Combat Rifles of the Pacific War By: Will Dabbs, MD


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Combat in Europe during World War II orbited around massive set-piece battles across expansive terrain. By contrast, the Pacific War was characterized by ferocious conflicts of extermination, typically fought over relatively small isolated pieces of dirt. The weapons used in the island hopping campaigns served in some of the most demanding environments in the history of warfare.

M1 Carbine USMC Saipan beach invasion
U.S. Marines hit the beach with M1 Carbines during the Battle of Saipan.

With few exceptions, troops in the Pacific carried the standard infantry weapons issued by their nations’ militaries serving elsewhere. Combat environments ranged from the fetid jungles of Guadalcanal to the frozen wastes of Attu and Kiska. Throughout it all, fighting men on both sides battled to the death for their particular ideologies.

US Marine with M1 Garand inspects a beach bunker
A U.S. Marine inspects a Japanese beach bunker. He is carrying the staple of the U.S. military in World War II: the M1 Garand.

United States

John Cantius Garand began design work on what was to become the M1 rifle in 1924. The U.S. Army adopted the weapon in 1936. It officially entered service a year later.

M1 Garand firing on Bougainville Puruata Island 1943
A U.S. Marine fires his M1 Garand during the Bougainville Campaign on Puruata Island in November 1943.

The M1 fired a full-sized 7.62x63mm/.30-06 round. The rifle fed from an eight-round en bloc clip that ejected automatically on the last round fired. The semi-automatic M1 was indeed the most capable battle rifle of the war. U.S. troops appreciated the M1’s penetration in heavy jungle foliage.

Marine team with M1903s Solomon Islands
When the U.S. Marines entered the Solomon Island Campaign, many were equipped with the M1903 Springfield rifle instead of the modern M1 Garand.

While the M1 was powerful, reliable, and mean, it also weighed 9.5 lbs. empty and was nearly 44″ long. As a result, in 1938 the Ordnance Department began development on a light rifle for use by truck drivers, mortarmen, radio operators, and the like. The resulting M1 Carbine weighed a paltry 5.8 lbs.

M1 Carbine at the Battle of Tarawa
This U.S. Marine holds his M1 Carbine while making a radio transmission during the Battle of Tarawa in Operation Galvanic.

Those early semi-automatic carbines fed from 15-round detachable box magazines and fired a straight-walled 7.62x33mm cartridge. While the carbine has been denigrated for its performance when compared to the M1 Garand, that’s not really fair. The carbine was intended to supplant the handgun, not the rifle. As a PDW (Personal Defense Weapon), the carbine was indeed a prescient design. For close quarters applications in jungles, caves, and tunnels, the carbine excelled.

M1 Garand and M1 Carbine
The M1 Garand (top) and the M1 Carbine complemented each other during the Pacific War. Despite similar designations, the buttplate screw was the only part common to both weapons.

Commonwealth Forces

British Commonwealth troops first saw action in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. They fought alongside U.S. forces until the two atomic bombs ended the war. Standard infantry rifles across the Commonwealth forces were sundry variations of the bolt-action Lee-Enfield.

SMLE Burma June 1945
Many Commonwealth troops were equipped with various versions of the Lee-Enfield rifle.

Variations of the Lee-Enfield served from 1895 until 1957. Despite firing an archaic rimmed .303 round, the rugged and fast Lee-Enfield action remained one of the most effective bolt-action designs of the war. The basic rifle evolved through several Marks.

General Wingate SMLE rifle Burma
Major General Orde Charles Wingate boards a plane with his SMLE. Wingate died in 1944 when his B-25 Mitchell crashed in northeast India.

The SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III was the standard British infantry weapon of WW1. British Tommies affectionately referred to them as “Smellies.” All Lee-Enfield rifles fed from detachable 10-round box magazines. However, most loading was still undertaken via stripper clips from the top. Some versions even had their magazines affixed to the rifle with a short length of chain. Early WWI-vintage SMLE’s included a sliding magazine cutoff that effectively turned the rifle into a single-shot weapon. This feature was wisely deleted in short order.

The SMLE was a superb rifleman’s tool, but it was expensive. The subsequent No. 4 Mk I sported a simplified sighting system and redesigned barrel. The SMLE has a characteristic flat-nosed appearance, while the No. 4 Mk I sports a stubby bit of barrel out the front. Both weapons were comparably effective in action.

SMLE and Lee Enfield Mk IV
The SMLE (bottom) served alongside the subsequent Lee-Enfield No 4 Mk I throughout the Pacific campaigns.

Though the No. 4 Mk I was the more recent design, many Commonwealth troops used the SMLE throughout the Pacific War. While British production focused on the later weapon, the Indians and Australians manufactured the SMLE throughout the war. Australia did not retire the SMLE until the late 1950’s.

Lee-Enfield No 5 Mk 1 Jungle Carbine
The Lee-Enfield No 5 Mk I “Jungle Carbine” was specifically designed for close quarters operations. Photo by Rama, used with permission.

