May 19, 2020
By Patrick Sweeney
In this issues installment, we have two historical paths to explore, because it is Bond, James Bond.
The first is the origin of the Walther PPK/S. Actually, the PP, the Polizeipistole. The PP was brought to the market by Walther in 1929, the end days of the Weimar Republic. It was meant to be the amalgamation of all things modern. It was, at heart, just a blowback .32 ACP pistol. Meant for police use, the European attitude towards pistol calibers was “That’s plenty, no need to make a fuss over this” and so the lowly .32 was deemed more than sufficient in many European countries.
The Germans were not outliers in this, across the European continent, those in charge couldn’t agree on much, but one thing they all agreed on was; .32 is enough.
In the modern part of the PP, it is what we now call a traditional double action pistol. That is, you fired the first shot double action, and then the slide cocked the hammer for each shot afterwards. You could, if you wished, thumb-cock the hammer for the first shot.
The PP also included a hammer-dropping safety. The safety lever blocked the firing pin before it dropped the hammer, so you could safely de-cock the pistol when you needed to. And finally, there was a loaded chamber indicator on the back of the slide. The only thing missing was a magazine safety, and I suspect that would have been included if the designers had figured a way to do it. Another modern aspect was locking open when empty. Yes, full-sized pistols did it, but in 1929, not all pocket, or compact, pistols had that feature.
Next up, in 1930 came the PPK, Polizeipistole Kriminalmodell (I have also heard it referred to as Polizeipistole Klein, go figure) which is the PP but with barrel, slide and frame shortened, losing a round of capacity. I guess a full-sized PP was just too big for German detectives, and they had to have something smaller. The PPK varied from the PP also in the grips. The PP has a full frame, and the grips are simply a pair of plastic slabs, one on each side of the frame. The PPK dispensed with the frame’s backstrap, and the grips are wrap-around, covering the hammer spring and associated parts.
Time marched on, as it will, and when Germany started the war, they found they needed firearms, and a lot of them. Every German firearms maker upped production, and upped it again and again. The PP and PPK were produced in moderate numbers, some 200,000 of the PP, and 150,000 of the PPK. The low (compared to some other firearms produced) production numbers were due to both the involved manufacture, and the high desirability. If you had status in the Nazi party, you had a quality firearm. For example, the P38 production ran over 1.2 million pistols, but they were used at the fronts, and the high polish and hand work a PP or PPK received was just not in the manufacturing schedule.
Which had an interesting effect on prices, post-war. The millions of P38 and P08 pistols produced were to be found at higher prices at gun shows, and with collectors, back when I was first working gun shops, than the rarer PP or PPK. (At least, the .32s.) Go figure.
The passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 caused another new model of the Walther line to be produced: the PPK/S. The importability of firearms was determined by a points system, adding up the points earned from size, weight, and features. The PPK was too small, falling one point short of the minimum required. So, Walther assembled the slide and barrel of the PPK onto the frame of the PP, and called it the PPK/S, making it importable.
And now that Walthers are being made mostly here in the good old US of A, the points system is a non-issue. Mostly? Yes, the slide, the bare slide, is being made at the Walther plant in Ulm, Germany. I’ve been there, and the factory floor is cleaner and more orderly than some of the radio stations I worked at. If the Germans make a part to spec, you’d better believe it is to spec. Works for me. The bare slides are assembled in Fort Smith Arkansas, the home of Walther USA, and mated with frames that are made entirely in the USA.
The current Walther PPK/S is offered solely in .380 Auto, because Americans are not too hot on the ballistic impression a .32 ACP leaves. The USA PPK/S follows the same layout and design as the originals, but with a few minor changes. The frame, slide and barrel are all either carbon steel or stainless steel on the new model. Starting from the bottom and working up, the new model (and we’ll dispense with “new model” from now on, and just call it the PPK/S) has a finger rest baseplate, to make the pistol easier to shoot for those of us with large hands. The magazine holds six rounds of .380. There is one witness hole in the left side of the tube, to see when the magazine is fully loaded.
The ridge on the left side of the tube is clearance for the hold-open tab on the follower. Yes, Virginia, the PPK/S locks open when it has fired the last shot. (Historical note: the .32s lack the hold-open ridge that the .380s do. It is possible to insert a .32 magazine, with ammo, into a .380 pistol. As you can imagine, this combination will not work. Be careful if you have Walthers of these calibers.)
You will notice that there is no slide stop lever on the PPK/S. Nor any of the variants. The slide locks back when the pistol is empty, and to release the slide once you’ve reloaded, you have to “slingshot” the slide. Yes, in 1929, Walther built a pistol that works the way the current crop of tacti-cool instructors tell you to reload: work the slide.
