Although it is completely undeserved, the Japanese Type 99 rifle still has a negative reputation in some circles. Introduced in 1939, it fought every major battle in Japan’s war with the United States. From the battlefields of Bataan, Guadalcanal, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Ryukyus, to Peleliu and Iwo Jima, it gave Imperial forces a powerful and effective shoulder weapon.
Development of the Type 99 service rifle was the product of an evolution that began with the adoption of Nariakira Arisaka’s Type 30 in 1897, and continued with the adoption of Kijirō Nambu’s Type 38 in 1906. Both of those rifles fired the 6.5x50 mm Japanese smokeless cartridge that, by the 1930s, was demonstrating some shortcomings in combat. Although it was a flat-shooting round, the 6.5 mm bullet could be deflected by dense vegetation and did not produce wounds nearly as dramatic as the 7.92x57 mm JS cartridge that the Chinese frequently used.
Japan therefore sought to develop and adopt a rifle chambered for the heavier cartridge of their Type 92 machine gun, the 7.7x58mm Japanese cartridge. The resulting 7.7 mm chambered rifle carried over some elements of the Type 38, like its cock-on-close action, rotating manual safety, dust cover and five-round internal magazine. It also introduced some important changes including a modified bolt, chrome-lined bore and a monopod.
The new design also featured a modified rear sight assembly using a peep aperture with ladder adjustment out to 1,500 m, and a pair of folding wings that could be used to calculate lead for directing fire at low-flying aircraft. Adopted in 1939 as the Type 99 (九九式), the weapon initially went into production in a “long rifle” configuration with a 49.5” overall length. After only 38,000 examples of this version had been delivered, production switched over to the 44.1” long, 8.16 lb. “short rifle” during the spring of 1941.
This version of the Type 99 represented the bulk of production from eight different manufacturers. A sniper version and a take-down paratrooper version meant for use by Japanese airborne forces were also produced, but in limited numbers. By the time production ended in 1945, more than 3.5 million had been made. Two aspects of production merged to create the Type 99’s unflattering reputation.
First of all, a version of the rifle was produced for training purposes only that was made of mild steel and was intended for use with blank ammunition. At the end of World War II, unknowing GIs fed live ammunition into these Type 99 trainers and the results were catastrophic. As word spread about rupturing guns, a narrative was born that the Type 99 was poorly made.
The so-called “last-ditch” Type 99s only contributed to the rifle’s growing sinister reputation. After mid-1942, the various manufacturers producing it began to delete features in the interests of increasing production speed, conserving precious raw materials and reducing cost. The sliding dust cover disappeared, as did the fine knurling on the manual safety. In addition to that, the anti-aircraft folding wings on the rear sight were done away with.
Then, eventually, the entire assembly was further simplified when the folding leaf and adjustable slide were replaced by a fixed, non-adjustable peep aperture. Eventually, even the Type 99’s metal butt plate was replaced with a plank of wood and the rear sling swivel was replaced with a rope hole in the stock. Since the rifle followed an ongoing continuum of simplifications through to the bitter end of the war, the late war examples have come to be known as “last ditch” rifles.
When the crudeness of the “last ditch” Type 99 rifles merged with the mythologized narrative that the training rifles created, the reputation of one of the finest military bolt action rifles ever made was forever tarnished. In reality, the Type 99 was a successful design that served the Japanese Empire effectively throughout World War II. It was even a part of conflicts beyond 1945. While you will not find it in photographs of 21st-century warfare, it nevertheless holds a place of distinction for collectors who understand that the Type 99 service rifle’s generally negative reputation is totally undeserved.