A 6.5x50mm Japanese Arisaka Sporting Rifle
By Mike Hudson
Ever since reading a series of posts on one of the many Internet rifle discussion boards, I've been fascinated with the possibilities of the 6.5x50mm Japanese Arisaka round, known in this country as the 6.5mm Jap. A general discussion of the highly versatile yet undeservedly obscure cartridge led to a chat about the rifles designed to fire it, leading the Louisville, KY rifle maker Mike Irwin to muse, "I've often toyed with the idea of having a short action rifle built around the round to see what it can really do. I suspect that it would be surprisingly accurate." "A lightweight short action rifle with an 18-inch barrel would be a beautiful mating for (the 6.5 Japanese) round," Irwin added.
Indeed, men who know their rifles have long sung the praises of the 6.5x50. Light recoil and minimal muzzle blast combine with the long bullet's superb sectional density and penetration to provide a package most shooters find easy to place accurately at practical ranges. The 6.5x50 has enough killing power to be effective on most North American game.
Large numbers of deer, black bear, antelope and caribou have all fallen to the 6.5 Japanese, and friends in Maine have told me that it was once regarded as a good moose cartridge as well. Of course, the .22 WMR is currently legal for deer in the Pine Tree State.
Our own Chuck Hawks has written that, with the proper handloads, the semi-rimless 6.5x50 can outperform the 6.5x54 Mannlicher and the 6.5x52 Carcano, and perform very nearly on a par with the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser so popular here. The comparison between the Japanese and Swedish cartridges is particularly interesting. The longer Swedish round requires a long Mauser action to function properly, while its Japanese counterpart can work in an action shorter by an inch or more.
In addition to holding its own with most of the standard velocity 6.5's, it is equal or superior to any number of popular deer rounds, and is currently available from several manufacturers in the 139-140 gr. and classic 160 gr. loads. The factory-loaded ammo leaves the barrel at 2255 fps for the 140-gr. and 2067 fps for the 160-gr., with more than acceptable energy beyond 200 yards. Also, the incredible sectional density of the long bullets, .284 for the 140-gr. and .328 for the 160-gr., has made the various standard velocity 6.5's proven game-getters on everything from woodchucks to polar bears. And all this with about the same recoil and muzzle blast generated by the 6mm Remington cartridge.
The problem is that the Arisaka rifles built to handle the cartridge are long action (and long-barreled!) behemoths that are as heavy as any 98 Mauser of the pre-WW II era. The safeties are clumsy and poorly designed, and the chambers on most of them were cut a little oversize, the better to function under harsh jungle conditions where mold and mildew attacked the brass cartridge cases and made a correctly sized chamber a tight and difficult fit.
Still, many sporters have been built on the Arisaka action. An excellent adjustable sporting trigger/side safety combination has long been available from Timney, and Arisakas in the later 7.7mm caliber are often seen at gun shows rechambered for the popular .308 cartridge.
A few custom 6.5x50 rifles were reportedly built by Rigby early in the last century after Great Britain introduced the round as a substitute standard service round, and Kynoch began producing cartridges. The Brits called it the .256 Mk II.
None of this interested me, however. There was too much downside involved in using the Arisaka action, despite its strength. Though the legendary pressure tests conducted by P.O. Ackley involving the Arisaka and other bolt-action rifles of the era found the Japanese offering to be the strongest action of them all, I wanted something shorter, lighter and more suited to the 6.5x50 round. Short of building a rifle from the ground up, it seemed as though such a rig would be relegated to the scrap heap of great though entirely impractical ideas that every shooter has tucked away somewhere.
And that's where it stayed for some months, until I came across a reference to a little-known Italian rifle built around the 6.5 Japanese cartridge, a rifle generally known as the Type I. In 1937, Germany, Japan and Italy signed a treaty known as the Anti-Comintern Pact, the first of many mutual aid agreements the three Axis powers would enter into during the run-up to the Second World War.
Japan had already invaded China and the Imperial Army was using all the rifles it could get. Rear guard troops, and particularly the Japanese Naval Infantry--the Emperor's equivalent of our Marines--found themselves strapped for small arms. Germany chipped in with shipments of 98 Mausers in 8mm, but the Italians offered something different. They would design and produce a completely new rifle, combining the best features of their own Carcano battle rifle and the Japanese Arisaka.
