July 01, 2021
There are few countries on this planet that have experienced the wrath of the Russian Bear like Germany. In 1941 the German Wehrmacht thrust into the Soviet Union bent on conquest, only to become locked in a savage struggle. The Russian people, looking directly into the eye of mass extermination, responded on a titanic scale. What followed, as these two nations fought for their very survival, was warfare brought down to its most savage and barbaric level. It was a type and scale of warfare not experienced by the Western Allies. In the end the Fascist invaders were driven out, and Berlin reduced to rubble under the vengeful boot of the Red Army. When the guns finally fell silent, Hitler was dead, Germany was divided and the Soviet Union stood as one of two Super Powers.
In the years that followed, West Germany, with considerable help from the United States, was rebuilt. With tensions rising between the West and the Soviet Union, especially after the Korean War and an uprising in East Germany, it was eventually decided to allow West Germany to rearm. So, in 1955 the country’s sovereignty was fully restored and the newly formed ‘Bundeswehr’ (Federal Defense Force) took to the field. One of the first tasks facing Germany’s newly formed army was selecting suitable weapons. For some designs, like a new combat rifle, the German’s looked to the future. They adopted the 7.62mm G1 (Belgian FN FAL) and then the domestically produced 7.62mm Heckler and Koch G3.
For other weapons, though they looked to the past. Recent combat experience had proven the Wehrmacht’s Walther P38 to be a tough and reliable service pistol. So rather than adopting a totally new design, the Bundeswehr simply fielded a modernized version of the P38 designated the Pistole 1 (P1). It subsequently served several generations of Teutonic soldats during the Cold War, as they faced down the Russian Bear.
The Bundeswehr would eventually expand out to a force of 495,000 military and 170,000 civilian personnel. In doing so it became the backbone of NATO in Central Europe. Bundeswehr units, especially their armor, soon earned the respect of their peers for their professionalism and abilities. It was well understood, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that the Bundeswehr would certainly make the Soviets/Warsaw Pact pay dearly if they invaded West Germany. Although they might be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, they would go down hard defending their Fatherland.
Today, the Cold War is little more than a fading memory, Germany is united, the Bundeswehr is just a shadow of what it once was, and Walther’s P1 was long ago replaced in German service. Now surplus Walther P1s are both an interesting collectible and fun shooter. For those of you unfamiliar with this model let’s delve a little into the history of Walther before looking at the weapon itself.
The German firm of Carl Walther Waffenfabrik first began producing handguns at a plant in Zella-Mellis in 1908. Following the Great War Walther produced two designs which made the company justly famous. These were the PP-Polizei Pistole introduced in 1929 and its smaller sibling, the PPK-Polizei Pistole Kriminalbeamte, introduced in 1930. Both of these designs were well-received due to their compact size, innovative double-action operation, reliability and accuracy. Their handsome good looks didn’t hurt them either.
In the 1930s the rearming Wehrmacht began looking for a suitable replacement for its aging P.08 Parabellum service pistol. Service in the Great War had shown the P.08 to be both slow and expensive to manufacture as well as being temperamental in the mud of the trenches. So, Walther developed and submitted a number of models. Unfortunately, these failed to satisfy the German ordnance officials. Walther kept at it though, and their AP (Armee Pistole) was eventually refined and adopted as the Pistole 38 or P38.
Like the P.08 it was intended to replace, the new P38 had a certain menacing look to it. A full-size double-action service pistol, it chambered the standard 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge. Not only was the double-action operation unique at the time on a service pistol, but its method of operation also stood out. Rather than having the barrel lock into the slide, Walther used a locking wedge under the barrel. This held the slide and barrel together as they recoiled a short distance. Then the wedge was driven down by striking against a frame transom. The slide, now released, was free to recoil backwards and complete the reloading cycle.
The proven double-action lock of the PP was included, and feed was from an 8-round magazine. Controls consisted of a decocker/safety mounted on the left side of the slide, a slide release on the left side of the frame, and a magazine catch located on the heel of the butt. Military production began in 1939, with the first issues being made to Panzer (tank) crews.
Walther, Mauser-Werke (starting in 1941), and Spreewerke GmbH (starting in 1943) churned out over one million P38s during the war. P38s went on to see combat in every theatre where German soldiers were engaged. Heavy field use in incredibly harsh conditions quickly proved it to be a tough and durable weapon which soon became popular with the troops.
When put to the test in actual combat it proved at least the equal of the Polish Radom, possessed superior terminal performance compared to France’s 7.65mm Long 1935 series, easily outclassed England’s .380-inch Enfield and Webley revolvers and was faster into action than the Soviet’s 7.62x25mm TT-33, which lacked a manual safety. It took a backseat though to the higher magazine capacity of the Belgian’s 9mm P35 Hi-Power, and 9mm ball lacked the terminal performance of the American .45 ACP M1911A1.
Unfortunately for the German soldier in the field, there were never enough available. Due to this shortage, the older P.08 and a host of other designs remained in service until the end of the war. With the fall of Berlin in 1945, the P38’s military career came to an abrupt end.
Within a decade though, the P38 received a new lease on life. When the Bundeswehr expressed interest in putting this old warhorse back to work, Walther updated the design. Relatively slight changes were made, the biggest of which was replacing the steel frame with a lightweight 'Dural' alloy unit. The updated design was subsequently adopted in 1957 as the Pistole 1. This model served not only the various branches of the Bundeswehr, but also the Austrian Army, for decades. Its chief rival during the Cold War was the Soviet 9x18mm PM (Pistolet Makarova) and similar Warsaw Pact designs such as the Polish P-64.
