The Influential and Innovative Walther P 38
By R.K. Campbell

Among the most influential, innovative and successful pistols of the previous century was the Walther P 38. Arguably, the P 38 casts a giant shadow in firearms design and combat for many years past its prime. A number of modern service pistols are adaptations of the Walther design. The original Smith and Wesson Model 39, introduced just after World War Two, has been called an Americanized P 38. The Beretta 92 service pistol owes much to the Walther P 38. The Beretta’s open top slide, combination safety and decocker, external drawbar and oscillating wedge lock up are all similar to the P 38 design. For such a hoary design, the pistol remains well respected in the firearms world.

The P 38 was a product of German rearmament following the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany. After the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans resolved to re-arm and for some time resorted to subterfuge. However, after a few years all pretenses were abandoned. Among the important changes made by Germany was replacing the Luger design with a new service pistol. The Luger was well made of good material but expensive to manufacture. Compared to most of the combatants involved in World War Two, the Germans used a vast number of pistols. Some were captured from the allies, some taken during invasions, and others were produced in Germany. An invading Army must arm every soldier and bureaucrat in the occupied state. The possibility of assassination and attack by resistance forces was very real. Large numbers of .32 ACP pistols and captured 9mm handguns were used, but the Walther P 38 was the standard issue of combat troops.

The P 08 Luger was the standard issue Wermacht pistol in the early 1930s and had been so since 1908. While a robust and accurate pistol, the Luger had certain shortcomings. Foremost was the difficulty in machining and producing the pistol.

Fritz Walther was enjoying success with a number of pocket and police pistols. Some of these were among the first successful double action first shot handguns. The Walther pistols also introduced a combination safety and decocker lever mounted in the slide. The double action trigger transferred energy from the trigger through a drawbar to the hammer, cocking and releasing the hammer, hence the term double action. Once the pistol fired the first shot the slide recoiled and cocked the hammer. After the initial shot the following shots were fired single action. The hammer could be lowered from the cocked position without touching the trigger simply by actuating the safety/decocker. Walther was a respected maker when Germany began looking for a new service pistol.

Preliminary areas of concern were cost and ease of manufacture. The number of parts had to be reduced compared to the Luger. The pistol had to chamber the 9mm Luger service cartridge. There were numerous prototypes prior to the P 38. Some were overbuilt Walther PP blowback pistols. Walther finally moved to the oscillating wedge lock up as used in the Mauser 1896 pistol. The oscillating wedge uses a wedge with ‘wings’ that move up and down in the slide, tilting the barrel. For Walther to use the oscillating wedge locking system was as natural as an American using the Browning locked breech type locking system. Walther also chose to use an open top slide and his innovative double action first shot trigger and safety/decocker. An important holdover from the Luger was a takedown lever for ease of maintenance. The takedown lever made field stripping and maintenance easier with the new pistol than practically any other handgun of the day. The P 38 was a surprisingly modern firearm.

The Army placed an initial order for a trial of 800 pistols in April 1939. By March 1940, the Army had accepted 13,000 P 38s. It has been noted that production seemed slow in comparison to other items mass produced in Germany at the time, but production quickly improved. By mid 1941, Walther was producing 10,000 pistols a month. According to the best sources, wartime production of the Walther P 38 reached 1.2 million pistols. Walther produced some 580,000 pistols. Others licensed to produce the P 38 included Mauser. The famous byf coded P 38 pistols were produced by Mauser. Mauser produced some 300,000 P 38s. The Spreewerke factory at Spandau was also assigned production of the P 38, producing approximately 285,000 pistols.

The Walther P 38 was the first double action first shot service pistol adopted in large numbers. With its double action first shot, eight shot magazine, and 9mm Luger chambering, the pistol was sought after trophy by the allies. Many allied troops preferred the P 38 to their own issue handgun.

The Walther proved more reliable than the Luger. While each has an exposed barrel, the mechanism of the Walther was much better protected. The Luger has a good reputation for accuracy. The double action first shot mechanism of the Walther is best suited for short range use, but in single action fire the steel frame Walther is both comfortable to fire and accurate. The Walther gives us little to nothing to the Luger in accuracy. The P 38 features superior battle sights to practically any other handgun of the day. In firing either pistol, full power ammunition must be used to insure function.

Having fired many Walther P 38 pistols, we need to clarify the issue of cycle reliability. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was common for American commercial 9mm Luger ammunition to be under loaded. 124-grain 9mm ammunition of the period has been clocked at velocities as low as 940 fps. No wonder the Luger and P 38 would not function with such low powered ammunition. The P 38 is not ammunition sensitive but demands 115- to 124-grain bullets at 1,100 fps.

For the purposes of this review and report, a Walther produced P 38 was used. The production date was 1944. The pistol is in excellent condition. Two loads were used: the Black Hills 115-grain FMJ in the blue box. This remanufactured line is an excellent resource. Both affordable and accurate, this load functions in High Powers, Lugers and P 38 pistols. The second load was the Fiocchi 124-grain XTP, using a modern jacketed hollow point bullet. The P 38 fed, chambered, fired and ejected normally with each load. Interestingly the P 38 fed hollow point bullets without any type of problem. The steel frame pistol proved very comfortable to fire. The sights are good and accuracy is excellent. With either load, five shot groups of three inches or less were recorded at 25 yards. The pistol is easy to shoot well and it is no mean feat to strike eight inch steel gong targets at 50 yards. Sight regulation is good, a bit high at 25 yards and dead on at 50. The signature group fired during our exercise was a two inch group for five shots, from the barricade, with the Fiocchi loading.

Production of the P 38 stopped after World War Two but in due course the German Army adopted the P 38 and the aluminum frame P 1 variant as their standard issue pistol. Professionals have told me that the P 38 was a favorite of European bodyguards well into the 1990s. The P 38 is an important historical firearm. Just the same, it would not be out of place on any modern battlefield.

Production codes for the P 38

The Zero pistols, 01- 13,000 Eagle stamped P 38s

The original Walther P 38 was marked 480/AC, soon changed to:
AC 40   for 1940
AC 41   for 1941
AC 42   for 1942
AC 43   for 1943
AC 44   for 1944
AC 45   for 1945

Mauser pistols were marked byf 42, byf 43, byf 44, byf 45, and the pistols produced for the French (post war) were marked svw 45. These were produced for the French Army by my best information.

Spreewerke   cyg

There were various slides produced by FN Belgium and by CZ in Czechoslovakia.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (October 2012)
and was posted online on September 21, 2012


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