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Evolution of the Modern Military Pistol

by Paul Scarlata   |  November 20th, 2013 19

When it comes to military pistols, there are two schools of thought. First we have those who refuse to believe that any significant advances have been made, or even been possible, to military handguns since 1911. And then there are those who recognize that, like most things mechanical, the military pistol is in a constant state of evolution and most of the changes made to them have been of a positive nature.

Oh, did I mention that these two schools of thought have been at odds with each other for more than seven decades and I don’t expect to see them agree on anything within the foreseeable future?

The first generation of military pistols—as exemplified by the C96 Mauser, P.08 Parabellum and Colt M1911—had two things in common:

1. They all used single-action trigger mechanisms.
2. They had magazines holding anywhere from six to 10 rounds of ammunition.

While almost all of them possessed external safety devices, it was generally considered unwise to carry these types of pistols with a loaded chamber and the hammer or striker cocked. This led to many armies discouraging, if not outright forbidding, the practice.

This meant that a soldier thus armed had to draw the pistol and rack the slide to chamber a round before firing. After shooting, to return the pistol to a safe condition, the soldier had to withdraw the magazine, eject the live round from the chamber and lower the hammer or striker either manually or by dry firing.

The first procedure prevented one from getting the pistol into action quickly—negating in large part the handgun’s most important duty—while the second was very inconvenient, if not fraught with dangerous possibilities.

While the interwar years saw the introduction of several new military pistols—e.g. Soviet TT33 Tokarev, French Mle. 1935, Finnish Lahti L-35 and Polish VIS-35 Radom—these designs showed little or no real innovation and followed the single-action trigger/low magazine capacity pattern.

I believe that the case can be made that the first truly “modern” military handgun was introduced in the 1930s. And, at the danger of angering one of the aforementioned groups, I am going to place the blame for the first of them where it belongs—in the lap of John M. Browning!

FN High Power Pistol
In this day of highly specialized engineering and CAD programs it is sometimes difficult to believe that the world’s greatest firearms designer dropped out of that proverbial one-room country school house in the sixth grade and went to work as an apprentice at the forge of his blacksmith/gunsmith father.

Browning was one of those rare natural geniuses who when faced with a problem, idea, or theory sat down with a piece of metal in one hand and a file in the other and came up with the most successful firearm designs in history. To say his designs were commercially successful would be a gross understatement when you consider the influence this one man had upon the world’s arms industries.

He applied for a patent for a 7.65mm blowback operated pistol in 1897 which came to the attention of Fabrique Nationale de’Armes de Guerre (FN), of Herstal, Belgium. The wily Belgians recognized the potential of the pistol and signed a contract with Browning. The FN 7.65mm Browning Modele 1900 would become so popular that “Browning” became synonymous with “pistol” in many parts of the world. JMB spent the final years of his career working at the FN facility where the Belgian workers referred to him as “Le Maitre”—The Master—until his untimely death in 1926.

In 1921, FN asked Browning to design a high capacity, 9mm Parabellum pistol for upcoming French army trials and he presented them with a pair of functioning toolroom models. Both were single-action, striker fired designs but the first was blowback operated, while the second utilized the famous 1911 locking system whereby two lugs on the top of the barrel mated with matching grooves machined in the interior of the slide, which lock the two together.

When the pistol is fired, the slide and barrel recoil a short distance together, whereupon a link on the bottom of the barrel articulates it down, allowing the slide to continue to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. A recoil spring under the barrel then pulls the slide forward, stripping the next round out of the magazine and chambering it. As the slide goes into battery, the barrel moves up, locking the two units together again.

This second pistol included two radical improvements over the 1911: first, instead of the barrel unlocking by the articulation of a link, a cam integral with the barrel pulled it down to unlock from the slide during recoil. Secondly, despite his reported opposition to the concept, Browning designed a double-column 15-round magazine for it.

After the French trials, which they did not win, FN appointed Dieudonne Saive to head the pistol program.

Between 1922 and 1928 Saive, who became FN’s chief engineer, continued to modify and improve Browning’s original design. One of the first and most obvious changes was an external hammer. He also designed a new trigger mechanism, safeties (thumb and magazine) and, to reduce the size of the grip, the magazine capacity was lowered to 13 rounds. Eventually the only Browning features remaining were the locking and takedown systems and the excellent ergonomics of the grip. Known as the “Grande Rendement,” the progressively improved models were entered in army trials around the world.