The hard polymer grips have checkering molded into the sides, and the Walther banner logo on the top. Just beneath the slide, on the left side of the frame, is the magazine release button. At first glance, you’d wonder why there, and not why down just behind the trigger guard, where “normal” pistols have the mag button?
The first reason, at least the one that I noticed right away, is that the PPK/S is so small that my thumb reaches the button where it is just fine. Were the button down behind the trigger guard, I suspect my second finger would be pressing against, or on, it, and release the magazine. That would not be cool. But the main reason the magazine button is not where you’d expect it, had you spent too much time with 1911s, is that the space there in the frame is needed for something else. The takedown assembly.
To disassemble the PPK/S (and all the other variants) you unload and ease the slide forward. Now hinge the trigger guard down. The front of it will leave the frame. You then pull the slide all the way back, lift up the rear, and then ease it off the frame assembly.
The block on the front top of the trigger guard, the one that disappears into the frame when you ease it up, stops the rearward movement of the slide. With the trigger guard up, the slide stops, and then returns. With the trigger guard down, the block doesn’t stop the slide so soon, and you can pull it further to the rear, allowing disassembly. This is cool, slick, and means you don’t risk losing small parts in disassembly.
One trick I learned a long time ago was to gently push the trigger guard to the side once it was down out of the way. That way it would rest on the frame opening, and make pulling the slide off a bit easier. The drawback to this is that it leaves a tiny little “ding” on the edge of the opening. Oh well.
One of the big changes on the USA-made PPK/S is the tang. The Walther, in all of its iterations, has a tendency to bite the hand that feeds it. Or rather, run parallel tracks on the web of your hand. To ease that problem, the tang got changed on the new guns, it is a bit bigger and longer, and it keeps your hand away from the edges of the slide.
The slide is slick, with no forward serrations. (Thank goodness, that would be a modern “enhancement” too far, in my opinion) There are cocking serrations on the back, behind the ejection port, where they have been since 1929. On the right side, the ejection port side, there is an external extractor, while on the right Walther has put the safety lever.
Up is fire, and down is safe, and the act of pressing the lever down also de-cocks the pistol, should it be in a cocked state. Pressed down, it stays down. When the lever is down, pressing the rigger does not produce a loud noise.
The hammer strikes the firing pin, in the centerline of the slide, and above the firing pin there is a small pin that protrudes from the back of the slide. That is the loaded chamber indicator.
The PP and PPK were such high-status items that they were notable for being presented engraved, in a display case with magazines and accessories. While rarities on the collectors market, they seem to gravitate towards museums. I found one such in a military museum in Buenos Aires, of all places. Finely engraved, with ivory grips, and no story as to how it got there.
After the war, they were made by the French (the plant was in their sector) and then again later by the Germans.
In the early 1950s, a writer by the name of Ian Fleming, who had been a British intelligence officer in WWII, and then post-war a newspaperman, began writing a series of novels. The protagonist, one James Bond, has gone on to become one of the, if not the most recognizable characters in all of fiction. I tried reading Fleming, back when I was a voracious fiction reader. Nope, didn’t click with me.
However, Sean Connery, in the first three of the six Bond movies he did, was electrifying. In part because he was a cold-blooded killer. Unfortunately, the character was allowed (no idea who caused it to happen) to become the smirking, wise-cracking spy that so many seem to love. That trait was carried on by the rest of the Bond cadre, with the even worse exception of the buffoonish Roger Moore, until Daniel Craig brought the role back to the “blunt instrument” he started as.
And the weaponry Bond started with, back in the 1952, was dreadful; a Beretta 418, chambered in .25 Auto, and given a sharpened firing pin, for more-reliable firing. Gack. He was upgraded to a Walther PP in Dr. No, while being told it had “a delivery like a brick through a plate glass window.” As much as I admire the writing that went into that line, it isn’t true. Then again, if you are accustomed to the reaction of people being shot with a .25, a .32 might just seem like a big step up.
The PP and PPK were swept out of German service in the 1970s, when the German police forces began to switch to the 9mm Parabellum. Walther offered an upgraded PP, the PP Super, chambered in the 9x18 Ultra (not interchangeable with the 9x18 Makarov) but when it became clear the 9x19 was going to be the winner, they stopped that.
For decades, the supply of PP and PPK pistols was limited to the wartime bring-backs that floated through gun shops, and the trickle of PPK/S that came from Germany, always marveled at, and often too expensive for most customers.
