In December 1941 the typical Japanese foot soldier carried a 6.5mm Arisaka Type 38 bolt-action rifle. Arisaka’s bureau had copied this rifle more or less exactly from the 1898 Mauser, except for the use of the smaller calibre, their one major contribution to the design being the addition of a sliding metal bolt cover. Intended to keep dirt out of the mechanism, this was not a successful innovation, as the cover made a great deal of noise when the bolt was operated, and the Japanese soldiers tended to discard it in the field whenever possible. The Arisaka was known neither for its power nor its reliability, as declining standards of manufacture resulted in a slow, sticky action and other maladies. It used a five-shot charger clip, like virtually all straight Mauser designs (ironically, the US soldiers and Marines who opposed the Japanese throughout the first year of the Pacific war were almost all armed with their own straight copy of the 1898 Mauser, the ’03 Springfield, which did however fire a much more powerful .30-06 cartridge). The smaller calibre employed made for no real savings in length or weight, as the Arisaka weighed in at over nine and a half pounds. A sniper version, known as the Type 97, was also made in small numbers, fitted with a low-powered scope sight.
The limitations in range and hitting power resulting from the 6.5mm ammunition were supposedly noted during the China campaign, with the result that a new variant, the Type 99, was introduced in 1939. It was pretty much the old Arisaka, with one major difference. The Type 99 was chambered to fire a much more potent 7.7mm cartridge, which had in the initial stages of its design been copied directly from the British .303-inch round, which the Japanese were already using in some of their machineguns. Another distinguishing feature was a thin metal rod which fitted under the barrel, and could be extended to brace the rifle against the ground like a flimsy monopod. Otherwise there was not much difference between the Type 99 and the earlier rifle. The new Type 99 did not really get into service in large numbers until the second half of the war, 1942 or later, although by 1944 it was the main rifle in the hands of the troops facing the Americans in the Marianas and the Philippines, and was also being encountered frequently by the British in Burma. But the older 6.5mm Arisaka remained in widespread service until very late in the conflict, and was never completely replaced. The smaller rifle had one advantage in jungle combat, and that was its relatively limited report and muzzle flash (and the Japanese had a pretty good smokeless powder, at least until manufacturing went down the tubes late in the war) made it harder to locate the source of its fire in heavy foliage. Also, the shorter ranges of the average combat in the close cover of the jungle disguised one of the 6.5mm Arisaka’s greatest shortcomings, its lack of range, as the weapon was still capable of being plenty dangerous out to at a quarter mile or so (440 yds or 400 meters), which was the maximum for most serious infantry combat in World War II at any rate. But the greater punch of the 7.7mm not only resulted in better stopping power, but also could make a difference in shooting through all that foliage with lethal effect.
Along with his rifle, each soldier also had a bayonet. The Japanese favored an extra-long, “sword” type bayonet, which was certainly a wicked-looking affair (and much of the effect of a bayonet is often psychological anyway). The extra length of the “sword” type may have helped compensate for the shorter reach of the average Japanese soldier, who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was only about five foot three (one of the qualifications for promotion to private first class was that the soldier had to be at least five foot three inches tall).
The most powerful weapon available to the average rifle squad, though, was its light machinegun. In 1902 Col. Nambu’s ordnance board had adopted the French Hotchkiss machinegun for the Japanese Army. These performed impressively in the Russo-Japanese war a couple years later, and the Japanese Army subsequently got their money’s worth out the design, as nearly all of Nambu’s later developments were variations on the basic Hotchkiss operating mechanism and air-cooling system. However, these were not necessarily adaptable enough to meet all demands, and in particular did not translate well into light machinegun designs (as Hotchkiss found out with their own unwieldy light machinegun design, the Greek Army being about the only force to employ it in quantity during World War II). The first attempt at a bipod-mounted gun was certainly one of the most awkward-looking such weapons of the Second World War era. But the Type 11 Nambu had deeper problems. The Japanese home-produced versions of the mechanism when in light machinegun mode did not function well enough to give the cartridges the tug they needed to feed smoothly. To remedy the problem, a small oil pump was inserted into the workings, which automatically lubricated each round as it fed, in order to prevent sticking. The Italians, who used a similar system (for similar reasons) found that this led to all sorts of fouling nightmares, as various kinds of dust, dirt, mud, and other gunk– including carbon fouling which mixed with the oil– conspired to cause repeated jams. The Japanese seemed to have made the system work– or at any rate to have experienced less problems than the Italians– probably because of the different approaches the two armies generally took to questions of discipline. The brutal discipline in the Japanese Army, with its emphasis on immediate and corporal punishment for the slightest offences, made it possible to instil in the soldiers a meticulous approach to keeping their weapons clean.