In 1935, FN released the finalized version on the market as the “Pistolet Browning Grande Puissance” (“Browning High Power Pistol” which is often abbreviated to GP, GP35, Hi-Power or simply HP). While Saive’s pistol had digressed quite a ways from the original, when FN’s marketing department choose to connect Browning’s name to it, its success was almost guaranteed.

Over the next few years, it was adopted by the armies of Belgium, China, Estonia, Latvia and Peru. When World War II broke out, Belgium was quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht, which took possession of the FN facilities and continued production of the HP for the German armed forces under the designation 9mm Pistole 640(b).

During the war Belgian émigrés, including Saive, helped the John Inglis Company, Ltd. of Toronto, Canada to tool up to produce HPs for the Allies. The Chinese ordered the Pistol, 9mm, No. 1 Mark 1 and 1* which had tangent rear sights adjustable to 500 meters and wooden holster/shoulder stocks. The Pistol, 9mm, No. 2 Mark 1 and 1* with fixed rear sights were supplied to Canadian and British forces, becoming a particular favorite of Commando and airborne units. During the fighting in Europe, these Canuck HPs faced off against the HPs being fielded by the Wehrmacht.

FN resumed production of the HP in 1954, and it became the most popular military pistol in use outside the Soviet bloc. Since 1950, FN has made a number of mechanical improvements and cosmetic changes to the HP, the most obvious being the change from an internal to external extractor, which took place in 1962.

Twenty years later the High Power Mark II was introduced; it featured an elongated, ambidextrous thumb safety, spur hammer, straight barrel feed ramp, ribbed slide, high profile sights and roll pins replaced the solid trigger pins previously used. Some Mark IIs included a firing pin safety.

Introduced in 1988, the frame (made from cast steel) and slide of the current production Mark III have been slightly re-dimensioned to strengthen them and obviate the possibility of cracking. The ejection port was enlarged and re-contoured, the grips redesigned, and the sights are mounted in dovetails for easier adjustment. Some Mark IIIs have been fitted with a firing pin safety.

Besides Belgium, copies have been produced—with and without benefit of license—in Argentina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel and the Philippines. It continues to be popular with military and police forces around the world.

While the FN High Power still utilized a single-action trigger mechanism, it was the first successful military pistol to use a large-capacity magazine, a feature of almost all military pistols today. In addition, it can take a great deal of the credit for the worldwide popularity of the 9mm Parabellum cartridge, a trend that shows no signs of slacking off within our lifetimes!

Walther Pistole 38
With the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s, German industry began a crash program to rearm the Wehrmacht with modern weapons, and it was agreed that a replacement be found for the P.08 Luger pistol. While elegantly made of the finest materials, the Luger was a 19th-century anachronism. It was slow and expensive to produce, notoriously ammunition-sensitive and not overly reliable once it got dirty. All these characteristics did not endear it to either combat soldiers or pfennig-pinching bureaucrats. In 1934, the Wehrmacht announced that it was in the market for a new service pistol—just what the Carl Walther Waffenfabrik had been waiting for!

In 1908 Walther, one of Germany’s premier firearms manufacturers, introduced its first semiauto pistol, known quite appropriately as the Model 1. For the next 21 years, they produced a line of .25 and .32 cal. single-action, blowback semiauto pistols that proved quite popular with European police forces and civilians.

In 1929 Walther took the handgun world into the next generation by introducing the first successful double action/single-action (DA/SA) pistol—the Polizei Pistole, or simply PP—whose name clearly indicates the market Walther foresaw for this product. In this they were correct as the PP, and soon to follow compact PPK, became the most popular police pistols in Europe, a position they were to hold well into the 1980s.

But they were chambered for underpowered 7.65mm and 9mm Browning cartridges, and the Wehrmacht wanted a pistol chambered for the regulation 9mm Patrone 08 (a.k.a. 9mm Parabellum)

In 1934 Walther offered the army the Model MP (Militarische Pistole), an upsized PP chambered for the 9mm Parabellum. But its blowback operation doomed it to quick rejection by the army. The following year, a design team led by Fritz Walther began work on a completely new DA/SA, locked-breech pistol to meet the army’s requirements.