Canadians first saw action during the battle for Hong Kong on December 8, 1941. 290 Canadians perished before the garrison surrendered on Christmas Day. 5,300 Canadians took part in the Aleutian campaign in August of 1943. Period photographs depict the Canadians involved in the operations on Attu and Kiska carrying No. 4 Mk I rifles.

M1 Carbine Brigadier General Stockwell British Burma November 1944
Not every member of the Commonwealth carried a Lee-Enfield. Brigadier General Hugh Stockwell is pictured here with an M1 Carbine.

BSA Shirley and ROF Fazakerley produced a total of around 250,000 No. 5 Mk I “Jungle Carbine” versions of the Lee-Enfield for use in the Pacific Theater. This short-barreled variant of the No. 4 Mk I used the same action but incorporated a conical flash suppressor. Recoil was fairly epic.

Lee Enfield No 4 Mk I
The stubby bit of barrel protruding from the nose is the easiest way to differentiate the later No 4 Mk I from the previous hognosed SMLE Mk III.


The Japanese began their 1930’s campaigns in China with Type 38 rifles chambered for the 6.5x50mm semi-rimmed cartridge. The Type 38 was designed in 1905 and produced until 1942. The subsequent shorter Type 99 shared a similar action but fired the heavier 7.7x58mm round. These weapons were frequently called “Arisakas” in reference to their primary designer Colonel Arisaka Nariakira. There were other rifles in Japanese service, but the Type 38 and Type 99 were by far the most common.

Japanese troops bayonets propaganda photo
In this propaganda photo, Japanese soldiers are shown with Arisaka rifles and mounted bayonets.

The safety was a big knob on the back of the receiver. To manipulate it you would press in with the palm and rotate the knob in the desired direction. Early safety knobs were heavily knurled to conjure a vaguely chrysanthemum vibe.

Japanese private with Arisaka
Arisaka rifles proved effective in combat. With a bayonet, the weapon could be quite intimidating.

As the American B-29 Superfortresses pummeled Japanese industry, production quality for Type 99 rifles began to fall off. Where early guns sported complicated folding anti-aircraft sights, a collapsible monopod and a removable sheet steel action cover, the so-called “Last Ditch” late-war weapons were much simpler. Last ditch Arisakas had fixed peep sights, crude furniture, and a wooden buttplate held in place with three carpenter’s nails.

Japanese weapons captured in China
This cache of Japanese weapons were collected in China. Shown are Arisaka rifles, machine guns and even gas masks.

In post-war tests conducted by the NRA, the Arisaka was deemed to be the strongest bolt-action rifle of the war. These guns served everywhere the Japanese fought. Veterans brought these weapons home by the thousands as souvenirs. Most vet bring-back guns have had the emperor’s chrysanthemum mark on the receiver ring ground away.

Japanese rifles of WWII
From bottom to top are the Type 38, the Type 99 and the Last Ditch Type 99 rifles. These were the most common rifles carried by Japanese soldiers.


Chinese soldier with Gewehr 88
A Chinese soldier shares a fire with a U.S. airman near a B-29. The Chinese soldier is armed with either a Gewehr 88 or a Chinese copy.

The most common Chinese service rifle was the Hanyang 88, a near copy of the WWI-vintage German Gewehr 88 chambered for the 7.92x57mm round. The Chinese produced around a million copies before manufacture wrapped up in 1944. The Chinese Chiang Kai-Shek rifle was a local copy of the German Mauser 98k carbine.

Chinese troops train with M1917 rifles
These Chinese troops train with M1917 rifles from the United States during World War II.

Other Chinese weapons included the FN Model 1924, the Mosin-Nagant 1891 and the Italian Carcano 1891. The Chinese used American-supplied M1917 Enfields, M1903A3 Springfields, and M1 Carbines as well. Keeping those disparate calibers supplied in an austere environment must have been a Gordian chore.

Chinese troops armed with M1903 rifles late 1945
These Chinese nationalist troops are equipped with 1903 Springfield rifles. The photo was taken in late 1945 in front of the USS Cullman.


The Russians joined the Pacific War just twenty-four days before the Japanese capitulation. In their defense, the Soviets were fighting for their very lives against the Nazis on the Eastern Front and were too preoccupied to put a whole lot of effort into the Pacific. The Soviets made widespread use of the Mosin-Nagant M1891 everywhere they fought.

US Marine with his M1 Garand on Iwo Jima Mt Surabachi flag
A U.S. Marine and his M1 Garand stand watch over the beaches of Iwo Jima. Nearly 35 million people died in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

The Pacific War spanned thousands of miles and ultimately claimed some 6.5 million combat troops. 27 million civilians perished. Troops wielding these weapons served from the West coast of the U.S. all the way into China, Burma and India. Cultural influences from that global war shape the geopolitics of our modern world even today.

Special thanks to for the cool replica gear used in our photographs.

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