The Imperial Japanese Army introduced the Type 30 rifle in 1897. However, the weapon had numerous shortcomings, which were highlighted by combat experience in the early stages of the Russo-Japanese War. These included bursting cartridges, a poorly designed lock in which excess gunpowder tended to accumulate, burning the face of the shooter, frequent misfires, jamming, difficulty in cleaning, and cartridge extraction. Major Kijiro Nambu undertook a redesign of the Type 30 rifle, which was introduced in 1906. Nambu reduced the number of parts making up the Type 30's bolt from nine to six and at that same time simplified and manufacture and disassembly of the bolt without the needs of tools. A dust cover was added because of experiences in the Russo-Japanese War that left rifles inoperable from dust. The weapon was produced in several locations:
- Tokyo Arsenal from 1906 to 1932; 2,029,000 units (est.)
- Kokura arsenal from 1933 to 1941: 494,700 units (est.)
- Nagoya arsenal from 1932 to 1942: 312,500 units (est.)
- Jinsen (in what is now Incheon) arsenal from 1942 to 1942: 13,400 units (est.)
Hoten (was called Mukden arsenal before the Japanese took it over. In what is now Shenyang) arsenal from 1937 to 1944: 148,800 units (est.)
By 1940 more than three million Type 38s had been issued to the Imperial Japanese Army. However, shortcomings in the Type 38 design during the Second Sino-Japanese War led to the introduction of a further generation of rifles, designated the Type 99 rifle from 1939. This new rifle used the more powerful 7.7×58mm Arisaka cartridge already in use with the Type 92 heavy machine gun and the Type 97 light machine gun. However, not all units received the new weapon, and the mixture of types with incompatible cartridges led to considerable logistics issues during World War II.