Japan is a nation that loves its gadgets, but prior to the Second World War, the nation could be described more as a "follower" than an "innovator" when it came to military hardware.
While military historians often note that the Imperial Japanese Navy used advanced tactics and came up with innovative techniques whilst waging war, it lagged in other areas. It is notable that the Japanese actually adopted aircraft carrier doctrine in part as a response to the treaties that limited the nation’s number of battleships, but when it came to small arms, the country still lagged behind.
When compared to the small arms of the other combatant nations of the Second World War, Japan had some of the most unreliable and antiquated weapons. This didn’t factor into how the nation performed in the field, however.
The average Japanese soldier, while at the time portrayed 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 Bashido 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 he carried into battle.
To this end, some of the greatest misconceptions need to be addressed. It has been said in hindsight that the Japanese soldier fought World War II with World War I small arms. But this is only partially true. While the main small arms consisted of the same basic style of bolt action rifle that had been used a generation earlier, the same held true of the other major powers – including Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. The other main point is that Japanese arms were not of inferior quality, at least not until much later in the war, but it is safe to say some were simply bad concepts. Yet the Japanese should be noted too for their innovations.
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
A group of Japanese rifles from the Second World War. These fared as well as those from the Soviet Union or Great Britain, but were clearly showing their age. (Photo: Author’s Collection)
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 Type 11 in use by a Japanese border guard in 1933 (Photo: Public Domain)
Since the opening of the west, the Japanese Army followed a 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 92 Heavy Machine Gun
A Type 92 heavy machine gun in use at the Battle of Changsha in 1941. (Photo: Public Domain)
The Type 92 was based on the French Hotchkiss design and fired the rimmed 7.7mm Shiki rounds – and as it fired at about 2,400 feet per second and had a rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute, it earned the nickname 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. It took a crew of three to operate this weapon.
The "woodpecker" was further notable for its off-center design and to the right iron sights. The HMG could also be fitted with alternative sights, including 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 96 Light Machine Gun
The Type 96 improved on the Type 11 by offering a removable/top loading magazine. It was the first light machine gun that could be fitted with a bayonet. (Photo: Private Collection/Photo by the Author)
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 because 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
Externally similar to the Type 96, the Type 99 also used a top-loading magazine, while early models included a monopod in the stock! (Photo: Private Collection/Photo by the Author)
Building on the features 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 monopod 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 II Submachine Gun
An illustration of the experimental Type II submachine gun. It is unknown how many were produced during the war. (Public Domain)
Ironically, while the German military is remembered as much for its iconic MP-40 submachine gun (SMG), 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 simply the fact that few survived, but the truth 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
An illustration of the Type 100 – a well-designed machine gun used in limited numbers by Japanese NCOs and paratroopers during the war. (Photo: Public Domain)
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 developed for 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.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at [email protected].