Catching an Arrow in Flight: Real Skill or Ninja Myth?

Midori Tanaka

Japan’s ninja spies were rumored to possess extraordinary powers of mind and body. By some accounts, ninja could jump twenty feet in the air, walk on water, or even disappear.

Last March, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters decided to put a few of these legendary supernatural skills to the test, with carefully designed scientific experiments. The following images show their results.

Walking on Water

Ninja tries water walk

Ninja fails water walk
Myth: Busted

Stopping a Sword Between Bare Hands

Ninja sword catch

Ninja sword catch
Myth: Busted

Catching a Speeding Arrow in Flight

Ninja tries to catch arrow

Ninja fails to catch arrow
Myth: Busted

Ninja Mythbusters

At first, it might seem as if the Mythbusters disproved every claim. However, at least in the case of the speeding arrow, they altered their trial to guarantee failure. Grasping at random shots is a fool’s game; wouldn’t a wise ninja eliminate the element of chance, using timing instead of speed?

When Nova filmed their recent documentary, Secrets of the Samurai Sword, they staged a comparatively honest test of this skill. In place of mechanical equipment, they used master swordsman Fumon Tanaka, and instead of asking him to catch a flying arrow, they shot it directly at his heart!

Fumon and Midori Tanaka

Arrow cut by katana

Tanaka succeeded, cutting the arrow with his katana before its tip could pierce his chest.

Secrets of the Samurai Sword

Could a ninja really catch an arrow in flight? What do you think?

42 comments on “Catching an Arrow in Flight: Real Skill or Ninja Myth?”

  1. Ah, but that’s the trick, isn’t it? He knew where they were going to shoot the arrow, at his heart. I’ll be his ability to cut arrows in mid flight goes down when the archer can aim at any point on his body.

    Still, I admire the skill, courage, and commitment.

  2. The Mythbusters website discusses the arrow-catching test, and says that what they found is that a hand can’t close fast enough to grip the arrow as it goes by. So, it would seem that knocking the arrow aside, or cutting it would be somewhat easier. They also didn’t address the notion of better timing, or using two hands in a clapping motion. I also note that if the arrow is fired from far away, with a large arc, it will tend to lose a lot of speed by the time it lands, making the catch easier.

    Their take on sword catching has some issues, too. They built an apparatus to test it. Sensible, but it leaves open several questions. It seems to me that the catch must be powerful enough to overcome the swordsman’s grip on the sword. As the video you posted shows, the catch resulted in the sword being taken out of the swordsman’s hands. So you don’t have to stop all of his bodily force, you merely have to break his grip, and stop the momentum of the sword itself.

    An apparatus also cancels out the notion of subtle angles and alignment of the catcher. Can we be confident that the apparatus faithfully recreates the momentary acceleration that the swordcatcher generates?

    So, under the right conditions, sword and arrow catching seems plausible. Not that I’m likely to try it soon.

    I’m willing to call the water walking mythbust pretty conclusive, though.

  3. Just watched the mythbusters video, hehe. Still many open questions: How far away is the catcher standing? Who is shooting the bow? What kind of bow are they using? Probably not a fiberglass compound recurve bow, but a traditional Japanese bow, which won’t be as powerful. And how do you catch the arrow? I would do it with sort of an open hand slap with my hand relaxed, so that the impact with the shaft would accelerate the speed of my hand closure. Furthermore, striking it first would probably slow it down some, creating friction with your palm.

    So, I still don’t find the mythbuster demonstration conclusive.

  4. Why are we ascribing so much truth to the ninja myths anyway? They’re just that: myths. Real ninjas wouldn’t waste time trying to catch arrows or swords, they’d kill at night and when they’re target was asleep, being in disguise any time before that.

  5. Yeah, I noticed a few problems of that myself. I’ve actually seen an arrow-catching stunt before (televised on a talent show, and the arrow was set on fire so it could be seen easier). Indeed, it isn’t so much about grip speed, but also timing and follow-through. Essentially, you’d be changing the arrow’s trajectory AND catching it simultaneously. Looking at that video, I believe that the hand could have caught it if they set the hand to go off just a few milliseconds before the arrow passed through. Also, for walking on water, didn’t ninja have collapsible stilts or some sort of tool in that vein?

