September 06, 2022
When I first became interested in handguns, my tastes followed my experiences of World War II Combat or the American West as portrayed on 1950s TV and in films. I was particularly enamored of the Colt Single Action, the Remington derringer, and the German Luger. At the time I was too young to own real versions of these iconic firearms, but I did have a toy SAA and derringer.
Eventually, I would own examples of all three of these handguns. My first SAA was a much-used re-nickeled example in .38-40 and my first Luger pistol was a mismatched example assembled from parts. With a little age and increased cash, I did eventually upgrade.
Through college, I managed to trade around until I had a nice WWII 42 Code Luger rig with the holster and spare magazine. For quite a few years that was the extent of my “Luger collection.” However, the library in the town where I went to college had a copy of Fred Datig’s The Luger Pistol, at the time the only reference on P08 and other Luger pistols I’d seen. I checked it out at least a dozen times and read and re-read it.
I also attended gun shows when I was home in St. Louis working in a factory during the summer. At one of those shows I saw my first American Eagle Luger. The entwined “DWM” initials on the toggle and the American Eagle above the chamber immediately drew my eyes. This was the most attractive Luger pistol I’d seen. I wanted one, but it would have taken at least a week’s earnings including ten hours overtime to buy it. I didn’t, but I decided one day I would own an American Eagle Luger.
The day didn’t come for many years. I had started collecting and shooting other handguns and, though I still stopped to look at American Eagle Lugers whenever I saw one and still harbored a desire for one, something else generally got purchased. Then about ten years ago I received an email catalog from one of the gun auction companies. It was packed with what must have been a collection of American Eagle Lugers—at least a dozen or more. I put low bids on nine or ten of them.
Imagine my surprise when I won three—An American Eagle commercial 7.65 Luger, an American Eagle 7.65 that was one of the 1,000 US Military Test Lugers, and a 1906 American Eagle 9mm Luger. What was amazing, the total I paid for the three was about what the Test Luger should have brought by itself. I was ecstatic. In fact, I put them on my credit card and paid the extra 3%, as I didn’t want to give them time to decide a mistake had been made in the selling prices!
U.S. Army tests of the Parabellum (Luger) pistol actually pre-dated the German Army’s adoption of the P08 pistol. Late in 1901, 1,000 M1900 test Luger pistols were delivered to Springfield Armory for U.S. troop evaluation. Actually, at least one Bordchardt pistol, the predecessor of the Luger pistol, had been submitted for U.S. evaluation as early as 1897, but it didn’t generate much interest other than as a curiosity.
The M1900, on the other hand, was tested fairly extensively, especially with U.S. cavalry units. Along with the 1,000 pistols, 200,000 rounds of the 7.65x21mm Parabellum cartridge, for which the pistols were chambered, were ordered from DWM (Deutsche Waffen-und Maunitionsfabriken) through the company’s U.S. representative Hans Tauscher.
Price for the pistols and ammunition was $15,000 (or maybe that was the price for just the pistols; sources aren’t definitive), with each additional spare magazine costing another $.88. The current equivalent of that $15,000 price tag would by $513,400 or about $513.40 per pistol and 200 rounds of ammo.
According to Luger expert Jan Still, at least some of the pistols were sent to U.S. cavalry units deployed in the Philippines and Cuba. Small numbers of the pistol were distributed to various Army posts, but most were issued to the cavalry—five pistols each to the 185 cavalry troops for a total of 925 pistols. As some of those troops were probably deployed that would explain any that made it overseas. It is interesting to note the comments from officers assigned to these cavalry troops.
Evaluations were fairly evenly split between positive and negative. Favorable comments included: larger cartridge capacity (eight rounds), faster reloads, better accuracy, ability to disassemble the pistol for cleaning, better balance for natural pointing, and better range and penetration.
Unfavorable comments included: caliber too small, required two hands to cock pistol, too complicated for average enlisted trooper, sensitive to dirt or dust, weak firing pin spring, ease of losing magazine, difficult to load magazine while mounted, “no way of carrying extra magazines” (presumably no magazine pouches were issued), and difficult to determine if pistol is loaded.
Rock Island Arsenal had produced special holsters for the Test Lugers. As few of these have survived, they often sell for thousands of dollars so a collector who owns an M1900 Test Luger can mate it with the proper holster.
There was a later M1902 American Eagle Luger chambered in 9x19mm and with a four-inch fatter barrel. Compared to the elegant 4¾-inch barrel of the M1900 the barrels of the M1902 pistols appear stubby. The M1902 American Eagle is scarce as only between 600 and 700 were produced.