The Type 11 was nonetheless a rather clumsy weapon, rapidly approaching obsolescence by 1939. Weighing 22 lbs, it fired eight or nine shots per second when functioning correctly, with a very unusual feed system. Instead of a removable magazine it had a hopper on top, into which up to six standard 5-shot rifle clips could be stacked. This did have the advantage that ammunition could be readily collected from the riflemen to keep the all- important machinegun firing, but it was a bit awkward in practice. By the time of Pearl Harbor a newer light machinegun model had appeared, much more modern in its general lay-out. The Type 96 resembled the Czech ZB30 (and the British Bren gun directly based on same) in appearance, although it retained a mechanism similar to the older Type 11, oil pump and all. It had a curved, 30-shot “banana” clip feeding from the top in place of the hopper, a carrying handle on top of the gun, and a conventional wooden shoulder stock plus a pistol grip behind the trigger (instead of the bizarrely curved shoulder stock of the Type 11, which was shaped so as to perform both functions). Weighing only 20 lbs, the Type 96 was a general improvement, but it was only starting to reach the troops in quantity in December 1941 (Yamashita’s 25th Army in Malaya was one of the first to be largely re-equipped with it). The old Type 11 remained in use in many units, and in fact stayed in service (though in constantly declining numbers) to the end of the war in some areas.
Both the Type 11 and the Type 96 fired the 6.5mm round, to match the Type 38 Arisaka rifle. The introduction of the new 7.7mm ammunition into the rifle squads demanded a squad light machinegun to match, and this was the Type 99. The type 96 machine gun did not have an integral oiler in the gun as did the Nambu, Type 11. Both the Nambu and the Type 96 lacked initial slow extraction and required lubricated cartridges. The Type 11 had an oil pump in it which was operated by the recoiling bolt. On the Type 96, this system was done away with and the oiler was made part of the magazine loader. The rounds were oiled as they were loaded into the magazine.
But the Type 99 was more than a simple upgrade of the Type 96 to fire 7.7mm, although it did look very much like the earlier gun. However, the Japanese had also improved the weapon internally, This new bipod-mounted gun resembled the ZB30/Bren family much more in its internal workings as well. The Type 99 was generally introduced into rifle units equipped with its companion piece Type 99 7.7mm rifle, again mainly in 1942 or later.
One final characteristic which distinguished the Type 99 light machinegun from the Type 96 visually was the fact that the Type 99 fitted a cone-shaped flash suppressor at the muzzle, which was lacking on the earlier Type 96. I should also mention that all of the Japanese machineguns descended from the Hotchkiss (including the heavier models) were gas-operated. The Japanese (both Army and Navy) made use of the Lewis gun as a second-line model, calling it the Type 92 (the Japanese were already using one type of 7.7mm ammunition that was virtually identical to the .303-calibre fired by British versions of the Lewis, which were the most widely encountered). The Japanese Lewis guns saw some service in China but were not widely encountered by the western Allies.
I should also say a word about the sometimes confusing Japanese nomenclature in terms of year designations for their weapons. For instance, in tripod-machineguns, to be discussed in a moment, the Type 1 was introduced 27 years AFTER the Type 3, a seeming contradiction until the Japanese system of using years of introduction is understood. See, the Type 3 machinegun was really the Taisho Type 3, Taisho referring to the emperor reigning at the time of its introduction, and 3 for the third year of his rule. There were some World War II Japanese weapons, such as the Type 38 Arisaka rifle and the 75mm Type 41 field gun, which were actually the Meiji Type 38 and 41, respectively, brought into service during the reign of the previous emperor (before Taisho).
