Contemporary Handguns Of WWII
The Luger, Nambu & 1911.
An interesting mental exercise is to compare military weapons serving combatant nations during a contemporary time frame. A few years back we covered German Mauser, Japanese Arisaka and American Springfield bolt-action rifles. Now let’s do the same for those countries’ World War II sidearms. Using nicknames, Germany’s was the Luger, Japan’s was the Nambu and America’s was the .45 Auto. Although each of those nations also fielded other types of handguns those three became identified as each country’s primary military sidearm. Officially their names in the same order were P08, Type 14 and Model 1911 and 1911A1.
Lugers appeared as early as 1900 chambered for the 7.65mm Parabellum. The German “Kriegsmarine” (navy) adopted 9mm Lugers first about 1904, then their army settled on them in 1908. Lugers were supplanted by Walther’s P38 as standard in 1938 but stayed in Wehrmacht service until May 1945. Interestingly, there never was a “Luger factory.” The name derived from Georg Luger, one of its primary designers.
Kijiro Nambu, a Japanese army officer, designed the pistols carrying his name starting about 1902. Sales at first were to commercial customers including private purchases by military officers. The Japanese navy officially adopted Nambu pistols in 1909 to arm their “rikusentai” (Special Naval Landing Forces). By 1925 Nambu pistols were remodeled and adopted as the Type 14 in 8mm Nambu caliber. They stayed in production and in Japanese soldiers’ and sailors’ holsters until the surrender in September 1945.
America’s military stuck to .45 Autos from 1911 until 1985 and still do in some specialized applications. Interesting how Germany’s P08 and Japan’s Type 14 are nicknamed for their designers but no one calls America’s .45 Auto the “Browning.” John M. Browning working for Colt Patent Firearms developed what the US Army named Model 1911 but the pistol has become more identified with its caliber than with the inventor.
Here’s an interesting tidbit. Browning/Colt Model 1911s were also adopted by the countries of Argentina and Norway and actually built in factories in those lands. Germany’s Luger was adopted at one time or another as military sidearms by Bulgaria, Finland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey. Switzerland actually produced some of their Lugers; the other nations bought them from Germany. Only Japan built and used Nambu handguns. (There was actually a later Type 94 Nambu pistol not to be covered here, mainly because I don’t have one.)
During its time of duty America’s Model 1911 changed very little. Barrel length was always 5 inches and magazine capacity was seven rounds. The Model 1911A1 version (Alteration One) was the result of minor changes such as bevels on the frame behind the trigger, arched mainspring housing, and a few other points. Most parts between the models remained interchangeable. The US Government simplified what determined a Model 1911 or Model 1911A1. If the pistol was marked as government property and had a serial number over 700,000 it was an A1. Under that it was a 1911.
Likewise, Japan’s Type 14 changed little in its 20 years of service. Its barrel length was always 4.61 inches and magazine capacity was eight rounds. The most noticeable change was that after 1939 its triggerguard was enlarged greatly. This was because many Japanese troops were stationed in Manchuria and needed gloves.
Germany’s Luger was made in far more variations than its contemporaries, albeit most of those were made prior to World War II’s beginning. For instance Kriegsmarine Lugers had 6-inch barrels and in the First World War years an even longer barrel was put on Lugers often issued to artillery units. They were 8 inches and were fitted with tangent rear sights graduated to 800 meters. Also Artillery Lugers were issued with combination shoulder stocks/holsters and unique “snail drum” magazines of 32-round capacity. The P08 most associated with WWII had a 4-inch barrel with 8-round magazine.
Aside from P08, Type 14 and Model 1911 pistols being single-action semi-autos feeding from magazines inserted into their grip frames there are very few similarities between them. Lugers and Nambus have barrels permanently mounted to their frames (Of course they can be changed by properly equipped armorer/technicians.) Model 1911s have quick change, drop-in barrels. Lugers and Nambus have internal strikers to supply ignition. Model 1911s have an exposed hammer. Lugers and Nambus were always given a blue finish. Colt .45 Autos started like that but America transitioned to a phosphate finish called Parkerizing on almost all military firearms between the world wars. All three nations started out with their pistols wearing wooden grips. America transitioned to plastic. Some few Lugers had plastic grips but most wore wood. All Japanese Type 14s had wood grips until the end of production.
These three semi-autos have radically different modes of function. Lugers have a unique toggle system wherein links are connected to a breechblock that slides within the receiver. There are two knurled grasping knobs which when pulled upwards retracts the breechblock so a cartridge can be chambered from the magazine.
Although a Nambu barrel also screws into the receiver, it has a round bolt sliding inside the circular receiver. To retract the bolt so a cartridge can be chambered, you, pull back on the knurled knob at its rear. A round bolt sliding inside a tube is more akin to bolt-action rifle function than most semi-auto pistols. Here’s another interesting tidbit; Bill Ruger liked the Nambu pistol design enough to copy it for his very first handgun, the Mark I .22 LR.
