Japanese Small Arms of World War II: Were They Really The Worst?

Japanese weapons and gear.

Not long ago, while passing through the town of Conneaut, Ohio, I stopped in to their local World War II community museum. It wasn't a large place or large collection, and admittedly I wasn't expecting much, but it was less than I was expecting. Still, its worth supporting local history museums, so I don't regret going, and if you get the chance there are worse ways to spend a few minutes. While looking at their collection, I got into a conversation with the docent about infantry small arms, and he posed a question that, by interesting serendipity I had also been recently thinking about: why were Japanese weapons in the war so primitive compared to American?

When exploring the weapons of World War II, regardless of country, the first thing to remember is: while it was a time of rapid technological change, World War I was only 20 years earlier. World War I had sparked massive changes in weapons and tactics, but it also bankrupted most of the world, and not every nation experienced it the same way. Japan was a belligerent power in the war, but being in the far East, they were not bogged down in the trench warfare of France and Belgium, and mostly saw minor naval actions against the German Navy, and occupied some German colonial possessions in East Asia.

In the 1890's and through World War I, Japan had modernized its military with what were state of the art weapons at the time, adopting or designing their own bolt action rifles and heavy machine guns, based on the best designs of the time. During the interwar period, Japan fought wars in the Asian mainland against Russia and China, principally against the Chinese Kuomintang (Nationalist China), who were equipped somewhat haphazardly.

Japanese Marines in Shanghai

The Kuomintang were armed mostly with weapons purchased from Europe, with a preference for German or Czech designs. Their most common rifle was the Hanyang 88, a copy of the German Commission 88 rifle. For machine guns, they used Maxims (like almost everyone else in World War I) and they particularly liked the ZB-26 light machine gun, the forebear of the Bren.

Against these opponents, Japan wouldn't have perceived a need to upgrade their weapons.

By the start of World War II, no country had truly upgrade infantry weapons. Even the United States, with the M1 Garand and M1 Carbine had not actually rearmed their forward deployed forces (in the Philippines, and the marine contingent on Wake Island). By and large, apart from some minor updates, the German, Soviet, Italian, British, and French armies were still using WWI era rifles and machine guns, so the Japanese were not usual in this regard.


Japanese Rifles

First adopted in 1897, the Arisaka is a Japanese indigenous design, although clearly influenced by the Mauser and Carcano rifles.

Prior to the war the most common Arisaka was the Type 38, in 6.5x50mm. The Type 38 long rifle was quite long at 50.2in, making it unwieldy for the smaller Japanese soldiers, but it is an accurate and dependable rifle. The Type 38 carbine is much smaller and handier, although it wasn't as common. Just prior to the war, the Type 99 rifle was adopted in a new caliber, 7.7x58mm. The version of the Type 99 first adopted had many non-essential features, including anti-aircraft sights and a folding monopod. These features were steadily discarded, and the Type 99 transitioned into a simpler design.

The original 6.5mm cartridge was a little underpowered for the time, but the later 7.7mm is comparable to a .303, and not that far from a .30-06.

6.5 Arisaka, 7.7 Arisaka, and .30-06 Springfield

As the war progressed, the Type 99 saw a sequence of production-simplifying changes, leading to the 'Last Ditch' or substitute standard rifles. The simplified design looks primitive, but its still the Type 99, and still effective. This is not completely different from the late war exigencies of Nazi weapon production, or even the transition from the 1903 to the 1903A3 during the war.

Type 30 Bayonet

All models of the Arisaka rifle except the Type 44 (folding bayonet) carbine can mount the Type 30 bayonet, and Japanese battle doctrine called for heavy use of bayonets and edged weapons.


Type 14 Nambu

Handguns are a weapon of last resort; like with everything else, the Japanese adopted decent designs when they were new, and then remained committed to them. The Type 26 revolver, apart from being double-action only, is comparable to other ordnance revolvers from the period (Lebel 1892, Nagant 1895).

Designed by Kijiru Nambu, the Type 14 was the standard issue sidearm for Japanese officers. It fires the 8x22mm Nambu cartridge, which was somewhat weak compared to 9mm or 45acp.

The Nambu pistols are similar to the Italian Glisteni pistols of WWI, as well as the German Luger. These were early designs, and did not hold up well in actual combat. Of course, the impact of that is limited, as purpose of the combat handgun is to help you get to a new rifle.

Machine Guns

Japanese light machine guns were actually excellent, although the Type 11 is a little strange, fed from a hopper of Arisaka stripper clips. The Type 11 LMG uses the same 6.5mm cartridge as the Type 38 Arisaka, with a quick change barrel and a Hotchkiss-derived feed system. It was adopted after World War 1, and used widely in the interwar period, being phased out from front line service (but still seeing much action) by the time of the second world war.


The later Type 96 and Type 99 are comparable to the Bren gun, and actually more useful than the closest US analog, the BAR. These Japanese guns were fed from 30 round box magazines, and featured a quick barrel for rapid barrel changes during sustained fire.

The Type 96 remains in the 6.5mm cartridge of the Type 38 Arisaka, but uses a Bren-style top feeding box magazine and offset sights. The Type 99 is in the more potent 7.7mm, but is otherwise similar to the Type 96.


Japanese heavy machine guns, on the other hand, show evidence of being committed to an obsolete design. The Type 3 and Type 92 are copies of the Hotchkiss machine gun, which was considered the best prior to World War I, but didn't fare quite so well in actual combat. Many countries, including France and the United States used Hotchkiss guns (the first US Army adopted machine gun was the M1909, which was a Hotchkiss design), but with the weight and the feed strip system, the Hotchkiss was unwieldy and unreliable. The Japanese guns had all of those problems, yet they persisted using them through the war.

The Type 3 used the same 6.5mm cartridge as the Type 38 Arisaka, but the Type 92 used a 7.7mm cartridge that was actually NOT the same as that used by the Type 99 Arisaka. This created logistic problems for an army that already had logistics problems, fighting campaigns on islands across a vast ocean.


Of course, the other big deficiency was the general lack of Japanese submachine guns. Again, they adopted a copy of what was best-of-breed at the time, but obsolete when it actually came into service. The Type 100 is an MP28 or MP34 copy, in 8mm Nambu. As a result, it was heavy, a bit unwieldy, and underpowered…and they didn't see the use for them, so they never made very many. The Japanese were not alone in this mistake: the British did nearly the same thing, not seeing the use for submachine guns during the interwar years. After Dunkirk the British bought all the Thompsons they could get while rapidly designing and producing their own copies of the MP28: the Lanchester and the Sten.



Japanese weapons are comparable to those of other powers in World War II, but they may not have learned all the lessons of World War I, and remained committed to designs that had failed the test of the trenches. The older designs had been satisfactory against the similarly armed Chinese Kuomintang, so pressure to update was limited. Second, while Japan was an industrialized power by the 1930's, they had less experience with modern manufacturing, and less capacity to keep up with the losses of a major war. This required them to fall back on traditional cottage crafting, with a corresponding reduction in consistency (thus, the Type 99 'last ditch' rifles).

As an additional note, where do these stories about primitive and inferior enemy weapons come from? Largely, this is a result of wartime propaganda meant to make GI's feel better about charging into enemy fire. Telling the soldiers that Arisakas or Carcanos are inferior junk more dangerous to the shooter than his target is valuable when you need those soldiers to take a hill or storm a bunker…not quite so helpful to tell him the truth, that the Type 99 Arisaka has the strongest action of any rifle in the war, and hits nearly as hard as a 30-06, or those Light Machine Guns can provide a more robust sustained fire than the BAR.


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