However, the Japanese did not formally bestow the name by which a given emperor’s reign would be officially known to posterity until after that emperor died. As Hirohito, the reigning emperor during the Second World War and throughout the decade preceding that conflict, was very much alive, the designs taken into Army service during his reign were simply known by the last two digits of the year in the traditional Japanese calendar. Hence “Type 1” was introduced in 1941, a year ending in 01 in the Japanese calendar. Type 99 was 1939, and so forth. The most famous example, perhaps, was the Navy’s Type 00 fighter plane, the “100th year fighter,” Mitsubishi’s A6M model better known, from the year of its introduction in the Japanese system, as the “Zero.” Hopefully this will clear up some of the confusion. The Type 11 light machinegun was thus actually the Taisho Type 11 (1922), while the Types 96 and 99 were from Hirohito’s time and thus simply the calendar year.
Completing the arsenal of the front-line rifle squads was the hand grenade, and a very important component it was, tactically speaking. The most common Japanese grenades during the war were the Type 91 and Type 97. These were very similar in external appearance, the main difference between the two being the length of time the fuze burned before setting the grenade off. Both were small segmented cylindrical affairs, weighing one pound and containing two ounces of explosive as the bursting charge. The contemporary German “stick” grenade had more than three times that much explosive in its warhead, but it was a blast effect grenade (only producing incidental shrapnel from the parts of the grenade itself), while the Japanese examples were fragmentation types, thus counted less on making a big bang than on sending dozens of sharp little chunks of metal whizzing in all directions when they exploded. The Type 91 and 97 had a smaller, smooth cylindrical head, with a safety pin through it. Removing the pin did not activate the grenade, it only allowed it to be activated. To start the fuze burning the soldier had to depress the moveable top portion of the head back into the body of the grenade, which required pushing it with some small force. Usually this was done (once the pin had been removed, of course) by bashing it against some hard object– if there was no conveniently-placed wall or large rock handy the usual method was to bang it against the helmet or the butt of the rifle, two objects which generally were present. Battle-savvy American Marines learned to recognize the metallic bonk of a grenade being armed by striking the helmet, and to take it as a warning to move somewhere else in a hurry. Once the grenade was thus armed, the Type 97 exploded four and a half seconds later, if the fuze cutter was having a good day when that particular example had been manufactured. The Type 91 originally had a delay of more than seven seconds, which was excessive for combat situations, leading to the introduction of the modified Type 97. Both of these grenades were widely used during the war.
There was an earlier Japanese type of wooden-handled “stick” grenade also produced in fairly large numbers. It was much more compact than the German model, less than eight inches long including the warhead. It was also a fragmentation type, with an iron sleeve around the bursting charge (only three ounces of explosive, compared to about seven in the German model, but again this sufficed as fragmentation of the metal sleeve was the principal lethal agent). Otherwise the Japanese stick grenade functioned in the same way as the more familiar German variety, having a pull string which ran through the wooden handle. Yanking it set the fuze burning, with an intended delay of four and a half seconds. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the stick grenade was well into the process of being phased out of service by December 1941. A large percentage of those that did eventually see service during World War II had been pulled out of storage facilities, where they may have been kept for years, especially since the Japanese dipped into stocks of these older grenades most heavily in the late war years, when they were struggling to re-equip their forces (particularly on the Chinese mainland) after losses and depletions from that theatre in order to reinforce the war against the westerners in the south. The fuzes did not handle the long periods of storage under varied conditions of temperature and humidity very well, with the result that when they were finally used many of these stick grenades had problems, and either failed to explode at all, or, more alarmingly, were in some cases subject to premature detonations. Still, many were encountered in north China and Manchuria late in the war, so much so that the Chinese Communists captured large stocks of them, and used them for several years afterward in their own forces, despite their poor reliability.
Japanese officers were typically armed with a pistol and a sword. The sword was modelled on the classic katana blade which had been the lethal arm of the samurai for centuries. Japanese officers tended to take their swordsmanship very seriously, and often honed their skills with constant practice in this martial art which had been evolving for hundreds of years. Japanese small unit commanders definitely employed these blades in actual close-quarters combat when they had the opportunity, as well as utilizing the sword in its historical symbolic role as a sort of pointer and rallying stick for getting the men’s attention and emphasizing orders in the noise and chaos of combat.
