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The Japanese Nambu Pistol: History Behind the Gun

Its distinct looks, military history, and background make the Nambu an interesting historical collector’s piece. Today, we take a look at this pistol!

The Nambu pistol is one of the most famous military arms to come out of Japan.

Its distinct looks, military history, and background make the Nambu an interesting historical collector’s piece for enthusiasts.

Nambu pistols are known for their distinct looks, whether good or bad. (Photo: rpgfirearms.com.au)

So, what is the Nambu pistol, and why are people drawn to it?

Well, there are a few different versions of the Nambu pistol, so we will look at each of these iterations to get the story on this intriguing firearm.

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The Origins

The pistol derives its name from Japanese firearm designer Kijirõ Nambu. Sometimes referred to as the “John Browning of Japan,” Nambu was known for his success and innovation as a firearm designer.

Kijirõ Nambu was a career officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Owing to its distinct looks and wartime usage, the Nambu pistol is probably his most recognized design, at least in the United States.

In an effort to replace the Type 26 revolver, the Nambu was first developed ahead of World War I. It was produced by Koishikawa Arsenal, which would later be renamed Tokyo Artillery Arsenal.

A Japanese Type 26 revolver with original holster. (Photo: u/Goldeagle1123)

Unfortunately, due to the destruction of records at the end of World War II, there’s not much production information about the Nambu.

Despite this, or perhaps even because of this, many history buffs and firearms collectors seek out the Nambu pistol.

Type A

The Type A, also billed as the Type 4, was the prototype of the Nambu pistol. Among collectors, it’s commonly referred to as the Grandpa Nambu because it’s the original iteration.

The original Nambu Type A design. It is clear that external design cues were taken from the iconic Luger P08. (Photo: Nambu World)

It utilized a recoil-operated and locked-breech and weighed in at 31.7 ounces with a 4.6-inch barrel.

Chambered in 8x22mm Nambu, the Type A had stopping power similar to .380 ACP. While on par for the era, by the time World War II came around, the cartridge was notably weaker than its contemporary counterparts, such as the 9mm Luger, .45 ACP, and 7.62×25 Tokarev.

The 8x22mm Nambu is a bottlenecked cartridge, similar to the more powerful 7.62x25mm Tokarev. (Photo: Steinel Ammunition)

The Type A was completed in 1902 but was never adopted by the Japanese military, and few were ever produced. The Grandpa Nambu was expensive to manufacture, which was reflected in its high selling price.

Japanese Army officers had to pay for their own pistols, and the cost of purchasing one led to very little use.

Despite this, the Type A Modified, called the Papa Nambu by collectors, was created.

The swiveling lanyard loops at the rear and aluminum magazine baseplates of the “Papa” Nambu are easily distinguishable from the original. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

It only had a few differences from the original Type A. These included an enlarged trigger guard, lanyard loops in rings rather than welded loops, and aluminum bottoms on the magazines rather than wood.

Type B

The Type B was based on the Type A — but with a few improvements. Collectors call it the Baby Nambu since it’s about three-quarters the size of its predecessor.

The Type B, or Baby Nambu (Left), was much smaller than the previous model. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

Aside from stepping down in physical size, the gun was also chambered in 7x20mm Nambu instead of 8x22mm. This was an even weaker cartridge – generating less than 100 ft/lbs of energy.

Early pistols (the first 450 or so) had wooden bottom magazines, like the original Type As, and a single-diameter firing pin. After that, they used aluminum magazine bottoms and multiple-diameter firing pins.

The 7mm Nambu (Left), is notably shorter than its larger-diameter 8mm brethren. (Photo: Ammo One)

Almost all Type Bs were bought by Japanese Army officers, but the cost was still too high for widespread adoption.

Type B Nambus were about twice the cost of foreign-made pistols imported into the country. They cost about 180 yen at a time when a second lieutenant’s monthly salary would have been around 70 yen.

It was adopted by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Royal Thai Army in the 1920s, but it was mainly issued as a status symbol in Japan.

Stepping down to a weaker caliber meant that these sidearms would see even less potential real-world use than its predecessor. (Photo: Legacy Collectibles)

Primarily given to people who weren’t likely to see combat, it was really only intended for personal protection or, if captured by the enemy, suicide in accordance with Japanese military policy at the time.

Production of the Baby Nambu stopped in 1923, but pistols were assembled from existing parts until about 1929.

Type 14

The Type 14, introduced in 1925, is the most recognizable and sought-after version of the Nambu pistol — and perhaps Kijirõ Nambu’s most successful design.

