Military Handguns of Imperial Japan

by Teri

(this article appeared in Volume XVI, Number 1, 2006 edition of the Canadian Firearms Journal, pages 24-27)

            I hear it all the time at gun shows: “They’re just copies of Lugers, aren’t they?” Well, no, they’re actually nothing like Lugers, but in a way the question is not surprising. Japanese handguns are very little known in Canada, and several do have the same general shape as the famous German pistol. Many people have never even seen one Japanese handgun, let alone a collection. However, I have found them to be a fascinating and challenging field of study, and the attention my display gets at gun shows suggests others agree.

            When Japan began to modernize its military in the late 1800s, it first chose a foreign handgun, the Smith & Wesson Model 3 in .44 Russian, for its army and navy. Japanese industry progressed rapidly, though, and soon it had an indigenous design, the Type 26 revolver, so named because its design was completed in the 26th year of the reign of the Meiji Emperor, i.e. 1893.

            The Type 26, a break-top, double action revolver, combined features of many of its contemporaries, most noticeably a Smith & Wesson-style latch and a left side plate that swings open like the French M1892 revolver. Like its contemporaries, it is chambered for a rather underpowered cartridge, which is similar to the .38 S&W but with a much thinner rim. However, its main flaw is that the cylinder locks up only at the moment of firing. As a result, if the cylinder brushes against something, an empty chamber can easily rotate into the firing position. Over 59,000 of these revolvers were produced. Although they were obsolete by the 1920s, they were still in widespread use in second-line units in 1945.

            Shortly after the introduction of the Type 26, Captain (later Lt. General) Kijiro Nambu joined the Tokyo Artillery Arsenal and began work on small arms. Nambu had the same broad influence on small arms development in Japan that John Browning had in the USA. His work touched everything from handguns to rifles and machine guns.

            Nambu’s first production handgun design was an eight-shot, semi-automatic with a shoulder-stock/holster. Now called the Grandpa Nambu, only about 2,400 were produced between 1902 and 1906, for private purchase by officers. However, this early model included two features that were extremely influential. First, it introduced the 8mm bottle-necked cartridge that became the standard Japanese pistol and submachine gun round. It is similar in size to the 7.65mm Luger round, but with a lower velocity that makes it ballistically more similar to .380 ACP. Second, it had a mechanism based on a downward-swinging locking block, variants of which were used in several subsequent models. When the pistol is fired, the barrel and bolt recoil together about 3mm. Then the locking block swings down into an aperture in the rear of the frame, freeing the bolt to continue its rearward movement. Luger afficionados will recognize this as totally different from the upward-breaking toggle action on the much more common Parabellum pistol. In fact, if the mechanism had any German inspiration, it was more likely the Mauser Broomhandle, which also had a downward-swinging locking block, and with which Nambu would have been familiar.

            A direct follow-on from the Grandpa was the Papa Nambu, which dropped the shoulder-stock and incorporated some minor improvements such as a slightly larger trigger guard and an aluminum (rather than wooden) magazine base. Tokyo Arsenal and the private firm Tokyo Gas and Electric (TGE) produced over 10,000 of these pistols between 1906 and the mid-1920s. The Japanese referred to it as the “Riku-shiki” (Army-Type), which was ironic, since the Army never adopted it officially, while the Navy did, in 1909. Once again, a chronic shortage of weapons resulted in the Papa continuing in service until 1945, by which time decades of use in the Navy’s salt-spray environment had left almost all of them in very rough condition. Only a handful of mint specimens are known.

            Many Japanese officers found the full-size Nambu pistols too bulky and purchased smaller European and American semi-automatics, such as the 1910 and 1914 Mausers, 1903 Colt and 1910 Browning,  for their personal use. To provide a domestic alternative for this market, Nambu developed a ¾-size version of his pistol. Now known as the Baby Nambu, this pocket-sized pistol was mechanically identical to its full-size counterparts, but fired a unique bottle-necked 7mm cartridge similar to .32 ACP. Since they were almost twice the price of a European pistol, they were mostly purchased by senior officers and therefore led pampered lives. Only 6,500 were produced, 90% by Tokyo Arsenal and the rest by Tokyo Gas & Electric. Their rarity and extremely high level of craftsmanship have made them among the most sought-after of Japanese pistols.

