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This Might Be the Worst Gun Ever (Made in Japan)

It’s fair to say that a Japanese Army officer armed with a Nambu would be at a bit of a disadvantage against one of his American or British adversaries armed with an M1911-A1 .45 auto or Browning Hi-Power 9mm, in terms both of ballistic power and magazine capacity. 

Nambu gun. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Nambu gun. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

During the Second World War, the Axis powers produced their fair share of noteworthy small arms. Mussolini’s Italy had the Carcano M1891 rifle and the Beretta M1935 pistol. Nazi Germany had the Mauser Karabiner 98k rifle (often referred to mistakenly as a K98) and Walther P38 pistol.

Imperial Japan fielded the Arisaka Type 38 and Type 99 rifles, and the Nambu Type 94 8mm semiautomatic pistol.

All of the above firearms had a pretty solid reputation, except for the Nambu. Was the Type 94’s bad reputation truly deserved? Let’s take a look.   

Nambu Type 94 Early History and Specifications

The Nambu Type 94 pistol (九四式拳銃/Kyūyon-Shiki Kenjū) went into initial design in 1929. It was officially adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1934 and went into production the following year, with a total of 71,000 pistols produced between 1935 and 1945. It was built by the Nambu Arms Manufacturing Company, named in honor of Lieutenant General Kijirō Nambu — described as the “John Browning of Japan” for his prolific firearms patents. The Type 94 was a direct successor to the general’s Nambu Type 14 semiauto pistol design. 

Specifications included a barrel length of 3.78 inches, an overall length 7.36 inches, a height of 4.69 inches, and a weight of 1 pound 11 ounces. Standard magazine capacity was 6+1 rounds.

The cartridge, the 8x22mm Nambu, is a rimless bottleneck cartridge with a diameter of 0.320 inches. It generates a muzzle velocity of 1,030 feet per second and 242 foot-pounds of muzzle energy with a 102-grain bullet.

Okay, So What Was So Bad About It?

It’s fair to say that a Japanese Army officer armed with a Nambu would be at a bit of a disadvantage against one of his American or British adversaries armed with an M1911-A1 .45 auto or Browning Hi-Power 9mm, in terms both of ballistic power and magazine capacity. 

But that alone wouldn’t explain why many critics consider the Type 94 to be the very worst military pistol ever fielded. For an explanation, we turn to Patrick Sweeney in a September 2021 article for Firearms News:

“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.

“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 Manchukuo, would lead one to design a pistol with simple steps for maintenance? Apparently not…(T)he 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.”

A Contrarian Perspective: “Misunderstood”

Ian McCollum, in a February 2020 article for the Forgotten Weapons website, offers an outside-the-box perspective on the Type 94: 

“If there is a historical military firearm out there as badly misunderstood as the Chauchat, it is probably the Type 94 Nambu pistol. Nambu designed this pistol with an exposed sear bar, which was not a great idea — but it was also nowhere near as bad of an idea as many people think today. In fact, the Type 94 was preferred by many Japanese officers because it was smaller, lighter, and more reliable than the Type 14 Nambu that preceded it. So let’s take a closer look, and see if we can bring some reality to this unfairly maligned pistol.”

From there, Ian gives a detailed defense of the pistol in a video 6:54 in length, where among things, he mentions that when the gun was designed, “the Japanese Imperial Army was surrendering to exactly nobody,” thus debunking the “Surrender Pistol” label. Watch the video and draw your own conclusions.

Want Your Own?

Its bad reputation in combat aside, the Nambu Type 94 is considered a collector’s item. Old Arms of Idaho recently sold one for $1,375. Guns International has two pages’ worth of Types 14s, starting at $625, with seven other specimens staying under the $1K ceiling, before eventually topping out at $5,900.

Ammo ain’t cheap either, even by today’s standards. Steinel Ammunition Co. lists a box of 50 rounds of 83-grain full metal jacket at $69.99, which equates to $1.39 a pop. Somewhat less expensive, but still averaging over a dollar per round, is the Buffalo Arms Co. offering, a “100 Grain Copper Coated Bullet Loaded with Reformed Cases Box of 50” for $57.09.

Maybe that explains why back in the day, Los Angeles Gun Club (one of my regular shooting range haunts back in my teenage and college years) had one for static display only and not for rental (unlike their Luger P08 and Walther P38), which in turns explains why my own hands-on firing experience with the Nambu is best described as “so close, yet so far away.” 

Author Expertise and Firearms Experience 

Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011. 

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).