All About Guns

Shogun to Machine Gun: Japanese Firearms By Kurt Allemeier

At the turn of the 20th century, Japan joined the race for the self-loading pistol, but the nation’s history of firearms goes back hundreds of years.

The first guns introduced were Portuguese arquebuses brought by merchants who found their way to Japan. Once Japanese blacksmiths developed and honed their craft they produced native guns. As the 20th century dawned and nations militarized, Japanese gun designers finally were catching up so that there would be less reliance on imported weapons. Kojirõ Nambu would be a key cog in the militarization of Japan.

Rock Island Auction Company’s May 13-15 Premier Auction features a broad array of Japanese firearms, from ornate matchlocks and arquebuses to often scarce and hard-to-find early 20th century pistols, and World War II machine guns.

Guns in Japan

Black powder guns arrived with Portuguese merchants in 1543, selling arquebuses to feudal lords. Arquebuses are an early matchlock firearm that didn’t require the user to manually ignite the powder charge. They were initially given as gifts or used for hunting, but they quickly became important weapons of war during the latter shogunate.

Matchlock-pistol-on-backgroundLot: 1264: This matchlock pistol features a gold and silver inlaid dragon in flight amongst silver clouds, three lines of gold Japanese text on the top flats, and a gold Tokugawa mon immediately ahead of the rear sight on the top of the barrel.

By 1563, guns were widely used in large battles, taken up by samurai’s foot soldiers. The Battle of Nagashino in 1575 was influential for its use of firearms as feudal lord Oda Nobunaga’s 3,000 arquebusiers helped turn the tide, stopping opposing infantry and cavalry. It is considered the first “modern” Japanese battle.

The first Japanese service rifle didn’t arrive until 1874. The first arsenal to produce weapons on a large scale was founded in 1871.

Heavy-barrel-arquebus-on-backgroundLot 1265: This impressive later Japanese matchlock arquebus has a heavy smoothbore barrel with a large blade front sight on the flared muzzle, a grooved block rear sight, and a raised silver mon with two birds enclosed in a circle at the breech.

Two arquebuses are on offer in the Premier Auction. One has a number of interesting design elements, including brass, silver, and copper inlays in the breech section in the shape of koi fish, trees, and water while its breech plates form a samurai’s mask and helmet. The second arquebus has a raised mon – or crest – with two birds enclosed in a circle at the breech.

Koi-gun-on-backgroundLot 1263: This arquebus has a series of brass, silver, and copper inlays in the breech section in the shape of two fish (koi), trees, and water.

A matchlock pistol that likely dates from the Shogunate’s dominance of Japanese affairs (1600-1868) is also on offer in May’s Premier Auction. It features hammered and engraved silver as well as a gold and silver inlaid dragon in flight amongst silver clouds.

Grandpa Nambu

Nambu, considered the Japanese equivalent of legendary American gun designer John M. Browning, is a bridge between the shoguns and the modern weapons of the 20th century. His designs were a significant part of the Japanese arsenal during World War II. Nambu, whose father fought for a samurai in the 19th century, went to the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and served in the army, assigned to Tokyo Arsenal in 1897. It was at Tokyo Arsenal where he was promoted to major and started developing automatic pistols.

Grandpa-Nambu-on-backgroundLot 1451: This exceptional and rare Grandpa Nambu includes a wooden holster stock.

The Nambu Type A pistol was the first solo design undertaken by Nambu. The earliest Type A pistols, to about serial number 2,400, are colloquially known as a “Grandpa” Nambus. The rarest of the Type A pistols, it was produced starting in 1902, and chambered in 8mm. The pistol had a small trigger guard that made it difficult to use while wearing gloves, a fixed lanyard loop at the back of the pistol, and a slot in the back of the grip to accept a shoulder stock that converted to a wooden holster. They often had magazines with wood bases.

Most Grandpa Nambus were sold commercially to China and Siam – now Thailand.

Papa Nambu

The Modified Nambu Automatic Pistol Type A, considered the “Papa” Nambu, went into production in about 1906. They featured a larger trigger guard to accommodate a gloved hand, magazines with aluminum bottoms, and swiveling lanyard loops. It too was chambered in 8mm.

