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Anti-Tank Rifle Type 97

When it came to anti-tank rifles, the Japanese general staff decided to go one better than most contemporary designs and produce a rifle firing a powerful 20 mm cartridge. This emerged as the Anti-Tank Rifle type 97, and while it was certainly a powerful weapon by anyone’s standards, it was also extremely heavy, weighing 67.5 kg (148.8 lb) when being carried; it was not a weapon for the basic rifleman. Much of this weight was the result of a gas operated mechanism which was locked by a tilting breech block. Most other anti-tank rifles used a long bolt action as opposed to a heavy and complex semi-automatic mechanism. The ammunition was fed from an overhead seven round box magazine.

Once emplaced, the Type 97 used a bipod mounted just forward of the body and a monopod under the butt to support ponderous weapon. Despite the tremendous recoil, the rifle was intended to be aimed and fired from the shoulder in a laying position. This alone probably made the rifle about as popular as a severely bruised shoulder.

The Type 97 was carried like a stretcher using two specially designed cross-bars and two men, however due to the weight, four soldiers were frequently employed in transportation. It was possible to fit a small shield to the rifle for extra protection; to this shield could be added additional carrying bars that looked like bicycle handlebars. However, few examples of this addition can be found since it added so much weight to the already hefty weapon. The advantage of the Type 97 as an anti-tank weapon was that it was very low to the ground and hard for enemy forces to spot.

During the early months of the Pacific Campaign the Type 97 proved itself useful against the light tanks then being employed by the Allies. However, with the introduction of heavier tanks, such as the American M4 Sherman, the Type 97 lost much of its battlefield usefulness. At best the Type 97 could penetrate 30 mm of case-hardened armor at a range of 250 m (273 yd). Against any heavier armor it was of little use. The Japanese did not phase out the Type 97, they were far too short on modern weapons to let any be discarded. The once powerful anti-tank rifle could still be used against trucks, half-tracks and other lightly armored targets. Its best substitute use was as an anti-invasion emplacement weapon on numerous islands of strategic importance. The Type 97 could cause damage to landing craft, amphibious vehicles and the light artillery and tank support brought ashore in the early stages of most landings.

Some of the anti-tank capabilities were retained by fitting special grenade launcher cups to some of the weapons. These launcher cups could be secured to the muzzle by means of a locking bar once the circular muzzle brake had been unscrewed. The idea was a copy of the German Schiessbecker grenade launchers and used very similar grenades. But the principle, although partially successful, was more suited to the basic infantryman’s rifle, not the overly complex Type 97.

The ammunition for the Type 97 was produced in several forms. Apart form the usual armor piercing round (with tracer), there were high explosive projectile (with tracer and optional self destruct), a high explosive incendiary round, and a practice round. Why tracers were added to the ammunition I don’t know; the advantage of the Type 97 was that it was hard to spot, and as any good soldier knows: tracers work both ways.

Overall the Type 97 was not used by the Japanese in any great numbers. The complexity of the weapon made it hard to produce, especially later in the war when the Japanese industrial capacity had been decimated by US bombing raids.

Specifications

  • Caliber: 20 mm
  • Lengths: overall- 2.095 m (6 ft 10.5 in)
    barrel- 1.063 m (3 ft 5.9 in)
  • Weights: traveling- 67.5 kg (148.8 lb)
    in action- 51.75 kg (114.1 lb)
    (the difference in weight is due to the addition of the carrying bars)
  • Muzzle Velocity: 793 m (2,602 ft.) per second

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Sources: specifications and specific dates are from The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II, much of this information is from my memory and too many hours watching The History Channel

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