  6. I recall the tale of Tajima the Arrow Cutter who would deflect arrows with a whirling naginata.
    I think what is missing in these attempts by Mythbusters to engage these things includes the human element. I have seen many people do extraordinary things when in actual combat both in competition and in “reality”. I have seen men anticipate, precog, attacks and firefights. I have seen men make impossible shots with rifles and other weapons. I saw a man sit up, while I was watching him, move two feet to the left, and avoid a sniper round.
    I have no doubt that when totally committed to combat a man might catch an arrow, deflect an arrow, cut an arrow or avoid one.
    Those of us who have been totally committed to engagements either in competition or in reality understand that when we are intimately connected to events around us as they unfold, we can act in both subtle and sublime ways. We become greater than the sum of our parts.
    In my own experience I can say with confidence that detachment from the environment is the first step towards failure because that detachment implies that our minds are not integrated with the present and can’t react to something when they are focused elsewhere. That is why we empty our minds but retain emotional focus.
    In your training sessions you need your opponents to commit to striking you, not to behave furtively and uncommited. Without their focus and will, you have no reason to defend yourself and your practice will not further your abilities.
    The Mythbusters failed to catch the arrow because they didn’t need to. Master Tanaka probably understands this very well. Without a committed attack, there can be no committed response. If our friend on the video was fighting for his life or limb, he might have surprised himself.

  7. Many years ago, Real People featured a guy who could catch arrows as the flew past him. It appeared to be real and they showed it in slow motion.

  8. I think to a person who has achieved balance in his body and mind can do these so called myths… 100% no doubt about it… and unlike the myth buster projects, a ninjas or who ever is said to be capable of doing these feats, wouldn’t have kept their hands still… they’d be moving their hand in the direction the arrow is moving and there by achieving a lower relative speed of the arrow (cos you’d want a scientific explanation)… if you know the ways, the mind can be sharpened by meditation and discipline… these skills may not be impossible, even though they seem like myth to westerners…

  9. I saw Penn Jillete catch a bullet in his mouth that Teller shot at him!
    Like Penn and Teller, Midori and her father Fumon Tanaka are partners in an entertainment business – a fair test would have been Fumon Tanaka trying to deflect arrows fired by an archer he didn’t know!

  10. how do u walk on water i want that shoe it will be fun to walk on water like a ninja!!!!!!!!!!!!

    it will be fun to walk on water!!!!!

  11. That video doesn’t un-bust the myth.

    The girl is using an underpowered bow (I’d bet, less than 30 pounds of draw force, where any kind of guard, hunter or warrior would use somethng stronger than 50).

    Then there’s the fact that she’s underdrawing it. The japanese Yumi (the style of bow she’s using) is supposed to be drawn back to the ear. She doesn’t even draw it to her face. Without those couple of inches of draw, the bow isn’t even shooting at full power.

    So she’s basically shooting the equivalent of a Wal-Mart children’s bow. She might as well be tossing the arrows.

    I have a hunting bow and an open challenge to any so-called “arrow catcher” or “arrow cutter”. Nobody’s taken me up on it yet.

  12. It is totaly possabal to catch an arrow.
    And walking on water is possable too.

  13. I think it’s more easy for a ninja to make a painfull ” jesus christ” arrow catching with the palm.

  14. I’ve seen, both on TV and in the flesh, 2 different guys catching arrows out of the air.

    The bow used in the demonstration I saw live had an 80lb draw weight. The catcher was ~15 metres away.

  15. “I’ve seen, both on TV and in the flesh, 2 different guys catching arrows out of the air.
    The bow used in the demonstration I saw live had an 80lb draw weight. The catcher was ~15 metres away.”

    Interesting. What style of bow? How about fletching design? Three small feathers? Four big ones? Lots of fluff?

    Did you know for a fact that the draw weight was 80# and the range 15m or was this merely what they stated in the demo?

    (Yes, I am definitely skeptical.)

  16. What the heck?

    It doesn’t take a Ninja to snatch arrows out of the air!
    We used to do it as kids (stupid pre teen and early teen days) all the time, bare handed!
    We had various self longbos and hicory recurves we mad ourselves that range from 50# to 90# draw.
    The arrows we caught rere standard 11/64′ field arrows with 5″ fletching and originally rubber blunts just in case, but also did field pionts.
    I’d have one of the neighboe kids shoot at a target from circa 25-30 yards and snatch the arrow out of the air before it reached the target. No biggie! Just make sure you move your hand with the arrow and get it behind the point….like a pitcher catching a hot baseball coming off the bat right at you.
    I digress, but I teed off a lot of batters doing that, but I was normally the catcher. Talk about a hard target to zero in on, a baseball from a good pitcher didn’t go straight like an arrow! I found that to be more challengingthan catching an arrow.

  17. what the….. is everyone saying that myth busters guy is a real ancient ninja or something… a real ninjas little finger would maybe compare to this fools skill lvl.

  18. u guys are all idiatrs for arguing about something so pointless.

  19. it is actually possible to catch a sword with your hands. its been proven before also. but as i recall, the man who did it (not some western ‘professionals’….but someone who dedicated their whole life to martial arts…so yes he is old and is very much a REAL master) said there were only 2 people in the world mad enough to attempt it, but lowe and behold, he succeeded at it. so its not a myth…its a fact. so try getting REAL masters to test these things out instead of those ‘professionals’ if your going to try disprove parts of the martial arts.