The Japanese Army’s chief pistol for front-line use was the Nambu Type 4 (Taisho). This weapon was a serious contender for the worst pistol in large-scale use by any major power in the war. One author questioned why, with so many perfectly acceptable pistol designs available on the market, and a demonstrated Japanese penchant for simply copying weapons they liked, Nambu’s people insisted on developing their own (and demonstrably inferior) model, and concluded that national pride was the only likely answer. The Type 4 looked like a cheap home-made knock-off of the Luger, but in operation was far inferior. It was rather poorly made and problem-prone, and it fired a uniquely Japanese 8mm round of extremely low stopping power. The Type 4 accepted an 8-shot clip. A supposed improvement, developed by a government arsenal, was the Type 14 (also Taisho), but these were more popular with security personnel in rear areas, so although widely encountered throughout the Japanese sphere of influence in the war they were not seen too often in the hands of front-line troops. The improvement, at any rate, was minor, and the Type 14 resembled its predecessor in most respects, using a similar action, the same unsuitable 8mm ammunition, and 8-shot clips. The later Type 94 was a compact, snub-nosed variation (with 7-shot clip) primarily employed by the Army Air Force fliers, who liked its handiness.
In the Japanese forces many front-line sergeants also carried pistols (and a few of the senior ones had swords as well). Demand for sidearms led to a great many of the old (Meiji) Type 26 revolvers being issued, mainly to noncoms. This was a six-shot revolver in 9mm calibre. It was found on the bodies of many Japanese sergeants in the Philippines.
The main reason for such inadequate (not least because they could only be effective at extremely short ranges, virtually or literally within touching distance of the opponent) personal weapons for the Japanese company officers was the failure of the Japanese to mass-produce a submachinegun during the war. This was a glaring omission, as the submachinegun often proved, in American and British hands, an ideal weapon for jungle warfare, where its major failing, a relatively short effective range, was not as big a drawback given the generally closer combat imposed by the heavy foliage and limited open areas. The Japanese did produce a submachinegun design, the Type 100 (1940). It was a less than inspired design, a wooden-stocked model fed by a curved 30-shot clip feeding in the left side, with a relatively low rate of fire of only seven or eight shots per second, and further hampered by use of the low-powered Japanese 8mm pistol cartridge. Nonetheless, any submachinegun was a significant improvement in the close-range firepower of forward units. But about the only combat use of this weapon came from the Japanese Army paratroopers, who employed it during their drop on Palembang in Indonesia (Sumatra) in February 1942, and gave a very positive report of its effectiveness afterward. Despite this about the only other time I have read of it being seen in action was, in smaller numbers, during another jump by the Army paratroopers on Leyte in October 1944. I have seen a photo of a Japanese Navy “marine” equipped with this submachinegun– and wearing a bullet-proof vest– but am not sure where it was taken, and would speculate that if not merely a publicity photo (the fellow’s uniform was also immaculately clean and tidy) the person wielding this weapon was probably employed on some rear-area security task.
The most basic support weapon available in the average rifle platoon was the 50mm grenade launcher, erroneously known to the Americans as the “knee mortar.” In reality it was hardly a mortar at all, more akin to the American M79 grenade-launcher (40mm) of Vietnam era fame, at least in terms of its lightness and general handiness. Unlike the later US weapon, however, the Japanese Type 89 grenade launcher was not shoulder-fired, but rather was meant to be braced against the ground when shooting, in this respect resembling the conventional mortar family. But the 50mm Type 89 was very light, weighing only ten and a quarter pounds ready for action. It could easily be carried, and if necessary fired, by one man, although for the maximum rate of fire of about 25 shots per minute a second crewman was needed to drop the bombs into the discharger cup, and normally the Japanese assigned three men to each “knee mortar.” The Type 89 fired a projectile weighing just under two pounds, which was essentially little more than a standard fragmentation grenade with fins added. Its maximum range was about 700 yards, with an interesting system of range adjustment that involved screwing the trigger housing on which the discharger cup was mounted so that more or less of the spigot-like triggering device projected into the cup (the longer the projectile remained inside the cup, the longer it was subjected to the full burst of the propellant charge, hence the greater push it got before reaching the muzzle– thus the length of the cup, altered by screwing the trigger mount in or out, directly affected range. There were graduations marked on the trigger housing so the gunner could adjust this with some exactitude, but since the weapon was still hand-held to a degree, firing it accurately was still an inexact science calling for practice and skill on the part of man wielding it).
The Type 89 could also fire various colored flares for illumination or, more commonly, signalling purposes. Although the Allies tended to discount its effects somewhat, the Japanese made excellent use of this weapon. One British officer I saw interviewed on TV remarked how even when his troops did manage to get the jump on the Japanese in jungle encounters, the enemy would usually recover quickly, and be hitting back with their “knee mortars” in short order
This fire tended to keep the enemy’s head down while the Japanese themselves deployed to meet this new threat, and began probing for the opponent’s flank. All in all it was a very useful little device, and the Japanese certainly got plenty of mileage out of it.
