The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia
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At the very tip of the divisional wedge was the infantry platoon and its small arms: pistols, rifles, antitank rifles, submachine guns, and machine guns.
All small arms of the 20th Century fired
ammunition consisting of a solid bullet crimped into the front of a
thin-walled brass or steel cartridge. The cartridge also contained gunpowder and
a primer containing a tiny charge of a highly sensitive explosive, such
as lead styphnate or a mixture of
potassium perchlorate and powdered aluminum.
was usually made of lead, often with
or steel jacket.
There was considerable variation in small arms ammunition, but the diagram above left shows a representative high power military round. Although other arrangements were possible, almost all military rounds placed the primer at the center of the rear of the cartridge, as shown. The use of a cartridge with a larger diameter than the bullet, except where it necked down to hold the bullet, is characteristic of high power rounds, while low power rounds (such as pistol or submachine gun rounds) often used a cartridge only slightly greater in diameter than the bullet. The rim at the base of the cartridge provided something for the extraction mechanism to latch onto to pull the spent cartridge out of the chamber after the round was fired. Many cartridges using a recessed extracting groove in place of a rim. The photograph above right shows a selection of ammunition rounds of various types.
The diagram above left shows the detailed mechanism of the Springfield rifle, which was a typical bolt-action rifle used by American forces early in the war. The diagram to the right is a simplified diagram showing the basic elements of a firearm. When the weapon was loaded, a round of ammunition was locked into a chamber at the rear of a hollow metal tube, or barrel, by a metal bolt. Except in certain automatic weapons, the bolt itself was locked to the rear of the barrel to ensure a tight seal. When the weapon's trigger was pulled, a firing pin struck the primer, crushing it. This detonated the sensitive primer charge, which in turn ignited the gunpowder inside the cartridge. In this confined space, the gunpowder burned extremely rapidly, generating hot gas at very high pressure (as much as 50,000 ppsi or 340 MPa for a 0.50 machine gun round). The pressure of the gas pushed the bullet forward and out of the barrel at a velocity of a few hundred to a few thousand feet per second (a hundred to a thousand meters per second), depending on the size of the propellant charge, the length of the barrel, and the weight of the bullet. All other things being equal, the muzzle velocity was greater for a lighter bullet, a longer barrel, or a larger propellant charge. However, lighter bullets tended to slow down more quickly after leaving the barrel due to air resistance.
The brass cartridge was pressed tightly against the bolt and the walls of the chamber by the propellant gas, forming a gas-tight seal and ensuring that the hot propellant gas had nowhere to go but out the barrel behind the bullet. The bullet was also designed to form a gas-tight seal with the walls of the barrel. The interior of the barrel was rifled; that is, it had shallow spiral grooves cut into it. The rifling in the barrel imparted a spin to the bullet, which greatly increased its accuracy. Once the bullet was fired, the empty cartridge was extracted from the chamber by an extractor that hooked onto the rim or extracting groove at the rear of the cartridge. A new round could now be loaded.
All small arms were subject to fouling by a
combination of gunpowder residues and lead from the bullets. Fouling
could be minimized by firing at a lower muzzle velocity, by firing
bullets with copper or steel jackets, or by plating the inside of the
barrel with chromium (an
expensive process reserved for the most sophisticated small arms.)
Nevertheless, all small arms required periodic cleaning to remove
fouling and other grime, and the skill of rapidly breaking down and
reassembling their small arms was part of the basic training of new
International law prohibited the use of bullets designed to expand or explode on impact with a human target. (This restriction did not apply to antiaircraft or antitank ammunition.) The prohibition of expanding or exploding bullets reflected the belief that seeking to kill rather than merely disable the enemy was cruelty beyond the necessity of war. In practical terms, while a wounded soldier might live to fight another day, he also required the assistance of his comrades, so a wounded soldier reduced the manpower immediately available to the enemy more than a dead soldier did. As a result, the restriction on exploding and expanding bullets was mostly honored during the Pacific War.
Magazines. Many small
arms were equipped with a magazine
that could hold a number of rounds of ammunition. The loading mechanism
ejected any spent cartridge from the chamber, fed a fresh round
from the magazine into the chamber, and cocked the firing pin. Older
bolt-action rifles had an integral magazine, built into
the rifle, while more modern rifles used a detachable magazine that
could be quickly removed and replaced with a
U.S. Army. Via Wikimedia Commons
Either kind of magazine had to be reloaded with fresh rounds once it was emptied. In some cases the ammunition was supplied in a clip that was inserted as a unit into the magazine (an en bloc clip), and which could be removed when empty and replaced with a fresh clip. This largely eliminated the need for a removable magazine.
