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My uncle, who was a navy officer in World War II, brought home a number of souvenirs, among which was an Arisaka Type 99 7.7mm Short Rifle with a bullet hole through its buttstock. I often wondered about that bullet hole; did the slug go on to kill the soldier holding the rifle? No one will ever know.

The Japanese fought World War II with largely inferior equipment. Part of this was because they believed that the superior fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier would overcome any material superiorities of his enemies. The Zero fighter was far superior to anything we had at the beginning of the war but was badly outclassed at the end. The Long Lance torpedo was superior to our torpedoes (which often failed to detonate), but that was about as far as it went. Japanese armor was poor, as was their radar, communications equipment in general, and small arms. The Nambu pistol, which was the standard sidearm of the Imperial Army, was one of the worst handguns ever issued, and the Arisaka rifle, while extremely strong and reliable, would have been fine in World War I, not World War II.

When the Japanese invaded China, their issue rifle was the Arisaka Type 38, chambered for a 6.5mm cartridge, which proved to be less than powerful enough. So the Imperial Army decided on a new rifle, the Type 99, for which it developed a 7.7mm cartridge that was rather like the British .303 without the rim, and was the rough equivalent in power of the 7.62 NATO.

The Model 99 was initially produced in 1941 (It was called Type 99 because 1941 was the 2099th year since the traditional date of the founding of Japan.) and manufactured until 1945. It was a cock-on-opening bolt action that was based on the Mauser, but was far stronger. The 99 was equipped with a bolt cover — a piece of sheet metal that fitted over the bolt and was supposed to keep out dirt and intestines. It may have done so, but when the bolt was cycled it made an infernal racket, and prudent Japanese solders removed it.

The sights were simple but good — a triangle-shaped front and a wide V-shaped rear. When you lined them up, your sight picture looked like a W. The early 99s also had calipers on the rear sight to enable troops to shoot at aircraft. This was pure optimism, rather like the “belts of a thousand stitches” that were supposed to ward off American bullets.

The bores were chrome-lined — the first military barrels ever to have this feature — and were originally 31 inches long, but this was later shortened to just under 26 inches. The original Type 99 weighed 9 pounds and held 5 rounds which fed from a stripper clip. The safety was highly unusual — a knurled knob at the rear of the bolt that engaged when you gave it a 1/8-twist clockwise.

All told, 3.5 million Type 99s were produced, but as the war progressed, some of the original features were dropped and the quality of the rifles deteriorated badly. These late-production Arisakas are, in fact, called “last-ditch” guns.

As a symbol of ownership by the emperor, Type 99s had a 16-petal chrysanthemum stamped on the receiver ring above the chamber. However, many (or most) of the 99s that made it to the U.S. have the stamp defaced or removed. There are at least half a dozen theories as to why this was done, none of which are provable. On my uncle’s rifle it was intact, probably because the soldier who carried it was killed before it could be destroyed.

Again, we will never know.