September 12, 2019
Photos by Jill Marlow
When I first wrote this feature, I was convinced that all firearms historians would immediately agree with me that the Japanese Type 26, for reasons which will be outlined anon, was probably the worst military revolver ever issued. Still, to give the gun a chance and to test my theory, I selected an octet of noted experts whom I have relied on over the years, asking each one to come up with his own candidate for the nadir in revolverdom, being careful not to telegraph the direction in which I was leaning. The results, like the panel, were mixed and not a little surprising.
My first three calls were one to a long-time museum curator and two to venerable firearms writers and editors, and they gave me hope — to a man they picked the Type 26. This’ll be easy, I thought. However, if one has been around for three quarters of a century, he should have enough sense not to be so complacent.
Alas! Hubris! My next call was to the owner of one of the largest movie firearms rental companies in the world, someone who has to work with all manner of guns on a daily basis. Without missing a beat, he chose the series of Colt New Army and Navy Model revolvers. He cited as his main gripes “miserable,” “an easy-to-go-out-of-order lock work,” and a “less-than impressive .38 Colt chambering.”
One writer and one editor, interestingly, picked the Russian Model 1895 Nagant, feeling the works were overly complicated, the trigger pull horrendous, and the advantages of the reciprocating gas-seal cylinder questionable. Another writer and editor combination came up with the Model 1870 Austrian Gasser, mainly because this behemoth was so horrendously overbuilt. Two writers opted for the German Model 1879/83 Reichsrevolver, citing major faults which included a clunky single-action (SA) action and slowness in reloading as their primary objections. When I jogged all their memories about the Type 26 (apparently, it’s not a handgun that immediately comes to mind) they admitted that it certainly was a contender, but stuck to their original choices, as would I. For the sake of fairness, though, I’ll present the bare-faced facts and let you decide.
Japan’s transformation from a feudal society to a modern industrial state in less than half a century is one of the most remarkable instances of national resolve in recent history. The so-termed “opening” of Japan by U.S. Admiral Matthew Perry in 1853 set off a chain reaction that continues to this day.
On his second voyage to Japan in 1854, he brought with him several up-to-date percussion breech and muzzleloading longarms, along with handguns that amazed his hosts whose forces were still largely armed with matchlocks. It created an insatiable desire on their part to update Japan’s military and, as early as 1860, the Japanese began to accumulate and use a considerable array of then-current firearms, which they gathered from a number of different sources. Initially troops were armed with imports such as the French Chassepot and Gras, Dutch Beaumont rifles and the French Lefaucheux-style pinfire revolvers. Beginning in the 1870s, versions of the Smith & Wesson (S&W) Russian and New Model 3 revolvers were also used. In 1880, Japan came up with an indigenous longarm, the Murata Type 13, named after the 13th year of Emperor Meiji’s reign.
Imperial forces continued to be supplied with the S&W New No. 3, ultimately ordering some 7,500 over the years. Chambered in .44 Russian, they were a top-break SA and relatively large pieces of hardware. In 1887, it was decided to produce an indigenous revolver, one that was smaller and of lighter caliber. Experiments were undertaken at the Imperial Japanese Army Tokyo Arsenal, and in 1894 the Type 26 Revolver was adopted, taking its designation from Emperor Meiji’s 26th year on the throne. It was one year earlier than the gun’s acceptance date, but the year in which the design was perfected.
The Type 26 was more diminutive than the S&W Russian, measuring 9¼ inches long as opposed to the S&W’s overall length (OAL) of 11½ inches and weighing some 8 ounces less. Like the Smith, the Type 26 was a top-break and had automatic ejection. It was chambered for a unique 9mm thin-rimmed smokeless power cartridge similar in dimensions to the .38 S&W with a bullet weight of 150 grains. Muzzle velocity was 640 feet-per-second (fps) and muzzle energy 135.2 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.). For comparison, the blackpower .44 Russian round had a 246-grain bullet that moved out at 770 fps, providing a muzzle energy of 324 ft.-lbs.
