapons. Not magic really, but given the era they lived in, it might as well have been.
But the purpose of this post is not to add fuel to the already epic mythos of the great Shinobi Warrior. No, today, I thought I’d talk a little bit of the practical side of Ninjutsu, specifically, their weapons. Not too long ago, one of my readers, Matthew Wright, aka Mangetsu, posted a link to one of his own hand made Kunai, and I have to admit that I really liked what I saw. It is clear that he went through a great deal of trouble to remain as true as possible to tradition, and it shows.
There are no spring loaded, rocket powered or demon spirit controlled movie or anime style ninja weapons on his site. Not that that wouldn’t be cool. I would love to have some medieval Japanese Da-Vinci style Ninja weapons in my arsenal. But that is a topic for another site. Matthews site, NineDirections.com, has only great, realistic, functional designs that are as close as possible to traditional Japanese Ninja weapons design as you can get with modern materials and tools. Interestingly enough, in keeping so close to the traditional designs, he has also illustrated quite graphically, many of the limitations that the old school Ninja had to face with respect to both materials and technology.
This week, I thought I’d run a three part series on my favorite weapons from Matthews catalog of excellent work, and also share some of my thoughts on the designs he replicated. So grab a cuppa Joe, Mountain Dew Game Fuel, Jolt, Red Bull, whatever your poison is, and grab a seat!
All comfy? Good. Today we will start with one of the most poorly represented weapons of the Ninja’s arsenal: The Kunai.
Now in a several previous posts, I’ve talked a little about how the kunai has either been non-existent (often usurped by the ubiquitous shuriken) or misrepresented in modern media, especially in anime, and how it was originally not really a weapon, as much as a lowly gardening implement. The upshot here is that there are now a gazillion so called “kunai” being sold by collectible knife makers, and sadly, they have little in common with the original.
Matthews Kunai, on the other hand, are imho, quite simply just about as realistic as you can get. It has the long, wide leaf shape that would have been required for use as a garden trowel, the point that would have been used for digging in hard earth, and a simple grip. If you look at any modern garden trowel, you will immediately see the resemblance. It’s a bit crude in comparison, but it’s there. This traditional design however, looks like it would actually be much better suited for smacking people upside the head. Hey, I’m just saying.
You’ll also note the lack of a ring on the pommel of Matthews kunai. While I believe a ring was present in some traditional kunai, it was by no means a mandatory feature. And its size, unlike the consistently huge ring we see in many ninja anime series today, ranged, from a small whole just large enough to pass a lanyard through, up to a finger ring size, large enough for ones thumb to be placed through in order to make it easier to dig with. However these have a simple flat pommel, which would also serve as a great thumb rest for digging duty, as well as a strong striking surface, which is something that would have been a little more difficult to do with a ring pommel.
Matthew was also commissioned to make a special set of Kunai, with serrations on one edge. A very interesting custom design, that might not have been practical using the original construction materials of the day, but still quite visually impressive. He now makes them full time:
Besides the custom designs, Matthews kunai are in most respects, quite authentic, except for the one major difference. Much better materials. These kunai are made of steel. Traditional kunai were made of iron. This is an important point, as the materials in use at the time played a significant role in the physical design of many traditional Ninja tools.
If you look at these kunai, you will see that they are very, very thick. Their thickness, is in fact overkill for what they will be used for, however I believe this is how they were traditionally designed. I think the primary reason for this is that iron was much softer than steel, and the traditional blacksmiths might have made much thicker tools in iron than they would in steel, in order to compensate for the softness of the iron.
Today it is easy to make a kunai that are many times thinner than the traditional designs, and still maintain superior strength and durability than the old iron kunai. It is also interesting to realize that incredibly useful features, like serrations, would not have been as effective on the older kunai, due to the softness of the material, and I think that it is great that we can experiment with them today.
I think these kunai are perhaps the most authentic designs I have seen, at least in form, and should be incredibly strong as well. Quite worth it, if you are looking for an authentic kunai that will take abuse that would make most others on the market today go crying to their mommies…