Unsung Collectible WWII 9mm Pistol: The Radom VIS 35
Developed for the growing Polish Army in the 1930s, the phenomenal Radom VIS P.35 pistol was homegrown and well-traveled during World War II.
Arising from the ashes of the old Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian Empires in 1918 – countries that had wiped Poland off the map in 1795 – modern Poland was born immediately into war, having to fight the Bolshevik Reds to the east and remnant German Freikorps to the west well into 1921. With its military armed via a curious mix of surplus weapons – including Mauser, Mosin, and Steyr rifles for instance – and its larger neighbors only growing stronger, the Poles sought to form a domestic arms concern, Panstwowa Wytwornia Broni (PWB = roughly, State Weapons Plant) in 1922.
Formed in the city of Radom, which at the time was almost as deep into the Polish interior as could be, the facility inherited the machinery from the old Prussian Royal rifle plant at Danzig (Gdansk today) and the old Deblin military small arms repair depot, by 1927 morphing into the Fabryka Broni (FB= roughly, Arms Plant). There, FB would make assorted Mauser 98-style rifles and carbines on the old Danzig machines, but when it came to handguns, they were stuck with making the Nagant revolver.
Then came Piotr Wilniewczyc
Born in Siberia in 1887, Piotr Wilniewczyc was a smart guy, a polyglot who graduated both from the Russian Technical Institute in St. Petersburg and the Mikhailovskaya Military Artillery Academy in Moscow with honors. Serving in the Tsar's army in World War I as an engineer at the Tiflis arsenal, soon after the Tsar went away Wilniewczyc made his way to now-free Poland and started work at a gunpowder plant near Warsaw as the director of its chemical lab. Then came an appointment to the Polish Army artillery officers’ school as an instructor and work for the PWB.
Wilniewczyc's first pistol design was the wzor 1928, essentially a revamped Browning M1903 then, working with Jan Skrzypiński, one of the managers at the plant, came up with a second pistol that took Browning's M1911 design and tweaked it. This gun, an 8+1 shot 9mm single-action short-recoil pistol that uses a cam rather than a link as in Browning's design, was dubbed originally the wzor 30, then patented in 1932.
The naming convention for the pistol was unique, originally taking the initials of Wilniewczyc and Skrzypiński to form WiS, which then was transformed into VIS, borrowing a Latin word for "power/strength." Thus, the VIS wzor 1935 with Radom being the city where the FB factory was located, not technically anything to do with the name of the handgun.
The gun that finally made it into production in 1936 included a safety/decocking lever on the slide. The two frame-mounted levers are a slide stop/release forward and a disassembly lever to the rear, not to be confused with the slide lock/safety lever as seen on the M1911. The gun also has a rear beavertail grip safety.
Between 1936 and 1939, some 49,000 VIS pistols were produced at FB's Radom plant for the Polish military, right until the Germans marched into Radom on Sept. 8, 1939.
The Germans – much as they did with the FN plant in occupied Belgium and the CZ plant in occupied Czechoslovakia – soon had the FB plant running under the control of Steyr, making both K98k style rifles and VIS pistols for the German war machine. In this, the Polish markings dropped off, a new (usually letter-prefix) serial number scheme was adopted, and German Heereswaffenamt stamps were applied.
Between late 1939 and late 1944, some 300,000 P.35(p) handguns-- the German designation for the VIS, were produced. This included at least two main variants that saw a progressively cheaper military finish applied and, eventually crude wooden panels replacing the bakelite grips. By the end, lanyard rings dropped off, as did the disassembly lever and stock slot.
However, the local Polish workers at FB-- fundamentally slave labor – courageously saw it as their duty to both sabotage production of guns headed for the Germans and pocket as many extra parts as possible – to be used to make guns underground for the Home Army resistance. The Warsaw Uprising Museum in Poland has documented several Home Army leaders who carried VIS pistols into combat against the occupying German forces in 1944.
This habit of having guns and components go missing from the factory led the Germans to convert production at Radom from complete pistols to parts kits-- with no barrels-- that would be shipped to Steyr for final assembly.
Eventually, with the Soviets pushing into Poland to "liberate" the country, the Germans would shut down the plant and send its machines further West to Znaim (now Znojmo) in occupied Czechoslovakia, where an even more crudely made version of the VIS using a sheet-metal frame was to have been produced.
As for its use with the Germans, the P.35(p) was popular with elite units such as paratroopers and was used by the German Navy as well. Many of these were captured by Allied troops on all fronts, and many made it back from Europe in the duffle bags of returning GIs.
The availability of the VIS in Europe led to it appearing in over 40 films from that continent and it often pinch-hitted for the M1911 as the big Colt was comparatively rare and, as already noted, the guns kind of favor each other. This is why you see very few 1911s in "Kelly's Heroes" (which was filmed in Yugoslavia) as the VIS was used from a distance to mimic it, and why Oddball carried a Luger instead.
As there were far fewer VIS pistols produced than there were wartime Lugers, Mausers, Walthers, or even FN Hi-Powers, these Polish parabellums are a bit on the rarer side and make a significant addition to a WWII or historical handgun collection.
For a deeper dive into the VIS, check out this video from the Polish Museum of Military Technology (Muzeum Wojska Polskiego). Yes, it is in Polish but it's 16 minutes, shows a field strip, and compares assorted variants in a way that is pretty much universal.
In 2018, Fabryka Broni Łucznik Radom, best known today for their Beryl carbines and assorted modern sub guns, pistols, and sporting rifles, made a short run of hand-finished VIS 35s to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the country’s liberation from Austrian/German/Russian occupation gained after World War I.
As for Wilniewczyc, the inventor of the VIS, he went underground when the Germans invaded and, under the pseudonym Wrett, helped produce weapons, suppressors, and other gadgets for the Home Army. After the war, he had a hand in designing the P-63 Rak submachine gun, but that is another story.