September 22, 2021
The story of the Nambu Type 94 pistol begins in the Fall of 1600 A.D., at the Battle of Sekigahara. As a result of winning that battle, the Tokugawa family, beginning with Ieyasu Tokugawa, controlled Japan. The period came to be called the Tokugawa Shogunate, where the Tokugawa family were the Shogun, the head of the government of Japan, and the Emperor was simply the current occupant of the throne. The Shogun was in charge, and the Tokugawa family was not interested in change. The Shogunate closed Japan to outsiders, strictly controlling trade, the movement of foreigners, and what books, objects and knowledge could be brought into Japan. Technology stopped, except where it could be used to maintain control. That’s less than 100 words to describe a period that takes multiple PhDs to grasp, includes thousands of movies, a complete culture we still find hard to grasp, and some very, very wicked swords.
The Shogunate finally fell in 1868, with the formation of the Meiji Restoration. Then, the Emperor became the head of the government again, but not an absolute ruler. He did, however, cut the economic base, if not the mythos, of the samurai families down to nothing. Japan in 1868 was at a technological level about equal to Europe of three centuries previous, and a production capacity of Europe of more than four centuries prior. They had a lot of catching-up to do. At first, this involved buying the technology they needed, and building what they could. Later, they established their own arsenals, shipyards, heavy industry and the rest. But, a multi-century gap is hard to close, and part of that is not just making things, but designing things. Being a small island didn’t help.
By the turn of the century, they were producing a lot of what they needed. As an example, after The Great War, they were doing really well. The Royal Japanese Navy was the third-largest in the world in 1920, behind only Great Britain and America. Unlike those other two, they did not try to extend power around the world, just the Pacific. The Royal Japanese Army was large, well-equipped for the time, and had lots of experience by the time of The Great Depression. Japanese experience? In 1895, the Navy gave the fleet of the Chinese a drubbing, and took Korea. In The Boxer Rebellion, Japan sent a Division of troops, the largest contingent of the allies, and as a result of the bargain they drove as the price for that support, ended up with control of various ports on the Chinese coast.
In 1905, they treated the Russian Baltic Fleet like a collection of semi-mobile targets, but were unable to be victorious on land. They learned from all of these adventures, and as a result, in the post-Great War period, they were pretty much the power in charge of the western Pacific. But the lack of heavy industry, and design for same, would catch up with them. Not having enough heavy industry was probably a greater bottleneck than lack of resources. That, and the lack of a unified military structure.
Kijiro Nambu was born in 1869, so he never knew the samurai period. He did grow up and join the Imperial Army in time to be involved with small arms design under Nariakira Arisaka, and showed enough promise that he was handed the job of developing a self-loading pistol, to replace the Japanese Type 26 revolver. The Type 26 was obsolete even before the day it was adopted in 1893, being a top-break double-action revolver, chambered in an under-powered cartridge. It used a “V” spring for the action, and hinged open for cleaning and maintenance. But, it was the first one designed and produced entirely in Japan, so it was adopted until they could design the next one. Previously, Japan, and officers as individuals, purchased imported sidearms.
For his self-loading pistol, Nambu came up with the Type 14, the famous Nambu pistol. There were variants, offered for sale as personal weapons to officers in the Royal Army and Navy, but it was the Type 14 that was officially adopted. Adoption came in 1906. The Type 14 uses a hinged, tilting-block locked breech in its design. It is a self-loading pistol, fed from a magazine in the grip, and chambered in 8mm Nambu. Everything about it is odd, and none of it was ground-breaking, revolutionary, forward-thinking or even ergonomic. One of these days we’ll cover the many faults, shortcomings and oddities of the Type 14, but for now we’ll move on to the cartridge.
