May 28, 2020
After WWII Germany was a country divided. Former allies had split the country in half with the eastern part of the nation falling behind the "iron curtain" while the western half was aligned with NATO and western powers. This division would continue throughout the Cold War.
During WWII Germany used a vast variety of handguns. When Nazi Germany took over a country, many times they would continue the production of indigenous firearms for use by both their military and police. The most popular calibers used by the Germans at the time were 7.65 Browning (aka .32 ACP) and 9mm Parabellum.
During WWII the official sidearm of the Nazi military was the P.38 which was formally adopted in 1938. However, throughout the war Nazi Germany would continue to produce and field Lugers. However, the P.38 was a tremendous step forward not only in features and function but also in reliability when compared to the Luger.
At the end of the war West Germany sought to adopt a handgun for both military and police use. Initially they settled on a slightly modified P.38 known as the P1 around 1958. The P1 was nearly identical to the WWII P.38 with the biggest difference being the use of aluminum alloy in the construction of the frame whereas the P.38 had a steel frame.
By the mid-70s West Germany was looking for a different handgun for police use. It had to be compact, reliable, lack a manual safety and chamber the 9x19mm caliber. Several handguns were submitted for consideration and several of those submitted were adopted by various agencies. One of the more interesting handguns adopted during this time was the Walther P5.
The Walther P5 was an evolution of the Walther P.38, which made sense given the P.38 was one of the most forward thinking handguns of WWII. The P.38 took a number of popular ideas used in earlier handguns such as a hammer drop safety, double action / single action trigger, loaded chamber indicator, and rolled them into a very modern military pistol that would influence handgun designs for decades to come. About the only thing the P.38 lacked was a double-stack magazine, opting instead for a single-stack 8-round mag.
Many of the functional aspects of the P.38 would be retained, with some being slightly modified, in the new Walther P5. The locking mechanism of the P.38 was a carry over to the P5. It's a simple yet robust system that would later be used by Beretta and the U.S. M9 service pistol. The barrel moves straight back while a locking-block drops to unlock the barrel and slide. This system has proven to be reliable and it aids in recoil management as the mass of the barrel moves straight back into the shooters hand vs. violently tilting downward as with the more common Browning action.
Also retained were the double-action / single-action operation of the trigger. However, there were significant improvements made to the functionality. These including a revised firing pin safety which prevented the P5 from firing should it be dropped.
The P.38 was carried with the hammer down on a live round and with the decocking safety either on or off. If the safety was off the user could simply pull the double-action trigger which would cock and fire the pistol. All subsequent shots would be single-action with a much lighter trigger pull. The user could once again make the weapon "safe" by depressing the slide mounted safety which would drop the hammer safely on a live round. If the safety were left on (downward position) the gun could not be fired by pulling the trigger. If flipped up (Off) the gun could then be fired.
The P5 simplified this by removing the option of leaving the safety on and disabling the trigger. The premise was that the long heavy double-action trigger pull that would cock and fire the gun was enough of a safety to allow for safe carry. The German police specifically made the request that pistols submitted for their consideration did not have a safety requiring the user to deactivate before firing. They wanted a safe to carry pistol that required no manual safety at all. The P5 delivered on this requirement.
Where the P.38 had the decocker/safety located on the slide the new P5 moved the decocker to the frame just behind the trigger. Unlike the P.38, when the decocker was used to lower the hammer on a live round it did not put the P5 into a "safe" mode that disabled the trigger. It simply decocked the gun so that the user only had to pull the trigger to fire it.
The decocker on the P5 performed two functions. With the slide locked to the rear, depressing it once would drop the slide home. Depressing it a second time would decock the pistol safely. While it would seem natural to push up on the decocker while drawing the slide to the rear to lock the slide open manually, this was accomplished by means of a separate inconspicuous lever that sits just in front of the decocker.
The disassembly of the P5 and P.38 were nearly identical. First, remove the magazine and lock the slide to the rear. Towards the front of the frame on both pistols there is a disassembly lever just in front of the trigger guard. Rotate this lever down and while holding the slide, depress the slide release lever to allow the slide to move forward and off the frame. Inside you will find two recoil springs, one on either side of the frame, on both the P.38 and P5.
It's interesting that the P.38 had a Walther PP type loaded chamber indicator that was left off the P5. When a round is loaded in the P.38 a pin will protrude from the rear of the slide which is visible to the user while acquiring a sight picture.
Also retained, but significantly modified, was a firing pin safety. On the P.38 a bar moves up as the shooter pulls the trigger. This bar presses upward on a plunger that's blocking the free movement of the firing pin. When the plunger is fully pressed upwards, the firing pin is then released so that it can move forward after being struck by the hammer. If the trigger is not pulled, the firing pin cannot come into contact with the primer as it is blocked by the plunger. A similar system is found on many modern automatic pistols including the Glock series of handguns.
The P5 changed this significantly. One could argue either way as to which is simpler. Instead of using a plunger, Walther removed it and instead had a bar press upwards on the firing pin itself, which is held down under spring pressure. When the trigger is pulled, the bar pushes the firing pin up allowing it to be struck by the hammer. If the trigger is not pulled, the firing pin cannot be struck by the hammer, nor can it move forward via inertia and come into contact with the primer.
The barrel of the P5 was a short 3.5 inches in length. An even shorter "compact" version was offered with a 3.1-inch barrel. A long barreled version was also offered that had a similar length as the P.38's barrel being 4.9 inches long. The pistol featured for this article is the full sized P5 version with a 3.5-inch barrel.
While both the P.38 and P5 have 8-round magazines, which are not cross compatible. I should add, I find the P5 grip is slightly less comfortable for me to hold. The toe of the P5's magazine protrudes significantly from the grip frame. The P.38's magazine toe is covered by a flare at the bottom of the grip that keeps it from contacting my pinky.
The P5 has conventional ejection port but it's located on the left side of the slide vs. a more common location on the right side. At first you may overlook this oddity. It makes sense though as the P.38 has its ejector on the right side of the frame and it too tosses spent cases to the shooters left.
The sights on the P5 have a single white painted dot on the front blade with a traditional rear notch. The rear sight on the pistol in this article is adjustable for windage via a flat head screw driver.
Like its older brother, the P5 uses a heel release for securing the 8-round magazine. It's interesting to note that a version of the P5 produced for the UK featured an "American" style push button thumb release located just behind the trigger guard.
When the P5 runs empty the slide will lock to the rear. To reload the user will depress the heel release with the non-shooting hand while pulling downward on the magazine using the front toe of the magazine's base plate. Once the empty magazine is removed, simply insert a fresh magazine and press down on the slide release / decocker. Again, the first press will release the slide and a second press will safely decock the pistol.
While the P5 was produced in fairly large numbers for German police, the Dutch also ordered some 50,000 pistols for their own use. Versions were also made for the UK and other nations. Despite its rather wide usage during the Cold War years, they're not all that common on the U.S. market these days. Looking at GunBroker.com you'll find clean examples of the P5 selling for between $1500 to $7000 depending on the rarity of the model and condition. The pistol featured here would fall into the $1500 range.
Shooting the P5 is a pure pleasure. The recoil impulse is smooth and very controllable. Despite its comfortable ergonomics, proven operating system and once reasonable price, the gun never really took off in the United States. It seems shooters and collectors gravitated more towards the P.38 or the post war P1 pistols instead.
If you're interested in an interesting and somewhat unique post war pistol that's a little out of the ordinary but still fairly affordable you may want to jump on GunBroker and grab one. You won't be disappointed.
About the Author: Tim Harmsen is the founder of the popular Military Arms Channel on Youtube and you can follow his writing here.