Comparing the German and Soviet designs you immediately notice the 9x19mm P1 is both larger and heavier. Both are double-action with slide mounted decocker/safeties, feed from single column 8-round magazines and have heel-mounted magazine releases. Practical accuracy of the two is also similar. Of the two designs the Soviet PM is simpler and, easier to manufacture.
What does the P1 have going for it? Its sights are much better than those on a PM, and its 9mm Parabellum round hits slightly harder than a Soviet 9x18mm. It’s also easier shoot, especially quickly due to its size. Plus, it’s simple to operate and reliable. Walther would continue to evolve the design leading to the Walther P5, which saw some use with LE agencies. By the time the P1 was finally retired from the German military in 1995, it had grown rather long in the tooth. Better designs were available, and the now rather outdated-looking P1 was put out to pasture.
I picked up a surplus P1 a decade or so ago. Condition was excellent, with only minor storage/handling wear. It was dated February 1980 and came with two 8-round steel magazines (one dated 3/64 and the other 5/76), a black leather military flap holster (dated 9/59), and a cleaning kit (dated 1987).
The metalwork was finished in an even dull gray parkerizing and the lightweight alloy frame was anodized black. The only wear was on the grips and lanyard ring, which had dings from storage. The double-action pull on my example is smooth, fairly light and stacks just before let-off. The single-action pull is light, fairly crisp and possesses just a bit of over travel. Handling a P1 you note the decocker/safety is easy to operate from a firing grip. Thumbing it down safely decocks the hammer and places the weapon on Safe. Up is Fire. The slide release is also easy to reach. The weak point of the design is the heel magazine release, which dramatically slows reloads.
Although the magazine release is a pain, the P1 does have excellent sights for a service pistol. These are large, rugged and easy to see. The front sight is a large square post with a white dot. The rear is a large square notch with a white post. Windage adjustments are made by simply drifting the rear sight. Just above the hammer is a loaded chamber indicator which protrudes to indicate the pistol’s condition. A quick glance or, at night, a touch will instantly reveal the weapon’s state of readiness. Located on the left side of the receiver is the weapon’s take-down lever. This allows the pistol to be easily stripped for cleaning and routine maintenance.
To provide an idea on what to expect from a Bundeswehr surplus P1, I put my example to work at 25 yards. Six different loads, ranging in bullet weight from 115 to 147 grains, were fired off sandbags. Four five-shot groups were recorded with each load with velocity readings taken 12 feet from the muzzle. Test ammunition consisted of Aguila’s 124-grain FMJ, PMP’s 115-grain FMJ, Winchester’s 147-grain SXT and Wolf Performance Ammunition’s 115-grain FMJ. I felt this group of ammunition would provide a good indication of what the P1 would reliably function with.
Accuracy proved quite acceptable for a rack-grade service pistol. Best accuracy was obtained with Winchester 147 gr SXT load. This averaged 2.6 inches at 977 fps. The old Walther proved comfortable to fire and recoil was mild. During this portion of testing I appreciated the bold and easy-to-see sights.
Still, service pistols are not meant to be fired from sandbags. So I moved on. Using the flap holster it came with, I put the P1 to work shooting various drills engaging targets from 2 to 100 yards. Running a P1 is pretty simple. Snap a loaded 8-round magazine into the butt, thumb the decocker down and work the slide to chamber a round. Next, thumb the decocker up and holster.
Although the flap holster looks cool, like all such designs it’s slow into action. When you finally clear leather, index the prominent front sight onto target and squeeze. The double-action pull is quite acceptable and recoil is light. The single-action pull is even better. Then just as things begin to get fun, the slide locks back. Time to depress the mag release located on the pistol’s heel while digging the empty magazine out. Go for your spare mag, insert it cleanly, run the slide and back at it. Recoil is light and brass flies everywhere. Ejection is best described as erratic, and like previous German military designs empty cases occasionally whack you in the forehead.
Negatives? The P1, like the P38, has two major shortcomings for a fighting pistol. These are the small magazine capacity and heel-mounted magazine release. A higher capacity double-stack magazine would have been a real improvement. Plus, the heel-mounted mag release is deathly slow. It was originally intended to prevent a soldier from ejecting his magazine into the dirt to never be seen again. It was hoped the soldier would retain the empty magazine, and reload it later. It’s interesting to note that both the Germans and Russians have since ditched this style of release on their current service pistols.
Over the years I’ve owned this particular P1 I’ve noted it doesn’t like to be run dry. During one range session I put about 400 rounds of Wolf ball through it when it suddenly started to experience failures to feed. A quick squirt of lube immediately cured this problem. Also, keep in mind this is a surplus pistol and recoil/magazine springs may be tired. Replacing the old springs with new aftermarket Wolff springs is cheap insurance.
Positives? The sights are large and easy to see, the trigger is acceptable and accuracy is quite good. Plus spare parts and accessories are readily available if you do a bit of looking. Prices have gone up in recent years, but they are still a good buy considering their quality. So, if you’re looking for an interesting collectible from the Cold War and/or a fun plinker, consider a surplus Walther P1.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com
Walther P1 Specifications
- Method of Operation: Short recoil, self-loading
- Caliber: 9x19mm Parabellum
- Trigger: Conventional Double-Action
- Sights: Fixed front post, U-notch rear
- Weight: 27 ounces
- Barrel: 4.9 inches, 6 groove 1-10 RH twist
- Feed: 8-round single-stack detachable magazine
- Manufacturer: Carl Walther Waffenbrik
About the author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics for 23 years. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.