Japan’s First Military Revolver: the S&W No.3

When Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, he began a serious upheaval of Japanese life. Among other things, the insular Japanese society had been virtually the only nation to ever successfully implement gun control, with a virtually complete prohibition of any arms manufacture or import. This was done to preserve the position of the Samurai nobility. As European aristocrats discovered, the lifetime of martial training of an expert mounted swordsman in armor is handily ignored by a handful of peasants with simple firearms.

At any rate, Perry brought quite a lot of firearms with him, and within a few decades many Japanese government agencies began importing and using handguns – their possession by civilians even became legal. This led to substantial importation of European and American arms into Japan, and eventually to the adoption of a standard handgun by the Imperial Army and Navy. This first official standard sidearm was the Smith & Wesson No.3 revolver, chambered for .44 Russian. The Japanese military made dozens of small purchases of these revolvers from 1878 until 1908, totaling some 17,000 (including nearly a third of all No.3 New Model production, and more than any other export customer except Russia).

Japanese purchases actually included 2nd and 3rd pattern Russian Model guns, New Model guns, and even at the end, Frontier Model guns (these fitted with .44 Russian cylinders instead of the normal .44-40 cylinders, so they could continue to use the standard Japanese ammunition). Japan liked the top break system enough that when they decided to produce their own domestic revolver, it (the Type 26) would be a top break type as well.

Many thanks to Mike Carrick of Arms Heritage Magazine for providing me access to film this example!

25 Comments

  1. “expert mounted swordsman”

    Actually, Ian, they were expert mounted bowmen, the sword was a secondary weapon after the bow and polearms such as the naginata and even the mace. One of the famous 47 Ronin was famous for wielding a three foot long solid iron mace (kanabo) in their assault in their late daimyo’s enemy’s mansion.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanabō#/media/File:Nanhoku-cho_period_samurai_from_“Military_Costumes_in_Old_Japan”,_1893.jpg

    I think I’d be more terrified of that than a katana

    The popular image comes from the long peace of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), which completely and successfully banned firearms, greatly restricted other weapons, only permitted the carriage of edged weapons by members of the samurai class and did not engage in wars, foreign or civil. Without wars to fight and with other weapons prohibited, the sword became ritualized and mythologized.

    “The roles and activities of the Samurai changed a great deal from Heian Japan (circa 794 AD to Edo Japan (ended 1868). Originally the way of the warrior was the way of the horse and the bow – kyuba no michi.

    wikipedia: Kyūjutsu: During the majority of the Kamakura period through the Muromachi period (c.1185–c.1568), the bow was almost exclusively the symbol of the professional warrior, and way of life of the warrior was referred to as “the way of the horse and bow” (弓馬の道 kyūba no michi?).[2]

    The primacy of the Bow changed when guns were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. Japanese teppo [guns] required less training and had a longer effective range than the bow:

    Compared to the Japanese bow, the teppo had a more superior range. The matchlock had an effective killing range of 50 meters and a maximum range of 500 meters, compared to the bow, having a killing range of 30 meters and a maximum range of only 380 meters. (Bryant p.g. 49) 鉄砲

    Once the Tokugawa Shoguns consolidated power, they gradually reduced and restricted production and ownership of firearms, leading to the ‘golden age of the sword.’ Much of the popular notion of the samurai, ‘bushido’, etc. comes from the Edo period – a time a relative peace when fighting was largely confined to dueling, mostly dueling with katana.”

    https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2015/11/11/japanese-mounted-archery/

    • Thanks, I wasn’t aware of the Japanese mace. In a museum in Tokyo I did see an enormous sword (one of the actors in the Seven Samurai movie carried one like it). Also a cool multi-barrel matchlock. The Japanese really did perfect the matchlock.

  2. The Japanese military went from the S&W No.3 in .44 Russian to the Type 26 in 9×22mmR Revolver. I wonder if that is the greatest drop in muzzle energy ever for consecutive generations of military handguns? I suppose it depends on which of the commonly quoted muzzle velocities for the 9mm Revolver is most accurate. I have seen numbers as high as 750 fps and as low as 490 fps.

    • Well, the British going from .455 Webley to ‘.380/200’ is up there too. That’s the black-powder S&W .38 with a heavy bullet, originally sold a ‘new police.’

      The British version ending up with a jacketed 178 gr bullet instead of the 200 grain lead.

      • That was a minor tragedy but still a shift from about 350 to 180 ft-lbs, so not quite as drastic as either the US 45/38 shift or the Japanese 44/9mm Rev one. Other contenders would be (mostly) continental reserve or police units who exchanged 10-11mm revolvers in the first quarter of the C20th for 7.65/.32”ACP.

