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August 6, 2019

Japanese Nambu Pistols

By Danielle Hollembaek

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The Nambu pistol is a classic Japanese semi-automatic handgun created for military service by its namesake Kijirõ Nambu. Like many Japanese military weapons prior to the end of World War II, records and information about the gun is sparse due to the destruction that occurred during World War II. The history still remaining about the Nambu pistol is limited, but a gun that holds such high influence in the development of military sidearms in Japan should never be forgotten.

Nambu Pistols Beginnings

Captain Kijirõ Nambu started out his military career in the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in 1889. He exhibited great discipline, military skill, and interest in arm design while at the academy, and by his early twenties he had already become a lieutenant of artillery. Showing great aptitude in firearm development, he was sent to the Tokyo Army Arsenal, also known as the “Koishikawa Arsenal,” in 1897 where he worked with military weapon designer Nariakira Arisaka on Type 30 rifles. After showing true aptitude in firearms manufacturing, Nambu was promoted to major and asked to design a semi-automatic pistol adequate for military use.

The Japanesse Type 26 revolver had been the longstanding military standard issue sidearm from 1893 and into the mid-1920s. In 1897, the army decided they needed to update their guns to a model better for tropical climates and to also keep up with the changing world of military weaponry. Revolvers had their time, but the semi-auto firearms movement was upon the world.

The Grandpa and Papa Nambu Pistol

A Rare Documented Japanese Grandpa Nambu Pistol Rig with Matching Magazine and Matching Shoulder Stock. Sold for $31,625 in December of 2016.

After five years of trials and development, the Type A 1902 Nambu pistol was completed. This gun is sometime referred today by firearm collectors as the “Grandpa Nambu” since it is the originator of the Nambu series of pistols and it helps to designate itself apart from future generations. The Grandpa Nambu was never formally accepted as a military produced firearm but, starting in 1902, officers could use the gun if they purchased it themselves.

The Grandpa Nambu has aesthetic similarities to a Luger pistol, but mechanically is completely different. A more apt comparison would be a Broomhandle Mauser. The Nambu has a tilting locking block and 8mm cartridge that echoes characteristics of the Mauser. That is by no means a powerful pistol and is much lower than standard military power today, but for the time it was a suitable, close range gun. All of the pistols produced in 1902 were made with detachable shoulder stocks. The stock has a retractable extension to lengthen the pull when firing. This Grandpa Type A variety had around 2,400 produced from 1902 to 1906. Many of the original Type A pistols ended being sold commercially to China and Siam because they were too pricey for officers to afford.

The next evolution of the pistol was the “Papa” Nambu. The Papa is very similar to the Grandpa with the main difference being a larger trigger guard since the original trigger area was too narrow and hard to use with gloves on. The other difference was Grandpa Nambus had wooden magazine bottoms and Papas had aluminum. Some Type A Nambus are marked with a Thai government charka seal because Japan sold many military surplus guns to Thailand in the 1930s. The original Japanese seal can be located over the chamber and to the right side of the gun directly to the left of the serial number. Similar to the Grandpa, the Papa Nambu was an expensive gun to produce and sold for a higher price than the military was willing to pay. Some officers bought the gun, but it never was adopted for standard military use.

Lot 1676: Tokyo Gas & Electric Model 1904 Papa Nambu Pistol with Holster, Ammunition and Pouch. Available this September.

The Baby Nambu Pistol

Lot 1674: Very Scarce Tokyo Gas & Electric Company Baby Nambu Semi-Automatic Pistol with Matching Magazine and Holster. Available in September.

A successful innovation of the Nambu came with the pocket sized Type B pistol in 1909. The Type B or “Baby” variety was the rarest and overall best manufactured in terms of mechanics and functionality. The Type B Nambu was and still is a beloved gun among those who have interest in Japanese firearms.

The “Baby Nambu” as it is commonly referred to is a scaled down and less powerful version of its two predecessors. Major production of the gun started in 1909 and initially took place at the Tokyo Army Arsenal, the same factory as the Type A pistol. The two guns are mechanically very similar, yet unlike the other two pistols, the Baby was chambered in a 7mm Nambu cartridge instead of the 8mm, making the gun even less powerful than the original designs. As opposed to the Papa and Grandpa that were practical for actual combat, the Baby Nambu was a symbol of a military officials’ ranking and commonly given to people unlikely to see real combat like medical personnel and higher military officials. It was basically a pocket pistol used for personal protection and, since this was Japan during the early 1900s, suicide if you faced capture.

The Baby Nambu was yet again a pricey gun for an essentially ineffective weapon at any range other than very close. It cost around 180 yen to purchase the pocket pistol which was more than two months’ salary for a beginner Japanese army soldier at the time. Having one was a sign of pride in Japanese craftsmanship and heritage, which made them unique guns for those who could afford them. This tie to status and rank made them appeal to officers in the military.

In 1923, the Toyko Army Arsenal suffered extreme damage due to the devastating earthquake, forcing production to the Tokyo Gas and Electric Company. Finding a Baby Nambu from this round of production is very rare since only about 500 are recorded as being produced from 1924 to the mid-1930s. The low production numbers were due to the lack of demand for the gun.

