Nambu Type 94 Pistol

©Paul M. Alvarez 2003

The Japanese Nambu Type 94 pistol stands out from it's contemporaries from the World War II era primarily by it's unusual appearance. Though some have called this the "worst pistol ever made", in the context of it's time and use it was certainly an acceptable pistol and performed everything that was required of it. Many of it's characteristics were either derived from existing pistols of the period or dictated by it's design requirements.

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Kijiro Nambu (1869-1949) is sometimes referred to as the John Browning of  Japan. He is either directly responsible or helped design many of the weapons in wide spread use by Imperial Japan during WWII including pistols and light machineguns. However, whereas Browning's designs were noted for their ruggedness and simplicity, Nambu's designs were often complex and awkward.

Nambu retired from the Army in 1924. In 1927 he was one of the founders of the Nambu Rifle Manufacturing Company (Nambu Ju Seizosho) which was set up to manufacture, among other weapons, the Type 14 pistol which had been adopted by the Imperial Army in that year. While the Type 14 was popular, there were complaints about it's size and weight and in 1934 General Nambu was approached by the army to design a smaller 8mm pistol, for use primarily by pilots and tank crews, that was also easier and cheaper to manufacture and fired the standard-issue cartridge. The final prototype was tested and officially adopted by the army as the Type 94 pistol in the year 2594 of the Japanese calendar, or 1934.

What Gen. Nambu developed was a compact pistol weighing in at 28 ounces. It was a locked breech design using the falling-block principle, somewhat similar to the Mauser 96, with a reciprocating slide with a separate bolt assembly. It used an external sear and had a peculiar grip with a six round capacity. Whereas today we may consider the grip to be on the skimpy side, bear in mind that the typical Japanese soldier of the era was smaller in stature and the smaller grip would have been considered an asset. The recoil as well is moderate and does not require the use of a larger grip for control.

One of the charges leveled against this pistol is that it is "unsafe". The long bar on the left hand side of the frame that terminates just above the trigger is the sear bar and was designed that way to make the pistol more compact and easier to manufacture. Light pressure on the bar may fire the pistol. As with most military pistols of the era the Nambu was typically supposed to be carried with the chamber empty in a full flap holster. Riding in a tank or piloting aircraft does not usually put you in a situation that would require the immediate deployment of the sidearm so tactically the chamber-empty carry is not a drawback. The odds of having to defend yourself with a pistol at all in these situations was considered minimal. If your tank gets blown up or your airplane crashes the chance of you even needing a pistol are pretty slim. Even the 1911 was supposed to be carried with the chamber empty to avoid the possibility of an accidental discharge. In actual point of fact, the Luger uses a similar arrangement for the sear bar, though it is much better protected.

The Type 94 was very popular among Japanese troops by all accounts due to it's smaller size and weight. The pistol has never been considered tactically important by any modern army and on the ground the Japanese officers preferred to go into battle armed with their traditional swords, some officer's even carrying centuries old family heirloom blades into combat. The pistol was considered a badge of rank rather than a fighting weapon and would most likely be used for committing seppuku to avoid capture rather than actual combat against an enemy. Considering this, though it has the mediocre sights and heavy trigger pull typical of the era, at point contact range the pistol and its cartridge was quite adequate for the job. Also, in the cramped quarters of a tank or cockpit the small size takes up less room.

Some early books suggest that this pistol was designed primarily for civilian sale to the South American market. Logic dictates that  it was originally designed as a military sidearm and never intended for civilian sales especially to the West. In the pre-war era the South American market was awash with cheap as well as high quality European and American pistols in a plethora of common calibers. Marketing an odd looking pistol in a caliber that was unknown and unavailable outside of Asia seems foolhardy at best and unlikely. They were, however, used to some extent by China and Thailand.

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The issue Type 94 pistols all have similar markings. On the right side, the left hand set of markings is the date of manufacture. The symbol before the date is the Kanji character Sho, short for Showa, the name of the era of the reign of Emperor Hirohito. The first number is the year of the Emperor's reign which began in 1925 and the second set after the period is the month of manufacture. This particular piece then was manufactured in Showa 12.12 or the 12th year of Emperor Hirohito's reign in the 12th month, that is December 1937. This is a relatively early production piece as they started making the Type 94 in Showa 10.6 (June, 1935), however production was very low for the first couple of years evidenced by the serial numbers only reaching just over 4,000 when this one was made. 

The markings indicate that it was produced by the Nambu Rifle Manufacturing Company (Nambu Ju Seizosho), as were all of the 71,200 Type 94 pistols, under the supervision of the Nagoya Arsenal. The company’s logo was a stylized version of the character Nam , which was the first character in Nambu. Consequently, the pistol is marked with the Nagoya Arsenal mark (rearmost mark) and the Chuo Kogyo mark (immediately preceding the serial number). 


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The left side of the frame has five symbols. The first three are the model/type number (Japanese is read right to left) and translates to "94 Type". The two other symbols are for the safety, the lower one (left in the photo) is ka, meaning “fire”, and the upper one (right in the photo) is an, meaning safe.


Caliber             8X22mm Type 14, 8mm Nambu
Action Type Recoil Operated, Semi-Automatic
Locking System Falling Block
Barrel Length 3.8 inches
Magazine/Capacity Detachable Box/6 Round
Overall Length 7.2 inches
Weight 28 ounces

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Like the Grandpa, Papa and Type 14, the Type 94 fired the standard 8mm Nambu round. Firing a .320" diameter 102 grain FMJ bullet at approximately 1,000 fps, this round is considered rather anemic by our standards for a military round. However, it is  comparable to the .32/.380ACP class of cartridges, both of which were used extensively by all sides during WWII. Overall size, weight, and power it is fairly close to the Walther PP and the Beretta 1934, a more fair comparison than to the 1911 or the P-38.

Sure, the late war Type 94 were very badly made with inferior materials. But, as we had bombed the Japanese arms making capability into rubble, the fact that they could produce any weapons at all at that point in time speaks to their determination. So, the Type 94 fulfilled it's design/tactical parameters effectively if not elegantly. The "worst pistol ever made"? Well, perhaps not.

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