Other magazines, particularly on older
weapons, could be loaded with individual bullets, or they could be
loaded from a charger (also known as a stripper clip.) The charger
placed on the top of the magazine and the rounds in the clip were
pressed down with a thumb to "strip" them into the magazine. The empty
then usually discarded.
Revolvers were handguns that used a revolving cylinder to hold ammunition. They were reloaded by either breaking open the action or by swinging the cylinder to one side.
Ammunition for light machine guns
was usually stored in a large magazine or fed from a hopper. Medium and
heavy machine guns capable of very
high volumes of fire used belted ammunition, in which hundreds of rounds
were clipped into a long belt. Belted ammunition could be further
subdivided into disintegrating and non-disintegrating belted ammunition.
Older machine guns used non-disintegrating belts, in which rounds were
inserted into individual pockets or clips in a continuous cloth or metal
belt. Each round was extracted in turn from its pocket by the machine
gun, leaving an empty belt that could be reloaded by hand.
Disintegrating belts consisted of rounds connected to each other by
metal links, and as each round was extracted from its links, the links
fell apart and were ejected from the machine gun. Disintegrating belts
were widely used for aircraft machine guns,
where the trouble of dealing with empty belts was not worth the ease and
economy of reloading the belt. In land or sea warfare, the links could
be gathered up and reused, though it required special tools to
reassemble links and fresh rounds into a new belt.
A few machine guns used strip ammunition, which functioned like short, rigid ammunition belts. In practice, strip ammunition combined the worst features of belted and magazine ammunition.
were loaded manually. The soldier worked a handle on the bolt that
pulled the bolt back from the chamber and extracted any spent round,
then pushed the bolt forward, inserting a fresh round into the chamber
and cocking the firing pin. This had to be
done after each round was fired. By contrast, automatic weapons
used some of the energy of a fired round
to automatically load and fire the next round. The mechanism for
tapping this energy (the action) operated in one of three ways.
Recoil actions took advantage of the recoil of the entire bolt and barrel assembly to work the loader. This was a simple and robust approach, but because the heavy barrel recoiled at relatively low velocity, pure recoil actions were not capable of a high rate of fire. Recoil actions were further subdivided into into short recoil and long recoil actions. In long recoil actions, the barrel and bolt recoiled together, then the bolt was unlocked and a recoil spring forced the barrel back forward while extracting the spent round. After the barrel had moved forward, the bolt was released and also moved forward, chambering a new round and locking back onto the barrel. In short recoil actions, the barrel and bolt recoiled together for only a short distance before the bolt was unlocked and the barrel was brought to a halt. The bolt continued back to eject the spend round, then a recoil spring pushed the bolt forward, chambering the next round and locking the bolt back onto the barrel. The bolt and barrel then moved forward the remaining short distance into firing position. Recoil actions could also be subdivided into open bolt or closed bolt actions. In closed bolt actions, the firing cycle began with the round already fully chambered and ready to fire. In open bolt actions, the firing cycle began with the bolt fully recoiled. When the trigger was pulled, the bolt was released to move forward, load the first round, and fire it. Open bolt actions were mechanically simpler and had less tendency to overheat than closed bolt actions, since the chamber was open to the air between bursts, but the open bolt imposed a noticeable delay between pulling the trigger and firing the first round and had a greater tendency to be inaccurate with the first few rounds.
Blowback actions relied on the
recoil of the bolt alone. The
faster motion of the relatively light bolt improved the rate of fire,
but the bolt could not be locked to the rear of the barrel at the moment
of firing, because this would neutralize the recoil. The resulting
loose seal meant that blowback actions were unsafe to use with high
chamber pressures. Simple blowback actions relied on the inertia of a
relatively heavy bolt, which took enough time to recoil that the bullet
was already out of the barrel and the chamber pressure reduced to safe
levels before the chamber was opened. Advanced primer ignition (API)
blowback actions were open bolt actions that fired the round while the
bolt was still moving forward
into the chamber. Thus the recoil had to overcome not only the inertia
of the bolt, but also its forward momentum, which permitted the use of a
lighter bolt and more powerful ammunition. This also improved the rate
of fire and reduced the recoil felt by the operator. However, API
blowback actions had to be finely tuned to a specific cartridge.
tapped some of the gas out of the barrel to push on a piston that
worked the loader. This mechanism was complicated, but allowed a high
rate of accurate fire.
There were many variations on the three basic
actions, and some weapons, such as the German MG42, used a combination
of recoil and gas mechanisms (boosted recoil) to achieve a very high
rate of fire.
