August 14, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of V-J Day and the end of World War II. Despite crushing defeats, drastic shortages and diminishing material, an intransigent Japanese military continued to present a dogged resistance.
For almost two years, Imperial forces had been on the defensive with the loss of the Philippines in February 1945, and disastrous earlier dire setbacks in the Marianas campaign. These pivotal events, combined with the virtual destruction of its merchant fleet and bombing of the homeland, rightly caused many to think Japan’s fall was inevitable, but not to some in the stubborn Japanese hierarchy.
Raw supplies were waning, or in some instances, non-existent. Manufacturing, when accomplished at all, was catch as catch-can, and the institution of shortcuts and “make-do” (especially in the armament industry) became the norm. Rifles and handguns emerging from the armories were spartan in the extreme, nothing like the superb pieces issued to troops only a few years previously. Finish, amenities and overall workmanship suffered greatly. Wherever economies could be taken, they were.
For example, a once-proud arm such as the Type 99 Arisaka rifle was fitted with wooden buttplates, given simple non-adjustable peep rear sights and stripped of a number of its expendable features. Fit and finish suffered greatly, but the men and arms continued to soldier on. Despite these setbacks, Allied forces still found themselves facing an indomitable, if somewhat diminished, foe.
Though many styles of up-to-date, and even semi-obsolete firearms were carried by Japanese forces, two of the most prevalent were the Type 99 rifle in 7.7mm and the Type 14 Nambu semiautomatic pistol in 8mm. The 99, for sure, was a fine piece of hardware, and the Nambu, though having its faults, was still a handgun to reckon with. As exemplars of what the Japanese soldier carried in the field, it is those two we will discuss here.
Type 99 Arisaka
Though seen in great numbers, the Type 99 sometimes referred to as the “Type 99 Arisaka,” was by no means a particularly revolutionary rifle. It was something of a simplified, cost-effective continuation of the popular Type 38 first issued to Imperial forces in 1905.
The Type 38, which was a follow-on to the circa-1897 Type 30, was not unlike many other military bolt-actions of the period.
Named in honor of the 38th year of the Japanese Emperor Meiji’s reign, it was long, had a five-round box magazine, could be fitted with the long-bladed Type 30 knife bayonet, and employed an extremely strong Mauser-style action with front locking lugs and a one-piece collar-mounted extractor.
Perhaps the major features in which the 38 differed from the Mauser was that it cocked on closing and the safety, unlike the Mausers three-position paddle-style, involved a knurled knob that was set by rotating it to the right with the palm of the hand. It was chambered for a proprietary, semi-rimmed, relatively effective 6.5x50mm round. It is estimated that around 3,500,000 38s were manufactured at several arsenals from its inception in 1905 until 1945.
Though the Type 99 was regarded as something of an improvement over the Type 38, it never replaced its progenitor in the service. Instead, the two served side-by-side slightly before and during World War II. The Type 99 appeared in 1938, its designation derived from the Japanese calendar year 2599. As noted, it was created to simplify production and handling, as well as to improve knock-down power.
Though employing the same basic action as its predecessor, the 99’s caliber was upped to the more potent 7.7x58mm cartridge, which fired a 175-grain bullet at some 2,400 feet per second (fps) for a muzzle energy of 2,237 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.). This was in the class of the .303 British. For comparison, the 6.5x50mm had a muzzle velocity of 2,500 fps and energy of 1,930 ft.-lbs.
The Type 99 was principally offered in a “Long” infantry version with a total of some 49 ½ inches (about the same as the 38) and a “Short” cavalry configuration, which had a total length of 44 inches.
There was also an ingenious takedown version based on the 99 intended for airborne use. Designated “Type 100,” a couple of variations were offered which, by different means, allowed barrels to be removed from receivers to reduce the rifle’s length by half. The short version of the 99 basically supplanted the “long” as the war progressed, and the Type 100 was a specialist’s arm not seen in great numbers. Hence, the short version will be principally addressed in this article.
The Type 99’s bolt also came with a sheet-metal dustcover that was noisy and often discarded. Like the Type 38, the 99 mounted the Type 30 bayonet. Early bayonets featured a hooked quillion guard that was designed to catch an enemy’s blade. By 1943, these were eliminated. Also in 1943, scabbard construction went from metal to vulcanized fiber, then wood to bamboo.
The ladder-style rear aperture sight on the 99 could be flipped up, offering stadia graduated from 300 and 1,500 meters. A pair of arms could be lowered and used (theoretically) in leading and shooting down aircraft with reference to speed notches.
Fold-down monopods on the 99 were also standard, though beginning in 1943, they and dustcovers were eventually jettisoned as economy measures. Rear sights gradually diminished in sophistication, eventually ending up as nothing more than simple non-adjustable peeps. Wisely, the 99’s bore was chrome-lined to accommodate corrosive ammunition, as well as the less-than-optimal climate conditions found in the Pacific theatre.
Receiver markings on the 99 included an imperial chrysanthemum, Japanese characters along with the gun’s model, manufacturing series designations, a serial number in Arabic numerals, and the manufacturing arsenal’s symbol. Finish of the Type 99 was blue and stocks were full-length. A robust and effective arm, some 2,500,000 Type 99s were produced between 1939 and 1945 at a number of arsenals in Japan, as well as some in Korea and Manchuria.
Type 14 Nambu
Several kinds of Japanese handguns were seen in the field by war’s end, though unquestionably, the most common was the Type 14 Nambu. Like the predecessor it replaced, the 1906 Papa Nambu, the Type 14 was based on a number of design features by Japanese firearms whiz, Kijiru Nambu.
