By Robert K. Campbell
German police sidearms are among the first weapons designed expressly for use in the war on terror. German police trials conducted in the early 1970s produced handguns that remain among the best ever designed for police use. They are appropriate for military and police use today. It is important to realize that these handguns were intended for police service: military use was not a consideration although one military handgun was adopted as a stop gap. Two of the handguns, the Walther P1 and the SIG P220, have spun off numerous variations. The Walther’s variations are for the most part adaptations by other makers while the SIG’s adaptations are the fruits of the parent company. The Heckler and Koch P7 or PSP remains unique. Just as important as the mechanical advantages of the handguns involved are the tactical doctrines that sprang from these test programs.
The P1 is a P38 with slight differences in the slide and an aluminum frame rather than the steel frame of the P38. The P1 began production in 1958 to arm an emerging West German Army. The P1 was adopted by German police forces largely because it was available. German police, believing they were facing the first wave of Soviet sponsored terrorism, were in a frenzy to rearm. The typical German police pistol was the Walther PP or PPK in .32 ACP. A few savvy officers might carry the .380 ACP, and most were carried in a full flap holster, chamber empty, and safety on. Quite a few PPs in .32 ACP are available on the used market. The .32 is usually smoother in action than the .380 since the hammer spring is lighter. Not as much spring weight is needed to keep the slide closed as the weapon fires, so the .32 hammer spring is lighter. The .32 is often slightly more accurate than the .380 ACP as well. But when Germany was facing Soviet sponsored terrorists such as the Baader Meinhoff Gang and Illrich Ramirez (aka Carlos) the .32s suddenly didn’t look effective. Terrorists were armed with Soviet submachine guns, the Tokarev, CZ 52, Makarov, and a favorite of the Baader Meinhoff gang, the Egyptian Firebird, a 9mm Tokarev.
Germany was a battleground and the need for an upgrade in weaponry was obvious. The P1 9mm pistol was seen as good but not ideal. The P38/P1 is a double action first shot pistol. The long trigger press takes time to acclimate to, and close range hits are difficult without extensive practice. The pistol features a slide mounted decocker that lowers the hammer safely on a chambered round without touching the trigger. The P38 is among the most influential handguns of all time. The standard German service pistol from 1938, the P38 has been used by relatively few countries but commands respect. The P38 paved the way for every double action service pistol. The safety and decocker lever has been widely adopted. The Smith and Wesson M39, introduced in 1948, is basically an Americanized P38. The M39 spawned the M59 and a number of successful service pistols including the 645, 5906, 6506, and many others. Perhaps an even more obvious variant is the Beretta 92. The Beretta 92/M9 uses the oscillating wedge lockup of the P38, first used in the Mauser M96. The Beretta also uses the open top slide, double action trigger with external drawbar, and safety/decocker of the P38. The P1 is possibly the most underrated of service pistols. Two decades ago the P1 was still a favorite in Europe, ranking with the Browning High Power, but today the plastic guns and the Beretta 92 are more popular. The P1 is a good pistol but it fell afoul of emerging tactical doctrines.
German police decided that special teams would rely primarily upon long guns, with the handgun as a backup. At the same time police were upgrading to various stop gaps, including .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolvers, the Walther P1 and the odd PP Super, a PP variant firing a long .380 ACP cartridge known as the 9mm Ultra. There was a need for a new service pistol and the specifications were rigid. The new handgun would fire the most popular European service cartridge, the 9mm Luger. The new pistol must be simple to get into operation. There would be no manual safety to slow things down, only safety features. The doctrine has continued reaching a logical conclusion in the Glock 17 and DAO pistols. The pistol would have to be safe if dropped, meaning a drop safety or positive firing pin block would have to be part of the design. By 1981, no service pistol could afford not to incorporate a firing pin block into the design. The pistol had to be completely reliable to a standard not previously imagined. The handgun had to be accurate enough for hostage rescue use at moderate range. The test requirements resulted in two interesting solutions to emerging tactical requirements.
The SIG P series was introduced as one answer in the form of the very successful SIG P220. The other answer was the Heckler and Koch P7, a pistol not nearly as successful but a good handgun. Notably, size and weight considerations took a page from traditional police wisdom. The late Tom Ferguson had noted that a police service pistol over thirty five ounces quickly becomes a burden on the hip. The new handguns were light, neat and compact, and good answers to the problem.
