Named to honour the 11th year of Emperor Taisho’s reign in 1922, the Type 11 was Imperial Japan’s first light machine-gun. It featured an ammunition feed system which, although ingenious, solved one problem only to create another.
Superseded by the Type 96 model in 1936 – which reverted to a more traditional box magazine but failed to resolve other issues satisfactorily – it was not until the introduction of the Type 99 in 1939 that the Japanese arms industry produced a reliable light machine gun. By then, 29,000 of the Type 11 were in use, plus a further 8,600 of the Type 96, effectively committing a significant proportion of the Imperial Japanese Army to imperfect weapons for the duration of the Second World War.
Designed by General Kijiro Nambu, the man behind many of Japan’s small arms, the Type 11 was based on the French Hotchkiss M1909, which was employed by many nations during the First World War, including Great Britain and the United States. Unlike the Hotchkiss, which used either a strip magazine or a belt to feed ammunition, the Japanese version had a hopper that could funnel clips of five bullets supplied for the Type 38 rifle. This meant that any infantryman could supply ammunition for the machine gun. But convenience came at a price.
Water or dust could easily enter the firing mechanism through the open hopper, causing reliability issues. This problem was exacerbated by poor dimensional tolerance between the bolt and gun barrel, which could cause spent shells to jam prior to ejection.
An automatic oiling system was included to lubricate cartridges before they entered the chamber. This might work perfectly on the firing range, but on the battlefield, dirt would mix with the oil to create a sludge that could jam the gun. During the Sino-Japanese war of the early 1930s it also became apparent that the hopper feed made the weapon unbalanced (because all the cartridges were packed on the left side).
So General Nambu developed the Type 96, replacing the hopper with a conventional box magazine containing 30 rounds, similar to those fitted to Bren guns. The oiling system was also revised; the automatic oiler was replaced by a manual system fitted to the magazine loader. However, even though the magazine made the Type 96 more dirt resistant than its predecessor, the lubrication system still carried some dirt into the chamber with the oil, leading to jams.
Three years after its introduction, the Type 96 evolved into the Type 99, which had improved primary extraction and so dispensed with the oiling system altogether. This significantly improved reliability.
However, this new system was designed to be compatible with the Type 99 rifle, which fired different ammunition from the earlier models. Therefore infantry units equipped with the older pattern rifles continued to use the matching Type 11 and 96 machine-guns, while those using the 1939 pattern Type 99 rifle received the matching modern light machine-gun. This meant that soldiers using the older models would be out-gunned on the battlefield by almost all Allied troops they encountered.