December 30, 2020
It was the evening of July 13, 1943, and Leutnant Otto Neumann was lost. He had flown more than 300 miles aboard a Junkers JU-52 transport plane and hit the drop zone at dusk, as planned. That was, however, the only thing about this mission that had gone as intended. Everything else seemed to be random, disorganized, flawed, or broken.
Neumann, like all German Fallschirmjagers, hit the ground naked. At least that’s what they called it. He wore his “bone bag” jump smock, abbreviated paratrooper helmet, and scant personal equipment, but his MP40 submachine gun was lost someplace in a weapons canister. His only weapons consisted of a Sauer 38H pistol and a standard-issue gravity knife. Despite vigorously groping about in the darkness, he could find no other members of his unit.
Otto pushed back the panic and leaned heavily against a tree. He pulled in the sweet, cool, Sicilian air and let his ears acclimate. There was firing in the distance. To his right, he heard footfalls in the leaves. By the dim moonlight, he could just make out the characteristic round helmet of one of his fellow Fallschirmjagers. His heart jumped at the prospect of company. No matter how dire the circumstances, having a comrade close by always seemed to multiply his strength.
Leutnant Neumann waited until the dim figure got close and whispered, “Hast du meinen machinenpistole gesehen?” (“Have you seen my machine pistol?”)
The figure stopped, and the helmeted head turned to face Leutnant Neumann. There was a staccato yellow flash, and 9mm bullets from a British Sten gun tore into the German officer. He bled out in moments. The young British paratrooper who took the man’s life replaced the magazine of his Sten gun with a fresh box and stepped over to Neumann’s body. The dead Fallschirmjager’s eyes glinted sightlessly in the moonlight.
The British Para checked the German unsuccessfully for maps and then twisted the compact Sauer pistol from his grasp, dropping it into a voluminous pocket in his own jump smock. Three months later, the man lost the German gun to an American GI in a card game, and it eventually made its way to me.
The aforementioned vignette is fiction, but the mission was historically accurate. In violation of all expected norms, on the evening of July 13, 1943, both the 1st German Parachute Division and the Red Devils of Brigadier Gerald Lathbury’s British Parachute Brigade both jumped onto the same Sicilian drop zone at the same time. The odds against such a coincidence were astronomical. In the dim light, the unique parachutists’ helmets worn by both sides appeared identical. The combat was close-quarters, hand-to-hand, and pitiless before the two units got themselves untangled and moved out on their separate missions. This was just one pathetic little drama that played out among countless others that made up the global hemoclysm that was the Second World War.
The Sauer 38H pistol carried by our fictional Leutnant Neumann was a truly remarkable design. Chambered for the 7.65mm/.32ACP cartridge and feeding from an 8-round detachable box magazine, the 38H was frequently just called the “H” by the German soldiers who wielded it. The H stood for “hammerless.” While this was not technically accurate, as the hammer rotated within a steel shroud inside the gun, the name nonetheless stuck.
The action of the Sauer 38H was an otherwise uninspired straight blowback not unlike the Walther PPK and Mauser HSc, two of the gun’s contemporary competitors. The weapon sported fixed iron sights with a crosshatched strip cut along the top of the slide to reduce glare. The gun was designed in 1938, but series production did not commence until 1939. The Sauer plant that produced the guns was located in Suhl, Germany. By 1945, J.P. Sauer and Sohn had produced around 200,000 copies of the weapon in three different variants. The pistol weighed 24.9 ounces and sported a 3.3-inch barrel. The last few guns pushed out of the factory before the Allies overran it were shoddily assembled and roughly finished.
The 38H included a small pin that protruded from the rear of the slide to serve as a loaded-chamber indicator. There was also a magazine disconnect safety. While many modern combat handguns include this feature, it was vanishingly rare during World War II. The grips were made from Bakelite, a remarkably advanced thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin produced within a machine called a Bakelizer.
The truly remarkable aspect of the design, however, was a manual cocker/decocker lever located on the left side of the frame. When activated by the right-handed shooter’s thumb, this lever could be used to drop the hammer safely on a loaded chamber, or cock the hammer manually if desired. A subsequent version of this device virtually defined the wildly successful modern line of SIG Sauer P220-series pistols.
