Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The "Last Ditch" Arisaka

When browsing the usual internet auction sites and classifieds, you often run across something called a “Last Ditch” Arisaka. These generally appear pretty crude, don’t go for as much money as the earlier vintage rifles, and often come with warnings like “don’t ever try to shoot one of these” or statements like “made in the waning days of the war”. Like any other piece of firearms history, there’s a little bit of truth, and a whole lot of misinformation out there. In this article, we’ll look at exactly what a “Last Ditch” Arisaka is in detail, and hopefully correct a few of the urban legends about this fascinating piece of history.

The Type 99 rifle was originally designed in two versions – a “long” and “short”. The Type 99 Long rifle was short lived and soon all production moved over to the Type 99 short rifle (which is simply known as the Type 99 to collectors). The short version was originally adopted in 1939, and had many features dropped on later rifles – including the monopod, the anti-aircraft sight, and the dust cover over the bolt mechanism. Eight different arsenals produced the Type 99, with each arsenal being assigned one or more series designations for their production. Nagoya had a total of 13 such designations, while three arsenals (Howa Jyuko, Jinsen, and Mukden) had only one each.

As the war progressed, Japan quickly began to run short of raw materials. Indeed one of their primary motivations in starting the war was the need for ready supplies of raw materials to support domestic industry. What’s worse, war with America necessitated an increase in rifle production. Therefore, by 1942 many simplifications began to appear on Type 99 rifles. By 1943, so many simplifications had been introduced, that the rifle was re-designated the “Substitute Type 99”. In the collector world, the Substitute Type 99 is the “Last Ditch” Arisaka. So contrary to popular myth, the “last ditch” rifle was actually produced for the last three years of World War II (representing almost the entire duration of the War with the United States), and not just “in the desperate days of 1945”.

As indicated above, simplifications were made to the Type 99 rifle even before the Substitute version was adopted. By the sixth production series (Series 5), Nagoya had abandoned the monopod and dust cover. In the next series (Series 6) the anti-aircraft sight was gone and the knob on the bolt handle was simplified to a cylinder rather than the more elegant “oval” or “plum” shape. By their eighth production series (Series 7), all of the features of the Substitute Type 99 were present. Kokura began simplification with their next to last series (Series 24) with Substitute Type 99 production taking place in their final series (Series 25). For arsenals with only one series – some of them are all essentially Substitute Type 99, others are a mix depending on the serial number of the rifle (with Substitute 99 features dominating high serial number rifles).

The actual simplifications comprising a Substitute Type 99 rifle vary from arsenal to arsenal, but there are several common themes based on the need to produce more rifles, in less time, with less wood and metal. Japan always used a two piece stock (with a lamination in the buttstock) to conserve wood. In Substitute Type 99 rifles, the hand guard was eliminated and the lower stock was separated into two pieces. The forward portion of the stock of many Type 99’s therefore tends to “rattle” a bit – this is normal. This separate stock piece also lacks provision for a cleaning rod – largely because the cleaning rod had been eliminated by this point. Finally in another effort to save fabrication time, the finger groove was eliminated from the stock.

Given substitute Type 99’s lack a hand guard, one can see the quality of the lathe work used to manufacture the barrel. It’s often rough and fairly crude with no polishing. This shortcut saved time in production. Also, the chrome lining in the barrel was generally eliminated for Substitute Type 99 rifles. The chrome bolt face was also eliminated. The bolt itself also saw simplification. As mentioned above, some arsenals modified the bolt knob so it was a simple, easily turned cylinder rather than the elegant “oval” or “plum” used previously, although the Kokura arsenal did not and retained the more elegant bolt handle through the end of the war. The safety knob was also simplified from the complex knurled knob of the Type 99. Early simplifications included vertical grooves or simple smooth conical machining (same shape, just no knurls). Substitute Type 99 rifles did away with that and simply left the weld blob un-machined.

Other simplifications were made to the sling swivels, barrel bands, buttstock plate, and sights. Some arsenals went with a one screw sling swivel, and Nagoya even eliminated this in their next to last production series (Series 11) and simply drilled a hole in the stock for the sling. The elaborate anti-aircraft sight was eliminated and a simple fixed peep sight used instead. The metal buttplate was eliminated and a used a wood one nailed in place instead. Even the “9 9 Type” characters were eliminated from the receiver, although the chrysanthemum was retained for all rifles. Complicating matters is the fact that sometimes previously rejected parts or even parts left over from previous runs would be used. So occasionally one finds a “Last Ditch” rifle with a chrome bore, or a one piece stock, etc.

Given that so many shortcuts were used to produce the Substitute Type 99, this begs the question about whether or not the rifle is safe to shoot. As with any historical firearm, this question can only be answered by a competent gunsmith. I know of several individuals who routinely shoot “Last Ditch” rifles with great success. The bore on one of my Substitute Type 99 rifles is actually in better shape than the bore on one of my early production rifles – it’s in fact, brand new with mint lands and grooves.

As mentioned previously, “last ditch” rifles tend to have a lower value than early production Type 99’s. There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. Nagoya only produced 1,000 Series 12 rifles. These are very rare and hard to find (I’ve never even seen one for sale). The Mukden arsenal in Manchuria only produced 3,000 Type 99’s total – any type 99 from this arsenal will command a premium – last ditch or otherwise. Jinsen arsenal in Korea made additional changes over and above the normal Substitute Type 99 for their last 12,000 rifles including an extra wide barrel band and a bolt release with a finger notch instead of the usual raised lip. These are typically referred to as “Jinsen Special Last Ditch” rifles, and they also command a premium.

From 1939 to 1945 Japan produced almost 2.5 million Type 99 rifles. Almost a quarter of the rifles produced are the “simplified” Type 99’s. The number of Substitute Type 99 rifles is even higher, representing over one third of total Type 99 production. Japan continued to churn out rifles even as American submarines cut off vital resources and American planes bombed the production facilities. The Substitute Type 99 not merely a numerically important variant of the Arisaka, it represents a very key era in World War II history, and in my opinion is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in World War II rifles.

Primary data reference and for further information see: McCollum’s Japanese Rifles of World War II

1 comment:

nikki said...

Excellent article with a very good outline of Arisaka rifles. A must read for a beginning collector of IJA militaria.