Japan's Imperial Triad


An armload of Arisakas: Holt’s Imperial Japanese turnbolt “triad.”

Are you a purposeful collector or do you tend to simply accumulate a gun here and a gun there? Or are you so highly focused you cut through a gun show like a laser beam?

The collecting mindset is fascinating. When someone — particularly a beginning milsurp enthusiast — asks me to recommend a course of action, I usually recommend “triad collecting.”

I define it as selecting a particular country of origin and collecting three historical and representative models of this country within a defined time period. How about a U.S. Krag, 1903 Springfield and M1 Garand? Great triad, but getting very pricey, so my second caveat is to begin by selecting a country that’s made fine military firearms but is still not hot and pricey with collectors — say Japan, Italy, Russia or France.

If you are collecting along those lines, you can usually put together a nice trio of models for less than a grand while gaining an education into the history of the country and its firearms designers. Moreover, once the initial triad is put together, you can selectively upgrade any piece within the triad, add appropriate accessories like bayonets, slings, cleaning and disassembly tools — or even expand the scope of the collection beyond your three initial models.

Because of their long sight radius and mild 6.5mm chambering, Type 38
Arisakas usually prove to be the most accurate.

Hell for Stout

As surplus collectibles, Japan’s Arisaka Type 38 and Type 99 rifles and carbines are very available and still relatively inexpensive, yet there are intriguing variations. In 1905, the Arisaka rifle was officially designated the “Type 38” chambered for the semi-rimmed 6.5×50 cartridge. As customary in Imperial Japan, Type 38 was assigned to the Arisaka to honor the 38th year of the Emperor Meiji’s rule.

While similar in overall concept to the Mauser ’98, the Arisaka is an inspired derivative and probably the strongest military bolt action ever fielded. Among its unique features are a strong breeching design, an ingeniously simple bolt consisting of only five parts — bolt body, extractor, firing pin, mainspring and end cap — and this cap serves as both a safety and a gas-blocking bolt shroud.

There’s also a dust cover activated by the bolt, shielding the action from the elements, and extended action tangs reinforcing the pistol grip. In addition, the later Type 99 featured a chrome-lined bore, integral bipod and anti-aircraft rear sight.

But as great a design as it was, no one paid much attention to the Arisakas flooding back from the Pacific Theater. In fact, in the post-war period anything made in Japan was considered cheap and inferior. But as far as the Arisaka goes, that was about to change with the publication of P.O. Ackley’s military action blow-up and metallurgy tests conducted during the 1950s.

Loading Springfield, Mauser, Enfield P-14 and No. 1 MkIII, Krag and Arisaka Type 38 and 99 rifles to the point of failure, Ackley discovered only the Type 38 survived the blow-up tests, with the Type 99 coming in second. Sending one of the Type 38 actions to a leading heat-treating firm for analysis, Ackley received the following report:

“The design of the receiver appears to be in some respects superior to the Springfield and Mauser from the standpoint of simplicity of machining and inletting. The receiver was not only carefully but even elaborately heat-treated. The heat-treatment appears to be superior to the average Mauser, Springfield and Enfield.”

Those conclusions shouldn’t really come as a surprise when you consider how many centuries Japanese swordmakers had been perfecting the heat-treatment of their fabulous blades. Based on Ackley’s exploratory work, the Arisaka finally earned a bit of well-deserved respect.

Broadly speaking, the most available Arisakas can be divided into two types — the Type 38 and the Type 99. The Type 38 in 6.5 was produced from 1905 to roughly 1940 at arsenals in Japan, Manchuria and Korea. In 1939, the Type 99 chambered in 7.7×58 (Japan’s heavy machinegun cartridge) was introduced and the Type 38 phased out. Total production of both types between 1905 and 1945 is estimated at 6.4 million.

Putting together an “Arisaka triad” isn’t difficult. Available models of Type 38 and Type 99 include long rifles, short rifles, carbines, cavalry rifles, sniper rifles, training rifles and — in the case of the Type 99 — a take-down paratroop variant.

Ground chrysanthemum: The Imperial seal was defaced when Arisakas were surrendered —
to preserve the honor of the Emperor.

Chances are good if the “mum” is intact; it was a “bring-back” war trophy a GI brought back in his duffel.

Dust covers were standard issue, but noisy. But what they covered was probably the strongest military bolt action ever.

Mum’s The Word

Based on current availability and price, my choices for an initial Arisaka triad for under $1,000 would consist of a Type 38 and Type 99 rifle plus a Type 38 carbine. If possible, look for specimens with the Imperial Seal, the stylized chrysanthemum stamped on top of the front receiver ring, still intact, not defaced; and matching serial numbers on the left rail of the receiver and on the root of the bolt handle.

If the “mum” is intact, the Arisaka was probably captured in the field. If the “mum” is defaced or ground off, the Arisaka was formally surrendered, and the “mum” removed to preserve the honor of the Japanese Emperor. Collectors prefer “mums” intact, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a price premium for Arisakas with intact chrysanthemums.

Arisakas are accurate and largely blessed with good triggers. With Norma ammunition, Type 38 and Type 99 rifles can typically hold three-shot groups of 2″ at 100 yards. The Type 38 carbine will almost double this size group only because of its shorter sighting radius and coarser sight picture. I prefer the Type 38 in 6.5mm because it’s so pleasant to shoot. The Norma 156-gr. loading delivers 1,995 fps in the rifle and 1,783 fps in the carbine. That’s mild.

Set some goals, some objective, some purpose and some focus. Go out there and piece together your own triad or two.

Further Reading

Japanese Rifles of World War II by Duncan O. McCollum (Amazon) and Military Rifles of Japan by Fred L.

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