Whichever action was used, an automatic weapon
kept firing as long as the trigger was kept
and there was ammunition remaining. However, rapid fire generated a
great deal of heat while expending large amounts of ammunition, so
automatic weapons were usually fired in short bursts to saturate a
target area. They were also equipped with a cooling system to dissipate
heat more rapidly. Air-cooled weapons had cooling fins or jackets that
increased the area in contact with the air. Liquid-cooled systems
circulated water or some other coolant from a reservoir to a jacket
around the barrel. The best liquid-cooled systems could keep the barrel
cool indefinitely, so that the weapon could fire almost nonstop for
hours. Air-cooled systems were not as efficient, and the weapon had to
cease firing at intervals to allow the cooling system to catch up with
the heat generated.
Semiautomatic weapons resembled automatic weapons in that part of the energy of a fired round was used to automatically load the next round. However, this round was not automatically fired. A separate pull on the trigger was required to fire each round, as with a bolt-action weapon, but there was no need to work the bolt between shots. This simplified the firing cycle and meant that less training was required for a rifleman to achieve a high rate of aimed fire.
Other Components. The part of a weapon that housed
the working parts (typically the barrel breech, bolt, magazine port,
firing pin, and trigger mechanism) was known as the receiver. This was
the heart of the weapon and was often imprinted with a unique serial
number. (Such imprinting is required by law in most 21st century
Rifles and submachine guns typically had a stock, which was a
wooden or metal frame structure to the rear of the receiver that rested
against the infantryman's shoulder when he fired the weapon. This both
steadied the weapon and allowed the shoulder to absorb the recoil. The
stock of a rifle was also sometimes spoken of as the butt of the rifle.
Small arms had sights used to aim the weapon, typically
taking the form of either forward and rear sights that were lined up
with each other and the target or a small telescope equipped with cross
hairs. The latter was rarely used except on sniper
rifles. Many small arms had adjustments to their sights that not only
allowed the sights to be calibrated, but also allowed the sights to be
adjusted for the curved trajectory of a bullet fired at long range.
A variety of small arms were employed within the
Pistols were used by every army engaged in the Pacific War, typically as side arms for officers and NCOs and for crews of heavy weapons, tanks, and aircraft. They were short-range defensive weapons. Pistols typically fired a relatively heavy bullet at low muzzle velocity and with limited accuracy. All military pistols were either revolvers or semiautomatics with a magazine capacity of six to eight rounds.
Rifles were the traditional mainstay
of the infantry squad. Most were
capable of accurate fire at ranges of
hundreds of yards in the
of a trained marksman. Most armies began the war equipped with
bolt-action rifles, but gas-action semiautomatic rifles were
introduced by the United States
early in the Pacific War. A rifle magazine typically held five to ten
Carbines were short, lightweight rifles introduced
to give more
defensive firepower to heavy weapon crews. They were also used by paratroopers, for whom their
lighter weight was important.
Antitank rifles were large-caliber, high-velocity rifles that fired a very heavy armor piercing round. They could not penetrate armor thicker than about 30mm (1.2 inches), but could be devastating against light tanks and armored cars. They were replaced with more effective shaped-charge weapons as the war progressed.
Machine guns were fully automatic weapons supplied with large quantities of ammunition. Most machine guns were crew-served weapons, meaning that more than one man was required to operate the machine gun at full firepower. Typically one man was the gunner, responsible for aiming and firing, and one or two other men were loaders, responsible for keeping the machine gun supplied with ammunition. Since machine guns were heavy, it was also useful to have more than one soldier to carry parts of the gun or its ammunition.
Machine guns were further categorized as light, medium, or
heavy machine guns. Heavy machine guns were distinguished by their use
of a heavy round, at least 0.50 caliber (12.7mm), but the distinction
between light and medium machine guns was often made more on the basis
of intended use than on any weapons characteristics: Light machine guns
were meant to be issued to individual infantry squads, while medium
machine guns were controlled at the platoon level or above.
It became increasingly clear during the Second World War that machine guns were the main source of firepower for the line infantry. Allied operational researchers concluded that a machine gun had the firepower of nine riflemen. The Germans realized this well before hostilities commenced, and their riflemen were taught that keeping the squad machine gun firing was their primary task. The British were very slow to accept the diminished role of riflemen, while the United States tried to employ the Browning automatic rifle in the role of a squad light machine gun, with only limited success. The Japanese never really accepted firepower as the arbiter of combat success, but their formal platoon organization was based on the German model and they made particularly effective use of machine guns in defensive situations.
