Walther P 38: A Benchmark in Handgun Design Evolution
By Todd Burgreen
Photos by C.R. Newlin

In the mid-1980s, Glock became synonymous with what we expect from a service semiautomatic handgun in terms of weight, trigger, safety, capacity, and reliability. There was another just as heralded handgun that preceded it 50 years prior; this pistol represented just as much a step forward in handgun design in its time. This firearm was the Walther P 38. Firearm evolution is a slow tedious matter at times with breakthroughs and improvements coming in bits and pieces influenced by a multitude of factors such as manufacturing techniques, metallurgy, cartridge improvements, politics, technology, market forces (i.e. capitalism) and countless other factors as experienced in individual countries and cultures. Early 20th Century semiautomatic handguns were typified by hammer fired steel frames and single-action designs. The Mauser 1896 “Broomhandle,” Browning 1911, and Hi-Power serve as good examples. After the WWI bloodletting experience, military and police forces were looking for something different in terms of sidearms to equip their personnel. Single-action semiautomatics can be viewed as more of an aficionado’s weapon generally requiring more training to become proficient with; not to mention safety and liability concerns any ordnance officer or law enforcement administrator will be considering dealing with multitudes being issued with a single-action semiautomatic handgun.

In the 1930s, the double-action/single-action (DA/SA) hammer fired handgun genre arrived in the form of the German P 38. Its arrival was just as revolutionary as the Glock’s arrival 50 years later. The P 38 design concepts held sway until the 1980s until the advent of polymer framed striker fired handguns. The function of the DA/SA trigger mechanism is similar to a DA revolver. The DA/SA trigger will cock and release the hammer when the hammer is in the down position, but, on each subsequent shot, the trigger will function as a single-action. However, the firing mechanism automatically cocks the hammer after the gun is fired providing for a subsequent lighter/shorter single-action trigger pull after firing the first round with a DA trigger pull. On most DA/SA pistols there is the option to cock the hammer before the first shot is fired if time or situation permits. This removes the heavy pull of the double-action. The DA/SA hammer down carry on a live chamber with either safety engaged or not combined with longer heavier DA trigger pull reminds one of the revolver’s trigger, which was a much more familiar and considered inherently safer and less prone to accidental discharges.

The DA/SA handgun design is still going strong today with numerous models being produced by multiple manufacturers. An excellent example is the Beretta M9 variant being the official sidearm of the U.S. military. While other early examples of DA/SA handguns are possible to find, the Walther P 38 is considered by most to be the first widespread successful rendition. The Walther P 38 was spawned by the German military desiring a replacement for the classic Luger. The Luger’s tight tolerances, intricate interplay of many parts and unreliability when exposed to trench conditions were causes of this; not to mention the Luger’s high cost and low production capability due to the need for extensive hand fitting. German military planners requested the new handgun design be simple, with as few parts as possible. In addition, component interchangeability, ease of disassembly/assembly and reliability was also required.

Uncovered literature and observations indicate that the Walther 9mm P 38 is a short-recoil-operated, locked-breech design with some truly unique features considering it was developed in the 1930s. The barrel and slide recoil together for only a short distance completely locked together until gas pressures drop to a safe level. After that, a falling block shifts downward to unlock the barrel from the slide with the barrel striking a stop in the frame with the slide continuing rearward to cycle the action.

This is different than the more familiar Browning design where the barrel and slide initially recoil together until the barrel is unlocked from the slide by a cam arrangement. The more widely used Browning design has the downward movement of the barrel disengaging it from the slide, which continues rearward, extracting the spent case from the chamber and ejecting it. The cam slot and bar move the chamber upward and the locking lugs on the barrel reengage those in the slide when the slide comes forward again.

The P 38 frame extends forward over the trigger guard. The trigger guard is an integral portion of the P 38 frame forging. The barrel and slide locking-block, which is hinged by a bent flat spring to the underside of the barrel, rests in a lug that is part of the barrel forging under the chamber and is unlocked by shifting downward into a recess in the frame above and forward of the trigger. After the barrel and slide have recoiled together for approximately a quarter of an inch, the plunger strikes a forward face on the frame, pushing it forward to shift down the locking block and release the slide. As a side note, this method of operation is also used by Beretta on their series of 9x19mm pistols culminating in the M9 (M92 mentioned above) adopted by the U.S. military. The P 38 has a locking lever with a bolt at the front end of the frame extension on the left side that holds the slide to the frame.

The P 38’s exposed hammer and its lock work are located in the frame behind the magazine well. Early Walther designs leading to the eventual P 38 patented in 1938 had concealed hammers. Perhaps, this reflected harsh WW I conditions in terms of debris effecting reliability. As we know, the concealed hammer concept was not used in the eventual P 38 design. The slide travels on rails in the frame and extends only to the end of the frame extension, leaving the barrel completely exposed in front of it. The slide is also cut away in front of the breech. Over time, the P 38 came to have as distinguishable an appearance as its predecessor the Luger due to this. There are two recoil springs and guide rods in the frame extending rearward from the breech. The recoil springs are compressed as the slide moves to the rear to provide compression energy for the counter-recoil stroke. The slide-mounted thumb safety is on the left side and also serves as de-cocking lever.

