Small Arms Of The Rising Sun
Japanese Soldiers Were Armed With A Variety Of High-Quality Arms Going Into WWII.
Ever since World War II ended a misconception has existed that Japan armed its infantry troops with junk firearms. Such has even been stated in books by noted historians albeit obviously not ones overly familiar with firearms.
Japan did not do that. At least not until they were so desperate later in the conflict that some of their rifles became shoddily made to the point of being dangerous to shoot. Conversely, at the beginning of WWII their infantry small arms were as good as any other nations’. Of course some reader right now is screaming “Garand! Garand!” True the US Army adopted M1 Garands in 1936. Still most American troops in ground combat until late 1942 carried bolt-action ’03 Springfields.
However, it must also be stressed excellent manufacturing quality does not necessarily equate to well-conceived designs. Here is but one for-instance. The Japanese Type 14 8mm semi-auto pistol had no hold-open device to keep its bolt rearwards when the magazine’s last round was fired. The magazine itself performed that job but when removed for reloading the bolt closed. After a fresh magazine was inserted the bolt had to be retracted manually in order to chamber a round. That process could be deadly slow in the middle of a firefight.
This Japanese soldier circa 1940 is armed with a Type 38 6.5x50mm carbine with its bayonet mounted.
Infantry Rifles & Carbines
As with American armed forces the Japanese had two types of infantry troops. There were Imperial Army soldiers (hetai) and Naval Special Landing Forces (rikusentai). The latter could be roughly likened to US Marines. American forces fought both types of Japanese infantry on dozens of Pacific War battlefields.
Starting in the 1890s the Japanese military relied on a 6.5x50mm semi-rimmed cartridge for their infantry troops, which incidentally, was the smallest bolt-action infantry rifle round used by a major military force in WWII. Ballistics for it by the 1930s consisted of a 139-grain FMJ bullet at about 2,500 fps.
In 1905 the standard infantry rifle for 6.5x50mm became the Type 38, a bolt action with 5-round internal magazine, and 31.5-inch barrel. There was also a Type 38 carbine, which differed only in having a 19-inch barrel and correspondingly shorter stock. Overall length and weight differences were 50 to 37 inches and 9.5 pounds to 7.75 pounds. Sights differed also with the rifle having graduations to 2,400 meters and the carbine only to 2,000 meters (both of which were totally unrealistic).
There were two other 6.5mm firearms issued in smaller numbers. Type 44 carbines were essentially identical to Type 38s except they carried permanently mounted folding bayonets, testimony to Japanese obsession with sharp objects. This increased Type 44 weight to 9 pounds, making it the heaviest of all WWII carbines. Type 38 and Type 44 carbines were issued to horse-mounted troops in China and to artillery, mortar and machine gun crews on all fronts.
Also starting in 1937 the Japanese began fitting telescopes to Type 38 rifles and designating them Type 97s. The scopes were 2.5X and odd by American standards because they have no provision for adjustment. They were mounted and zeroed at their manufacturing arsenals. If the factory zero was not “on” for soldiers they were expected to memorize the scope reticle’s many markings in relation to actual points of impact. Also odd by modern standards, Type 97 scopes were mounted to the left side of receivers so that rifles’ magazines could still be loaded with stripper clips. That also kept Type 97 open iron sights available in case scopes failed or were damaged.
By the late 1930s after of years of combat in China’s vastness Japanese ordnance officers decided on a change to a more powerful infantry rifle cartridge. The new one was 7.7x58mm with a 184-grain FMJ bullet at about 2,400 fps. Its case head was rimless. (Remember that fact. We will return to it). The “new” Type 99 rifle for 7.7mm was simply a remodeled Type 38, but with only a 25.75-inch barrel and 45.25-inch overall length. Weight was 8.5 pounds. Some Japanese officer’s idea of a fine rear sight was a peep type mounted out on the barrel where normal open sights sit. Also it was given folding “wings” so that soldiers could pull lead on low flying airplanes. A takedown paratrooper specific version of the Type 99 was built in small quantities and also a sniping version with 4X scope. No 7.7mm carbines were developed.
Some Type 38 rifles and most Type 99s were issued with a folding wire monopod. Also all rifles and carbines until late in the war were issued with circular sliding dust covers shielding their actions. Both monopods and dust covers are relatively rare on Japanese rifles and carbines today because hetai and rikusentai, just as combat troops worldwide, tended to toss away any item they deemed worthless.
One design factor found on all these Japanese rifles and carbines is that their buttstocks have two pieces with an easily discerned seam. This likely has helped perpetuate the “junk” myth but in fact it was an economic measure to save wood. And speaking of wood, the types used on Japanese rifles and carbines vary greatly. Some came from their home islands and some from conquered territory in China and Manchuria. Some is soft almost to sponginess and some as hard as any walnut.
One design feature at which I first sneered but after experience came to respect is the safety on all the mentioned rifles and carbines. Unlike a lever as common on Mauser-type bolt-action rifles, Japan’s had a knurled knob at the rear of the bolt. It wasn’t meant to be manipulated with fingers but with the palm of the hand. There is a notch in the knob easy to see or feel. If it’s to the left the rifle is on safe; if it’s straight up then the rifle is ready to fire.
Sharp-eyed readers will note I’ve referred to the above rifles and carbines by their official designation whereas most commonly in this country they are called Arisakas. That name comes from Colonel Nariake Arisaka, a Japanese ordnance officer primarily credited with their design. In 1905 Colonel Arisaka had the good sense to pattern his bolt action on Mauser’s already revered Model 1898, just as American ordnance officers did when developing the US Model 1903. In terms of battlefield performance there is not a nickel’s worth of difference between Japanese, German, and American bolt-action military rifles of WWII.