The ’26 was an amalgamation of several designs. The double-action lockwork was influenced by the designs of Frenchman Charles-François Galand, and very similar to that of the later Austrian model Rast & Gasser M1898 8mm eight-shooter. It had a hinged frame with a top release inspired by that of S&W, a side plate that’s seen on the French Model 1873 and 1892 revolvers and the aforementioned Rast & Gasser. All allowed for complete access to the innards. To open it, one merely had to push forward on the checkered rear portion of the triggerguard. This freed the captive side plate which could then easily be rotated rearward. Removing the left grip panel exposed the V-style mainspring and hefty trigger spring/rebound lever. Revelation of all the parts could be accomplished bare-handed, though tools were needed to remove some components.
Though looking good so far, at this point things began to go a bit south. The revolver was double-action only (DAO), a relatively pleasant DA, but DA-only, nonetheless. Accordingly, the hammer had no need of a spur, opting instead for a substantial, rather unattractive, rounded, rectangular-shaped upper portion, which was provided ostensibly to eliminate snagging on clothing and equipment.
The rotation of the cylinder was managed by a traditional-style hand. Locking, however, was another matter; It was provided by a lug milled out on the top of the trigger assembly. When the trigger was pulled to the rear, this lug fit securely within spearhead-shaped notches sited outside each chamber. The action of the lug and hand working together locked the cylinder when the trigger was all the way to the rear. Releasing the trigger, however, allowed the cylinder to free-wheel. This was generally OK for repeated shots taken at one sitting, but replacing the revolver back in its holster or brushing it against clothing (or equipment) could inadvertently rotate it to a position where a subsequent pull of the trigger might find the hammer dropping on an already-fired round — a very awkward situation in the heat of battle. This arrangement, coupled with a relatively pusillanimous cartridge, to me at least, would be a real deal-breaker: “Um, Guns¯o, I don’t suppose you have any old No. 3 laying around perchance?”
Too, the sights were nothing to write home about, consisting of a simple, narrow non-adjustable notch cut in the gun’s topstrap, and a semicircular blade pinned to a lump on the muzzle. This arrangement was anything but unique and was also seen on a number of other revolvers of the time, some of them being even worse than the 26’s.
Fit and blue finish on the Type 26 was quite good. Grips were nicely checkered, though late production revolvers, and ones that have been arsenal refinished, usually exhibit a number of simple parallel narrow grooves. Markings are spartan, consisting principally of frame stampings indicating the place of manufacture; the serial number; the Japanese characters for “26 Year Type”; and a smattering of inspection marks on the butt.
Holsters were largely French-style full clamshells with internal space for 18 cartridges and an outside loop for a cleaning rod. Woven lanyards were also standard.
Though superseded as principal arms in the Japanese service by the early part of the 20th century, Type 26’s continued to be manufactured into the 1930s and saw considerable action in such affrays as the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. Based upon the considerable number of extant Second-World-War-U.S.-GI-bring-back 26’s, they must have been used in large numbers up until 1945.
Original 9mm Japanese revolver ammo is extremely hard to come by and bring collector’s prices while generally not working all that well. For our shooting evaluation, I obtained some new loads from Buffalo Arms (buffaloarms.com, 208-263-6953), one of the few purveyors of this arcane round. Buffalo makes theirs from reformed brass and .356-caliber, 150-grain hard-cast lead bullets.
Our evaluation revolver was an excellent-condition and early-example with a pristine bore. The DA pull was smooth and relatively light at 12½ pounds. An important caveat: When the trigger is relaxed, the hammer rebounds to allow the firing pin a bit of breathing space, keeping it away from the rear of the cylinder. It did not provide for a complete automatic safety, as I was able to easily push the hammer most the way forward with my finger off the trigger. If the gun were to be dropped or the hammer otherwise hit, this could be problematic, especially if a round had a high primer.
Our shooting evaluation was essayed offhand at 10 yards. The revolver and ammo functioned flawlessly, and six-shot groups were not all that bad, coming in at an average of 5¼ inches with our best running 3½ inches. If reasonable care was taken, the cylinder fired rounds successively with no glitches.
“Ok,” you ask, “Do I still consider the Type 26 the worst military revolver ever?” Well, I’ve also fired some others that have been less-than-stellar design-wise, and even a few chambering rounds not much more powerful than the Japanese 9mm. But I’ve never had much luck on the Big Wheel in Vegas or playing inadvertent Russian Roulette in combat due to the 26’s non-captive cylinder, so this severely dampens my ardor for the piece — not that I was particularly smitten in the first place.
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