The Walther designers fitted the P 38 with a DA/SA trigger mechanism patterned after those found on their earlier Walther PP and PPK designs. This permits the pistol to be carried with a cartridge in the chamber and with the hammer down. Pulling the trigger will raise and trip the hammer and fire the cartridge. Subsequent shots are fired in the single-action mode, unless the safety lever is rotated down into the safe position. The extractor is a spring-loaded claw on the left side of the slide's breech face. The sheet-metal ejector is an L-shaped arm located on the right interior side of the frame and pivoted vertically on the rear axis pin. It is kept in the raised position by the magazine body. Ejection is to the left of the operator – which is unusual considering most automatics eject to the right. The P 38 also has a chambered cartridge indicator that protrudes at the rear of the slide. This is perhaps one of the earliest appearing examples of this feature, which is relatively common on today’s handguns in one form or another. The Walther P 38 uses an eight round single stack detachable magazine. The magazine catch/release is located at the heel of the frame in the traditional European manner. Overall length of the P 38 is 8.6 inches. The barrel is 4.9 inches with a six-groove bore with a 1:10 right-hand twist. The height is 5.4 inches and the width is 1.16 inches at the P 38s widest spot. The P 38 weighs empty at 34 ounces. The sights are fixed, front and rear. The rear sight is an open U-notch and the front sight blade is dovetailed to an integral mount on the barrel.

Research for this article uncovered an intensive and comprehensive collector culture surrounding the P 38. The P 38 accessed for review herein was obtained via Century International Arms. The goal here was to assess the P 38 by firing it on the range and thus no need for a high end collector grade “bring back” P 38. The Century P 38 has matching serial numbered parts. Unlike a Luger that has every part numbered, a P-38 has only 3 major and 1 minor numbered parts. Wartime P-38s were made by 3 manufacturers: Walther, Mauser, and Spreewerk. Walther made P 38s are marked with an AC and then the date. The same is true with Mauser P 38s which are marked with BYF and the date. (Near the end of the war the Mauser P 38 mark was changed to SVW45. An interesting side note is that the French continued production of the P 38 at the occupied Mauser factory in their zone of occupation. Many of these P 38s saw service in the French Indochina and other colonial conflicts.) Spreewerk markings were a bit more vague and only marked their guns with CYQ and no date. The Century P 38 tested herein is a Mauser produced variant with a 1943 date.

This article is by no means intended as a treatise on collecting the P 38; rather the goal is to revisit a benchmark handgun design that is fading into history for many. The Century imported P 38 offers this ability as no one would want to turn a more valuable “bring back” with no import marks on the slide into a shooting example. Many imported P 38s are Eastern Front/Russian captured weapons. The good news is once captured most Russian P 38s were stored away and not used as the Soviets did not have the logistics to support a firearm chambered in 9mm. It must be noted that the P 38 used in this article is in excellent shape in terms of finish with no way for this author to determine exact origin of Century procurement. It is believed the P 38 used for this review was not a Russian captured P 38. This is based on the lack of a “dipping” or re-bluing technique often associated with imported Russian captured P 38s. Whatever the Century P 38 origin is it represents an excellent example of firearm history. This is stated as there can be some debate if imported P 38s are justified in being called a true collector item; for most, who are interested in firearms it is a mute point. Century International Arms has long been a contributing factor to introducing the U.S. market to weapon types that would not have been normally been available. The Century P 38s certainly fall into this category.

The P 38 9mm was tested using Winchester, Wolf, Hornady, and Black Hills ammunition. Range T&E of the P 38 was conducted at the Echo Valley Training Center. Loads fired ranged from 115gr to 124gr with FMJ bullet types the main focus. Hollow points were used as more of a curiosity to see if this bullet type would cycle in the P 38 – which was not designed to accommodate this bullet profile. The P 38 handled all bullet types with no issue. This is a credit to the design and its reliability. Approximately 300 rounds were fired while compiling this article. The low round total was aided by only having one 8-round magazine present. No malfunctions were experienced. Accuracy testing consisted of monotonous hammering of steel plate racks and popper targets at 7, 15, and 25 yards. One handed firing of the P 38, including use of the non-dominant hand, was performed to further evaluate if the P 38 was sensitive to grip induced malfunctions; no problems were encountered. Recoil, as to be expected with a full size steel framed handgun chambered in 9mm, was minimal.

For a weapon designed over 70 years ago, the operating controls of the P 38 proved very familiar. This is because so many handguns that followed emulated the P 38 ergonomics and human engineering. The P 38’s combo safety lever and manual de-cocker located on the slide’s left side could be mistaken for many more current designs. The same could be said of the slide lock lever. The P 38 sights are above average albeit compared to 1930s or even 2012 designs. The rear notch is wide enough to provide daylight on either side of the front blade. The P 38’s trigger is typical DA/SA in the double action mode being quite stiff with the single action mode more than compensating for the marginal double action trigger with its minimal creep and light poundage. The P 38’s take down is simple given its date of design with a lever rotated downward once the slide is locked rearward allowing for the slide to slip off the frame. Pushing up on the locking block operating pin releases the barrel from the slide rendering the P 38 field stripped for cleaning.

Over 1.1 million wartime P 38s were manufactured. Many of these continued in service after WWII in various countries deposited via capture or surrender until the 1990s, especially in Eastern Europe where the bulk of German troops saw service. In 1949, the American, British and French zones were united as the Federal Republic of Germany and a new military force was authorized and formed in 1956. The P 38 was turned to along with its new alloy frame variant the P 1. The P 38/P 1 variants remained in German service until officially replaced in 1994. To its credit, the Century International Arms imported P 38 did not handle or perform like a design that is over 70 years old. It is still a viable weapon, which is considered a compliment for any weapon designed for serious use so long ago. It will hold its own no matter what the individual decides to use it for.

Sites of Interest:

Century International Arms
430 South Congress Ave. Suite 1
Delray Beach, FL 33445
(800) 527-1252

Echo Valley Training Center

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (August 2012)
and was posted online on June 15, 2012


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