The 8x22mm Nambu is a bottlenecked cartridge. The “8mm” is a close-enough description. The European 8mm designation (Editors Note: typically but not always) means a bullet of .323-inch in diameter. The 8mm Nambu used a .320-inch bullet, so for the purposes of American shooters and reloaders, it is almost a dead loss. Or was, for a long time. While you can cast bullets (in a custom-made mould) finding a replacement barrel, or re-line a Nambu, was impossible. Plated bullets for reloading can be tracked down, if not common. The case uses a rim and case head also of a non-standard (for us, anyway) diameter, with a nominal head of .403-inch diameter, and a vestigial rim of .413-inch diameter.
Now, the development of the 8x22mm Nambu happened early in the era of self-loading pistols, so we have to cut them some slack over its adoption. Bottleneck pistol cartridges were considered hot stuff in the fin de siècle armies of the world. After all, this is the time of the 7.65mm Luger, the 7.63mm Mauser, and those were not exactly sneered at. The difference? The Luger could be depended on to boot its 93-grain bullet to 1,200 fps. The Mauser could get its 86-grain bullet up into the 1,400s, even approach 1,450 fps depending on barrel length. The Nambu? A 102-grain FMJ bullet at a listed 950 fps, which is what the .380 ACP from a John Moses Browning designed pocket pistol would do on a hot summer day. And old Mose didn’t even have to have a locked-breech design to pull that one off.
To make that even worse, that is the power with the 1929 upgrade of the 8mm Nambu. Earlier versions of the Type 14, the “Grandpa” “Papa” and “Baby” Nambus are supposedly worked pretty hard by the “more powerful” 1929 and later ammunition. All I can do is shake my head at that. More powerful? Meh.
But why the Type 94?
The Type 14 was seen as a full-sized pistol. It was large, heavy, the holster it needed was bulky, and something lighter was no doubt requested. If you’ve ever handled a Type 14, it will come as a surprise to you that it was also felt to be just a bit too large in the grips. So, something a bit less expensive, and more compact was felt to be desirable. Also, by the early 1930s the Japanese had invaded Manchuria during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yes, that’s right, Japan was involved with an invasion of China starting in 1931. The expanded Japanese Royal Army required more officers, and officers needed swords and pistols. In addition to being big and heavy, the Type 14 was expensive. So, a request, or demand, or perhaps a market opening appeared, for the Nambu Rifle Manufacturing Company. The Type 94 was adopted by the Japanese Army in 1934.
Oh, and one other aspect of the design (which took some five years to work out, be changed, and get adopted) was a request for a magazine safety. Apparently, there were too many accidents with pistols, when being cleaned. Some things never change. I cannot say if the Type 94 actually was less expensive to manufacture than the Type 94, but what I can say is that the Type 14, for all of its oddities, is a paragon of simplicity, assembly and manufacturing steps, compared to the design of the Type 94. An aside here; “Type”? The 14 and the 26 before it, had both been named for the year of the then-current Emperor’s reign when adopted. So, 14th year, and 26th year. The Type 94 was adopted when the Japanese military had changed over to using the last two digits of the year since the founding of Japan. In 1934, that had been 2,594 years since, hence the Type 94 designation. It would be like calling the Springfield ’03 the Type 2 (second year of Roosevelt) and the Garand the Type 160 (160 years from the Declaration).
The Type 94 uses an internal hammer and firing pin, unlike the striker system of the Type 94. The recoil spring on the 94 (Let’s drop all the “Type” since we’re discussing just Japanese pistols, shall we?) is coiled around the barrel, unlike the pair of springs, on guide rods, behind the bolt of the 14. One detail that I have to give Nambu, who retired as a Lieutenant General, credit for is that his pistol uses only coil springs. Even as late as the first decade of the 20th century, firearms were still being designed and made with “V” and leaf springs. Both his Type 14 and Type 94 used coil springs exclusively. That is encouraging for hammer spring longevity. Oh, and that odd-shaped wire thingie on the back end of the frame? A lanyard loop. While they must have been common when issued or purchased, I don’t recall ever seeing a 94 complete with lanyard.