Another trend in small arms during
the Second World War was
the increased use of submachine guns for close-quarter
fighting. A submachine
gun is essentially a fully automatic pistol with a large magazine, and
submachine guns used pistol ammunition. All participants in
the Pacific War
were slow to adopt them, with the exception of the U.S. Marines, who
embraced the Thompson submachine
gun. The British eventually made extensive use of the Sten
Japanese produced submachine guns only in very limited quantities,
which saw combat primarily with their paratroops.
The Japanese deployed some fine small arms, but many others were clumsy and mediocre, and the Japanese did a poor job of standardizing on ammunition. This fragmented the already inadequate Japanese munitions industry.
U.S. Army. Via ibiblio.org
Japanese pistols were uniformly poor, possibly
because of the strong tradition of the sword
as an officer's proper
sidearm. The most
common pistol was the
Nambu, an 8mm semiautomatic which superficially resembled the German
Luger, but which was marred by a badly-placed safety and a
was much too difficult to remove when empty. The striker spring was too
quickly wore out, causing misfires, so the standard holster came with a
pocket for replacement springs. The Nambu was expensive to
build, so the
Japanese began issuing the Type 94, another 8mm semiautomatic, which
had a very
low muzzle velocity, was prone to accidental firing, and was
mechanically very unreliable. It is
widely regarded as the worst military pistol ever issued, and one
authority has stated that "the Type 94 is a pistol that should not be
carried or fired; it is a collector's piece only" (Bishop and Drury
|Type 04 Nambu Pistol
|Type 94 Pistol
Arisaka Type 38 rifle with bayonet
Arisaka Type 99 rifle with bayonet
U.S. Army. Via ibiblio.org
The Japanese rifle was almost always the Arisaka, a bolt action rifle based loosely on the German Mauser that was little changed from the First World War. The original Type 38 fired a rather small 6.5mm round, which was upgraded to 7.7mm in the Type 99, based on combat experience in Manchuria. However, both rifles remained in service, complicating the supply situation. Most of the Type 99 went to Manchuria. The integral magazine could hold five rounds. Because of the limitations of Japanese metallurgy, the barrel could not take a very high chamber pressure, but the Japanese compensated by making the barrel unusually long. The rifle came with an enormous bayonet that looked almost comical when carried by the average Japanese infantryman, who was shorter than his Western counterpart. However, the Arisaka proved satisfactory for jungle fighting, where its weak report and lack of flash and smoke aided concealment. On the other hand, its bullet made a distinctive cracking sound that was easily distinguished from Allied rifles during firefights, and some Japanese veterans envied the higher effective rate of fire of Allied rifles.
Both the Type 38 and the Type 99 came in carbine versions,
and these were issued almost interchangeably with the long rifles. The
Type 97 sniper
rifle was essentially a Type 38 with a telescopic sight, a modified
bolt to clear the sight, and a wire monopod. There was also a sniper
version of the Type 99.
As the blockade on the Japanese home island tightened, the
quality of arms manufacture deteriorated markedly. The basic Arisaka
design was simplified as much as possible and inferior materials and
workmanship were evident in rifles produced after 1943. There was even
some production of single-shot rifles using 8mm pistol ammunition and
of black-powder rifles.
|Arisaka Type 38 Rifle
|Artisaka Type 99 Rifle
The Japanese produced a limited
number of Type 100
submachine guns, mostly for paratroopers. This weapon came
with a bayonet and was
rather rifle-like in appearance, suggesting that the Japanese had the
confusion about the proper role of submachine guns as was evident with
nations. It may also have been largely symbolic in an army that
retained an anachronistic fondness for cold steel. The Type 100 used
the feeble 8mm pistol round and was
but the barrel was chrome-plated, which gave it a long life and
resistance to dirt. Few reached the front line, except
possibly in parachute
units. The parachute version was equipped with a folding stock and saw
service in the attack on Palembang.
|Type 100 Submachine Gun
Type 92 machine gun
U.S. Army. Via ibiblio.org
The Japanese were fond of machine
guns and based most of
theirs on the French Hotchkiss.
The Type 92 medium machine gun, known to
the Allies as the "Woodpecker" because of its relatively slow rate of
fire, was nonetheless an effective support weapon and popular with the
troops. However, the
mechanism was violent
enough that an oil reservoir had to be added to oil the cartridges.