            The 1920s saw the development of Japan’s most common sidearm, the Type 14. Adopted by the Army in 1925 (the 14th year of the reign of the Taisho Emperor, i.e. the one before Hirohito) and the Navy in 1927, approximately 280,000 were produced between late 1926 and August, 1945. While broadly similar in design to its predecessors, it was much easier to produce and incorporated several improvements, such as dual recoil springs. The first 102,000 or so produced up until September, 1939 had a small, rounded trigger guard. Those produced thereafter had an extended trigger guard to allow the use of a gloved finger in cold weather. The large trigger guard version is sometimes referred to as the “Manchurian Model”, “Kiska Model”, or “Winter Trigger Guard Model”. However, these terms have fallen into disfavour since all pistols produced after September, 1939 had the large guard regardless of where or in what season they were issued.

            The Type 14 was Japan’s primary sidearm for 20 years. It had several strong points, such as ease of disassembly, great “pointability”, a very light trigger, good inherent accuracy and mild recoil, all of which made it easy to shoot well. On the other hand, it had three major defects. First, it was prone to misfires due to striker tip breakage and inadequate power of the striker spring. To combat this problem a spare striker was issued with each pistol, and the striker length was reduced from 87mm to 73mm and then 65mm to lighten it. Second, the safety required two hands to operate, since it was located too far forward on the left side and had to be rotated 180 degrees. Third, the bolt locked back on the magazine follower after the last shot, making reloading slow and awkward unless one is fortunate enough to have been blessed with three hands. Since the Japanese had a rather limited idea of the military use of handguns, neither of the latter two design shortcomings were considered worthy of corrective action. Indeed, the Type 14 continued in service with the Japanese coast guard until the 1960s!

            There were five producers of Type 14s, and numerous variations in cocking knobs, grips, etc. One could make a very interesting collection of just Type 14 variations!

            Just before the Type 14 went into production, Lt. General Nambu retired and established the Nambu Rifle Manufacturing Company. Initially it produced only training rifles, but by the late 1930s, after merging with two other companies and assuming the name Chuo Kogyo (Central Industries), it became the largest private producer of military small arms in Japan. A successor company still exists in Japan today.

            The last major design used by the Imperial Japanese military was the Type 94. Its designation results from its adoption by the Army in 1934, which was 2694 by the Japanese calendar (it was never adopted by the Navy).  Contrary to reports in some early sources, this pistol was never intended for civilian sale; it was designed at the specific request of the military. This unusual pistol broke with previous Nambu designs in two important respects. It had a hammer and firing pin rather than a striker, and the locking block was a downward-floating wedge. Considered by many to be a good candidate for the title “world’s ugliest pistol”, its small grip and compact overall size actually made it ideal for the smaller stature of Japanese soldiers (the average WWII Japanese soldier was 5’3” and 123 lbs.).  Its compactness was especially appreciated by those working in confined spaces, such as pilots and tankers. The holster magnified the advantage, as its tailored design contrasted sharply with the bulky clamshell designs issued with prior Japanese sidearms. The safety was also better positioned and can be operated with one hand. On the down side, the design was prone to premature wear and the trigger is long and creepy. However, by far its most notorious feature was undoubtedly its exposed sear bar. Pressing on its forward tip when the safety is disengaged allows the pistol to be fired without depressing the trigger. Although inherently an undesirable feature, in practice such discharges require sufficiently focused pressure on a small area that they were never a serious operational issue. About 71,000 Type 94s were made by Chuo Kogyo, the only producer. Frequent changes in machining and the placement of markings and the  late-war use of slab wooden grips instead of the earlier checkered bakelite mean there are also numerous variations for the serious collector to pursue.

            If you’ve been keeping score, you have probably figured out by now that total production of handguns by Imperial Japan during the entire period 1893-1945 was less than 450,000, even including a small number of rare weapons produced late in the war, such as the Hamada. (By comparison, Germany made several million Lugers during the same period, not to mention the many other sidearms it adopted.) Most Japanese handguns were destroyed at the end of WWII; most of those that survived were brought home as war trophies by US and Australian troops.

            Very few Japanese handguns made their way to Canada, so many people ask me why I chose such an obscure field to collect. My long-term interest in Japan was one factor, but I also thought it would be interesting to do something no one else was doing. In addition, although they are very hard to find in Canada, when they do turn up prices are still quite reasonable compared to some of the more popular collectible handguns like Colts and Lugers. You probably won’t find one at your local gun shop, but if your curiosity has been piqued, you can check out my web site at, or acquire a copy of the latest reference book, “Japanese Military Cartridge Handguns 1893-1945” by Harry Derby and Jim Brown. Be careful, though: you may end up a “Nambu nut” like me!