Nambu World: A Brief History of Japanese Military Handguns to 1945

            When Japan emerged from two centuries of near isolation in the mid-1800s, it quickly set about the modernization of its industry and military. The first modern handgun adopted was the Smith and Wesson in .44 Russian. By the 1890s Japan was ready to design its own revolver. The Type 26 became the first domestically produced modern handgun to be adopted. A six-shot, break-top, double-action only revolver, it fired a 9mm cartridge somewhat similar to (but not interchangeable with) the .38 S&W. Its designation comes from the year Meiji 26 (the 26th year of the reign of the Meiji Emperor). This was 1893 in the Western calendar, but according to the Derby book the actual year of adoption was 1894. This handgun was superseded by several semi-automatics described below, but stayed in secondary service until the end of WWII. In fact, at least of few of the old S&W .44fs were among the weapons surrendered.

 

Kijiro Nambu, sometimes referred to as gJapanfs John Browningh, for his pervasive influence on small arms development in pre-1945 Japan.

 

            Around the turn of the century a Captain Kijiro Nambu was transferred to the Tokyo arsenal. Around 1902 he designed a semi-automatic pistol with a shoulder stock. This gun is now referred to as the Grandpa by collectors. It was soon modified slightly and became the model now known as the Papa Nambu. Both the Grandpa and the Papa fired what was to become the standard service round, an 8mm bottle-necked cartridge somewhat similar to but not interchangeable with 7.65 mm Luger (also called .30 Luger). To meet the demand by (mostly) senior officers for a smaller pocket pistol to compete with cheap foreign imports, he also designed a smaller version, now known as the Baby Nambu. It fired a scaled down 7mm bottle-necked cartridge that is now very scarce. The Baby was never adopted officially and relatively few were made, as they cost almost twice as much as comparable imported pistols such as the Colt 1903 and Browning 1910. Japanese officers bought their own swords and side arms until 1943. A second lieutenant made about 70 yen a month. A sword cost about 80 yen, a cheap foreign pistol about 100 yen and a Baby Nambu 180 yen, so one had to be pretty patriotic or wealthy to choose the Japanese offering. Captain Nambu later became a Lieutenant-General, retired and started a company that made small arms for the Japanese army. He had a hand in the design of many of the weapons the armed forces used in WWII.

            This is page 45 from gSoldierfs Guide to the Japanese Armyh, published on November 15, 1944 by gMilitary Intelligence Service, War Departmenth, Washington, DC as gSpecial Series No. 27h. It shows the Type 26 revolver, Papa Nambu and Type 14.

 

            By far the best known of Japanese service pistols is the Type 14. Like the earlier Grandpa and Papa Nambus, its outward appearance bears a superficial resemblance to the Luger, though the mechanism is completely different. It takes its name from the 14th year of the Taisho Emperor, i.e. 1925, although only a small number were actually made before the Taisho era ended in late December, 1926. In the Japanese calendar 1926 was both Taisho 15, until the Taisho emperor died in December, and Showa 1, for the last few days of the year when the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, began his reign. The Type 14 held eight rounds of the standard 8mm Nambu cartridge.

            The Type 14 was a fairly big pistol for the average Japanese, and the desire for a more compact one led to the introduction of the Type 94, a much maligned pistol that is often referred to as the ugliest or worst side arm ever adopted by a major power. It was certainly not a great design in terms of functionality, but it thoroughly original and the unconventional looks grow on one in an ugly duckling sort of way. The designation comes from the year 1934, which was 2594 in the Japanese calendar (dated from 660 BC, when the first legendary emperor of Japan is reputed to have ascended the throne). The Type 94 held six rounds of 8mm Nambu and was popular with pilots and tankers due to its smaller size and lighter weight.

 

            Page 48 from the manual referred to above shows the Type 94.

            There were also a few other pistols that were used in small numbers, such as the Hamada and Sugiura; for details see the Derby & Brown, Derby or Honeycutt books listed in the books section. They were the source of most of the facts in the brief survey above, though I retain responsibility for any errors of omission, fact or interpretation.

 

            Here is a link to a site with a good summary of the history with more pictures and discussion of variations, etc. Please click here: nambu

            You may also be interested in an article I wrote that was published in the Canadian Firearms Journal, Volume XVI, Number 1, 2006 Edition, pages 24-27. To check it out, please click here: militaryhandgunsofimperialjapan.htm

 

 Last updated: July 6, 2006. All contents are copyright Teri unless otherwise specified and may not be used elsewhere in any form without prior permission.

             

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