This acted as a powerful dirt magnet and made for very rapid chamber
wear. Other drawbacks of the Type 92 were its considerable weight (122
lbs or 55.5 kg) and its use of 7.7mm 30-round strip ammunition
instead of belts. The weight was overcome by providing sockets for
poles in the front two legs of the tripod mount and a pair of
handlebars for the back leg (visible in the photograph above), which
allowed three men to pick up and move the weapon without disassembling
it first. The weapon was air cooled via large cooling fins on
|Type 92 Machine Gun
Type 11 machine gun
U.S. Army. Via ibiblio.org
Type 96 machine gun
U.S. Army. Via ibiblio.org
The Type 11 light machine
gun was intended from the start as a squad machine gun, and
it was fed from 6.5mm rifle clips fed into a hopper. However, the
feed mechanism proved too weak for regular rifle cartridges, so a
special low-power round had to be developed, eliminating the advantage
rifle clips and further complicating supply. Like the Type 92, the Type
11 used oiled cartridges that attracted grit and had large cooling fins
that made it an ugly, clumsy-looking
weapon. The Type 11 was replaced by the similar
Type 96 beginning in 1922. The new design still required
low-power cartridges, and it eliminated the oil reservoir in favor of
oiling the cartridges when they were loaded into the magazine. If
anything, this was worse than the oil reservoir. The Type 96 also had a
small telescopic sight and, incredibly for a machine gun, a bayonet
|Type 11 Light Machine Gun|
Type 96 Light Machine Gun
In the Type
99 the Japanese finally had a reliable and effective machine gun. It used the newer 7.7mm rifle
away with oiled cartridges. However, it required more extensive machining and could not be produced as
rapidly as the
situation demanded, and it did not reach the front lines until
|Type 99 Light Machine Gun|
In spite of their limitations, the
Japanese made excellent use of their light machine guns as squad
employing them well forward, in ambush,
even as a sniper weapon. Each infantry squad had a light machine gun, and each battalion had a machine gun company of two platoons with four medium machine guns each.
U.S. Army. Via Wikipedia
The Japanese Type 97 antitank rifle was a large, very heavy weapon that fired its 20mm rounds only in fully automatic mode. It could be manhandled to a new firing location, using a special carrying arrangement not unlike that of the Type 92 machine gun, though this took four men. The weapon was quite complicated, probably to reduce the violent recoil to a tolerable level. It was expensive to manufacture, and the authorized allotment was just two per battalion. There are indications that even this sparse allotment could not be met, though some were used (to little effect) at Okinawa and a few might have been used to shoot at armored landing craft in the islands of the Pacific.
|Type 97 Antitank Rifle|
The 13.2mm Type 93 heavy
machine gun saw limited use in land warfare.
British small arms, which were also used by Australians and New Zealanders,
distinguished by extreme
conservatism, which meant that most were simple and reliable but
undistinguished. With the exception of the older revolvers still in
service, all British small arms used either the 9mm Parabellum or the 0.303 SAA rimmed cartridge
, which simplified production and logistics. The 0.303 was not ideal
for machine guns but there were factories throughout the Empire set up
for its manufacture.
Copyright © "Commander Zulu". Via Wikimedia Commons
Browning semiautomatic pistol
Copyright © Bob Adams. Via Wikimedia Commons
The most common pistol was the
Enfield revolver, which fired
a 0.38 round and required considerable training for effective
use. One flaw was that it required a very strong trigger pull, which
tended to spoil the aim. It was not
popular. It was supplemented by the much better American Smith and
0.38 revolver. An even
better pistol was the Browning 9mm semiautomatic, which had a large
magazine (13 rounds) and
was immensely popular with the commando and airborne
units lucky enough to receive it. The Browning was originally
manufactured in Belgium, but plans were brought to Britain in 1939 and
production began in Canada in 1943, initially for the Chinese but then for the British.
Smith and Wesson 1917 Revolver|
|Browning Model 35 Hi-Power Pistol
Copyright © "Commander Zulu". Via Wikimedia Commons
Britain never put a semiautomatic
sticking with the Lee-Enfield bolt action rifle to the end of
war. This was an excellent
rifle, capable of very rapid and accurate fire, but only if the soldier
exquisitely well-trained in its use. The magazine held ten
rounds and was detachable, but was usually loaded from clipper strips
the field. The rifle used a 0.303 round
was unnecessarily powerful and
required very careful loading to avoid jams. In spite of its
drawbacks, the Enfield
was beloved by the troops, and few ever picked up a Garand in
preference their Enfield.
|Lee-Enfield Rifle Number 4
The Lee-Enfield had a relatively short barrel,
which was intended to allow it to bridge the gap between rifle and
carbine. However, the British later produced a true carbine version,
the Number 5 Mark I, for use in jungle fighting.