Papa-Nambu-on-backgroundLot 3333: The Papa Nambu has a larger trigger guard than the Grandpa and also with the “stacked cannonball” Tokyo Arsenal marking on the right side of the receiver near the serial number and model marking, and the “GTE” logo of Tokyo Gas and Electric on top of the chamber.

At the time, Japanese military officers were expected to purchase their sidearms, but the production cost of the “Grandpa” and “Papa” Nambus priced them too high for many junior officers. The Type A wasn’t adapted by the Japanese Army.

The Japanese Navy did adopt the Papa Nambus. About 4,600 were made before production ended in the mid-1920s.

Baby Nambu

Hoping to improve the design issues with the Type A pistols, Nambu debuted the Type B pistol or “Baby” Nambu in 1907. Trying to compete with smaller, more compact pistols from Europe and the U.S., the gun is lighter and smaller than the Type A, chambered in 7mm. It improved on some issues but still wasn’t formally adopted by the military despite praise from the army minister. The price remained too high for junior officers but was snapped up by senior officers who bought virtually all of them.

Production on the Baby Nambu ended in 1923 when the Great Kanto earthquake destroyed Tokyo Arsenal. Parts remained available so assembly continued until 1929. About 6,500 were made. The Type 14 pistol, also designed by Nambu and introduced in 1926, did become the standard issue sidearm for the military.

Baby-Nambu-on-background-1Lot 3332: An exceptional and highly desirable Baby Nambu pistol.

Gun designer Nambu, having been elevated to the rank of lieutenant general, left the military and created his own company in 1927. An example each of the Grandpa, Papa, and Baby Nambus are available in the May 13-15 Premier Auction.

What’s Your Type – of Machine Gun?

Nambu developed several light and heavy machine guns used by the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 convinced Japanese military leaders of the importance of machine guns to provide covering fire for advancing infantry. The Nambu-designed Type 11 light machine gun, like many of the Japanese machine guns, follow in the footsteps of the French Hotchkiss machine gun that is air-cooled and gas-operated. The Type 11 fired 6.5mm ammunition.

Type-11-on-backgroundLot 1418: This Type 11 light machine gun was adopted by the Japanese military in 1922.

Adopted in 1922, the Type 11 was the first mass-produced Japanese light machine gun. It featured an oddly-shaped stock and a non-detachable hopper magazine instead of a removable magazine or a feed way for belt fed options. The hopper could hold up to six cartridge clips used with the standard issue Type 38 rifle. Unfortunately the light machine gun had a bad reputation with troops because the open hopper allowed in dust and grit, making it liable to jam in muddy or dirty conditions. To make matters worse, the system also used an integral pump to oil each round which tended to make things even gummier when dirt and grime got in the mix.

The Type 96 light machine gun, adopted in 1936, was similar to the Type 11, but its biggest improvement over its predecessor was that it had a removable box magazine. This improved reliability and lessened the gun’s weight. It also featured a folding bipod. Alas, it too fired 6.5x50mm Arisaka ammunition so it lacked stopping power for a weapon of its type, measuring approximately 1,966 fl/lbf. By comparison, U.S. machine guns firing .30-06 M1 ball at the time enjoyed a muzzle energy of 2,675 ft/lbf.

Despite plans to retire the Type 11, both guns saw action in World War II.

Type-96-on-backgroundLot 479: The Type 96 light machine gun was adopted by the Japanese military in 1936. It was intended to replace the Type 11, but both guns saw action in World War II.

As World War II beckoned, the Japanese army wanted a more powerful light machine gun, so the Type 99 light machine gun was introduced in 1939. The gun was basically the same design as the Type 96 but chambered to handle a larger caliber, firing 7.7x58mm Arisaka ammunition (approx. 2,350 ft/lbf). The Type 99 was often issued to the best marksmen of their unit and occasionally used as a sniper rifle. It arrived too late in the war to have much impact.

The Type 99 eventually found its way into the weapon inventories of China, North Korea, and Taiwan.