In fact the long barreled Types 38/97 with their small-capacity 6.5mm cartridge actually had a slight advantage in combat on jungle-covered islands. They gave mild muzzle blast and virtually no muzzle flash because the powder charge was completely consumed inside 31.5-inch barrels. That made Japanese snipers difficult to spot. During the war American troops mistakenly attributed this trait of the Type 38/Type 97 to better Japanese gunpowder.
Such arms included the Type 44 6.5x50mm carbine (front), the Type 99 7.7x58mm Light Machine Gun and (rear) the Type 92 “Lewis” 7.7x56R Light Machine Gun (used only by their naval forces).
During WWII the Japanese fielded three basic designs of handgun. Most commonly seen was the Type 14 8mm often called simply Nambu after its designer Kijiro Nambu. It had a 4.6-inch barrel and weighed 2 pounds. Its 8mm Nambu chambering used a 102-grain FMJ bullet. (Determined by pulling a bullet from an original military issue round.) Velocity was roughly 1,000 fps. Type 14 pistols were unique in their era because their actions consisted of a bolt sliding inside a tube to which was attached the barrel. If that is hard to imagine just look at a Ruger Mark I .22. Bill Ruger borrowed the concept for his first handgun design. There were earlier versions of Nambu pistols but the Type 14 was the one seeing most use until 1945.
Mr. Nambu was a busy weapons designer and his next semi-auto pistol is considered by many experts as the worst ever issued to a nation’s armed forces. It is the Type 94, also chambered for 8mm Nambu. Instead of the 8-round magazine of the Type 14 this one’s magazine holds only six rounds. With a 3.78-inch barrel its weight is a mere 1.56 pounds, although in form it is a most ungainly looking pistol. Perhaps its worst attribute is its trigger sear lever is exposed on the frame’s left side. If a handler presses on it with the pistol cocked it will fire.
The Japanese issued both types of Nambu pistols to members of crew-served weapons teams, crews of armored vehicles, officers, pilots, and paratroopers. It was doctrine of both Japanese army and navy paratroopers that they jumped with primary weapons in padded containers. Troopers carried only semi-auto pistols and hand grenades on their persons.
Although completely obsolete by WWII, Type 26 revolvers were issued in numbers to Japanese NCOs. These were 6-shot, double-action-only handguns chambered for an odd 9mm rimmed revolver cartridge. According to one source, it delivered a 149-grain bullet at 750 fps or by another source the bullet weight was unknown but velocity was 530 fps.
This Japanese Type 92 Heavy Machine Gun is chambered for the 7.7x58mm semi-rimmed cartridge.
Kijiro Nambu was also busy with machine gun design and is responsible for most full rifle caliber machine guns used by Japan in WWII. His Type 96 6.5mm and Type 99 7.7mm were their standard Light Machine Guns (LMG) until 1945 although earlier Type 11 6.5mm LMGs still saw service. That latter model was unique in that it had a hopper into which 5-round stripper clips as used with Type 38 rifles were dropped. Its mechanism oiled their cases, stripped the rounds from the clips, and then ejected the clips while firing.
Type 96s and Type 99s were more conventional. They fed from top-mounted 30-round detachable magazines, although the 6.5mm version still had to have oiled cartridges. Both were bipod mounted, carried side-mounted peep sights but were also issued with telescopic sights. All these LMGs weighed in the 20- to 22-pound range. The 6.5mm ones had cyclic rates of about 500 to 550 rounds per minute but the 7.7mm one’s rate of fire was upped to 800 RPM.
There was one other Japanese LMG, although it was used only by Naval Special Landing Forces. That was the American-designed Lewis Gun. The rights to manufacture both infantry and aircraft Lewis guns were sold to the Japanese Navy by the British company of Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) about 1930. They were designated Type 92 and chambered for the unique sounding 7.7x56mm Japanese Rimmed cartridge. It was only the .303 British under a different name.
The standard tripod-mounted heavy machine gun of Japan’s infantry was the Type 92 which had to be confusing because the Japanese navy used them side by side with the above Type 92 Lewis Guns. Type 92s weighed 122 pounds with tripod. Ammunition feed was with 30-round strips which could be connected for longer continuous fire. Cyclic rate was slow at 450 RPM. It was also chambered for Japan’s third 7.7mm cartridge of WWII usage—this one with a semi-rimmed case. (Three different 7.7mm cartridges had to give Japanese supply officers tremendous headaches.)
Be certain, however, Japan fielded other small arms than what is mentioned here. Not only did they put some of their own obsolete rifles and carbines to use but they captured uncounted tons of weapons when places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Philippines fell. British rifles and machine guns were easiest for them to begin issuing because they were already producing suitable ammunition in the guise of their 7.7x56mm rimmed.
Speaking as a combination collector, shooter and gun’riter I had no interest whatsoever in assembling a variety of Japanese small arms. That was because I suffered from the same fog of misconception as the majority of American gun owners and collectors. Still, to build a shooting collection of WWII small arms from all significant combatant nations, Japanese arms were a must. Of all those mentioned herein the Type 94 pistol and Types 11 and 96 LMGs and Type 92 (heavy machine gun) are the only ones missing from my growing collection. After shooting, handloading for, and simply learning about Japanese WWII small arms I have realized my error.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
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