Though very light, it used the same 0.303 cartridge that was already
unnecessarily powerful for a long rifle, which gave it a nasty recoil
and poor accuracy. It was deeply unpopular and was dropped from service
after just a year and a half.
|Lee-Enfield Rifle Number 5
Library and Archives Canada. Via Wikimedia Commons
Britain was slow to accept the
submachine gun concept,
considering this a "gangster weapon" unsuitable for the
military. Military authorities clung to the view that infantry were to
engage the enemy at 600 yards with aimed rifle fire, and turn to the
bayonet at close range. But somehow the British came up with the Sten
submachine gun of the war. It was flimsy and prone to
jamming, but it also was
very easy to manufacture, requiring only the simplest machine tools,
and it was easy to break down. Later
versions were more
robust and were used in large numbers by the airborne forces. The gun
copied by partisan and resistance
groups in Europe and even by the
Germans, who called theirs the MP3008. It continued to be manufactured
by irregular forces in the postwar world.
|Sten Mark II
Bren machine gun
Vickers machine gun
British machine guns were based on
sensible and effective
designs. The Bren light machine gun, which was based on the Czech Brno
ZB26, was reliable, simple, and
accurate and was probably the best light machine gun of the war. Its
only weakness was a slight tendency to jam, due to the use of rimmed
ammunition requiring a curved magazine, but jams were quickly and
easily cleared. It was also an expensive gun to manufacture, and there
was little room for simplification other than discarding the tripod
mounting. It is
still in use today. The Vickers-Berthier light machine gun
had a high rate of
fire, as high as 1200 rpm in the later versions, and was manufactured
for use by the Indian Army. It
closely resembled the Bren and tended to be supplemented by it in the Indian Army as the war
progressed. The Vickers medium machine gun was a
very old design, based on the Maxim,
that was viewed as all but infallible by the British Army. It
water-cooled, which made it heavy and clumsy, so that it required
manpower; but it could fire for hours at targets up to 4000 yards away.
During the Somme offensive in the First World War, one Vickers fired an
average of 10,000 rounds an hour for twelve hours without failure and
while remaining serviceable afterwards.
|Bren Mark 2 Light Machine Gun|
|Vickes-Berthier Light Machine Gun|
|Vickers Medium Machine Gun
National Park Service. Via Wikimedia Commons
The Boys antitank rifle was
manufactured in larger numbers
than any other antitank rifle in the world. It was adopted in 1937,
steel-cored 15mm bullet (fired at 3250 feet per second or 1000 meters
per second) could penetrate any tank in the world, but like every other
antitank rifle it quickly became obsolete. Though equipped with a very
thick rubber butt, it kicked like a mule when fired. It was quite
against Italian tanks
in North Africa, less so against the heavier German tanks. It
was used to
effect against Japanese tanks in Malaya,
by the time the British were
engaging Japanese armor formations again, it had been replaced with the
|Boys Mark 1 Antitank Rifle
American small arms were robust,
reliable, based on
standardized ammunition types, and produced in huge numbers. All
American small arms except the 0.50 Browning heavy machine gun used
either the 0.45 (11mm) pistol round or the 0.30 (7.6mm) rifle round,
although a slightly less powerful version of the 0.30 was used for the
M1 carbine. The
emphasized firepower and included a heavy weapons platoon in its
Colt semiautomatic pistol
The Colt M1911A1 semiautomatic pistol was
ubiquitous in the American
forces. This was an excellent design by American inventor
John Browning, whose
large 0.45 round made it the most powerful pistol used in the
war. It was
strong and safe, it was remarkably accurate for a pistol, and it is
today. It was probably the finest pistol produced during the war. Its
only drawback was that its round was arguably too powerful, requiring a fair
amount of practice to shoot the pistol accurately. There were not
enough to go around; the Navy was
compelled to use the
Smith and Wesson revolver, which was not itself a bad weapon.
|Colt M1911A1 Pistol
M1 Garand Rifle
U.S. Army. Via Wikipedia
U.S. Navy. Via ibiblio.org
The United States was the first
nation to arm its troops
with a semiautomatic rifle, the M1 Garand. This excellent weapon
had a distinctive
double-barrel appearance due to the presence of the gas recoil
the actual barrel. It was robust and hard-hitting, and it had
tendency to kick up when fired. It also used the same ammunition as the
1913 Springfield, of which vast quantities were left over from the
First World War. The magazine had the unique and
somewhat peculiar feature that it automatically ejected the clip when
emptied, leaving the action open for loading a fresh clip into the
Though this theoretically increased the maximum rate of sustained fire,
the distinctive sound made by the ejected clip when landing on hard
ground could be a tactical disadvantage, and it was not possible to top
off the clip without removing it from the magazine first. The most
important weakness of the
Garand in jungle fighting was that the
gunpowder used in its cartridges produced a bright flash and a large
puff of smoke, spoiling concealment.
