The Type 96 Light Machine Gun served with the Imperial Japanese Army from 1936 to the end of World War 2 in 1945. Intended to replace the Type 11 Light Machine Gun, the Type 96 was an improved form but still completed with several inherent design limitations that were still prevelant in the Type 11 before it. Nevertheless, the Type 96 was accepted in quantity and saw combat service through to the end of the war - never replacing the Type 11 formally and never being replaced herself by the cessation of hostilities.
As the Japanese military became evermore committed to total war across Manchuria and China, there naturally developed all-new requirements based on subsequent combat actions. The machine gun had proven its worth since the days of World War 1 and, with more developed doctrines worldwide, the weapon class fitted an all-new need as a suppression system intended to protect allied infantry advances. Gone were the bloody days of trench warfare for strategic manuevering of smaller groups of infantry backed by machine gun fire and light artillery and tanks were proving the norm. Heavy machine gun systems still played their part in any given conflict but it was in the light machine gun that made such suppression firepower at the squad level a viable and portable concept. All major world powers had moved on to developing these light-class weapons for this very purpose and the growing Japanese Army proved no different.
An initial design, the Type 11 developed by fabled Japanese gunsmith (and lifetime Army officer) Kijiro Nambu, appeared in 1922 and proved a limited success. For the most part, the Type 11 was a most conventional weapon system, being of gas-operation utilizing the low-powered 6.5x50mm Arisaka (Meiji 30) rifle round while being fed by a 30-round "Hopper" system. The Hopper method allowed the magazine to house up to six 5-round cartridge "clips" to which the magazine housing stayed attached to the weapon system with the gunnery crew feeding clips into the machine as needed. While quite the solution, the arrangement that made the Type 11 prone to dust collection and environmental debris in the field which would undoubtedly lead to jamming of the internal system. After much experience in the field with their light machine guns across China throughout the early 1930s, Japanese Army troops rallied for a newer weapon of similar scope and function.
Nambu set to work on a refined design, which essentially borrowed qualities of the Czech ZB vz. 26 series machine guns as well as the French Hotchkiss models. The original 6.5x50mm Arisaka round was proving everless effective as combat shown to the point that a new Army rifle round was introduced - the 7.7x58mm Arisaka cartridge. Despite the newer, more powerful cartridge being in production at the time of the revised light machine gun's design, the new machine gun was still chambered for the low-powered 6.5x50mm Arisaka cartridge. The design was evaluated and accepted into the Imperial Japanese Army inventory as the "Type 96 Light Machine Gun" in 1936. Production began soon after and lasted until 1945.
For all intents and purposes, the Type 96 model machine gun varied little when compared to the Type 11 it was meant to replace. One of the most notable differences proved to be its use of a 30-round detachable curved box magazine set along the top side of the receiver (ala the Czech ZB vz. 26 and similar British Bren). This arrangement did away with the meddlesome Hopper feed system of the Type 11 and made the Type 96 more inherently reliable within the rigors of combat. The reciever contained all of the major working internal components of the machine gun to which were attached the pistol grip with trigger system and a wooden buttstock. The barrel was fitted ahead in the receiver and protruded a distance away and, consistent with other Japanese machine gun designs, sported integrated cooling fins for heat dissappation. The barrel was also specifically designed for quick-changing of the system, allowing the gunnery crew to switch out an overheated barrel with a fresh, cool one as needed with little stoppage in fire. The gas cylinder was connected under the barrel system and a folding bipod was affixed to the front end of the cylinder proper. A carrying handle was fitted at the front top end of the reciever and a shoulder strap could be added, attached midway along the gas cylinder and right side of the shoulder stock. Sights included an adjustable rear leaf and front blade though a drum or 2.5x telescopic sight could be optionally fitted to the right side of the reciever for accurized fire (the telescopic sight eventually won out). The benefit of utilizing such optics on a machine gun platform was questionable. One decidedly interesting quality of the Type 96 design was its ability to mount an infantry Model 30 series field bayonet at the front of the gas cylinder, the thought being that - if pushed to close-quarters action - the machine gunner could wield his weapon as a bayoneted rifle. In practice, it is suspect as to the usefulness of such a design quality when considering the weapon's 20lb weight, 41.5 inch length and relatively small stature of the average Imperial Japanese Army soldier.
The Type 96 featured a barrel legnth measuring 21.75 inches and fielded a rate-of-fire between 450 and 550 rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity in the vicinity of 2,400 feet-per-second. The machine gun was designed for automatic fire-only meaning that burst, or even single-cartridge fire, would have been handled by deliberate trigger pulls and not a built-in selector switch common to today's assault rifles and submachine guns.
Once in the field, the Type 96 - like the Type 11 before it - proved to be of limited worth. It soon shown that an internal issue existed with spent shell casings becoming jammed in the firing chamber - of course at the most imopportune times. Cartridges were, therefore, lubricated by an oil system set at the magazine loader but this naturally introduced the all-too-common issue of dust and debris collection once more.
The Type 96 saw production throughout World War 2 and, though it was meant to replace the Type 11 outright, the Type 11 was available in such quantities that the two fought alongside one another for the duration of the war. This was somewhat beneficial for both were of similar design and utilized the same cartridge. However, this also meant that the Type 96 saw the same limitations of the low-powered Arisaka rifle round in combat. Neverless, the Type 96 was generally accpeted as a quality, reliable gunnery platform for Japanese machine gun crews and utilized to good effect throughout the Pacific campaigns. It was not until the arrival of the Type 99 Light Machine Gun design of 1939 - with its use of the newer and more powerful 7.7x58mm Arisaka cartridge - that the Type 96's legacy was threatened for the foreseeable future. However, the end of the war and a total defeat of the Empire of Japan to the Allies by September of 1945 ensured that no Japanese weapon then in circulation would hold on to any notable long-term legacy.
Beyond actions leading up to and throughout World War 2, the Type 96 made an appearance in a variety of regional conflicts including the Chinese Civil War (1946-1950), the Indonesian Independence War (1945-1949) and the Korean War (1950-1953). Operators of the weapon (beyond the Imperial Japanese Army) included China, Indonesia, Taiwan, North Korea and the United States (the latter to a limited extent).
Manufacturing State Factories - Imperial Japan
China; Imperial Japan; Indonesia; North Korea; Taiwan; United States
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