Arisaka Type 99: Japan’s Last World War II Bolt-Action Rifle
An often overlooked but never-the-less effective firearm from World War II, the Arisaka Type 99 represents the end of a line of bolt-action rifles used by the Empire of Japan. Despite their merits, Arisaka-family rifles like the Type 99 were often treated with a bit of scorn, if not outright disdain, inside the American firearms community.
For one thing, the American public had little appetite for anything “made in Japan” after the war, though Imperial Japan operated arsenal and munitions factories outside of the mainland as well. At the same time, the U.S. government and military went to great strides to stress the superiority of American arms and manufacturing during the war. So, as large numbers of these guns filtered back into the states, many went unnoticed or wanted.
It may be fair to say the Type 99 was overshadowed by more modern wartime semi-auto rifles, such as the U.S. M1 Garand. But a fair assessment of the Arisaka itself may actually mark it as one of the best military bolt-actions of all time.
First: A little History
Unlike many Western firearms, the designation Type 99 is not the year of adoption or manufacture but rather the year of the emperor’s reign. This makes the year of adoption 1939, and the rifle was produced until the end of World War II in 1945. In that short span of time, somewhere around 3.5 million Type 99 rifles rolled out of factories and into the hands of Imperial Japanese soldiers. They were also considered the property of the emperor and stamped with the imperial chrysanthemum, though most of these were ground off before being turned over. Captured examples often still bear the chrysanthemum.
The Type 99’s lineage goes back to the turn of the 20th century when the Imperial Japanese Army adopted the first of a series of Arisaka rifles. Preceding the Type 99, the standard issue rifle for a Japanese soldier was the Type 38 chambered in 6.5x50mm. The Imperial Japanese Army decided this chambering was too weak after their experiences fighting with it in China, making the most significant change in the Type 99 a caliber one. Type 38s were still a common rifle for Japanese soldiers during the war and continued to be produced, but the main rifle moved to the Type 99 chambered in the more powerful 7.7x58mm.
Specs and Function
There were, of course, variations of both the Type 38 and the Type 99. But as a generalization, the Type 99 cut length and weight while adding a more powerful round, not to mention felt recoil. The longer Type 38 came in at 50 inches with a weight of 8.7 pounds. The Type 99 offered a 44-inch length and weighed nearly half a pound less. The barrel length was also shortened to 26 inches, and the 7.7mm cartridge provided a round with a muzzle velocity of ~2,400 feet per second.
Internally, Arisaka rifles owed a lot to the Mauser-style action, but with some significant changes from contemporary K98s. What stands out immediately is the cock-on-close bolt. The rear rounded safety lever was also swapped out for a knurled knob. With some muscle and practice, this can be actuated with the shooting hand thumb on the rifles I’ve held. The bolt design is also quite simple with two frontal lugs like the Mauser, breaking down into five main parts: body, firing pin, mainspring, end cap, and extractor.
Arisaka rifles also have a reputation for having extremely strong actions. Post-war tests on Arisakas showed the actions to be surprisingly robust, outperforming bolt-action contemporaries like Mausers, Springfields, and Enfields. Whether or not it is the strongest is a debate for those with more gunsmithing and gun-destruction experience than myself. But Iraqveteran8888 put an old Type 99 to the test, and it was indeed strong.
The strength of the action could come down to the design and quality of the bolt and breach – excluding late-war “Last Ditch” Arisakas – or general manufacturing techniques. The Imperial Japanese arms makers were focused more on simple and strong than polished and refined.
Type 99s traditionally also came with some extra goodies, such as “anti-aircraft” rear sights, integrated wire monopods, and dust covers that traveled with the bolt. The latter two are commonly missing items, likely lost or simply removed by soldiers in the field. The original Type 99 was also designed with a chrome-lined barrel, perfect for the harsh Pacific conditions and making it the first military bolt-action with that feature. But that development is likely owed much to material shortages of higher-quality steel. Variants included the common short rifle, a sniper variant, limited quantities of long rifles, and even a takedown paratrooper rifle.
A Worthy Foe?
There can be no question that the average Imperial Japanese Army unit was outgunned by the end of the war. On the other hand, the Pacific War was a brutal and hard-fought campaign, and the early stages painted a bleak picture with Japanese victories. Even when the tide turned, it was a hard turn to force.
U.S. military manuals' treatment of the Arisaka and Imperial Japanese soldiers, in general, were not overly complimentary. The Army’s 1944 “Soldier’s Guide to the Japanese Army” went so far as to label Japanese soldiers as poor marksmen, who were under-equipped in firepower and overly confident but had a strong fighting spirit and ability to endure harsh conditions. It did recognize the robustness of the lightweight Arisaka rifles while still being “crude,” but it assessed that “Japanese troops in the field are inadequate according to Western standards.”
Those manuals could be as much about morale as informative tactical information. Regardless, late-war assessments of Japanese firepower must also be aligned with early-war realities for America’s fighting men, who themselves entered many early campaigns with supply issues and often with bolt-action M1903 Springfields.
The perceived weaknesses, especially in supply capabilities and heavier firepower, may have proven true. But the Arisaka rifles, the Type 99 among them, became a respectable foe that was risky to underestimate on the battlefield. Without detracting from the performance of American troops in the Pacific, who carried the war forward island after hard-fought island, industrial might does have its privileges.
Losing a war also tends to push nations to cut corners, and the Type 99 was no exception. “Last Ditch” rifles late in the war included crude fixed sights, simplified bolts, and the removal of extraneous features such as the top front wood handguard. Quality also suffered, and that may have soured some people on the rifle.
Final Thoughts: Reassessing the Type 99
American’s have a near – if not full-blown – love affair with U.S. firearms from World War II. I get that, and I’ll take an M1 Garand over an Arisaka any day if my life is on the line. Surely, there’s even a healthy respect for German firearms. But firearms from the Pacific campaigns have their own unique history and merit.
I won’t say that there is an outright dislike for firearms used by Empire of Japan, but there is often a general disregard for the Type 99. Truthfully, my somewhat beat-up example rarely leaves the house, but it often leaves the safe. This light rifle has a mule’s kick and would make for a short trip to the range anyway. But it’s frankly a nice-feeling bolt action for what it was, and it’s a unique piece in my collection that can be found at a reasonable price. As far as one of the best military bolt guns, I’m on the fence. But it is one of my favorites.