Weapons From the Land of the Rising Sun: Japanese Small Arms of World War II
As any visitor to modern day Japan will tell you, the locals love their gadgets, devices and technology. In the post-World War II era the Japanese have been nothing less than one of the leading innovators of new advances, which in some ways is in contrast to how the nation was before the war. Military historians often note that the Imperial Japanese Navy used advanced tactics and came up with innovative techniques whilst waging war, and actually adapted to difficult situations. This is notable in that the Japanese actually adopted aircraft carrier doctrine in part as a response to the treaties that limited the nation’s number of battleships.
So all this is somewhat in contrast to the equipment issued to the individual soldiers during the conflict. When compared to the small arms of the other nations, Japan seems to lag behind at least in innovation and reliability. But was this really a factor in how the nation performed in the field?
The average Japanese soldier, while at the time seen through Allied propaganda with buck teeth and coke-bottle glasses, actually performed as well as any other soldier. The national loyalty to the Emperor, and the strong tie to the Bushido code further enhanced the Japanese fighting spirit. Throughout much of the war surrender wasn’t seen as an option because it would bring so much shame. The same even held true to the concept of retreating! Thus many a Japanese life was wasted over a matter of honor, even as the situation turned hopeless. Therefore, this isn’t meant to be a look at the Japanese fighting man, but rather the equipment that he carried into battle.
To this end some of the greatest misconceptions need to be addressed. It has sometimes been said that the Japanese soldier fought World War II with World War I small arms. This is only partially true. Yes, the main small arms consisted of the same basic style of bolt action rifle that had been used a generation earlier, but the same held true of the other major powers – including Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Even the United States was still using the 1903 Springfield when the war started. The other main point that is that the Japanese arms were not inferior in quality, at least not until much later in the war.
"The fit, finish & overall quality of manufacture on early Japanese weapons equals if not surpasses weapons made by other participants of World War II," explains advanced Japanese militaria collector Jareth Holub. "It wasn’t until the very last two years, due to U.S. air strikes, that factories started producing sub par products." The result is that many of the small arms encountered – notably the famous rifles – are actually late war items. This has resulted in the misconception that Japanese small arms were always somewhat inferior.
Another point that complicated matters for the Japanese military was the acknowledged rivalry and simmering hatred between the Japanese army and navy. "This led to the navy having to struggle to procure arms and equipment from the government & eventually led up to the navy establishing it’s own arsenal systems," emphasizes Holub. "This backbiting and infighting hindered the cooperation between the branches of service and greatly affected the outcome of the war. The Japanese were a very frugal people who didn’t believe in wasting anything including bullets. This was one of the reasons why their submachine gun production was limited. Had they increased production and distribution it might have changed their combat tactics."
Here is a closer look at some of the key Japanese small arms of the Second World War:
Arisaka Type 38 and Type 99 rifle
The two main rifles used by the Japanese in World War II are both often called the "Arisaka." These were named after Colonel Nariake Ariska, who was responsible for creating the commission to find a new rifle. The first pattern was known as the Type 30 rifle (the 30 comes from the 1897 A.D., which was the 30th year of the Emperor Meiji), and this was updated following the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The new model thus became the Type 38. It was chambered in the 6.5x50SR and more than three million of these were made. The gun clearly was influenced by the German K98 and other Mauser designs.
During the war with China, which began in 1931, it was apparent that a larger cartridge was needed and the Japanese adopted the 7.7x58mm round, based on the British .303 (7.7x57R). To confuse collectors and military historians for decades, this rifle was designated the Type 99 – which in this case refers to the Japanese year 2099, which was believed to be the date of the creation of the world). Some three and a half million of the Type 99 rifles were made, not counting variations, which include sniper configurations, and even take-down models that were reportedly designed for use by paratroopers. Another version of the rifle, the Type 44 Carbine, was designed primarily for use as a cavalry rifle – although this shouldn’t be confused with the Type 38 Cavalry rifle, a slightly shorter version of the Type 38.
Type 11 Light Machine Gun
The Japanese Army had since the opening to the west followed French influence. This was certainly the case with the Type 11, which was modeled after the French Hotchkiss air-cooled, gas-operated light machine gun, and designed by Kijiro Nambu. It used the same cartridges as the Type 38 infantry rifle, and used a detachable hopper magazine, which allowed for the gun to be constantly fed with ammunition while firing. Five round clips could be stacked laying flat above the receiver, which eased loading – something that probably seemed like an excellent idea in test situations. This proved to be a problem as dirt and grime could easily jam the weapon. Likewise, while reloading from a fixed position was easy, it was nearly impossible to reload quickly whilst on the move.
Type 96 Light Machine Gun
This was essentially an improved version of the Type 11. It featured a folding bipod and interestingly enough could even be fitted with a bayonet! The biggest problem with this LMG is that it jammed when fired cases often became stuck in the chamber. To solve the problem it was suggested by the gun’s designer Kijiro Nambu that the cartridges should be oiled – which of course in combat only made matters worse!