Disassembly, you ask? Oh god, where to start? As with all firearms, make sure it is unloaded. Remove the magazine. Now, hook your thumb in the trigger guard, and press the slide back with your fingers. While the rear of the slide is back behind the receiver hoop (I have no idea what Nambu, or the Japanese officers using 94s called it) press the firing pin retaining pin out of the slide assembly. It has a small head on the left side, flush with the bolt, so it will take some fingertip pushing and fingernail hooking to get it loose and extract it. Complicating matters, the crossbolt and the firing pin each hold the other in place. You’ll need to use the extra-narrow finger on your third hand sometimes, to press the firing pin forward, and then push the crossbolt out of place in the slide.
Once it is out, you can then extract the rear half of the slide assembly out of the slide. The firing pin and its return spring come out of the slide assembly to the rear. You might need a paperclip tip to weasel the firing pin spring out of the slide. Then again, you may not, that is the joy of Japanese firearms, especially pistols.Ease the slide forward, and off of the barrel. Wring the recoil spring off of the barrel. Slide the recoil spring cup off of the barrel, and lift the barrel up out of the frame. Underneath the barrel there is the locking block. Lift that out (or turn the 94 upside down and shake it out) and you are done with the field-stripping.
The best thing you can do is to only ever take your 94 down to this point. You can clean everything that needs cleaning, you can tend to whatever parts need attention, and you do not risk the rest of it. Because from here it gets ugly except for the grips. Those are held on with one screw each, but the grips are fragile. Don’t go handling them any more than you have to.In fact, at every point from here on, you will be faced with another screw, in another odd slot size, and one small part after another.
Plus, in order to take it down further, you have to engage one of the historical details of the 94; the sear bar. You see, the 94 has a magazine safety. That is the small bar you see behind the trigger. When the magazine is in, the bar is pivoted out of the way. When there is no magazine present, the bar, spring-loaded, pivots on the magazine release button shaft to block the rear of the trigger. Yes, that’s right. The “safety” only blocks movement of the trigger. So, to dry-fire it, to lower the hammer and proceed with disassembly, you either have to insert a magazine, or simply press the sear bar. Make life easy on the parts, and get your thumb into the path of the hammer, should you decide to go this route. Press the sear bar, and ease the hammer down.
When I was first learning about military small arms, the experts of the time were divided on the subject of the exposed sear bar: either this was a poor design that allowed it to unintentionally fire, or it was a clever option when “surrendering”, to get off one last shot while handing over a pistol. Most of my discussions were with veterans of the European theater, so I have only a little to go on, but none of the few Pacific veterans ever talked about taking a Japanese prisoner face-to-face. I have to figure that the fake-surrender idea was one brewed up by GIs or marines, looking at captured pistols, and perhaps knowing of, or hearing of, someone accidentally shooting one by handling the sear bar. Oh, when properly made, the thumb safety blocks the sear bar, and you can’t discharge it by pressing on the bar. But don’t go depending on that, 80+ years after it was made.
I figure it was just a design detail of the pistol that Nambu didn’t give a second thought about, and once the 94 was on the way to being accepted, he couldn’t change it. After all, if you know what it does, and you never handle the sear bar, it isn’t a problem, right? In case you want to heap abuse on the Nambu, you do know that a Luger, with the top half removed from the frame, can discharge if you press its sear bar? That is why the Weimar police insisted on the installation of the sear bar safety.
All these disassembly details make it a real head-scratcher. How could such a design have passed muster, for an Army that was already involved in combat operations? Surely the thought of someone stripping and cleaning a ’94, in a jungle, or the bitterly cold, windswept steppes of Manchukou, would lead one to design a pistol with simple steps for maintenance? Apparently not. Yes, design headaches for both pistols, but as with all items, proper training is what matters. Oh wait, we’re mobilizing a conscript army? We’ll have a thousand or more new officers next year, and each year afterwards for the next decade? Uh-oh.