A carbine version of the Garand, the M1 Carbine,
introduced. It was quite popular because of its light recoil and
pleasant handling. It
used a short-stroke gas piston in place of the long-stroke piston in
the Garand rifle, so it lacked the double-barreled appearance. The
carbine fired a pistol cartridge and so was somewhat lacking in
accuracy and stopping power. Experimental versions with a capability
for full automatic fire and a 30-round magazine never saw operational
use, but it became common practice to attach a canvas pouch to the
stock with a couple of extra magazines, in anticipation of rapid fire.
were not enough Garands to go around at first, and many of
the early actions of the Pacific War were fought with the 1903
bolt action rifle. The Springfield was similar to the Enfield but fired
a slightly smaller 0.30 round and had an integral magazine holding five
rounds. Its bolt was also slightly more difficult to work, giving it a
slightly slower rate of fire. One peculiarity was that it had a
magazine cutoff so that it could act as a single-loader rifle. This
rifle continued to be manufactured
until 1944, though
by then it was primarily used in rear areas or by snipers. Like the
British Enfield, it could be very
accurate in well-trained hands, and some Marines were
reluctant to exchange
theirs for Garands.
|M1 Garand Rifle|
A small number of Marine parachute units made use of the M1914
Johnson rifle, which was a recoil-driven semiautomatic rifle with a
10-round magazine. However, the desire to standardize weaponry,
combined with the lesser degree of development of the weapon, ensured
that it never saw widespread use.
Thompson submachine gun
M3 submachine gun.
U.S. Navy. Via ibiblio.org
The most famous American submachine
gun was the Thompson. This controversial weapon fired 0.45 pistol
rounds at low muzzle velocity, giving it a very short range but great
stopping power. It was heavy and very expensive to manufacture,
required constant maintenance, and had a tendency to overheat. When
fired in combat, it sounded similar to the Japanese Type 92 machine
which meant that a soldier firing the Thompson might draw fire from his own side.
Australian troops were fond of the Thompson, as were those
American troops who fought alongside the Australians in New Guinea, but the Thompson was
not popular with troops fighting in the Solomons.
The U.S. Army replaced the Thompson with the M3 "Grease Gun", a simple and easily manufactured weapon that deserved a better reputation than it got. The M3 had a slow enough rate of fire that it could easily be held on target and needed no single-shot arrangement. It cost about half of what a Thompson cost, and it was all but immune to dirt. It could also be rapidly converted to fire German 9mm ammunition. But it looked cheap and was not well liked.
The Marines experimented with the Reising, which became the principle individual small arm of 1 Marine Parachute Battalion during the Guadalcanal campaign. A closed bolt design, this submachine gun proved overly complicated and mechanically unreliable (the Marine paratroopers soon dubbed it the "Rusting Gun"), and the Americans ended up trying to dump most of the production run on their allies.
|M1 Thompson Submachine Gun|
|M3A1 Submachine Gun
Shotguns, which fire a pattern of small pellets rather than a single large bullet, were banned by the Geneva Convention and were therefore not standard issue. However, some Americans regarded the Geneva shotgun ban as an outrageous anachronism in a day of high-velocity bullets and high explosives, and a few shotguns found their way to the front line. Shotguns were lethal at short range, but lost their punch so rapidly that they were excellent for avoiding friendly fire casualties in half-blind situations.
0.50 Browning machine gun
Browning 0.30 machine gun with water cooling
U.S. Navy. Via ibiblio.org
The American medium machine gun was the 0.30 Browning M1919, which came in both water-cooled and air-cooled versions. The water-cooled Browning, like the British Vickers, could fire indefinitely, but by the end of the war, almost all Brownings still in service were air-cooled. The heavy machine gun was the 0.50 Browning M2, which was thought to have enough armor-penetrating capability that the American Army never fielded an antitank rifle. The 0.50, which is still in use today, has superb ballistics but is very heavy and lacked the rate of fire required for the antiaircraft role. Both Brownings were considered resounding successes in land combat.
|Browning 0.30 M1919A4 Machine Gun|
|Browning 0.50 M2 Machine Gun
Heritage Museum. Via Wikipedia
The great weakness in American small arms was the lack of a decent light machine gun. The U.S. Army chose instead to equip its squads with the Browning M1918A2 automatic rifle, which proved too light to be a good light machine gun and too heavy to be a good automatic rifle. Though designed to be fired from the hip, its recoil was violent enough that it was almost impossible to keep this weapon on target, and later versions came with a bipod for firing from the prone position. Its small magazine (20 rounds) was inadequate for the role this weapon was asked to fill. The action was too light, making the weapon subject to rapid wear. Nevertheless, the BAR was popular with the troops, perhaps out of national chauvinism or because they didn't know better.
|Browning Automatic Rifle
It need not have been so. The Johnson light
machine gun, developed in the mid-1930s from the M1914 Johnson rifle,
was a serviceable weapon with
potential for further refinement, but only a small number were produced
for the Marines and Rangers
after an order for the Netherlands
was canceled when that area was overrun by the Japanese. This weapon
was so arranged
that air could flow through the barrel to cool it after every burst.