The Japanese also had a much more powerful 50mm mortar, the Type 98. This was in appearance a conventional mortar, with a larger, flat baseplate and (unlike the “knee mortar”) a bipod supporting the barrel. The unusual feature of the Type 98 was that it worked something like the bottle rockets kids in the US shoot off (if they can get them) around the 4th of July. That is, the projectile itself consisted of a warhead considerably larger than 50mm in diameter (and containing seven lbs of explosive) with a smaller, stick-like tail that fit into the mortar barrel (the German Army later used a similar concept for an antitank rifle grenade, firing a projectile with a 61mm warhead from the 30mm “Scheissbecher” cup, and even adapting the principle to use with their 37mm antitank gun and a hollow-charge shell). The range of the mortar was only about 400 yards (i.e., a little less than a quarter of a mile), and it weighed a full 48 pounds, so the much more potent destructive effect of its shell was perhaps not enough to encourage the Japanese Army to widely adopt it. At any rate, it was rather rarely seen in action, while the 50mm Type 89 “knee mortar” was ubiquitous in the Japanese forces wherever they fought, and was even carried into action by Japanese Army paratroops.
As mentioned earlier, each Japanese infantry battalion (and the horse cavalry, too) normally contained a machinegun company with 8-12 tripod-mounted machineguns. The tripod-mounted guns were also developed by Nambu’s board, and closely patterned on French Hotchkiss designs. The (Taisho) Type 3 was basically a Japanese copy of the First World War (1914 model) Hotchkiss, in 6.5mm calibre, a gas-operated weapon with the trademark Hotchkiss radiator air-cooling fins on the barrel. However, the Japanese, besides having to add an oil pump to the mechanism in order to keep it operating smoothly, somehow managed to bump the total weight of the weapon with mount up to 122 pounds (25 lbs heavier than the Hotchkiss). Given the smaller physique of the average Japanese, this seemed to present a real problem, but an ingenious (and uniquely Japanese) solution was devised. The front legs of the tripod had sockets built into their feet, into which short metal poles could be stuck (or wooden “field expedients” if the originals got lost or damaged), parallel to the barrel of the gun. The rear leg of the mount also had a socket, into which a device very much resembling a bicycle handlebar was fitted. Thus three or four men could conveniently carry the gun, the front two grabbing the poles much as one would lift a stretcher, and one or two others picking up the carrying handles at the rear. This not only gave the gun mobility, as the weight efficiently distributed among three or four men presented much less of a problem, but also the weapon could quickly be plunked down, virtually ready to fire. It was a fairly handy arrangement. The Type 3 Nambu, like the Hotchkiss, was fed by 30-shot strips fed in the side. It had a fairly slow rate of fire, only seven or eight shots per second, and the characteristic steady tapping of its audio signature led the Americans to nickname it “the woodpecker.”
The heavy machinegun was actually the first weapon in the Japanese inventory to be ugraded to 7.7mm calibre. The Type 92 tripod-mounted gun appeared early in the 1930’s, but never completely replaced the old Type 3 even during the Second World War. In essence the Type 92 was very similar to the older weapon, except for the change in calibre. Otherwise, there were adjustments made to the arrangement of the firing handles and trigger, and some (but not all) Type 92’s had a cone-shaped flash hider at the muzzle. But the method of operation, cooling, feed, etc, remained the same as in the Type 3, as did the piece’s slow rate of fire. The Type 92 was probably the most common model of tripod-mounted machinegun used by the Japanese during World War II.
A call was eventually issued for a lighter version of tripod-mounted machinegun, not to exceed 88 lbs (40 kg). This resulted in the 7.7mm Type 1, which first appeared in 1941, but saw service in only limited numbers during the war. The Type 1 successfully achieved its goal of being much lighter, weighing only 70 lbs with mount (nonetheless the carrying system in use with the older guns was retained). In operation it resembled its predecessors, but could be distinguished visually– other than by its greater compactness– by the fact that it always fitted the flash hider at the muzzle, and also because its handles alongside the trigger pointed outward (parallel to the ground) instead of the up-and-down arrangement on the Type 92.
Another very unusual weapon in the Japanese front-line battalion was the 20mm Type 97 antitank rifle. This was a fully automatic piece, firing six or seven shots per second, fed by a top-loading seven-shot clip, although a capacity for single shots was also included and probably the more common practice. In firing position it weighed 115-120 lbs, but once again the same carrying system found in the heavy machineguns was employed, with two poles fitting into the feet of the bipod in front (there was also a monopod under the shoulder stock for further bracing when firing) and the handlebar-like device attached to the buttstock. The weapon might also come with a small shield, which brought the total weight up to 150 lbs! All this weight was not necessarily wasted, as one author who test-fired it gave the remarkable report that this small shoulder cannon actually had no more kick to its recoil than a .30-06 rifle, in part due to the exceptional padding of the shoulder stock, and also to the recoil-absorbing system. But the antitank rifle was difficult and expensive to manufacture, and, with the capability of penetrating no more than half to three-quarters of an inch of armor plate, even at the relatively close range of 200-300 yards, the Japanese obviously didn’t think it was worth the cost to produce them in great quantity. A few were reportedly encountered in the hands of 25th Army in Malaya and Singapore (those who have managed to read through my entire series so far will by now start to recognize that 25th Army was generally one of the best-equipped field armies in the entire Japanese forces in December 1941), and it was also seen in the southern campaigns against the Americans on a few rare occasions (even supposedly used in at least one case for beach defense, to shoot at incoming landing craft). But generally speaking this weapon was seldom encountered, despite the fact that the “standard” table of organization called for at least one or two in every battalion.
The Japanese used three types of heavier infantry mortars during the war. The Type 97 was a straight Japanese copy of the 81mm Brandt design also used by the US, France, and Italy in the war (as well as Poland, Romania, and a number of smaller powers). Weighing 124 lbs fully assembled, and breaking down into three parts (bipod, baseplate, and barrel) for transporting, it fired a seven-pound shell to a range of about two and a half miles. However, the Japanese did not make really wide use of it. A much more compact variant known as the Type 99 (and reminiscent of the later German “Stummelwerfer,” although the Japanese weapon in fact came first) was developed to supplement and, eventually, largely replace it. With its cut-off barrel, the Type 99 weighed only 52 lbs, firing the same 7-lb shell to a range of a mile and a quarter. Its general handiness made it much more popular with the Japanese, and during the second half of the war growing numbers were in service. Early in the war against the western powers the Japanese did not widely employ 81mm mortars, and, furthermore, when they were introduced in greater quantity they tended to group them separately from the regular infantry, in “light mortar battalions” of up to 48 mortars each, which were usually allocated as independent formations directly to field army headquarters.
Another infantry support mortar which saw a degree of use in the war was the 90mm Type 94. It threw a shell weighing 11.5 lbs to a maximum range of about two and a quarter miles. The Type 94 had a sophisticated double recoil system, partly hydraulic, mounted in a “U”-shaped saddle around the barrel, which complicated apparatus had the unfortunate effect of bringing the total weight of the piece up to a staggering 340 lbs. This may have curtailed its attractiveness for field operations somewhat, but the Japanese did employ it on a regular basis throughout the conflict (for example, it was used in the Solomons on both Guadalcanal and New Georgia). A lighter 90mm mortar was being developed later in the war but saw little service.
Commentary by others with a knowledge of the subject
There are perhaps some people who have always heard that Japanese Rifles were “Junk.” Perhaps some people who have not seen a Japanese Rifle, or if they did , did not realize that these rifle appearances changed during the war due to “wartime influences.” The purpose of this article is not to change anyone’s opinion or belief about Japanese Rifles. It is to present some facts known or some that may not be as well known, concerning a rifle that deserves, in my opinion and a few others, something better than to be called “Junk.”
For brevity, there are generalizations included, and details left out.
The Japanese produced over 6.4 million rifles and carbines in the 40 years from 1906 to 1945. Japanese arms and equipment, although less sophisticated and technologically inferior to ours, served their purposes. The WWII Arisaka Rifle used a modified Mauser bolt action. It began under Colonel Nariaki Arisaka in 1905, with Captain Kijiro Nambu designing the action. The improved Arisaka bolt action featured a hollow firing pin with an internal coil spring, a straight bolt handle, and a large distinctive round safety knob on the rear of the bolt. The bolt on closing was secured by two front locking lugs, and was one of the strongest military bolt actions ever produced. The Safety was operated by pushing the knob forward and rotating it about one-eighth turn to the right. Unlike other Mauser-inspired actions, the bulky safety knob of the Arisaka also served to deflect gases blown back as the result of a cartridge case failure or punctured primer.
Type 38, chambered for the 6.5mm Japanese semi-rimless centerfire cartridge. The simplified bolt consists internally of a firing pin, firing pin spring and safety. This design reduced the Mauser type action to components that were extremely reliable, functional, and cost effective. The Type 38 rifle manufactured for 35 years remained essentially unchanged except for minor improvements. Production was discontinued in 1940. When the break down of the supply line from Japan to the China Expeditionary Force occurred in 1943, arsenals were set up in China. Full-scale production was just getting under way when World War II ended. Almost 3 million Type 38’s were produced.
Type 99, chambered for the 7.7mm semi-rimless center-fire cartridge. Experience in China as early as 1932, indicated that a cartridge with greater impact energy was required. Also, the continued development to larger caliber machine guns made it opportune for a change to a infantry rifle of similar caliber. The type 99 was placed into production in 1939, Approximately 1942, changes had to be instituted because of the lack of steel, wood, etc. (See “Substitute” following.) In 1943, all manufacturing companies began production of the “substitute Type 99 rifle” which was produced until the end of the war in 1945. This substitute” rifle is discussed later. Approximately 2.5 million Type 99’s were produced. (Partial Ref: #3.)
Lt. Col. John George, Army Officer, Scholar, Adventurer and Distinguished Rifleman was on Guadalcanal. He commanded a company, which fought beside the Marines in the clean up of the island. In Burma he was in one of the battalions of Merrill’s Marauders. In his book “Shots Fired in Anger” published by the National Rifle Association of America, he goes into great detail concerning the 6.5mm & 7.7mm Japanese Rifles. It is a very good comparison of the Japanese Rifle to the 98 Mauser and 03 Springfield. On page 269, he mentions the 6.5mm is a pretty good gun, clumsier than any of ours, but in slow fire it is easier to shoot. It has practically no recoil (long barrel, moderately loaded cartridge, and weight of 10 lbs.) It has fair accuracy up to about 500 yards, muzzle velocity of 2,400 foot seconds, which puts it up in the high power military class and gives it a maximum range of some 2,600 yards. He mentions, “In spite of all it’s shortcomings, some of which were so stupid that they defied belief (almost as much as certain of our own ordnance inanities concerned with the adoption of our Springfield) it proved to be a good, reliable combat rifle.
One item of side interest is the “Dust Cover.” Colonel George mentions that another fixed idiocy was the receiver cover. He mentions that it is a foolish contrivance, which would give the working parts of the rifle negligible contribution. He mentioned that the receiver cover on the weapon rattled alike all of the proverbial tin pots and pans in hell. This Dust Cover was a controversial decision arousing much debate whenever the Type 38 rifle was being developed. Japanese Army experiences during the Russo-Japanese War convinced the development commission that this sliding dustcover was essential. During dust storms many Type 30 (previous rifle that the Type 38 was replacing), had been left inoperable, and soldiers had resorted to wrapping receivers with cloths for protection. This Dust Cover was primarily designed for the China Area of operations. Many a Japanese Soldier did discard his Dust Cover, but probably so reluctantly as equipment issued, belonged to the Emperor, not to the Soldier and he was fully accountable for it.
Colonel George mentioned on page 264. “The Arisaka bolt can be disassembled faster than any others of the Mauser type; a rank amateur can jerk it into its five basic units in four seconds and keep a hand free to toy with his gal’s ear all the while, if she happens to be close by.” He did not care for the straight bolt handle, but he mentions that they committed less non-constructive butchery on the Mauser than did the designers of the ’03 rifle.
One technological feature that the Japanese Rifle had, and I believe no other nation had at the time (the United States incorporated it halfway through the war) was a chrome plated barrel and bolt face. The Japanese incorporated it in their Type 99 rifles beginning in 1939. It was fore-sight on their behalf, taking into consideration the high humidity conditions of the Jungle, salt weather influence, perhaps lack of proper cleaning supplies & the corrosive powder in ammunition.
