By Will Dabbs, MD –
Its reputation is legendary. An extensive review of a variety of respected firearms reference texts fails to uncover anything positive written about the Japanese Type 94 handgun. Everybody with access to a typewriter, word processor or computer seems to despise it. Where Georg Luger’s Parabellum oozes a sensual elegance and John Browning’s 1911 personifies utilitarian effectiveness, the Nambu 94 is simply viscerally repugnant. As such, when a low-mileage copy popped up on Gunbroker.com it was time to see what all the fuss was about.
The Type 94 was designed by the esteemed Japanese firearms designer Kijiro Nambu as a commercial venture in 1934. Not surprisingly, the 94 Shiki Kenju or Pistol Type 94 sold poorly early on, but as the fortunes of war turned against the Japanese they had to take what they could get. By the time the American juggernaut crushed Japanese industry in 1945, around 70,000 copies had been produced. Early specimens were issued to aircrews and tank personnel, presumably in the forlorn hope that they might not actually have to be used. However, the design eventually found its way into all arms of the Japanese military.
Broad brush, this pistol is simply wretched in all respects. The 8mm cartridge it fires has a nominal diameter of 0.315 inches and is fairly underpowered for general military use, particularly with full-metal jacket rounds. The round was likely adequate for coward control and summary executions, but for combat use it must have been pitiful. The magazine holds six rounds when fully loaded.
Where shall we start? The first time I drew the action back and released it, the gun pinched the holy bejeebers out of my hand. This heralded an ignoble start to our relationship. The magazine on my gun is ridiculously tight and must be vigorously wrestled for removal. There will be no fast magazine changes executed with this bizarre design. The magazine does have an exposed button to assist in depressing the follower for loading, and that counts for something. However, the magazine floorplate has no positive retention so it gradually and inexorably works off toward the front over time. Without attention, the magazine’s entrails would eventually simply erupt out the bottom of the gun unannounced along with all the onboard ammunition. This feature alone must have demoralized many of the Emperor’s otherwise fanatical minions.
The geometry of the gun is innately wrong. The pistol grip tapers from top to bottom so it has a tendency to squirt out of the hand when squeezed vigorously. The front edges to the frame are left sharp to ensure that they remain as uncomfortable as possible regardless of the operator’s hold on the gun. The sights are utterly worthless, being too small and too low to be of any utility at arm’s length. There are some little dimples to facilitate a ready grasp on the magazine, but there would honestly be no reloading the gun otherwise.
The magazine release is a pushbutton accessible to the right thumb. This represents one of the few bright spots of the design though, as previously mentioned, it still requires a fair amount of elbow grease to remove the magazine. Grips are checkered a bit, and the safety is situated on the right rear of the frame as it should be. A technical treatise on its effectiveness would be forthcoming, but the safety on my gun, which is actually in fairly decent shape overall, is broken off. Towards the end of the war workmanship and materials grew notoriously shoddy. This fact combined with a design that seems more like a bad joke than a battlefield implement made the Type 94 a timeless object of martial derision.
My late-war sample is rife with tool marks and sports sharp edges aplenty. Variants produced even later in the war sported simple wooden grips that look like they were harvested from loading pallets. However, it is easy to find fault from the comfort of my writing chair. These poor slobs were building guns with 1000-pound general purpose bombs and countless tons of aerial incendiaries showering down on their heads from the bellies of B29 Superfortress. While the marginal workmanship and substandard materials are forgivable given the circumstances, the innately flawed nature of the design is not.
Turning Ammunition into Noise
8mm Nambu ammunition is justifiably obsolete so you’ll not be finding it for sale at your local Wal-Mart. As the possibility of ever firing enough of the stuff to justify reloading was impractical we just sucked it up and bought a few rounds online. Don’t think this was easy. This writer has purchased functioning firearms for what that crummy reloaded Japanese ammunition set me back.