Some sources claim it was easily topped off with Springfield rifle
clips, but this is dubious given the horizontal placement of the
magazine. Its rate of fire
was highly adjustable. It was not mechanically robust, and it is not
clear if the weapon could be belt-fed, but these problems
might have been solved with further development if the Army had not
been so committed to the BAR.
attempt later in the war to produce a light machine gun from the medium
Browning failed to catch on, so the Americans fought the entire war
adequate squad light machine gun. However, Marine corporal Tony Stein carried a light machine gun on Iwo Jima
which had been improvised from a 0.30 Browning salvaged from a wrecked
Navy aircraft. He used the weapon to effect during the battle, winning
a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Accounts differ on whether this weapon, known as the "Stinger", was
Stein's invention (Leckie 1962) or was improvised by Sergeant Mel
Grevich, who had time and resources to provide just six
"Stingers" to his battalion,
which included Stein (Morgan 2006.) Since it was improvised from an
aircraft machine gun meant to be cooled by the slip stream, it would
almost certainly have had serious problems with overheating in land
combat, and accounts agree that it was voracious in its appetite for
ammunition. The improvisation was never officially adopted nor are
there any indications it saw service outside of 5 Marine Division.
For the most part, the Australians used the same
weapons as the British, but there were two interesting
Australians built their own version of the Sten, known as the Austen
(from "Australian Sten"). This was more reliable than the
original Sten, but its buttstock was built too long for comfort for
Australian War Memorial. Via Wikimedia Commons
The Australians had meanwhile come up with their own submachine gun, the Owen, which was much more popular. The Owen was a very odd weapon, with its 33-round magazine sticking straight up above the action. As a result, the sights had to be offset to the right. However, the magazine was quite reliable, in part because gravity worked with rather than against the feed, and the action itself was carefully sealed against dirt. The weapon was difficult to manufacture and rather heavy, but was robust and well liked by the troops. It remained in service until 1962.
|Owen Machine Carbine
There were manufacturing facilities in Australia for an
earlier version of the Lee-Enfield rifle, the Number 1 Rifle, which
thus saw some use by Australians in the Southwest Pacific. It was
slightly lighter and had a slightly lower muzzle velocity, was
significantly more difficult to manufacture, but was otherwise identical to the Lee-Enfield Number 4 Rifle.
China was almost competely
dependent on imported small arms for its army. Domestic arms production
was limited to a small number of weapons of older German
design produced under license, such as Mauser rifles and Maxim machine
guns. These also were the chief weapons found in front line units in
the early part of the war. American weapons began to appear as the war
progressed, though these were usually whatever could be spared rather
than the latest models. There were never enough weapons to go around,
and one estimate is that up to a third of the men in most Chinese
divisions carried no firearms at all. These men were employed
as human pack animals, since
there were not enough horses, let alone
motor vehicles, to meet transportation needs. Based on contemporary
photographs, many Chinese troops carried dadao swords for close combat.
The Chinese did receive the first Canadian production run of the Browning 9mm automatic pistol, and were particularly fond of the rather bizarre wooden holster stock optimistically developed for the weapon. This converted the pistol into a kind of ersatz carbine.
Another weapon foisted on the Chinese was the Mauser Model 1932 machine pistol. This weapon was much too light for any but the first round of a burst to come near the target, and it was so poorly cooled that it was dangerously prone to "cooking off": After a few bursts, the weapon spontaneously fired itself from residual heat in the chamber.
Curiously, the Chinese manufactured a number of copycat Thompson submachine guns, in spite of their complexity. If typical Chinese Nationalist Army practice was followed, these would have been issued only to trusted troops far behind the front line, where the weapons were less likely to be lost in battle.
Some 576 British Boys antitank rifles were supplied to the Chinese in early 1943 for use in Burma.
Bishop and Drury (1987)
Collie and Marutani (2009)
"Handbook on Japanese Military Forces" (1944-9; accessed 2012-3-13)
Morgan (2006; accessed 2011-5-30)
OPNAVE 33-40 (1944; accessed 2012-11-28)
Romanus and Sunderland (1953)
rt66.com (accessed 2012-3-13)
The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia © 2007-2009, 2011-2013 by Kent G. Budge. Index
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