Why did customers marvel? Besides the “Bond, James Bond” connection? Simple: a flat, compact, easy to conceal pistol, chambered in .380 Auto, was an attractive EDC firearm back in the day. These days, we expect a flat, compact EDC pistol to be chambered in 9mm, and we’d stoke it with the latest defensive ammo. But back then, there was no such thing. Your choices were a .380 with hardball, or a .38 Special snubbie with lead round nose.
The PPK always got attention, and was always marveled at, but back in the day when the potential customer flipped over the price tag, that was that. In 1985, when I was at the gun shop where I stayed the longest, a PPK/S in stainless had a list price of $499. A Smith & Wesson Model 12, an Airweight .38 Special, listed for $299. Sure, the PPK/S held one more round, but for $200 difference? I’ll take the snubbie and some lead hollowpoints for three hundred dollars, Alex.
The new PPK/S, your choice of blue or stainless, lists for just a bit more than half that. I had the pleasure of having one of each set to me for testing.
The new Walther PPK/S, one blue and one stainless, arrived in their plastic storage cases, complete with a spare magazine each. (And the usual lock, owners manual, you know the drill.) First, I looked over the blued one. Walther has elected to go with a bead-blast matte finish on the blued pistol. This is in part due to the extra treatment they give it. The blued variant has been given a nitro-carbide finish, we all know the type by the name Melonite, which treatment confers a corrosion resistance as well as a really hard skin. The stainless model has a brushed and matte finish. Both have the signature Walther wavy top deck on the slide, to give you a visual index as you bring it up for aiming.
The blued model has black plastic grips, just like the earlier versions. The stainless has sculpted wooden grips, nicely figured, with a thumb groove and the Walther banner logo above with a checkered panel on the bottom half.
The stainless one I received is marked “First Edition.” Walther USA has elected to mark the first 1,200 PPK/S pistols in stainless with this logo, and that is also the reason for the Cocobolo grips.
In an interesting departure, the serial number of each is stamped in an inset milled into the frame behind the trigger, but in front of the grip panel. The frame inset also has the serial number in a 2D dot code in that panel.
The sights are what you’d expect of sights, circa 1929: tiny. But then, the PP, and its follow-on models, was not conceived as a bullseye gun, and back then, “combat shooting” usually meant point-shooting. (Point-shooting advocates, sit down, that isn’t your cue.) Walther has given the tiny sights an interesting upgrade; spots of red paint at the base of the rear notch, and on the front blade.
The ejection port is oval, it was always plenty big, and never needed to be enlarged, lowered or scalloped. The extractor is robust for the cartridge it is to handle, and does an excellent job of dispatching the empties. Perhaps too good a job, if you are a reloader. When I test-fired these, the empties ended up 15–20 feet away.
On the back of the slide, you have the safety lever on the left side, and the loaded chamber indicator on the upper rear. The safety locks and blocks the firing pin before it drops the hammer. It stays down, so once you have levered it down, the PPK/S is not going to discharge, short of heat or electrical charge setting off the primer. (Hint: don’t store your PPK in the oven, and don’t set it in contact with a lightning rod.)
The loaded chamber indicator is not the least bit subtle. If there is no round in the chamber, it is practically flush with the slide. If there is a round in the chamber, it protrudes, above the hammer, to a marked degree, and one you can easily feel with a fingertip.
The loaded chamber indicator is a simple spring-loaded rod, and rests against the case head in the chamber.
Below the slide, on the left side, is the magazine release. There is no external slide release. The slide is locked to the rear by an internal lever, and to get the slide forward again you have to either drop the empty magazine, replace it with a loaded one, and then “slingshot” the magazine.
The slide stop is also the ejector.
In handling the new PPK/S, I did the usual dry-firing, and was quite amazed. The trigger pull has been improved over the old models. Both the double action, which was lighter, smoother and did not stack, and the single action, which was cleaner and crisper, were better than older models.
I went diving into the safe, to compare them to my own PP, a WWII .32 ACP with German acceptance stamps. Guesstimating from the serial number (the Walther wartime production serialization was somewhere between chaotic and slapdash.) it was made perhaps in 1941. Or 1942. It has the wartime military finish, no polish, so it isn’t an early gun. The first thing I noticed, and this could be attributed to wartime production, was the difference in triggers. The PP was a precursor in design to the P38, with its single action/double action mechanism and the hammer-dropping safety. The trigger in double action often stacks, varying in amount from pistol to pistol. On mine, the double action stacks until it just let’s go, with plenty of over-travel. The single action is actually kind of nice, a bit heavy, but clean enough.
The modern, USA-made PPK/S have a smooth, even and lighter double action, and a single action pull good enough for bullseye work.