Now that we’ve taken it apart far enough to clean and lube it, let’s put it back together. The grips are easy, they are right and left-hand grips. The locking block only fits into the frame one way, and the barrel drops down over it. Slide the recoil spring collar onto the barrel, press the spring on, and get ready for the next step. Install the firing pin in the bolt. Hold the pistol in your right hand. Line up the slide, and slide it over the end of the spring, then over the muzzle, and compress the recoil spring. Once you get it all the way back, clamp your thumb into the trigger guard and lock the slide in place with your fingers. Insert the bolt into the rear of the slide, press the firing pin forward, press the firing pin retaining pin across, make sure it sits flush, and ease the slide forward. Congrats, you’re done.
The Type 94 was issued to flight crews, tank crews, and the miniscule paratroop units of the Japanese Army and Navy. It was also an approved personal purchase item. Unlike the 14 holster, which is a holster with a suitcase-like flap or cover, the 94 holster is a form-fitting pouch with a snap holding it closed. Holster material varied, from cowhide and pigskin early on, to canvas for the later guns.
Mine was a gift, some 30 years ago. It came, unfired, in a pigskin holster, with spare magazine and cleaning rod. I was excited about it because it was rare. I quickly found out the paucity of ammo was part of the rarity, and stuffed it in the safe, only for it to come out all these years later. A closer inspection turns up some interesting details. The date code, stamped on the right side, indicates it was made in May of 1940. The code is simple: the year of manufacture followed by the month. In a curious reversal, the year date is denoted from the start of the Emperor’s reign. So, a Type 94, named from the founding of Japan, is dated by the year of Emperor Hirohito, the naming system used for earlier pistols. Go figure. At least the manufacturer is easy with 94s, as all were made either by Nambu Gun Manufacturing or their successor company, Chuo Kogyo, at the factory in Kokubunji, under the supervision and inspection by Nagoya Arsenal.
Type 94s were made by five different manufacturers, so there you’ll need to decipher the code. That will be a later article. Mine has a date code of 15.5, so it was manufactured in May of 1940. It has two magazines, both of the intermediate production design, and numbered, but not to the pistol. The pistol serial number is in the mid 12,000, so after five full years of production, with a full-time Army and a war going on, they had only made 12,000+ pistols. The cleaning rod is an early-production nickel-plated one for the Type 14, not the Type 94, with indecipherable inspection stamp. I have no idea why mine is different. Cleaning rods with 94s are rare. The rod was not kept in a separate slot in the 94 holster, but simply stuffed in with the spare magazine, and would easily have fallen out. So, mine having a type 14 cleaning rod is not really a surprise.
Now, usually when I go to test-fire something three-quarters of a century old, I source replacement springs for it. Cheese may get stronger with age, but steel does not. And badly-made steel can get weaker. I was surprised to see that Wolff makes springs for the Nambu, but not surprised that they make them only for the Type 14. So, I have to use the springs that are in there. Well, they haven’t seen much, if any, use in almost 80 years, so OK. If I break the firing pin, I can...nope, Numrich does not have replacements. So, if I break it, I’ll have to fire up the lathe and make a replacement. (No, I’m not making a bunch more for the rest of you. You’re on your own there.)
The first thing that surprised me when I handled it, 30 years ago, was that the grip, for being so oddly shaped, actually felt kind of good in the hand. It is too short for those of us with normal hands, but I’d guess those with smaller hands will find it OK. The magazine holds six rounds. There is a thumb safety, but considering the manufacturing tolerances (all the 94s I’ve seen looked like they were hand-made in a blacksmiths shop) I would not trust it. I can’t trust it on mine, as it doesn’t move. To load, insert a loaded magazine, pull back the slide, release, and you’ve chambered a round. The trigger on mine is actually kind of good. From my readings, I was expecting a half-mile of bad road in the trigger pull, but what I got was a good enough that a Glock shooter would call it custom. The recoil, for as mild as the cartridge is, is surprisingly sharp. I have to figure that the “locking” mechanism is relatively inefficient, and it is essentially a straight blowback pistol. With all due respect to Nambu, a blowback pistol chambered in 8mm Nambu would have been a lot easier to make.