  20. From a Turkish, Mongolian or Korean bow? I doubt it.
    They shoot fast, over 200 fps in some cases, and have been known to shoot over 500 yards with flight arrows.

    From a western bow.
    Sure… with practice.

  21. I am always shocked at how pathetic the control and variance factors of mythbusters are. Those guys are not that good at what they do for a living.

  22. pinkii:

    it is actually possible to catch a sword with your hands. its been proven before also. but as i recall, the man who did it (not some western ‘professionals’….but someone who dedicated their whole life to martial arts…so yes he is old and is very much a REAL master) said there were only 2 people in the world mad enough to attempt it, but lowe and behold, he succeeded at it. so its not a myth…its a fact. so try getting REAL masters to test these things out instead of those ‘professionals’ if your going to try disprove parts of the martial arts.

    Another thing about the sword-catching master you’re talking about is that the swordsman he demonstrated this ability with probably didn’t want to actually kill him.

    Josh Young:

    From a Turkish, Mongolian or Korean bow? I doubt it.
    They shoot fast, over 200 fps in some cases, and have been known to shoot over 500 yards with flight arrows.

    From a western bow.
    Sure… with practice.

    The design of a bow isn’t all that matters in terms of speed. Bows come in a variety of “draw weights”. Draw weight is basically an expression of how much force it takes to pull the string and thus how much force is transferred to the arrow. A “heavier” bow will launch arrows faster than a “lighter” bow of similar design.

    Any bow made for war or hunting (eastern and western alike) and used with the intent to kill will be pretty tough to catch an arrow from.

  23. In general I agree but two bows of the same draw weight can differ in their shooting speed.

    I have seen people catch paintballs going about 240fps, it is not an easy thing. The ones that do it practice and still don’t do it every time they try it, at least the few I have seen.

  24. We walk on water all the time…
    … but it’s cold up here & the water’s frozen.

  25. ninjas are not spies as you in the western world know from movies, ninjutsu is a state of mind and body, perfectly,
    and yes we can catch a flying arrow, but we cant walk on water hahahaha

  26. A deer can’t out move my bow at 353 fps and no Ninja on planet earth could stop my arrow. It would be through him before he could even blink. The bows being shown barley shoot 120fps.
    Try a Mathews Monster bow on a Ninja watch what happens.

  27. Mike,

    That kind of bow’s modern technology they wouldn’t have had back then. Regardless of how good you are at killing ninjas, it’s not exactly relevant.

  28. My high school, here in America, has water-walking as part of its curriculum in AP Physics class. Anytime anyone can cross a pool, they get an award. Needless to say, it’s extremely difficult and requires a very good design for water shoes, but its the same concept as building boats for your feet. How the hell could Mythbusters purport to bust this?

  29. Dear Mr. Khan,

    They’re called Mythbusters. If they don’t do that, they don’t have a show.

    Salaam.

  30. Salaam,

    However, they don’t just bust myths, they also judge them “plausible” and “confirmed”. It doesn’t make any sense for them to bust this, especially since the majority of commentors on this thread don’t believe ninjas could walk on water.

  31. Dear Mr. Khan,

    Too true. But they have to try to keep things interesting and this can mean disregarding integrity to create a more interesting program. There really is no final verdict to be had because even if it’s possible as you say that they could have managed this feat it doesn’t necessarily mean they did. Someone probably thought busting it would make a better show.

  32. Actually there are skilled martial artist around the world who can catch an arrow with their barehands. But not the way the MythBusters described it, during battlefield conditions.

    The Catching The Arrow trick was probably developed to hone an martial artist’s hand-eye co-ordination. I’ve seen Shaolin Monks catching arrows with their bare hands during martial arts demonstrations. So it’s not really an myth, it can be done. Just not under battlefield conditions.

  33. I doubt shinobi could walk on water.

    I am however thoroughly convinced that shinobi could run on water. http : //www . youtube . com/watch?v=Oe3St1GgoHQ

  34. Didn’t take time to read all the other comments, but I think a big thing that will help with catching the arrow is deflecting its flight path AS you catch it. That way you aren’t just using friction to kill its speed, and you aren’t dependent so much on the time it takes your grip and friction to kick in slowing the arrow down. IE don’t just clench the fist, but move it downward into the arrow and torque it

  35. I think that the sword catching and arrow catching would have been possible. Arrows werent really used at close range if the arrow is shot in an arc it would much easier to catch and see. I also think a human could stop a sword unlike the robot hand you could create wedge with yours so the sword slows down as it trys to squeese through your hands and gets stuck. I have seen the sword thing but it may have been a trick but the math works so i say possible especially with a pair of leather gloves. Wouldnt feel good thats for sure. Walking on water though, nope. Maybe if Usain Bolt ran across the water at top speed with oversized flat bottomed shoes he could stay up for bit but I doubt it.

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