Type 99 Light Machine Gun
Building on the pros of the Type 96, whilst trying to address the flaws, the Japanese introduced the Type 99 in 1936. The gun is often compared to the British Bren Gun, but this is an unfair comparison, as other than the top loading curved magazine and basic silhouette the guns’ respective internal workings are quite different. The Type 99 was actually an upgrade to the Type 96, and early models employed a mono-pod at the stock as well as a flash suppressor. One feature it did share with the Bren was that the barrel could be rapidly changed to avoid overheating. The distinctive feature, and what makes the comparison to the Bren inevitable, is that aforementioned top-mounted detachable box magazine, which held 30 rounds and solved the loading problems. As with the Type 11 and Type 96, the Type 99 was used throughout World War II.
Type 1 Heavy Machine Gun
Japanese small arms weren’t limited to light machine guns, and its military developed the Type 1 heavy machine gun as well. It was introduced in 1941, and featured a barrel that could be changed in the field. It is easily recognizable by its distinctive barrel cooling rings. This was the main heavy machine gun used by the Imperial Japanese Army, and it was even utilized as a light anti-aircraft gun.
Type 3 Heavy Machine Gun
Also known as the Taishō 14 machine gun, this air-cooled weapon was also based on the Hotchkiss M1914, but it used the same Arisaka 6.5x50mm cartridges as the Type 11 LMG. It was originally produced under license from the French – hence the Taishō 14 designation. As with the Type 11 it also used ammo strips for feeding of ammunition. It could also be used as an anti-aircraft gun when fitted with special sights.
Type 92 Heavy Machine Gun
The Type 92 was in essence a larger version of the Type 3 HMG, with an increased 7.7mm caliber round. It was also air-cooled and ammo strip fed. As with its smaller brother, it was essentially based on the Hotchkiss design, but unlike the Type 3 it could operate with both rimless and rimmed 7.7mm Shiki rounds, while the 7.7mm Arisaka round would also work. This gun, which fired at 2,400 feet per second and had a rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute, was nicknamed the "woodpecker" because of its distinctive clicking sound. The gun had a maximum range of 4,500 meters, but the realistic range was about 800 meters. As with other HMGs the Type 92 also took a crew of three to operate.
The "woodpecker" was further notable for its off center, and to the right iron sights. The HMG could also be fitted with alternative sights include periscopic and telescopic, while an anti-aircraft sight was also produced for the Type 92. And while the gun had a rate of fire of 450 rpm, this was seldom the case, as the gun utilized a short clip for loading, which resulted in frequent jamming. As with other gun jams, the typical solution used by the Japanese was to oil the rounds, but this only increased the problem as the oiled cartridges picked up dirt and sand.
Type II Submachine Gun
Ironically while the German military is remembered as much for its iconic MP-40 submachine gun, the Japanese are usually thought of as being a nation that didn’t actually use an SMG. Blame Hollywood (as the weapons are seldom seen on screen), or the simply that few survived, but the fact is that even among collectors few remember that the Japanese actually produced a rather decent personal machine gun. The first was the Type II submachine gun, which the Imperial Japanese Navy introduced in time for the invasion of Shanghai. Originally it was chambered for the 8mm Nambu pistol round, but this had a tendency to jam, so a smaller version of the gun was developed.
The Type II also had the unique distinction of being the first small machine pistol to have the magazine clip extend from the pistol grip. This is clearly a rare example of Japanese innovation during the World War II era in regards to its small arms development. Unfortunately the gun was produced in small numbers, and very few survived the war.
Type 100 Submachine Gun
The more common, but still extremely rare, submachine gun was the Type 100. It was also designed and produced by the Nambu Arms Manufacturing Company, and was introduced in 1942. Why the gun took so long to develop is not really known, especially given that the Japanese had looked to make a copy of the German MP18/Swiss SIG Bergman 1920. Regardless of the delay, the gun only entered service after the war had begun, and by war’s end only 30,000 had been delivered. Compared to the number of MP-40s, British Sten Guns, Soviet PPSh-41s and of course American Thomas Submachine Guns, this number is relatively small.
It is still – at least for those who recognize it – an iconic looking firearm. It was simple, and by the standards of the day, an inexpensive to produce weapon. Notably it was equipped with a bayonet lug – which may seem odd, but in fairness the British Sten could also be used with a bayonet too! The Type 100 was an automatic-only, air-cooled, blow back gun that fired from an open bolt. As with the MP18, or the later Sten, it utilized a side-mounted 30-round detachable box magazine, while the gun fired the 8x22mm Nambu cartridge, which some have argued was a little underpowered compared to the other SMGs in use during the war.
The Japanese took the extra step of providing a chrome plated bore, which was considered for the Asian jungle conditions. Some early models also featured a bipod, although how practical this might have been is debatable. A paratrooper model was also fitted with a folding stock. The gun underwent a design change in 1944 to simplify the production. As with other "last ditch" small arms, these are notable for roughly finished stocks, sloppy welds and other telltale signs that quality wasn’t the highest priority.