When you think German Army pistol, the Luger comes to mind. The thing is, the Germans themselves wanted something better and came up with one of the great-unsung handguns of all time. You may call it the Walther P38 and its influence has been felt far and wide.
Why was it needed?
In the 1930s, the German military was quietly rebuilding. Even before Hitler came to power, the tiny Reichswehr had done extensive research into rearming their nation with the most modern of equipment. After Hitler came to power, this process got louder. One of the things the army wanted was a new handgun to replace the 1900-vintage Luger. While the Luger was a beautiful weapon, its toggle-action was prone to clogging, especially when dirty. It was also expensive, and every army in history had a budget.
Carl Walther, an up and coming firearms manufacturer who had just won a contract to supply his innovative PP and PPK pistols to the German police, threw a design from his workshop into the ring.
Pal Kiraly, a Hungarian firearms wonk living at the time in exile in Switzerland came up with a novel handgun he referred to as KD Danuvia. His gun was a short recoil auto-loader with a swinging lock under the barrel. The thing was, Kiraly introduced the design in 1929 at the beginning of the Depression and, with money drying up everywhere, it was never put into production.
Walther borrowed from Kiraly’s unproduced design, changed the delayed blowback bolt and controls, added the same type of trigger used on their PP series pistols, and came up with an entirely new gun. The Walther fired from a locked-breech with a double-action trigger, and was the first to use this arrangement, which is now almost standard on modern hammer-fired combat handguns. Twin recoil springs were located on either side of the frame top to keep the breech locked until the moment of firing.
It debuted with several features that take for granted today such as a decocker safety lever, loaded chamber indicator, a slide release, a rebounding hammer, a floating 4.9-inch barrel and a static takedown lever that did not leave the frame. Each of these are important, but the decocker placed it in a category above the popular military semi-autos of its day such as the Colt 1911, the Browning Hi-Power, and the Tokarev TT-33, all of which often had to be carried on an empty chamber by soldiers for safety’s sake.
Made from inexpensive sheet steel stampings, four of the new Walthers could be made for the cost of three milled steel Lugers. Further, with the solid action, innovative features, and huge ejection port, the Walther was many times as reliable. It was also slightly lighter, at 28-ounces, and shorter, at 8.5-inces over the 31-ounce, 8.74-inch Luger.
Chambered in German military standard 9x19mm Parabellum ammunition, it had a single stack 8-shot magazine held in by a heel release. Even though this type of release seems foreign to us
today, it has long been the standard in Europe and can be worked rapidly with a little practice. Further, it’s easier to manipulate while wearing heavy gloves, which is a good idea when you consider just how fierce winters can get in the Old World. Even before the German army could adopt it, Walther was already making sales to Sweden and entertaining interested parties from other countries.
Walther submitted their pistol to the German army for tests and it was adopted in 1938 as Pistole 38. As it would happen, this was but a year before World War 2.
Pushed into production in quantity by Walther at their Zella-Mehlis factory, when the war broke out the Germans urgently needed more than the company could ever produce. This led to subcontracting the gun out to Mauser (maker of the Luger!) and Spreewerk. In all over 1.2-million P38s were made for the Germans by the three plants from 1938-1946 when the end of the war halted production. They proved themselves so reliable in German service that whenever P-38s fell into Allied hands, they were pressed into frontline service against their former owners. The Luger was a collectable if captured, the Walther was a shooter.
With so many out there, these surplus guns were often used by cash strapped countries like France and Czechoslovakia until they were replaced in the 1960s. The Portuguese used WWII vintage pistols in their two decades long colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique (some claim the gun Rhodesian mercenary Mike Rousseau used in the original Mozambique drill was a Walther). Many a US serviceman carried personally owned or CIA issued surplus P38s in Vietnam. The South African police, never known for carrying junk weapons, issued variants of the P38 until just a few years ago.
When the West German government reestablished their Army in the 1950s, the call went out to Walther to put the P-38 back into immediate production. Since Carl’s old factory was now in Soviet-occupied East Germany, he built a new one in Ulm and went to work making pistols for both the military and police. From 1957-2000 nearly 600,000 more P-38s came off Walther’s line. Heck, the German military continued to issue the P38 (P1) as late as 1994—the old gun still had what it took to be the standard for the largest land army in Western Europe for over 50 years, comparable though not equivalent to the US reign of the 1911.
Besides the WWII guns, Walther switched to an aluminum framed gun designated the P-1 when they started production in their new factory. It was the standard P-38 on the line and remained in production as late as the 1990s. Besides sales in their homeland, Norway, Chile, Finland, and others also adopted the gun.
In the 1960s, Walther engineer Siegfried Huebner developed a suppressed variant for use by NATO militaries on “special occasions”. Dubbed the P38-SD, its barrel was extensively ported and threaded to accept a large wipeless suppressor. The ‘can’ was so wide that it had its own set of sights at the front and rear of it. Used with subsonic ammunition it was quiet for its generation. An oversized slidelock prevented the weapon from cycling, further eliminating sound.
In 1974 the company came out with a chopped down version called the Kurz model (German for ‘short’) to compete for concealed carry sales. These were not very popular and only a small number of these P38-K variants were made before the line shut down a few years later.
The P38 was so influential in modern combat handgun design that it’s almost impossible to talk about the subject without mentioning it. If you have only ever handled the Berettas, SIGs, and S&W’s and Rugers of today, then get introduced to a P38, chances are great that it will seem uncannily familiar, natural and comfortable.
All of these aforementioned guns copied the double-action/single action trigger, take down lever, sights, and general mechanics of the P38. The Walther gun itself was outright copied in Croatia as the PHP pistol and it can be argued that the Beretta 51 and later 92 series of handguns are nothing but a P38 with a full-length slide and frame. Even holsters designed for the Beretta fit P38s.
The science of Walther P-38 serial numbers is very subtle and fascinating. Keep in mind that WWII serial numbers are all alphanumeric with Walther production starting with an ‘ac’, Mauser made guns starting with ‘byf’ or ‘svw’, and Spreewerk pieces coded ‘cyq’. After World War 2 in 1957, Walther started fresh with all numeric serial numbers that ran from 01001-607800.
Remember, more than 584,500 P-38s pistols were produced by Walther alone during the war at their Zella-Mehlis factory, making these guns common on the collectors market. You can still find nice shooter grade WWII-era Zella marked Walthers for $579. The big money goes for minty pistols with all matching serial numbers and the correct grips/leather, reaching well over the $2,000 mark. Spreewerk and Mauser made P38s have their own following of collectors.
For the next best thing (and a good thing at that), look for the aluminum framed P1, P4, and P5 series pistols made by Walther at the Ulm factory since 1957. Many parts interchange (especially the magazines, holsters, etc.) on these guns and the workmanship on most is better than WWII-era rush production pistols anyway. These are bargain shooters for $300-$400, and many have the bonus of being C&R eligible.
But the real prizes among Walther collectors are the post war commercial P38 pistols, including the P38 MKIV and the P38-K. These guns run as much as someone is willing to pay for them and as such the number of snub-nosed fake K-guns far surpasses the small number (2600) of the real thing. For a quick lesson, lads, real P38Ks will have a serial number between 500000-502600. The company also made deluxe models with factory polished and engraved slides and frames in even smaller numbers.
In short, if you want a classic combat handgun, the P-38 should be high on your ‘to get’ list.