Recently we’ve been talking about AT Rifles. The biggest that were deployed were the semi-auto Solothurn (used by Germany and Hungary), the comparable Lahti (Finland), in 20mm, and the daddy of them all, the 20 x 125mm Type 97 of Japan.
You don’t hear much about Japanese anti-tank warfare. In part this is because, by the time Japanese forces were about to fight Allied tanks, they were logistically starved, down to eating tree bark, and, in some of the last island campaigns, their own and American dead.
The 1200 Type 97s made were scattered across the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. You couldn’t count on a supply of special anti-tank ammunition. Anti-tank tactics, for the retreating Japanese, involved infantry swarms on isolated tanks, or use of anti-tank artillery or general purpose field guns in direct-fire AT engagements.
The Russians had already encountered (and captured) some of these weapons in the fighting at Khalkin Gol in the so-called Manchurian Incident in 1939, so they knew what to expect when they declared war on Japan in 1945. The US on the other hand did not see the weapon until late in the war (we believe, in the Philippines).
The Type 97 was a real beast, weighing 50 kilograms empty (110 lbs). There is some irony in the nation with the smallest soldiers producing the largest anti-tank rifle. The Japanese Army had a clever solution — handles clipped on to the rifle that let four men carry it, like stretcher bearers (a similar approach was used to handle heavy machine guns).
The gas-operated semi-auto rifle was fired from a bipod attached to the gas tube and a rear monopod attached to the forward end of the buttstock. It used a locking wedge to hold a bolt and carrier together initially on firing. We’ve never seen a photo with an optical sight, but there must have been one; Japan made superior optics even then, and many Japanese MGs were fitted with optical sights so it stands to reason the AT rifle would have had them.
By 1944 the AT rifle was a no-hoper in terms of engaging American tanks. But Japan’s ally, Germany, came through with samples and drawings of the Panzerschreck aka Ofenrohr anti-tank weapon. Essentially it was the US Army’s 2.36 inch rocket launcher, scaled up to 88mm bore (about 3.5″) and capable of a frontal-armor penetration and kill on most world tanks.
Japan made a modified copy of the German AT rocket launcher, which they called the Type 4 Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher. The firing mechanism was a direct copy, and the rocket and warhead were very similar, albeit scaled down to 75mm.
The tube was a meter and a half long (1525mm, or 61″). Fortunately, the unwieldy tube broke down into two halves for carrying. Crew drill and firing positions were very similar to that of the American or German counterparts, although the Japanese provided a bipod like the one on their light machine guns. The sighting system was rudimentary: a rear peep sight and two front posts, one over the other, the upper post for 50 meters and the lower accounting for the rocket drop at 100 meters. The sights were welded to the left side of the tube and protruded about 2 inches to the left; the gunner took the left side and the loader the right of the weapon. As with any rocket launcher, the backblast was hazardous and the launch signature made the area of the launch a magnet for enemy suppressive fire.
This weapon, had it been issued in quantity, might have been problematic for American (and once they joined the war on Japan in the summer of ’45, Russian) tankers, except that production of the system began very late, and very few were produced (perhaps only hundreds). Those that were produced may have been retained for defense of the home islands, a defense that was canceled by the unconditional Japanese surrender to the Allied Powers. A Honshu defender who had a Type 4 was well equipped indeed, as many of his fellows had nought but lunge mines (which are exactly what they sound like) or bamboo spears. Still, he would one of millions of lives saved by the nuclear bombing and resulting cancellation of the invasion, and is probably a lucky man that he never fired a Type 4 at an American tank.
Natzvaladze, Yuri A. The Trophies of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1996.
Popenker, Maxim. Type 97 anti-tank rifle (Japan). World.guns.ru, n.d. Retrieved from: http://world.guns.ru/atr/jap/type-97-e.html