Pistol: German Walther P38

Walther P38 right

Pistol Pistole 38 Manufacturer Various
Cartridge 9x19mm Overall Length 8.5″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 4.9″
Magazine 8 rnds removable Weight 1.7 lbs

 

 

 

 

 

Walther had been known as a quality pistol manufacturer before WWI, but the massive contracts from the military had given them a new post-war goal: To develop the next standard German standard military pistol.

The blowback operated, .32ACP Model 4 was a mainstay of the German frontlines during WWI and had given Carl Walther Waffenfabrik a great reputation in military circles.  However, their first attempt at a 9mm Parabellum pistol was a failure.  After the war Walther was hit by the Treaty of Versailles, limiting pistol production to .32ACP and smaller with barrel lengths no longer than 100mm.  Working within the limitations, Walther released their Model Polizei Pistole in 1929.  This handy pistol, and it’s slightly smaller sibling the PPK, proved revolutionary and continue to be popular handguns today.  The PP and PPK will get their own articles eventually but for now let’s focus on their trigger/hammer system.

The PP was the first widely purchased double-action handgun and featured a safety/decocker.  In this system the operator could chamber a round, depress the safety to drop the hammer WITHOUT discharging the gun, and then carry with the safety still on or off.  The first pull of the trigger would then be double-action, cocking the hammer and then dropping.  After discharging the first round, the hammer would be cocked and follow up shots would be single action.  This allows for quick response, the safety of a heavy double-action trigger, and yet the accuracy of the single-action additional shots.

Now, despite a ban on 9mm handguns, Walther wanted to be in position to sell a new military pistol in case of German rearmament.  Secret tests of what was essentially an enlarged Model PP were conducted in 9mm Parabellum.  Much like the WWI tests, an unlocked breech handgun just wasn’t going to cut it.  So the first “Militar Pistole” design was dropped.  However, these secret efforts were worth the risk as their focus eventually paid off.Walther APIn 1933 Hitler took power and began to chip at the Treaty of Versailles. So a second, and less secret, Militar Pistole design emerged and we can see a patent for the rising wedge lock awarded to Fritz Walther and Fritz Barthlemens in 1936. During development the MP became the “Armee Pistole.” With further improvements this was presented to the Heereswaffenampt (Army Weapons Office) for testing.  This gun greatly resembled the final P38 but, most notably, the hammer was shrouded and the safety locked the internal hammer instead of the firing pin.  Both of these proved to be concerns for the German authorities and, despite excellent performance, the pistol was rejected.

Walther made the suggested corrections and resubmitted the gun, again, as the Model MP in early 1938.  It was accepted that same year and became the “Pistole 38.” German authorities were pleased with the new gun, not just for the mechanical features but also because it was simpler to manufacture and nearly half the cost of the current Luger P.08 toggle-lock pistol.  Walther was ordered to begin production as fast as possible, as demand for small arms had suddenly risen sharply.

While still submitting to German trials, Walther had also repackaged the P38 for commercial and export sales under the name “Heeres Pistole.”  These highly polished pistols were expensive and slow sellers, but Sweden actually adopted the Heeres Pistol as their official handgun in 1939 and received several thousand quickly.  But the outbreak of WWII tied up all production so they looked to Belgium’s High Power.  Germany, of course, then invaded Belgium, so Sweden turned to Finland’s Lahti.  The Swedish and commercial Model HP’s deserve a separate article and will get one eventually.  For now, just know they exist.

The P38, as adopted by Germany, emerged as a double/single-action pistol with safety/decocker lever, wedge locking action, in 9mm Parabellum.  The eight round detachable magazine is retained by a heel release (perhaps the only non-modern feature).  There is also a simple pin loaded chamber indicator that sticks out from the rear of the slide.  Walther’s locking action was unique.

German Pistol Walther P38 Animation

The barrel and slide are locked together by a wedge-shaped locking block with two hook-like lugs on its upper side, straddling the barrel.  The locking wedge itself is fitted under the barrel and has the ability to hinge slightly up or down.  The pistol’s frame, along with a small spring, keeps the wedge up for most of its travel, with its lugs locking into notches in the slide.  When fired the barrel and frame travel rearward together until a small steel rod, floated behind the wedge, strikes a step in the frame.  This rod is driven forward, into the wedge, forcing it downward.  The wedge’s lugs fall out of the slide’s notches and the barrel halts as the slide carries on rearward, unlocked.  The freed slide extracts the spent casing and carries it into the frame-mounted ejector, tossing it clear of the action.  Two recoil springs on either side of the frame return the slide, which picks up the next cartridge, and presses it into the breech of the barrel, which is also pushed forward.  This pushes the front of the wedge into a slope inside the frame, raising it and squeezing the steel rod back rearward.  The raised wedge relocks the action.

Walther P38 TiltGerman contract production began in earnest late in 1939 with the first pistols not being issued until 1940.  Early P-38’s had square headed firing pins and black, checkered bakelite grips.  Both were replaced quickly with a more common round-headed pin and bakelite grips featuring simpler ribbed grips that made for easier molding and cleaning.  These were black and then latter a reddish color, eventually petroleum shortages necessitated pressed steel grips.  P38 extractors also underwent several changes, with the earliest variant having a shrouded or “hidden” extractor.  This unnecessary feature was time consuming and was replaced with an external extractor.  Over the life of the pistol this external cut went from a finer, two-width style to a simple drill-out.  Also, two adjustments were made to the frame in 1943 to improve strength.  A bulge was added where the trigger is pinned in the frame and the thickness of the trigger guard was increased.