The Papa was a superb arm — well-thought-out and beautifully made. Unfortunately, the pistol was too complicated to produce and expensive to manufacture. It was decided by authorities to develop a replacement that could be more easily built for less cost. What arrived from the drawing boards of Colonel Nambu’s designers at Tokyo Arsenal in 1925 was the Type 14. Its name was derived from the fact that the gun was introduced in the 14th year of Japanese Emperor Taisho’s reign.
Resembling its parent pistol in overall design, the Type 14 had a few twists of its own, including a short recoil and locked breech action with a separating locking block. Incongruously, the chosen chambering was an 8mm (.320) bottlenecked round with what were basically pocket-pistol ballistics. Firing a 102-grain bullet moving at 920 fps and by offering a muzzle energy of a meager 202 ft.-lbs, the Type 14 gave about the same performance as the .380 ACP. It also measured and weighed about the same as a P.08 Luger, so the ratio of performance versus -weight was more than a bit lopsided.
Though comfortable in the hand, other questionable features negated the 14’s basic ergonomic advantage. The safety, which was sited on the left and forward portion of the frame, necessitated a 180-degree rotation to be set and un-set, which required the use of two hands. The 14’s magazine, released by button on the left rear of the triggerguard, also needed two hands in order to withdraw it. This was a problem exacerbated when later pistols were fitted with a front grip-mounted spring to assist in holding the mag even more solidly in place.
The 14’s magazines were blued or nickel-plated, and had aluminum floorplates with circular dished-out touchpoints to permit a positive purchase when removing them. They held eight rounds. When the final round had been expended from the pistol’s magazine, the bolt locked open against the follower. Upon removing the mag, the bolt slammed forward, requiring it to be drawn back again to chamber a fresh cartridge. This was definitely a manipulation concern in combat.
The 14’s rather weak striker-style firing mechanism was also problematical in that it would occasionally fail to discharge a round. Too, it was prone to breakage, and manufacturing variances meant that strikers were not always interchangeable. Soldiers were issued spare firing pins, which were kept in compartments in the pistols’ French-style clamshell holster.
Initially, the Type 14’s grips were fitted with well-made grooved panels of mahogany or beech, but as the war progressed and shortcuts were in place, poorly-fitted and plain slabs became common. It was also found that the original round triggerguards were too small to be operated when wearing gloves. To correct this deficiency, an enlarged “Manchurian” triggerguard was introduced in 1939 that continued until the end of the Nambu’s production run.
Initially, Type 14s were built at Tokyo’s Nagoya Arsenal. Manufacturing was later expanded to several more facilities. Total production between late 1926 and 1945, was in the neighborhood of 280,000. Markings included a symbol for place of manufacture, a serial number, and a date of manufacture based on the year of the emperor’s reign: 1925, the same year the 14 was adopted. The “12.10” designation on the pre-war pistol in my possession means it was made in October 1937. It sights consisted of an adjustable blade fronts and a rear with inverted “V” notches (early) and square notches (late).
Like the Type 99 rifle, as the war moved towards its conclusion, the Type 14 saw an increasing number of manufacturing economies. Decay of fit and finish, poor metallurgy and the elimination of such amenities as the magazine safety, were common.
Shooting the Type 99 and Type 14
To get an impression of just how well these arms might have served, Guns & Ammo rounded up a very nice Type 99 Short Rifle with original amenities, a nicely finished Type 14, and a “last ditch” Nambu that came out of its factory in March of 1945.
Ammunition used for the tests was Steinel 150-grain Spitzer soft point for 7.7x88 Arisaka and Steinel 83-grain FMJ for 8mm Nambu. Tests with the 99 were done from a rest at 50 yards, and the Nambu rested and offhand at 25 and 10 yards.
The 99 was beautifully built and finished. Its action was relatively smooth, if one disregards the rattling of the dustcover. The trigger averaged a fairly crisp 6 pounds with little takeup.
Chambering and extraction came without a hitch. With three shooters taking turns firing, groups ranged from 1 ¾ to 2 ½ inches, giving us an average of 2.15 inches with shots (depending upon the marksman), hitting slightly right to point of aim or a bit low-right. Performance was flawless and recoil was light. The 99 was really a serviceable bolt-action rifle. No complaints here.
We initially rested 25-yard groups with the Type 14 Nambu and were somewhat disappointed. Shots were widely spaced and leaned to the right. Average spreads were in the 7-inch range. Offhand at 10 yards, groups tightened up a tad with shots regularly coming in at only about an inch smaller, though at least near the center of the bullseye target. We all attributed this to the pistol’s creepy, though extremely light 2-pound triggerpull with a surprise let-off. It was difficult to judge the amount of travel, which caused shooters to anticipate the shot.
General functioning of the Nambu was good, and the inverted V-notch rear and blade front sights were not bad. Removal of the magazine was OK under controlled conditions, but I could see how it might have presented a problem in combat, as would the bolts slamming shut when the mag was wrested from its well.
The late-war 14’s bore was in questionable condition with an overall rough presentation, so we didn’t expect much from it. At 25 yards, the first (and only) shot key-holed before the pistol failed. Though it had been thoroughly inspected prior, either poor manufacturing or the hidden ravages of time shut it down completely after only one round. A later disassembly and investigation showed there was maladaptation between the firing pin and firing pin extension. The gun was later cleaned and lubricated, and then at least seemed to have regained its faculties, though I don’t believe I’ll chance shooting it again.
Type 99s and Type 14s can still be found at prices that are lower than their wartime contemporaries. Above all, with their considerable respective service histories, they remain interesting evocative arms, representatives of their time and service.