As stated previously, military personnel could purchase and use the guns, but it was at their own expense. The only Nambu to get a military contract came about in the mid-1920s and that was the Type-14.

Lot 3631: Japanese “Baby Nambu” Semi-Automatic Pistol with Leather Holster. Available this September.

Type 14 Nambu Pistol

Lot 543: Two Japanese Type 14 Semi-Automatic Pistols with Holsters. Available this September.

The Type-14 was the only Nambu pistol to be officially used and adopted by the Japanese military. In 1925, manufacture began at the Kokura Arsenal, but by the late 1920’s production expanded into Nagoya Arsenal since larger orders for the gun were needed. Like all militaries, upgrading for the right price is a priority when buying a gun in bulk and the Type 14 hit the correct price point. The cost change was a direct result of slightly lowered quality in materials used and simplified manufacturing practices. Also, unnecessary parts were taken out of the manufacturing process to making the gun easily, quicker, and cheaper to produce. The resulting gun was still an effective semi-automatic pistol.

The overall shape and look of the Type 14 Nambu is very similar to the Type A design; the handgun used an 8mm cartridge and still had details of fine craftsmanship like the previous versions. The Type 14 was used by the Japanese Army and Navy in the Second Sino Japanese War in the 1930′s when it saw its first use in official military service.

Changes in the design and materials did occur during World War II when certain raw assets for production were running at a shortage. Early serial numbered Type 14 pistols were made with slotted cocking knob, while examples made in war time sported knurled cocking knob. World War II production models also lacked a grip safety which was a trademark of all other Nambu pistols. The Type 14 was produced from 1925 until the end of World War II, with over 200,000, and possibly more, manufactured. Some estimates only claim 70,000 were produced and other say almost a half million were manufactured, but it is hard to know for sure since so many records and guns were lost.

Lot 544: Two Japanese Type 14 Nambu Semi-Automatic Pistols with Holsters. Available this September.

The Nambu pistol is known as a unique gun. Bill Ruger, founder of Ruger Firearms, admired the ergonomics of Nambu pistol so much that he recreated the two of the guns in his garage to see if he could replicate the design. Despite the many accounts that Ruger based his 1949 .22 Standard pistol off of Luger hand guns, there is evidence to believe that Nambu pistols greatly impacted his design. There is no definitive proof to either legend, but it is always interesting to come across origin stories such as this one.

It is no surprise that the Nambu pistol is highly respected since Captain Nambu was very meticulous with the process of creation and manufacturing. His team was instructed to not base the guns they made off of any existing designs and to think outside the box. Captain Nambu created more than just handguns in his time with the Japanese military, he also the designed early light and submachine guns. After he retired from armed forces in 1927, he opened his own manufacturer called “Nambu Arms Manufacturing Company” which eventually merged with Shōwa Seisakusho and Taisei Kōgyō and was renamed “Chūō Kōgyō” in 1936. The company produced all Nambu pistols except the Type B with major production being the Nambu submachine guns.

RIAC’s Nambu Pistols

In our upcoming September Premier Auction, we are offering a range of Nambu pistols from Type A to Type 14 models. A highlight in the auction includes an exceptional Baby Nambu pistol from the Tokyo Arsenal that still has its matching magazine and original ammunition.

Lot 539: Exceptional and Scarce Japanese Tokyo Arsenal Baby Nambu Semi-Automatic Pistol with Matching Magazine and Original Ammunition. Available this September.

Its detailed checkered mahogany grips and remaining high blue polish show the overall excellent original condition this Baby Nambu has been kept in. One of the two magazines that accompanies the beauty is original to the gun and is stamped with the matching serial number to the pistol. In fact, all parts on the gun have matching serial numbers besides the firing pin which has no number, but appears to be correct. If that didn’t make this pistol rare enough, the lot includes 34 rounds of Japanese Baby Nambu 7mm ammunition. The condition and scarcity of this Baby Nambu is truly amazing and a great opportunity for a collector to win a piece of well-preserved history.

Lot 539: Exceptional and Scarce Japanese Tokyo Arsenal Baby Nambu Semi-Automatic Pistol with Matching Magazine and Original Ammunition. Available this September.

Another Nambu pistol that should catch the attention of Japanese firearms collectors is a scarce early production Tokyo Arsenal Baby Nambu pistol. The gun is serial number 549 making it one of the earlier manufactured examples of Nambu pistols. All parts are labeled with matching serial number beside the magazine which is only one number off at 548 and the firing pin is unmarked. The Baby Nambu shows its original blue finish and has some areas of brown patina. The history in this little pistol alone makes it a desirable item for a collection.

Lot 540: Scarce Early Production Tokyo Arsenal Baby Nambu Semi-Automatic Pistol Serial Number 549. Available this September.

There are over a dozen Nambu pistol lots in the September Premier Auction. If you’ve been thinking about investing in a Nambu pistol of any type, this is your chance. Don’t miss the opportunity to get your hands on a classic Japanese military handgun. Our next Premier Auction is September 6-8th with our Preview Day event and party happening on September 5th. Bid on your own piece of Japanese history today!

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