Japanese Infantry Anti-Tank Weapons of WWII

500px-Naval_Ensign_of_Japan.svgRecently 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).

Type 97 AT Rifle with handles (image from world.guns.ru).

Type 97 AT Rifle with handles (image from world.guns.ru).

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.

Japanese Type 4 70mm AT launcher 2 Japanese Type 4 70mm AT launcher

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



16 thoughts on “Japanese Infantry Anti-Tank Weapons of WWII

  1. Boat Guy

    My Dad and Uncle were on tap for OLYMPIC/CORONET. Glad it wasn’t necessary. My Uncle had already been through Luzon and Okinawa.
    I’m a BIG fan of Harry Truman for that reason alone.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yeah. You have to at once admire and be horrified by an Empire that, after being defeated in detail on land, sea, and air, still commanded the loyalty of their civilians — and there could not be one who had not suffered grievous loss to his family, from the war and the bombing — to attack Shermans and Pershings with a suicide explosive on a stick. There’s hard, and there’s hard like woodpecker lips.

      There was no possible doubt about the outcome of OLYMPIC/CORONET, but the gods of Shinto bless ’em, they were going to contest every millimeter of sacred Japanese soil. And die doing it.

      The whole thing might have collapsed when defeat was patent, as the German “Werwolf” insurgency did, but you couldn’t plan for that. They held thousands of planes in reserve with half-trained pilots, and hundreds of midget subs, all bent on suicide.

      It must have been a relief to the Japanese people when the war ended, and a second relief when Macarthur made a show of respecting and retaining the Emperor.

      1. Boat Guy

        Big “might have”, I’ll remain skeptical owing to my belief borne by some travel and living abroad that different people and cultures are to greater or lesser extent “different”. The suicides at Marpi point indicate a desperate fatalism that likely would have prompted a LOT of stick-wielding.
        My Uncle had a photo of a stack of midget subs in the Okinawa AO.

      2. Jjak

        I know I’ve seen some horrific casualty estimates for OLYMPIC based on the rest of the Pacific war. And since the Japanese figured out where CORONET was going to be, and their forces prepared there were much greater than we anticipated when making those horrible estimates… it would’ve been bad. Very very bad. For us and them.

    2. looserounds.com

      My Grandfather was on the boat on the way over when the Japanese said enough

      he never fired a shot in anger and was re directed to occupy the Philippines

  2. RobRoySimmons

    Wasn’t it Oki where the first surrender of decent amount of Japanese troops occurred?

    1. Distant Thunder

      Actually, the first case of 100 or more Japanese military personnel surrendering occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Cape Esperance in October of 1942. After the IJN destroyer Fubuki was sunk during the battle, her XO surrendered most of the crew to USN PT Boats rather than having the PT boats gun them down in their lifeboats. 118 IJN officers and enlisted were taken into captivity.

  3. Brad

    Interesting stuff, I had never heard of the 75mm Type 4 RL.

    I take it the Japanese never bothered with HEAT rifle grenades? If so a really odd blind-spot for the Japanese. Like the blind-spot they had about SMG.

  4. Sommerbiwak

    Did the IJA have a wheeled mount for the type 97? a la Sokolov mount for the Maxim.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Not that I know of. The Soviets experimented with wheeled mounts for AT rifles but never issued one AFAIK. Max tells me there’s a work in manuscript in Russia on Soviet AT Rifles, but the author and publisher have had a falling out.

  5. Tom Stone

    The firebombings were horrific but did nothing to undermine the will of the Japanese people, the A bomb was a game changer and using it undoubtedly saved quite a few live.
    Quite possibly my uncle David’s, he survived two Pacific campaigns with minor wounds ( And later Choisin).
    People who decry the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are well meaning for the most part but lack understanding of the Japanese culture ( Mine ain’t deep).

    1. looserounds.com

      I know many Japanese

      and I have heard many times the half joke from them that they wish Japan would become the 51st state

      to think of the war in the Pacific and the ending, then the rebuilding of Japan and them becoming a part of our economy and a strong stratigic point in the cold war and strong allies.

      who could have ever imagined the way it turned out in ’41?

      The way the USA treats its defeated enemies, and the regard with so many countries no hold us, ( even ones we liberated in WW2) as if we are monsters boggles the mind

    2. Haxo Angmark

      Gar Alperowitz et al are not “well-meaning”. These Reds are ticked because the A-bombs prevented Russian troops from greeting ours on Jap beaches w a warm samovar

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