In the 20th century, a good method to judge how esteemed a nation’s infantry weapons were is to look at photographs from a particular conflict. If you examine photographs of the Western Front in 1918, you will often see German Stormtroopers carrying Lewis light machine guns, which were much preferred by the Germans to their own heavy native designs. In the next World War, on the Eastern Front, German propaganda pictures and film show many soldiers of the Wehrmacht marching confidently across the steppe, carrying not a Mauser or MP38 but a Soviet made Tokarev semi automatic rifle or PPsH- 41 submachine gun. In more recent conflicts, American soldiers and Marines have on occasion replaced their own issue M-16 rifles with AK- series weapons taken from their enemies- though this practice was strongly discouraged by their commanders ( the AK’s distinct sound could possibly draw friendly fire ).
Going back to the Second World War, and turning to the Pacific Theatre you will sometimes see American G.I.s and Marines posing with the weapons of their vanquished Japanese adversaries. There are other photographs of U.S. servicemen firing captured Japanese support weapons such as mortars, machine guns, and light artillery pieces in the general direction of the Japanese lines in order to expend the stockpiles of enemy ordnance. However in no photographs or film sequences will you see American personnel carrying a Japanese weapon into combat. Particularly the standard Japanese rifle- the Type 38 Arisaka.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, the slow loading bolt action of the Arisaka was vastly inferior to the firepower of the standard American battle rifle, the semi automatic M1 Garand.
Second, while the Garand was cumbersome in jungle fighting because of its 43″ length, this was still 7″ shorter than the Japanese rifle ( though the Arisaka did weigh about a pound or two less than the M1 ).
But the third factor is one that armchair armorers characteristically roll out when condemning a weapon to the dust bin of history. The Type 38’s 6.5x 50mm cartridge was considered to be lacking in stopping power.
In military terms stopping power is the ability of a bullet to kill or disable a human enemy to the point where resistance is no longer possible. Contrary to Hollywood films, most gunfire in shootouts is neither laser accurate or instantly lethal. It is desirable to have a weapon of sufficient caliber so that if the wound it causes to an enemy does not kill, it will at least stun him sufficiently to render him combat ineffective ( in the bitter fighting on the coral atolls of the Pacific or steaming jungles of larger islands like New Guinea, combat ineffective usually meant time enough to get off another shot or stab the enemy with a bayonet rather than take a wounded foe prisoner ).
In a foreshadowing of the endless 5.56mm versus 7.62mm debate among Western military analysts, many Allied experts disparaged the 6.5mm Arisaka cartridge. Their heavy, full power cartridges, like the .303 British Service or the American .30-06 were held to be superior due to their higher velocity, greater range, and heavier bullets. One British journalist, in Singapore covering the Malayan Campaign of 1942, wrote contemptuously of British surgeons ” digging miniature Jap bullets out of miniature wounds “. One wonders if he had the misfortune to eat his words, as the British garrison capitulated a few weeks later.
I doubt that any Allied soldier or Marine struck by a 6.5mm Arisaka bullet shrugged off his ” miniature wound “. In reality, the wound was likely to be not so miniature. The wounding effects of the Type 38’s bullet were described in some detail by a U.S. Army medical report:
The .256 bullet, especially one made with a gliding metal ( an alloy of copper and zinc ) jacket, when it hits the target had an explosive effect which tended to separate, leaving the entire jacket in the wound while the bullet went on through. Small globules of lead scattered through the wound and embedded themselves elsewhere in the flesh. This condition was the result of the fact that the rear section of the walls of the bullet jacket, which was filled with a lead core, were thinner than the forward walls . The sudden stoppage of the high velocity bullet when it hit an object produced a tendency to burst the rear walls causing an ” explosion.” The lead core, which had a greater specific gravity, penetrated, leaving behind the relatively lighter jacket from which it had been discharged… The unusually large exit wound openings often found with this caliber of bullet were due to the natural instability of the bullet and the possibility of its being fired from inferior weapons. Similarly, there were elliptic entry wounds, a result of the ” keyholing” effect of bullets hitting with their sides.
This report, written after the Japanese forces were only starting to be pushed back in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, goes in the opposite direction of hyperbole than the British report does. Similar to the NATO demonetization of the Soviet 7N6 5.45mm ” poison bullet” of the 1980s or the overinflated wounding potential of the ” tumbling” M193 5.56mm, many Allied reports tended to make the 6.5mm Arisaka as something cooked up by the nefarious Japanese to cause horrific damage to human flesh. It went hand- in- hand with the West’s view of the enemy’s underhandedness and lack of fair play.
