Mastering World War II Japanese sniper rifles
can be a frustrating undertaking.
Regular readers of mine know I’ve been fixated (or obsessed) with World War II firearms, particularly sniper rifles. However, truly discerning readers may have noted those fielded by the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy’s Special Landing Forces haven’t been mentioned much.
Why? They pretty much have me befuddled! World War II sniper rifles from the USA, Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and Finland also sit in my collection. Something they all have in common is a scope mounted dead-center over the bore. With American, British and Russian scopes, there are adjustments for both elevation and windage. German scopes for the most part are adjustable only for elevation (there are exceptions), but windage is crudely adjustable with their mounting systems.
Japanese sniper rifles are a different matter altogether. Their optics sit on the left side of the actions and they are not adjustable for windage or elevation in the least! (There is a single, very rare exception, which we’ll get to later.)
Japan’s two sniper rifles during World War II included the Type 97 6.5mm
(left) and the Type 99 7.7mm (right). Both have 2.5X scopes.
So how did a Japanese hetai (soldier) or rikusentai (naval trooper) zero his sniper rifle? The short answer? He didn’t. They were zeroed at the arsenal or armory from whence they were issued and the sniper had no say in the matter. Instead, their 2.5X scopes had very intricate reticles with small tic marks for various ranges and windage conditions. The sniper was expected to memorize where his rifle’s exact point of impact was at various distances and in various conditions, and to use those tic marks for aiming.
Doesn’t that sound a bit difficult? We American riflemen have spent our lives shooting with traditional scopes. We simply put the crosshairs where the bullet is expected to hit—or perhaps with the crosshairs elevated just a bit to compensate for bullet drop at a given distance.
But wait! There’s more. With the Japanese sniper rifle/scope combinations, line of sight from the scope and the bullet’s path must transect somewhere—which will be its dead zero. However, before then, the bullet will be right of the line of sight, and after then it will be left of the line of sight. So besides needing to understand where his rifle actually hits with its armory zero, the Japanese sniper had to also calculate where it was going to hit before and after the dead zero point, not only in regard to bullet drop but because of its lateral travel!
In World War II the Japanese fielded two models of sniper rifle. They were the Type 97 and Type 99. The former is 6.5x50mm with 31.5-inch barrel and the latter is 7.7x58mm with a 25-inch barrel. Both are generically called “Arisaka” after the Japanese officer who designed them by altering the basic Mauser 1898 a bit. Alterations to convert a standard infantry rifle into a sniper rifle were simple. The bolt handle was bent so it would clear the scope during operation, and a mount base was installed on the action’s left side. The scope was quick-detachable, sliding into the base in a sort of dovetail arrangement and then locked down by pivoting a lever 180 degrees. Scopes were 2.5X—except for a very rare 4X that was elevation adjustable (I’ve never seen one).
At this point you may be wondering how those scopes ever get zeroed without adjustments. Well, they actually have some small screws in the sides of the scope body. An extremely knowledgeable collector of Japanese small arms tells me they could be used to move the reticles. But when the scopes were given their final finishes (a coat of black paint) those screws were coated over to prevent snipers in the field from fiddling with them. Scopes were serial numbered to their original rifles. But no owner of a Japanese sniper rifle I’ve ever talked to has ever seen a surviving one with matching rifle/scope numbers.
Strange as it seems, this method of scope mounting did have a couple of positive points. Type 97’s and Type 99’s could still be quickly loaded by 5-round stripper clips, whereas the magazines for the bolt-action sniper rifles of other nations had to be loaded a single round at a time. Also, the metallic sights on Japanese sniper rifles were still usable with the scope mounted. This was also true with some German and Soviet sniper rifles, but not with American and British ones.
The Japanese mounted their scopes to the left of the action (above). Two upsides to this
arrangement are it allowed the use of the iron sights with the scope mounted, and it permitted
the unimpeded use of stripper clips. The reticles on Japaneses sniper scopes were fine and complex.
And the scopes themselves were not adjustable for windage or elevation (below).
I have added both types of Japanese sniper rifles to my collection at considerable expense, but I am far from mastering them. One problem is with the reticles, which are so fine as to make getting a precise sight picture very difficult except on bright days with well-lit targets. The reticles also tend to completely disappear against a black bull’s-eye. Perhaps they were more easily seen 70 years ago, but I suspect any young Japanese recruit chosen for sniper training had exceptional vision. (I am going to check with vintage scope specialists to see if those reticles can be “refreshed” somehow.)
I did manage—after considerable effort—to get my Type 97 zeroed at 100 yards by shimming its scope base with brass strips. But it took hours of repeatedly shooting, dismounting the scope, shimming and remounting. Fortunately, my Type 99 was on for windage at 100 yards, but a few inches high. I derived some joy from this. But then I fired a score of rounds at a PT Torso steel target at 200 yards without chipping its paint. The reason? I forgot about the bullet path crossing the right/left line of sight. My shots merely dug divots in the backstop slightly left of the target.
I’m not about to sell my Japanese rifles because my collection would not be complete without them. Still, at times I get so frustrated after shooting them I swear they’ll henceforth remain in the racks without further use. But, then again, they probably won’t. I’m just stubborn enough to keep trying.
By Mike Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino