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WWII Pistols in the Pacific: U.S. M1911A1 & Japanese Type 14 Nambu

by Garry James   |  October 4th, 2013 17

U.S. Soldiers, Sailors and Marines are inveterate souvenir hunters. One just has to look at the huge numbers of German Pickelhaubes and Lugers that came home following World War I and the copious quantity of captured military gear that made its way into Yankee attics following World War II to prove this assertion.

In the Second World War especially, there were particular treasures. Troops in the European Theatre seemed to favor Lugers (always “captured” from “German officers”), P.38s and dress daggers. The Pacific campaign had its favorites as well. Probably topping the list was the “samurai sword,” which could turn out to be anything from an arsenal-issued, mass-produced chopper to an exquisite edged weapon fitted with a finely wrought, centuries-old blade made by a true master. For a while, “trophy” Japanese soldiers’ skulls were all the rage. Early on, authorities rightly put the kibosh on them being sent to loved ones back home, but apparently the grisly practice continued — sub rosa — into 1945.

Next on the list was the Type 14 Nambu. It was ubiquitous, easy to stash in a duffel bag and just plain keen. Various models of Arisaka rifles probably surpassed the Nambu in sheer numbers imported, but somehow, even today, they just don’t have the panache of the wicked-looking Type 14.

Of course, the 1911A1 Government Model — being not only one of the best handguns of WWII but the one most familiar to GIs, gobs and leathernecks — achieved a cult status of its own. Readily available as surplus at very reasonable prices soon after the war, the 1911A1 was a popular keepsake with ex-servicemen. While originally just a tool that was produced in the hundreds of thousands, original 1911A1s have made the transition to valuable, sought-after collector’s pieces.

That the 1911 platform is one of the most versatile and reliable examples ever conceived for a pistol is evidenced by its immense popularity today and the plethora of Government Model-style autos being produced by countless makers.

Possessed of entirely different mechanisms, the 1911A1 and Type 14 were both highly regarded for their ruggedness and reliability. While, with some exceptions, few major variants of the Government Model were turned out, wartime exigencies and other factors resulted in numerous differences, large and small, in Type 14s.

1911A1 Government Model
The 1911A1 Government Model was actually a modification of the original 1911, designed (which should come as no surprise) by John Moses Browning. As might be expected, Browning was well ahead of his time and had been playing around with full- and semiauto designs well before the turn of the 20th century. By 1900 he had come up with at least two very practical self-loading pistol designs.

By the turn of the 20th century, Mausers and Lugers had firmly established the auto as the wave of the future, and it was not long before many countries began looking for a reliable repeater with which to arm their troops, and Uncle Sam was at the forefront of this trend.

The first Browning auto tried by the U.S. military was a sleek .38 with extended slide and severe grip angle. The Model 1900 Colt (Browning was under contract to that company) morphed into the 1902 Military Model, and while the gun had promise, officials were ready to go back to a .45-caliber sidearm after the so-so performance of the .38 Colt New Army and Navy revolvers then in service.

In 1905 Browning came up with a .45, which had many of the characteristics of the 1900 but the slide was shorter and the whole pistol, despite being designed for a heftier caliber, was really more compact than its progenitor. The cartridge that went along with the 1905 was impressive in itself, even by modern standards. It was rimless, like the earlier .38 ACP, and fired a 230-grain FMJ bullet at some 855 fps, generating a substantial muzzle energy of 405 ft-lbs. In comparison, the earlier .38 Long Colt (revolver) load moved its 115-grain lead projectile out at 770 fps for an ME of 195 ft-lbs. And when you bring up the .38 ACP, whose 130-grain slug produced a muzzle velocity of 1,040 fps and an ME of 312 ft-lbs, it’s easy to see that the Army had made a considerable leap forward in the power department.

Colt entered this new pistol into the U.S. Ordnance Department 1907 Automatic Pistol Trials along with .45s made by DWM (Luger) and Savage, among others. When all had been put through their paces, the Savage and Colt, despite their less than optimum performances, were chosen for field trials. Some 200 of each pistol were ordered and sent to various Army units for evaluation. Reaction from officers and men was not particularly encouraging, though of the contenders, the Colt was felt to have the most going for it. Cavalrymen, especially, were somewhat dubious about these new-fangled pistols, and many felt that the return to some sort of .45 revolver would still be the best solution.

Newly challenged, Browning began work on perfecting his design, and after a few unofficial run-throughs in 1909 with the new pistol at the behest of Colonel John Taliaferro Thompson (of Thompson subgun fame), the auto was subjected to more thorough testing in 1910. Savage’s product failed dismally, while the new Colt performed quite well. Still not satisfied, the Ordnance Department called for one more batch of trials in March 1911, where the Colt settled the issue by firing 6,000 rounds without problems of any kind.

On March 28, 1911, the U.S. military officially adopted the Browning/Colt as the “Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911” and put in an initial contract for 31,344 of them. One of the finest military pistols ever devised was off and running.

Simplicity was one of the major advantages of the 1911. It was a locked-breech single action with a magazine capacity of seven rounds. An ingenious swinging link that dropped the barrel and allowed the slide to unlock when withdrawn was at the core of the gun’s efficiency, but the trigger, safety, takedown arrangement and general handling characteristics all contributed to the gun’s success.

Weighing 39 ounces with an overall length of 8¼ inches and a barrel length of five inches, the 1911 had three safeties: a catch located on the left side of the frame, a half-cock hammer safety and a grip safety on the rear of the backstrap (which prevented the gun from being fired unless it was fully depressed). The sights involved a fixed front and notch rear, which was dovetailed into the rear of the slide and could be drift adjusted for windage but generally wasn’t messed with much in combat.

When the last round was fired, a stop on the frame locked the slide to the rear. After the magazine had been reloaded and reinserted in the gun, depressing the stop allowed the slide to move forward and strip off and chamber the first round. The pistol was now ready to fire. The whole operation could be performed quickly and simply — two very positive attributes in combat. The 1911’s fit and finish was excellent, with an attractive blue and comfortable checkered walnut grips. Lanyard loops were attached to the pistol’s butt and the bottom of the magazine, though the mag loop would eventually be done away with as superfluous.

Early on, the 1911 was manufactured by Colt and then at the U.S. Springfield Armory (the only automatic pistol ever turned out at that facility), but as U.S. involvement in World War I became apparent, it was obvious that production would have to be stepped up and contracts were let out to Remington UMC, which made some 21,500 1911s in 1918–19, and North American Arms Co. Ltd, of Quebec Canada, which only managed to squeeze out about 100 pistols in 1918.

As good as the 1911 was, there were those who felt the pistol needed a little refining, so in the early 1920s it was given a minor updating involving the addition of a shorter trigger, arched mainspring housing, modified hammer and extended grip safety to help avoid hammer bite. Dubbed the 1911A1, this was the main U.S. battle pistol of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

During the Second World War, the 1911A1 was made by a number of manufacturers (not all of them arms-makers) including Colt, Remington-Rand, Ithaca, Union Switch and Signal, and Singer. Guns produced during the WWII period are Parkerized and feature checkered brown plastic grips.

TYPE 14 “NAMBU”
The Type 14 looks something like a Luger, for which it is often mistaken by novices, though it has little in common with the German auto mechanically. Unlike the Luger, which employed a toggle-type action derived from the earlier Borchardt, the Nambu featured a short-recoil, locked-breech action. This, coupled with the gun’s rigid barrel/frame construction, made for a very reliable and accurate handgun.

The Type 14 gained its name from the year it was adopted by the Japanese army — 1925 — which was the 14th year of the Taisho Emperor’s reign. Not to oversimplify matters, basically it was a streamlined version of an earlier pistol, the 1902 “Papa” Nambu, which, like the Type 14, relied on design elements by Japanese firearms genius Kijiro Nambu.

The Papa, in its own right, was a pretty good pistol, but it was complicated to manufacture. To rectify this problem, a simplified design was worked out, resulting in the Type 14.

The Type 14 and the 1902’s major defect was the round for which they were chambered, an 8mm (.320) bottlenecked cartridge that pushed out its 102-grain bullet (a caveat: bullet weights and specs varied over the round’s production life) at 960 fps, producing a muzzle energy of only about 202 ft-lbs — about a third less than that of the .45 ACP.

The gun measures some nine inches overall and weighs two pounds — pretty substantial figures for a gun producing pocket-pistol ballistics. Early Type 14s were magnificent examples of the military gunmaker’s art. Construction and materials were excellent. Finish was a deep blue, and the well-formed, comfortable beech or mahogany grips were nicely fitted and multigrooved to allow for a better hold.

Magazines were nickel-plated or blued, had aluminum caps, were cast with circular indentations to allow them to be pulled from the gun (they would not drop free on their own) and held eight rounds.

Controls consisted of a large, knurled cocking piece on the rear of the bolt, making chambering and clearing the pistol very positive. The magazine release was to the rear of the triggerguard in the grip panels, and the safety, which had to be rotated 180 degrees to be put off or on, was placed on the left side of the frame, right above the trigger.

To fire the piece, one simply inserted a magazine, pulled the bolt to the rear and allowed it to move forward, where it stripped off the first round. From that point on, the gun fired semiautomatically, the action remaining open after the last shot. Oddly, when the magazine was removed, the bolt flew forward, necessitating pulling it back and releasing it again after a full magazine was inserted.