For people somewhat familiar with the Nambu, the Type 14 is what they usually picture when the pistols are brought up. (Photo: Nambu World)

With the Type 14, Koishikawa Arsenal effectively managed to reduce the production cost, making the pistol more accessible to consumers.

The military adopted it for non-commissioned officers in 1928, but commissioned officers still had to buy their own pistols.

A Japanese naval officer pictured with a Nambu pistol and a katana, circa 1932. (Photo: WW2 In Color)

Like the Type A, Type 14 was chambered in 8x2mm, leaving the anemic 7x20mm cartridge behind.

Pre-World War II pistols were particularly well made. In fact, Bill Ruger of the eponymous Ruger firearms company liked the Type 14 so much that he based his original Ruger Standard Auto Pistol on the same profile.

The design parallels between the Nambu and the Ruger are clear as day. (Photo: Don Findley)

However, as the war put a strain on resources, manufacturing quality rapidly declined.

Each pistol has the year and month of manufacture marked, so it’s easy for collectors and historians to tell exactly when each pistol was made, despite the lack of surviving records.

Production of the Type 14 ended with the conclusion of World War II, but about 200,000 Type 14 pistols were made, making it the most common version of the Nambu pistol by far.

Type 14 pistols were coveted souvenirs for U.S. troops to bring back home after their Pacific tours. (Photo: The Armory Life)

Because of its iconic reputation and widespread use in World War II, it pops up in media depicting the Japanese military during that time quite a bit.

Notably, it appears in the films Pearl Harbor and Letters from Iwo Jima, and the TV shows The Man in the High Castle and Archer.

The Type 14 is a staple in World War II movies featuring Japanese soldiers and is shown here in the film Letters from Iwo Jima.

Outside of the World War II context, Cara Dune uses a modified Nambu pistol in The Mandalorian.

Type 94

The last variant of the Nambu pistol is the Type 94.

It rivals the Type 14 in notoriety. In fact, it may be even more famous…well, infamous. In fact, the Type 94 is known for being a just plain awful gun.

The Type 94 was neither a good-looking nor well-functioning firearm. (Photo: folk_fan)

American servicemen called this version of the Nambu pistol the “suicide gun” because its low-quality manufacturing made the gun prone to malfunctioning in dangerous ways, including being discharged when being holstered or bumped on the side.

Like the Type A and Type 14, the Type 94 was chambered in 8x22mm. However, it was more compact than either of those two versions, with a 3.78-inch barrel and a 6-round detachable magazine.

The sear was exposed on the side of the gun. If you press the side of the gun hard enough, it will fire, as shown in the photo above. (Photo: The Firearm Blog)

It was produced from 1935 to 1945, and the stresses of peak wartime production were reflected in the lackluster build quality. Only about 71,000 Type 94 pistols were produced,

Despite being rarer, the Type 94 is still worth only a fraction of what the Type 14 is due to its poor quality and unattractive looks.

Often referred to as one of the worst pistols of all time, the Type 94 was the culmination of a losing war effort and a rushed design. (Photo: Luger Forums)

That said, it is still sought after by some collectors because of its curious and controversial history. The contrast between the Type 94 and early Type 14s is especially stark.

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Prices accurate at time of writing

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Final Thoughts

Nambu pistols will pop up on auction sites sometimes, but they’re typically not guns one buys to shoot. Most are collector’s items, with the Type 14 remaining both the most common and the most sought-after.

The effectiveness of the Nambu pistols is debatable, but their collectibility and intrigue certainly aren’t. (Photo: Michael Fullana)

They’re more like collectibles — you buy one for the bragging rights and pleasure of owning one.

But sometimes, that is what guns are all about, fun conversation and collector’s pieces, and the Nambu definitely falls into that category.

What are your thoughts on the Nambu pistols? Let us know in the comments below. Interested in other World War pistols? Check out our article, the Luger Pistol: The Most Famous German 9mm.

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4 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Len C

    Had to chuckle when I first started reading this article thinking this gun looked a lot like my Ruger Auto Pistol and poof Bill Ruger pops up half way through this piece. (Bought my Ruger in 1975, first pistol I bought still have it to.)

    October 20, 2022 6:50 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    John

    I've got a Nambu Type 14. Dad took it off a Japanese troop in WWII and left it to me with the rest of his gun collection.

    October 20, 2022 1:25 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Alan

    Ruger got it right

    October 20, 2022 12:21 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    James

    That does look like a fun plinker to have on a wall and turn some heads at the range

    October 20, 2022 10:26 am
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