When empty, the 94 locks open by the method least likely to endear it to its users: the magazine follower rises up in front of the bolt, and wedges it open as the bolt crashes forward. So, to extract the empty magazine you have two choices: pry it down out of the frame, with the slide pressing on it. Or hold the slide back and press the button and slide the magazine out. The magazine safety is going to add to your problems, there are no “drop-free” mags in 94s. Yes, sometimes the button can protrude enough to pop the magazine loose when on a table, or even in the holster. On mine, the button touches a tabletop, but it doesn’t pop the magazine loose. However, the holster does. Every other time I pull it out of the holster, the magazine is unlatched.
Accuracy? Really, you have to ask? OK, the front sight is a pyramid, inserted into the front end of the slide. The rear sight is a machined trough in the receiver hoop. So, you can adjust windage by drifting the front blade, but to adjust elevation you’d have to replace to a taller, or file shorter, the front blade. My bet is, after a cursory test-firing at the factory, if the point of impact was anywhere near the point of aim, it got shipped. Mine hits a bit low, and a bit to the right. Shots could all hit inside the A zone of a target out to twenty yards or so, which is probably long-distance shooting by the standards of the time and place it was meant for.
And while we’re at it, what the heck was Nambu thinking, with the receiver hoop? As a place to locate the rear sight, there has to be a better way. I can see a dropped pistol, hitting on the hoop, wedging the slide in place. If the purpose was there to keep the moving parts on the frame, Nambu should have simply bought anything made by Browning, and stolen the ideas he needed.
Test-firing was interesting, right up to the point where it became frustrating. I first did my chrono work, to see what the loads available would do. A note for those of you who might want to take up plinking with a Nambu as a relaxing afternoon: not. The ejector is at six o’clock, the extractor and ejection port at twelve. So, the empties go straight up. Complying with the law of gravity, some will fall on you. One or two might even fall down the back of your shirt, if you are not wearing a hat with a brim on the back. Fair warning.
I then began accuracy testing, and on the second five-shot group, my 94 stopped firing. Yep, a broken firing pin. With much cursing, I began an in-depth search for Type 94 parts. Well, whadda ya know? There’s a fellow in Iowa who makes replacement firing pins. Iowa, of all places. In due time, an envelope arrived from Don’s Reproductions, containing two firing pins and a firing pin spring. (Really? You are surprised I ordered two? Why?) It took a bit of work to get it to fit (most likely because of the hand-fitting done in Japan in 1940, not Don’s fault) and I was back in business. It worked just fine, and I was able to finish the testing.
Now that it is fixed, I realized that the Type 94 presents us with a real conundrum for storage. The fragility of the firing pin means we can’t dry-fire it to relax the hammer spring. There are no snap caps made (nor ever were, probably) in 8mm Nambu. So, we have to stash it back into the safe with the hammer cocked, and depend on the hammer spring to last. In an interesting curiosity, the hammer has a roller-bearing on the top of it, to lessen friction from the slide. That’s like having air scoops to cool the brakes on your Yugo.
The 94 was made in relatively small numbers. Various sources list complete production as something in the low 70,000’s. Which was about as many 1911s as the US War Department had in inventory, in 1914, with less than three years of production. When you consider that the Japanese in 1934 were already involved in one war, a handful of police actions, and were planning on over-running the coast of China, as well as all of the Pacific Ocean possessions west of Hawaii and north of Australia, you’d think they’d want to have made a lot more small arms. By the end of the war, the Japanese military was still something like six million men even with the casualties they had suffered. 70,000 pistols don’t go far. The Type 14 had a larger production run, over a quarter of a million. But that is from 1906 through 1945. There are several 1911A1 manufacturers who exceeded that combined figure, and some of them didn’t even get started until 1942. That gives you an idea of the paucity of industrial production that the Japanese had to deal with, while trying to conquer the Asian hemisphere.
