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Japan’s ‘Suicide Gun’

By Patrick J. Chaisson
8/20/2018 • World War II Magazine

The Nambu Type 94 Shiki Kenju 8mm pistol was the worst military small arm of World War II.

There are many contenders for the honor of World War II’s best infantry weapon. Nazi Germany had the fearsome MG42 light machine gun, capable of spitting 1,200 rounds per minute toward the enemy. The American M1911A1 .45- caliber pistol possessed incredible shortrange knockdown power. And the British Tommy quickly learned to trust his Mk.IV Short Magazine Lee Enfield as a reliable, hard-hitting battle rifle.

The dubious distinction as the war’s worst military small arm belongs without question to an ugly, underpowered handgun that proved just as likely to injure its owner as an attacking enemy. Called the “suicide gun” for its unsafe design and poor manufacturing quality—by American servicemen who learned about them the hard way—the Nambu Type 94 pistol was despised by all who had to fire it.

Japan’s foremost designer of military weapons prior to World War II was a retired army lieutenant general named Kijiro Nambu. His machine guns and rifle designs had already served as standard issue with the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, and in 1927 Nambu went into business as a small-arms manufacturer. Naturally the Japanese military became his largest customer.

In the early 1930s, Japan’s issue sidearm was the Nambu-designed Type 14 8mm semiautomatic pistol. Although it was a sound design, troops considered the Type 14 bulky and difficult to reload. It also cost more to manufacture than the foreign handguns available for sale in Japan.

Those faults were not lost on the thousands of newly minted army and navy officers then filling Japan’s rapidly expanding armed forces. Japanese officers were required to purchase their own sidearms, and many of them chose German or American designs over the Type 14. Nambu’s declining commercial sales left him little choice but to start work on a new pistol for the Japanese military.

Nambu spent five years, from 1929 to 1934, developing a cheaper, simpler and smaller sidearm for his nation’s armed forces. He also tried to “Westernize” his new design, making it look more like the then-popular Walther or Browning pistols. By doing this he hoped to attract not only Japanese military sales but also interest from the South American market.

The Japanese Army Ordnance Department enthusiastically supported Nambu’s work but insisted on a number of modifications to his prototype design. As a result of that meddling, the new firearm wound up costing more than the gun it was designed to replace. In return, though, Nambu gained army approval for his firearm, meaning he was sure to see a profit even if the export market failed.

The Type 94 (Shiki Kenju in Japanese) pistol took its name from the last two digits of the Japanese year 2594, or 1934 on Western calendars. Adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army that year, the Type 94 went into full production at Nambu’s Kokuburiji plant in Tokyo starting in 1935. When commercial sales never materialized, the military took over all production contracts.

A recoil-operated semiautomatic pistol, the Type 94 was 7.2 inches long with a 3.78-inch barrel. The odd-looking weapon weighed 1.11 pounds unloaded. It was fitted with plastic or wooden grips and held six rounds of 8mm Nambu ammunition.

A magazine disconnector prevented the Type 94 from firing without its magazine in place. It also came equipped with a traditional thumb safety switch. Accessories included a leather or canvas holster, which held a cleaning rod and spare magazine as well as the gun.

First issued to pilots and tank crewmen, the Type 94 eventually became general issue with both the Japanese army and navy. Those who wore the pistol inside a cramped space such as an aircraft or armored fighting vehicle appreciated its light weight and handy size. Most overlooked its clumsy appearance, one of many changes the Army Ordnance Department made to Nambu’s original design.

After war broke out between Japan and China in 1937, many Japanese servicemen learned to their horror that their Shiki Kenju sidearms possessed several deadly design flaws. A completely exposed and protruding sear bar meant the pistol could fire without any trigger movement. Striking a sharp blow to the side of the gun often caused the weapon to discharge accidentally. Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen could very easily wind up shooting themselves while simply holstering loaded Type 94s.

Loading the weapon could be dangerous as well. Working the slide with too much force sometimes caused the gun to “slamfire,” or set off a round prematurely. The Type 94 could also be fired when its breech wasn’t fully locked, spraying hot gasses on both the shooter and anyone nearby.

There was no safe way to handle a loaded Shiki Kenju. Its mechanical safety failed frequently, so the pistol had to be carried with an empty chamber. Countless Japanese soldiers perished when they were unable to load and fire their sidearms quickly enough.

Troops also complained about the Type 94’s tiny sights, awkward balance and uncomfortable grip, which made it difficult to shoot accurately. Dirt and grime, always present on the battlefield, clogged the firing action. The pistol was difficult to take apart for cleaning and contained many easily lost small parts.

The bottlenecked 8mm Nambu cartridge the Type 94 fired compared poorly to the hard-hitting American .45. Pushing a light 102-grain bullet out at 900 feet per second, this anemic round did not have the stopping power needed in a modern defensive firearm. Poorly made ammunition resulted in frequent misfires or failures to feed—usually at the worst possible time.

To save on scarce materials, low-quality steel was often used to build the Shiki Kenju. Deep tool marks often went unpolished, one of many manufacturing shortcuts the factory took to speed production. In their haste to churn out weapons, workers frequently fitted parts together so badly the guns were unfireable.

As Japan’s strategic situation deteriorated after 1942, so did the quality of its small arms. Thousands of hastily assembled Type 94s continued to be issued despite their dangerous design and shoddy workmanship. Perhaps the Japanese high command figured even an unsafe weapon was better than no weapon at all. Production of the Type 94 totaled some 71,000 units, ceasing with the end of the war.

It is unknown how many unlucky Japanese servicemen were shot with their own Shiki Kenju pistols. Likely it was a small number. Japan, like most nations during World War II, considered the handgun a self-defense weapon, suitable only for close-range work, and placed little emphasis on marksmanship instruction for pistol-equipped personnel.

Pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi carried a Type 94 when his Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter was struck by anti-aircraft fire over Bellows Field, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Crash-landing on the remote island of Niihau, Nishikaichi used his Shiki Kenju to terrorize the residents there for six days. When a farmer named Ben Kanahele resisted, the pilot shot him three times at point-blank range. Despite his wounds, Kanahele overpowered the Japanese aviator and crushed Nishikaichi to death against a wall. The Type 94’s reputation as a poor man-stopper did not improve after that incident.

American servicemen first encountered this weapon in the Solomon Islands in late 1942. John B. George, a lieutenant with the 132nd Infantry on Guadalcanal, thought the Type 94 looked like a second-rate pipe wrench. George, a competitive rifle shooter before the war, went on to describe the Shiki Kenju as a “monstrosity,” hopelessly inaccurate at any range and so horribly manufactured as to be “so much junk.” He concluded his evaluation by exclaiming, “I would not have fired one of them for a price.”

As American forces advanced across the Pacific, more GIs began acquiring Type 94 pistols for bartering material or as souvenirs. Often, though, these tricky little handguns taught a hard lesson to their new owners. The Type 94 quickly received its “suicide gun” label once word got out about its lethal tendencies. Another possible explanation for this nickname could have come from the large number of Japanese officers found having committed ritual suicide with their sidearms rather than face the disgrace of surrender.

The U.S. War Department, in a 1944 handbook on Japanese weapons, described the Shiki Kenju as “inferior in design and manufacture.” Many Japanese and American servicemen would agree with that assessment. Today this little Japanese sidearm is a curiosity, suitable only for display in a museum or private collection.

 

Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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