Chuck Karwan (Ref. 5) wrote an article entitled “The Top Guns of WWII”
He details various weapons, but under bolt action rifles, he states that he believes the best was the British .303 No. 4 Enfield. Then he goes on to say – “There is another excellent WWII bolt action rifle that is often overlooked and in some circumstances might even be better than the No. 4 Enfield. This is the Japanese 7.7mm Type 99 Arisaka, particularly in its somewhat simplified version that dropped the monopod and aircraft engagement sight features of the earlier versions. This rifle is easy to make, extremely strong, light and handy, accurate, has a removable action cover for such operations as amphibious landings, and has a chrome lined bore. Its bolt has only six parts, which includes a safety, and can be disassembled for maintenance in seconds without tools. Its manual safety is very positive and extremely fast to disengage. In extremely rough field conditions, I might prefer the Type 99 over the No. 4 Enfield because its ease of maintenance and chrome line bore would keep it operating longer particularly with the corrosive ammunition commonly in use at the time.”
He then rates the U.S. .30-06 M1917 as third.
He mentions in the area of bolt action carbines, the clear standout is the British .303 No 5 Enfield commonly called the “jungle carbine.” He goes on to9 state that the only other WWII bolt action carbine that even comes close to the British No. 5 and that is the Japanese 6.5 x 50mm Type 38 Arisaka carbine, particularly the variation made at the Mukden arsenal with a peep sight. “This little gem is nearly 5 inches shorter than the No. 5, about the same weight, has most of the good features of the Type 99 rifle mentioned earlier (though not the chrome line bore), and is chambered for a very effective cartridge that has low recoil. (It was not uncommon for U.S. Marines to pack one of these on jungle patrols in preference to their Springfield M1903s early in WWII.) (emphasis in ( ) was mine.)
The basic design of the Type 99 rifle remained the same until 1943. Simplification for many reasons had to be accomplished, i.e., lack of metal, good wood, lack of money, etc. Changes as an example were: Deleting such items as: The sling, the bolt cover, shortening and eventually eliminating the cleaning rod, substituting inferior steel for the bolt & barrel, eliminating the chrome in the barrel & bolt face, using an inferior wood on the stock, a peep sight zeroed to 900 ft., and minimizing machining of the weapon.
If a person was to view one of these ‘Substitute Rifles” without being able to see the “standard” wartime production, then it’s very likely that an impression that Japanese Rifles were “Junk” could be formed. “Junk” opinion could also be formed after reading part of what a well known author wrote concerning the “Substitute” rifle, even though the “Substitute” rifle and the standard run action were the same. A statement from: Small Arms of the World, Joseph E. Smith, 9th Edition. (Ref 1). “In 1943, a substitute Type 99 was introduced which was made of inferior materials, without bolt covers and sling swivels and without chrome plated bores. The rifles had fixed rear sights. It is inadvisable to fire them, since they can be dangerous. On the subject of material and strengths of actions, tests conducted after World War II showed that the 6.5mm Type 38 action was stronger than the U.S. Springfield, 1917 Enfield or the German Mauser Action. We all know that after the war, numerous Japanese Rifles were converted to Deer and Sporting Rifles.
After the War:
The Chinese modified Type 99 rifles to 7.92mm. The Nationalist Army absorbed a large number of Type 99’s. They were rechambered to 8mm. A number were also converted to 30-06. In 1951 estimates from 4,000 to 133,000 Type 99 rifles were modified to 30-06 by the U.S. Ordnance Depot. They were used by the allied troops of the Korean Augmentation of the U.S. Army. The Chinese Army converted Type 38’s to 7.62. In the late Fifties, during the Vietnam Conflict, the Viet Minh concerted a number of Type 38’s and Type 99’s to 7.62x39mm which had become the standard round of both the Soviet Army and Chinese Army.
Ref 1: Small Arms of the World, Joseph E. Smith, 9th Edition
Ref 2: U. S. Infantry Weapons of WWII, Bruce N. Canfield
Ref 3: Japanese Rifles of WWII, Duncan D. McCollum
Ref 4: Shots Fired in Anger, Lt. Col. John George
Ref 5: The Top Guns of WWII, Chuck Karwan
An introduction to Chuck Karwan:
Well known to Soldier of Fortune readers for his many insightful articles on Tools of the Trade, Chuck Karwan has published more than 100 features in various military and weapons magazines. Karwan, a West Pointer, served with 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), and the 10th and 5th Special Forces Groups.