Spain’s Angular Astra 400
By R.K. Campbell

The Spanish Astra 400 is a handgun that is angular and odd in appearance even compared to the other European pistols of the day. The Astra is well made of good material but quite different from other handguns of the day not only in appearance but in its mechanics. It is uniquely Spanish and home grown in its particulars although there is a resemblance to a number of earlier handguns including the Savage self loaders. By the same token there is some resemblance to the Astra in later pistols including the Heckler and Koch P 7. The handgun illustrated is the Astra Modelo 400 or 1921 Model. This handgun was adopted after World War One to replace the Campo Giro Model of 1913. The Astra was the top performer in a competition and was adopted for service use in 1920, with deliveries beginning in 1921, and the pistol remained in service for many years. Officially the pistol was replaced by the Star Model A in 1946.

The Germans purchased the pistol during World War Two but the primary combat use came during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. During this time the Republican government commissioned two factories to produce the pistol. Astra alone simply could not meet wartime demand. The Tarrasa arsenal was one of these, manufacturing about 8,000 pistols marked F. Ascaso. 15,000 pistols marked Republica Española were manufactured in Valencia. These pistols feature unique slide and crest markings and also grip markings that include the F marked grip panels for F. Ascaso grips marked with the capital F and the RE marked Republica Española pistol grips. The pistol had several advantages in the world market. The Astra was affordable well made and available. Some 105,000 pistols were eventually sold. This includes sales to Spanish Government including both sides, commercial sales, the sought after Chilean Navy pistols, the Euzkadian Government, and Nazi Germany.

The Astra is an unusual design for a full power pistol in that it is a straight blowback. To use this type of action the pistol must be heavy enough for the slide to control recoil but the Astra also uses a very strong recoil spring wrapped around the barrel. In this manner it is similar to pocket pistols of the day. As a result of this design the Astra 400 is simpler than some pistols to manufacture. Recoil is increased due to the blowback as opposed to a locked breech action; however, recoil is not severe due to the weight of the pistol. The Astra features a rather complicated disassembly. Over the years some Astra pistols have been observed that have suffered the indignity of having a pair of pliers taken to the knurled disassembly knob at the end of the slide. This is a not a pistol you will learn to field strip quickly with your eyes closed but neither is it a daunting proposition. It is simply more complicated than the Luger or the 1911 as examples. Once the pistol is disassembled the quality of manufacture is evident. As an example the barrel features locking slots that fit into milled locking slots in the receiver. This design requires precision manufacture and the Astra is very well made. The design is a single action with an enclosed hammer and a trigger blocking safety. Due to the heavy recoil spring the pistol slide is difficult to rack quickly. If carried chamber loaded the safety isn’t quickly accessible, but it is no better or worse than the Luger and other designs of the day while clearly inferior in speed into action to the Browning and Colt. However, the Astra 400’s blowback action has one advantage other than simplicity and that is accuracy as we will see.

The Astra is chambered for the 9mm Largo cartridge. This cartridge features a longer cartridge case than the 9mm Luger but the 9mm Largo is scarcely more powerful than the 9mm Luger. The Astra has been advertised as having an accommodating chamber. This is not strictly true although some pistols were manufactured with the slide marking 9mm/.38 to indicate they will chamber both the 9mm Largo cartridge and the .38 ACP. The .38 ACP is an early development no longer in production. The much more powerful .38 Super is no longer in production and should never be fired in an Astra pistol. The .38 Super did not exist when the Astra was marked 9mm/.38. The correct chambering is the 9mm Largo. The 9x23mm Largo features a longer cartridge case than the 9x19mm Luger, and is loaded to about the same pressure levels. In clocking original ammunition now offered at surplus prices does not indicate the Largo is any hotter than the Luger cartridge. But the .38 Super is loaded hotter. The 9mm Luger and 9mm Largo will produce 1,100 to 1,200 fps with a 124 grain bullet, with the hottest loads such as the +P loads approaching 1,250 fps with a 124 grain bullet. The .38 Super will produce 1,300 fps with a 130 grain bullet. The shorter 9mm Luger cartridge is dangerous to use. The 9mm Luger does not properly headspace in the Largo chamber. The longer Largo round headspaces on the case rim. The Luger cartridge is held only by the extractor if it indeed would chamber. It is possible the cartridge could slip from the extractor and enter the chamber. The firing pin could fire the cartridge (as Astra pistols often have a long firing pin) and the result would be a case rupture or worse. The longer .38 Super case is closer to the Largo round but much more powerful. The means of achieving the accommodating chamber was two fold. The 9x23mm Largo is simply a longer cased 9mm, so the shorter 9x19mm Luger will chamber (Seated too deeply to fire) although this is a poor fit for practical purposes and not considered safe. The 9mm Luger breechface is .384 inch. The .38 ACP requires a .405 breechface because it is semi rimmed. The .405 breechface will work just fine with the 9mm cartridges. There is a compelling reason not to fire the .38 Super in the Astra that modern shooters often overlook. The 9mm/.38 marked pistols were produced earlier than 1929. The .38 ACP Super was introduced in 1929. The 9mm/.38 pistols were intended to accommodate the .38 ACP cartridge, which is no hotter than the 9mm Luger. The .38 ACP was common and the .38 Super is identical in dimensions but not pressure. Today Starline Brass offers good quality Largo cartridge cases for handloaders and CCI Blazer offers ammunition. Do not fire anything other than the original 9mm Largo power level loads in the Astra 400. The longevity of the both the handgun and the shooter rely upon proper ammunition. Remember the 9mm Largo Astra 400 is a blowback design. Only the weight of the recoil spring keeps the slide closed as the pistol fires.

Like many other European service pistols the Astra has been imported in large numbers. And like many of these handguns the value of the pistols has grown. Not all that long ago these pistols went begging for less than two hundred dollars. Today a good specimen starts at four hundred. The quality of the pistols is appreciated by discerning collectors. Like many of you I fire the handguns in my collection. Those who use good technique with the Astra will be pleasantly surprised. A combination of good manufacturing and materials and the blow back design results in excellent accuracy. My Astra required a bit of scrubbing as the bore was red with corrosion but after a dozen careful brushes with the copper brush, Hoppes solvent, and a lot of elbow grease the pistol was up and running and shooting excellent groups. As an NRA instructor I teach the proper benchrest technique. The benchrest position is solid and enables the shooter to fire nearly as accurately as a machine rest. With good ammunition the Astra 400 is capable of producing five shot 25 yard groups of three inches or less, and on occasion the pistol has fired groups of less than two inches for five shots. That is interesting accuracy.

The angular and even odd appearance of the Astra are a turn off for some while others find the profiles interesting and they must acquire at least one of the beasts. Once the ammunition situation is understood the pistol is a rewarding recreational shooter and a means of keeping in touch with history.

Ammunition test results

Load:   25 yard group
CCI Blazer 9mm Largo:   3.0 inches
Surplus Spanish 9mm Military:   4.0 inches

125 grain RNL Oregon Trail/WW 231/ 1,170 fps:   1.5 inches
115 grain Nosler JHP/WW 231/1,250 fps:   2.0 inches

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (August 2012)
and was posted online on July 13, 2012


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