The new weapon wedded a slightly modified split-breech Carcano receiver with the Mauser-style box magazine complete with a hinged floor plate. The two-piece Arisaka stock, straight bolt handle and the unwieldy Type 38 barrel were retained, giving it the outward appearance of a Japanese service rifle.
Students of both Italian and Japanese World War II battle rifles have found much to admire in the Type I, which stands for "Italian," by the way, and is not a numeric designation. The chambers were cut to much closer tolerances, making the gun more accurate than the Arisaka, and the action is a full inch shorter and is lighter than the Japanese adaptation of the Mauser design.
The Italians were impressed by the ballistically superior 6.5x50 round and with the elimination of the protruding Mannlicher box magazine, with its attendant reliance on stripper clips, employed by the Carcano. Produced primarily by Beretta, the new rifle was designated by the Italians as the "Beretta Fucile Tipo I per L'esportazione," which, roughly translated, means "Beretta Rifle Type I for Export." With the entire production run manufactured under strict Japanese supervision, fit and finish conform to the highest standards of pre-war Beretta workmanship.
Records are incomplete, but research done by author Alexander Eichener suggests that some 60,000 Type I rifles were produced in 1938 and, perhaps, the early part of 1939, when they were delivered to points in the South Pacific by Italian freighters and offloaded onto Japanese submarines to preserve secrecy. The majority of the guns bear no visible markings except for a serial number on the barrel over the chamber, though by taking them apart one can sometimes detect a "pb" (for Pietro Beretta) and some other small coded letter stamps of unknown meaning.
But a funny thing happened once the Type I's arrived in Japan. Although the High Command was enthusiastic, Japanese field commanders were loath to issue the Italian-made rifles. Their singular pride dictated that anything made outside of Japan was somehow inferior, and it is uncertain today whether any of the rifles ever saw combat.
Most, if not all, of the production run was packed in cosmolene in a Japanese warehouse that somehow missed being bombed, and the rifles were liberated by American troops in the autumn of 1945.
In the hands of returning veterans, Type I rifles were brought back as war trophies alongside the Arisakas. At the time, our guys didn't know the difference. Sometime during the 1950s, the remaining contents of the warehouse were split up between several American surplus-arms dealers and shipped to the West Coast, where they were sold through ads in the back pages of the "American Rifleman" and other gun magazines.
While many of the Arisakas bore the scars of hard use under battlefield conditions, the Type I's were like brand new. Many were purchased and made into sporting rifles, ranging in quality from hacksawed desecrations to those built by skilled gunsmiths for particular customers.
Still, while gun writers of the era waxed eloquent about the Mausers and Springfields then on the surplus market, most were disdainful of anything that had been made in Italy. The split-breech Mannlicher-Carcano design made installing a scope "difficult," they argued, the action was inherently weak and accuracy was poor. While each of these criticisms was based on a grain of truth, the large boulders that resulted turned many shooters off.
Mounting a scope, for instance, is no more difficult than purchasing a relatively inexpensive set of Weaver side-mount bases and rings and having them put on by a competent gunsmith. The design allows the scope to ride much lower than the various "see-through" mounts with which many of the Model 96 Swedish Mausers are equipped and is better looking to boot. In the Northeast, where large sections are rifle restricted and hunting is permitted with slug guns only, the Weaver side-mount is used on many shotguns.
The grousing about strength and accuracy can be attributed to the large number of Carcanos that were imported after being assembled after the war by semi-skilled workers using leftover and otherwise scavenged components. As with any other military bolt-action rifle, you want your Carcano to be in top condition, with matching serial numbers on the bolt and receiver.
In addition to the 6.5 Carcano, 6.5 Japanese and 7.35 Italian, a large number of Carcanos were chambered for the German 8mm Mauser cartridge, and I have yet to hear a report of one of these blowing up with factory loads. It should be noted, however, that despite basically being an Italian-made Carcano, the Type I would not safely fire the slightly longer 6.5x52mm Carcano round.
The late Sam Cummings, then the president of Interarms, testified before the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Some on the commission had questioned the accuracy of the Carcano used by Lee Harvey Oswald in the shooting.