The action naturally lacks a positive disconnector to prevent the gun from firing out of battery so a glance at the ejection port between shots is a wise idea to prevent an out-of-battery discharge. Just in case his spirit tires of the vitriolic slander, Colonel Nambu’s ghost can reach out from the grave and kill you with his lousy pistol should you be inattentive to the details and try to cycle the gun too rapidly. Recoil is fairly trivial given the anemic nature of the cartridge, and accuracy is about what you might expect from a legendarily heinous service pistol that essentially has no sights worthy of the term. Little about the shooting experience is pleasant, effective or intuitive.
Magazine changes take about a lifetime due to the sticky nature of the design, but there were no failures to feed or eject in my admittedly limited live-fire trial. We could have considered further testing, but the ammunition might as well have been turned from solid gold given how much it costs. The bolt, if that is the proper term in this case, reciprocates out of the back of the frame of the gun, but there is sufficient beavertail to keep it from biting the shooter’s hand, my initial experience notwithstanding. Thank goodness for small miracles. There is also a serviceable lanyard loop attached to this beavertail. Ejection is straight out the top as is the case with the more-familiar Luger-esque Nambu Type 14.
We saved the best for last. For some unfathomable reason, Colonel Nambu chose to design the sear bar as an exposed assembly along the left side of the frame. As a result you can literally squeeze the gun from the sides with your fingers, depress this bar and fire the weapon without ever touching the trigger. The safety blocks the sear bar, but, as previously mentioned, the materials on my copy are so awful my safety is broken off.
The rumor that floated about the South Pacific during World War II was that this capacity to fire without manipulation of the trigger was perhaps intentional. In the context of the Pearl Harbor attack the Japanese had shown themselves to be a shifty lot. GI’s therefore presumed the Type 94 Nambu was so designed as to allow the Emperor’s soldiers to ambush hapless Americans while feigning surrender. While this makes for a good story, the more likely motivation was simply negligent, crummy design.
Never let it be said that we gun writers lack commitment to our art. After armoring my ears and eyes, slipping into a pair of Nomex gloves, loading a single round, clearing the immediate area and holding the gun by the sides around the far side of a tree with the muzzle downrange, we put this legendary engineering flaw to a practical test. As suspected, a little pressure on the side of the weapon caused a discharge. Concern for the safety of our intrepid gun photographer precludes photographic evidence of this adventure. Fortunately, recoil was so mild that the gun did not end up in the nearby lake. All things being equal, that might not have been an entirely bad thing.
Overall, the Nambu Type 94 is every bit as awful as everybody said it would be. The cartridge is anemic, the ergonomics are abysmal, and the gun could legitimately fire inadvertently while being holstered, hefted or simply laid left-side-down on an uneven surface. In its prime with a proper lot of ammunition the Type 94 might be better in a firefight than foul language and obscene gestures but not by a tremendous margin. After an afternoon spent on the range with one of these remarkable weapons it finally becomes obvious why all those Japanese soldiers carried swords.
It is admittedly easy to armchair-quarterback and dissect the failings of a particular gun’s design from the comfort of my living room. In the interest of fairness, Nambu did design the weapon in the days before Solidworks, CNC milling machines and finite element analysis. However, Georg Luger, Paul Mauser, Hugo Schmeisser, John Browning and Hiram Maxim enjoyed the same working conditions, and their products could pass for art in dim light.
Some of Colonel Nambu’s other projects were actually fairly innovative. Perhaps in the case of the Type 94 pistol he just had an off day. Regardless, as is the case with the Pontiac Aztec, bell bottom blue jeans and the timeless movie classic “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” some creative products are just so hideous that they earn for themselves a place in history based not upon their merits but rather for their more ignoble attributes. It is such stuff that earns the Nambu Type 94 service pistol the lamentable title, “Worst Combat Handgun in Military History.”
Special thanks to Mark at worldwarsupply.com for the Japanese equipment used in support of this article.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N7 (August 2018)|