While initial production of Type 14s was undertaken at Nagoya Arsenal, eventually the gun was made at a number of sites. Each gun was marked with a specific symbol, so it is easy for collectors to tell where a Type 14 was turned out. Also, Type 14s were stamped on the rear of the right side of the frame with the date of manufacture, expressed in the year of the emperor’s reign and the month. Very early ’14s will have Taisho numbers, but the majority will have Showa dates, as the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, assumed the throne in 1926. This means, for example, a marking of “3.6” indicates that that manufacture was undertaken in June 1928.

Originally, the autos had small, standard-size round triggerguards, but in 1939 the guns were given enlarged winter guards, presumably so they could be fired if the soldier was wearing mittens — supposedly occasioned by the occupations of Manchuria in China and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands.

By military standards, the sights on most Type 14s were exceptional — a fixed rear with a wide notch to give the shooter some aiming latitude (narrower notches often appeared on later guns) and drift-adjustable blade fronts. Nambus were usually fitted in leather or rubberized-canvas protective clamshell-style holsters resembling those used originally for the French Model 1873 revolver. There was a pouch for ammunition on the body of the holster that was protected by the large flap. Later on, a separate compartment was added to hold a spare firing pin. As the war progressed, simpler, more production- and cost-efficient leather and canvas carriers were also seen.

When the fortunes of the Japanese Empire began to wane, the quality of Nambus declined, and those manufactured toward the end of the conflict can be pretty rough. Finish was rough, grip panels were often made without grooves, and components were altered for economy and simplicity of manufacture.

About 300,000 Type 14s were turned out between 1926 and 1945, comprising enough major and minor variations to keep even the most acquisitive collector busy for a good while.

WE SHOOT ’EM
For our evaluation we rounded up a trio of pistols, one 1911A1 and two Nambus, one of fairly early vintage, one produced quite late in the war.

The Government Model was a very-good to excellent-condition Remington-Rand (yes, the business-machine company, and one of the largest producers of 1911A1s) made in 1944. Nothing special about it, just a good, straight, stock-issue piece.

Our early Nambu was made by the Nambu Rifle Manufacturing Company in October 1937 and the later one by Nagoya Army Arsenal (Torimatsu Factory) in March 1945, just five months prior to the Japanese surrender.

As might be expected, the ’37 Type 14 is beautifully blued and polished, with the trigger and safety exhibiting most of their original straw color.

The 1945 gun, on the other hand, while perfectly serviceable, shows many “last ditch” characteristics. The finish is rough in the extreme, replete with milling marks. The cocking knob is the solid, knurled variety, and all parts are blued. The grips have no grooves, and the frame utilizes an external magazine retaining spring. The rear sight incorporates a narrow notch, as opposed to the older model’s wide one. It also has the large “Manchurian” triggerguard.

Trigger on the Remington-Rand was a crisp six pounds and on both Nambus a featherlight two pounds. Our chosen ammo for the 1911A1 was Black Hills 230-grain .45 ACP hardball. For the Type 14s, we used Buffalo Arms Co. 85-grain 8mm Nambu FMJs.

The guns were fired from a rest at 25 yards. The 1911A1 shot just like a Government Model should — reliable, responsive and authoritative. Functioning was perfect, and groups came in at an average of 3½ inches with a best of 3¼ inches, slightly high and to the left. While the gun is an ergonomic dream, I have to admit that GI sights leave much to be desired. The notch is just too narrow for my tired old eyes. (Modern makers certainly have it right in improving this feature.)

Both Nambus functioned without a glitch, with groups coming in at around 3½ inches each and very close to point of aim. The triggers were great, recoil light and handling characteristics wonderful. Frankly, it is one of the most pleasant-to-shoot military autos of WWII, and I particularly liked the wide rear sight notch on the ’37 specimen. The gun points well, and the grip angle is extremely comfortable. Its downsides are lack of power; the oddball last-shot, hold-open, magazine-closing arrangement; a 180-degree safety lever that is impossible to rotate with the shooting hand; and the fact that the magazine must be forcibly extracted when the release is pressed. Some claim that the firing pin is easily broken if the pistol is dry-fired too much, but others aver that this is hogwash. Personally, I’ve clicked my empty Type 14 numerous times for various testing purposes and never had a problem, though this shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation to do it. Let discretion be the better part of valor.

Despite the pleasant shooting characteristics of the Nambu, this was really an uneven contest from the beginning, sort of like matching up a welterweight with a heavyweight. The 1911A1 just has too much going for it in the design and power categories. Still, for a pleasant shooting session, the Nambu is a great choice, though I doubt “pleasant” was a word that crept into the vocabularies of the combatants on either side in the Pacific Theatre very often.

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