Heckler and Koch produced the Police Service Pistol (PSP), also known as the P7. In order to produce a handgun light enough for police requirements, HK went with a simple blowback design. In order to contain the power of the 9mm cartridge, HK produced a gas retarded action. A piston under the barrel is fed by a bit of gas bled from a small port in the chamber. The piston keeps the pistol locked unless pressure from firing has abated. As one fruit of this design the P7 has a low bore axis. Another design feature much praised is the 110 degree grip angle. The requirements for safety and speed into action were met in an interesting manner. When at rest the PSP’s striker is locked by a firing pin block and the trigger drawbar is disconnected from the trigger. There is a lever on the front strap that is pressed to activate the action. The striker is cocked and the firing pin block released, the drawbar moves into register with the trigger. Next, a clean three pound trigger press fires the pistol. The P7 is fast into action and brilliantly accurate. If dropped, the lever snaps forward and the safety block is reactivated and the trigger is once again rendered inert. It is important to note that the striker is never partially cocked or prepped at any time. The PSP was later modified into the P7M8 with an Americanized Browning type magazine release rather than the original heel type magazine release. The PSP, P7 and P7M8 were great service pistols but very expensive. Today the P7 is difficult to find and new versions retail for well over thirteen hundred dollars.
The primogenitor of the SIG series of service handguns was the P220. The P220 is more conventional than the P7 but just the same was an innovative handgun. The slide is a steel stamping with a solid machined breechblock to aid in manufacture. The P220 uses a different locking system that has been widely adopted. Rather than using locking lugs, the barrel hood butts into the ejection port for lockup. Then SIG introduced a handgun with safety features rather than a safety. The frame mounted decocker is far handier than a slide mounted decocker. There is no manual safety. The double action first shot trigger is seen as a safety feature. The double action first shot trigger is very smooth and the single action press is tight and crisp. The SIG suffers in a one on one comparison on the combat course with a single action pistol due to the long double action first shot trigger and a high bore axis, but the pistol is very accurate and controllable in the hands of a skilled handgunner. The SIG is among the most accurate service handguns of all time. The P220 was modified almost immediately into the compact P225/P6 pistol. The P225 proved to be just the right size for European tastes and has been immensely popular.
Today, the P225 has been replaced by the high capacity P228 compact 9mm. The P225 remains a favorite among those in the know.
The Police Pistols Today
A few of the original P1, P6 and P7 handguns remain in police service. The good news is many are available as police surplus handguns at attractive prices. There are three grades available in the P7, usually advertised as A, B, and C grade. The A grade is often arsenal refinished while the C grades shows considerable wear on the slide. The P1 is remarkably consistent in condition, usually with slight wear on the phosphate finish. The SIG P225 usually exhibits considerable slide wear but little corrosion. One should not hesitate to use the P7 or the P225 as a personal defense handgun. Buyers should note, however, that the trigger action of the P225 is often heavier than that of commercial guns. Supposedly the idea was that the pistol would be able to crack reluctant military primers if need be. In a recent test well over 1,000 rounds of Black Hills FMJ ammunition were fired through a P1 and P225. There were no failures to feed, chamber, fire or eject. These are service grade handguns with many years left in them.
Surprisingly, the P1 fed hollow points, including the Black Hills 115-grain JHP, perfectly with similar experiences with the P7 pistol. Overall, these are interesting handguns well worth the present modest price.
General Accuracy German Police Pistols
Five shot groups, from a solid benchrest, 25 yards, in inches from center of furthest spaced bullet hole.
|P1||P6||P7||Black Hills 115-gr. FMJ||4.5||2.5||2.0||Black Hills 115-gr. JHP EXP||4.0||1.9||2.25||Fiocchi 115-gr. XTP||4.25||3.0||2.5||Fiocchi 147-gr. XTP||2.9||2.5||2.6||Wolf 124-gr. ball||5.0||3.5||3.25||Speer 115-gr. Lawman||4.5||---||3.5||Winchester Silvertip||---||3.5||---|
There have been no failures to feed, chamber fire or eject. The recoil and firing pin springs of the P1 have been replaced with WC premium springs, the P7 recoil spring and magazine spring has been replaced with WC Wolff units.
Manual of Arms
P1: Load, lower slide on chambered round by releasing slide lock. Decock using slide mounted safety. Pistol may be carried safety on or safety off as the user prefers. To fire, draw and release safety if safety was applied. Fire.
P6: Load, lower slide on chambered round by releasing slide lock. Decock using frame mounted decocker. To fire, draw and fire.
P7: Load, lower slide by pressing cocking lever. To fire, draw, press cocking lever, fire.
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