If you have a Type 94, you now can find ammo to shoot in it. You must be careful, as the safeties (thumb and magazine) are not to be trusted. Heck, the thumb safety on my Type 94 is immovable. If anything breaks, you will have to find a master pistolsmith (not your local parts-swapping armorer) to fabricate a replacement. It won’t even be close to a 9mm Parabellum in power, let alone a magnum. It isn’t suited for any competition. But, as a family heirloom, a prize brought back from when we made the world safe, it is a rarity above almost any other.
The Japanese use of pistols is a historical oddity, and a look at mindset. Right up through The Great War, it was common for many military organizations to allow officers to personally purchase sidearms of their own choosing. At least at the start of the war, there were a lot of personal pistols used. Once the sheer volume had to be scaled up, the standard issue of pistols became the norm. Post-WWI, most armies did not go back to allowing personal sidearms, at least not officially.
The Japanese had an additional social custom: swords. An officer was not really properly armed unless he had a sword. I can’t help but wonder if the regularity with which firing pins broke on Japanese pistols meant that officers were not going to give up their swords easily. When the Royal Army had to be scaled up, the government stepped in and provided swords for newly-minted officers. However, the new swords, made by modern methods, were not deemed of the same quality as historical swords. Families with money or history made sure their sons went to war with “proper” swords. The two types can be generally called “government” and “heirloom” blades. When I was working at the first gun shop, The Gun Room (no longer in business) I was asked if I could research the markings on a blade one of our customers had gotten in a collection. Well what did I find but that it was an heirloom blade, with markings on the tang dating to during the Shogunate. I had spent a few years before going to work at the gun shop participating in SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism. Yes, swords and shields. I learned a lot about swordplay in those years, while enthusiastically whacking people into the dirt.
That heirloom blade scared me. First of all, it was still razor-sharp, almost 40 years after having been brought back from the Pacific, and 200 years after being made. It was beautifully balanced if a bit heavy, and at first it floated in your hands. But with a little bit of handling, I realized that it was balanced just a small amount forward. The blade subtly pulled you forward, as if it wanted to cut. Not enough to make you think it was possessed, but enough to bring unpleasant thoughts unbidden to the back of your mind. I handed it back to its owner, with the comment “It is beautiful, and I never want to see or handle it ever again.” He, having had no exposure to the use of blades, had no idea.
With ammo available, and now sources of parts and springs, you can actually shoot your Nambu, be it a Type 14 or Type 94. But make no mistake: this is not something you are going to use in a USPSA or IDPA match. Now that I’ve got mine running again and I’ve I finished the accuracy testing, I’m going to clean it up and store it away. I’m also going to lay in a supply of newly-made strikers for the Type 14 before I go and test that one.
Nambu Type 94 Specifications
- Type: Hammer-fired semi-automatic
- Caliber: 8 x 22mm, aka 8mm Nambu
- Capacity: 6 rounds
- Barrel: 3.75-inches
- Overall length: 7.5-inches (to include the lanyard loop)
- Weight: 27 ounces
- Finish: Blued steel
- Grips: Checkered Bakelite (wood late in war)
- Sights: Fixed
- Trigger: 5 pounds, single-stage
- Manufacturer: Nambu Rifle Manufacturing Company
- Value: $750 - $1,100
Numrich Gun Parts Co.
Japanese Military Firearms Parts
(new-manufacture replacement parts)
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com
About the Author:
Patrick Sweeney is a life-long shooter, with more than half a century of trigger time, four decades of reloading, 25 years of competition (4 IPSC World Shoots, 50 USPSA Nationals, 500+ club matches, and 18 Pin Shoots, as well as Masters, Steel Challenge and Handgunner Shootoff entries). He spent two decades as a professional gunsmith, and two decades as the President of his gun club. A State-Certified law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, he is also a Court-recognized Expert Witness.