October 15, 2021
The history of combat handguns is replete with examples of weapons that have earned either praise or condemnation. While the former includes the M1911A1, Mk. VI Webley and FN Hi-Power, the latter category is represented by such as the Type 94 Nambu, M1895 Nagant and the Mo. 1910 Glisenti. But to my way of thinking, the pistol that has earned almost unanimous respect is the Walther P-38.
During the 1930s, German industry began a crash program to rearm the Wehrmacht with modern weapons and it was agreed that a replacement must be found for the P.08 Luger pistol. While elegantly made of the finest materials, the Luger was a 19th century anachronism. Slow and expensive to produce, notoriously ammunition sensitive and not overly reliable once it got dirty. These were characteristics which did not endear it to either combat soldiers or bureaucrats watching the fiscal purse strings. 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!
Carl Walther Waffenfabrik was one of Germany's best known firearms manufacturers. In 1908 they introduced their first semi-auto pistol, known quite appropriately as the Model 1 and for the next twenty-one years produced a line of .25 and .32-caliber single action (SA), blowback semi-auto pistols which 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 their new 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. You can read more about the PP and PPK HERE.
But they were little more then pocket pistols chambered for underpowered 7.65mm and 9x17mm (.32 and .380 ACP) cartridges, and the Wehrmacht wanted a pistol chambered for the regulation 9mm Patrone 08 (a.k.a. 9mm Parabellum, 9x19mm). In 1934 Walther offered the army their 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 power. When the hammer is forward pulling the trigger will cock the hammer, by means of a draw bar 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 take down levers. Grip panels were made of black or reddish brown plastic and a prominent lanyard ring adorned the lower left grip frame. The eight-round, single-column magazine was retained by the traditional European heel-type catch. Of all forged steel construction the P-38 is, 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 of an inch before a plunger at the rear of the barrel under-lug 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 barrel moves forward 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 1500 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, and it appears that higher-ranking officers preferred the P.08 or small 7.65mm pistols over the Walther. 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, a cheap phosphate (Parkerized) finish applied, stamped steel grip panels and other shortcuts were adopted to increase production.
After the war large quantities of German small arms were used by the newly liberated European countries. Austria, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, East Germany and Rumania all issued P-38s to their armies while the French, whose occupation zone included the Walther factory, assembled new P-38s for their own forces. Many of these were used by the Foreign Legion during the fighting in Indo-China.
Beginning in 1952 the French company Manufacture de Machines du Haut-Rhin (better known as Manuhrin) produced Walther PP, PPK and PPK/S pistols under license for sale to foreign armies and police forces. When the West German Bundeswehr was organized in 1957 they once again adopted the P-38 as their standard sidearm. In 1963 the new Walther plant at Ulm-Donau began production of a version with a lightweight, alloy frame which reduced weight by less than two ounces. It was adopted by the Bundeswehr as the Pistole 1 (P-1) and between 1963 and 1987 it was also produced by Manuhrin as the Pistolet P1. You can read about the Walther P1 HERE.
The Walther P-1 has been sold in substantial numbers to several European, African and Middle Eastern countries and has been used by, among others, Norway, Portugal, Pakistan, Austria, Finland (UN troops only), Lebanon, Mozambique, Chad, Chile and the South African Police. Production of the P-1 ceased in 2000.
Test Firing the P-38
My friend Brooks Hedrick provided me with a P-38 that his father had brought home from Germany in 1945. It was in Very Good condition with a bright bore that leads me to believe that it has been fired very little, if at all. The left side of the slide bears the legend "P38," the "byf" code of the Mauser Werke and the date "44." The frame, slide, barrel and magazine all have matching serial numbers and several Waffenamt acceptance marks.
Handling it I noted it had a comfortable, hand filling grip and despite being a bit muzzle light, pointed well. On the negative side were a DA trigger pull that made me grunt with effort and while the SA let-off was fairly light but quite mushy. I escaped to my gun club with the Walther and a supply of Remington and Federal 9mm ammo. Most stories I've heard about war time P-38s can be summed us as follows: "Sure, it’s reliable enough but the sights and trigger pull aren't worth a damn!" Well this one was no exception.
Test firing it from a rest at 15 yards proved to be a bit of a trial. The rear sight was too wide - or the front too narrow (take your choice) - and a decent sight picture was not to be had. When combined with the poor trigger pull, they caused my shots to wander at will around the target. After a half dozen attempts my best group had five rounds in 2.3 inches printing a bit low and left. I then set an IPSC target out at ten yards and proceeded to send rounds down range, firing the first shot of each magazine double-action. As can be seen in the photo, I was able to keep all my shots in a well-centered – if not very compact – group.
Except for the horrendous DA trigger the P-38 proved a pleasant pistol to shoot, was suitably accurate and 100% reliable with the hundred odd rounds I fired through it. For a weapon produced during the dark days of late WWII, I think that is pretty good praise? 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. After shooting the P-38 I can do little but agree with them.
Walther Pistole 38 Specifications
- Caliber: 9mm Parabellum
- Operation: Short Recoil, hinged locking block
- Overall length: 8.5 inches
- Barrel length: 4.9 inches
- Weight (unloaded): 28.2 ounces
- Magazine: 8 rounds
- Sights: Front: square blade; Rear: U notch
- Grips: Plastic
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
Paul Scarlata began writing articles for various gun magazines in the 1990s. Over the years he has contributed to firearms and military history publications in the U.S. and a number of foreign countries, has had three books on military firearms published and just finished writing a fourth. He became a regular contributor to Shotgun News, forerunner of the Firearms News, in 2010, eventually becoming a staff member where he specializes writing about military small arms from 1850s to present day. His wife Becky, an excellent photographer, has been a major plus to "their" careers.