Model 1911/1911A1s have a barrel held by a bushing inside a slide separate from the frame. The breechblock is part of the slide. There are serrations machined into the slide for grasping to pull it rearwards for chambering a round.
Here’s an important functioning difference between the three designs. P08s and Models 1911 and A1 have hold-open devices. When the last round is fired the toggle (P08) and slide (M1911) stay back until a fresh magazine is inserted. Then toggles/slides must be manually released to move forward. That is accomplished by pulling up on the Luger’s toggles or backwards on the M1911’s slide. (1911s also have a slide release lever.) The Type 14 has no hold open device. When the last round is fired its bolt is held back by the magazine itself. That pressure makes extracting it a rather stiff operation. When the magazine is released the bolt slams shut. After a fresh magazine is inserted the bolt must be retracted fully to get the chamber loaded once more.
Sights on these three pistols deserve some comments. The rear sight on the P08 is a simple notched blade machined integral at the rear of the toggle links. The Type 14 rear sight is a notch in a raised stud at the frame’s rear. Neither of those sights is adjustable in the least. Model 1911s have a notched blade dovetailed into the rear of the slide, which is drift-adjustable for windage. Front sights are where the German and Japanese pistols have an advantage over the American one. Model 1911 front sights are a tiny nub staked into the slide. They are supposed to be set for 50 yards with issue military .45 Auto ammunition. (Good luck!) Luger and Nambu front sights are blades dovetailed to studs machined integral with their barrels. They can be drift adjusted for windage or replaced with higher or lower ones to provide an elevation zero.
The factor of safeties is where the Model 1911 has it all over Lugers and Nambus. Early in their development both of those last two pistols had grip safeties but they were eliminated by the time of the P08 and Type 14. The Model 1911 retained one. The safety lever on the P08 and Type 14 are on the left side of their frames. On the samples in my collection they’re about impossible to operate only with the shooting hand. John M. Browning got it right with the 1911. Its safety lever at the left rear of the frame can be flicked off by a slight movement of the shooting hand’s thumb.
Another drastic difference between the three pistols is their calibers. They are 8mm Nambu, 9mm Parabellum (aka 9mm Luger) and .45 Automatic Colt Pistol. Here’s a comparison. The .45 ACP is one of America’s most popular handgun rounds. The 9mm Parabellum may be the world’s most popular handgun cartridge. Nambu’s 8mm is so forgotten the only manner to get ammunition is to handload it and even then the tools needed must be special ordered.
Military ballistics of the .45 ACP hardly ever changed: a 0.451-inch, 230-grain FMJ bullet at 830 fps. Surprisingly it is tough to pin down exactly what the German’s standard issue WWII 9mm load was. Best I can determine is 0.355-inch, 115-grain FMJ at 1,150 fps. My Cartridges Of The World (9th Edition) says the 8mm Nambu used a 0.320-inch, 102-grain FMJ bullet at 950 fps. A while back I was given some Japanese military loads actually taken from a fallen Japanese officer on Iwo Jima. I sacrificed one round by pulling its bullet. It weighed 101 grains.
The Luger, Nambu and .45 Auto pistols in my collection are as follows. Mauser made my P08 in 1938. My Type 14 was made in January 1944 at the Japanese government’s Nagoya Arsenal. I have two military .45 Autos. Both are Colts: the Model 1911 was made in 1918 and the 1911A1 was made in 1944.
To supply a shooting comparison for this article I chose my Model 1911 .45 because luckily for me it hits dead to its sights at 25 yards. When acquired both my Luger and Nambu both shot to the left but on for elevation at that distance. It took but a minute with each using brass punch and hammer to get them zeroed.
Shooting these guns for group would be a useless exercise. I’ve shot all three enough to know I can hit what is aimed at with them—inside that 25 yard mark. So instead I decided to show something about their power.
For .45 ACP and 9mm my handloads duplicated military loads just about perfectly. However, I had no FMJs for 8mm Nambu (best I could do was use very hard cast bullets). I set a surplus US Army helmet on a stake at 25 yards and hit it with each pistol. The .45 didn’t penetrate but it bounced the helmet off the stake with a huge dent in it. The 9mm bullet sailed right through and turned the helmet so I was shooting at its rear. The lead alloy 8mm Nambu bullet didn’t penetrate either but it made a deep dent and actually caused the steel to split next to the dent.
Here’s one last factor. My Colt 1911 .45 Auto never fails to function with any sort of decent ammunition. Neither does the Type 14 Nambu albeit it has only been fired with my handloads. Lugers, on the other hand have a reputation for being contrary about what ammunition they digest. My P08 is a poster-child for that reputation. Put in Federal or Winchester 115-grain FMJ factory loads and it works perfectly. My handloads duplicating those factory loads work about 95 percent of the time. Any sort of hollowpoint, softpoint or, truncated cone bulleted ammunition does not function in it—ever.
The world will never see again vast military forces from many nations going at one another with small arms designed and built in their homeland factories. These three pistols are relics from a time when a war circled the globe.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
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