"It's interesting to note that the Italian army NATO rifle team still uses the 6.5-mm M91 rifle in the NATO matches . . . against all other NATO teams with all the other rifle types, and still comes out in the top positions." Cummings testified.
"It uses their own original 6.5mm cartridges, which are now at least ten years old."
The Carcano's use by Oswald in the Kennedy assassination probably had more to do with its poor reputation than anything else. To believe many of the tin-hat conspiracy theories about the case, one has to believe that the rifle was not only incapable of making the killing shot, but that it is quite likely to blow up in the shooter's face should an attempt at firing it even be made. Many who have never handled, much less fired, one of the Italian battle rifles have repeated such nonsense as though they knew what they were talking about.
That the 19th Century design of the Carcano action means that pressures should be kept around 40,000 to 42,000 psi should go without saying. In my view, these rifles should remain in the calibers for which they were originally chambered.
A 6.5 Japanese sporter based on the Type I Carcano action, "That's the ticket," I thought, and my search began. At the big spring gun show in Albion, NY, I combed every table. There were some Arisakas, but not a single Type I turned up. I hit the online auction and gun dealer Web sites regularly. Occasionally one would turn up, but it would be a collector's gun in full military dress and fine condition. These were selling for around $350, and were of no interest to me.
Finally, I stumbled across what I'd been searching for at the Auction Arms Web site. Dealer Ed Osborne was offering what he described as a "Jap Carcano," accompanied by a photo that showed the sporterized rifle, equipped with a Weaver side-mount base and a Bushnell 3x9 variable scope. That would have to go, of course.
I sent a few questions, and he wrote back and, finally, I bid the minimum, $150. A couple of days later, the gun was mine. I'd booked an Alaskan fishing trip and when I returned, there was a message waiting for me from John Krull, my dealer in Tonawanda, NY. He had the rifle, and I could pick it up anytime.
Sometimes you just get lucky. Whoever had built this particular Type I definitely knew what he was doing. In addition to the scope mount, the rifle had been fitted with flip-up rear and ramp-type front sights, both from Lyman. The barrel had been cut and crowned at a handy 23 inches, and the bore remained bright and shiny. The original straight bolt handle had been cut off, and a custom butter knife handle was welded on and left in the white. The remaining metal had all been reblued, and the stock was a good quality straight-grain Ozark walnut by Reinhardt Fajen of Warsaw, MO.
The rifle's crowning glory, however, is its trigger, an original military job that appears to have been converted somehow into a smooth, single-stage that breaks cleanly every time at 3-3/4 lbs. How this was done, I don't know, and my efforts to find out have been stymied by the fact that no one else seems to know, either. In any event, I would put the trigger up against any non-adjustable trigger currently available on any of the mass-produced sporting rifles.
From the looks of it, the custom work seems to have been done sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s. There are no import marks on the rifle, suggesting it was a GI bring-back. The usual handling marks on the stock, as well as the slight loss of blueing at the cut muzzle, indicate this particular Type I saw its service in the woods and fields of Florida, rather than the battlefields of the South Pacific.
Before I actually laid eyes on it, I'd planned on sending the rifle off for some additional work. Cutting the barrel back further to 18 inches and decreasing the length of pull from 14 to a more comfortable 13 inches would reduce the overall length to a compact 38 inches, and put a dent in the 8-1/2 pound scoped and slung weight as well. But, after I got rid of the Bushnell and clamped on a vintage 4x Lyman All American in its place, I became less certain.
The rifle's near-perfect balance makes it seem lighter than it actually is, and the barrel seems anything but unwieldy as is. The lone defect is a chip at the toe of the butt, but it's nothing a piece of scrap walnut, a couple of brass pins and an afternoon with sandpaper and a file couldn't fix.
I've got several boxes of 6.5 Japanese on order from Midway, the Horandy 140-gr. and the Norma 156-gr., and maybe I'll just leave it like it is for a while and see how it shoots. I'm pretty sure that no matter what configuration I ultimately decide on, the guy next to me at the range won't have one just like it, and the deer, bear and boar I plan on shooting with it won't know the difference.
Copyright 2007, 2012 by Mike Hudson and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.