There were 50 of the M1902 pistols ordered by the Board of Ordnance on 6 May 1903. These pistols incorporated the “Powell Indicating Device,” which was designed to show the number of rounds remaining in the magazine. A strip with numbers was slotted into the left grip, to which a pin on the follower. Pistols with this device are usually termed “Cartridge Counter Lugers.” These pistols are rare and highly sought after by collectors. In May 2022, Rock Island Auction Service sold one for $82,250.
DWM’s Parabellum pistol had proven highly successful and had been adopted by numerous countries during the first decade of the 20th Century. The US Army had not proven a fertile market. Nevertheless, DWM did supply a .45 ACP Luger for the U.S. trials that resulted in the adoption of the Colt 1911.
At least two .45 ACP Lugers were produced, with some sources stating as high as six. However, by April 1908, DWM became disillusioned with the trials and withdrew. Some years ago, a .45 ACP U.S. Trials Luger was valued at $1,000,000; however, I am not aware of it having been sold for that price.
The American Eagle continued to be placed above the chambers of other early Lugers, including the M1906 model in 7.65mm caliber and the M1906 model in 9mm caliber. Early American Eagle Lugers produced by DWM should not be confused with the later Mauser/Interarms American Eagle Lugers manufactured in the 1970s.
An interesting accessory, which I’ve seen on quite a few commercial American Eagle Lugers is the Ideal Holster Stock, which was designed to allow carrying the pistol in a rather cumbersome holster which could be converted to a stock affixed to the pistol using special grip panels. It’s clever and intriguing but not very practical. Nevertheless, I am always tempted if I see an American Eagle with an Ideal stock in nice condition.
I said: “tempted”; I haven’t chosen to purchase one! Still other interesting American Eagle holsters come from famous makers such as Abercrombie and Fitch or H.H. Heiser. It should be noted, though, that H.H. Heiser reportedly made some of the Luger Holsters marketed by Abercrombie & Fitch.
As reference for this article and to shoot, I got out one of those 1900 American Eagle Lugers I got at bargain prices those years ago. As I handled it, I was reminded of what a stylish pistol it is. The long slender barrel, the dished-out toggle knobs, the slanted grip, the strawed small parts, and, of course, the American Eagle on the chamber give this Luger a flair matched by few other pistols.
An interesting aspect of the 1900 American Eagle Luger—presumably because of the attempt to “Americanize” it for possible military sales—is that it lacks the German proof marks so common on most pistols from that country and also lacks the “GERMANY” marking found on some German imports.
With the pistol out of the safe and a box of Fiocchi .30 Luger on my ammo shelf I had no choice but to give the “Eagle” an outing. I did disassemble the pistol and oil the toggle and rails, as it had been in the safe ever since I bought it. This slight maintenance seemed to suffice as it functioned perfectly from the first magazine to the last I fired. Vintage Lugers often have a reputation for being unreliable, and some I’ve owned were, but this was not.
I did all of my shooting one-handed in the spirit of early 20th Century technique in use when the pistol made its debut. The sights are acceptable to 25 yards or a bit more. I did shoot at plates at 50 yards and got some hits, maybe half the magazine. Many early users of the Luger lauded its grip, which allowed instinctive pointing.
I have always found, and did on this session, this to be true. I shot my target with one hand at 50-feet, placing all shot center of mass on a silhouette target. My friend Tim, who was shooting with me, fired a five-round group two-handed at 25 yards from a rest and shot a very nice group. Interestingly, I had no problem with the grip safety, but Tim did find that his hold did not always fully depress the grip safety, thus rendering the pistol impossible of firing.
This would have been a training issue had the pistol been adopted for U.S. military use. The placement of the grip safety on the pistol adopted, the 1911, is lower on the frame, which mitigates this issue for most shooters.
Shooting the American Eagle Luger was a pure joy. I can understand some of those criticisms by U.S. Horse Cavalrymen 120 years ago. They were evaluating a pistol upon which they might have to stake their lives. I was just shooting a beautiful example of German craftsmanship of the fin de cicle.
My American Luger has been cleaned and is back in the safe. I don’t intend to carry it, though I would like to find one of those Abercrombie and Fitch holsters, but I do plan to take it out every now and again and admire it!
1900 American Eagle Specifications
- Action: Toggle-Locked, Short Action Semi-Auto
- Caliber: 7.65x21mm Parabellum
- Overall Length: 9.3 in.
- Barrel Length: 4.75 in.
- Weight: 31.5 oz. empty
- Cartridge Capacity: 8 rounds
- Sights: Fixed Rear Notch, Front Post