Japanese Signal (Flare) Pistols

    By Don Schlickman & Cliff Carlisle

Signal flares have been in use since approximately the 13th century.   Japan used them early in her military history, however, no early signal pistols of Japanese design have been found.

The earliest known Japanese signal pistols are the Army Type 10 designed by the Tokyo Artillery Arsenal & adopted in 1921 (10th year of Taisho reign).   The design of the Type 10 is based on the Type 26 9mm revolver.   Most of the internal components will interchange between the 2 pistols.  The Type 10 is a double action only, automatic extraction single shot that fires a 35mm flare.   It was developed primarily for the Army Air Force and was in production from 1921 through 1945.  Approximately 8,300 were produced.

The Japanese Navy, instead of using the Army 35mm size signal pistol, used 28mm & 20mm for their pistols.  In the 1920s the Japanese Navy had in use a 31mm signal pistol made by Vickers in England.  They considered the recoil to be excessive so when they decided to replace it with a Japanese design they specified a smaller caliber.  The Navy issued a variety of signal pistols with single, double or triple barrels.  Unlike the Army, most of the Navy signal pistols were produced by private companies.  None of them seem to be marked with a Type designation.

The first Navy signal pistol was a double barrel model with double hammers & double triggers.  It was in 28mm to meet the naval requirement for a signal pistol with less recoil.  It was not a very successful design & it is estimated that fewer than 500 were produced from 1927 through 1931.  Very few are known to exist.

The second design, also in 28mm, was hammerless, had a spring recoil buffer to reduce recoil, three barrels & a single trigger.  This was adopted in 1930 as the Type 90 (Japanese year 2590).  The large lever at the rear of the action is turned to cock the strikers.  The lever just below the cocking lever is the selector for which barrel is to be fired.  When the flare is fired, the barrels recoil inside the receiver, lessening the felt recoil.  The Type 90 three barrel signal pistol was produced from 1930 through 1945.  During this time, 3 basic variations were produced, each modified to make the pistol simpler to manufacture.  Less than 5,500 Type 90 3 barrel pistols were produced.

The next Naval signal pistol adopted was also designated as a Type 90.  This was a double barrel version of the 3 barrel Type 90.  The cocking lever at the rear of the action is pulled to the rear to cock the strikers instead of being turned as in the 3 barrel version.  There are 3 basic variations as listed for the 3 barrel version.  This double barreled signal pistol was the most common Japanese signal pistol produced.  Approximately 10,300 were manufactured.

In 1937 the Navy adopted yet another 28mm signal pistol, this one designated the Type 97.  It has a single barrel & is striker fired.  It was produced from 1927 through 1944.  Pistols made prior to 1941 are marked with the manufacturers initials, KFC (Kawaguchiya Firearms Company) with English letters.  After that date, they are marked with Japanese characters.   Less than 3,300 Type 97 signal pistols were produced.

The final Naval signal pistols are the only ones in 20mm.  The first one was designated the Type 4 (1944).  It’s a very crude, double barreled, single trigger, striker fired pistol.  The strikers are cocked when the action is opened.

The second 20mm pistol is assumed to be a Type 5 (1945) but no documentary evidence has been found to confirm this.  It is a very crude single shot pistol with most parts made from sheet metal stampings.

The chambers in the barrels of both of these 20mm signal pistols accept a 12 ga. shotgun shell perfectly.  They are also the only Japanese signal pistols that are equipped with front & rear sights.  For this reason, it has been speculated that these pistols were designed for multiple uses.  The 12 ga. cases could be loaded as flares or shot shells.  The production period was 1944 – 1945.  During that time frame, Japan was looking for anything that they could use as a weapon.  This may be the reason for a new pistol chambered in 12 ga.  Total production, based on known serial numbers, is less than 500 of the Type 4 & an unknown quantity of the Type 5.  Only 2 of the Type 5 have been reported so far.

Both the Type 4 & Type 20mm flare pistols have been ruled to be curio & relic firearms by the BATF & have been removed from the NFA (in this case it would have been a short barreled shotgun) section of the law.