War-time production for of the P38 was carried out by three major firms, with slides and barrels provided by two more:

Walther – ac

Walther produced the P38 from 1939 until occupation in 1945.  It used the production code “ac” on the slide, with the two-digit date below. During production in 1943 this stacked arrangement was changed to place the serial, date, and production code in one line.  Collectors will note later 1943 and 1944 “ac” coded P38s with stacked code and date, these represent slides provided by FN and may not have ever been to the Walther plant.  See below.  Two inspection codes were used in production: Eagle over 359 and over 480.  Roughly 580,000 P38’s were produced by Walther.

Walther P38s used a traditional bluing process that became less and less substantial in the race to produce pieces quickly.  Machining and polishing also slipped as the war progressed but the internal construction quality was maintained.  Post-war the Walther plant remained in East Germany under Russian supervision.  While some barrels and other parts were produced to repair existing pistols, new production halted in favor of Soviet designs.

 

Spreewerke – cyq

Spreewerke began producing and assembling P38s in 1942.  These are the crudest of the three manufacturers as the emphasis was always on quantity over quality.  The bluing is much lighter than Walther and more easily worn off.  The machining was initially fine but quickly became rough.  Towards the very end a batch of some 4,000 “Zero Series” pistols were assembled from any and all parts.  These are marked by a preceding number “0” in the serial.  Spreewerke P38’s are coded “cyq” although a die seems to have broken at some point as some seem to display “cvq.”  The inspection code for Spreewerke was an Eagle over 88.  Roughly 280,000 P38’s were produced by Spreewerke.  There are not date codes on these P38’s so the following serial lists should serve as a guide:

  • 1942    s/n:  1 – 7000
  • 1943    s/n:  7001 – 4820k
  • 1944    s/n:  4821k – 1800y
  • 1945    s/n:  1801y – 10000z, a1 – b5000, all zero series

Post-war, Spreewerke’s Czechoslovakian factory was seized by the restored state and the available parts were assembled into several thousand pistols.  Czechoslovakian assembled P38’s display the “E” next to a Lion acceptance mark on the trigger guard.

 

Mauser-Werke – byf or SVW

In 1941 Germany decided it was time to prioritize the P38 over the Luger.  Mauser-Werke was ordered to begin production even if it meant slowing the manufacture of P.08’s.  Their P38 line was up and running in November of 1942 and produced through the war.  With priority shifted to the cheaper and easier pistol, Lugers stopped rolling off the line at the end of the same year.

Mauser’s P38 features a phosphate finish that began darker and then switched to a greenish grey, first on the slide, then the whole gun.  They were marked with the production code “byf” and used the stacked code and two-digit date layout.  In early 1945 this code changed to “SVW” for the rest of production.  The inspection code for Mauser was an Eagle over 135.  Roughly 330,000 P38’s were produced by Mauser.

French forces seized the factory in April of 1945 and found a large pool of assembled, disassembled, and failed inspection parts.  Immediately after the war in Europe they began assembling these pistols and producing small parts in order to support their efforts at maintaining or, sometimes, retaking their overseas colonies.  French P38’s have a phosphate finish, steel grips, and have a star in place of the usual inspection marks.  This process was halted after the USSR complained about the continued production of Axis weaponry.

 

Major Parts

FN in Belgium was put to work making P38 slides and frames in 1943.  These were marked “ac” just like the Walthers but did not receive the one-line update.  Spotting an FN frame or slide is easy as they will display the inspection code WaA 140.

CZ was also put to work on P38 parts production, particularly barrels, hammers, and slide catches.  The latter two are more crude looking than the three main manufacturers’ parts.  Barrels can be spotted by the inspection code WaA 76 or a small stamp “fnh” under the barrel, just in front of the locking wedge.

walther p38 topIt should also be noted that one post-war issue for all P38’s was with the Volkspolizei in East Germany.  These guns are easy to recognize thanks to their Sunburst and Shield stamping.  For the most part, however, the P38 was replaced with the similar P1, which we will cover another time.

Overall, these double action pistols were revolutionary and featured a number of very modern concepts.  Their ease of production and high reliability in extreme environments allowed a widespread German Army to arm soldiers in frozen Russia and sandy Africa with the same gun.  Concepts first proven in the P38 continue in modern defensive handguns and even won over the U.S. military with the single/double action Beretta M9.  They’re not uncommon at all in the current collector’s market but still claim a decent price due to their desirability.  If given the opportunity we highly recommend trying one out at your first convenience.

German Walther P38 POV

 

2 Responses to “Pistol: German Walther P38”

  1. teebonicus says:

    Very informative.

    Thank you.

  2. Phil Pangborn says:

    Fantastic article, I read every word! I am fortunate to own a P-38 taken from it’s prior owner (who didn’t need it any more) during the Battle of the Bulge. I obtained it from the widow of the GI who brought it home, which included the original holster. it is a beautiful pistol & shoot as well as it looks.
    Thanks for writing such a great article!

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