Two years later they announced the 9mm Model AP (Armee Pistole), a hammerless, DA/SA pistol. The Wehrmacht expressed interest with one proviso—they wanted an external hammer. The design was suitably modified and renamed the Model HP (Heeres Pistole—Service Pistol). After a few minor modifications to the safety system, the Wehrmacht adopted the Walther in 1938 as the Pistole 38, or as it is more commonly known, the P.38.

The P.38 was the first DA/SA pistol adopted by a major military power. When the hammer is forward, pulling the trigger will cock the hammer, by means of a drawbar on the right side of the frame, and fire the first round much like a DA revolver. After that, the hammer remains cocked and subsequent shots are fired in SA mode.

The P.38’s safety/hammer drop mechanism is very simple: if the hammer is cocked, rotating the safety lever on the left rear of the slide downwards will lock the firing pin in place. As the lever reaches the bottom, it trips the sear, allowing the hammer to travel forward. The safety can be left down, which blocks movement of both the trigger and hammer, or moved up, allowing the first shot to be fired in DA mode. A pin located above the hammer acts as a loaded chamber indicator.

On the left side of the frame are slide stop and takedown levers. Grip panels were made of black or reddish brown plastic, a prominent lanyard ring adorned the lower left grip frame and the eight round, single-column magazine was retained by a heel catch. Of all forged steel construction, the P.38 was, by today’s standards, a hefty pistol.

The P.38’s locking system consists of a pivoting locking block under the barrel that locks the action by means of two lugs that enter matching notches in the slide. When the pistol is fired, the slide and barrel recoil together about 5/16″ before a plunger at the rear of the barrel underlug impacts on the frame and forces down the locking block.

The slide continues to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. Dual recoil springs, located on either side of the frame, pull the slide forward, stripping the next round from the magazine and chambering it. As the slide goes into battery the locking block is cammed back up by a ramp on the front of the frame, locking the barrel and slide together again.

The following year, the Swedish army adopted the Walther as the Pistole 39, but only about 1,500 were delivered before German army orders took precedence. Wartime demands for handguns became enormous, and Walther was not capable of supplying enough P.38s. In 1941, a contract for additional P.38s was given to the Mauser Werke, to be followed in 1943 with another to Spreewerk GmbH of Berlin. In addition arms plants in the occupied countries—FN (Belgium), CZ/Brno (Czechoslovakia) and Steyr-Daimler-Puch (Austria)—made P.38 components.

The P.38 proved to be a rugged, reliable handgun, although it was never available in great enough numbers to replace the P.08. The Germans also provided limited quantities of P.38s to their erstwhile allies, Italy, Croatia and Hungary.

The quality of late war pistols deteriorated: machine marks are evident, an inexpensive phosphate (Parkerized) finish applied, stamped steel grip panels and other short cuts were adopted to increase production.

After the war, large quantities of German small arms were used by the newly liberated European countries. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia issued P.38s to their armies, while the French, whose occupation zone included the Walther factory, assembled new P.38s for their own forces. The French firm of Manuhrin produced Walther PP, PPK and P.38 pistols under license for sale to foreign armies and police forces.

When the West German army—the Bundeswehr—was organized in the 1950s, the new Walther plant at Ulm-Donau began production of a P.38 variant with a lightweight, aluminum alloy frame that was adopted as the Pistole 1 (P1). The P1 was also sold in substantial numbers to the armies and police forces of Austria, Chile, Columbia, Ghana, Norway, Portugal, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, Uruguay and Venezuela.

But the P1 was plagued with reliability problems, and over its production life a number of structural and mechanical changes were made in an attempt to improve reliability. But according to Peter Kokalis’ excellent report, “P.38: Masterpiece or Misfit, Part II” (5/20/11), “The aluminum alloys of the 1950s were not of the same metallurgical integrity as those eventually developed for the firearms industry a half century later. When subjected to heavy and constant use…P1 pistols crash dived.”

Many have praised the P.38 as the first of that breed we today call the “Wondernine.” They credit Walther with breaking new ground and developing the first truly “modern” semiauto pistol. And I can only agree with them.

As after the Great War, after World War II most armies saw little need to develop new sidearms. Outside of the Soviet bloc, the FN High Power dominated the international market, with the slack being taken up by the Walther P1, large numbers of U.S. military aid 1911s and a product from an Italian gunmaking firm.

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