  3. When I was about 5(1957) my mom got me a miniture model 3 die cast cap gun marked japan for my birthday. I still have it somewhere but I had always wondered why the japanese copied an american smith and wesson now I know

  4. The staple for the lanyard ring is soldered (sweated?) on at an angle; looks sloppy. Did S&W cut small corners that way? Or was this a repair? Or a retro fit by a contractor?

    Still, a classy-looking old iron, and in terrific shape. Want it! (Can’t have it. Boo hoo.)

  5. The Japanese had a better revolver than the U.S. That they were still buying them in 1908 shows that the Japanese also had better taste. I had a chance to shoot a friend’s No.3 during a cowboy-action match; wonderful revolver! The hammer was better placed than the hammer on my Colt S.S.A., and it was so quick to reload. The Japanese should have kept the .44 Russian cartridge, albeit with a smokeless powder loading.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese wanted a weaker cartridge specifically because they wanted a smaller and easier to handle gun, much like the British switched from the .455 Webley to the .38/200. The reason was that it was much easier to train people with no experience in handgun shooting to use the .38/200 revolvers than the stouter recoil .455 Webley.

      • Easy to over-think this. Back then, almost everyone wanted a smaller gun shooting a smaller faster bullet and thought they’d get good results. Even (1892 Colt) the US. The only major country I can think of that held out for a modern large-bore pistol in the period 1885-1899 was the U.K. Probably more from intertia than insight.

        • I don’t know if it counts as a major country,but Italy did with the 10.4mm Bodeo revolver. They even kept making them concurrently with semiauto pistols and the Bodeo was still in common use during WW2.

    • I thought the whole point of gun restriction in Japan was to prevent banditry. Samurai weren’t as sword-crazed as modern westerners think. Members of the Bushi class were expected to take up a primary weapon apart from the sword (spear, bow, you name it). Not surprisingly, many samurai, alongside peasant conscripts, took up guns once firearms were introduced (training for basic firearms usage took less than two weeks, compared to the months of physical training required for archery). Here’s a potential problem: battlefield scavengers. What if they sold guns and ammunition on the black market? Bandits armed with long guns would be a traveler’s nightmare. I mean, sure, the guns of the era weren’t pin-point accurate, but a massed musket ambush at ranges less than 30 meters would certainly kill off a merchant and his bodyguards. I could be wrong.

      • The non-bushi soldiers were commonly infantrymen known as ashigaru and were recruited from the peasants who worked the gentry’s and nobles’ land

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashigaru

        As far as the reason for confiscating guns goes, it was the prevention of gekokujo (“The low oppress the high”) in the form of peasant rebellions

        “Instances of gekokujō date back to the Sengoku period. Through the chaotic political climate of the era, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were able to create fervor and acquire political and military power. In 1588, Hideyoshi ordered the sword hunt, a nationwide confiscation of weapons, to try and prevent further insurrection.”

        “In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having become kampaku or “imperial regent”, ordered a new sword hunt; Hideyoshi, like Nobunaga, sought to solidify separations in the class structure, denying commoners weapons while allowing them to the nobility, the samurai class. In addition, Toyotomi’s sword hunt, like Nobunaga’s, was intended to prevent peasant uprisings and to deny weapons to his adversaries. This hunt may have been inspired by a peasant uprising in Higo Province the year prior, but also served to disarm the sōhei of Mount Kōya and Tōnomine. Toyotomi claimed that the confiscated weapons would be melted down and used to create a giant image of the Buddha for the Asuka-dera monastery in Nara.”

        “Note – By 1553, there were more firearms per capita in Japan than in any other country. Since they required much less training than longbows, they were essential to the unification of Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. For the same reasons of the sword hunts, later shoguns discouraged the production of guns.”

        For “discouraged” insert “banned”

        • And then once the Americans kicked the doors open, Japan discovered that banning everything was a BAD idea.

        • I almost forgot: Swordsmen cannot defeat steel-armored warships from really far away. The Qing dynasty’s warlord armies learned this the HARD way.

    • That’s a very nice piece of history. I’ve seen the video Ian made about a similar topbreak spanish clone of a S&W and I can’t decipher what model or make mine is. I wonder if someone could help me.

  6. I can’t even imagine what sort of BS your poor, average Japanese postal carrier had to deal with, considering that they ARMED THE POSTAL SERVICE BEFORE THE ARMY!

  7. Maybe I missed it in this video, and the other I just watched, but –

    What is the purpose of the spur on the trigger guard?

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