The modern SIG guns used the decocker lever solely for decocking. As a result, on the SIG guns, the lever will not manually cock the hammer. The HK P9S, however, a remarkably complicated roller-locked German handgun available in both 9mm and .45ACP chamberings, used an almost identical copy of this device to both cock and decock the pistol. The P9S has been out of production for years.
The barrel on the Sauer 38H was fixed, and the gun strips roughly in the manner of the Walther PPK. The 38H was a popular issue sidearm for Waffen SS and German Fallschirmjager troops. Sepp Dietrich, the notorious SS Oberst-Gruppenfuhrer who commanded the 6th Panzer Army during the Battle of the Bulge, carried a Sauer 38H in combat. His personal Sauer 38H sold through Rock Island Auction Company several years ago for $43,125.
Dietrich began his career in 1929, as Adolf Hitler’s chauffer, before rising through the ranks in the Waffen SS. He spent the years after the war in prison for war crimes, only to be released in 1958. Dietrich subsequently died in 1966, of a heart attack. Nearly 6,000 people attended the old Nazi’s funeral. Dietrich was one of Hitler’s favorite combat commanders and no doubt could have selected any weapon available to the Germans during the war. That he chose the Sauer 38H speaks to the gun’s popularity.
Running The Gun
The Sauer 38H was indeed an exceptionally advanced design for its day. For all its admittedly impressive engineering, however, the slide does not lock to the rear on the last round fired. The magazine release is easily accessed with the right-handed operator’s thumb, and magazines drop free cleanly.
The science of wound ballistics was in its infancy in the 1930s, and the terminal performance of a bullet was felt to be secondary to the simple act of connecting with a target. As a result, there were Axis sidearms even chambered for the miniscule .25ACP round. In the case of the 38H, the low-powered .32ACP cartridge makes for an exceptionally sweet-shooting gun.
Recoil is dreamy, and follow up shots are painless. The Sauer 38H is slim enough for comfortable concealed carry, and the cocking/decocking lever works like a champ. Early guns like the one we reviewed for this article included a slide-mounted safety lever. Late-war guns made under the ever-increasing pressure of Allied bombing dispensed with this superfluous feature, as well as the decocker.
The sights on the 38H were too small, but everybody’s sights were too small back then. The gun still points well and runs fast. When compared to similar military classics like the Walther PPK, P08 Luger, and Walther P38, the Sauer 38H remains a competitive, though underpowered, service pistol.
The Sauer 38H was remarkable not so much for what it was, but for what it went on to become. The general layout of the gun to include the cocking lever subsequently defined the SIG P220-series weapons that have been used operationally around the world. The U.S. Navy SEALs have famously employed the SIG P226 for decades. Had the cost been just a bit lower, the P226 would very likely have become the U.S. service weapon, in place of the Beretta 92F, back in 1985.
The SIG P320 was recently chosen in slightly modified form to become the new standard-issue U.S. military handgun. While this weapon dispenses with an exposed hammer in lieu of a striker-fired mechanism, the P320 is indeed still an evolutionary development of the P226 that was itself a development of the 38H. Designs get refined and tweaked, frequently within the cauldron of combat, until the definitive model emerges. In the case of the SIG P320, it sprouts from a storied family tree indeed.
In the 1940s, the entire planet grappled literally to the death to determine if freedom or tyranny would prevail. Young men from around the globe donned their respective uniforms and sallied forth to kill their fellow men with the most advanced weapons and equipment the technology of the era could provide. In the case of the Sauer 38H, this tidy little service pistol launched an anemic round and lacked a few modern amenities, yet nonetheless adequately armed the Axis forces through six years of bitter combat. To hold such as this in my hand today is an enormous privilege and a tangible connection to a horrible time when the entire world was at war.
Special thanks to WorldWarSupply.com for the period German SS gear used in the preparation of this article.
Performance Data Sauer 38H .32ACP (Fired at target 21 feet away)