Type-99-on-backgroundLot 478: Chambered in 7.7mm, the Type 99 light machine gun offered a little more stopping power than the Type 11 or Type 96 when it was introduced in 1939.

The Woodpecker

Dubbed the “Woodpecker” by Allied soldiers for the stuttering noise it made, the Type 92 was a heavy machine gun that followed the Hotchkiss model with its air cooling and gas operation. The gun spit 7.7mm ammunition, but only at a rate of 400 to 450 rounds per minute because it used strip-fed ammo, rather than belt-fed ammo.

The standard heavy machine gun for the Japanese army in World War II, the Type 92 is distinguishable by the larger cooling flanges on the barrel. The gun’s tripod was designed with carrying poles so it could be transported by two to four soldiers. Usually manned by a team of three, the gun could also be fitted with an anti-aircraft sight.

Type-92-on-backgroundThe Type 92 heavy machine gun was called the “Woodpecker” for its distinctive sound when being fired.

Captured Type 92 machine guns were used by U.S. and Chinese forces. The gun was also used by the North Korean Army after World War II.

Knee Mortar

Japan also developed a grenade discharger in 1929 called the Type 89 that had a pipe-like rifled barrel attached to a small base plate. It was developed to extend the range of hand grenades and could also fire 50 mm artillery shells. Similar to a mortar but more primitive, it used a firing pin striking a primer to discharge the grenade or shell. It has a range adjusting assembly that moves the firing pin housing up and down regulating the weapon’s range by controlling the distance travelled through the barrel.

Japanese manuals captured at the time showed the weapon carried strapped to the leg above the knee, but not fired from it. Learning this, the Allies called the Type 89 the “knee mortar.”

Type-89-on-backgroundLot 1420 and Lot 1422 are Type 89 grenade dischargers but are called knee mortars because they were carried strapped to the leg above the knee, not because they were fired braced by a knee.

The Type 89 had an effective firing range of about 130 yards. Set on the ground, it was operated by holding it at 45 degrees and the projectile is inserted into the barrel base, then fired. The 50mm shells were either high explosive, smoke, or incendiary versions. A single soldier could operate the Type 89, but a three-man crew could send off about 25 rounds per minute.

The Type 11, Type 92, Type 96, and Type 99 are available in the May 13-15 Premier Auction as is the Type 89 grenade discharger.

Japanese Ambassador Gun

One gun on offer in the Premier Auction this report doesn’t mention is a Colt New Model 1855 Revolving Percussion Full-Stock Military Pattern Rifle presented to Muragaki Norimasa, a Japanese ambassador, in 1858 after exchanging ratified copies of the Harris Treaty which opened up commercial and diplomatic privileges to U.S. trade. This important historic treasure will be touched on separately.

Samurai-GunLot 1110: The Colt presentation Model 1855 revolving rifle was presented to Muragaki Normasa, a Japanese ambassador, after exchanging ratified copies of the Harris Treaty which opened up commercial and diplomatic privileges to U.S. trade.

Shogun to Machine Gun

Rock Island Auction Company’s May 13-15 Premier Auction offers an eclectic mix of guns from Japanese history. They include a beautifully made matchlock and equally impressive arquebuses. A number of 20th century weapons show the legacy of weapon designer Kojirõ Nambu and his influence. These include scarce and exceptional semi-automatic pistols to some of the Japanese Army’s hard-to-find automatic firepower of World War II. For a collector looking to fill out some of these niches, the opportunity is yours.


A look back at the Japanese Nambu Pistol, by Dave Campbell,

The Impact of Firearms on Japanese Warfare, 1543-98, by Delmer M. Brown, The Far Eastern Quarterly, 1948

Second World War Combat Weapons, Volume 2 – Japanese, W.H. Tantum IV and E.J. Hoffschmidt (editors)

Japanese Handguns, by Frederick E. Leithe

Type 89 heavy grenade discharger, by Jon Guttman,

Japan’s Type 11 Light Machine Gun: The Worst Machine Gun of All Time? by Peter Suciu,

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