My Last Full Auto
The Japanese Type 99 Light Machine Gun.
After a 6-month wait for the government paperwork to clear, the newest addition to my World War II collection arrived yesterday. It was both a happy and a sad occasion. Happy needs no explanation, but it was sad because I think I’ve bought my last WWII full-auto. It’s not that I’m retiring or about to kick the bucket. It’s more like I’m out of options.
My current nine full-autos by far don’t represent the total variety of WWII full-size and submachine guns. What they do represent are pretty much the maximum that I’ll be able to afford in this lifetime.
For instance, a genuine WWII-era Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) Model 1918A2 that can be legally owned by an individual such as myself usually sells in excess of $20,000. A German MG42 (nicknamed Hitler’s Buzz Saw) would set me back about $10,000 more than the BAR. My newest acquisition still cost a considerable sum by my standards but it was a fraction of the mentioned prices.
Why? Because it is a Japanese Type 99 7.7mm and for some reason Japanese WWII weapons are held in far less esteem by collectors of such things. Such is a simple truth but perhaps an error because my Type 99 shows exemplary craftsmanship. It is also in much nicer condition than many WWII full-autos I’ve seen or even bought with higher price tags.
These markings on Duke’s Type 99 indicate it was manufactured in September 1941.
Here’s some background. Essentially, WWII full-autos can be divided into three basic categories: heavy machine guns, light machine guns, and submachine guns. The general differences are the first variety requires a crew to transport and serve it. One soldier usually carries the second type, but others are needed to carry ammunition, spare parts, and take over if the primary gunner is put out of action. Both light and heavy machine guns fire full-size rifle cartridges. Submachine guns by definition fire pistol cartridges and are one soldier’s personal weapon. (Germany’s MP44 is an exception in that MP stands for “machine pistol” but its cartridge is definitely not a pistol round.)
My Type 99 is a light machine gun: Japan’s answer to America’s BAR. It fires full-auto only, is to be supported by a folding bipod and aimed from the soldier’s shoulder. (Except when held by a sling over the gunner’s shoulder and fired from the waist in what was termed “marching fire.”) Its standard 7.7x58mm Japanese “ball” load carried a 184-grain bullet at approximately 2,400 fps. By comparison, the US M2 “ball” load used a 150-grain bullet at about 2,700 fps.
The word “light” in the term light machine gun is relative not definitive. My Type 99 weighs 20 pounds and wisely the Japanese fitted it with a carrying handle sticking up at 12 o’clock. That’s also where the 30-round magazine inserts into the action. How does you sight down the barrel? You don’t—you use the peep sight with blade front offset to the left of the barrel and action. The arrangement sounds odd and looks odd but works well.
Type 99s are often called “Nambus” because a Japanese ordnance officer by that name is generally credited with its development. Actually he first developed the Type 96 6.5x50mm version that is almost identical in appearance, except it doesn’t have the bell shaped flash hider of the Type 99. Both Type 96s and Type 99s have bayonet studs—a waste of steel and brain cells because anyone doing bayonet fencing with a 20-pound light machine gun is almost certain to lose the fight.
Another difference between Type 96s and Type 99s is their cyclic rate. With their less powerful 6.5mm round Type 96s are rated at about 550 RPM (rounds per minute). Type 99s are rated at about 800 RPM. (Source: International Armament, Vol. II by George B. Johnson and Hans Bert Lockhoven.) Incidentally Type 99s are dated on their receivers in an odd fashion with a number, a period, and another number. To get its time of manufacture the first number is added to 1925 and then the second number is the month of manufacture. Mine is marked 16.9 meaning it was made in September 1941. I haven’t actually clocked the RPM of my Type 99 but that will be done shortly using a variety of factory loads and handloads.
Nambu light machine guns, both Type 96s and Type 99s, saw heavy action against US GIs and Marines all over the Pacific Theater of Operations. In his book Shots Fired in Anger Lt. Col. John George relates running into both types on Guadalcanal and says, “the capabilities of the Nambu Light Machine Guns caused me the greatest and most demoralizing fear I have known in all the combat I have seen.” Interestingly he rated them a better weapon for their purpose than the much-revered American BAR.
However, it should be mentioned that the combat career of both types of Nambu full-autos did not end with Japan’s surrender in 1945. Both Nationalist and Communist Chinese forces took large quantities of them from surrendering Japanese troops and put them to use against each other in their civil war. Then the victorious latter army turned many Nambu light machine guns on Americans again during the Korean War of 1950-1953.
I will consider my Type 99 as semi-retired: seeing only light use because of its 80-year age and also because spare parts are scarce. It’s a darn good addition to the full-auto segment of my WWII collection even if it must be the last one.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Duke’s Japanese Type 99 7.7x58mm light machine gun shown for comparison with
an Ohio Ordnance Works Model 1918A3 BAR.