It’s complete crap, of course.
All high velocity rifle bullets will ” explode” or ” keyhole” when they strike a solid enough object. The simple physics behind these effects is that once a pointed bullet strikes something solid, like a bone, the rotation of the projectile , caused by the rifling of the weapon’s barrel, will cease. Thus destabilized, the heavier, non- pointed end of the bullet will swap positions with the point. Lighter bullets have a greater tendency to do this than heavier ones. Or in the Arisaka’s case, the bullet is very long to give it a similar mass to contemporary.30 caliber bullets, making it easier to destabilize.
So, if the Arisaka was not in quite the same league as the American .30-06 when it came to penetration or stopping power, it certainly was more than adequate in these categories for a military round.
The 6.5mm Arisaka also had a number of design limitations that actually became advantages in jungle fighting. First of which was that early in the 20th century, the Japanese were not quite confident of the quality of the steel they produced when it came to making firearms. The Type 38’s bolt assembly was made to be the strongest in the world, but the Imperial Japanese Army still decided on a 139gr 6.5mm caliber bullet backed by 39 gr of smokeless gunpowder. The modest powder charge, coupled with the heavy bullet meant a muzzle velocity of a not so sizzling 2, 300 fps. However this was more than offset by reduced recoil and muzzle flash. In fact the muzzle flash of the standard long barreled Type 38 was non- existent, even at night. Even worse for Allied soldiers, the standard Japanese light machine gun of the early campaigns of The Pacific War – the Type 22- used an even lighter charged version of the Arisaka round. Mediocre compared to Western machine guns, it had the advantage of near invisibility in jungle terrain.
Some of the Western prejudice against their native cartridge must have influenced Japanese firearm designers, for in 1939 they began to produce the Type 99 rifle, in 7.7 caliber ( it’s cartridge was nearly equivalent to the British .303 ). But the older Type 38 continued to be produced because of the demands of the war and served alongside its descendant until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
After the Second World War, Arisakas went on to fight in the Chinese Civil War ( with both Nationalists and Communists ), the Korean War ( Mao’s People’s Liberation Army ), the Indonesian War Of Independence, and even appeared in Vietminh hands in their struggle against France ( 1949- 1954 ). Use in Asia decreased as World War 2 stocks of the 6.5mm cartridge dried up and more modern rifles were manufactured.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Arisakas that returning American servicemen managed to bring home as souvenirs began a second life as hunting rifles. The 6.5x 50mm was employed as a rifle for deer and other medium sized game. For a time the Japanese cartridge was even manufactured by American ammunition companies to meet demand.
But as hunting ammunition became more sophisticated, and cheaper, the Arisaka began to fade into the background. The old battle rifles went into storage, or were sold for scrap. Nowadays an occasional Arisaka may turn up at a gun show or a pawnshop, but the rifle that was once Asia’s premier rifle is long past its glory days.
Which is too bad, because if an Arisaka is in tolerable shape, its immensely strong action can tolerate a wide range of powder charges. For about a dollar per round, Hornaday makes an excellent hunting version of the 6.5x 50mm, tipped with a 129 gr V- Max bullet, but it is what to do with your empty cases that is intriguing to the reloader. The heaviest load of powder I have seen will push that 129 gr bullet to 2, 700 fps. But you will have to find the charge on your own- I am not an expert and cannot endorse a reloading combination found on the internet.
A final word on Arisaka and other surplus rifle sights. They tend to shoot high at ranges we consider normal. Most likely you will have your work cut out tweaking them to fit a zero at 100 meters. But do get it done, particularly if you were lucky enough to score a Type 38 Arisaka. Especially keep an eye out for the carbine version- an old warhorse perfect for hunting deer in the thick jungle of secondary growth in the North woods.
Epilouge: Would an AR upper in 6.5 x 50mm revive the Arisaka cartridge? Hmmmm.
Bergerud, Eric. Touched With Fire: The Land War In The South Pacific. Penguin Books, New York, New York, USA, 1996.
The 6.5 x 50 Arisaka ( 6.5 Japanese ). Chuck Hawks. http://www.chuckhawks.com/6-5×50.htm