The other big difference is the tang. On the originals, the tang is just big enough to keep the slide from eating your hand. Most of the time, anyway. I’m sure when pistols were shot one-handed, with a low grip, the slide stayed away. But if you choke up in the modern method, you will get twin lines on your hand from the slide edges. The new PPK/S, with the longer tang, offer more protection for your hand. Although, I have to say Walther could have done just a bit more. The edges of the tang are a bit too square for my hand, and after an afternoon of chrono and accuracy work, I could see where the edges of the new tangs had impressed upon the web of my hand the work we had undergone.
Nothing like the bleeding tracks my .32 PP can leave, but still, a little bit of rounding here might have been a good thing. And if you aren’t going to be shooting several hundred rounds of .380 (some of it quite brisk) in an afternoon, you won’t see the impressions on your hand.
Ammunition selection for the PPK is a lot easier today than it used to be. When I was first looking at the various Walther pocket pistols, my choices for ammo were limited to FMJ and JHPs that had no hope of expanding. Plus, back then we weren’t really sure JHPs would reliably feed, short of putting a fistful of dollars worth of ammo through one. Today? .380 JHPs can be counted on to expand, if you want them. The Walther certainly will feed them. But not everyone is sure the expansion is worth it. You see, expansion comes at the cost of penetration.
Most pistol calibers offer enough penetration that using some up to gain expansion is not a big deal. A round of 9mm hardball will penetrate more than two feet of ballistic gel. A .45 ball round will often exit the second block, behind the first one, and that’s thirty-two inches of gel. So, giving some up to gain expansion is not a problem.
The .380 doesn’t have the extra horsepower. And as a result, some agencies, like LAPD, have mandated that off-duty officers who elect to carry .380s, must use FMJ. If you’re only going to get one or the other, then penetration is the choice, to their way of thinking.
The recoil of the various loads tested were marked in their recoil differences. The Hornady loads were both what I expected. Then with the first shot with the Browning load, I stopped, put down the pistol, and checked to make sure I had the right box. Yep, 95 grain X-Point. The Winchester SXT and the Speer Gold Dot loads were another step more brisk. So, in addition to finding what shoots most accurately in your pistol, you might want to consider felt recoil as a variable to assess.
One of the things I remembered, spending time shooting the PPK/S, is just how good a compact, or backup gun they are. Yes, an all-steel .380 can be a bit heavy if you are weight-sensitive, but in the scheme of things, a nineteen-ounce pistol just isn’t that heavy. And it has a very ergonomic grip, is comfortable to shoot, and accurate. Oh, accurate. I opted for the new normal for such compact guns of 15 yards as the distance for accuracy testing, it was child’s play to keep all the shots on my two-inch aiming circles. The stainless pistol did make me work a bit more on the white circles, but the red dots helped.
Given the plethora of holsters available for a pistol that has been in use since, well, forever, you can find what you need. No, really, if a holster maker makes more than a limited selection of holsters, then they are going to have something for a PPK.
In talking with Walther USA about the new pistols, I found that they are not stopping here. They are already shipping the PPK, the pistol that was too small to import, in blue and stainless. There was even a hint of additional special editions in the future. I can hardly wait to see what they do about putting a suppressor on a .380. That will be an interesting project.
And then there is the price. Yes, the listed $749 might seem a bit much. But, it is within the ballpark of other compact pistols, and the price has to be kept in perspective. Back when I was eyeing various PPK/S pistols, (and picking up this PP) the list price for the PPK/S was $459. In stainless, $499. Adjusted for inflation, they were $1,095 and $1,189 respectively, and back then, you paid full retail on PPK/S pistols. There were no discounts on those.
Now, it is less expensive, more accurate, and less likely to bite the hand that feeds it. Why don’t you have one already?
Just out of curiosity, I calculated the Power Factor of the loads tested. Then, because it just came to me, I divided the Power Factor by the weight, in ounces of the PPK, to see what kind of number resulted.
Clearly the numbers do not line up with the impression of felt recoil, and yet, the last three were all brisker in the hands than the first two. Just on a whim, I did the same calculation with a 1911, and .45 hardball: 230-grain bullet at 775 fps, out of a 39 ounce pistol.
Hmm, who says a 1911 kicks too hard?
Walther PPK Specs
- Type: Recoil operated semi-automatic
- Caliber: .380 Auto
- Capacity: 7+1
- Barrel: 3.3"
- Overall Length: 6.1"
- Height: 3.8"
- Width: 1"
- Weight: 19 oz.
- Finish: Blued steel or stainless
- Sights: Fixed front, drift-adjustable rear
- Trigger: 6 lb, single action, 13 double action
- Price: $749
- Manufacturer: Walther, (478) 242-8500, WaltherArms.com