Thursday, July 14, 2011

Post WWII use of the P.38, P1 and P4 Pistols

Immediate post war use of the P 38.
Post war use of the P 38 came immediately after V-E day. The French occupied the Mauser Factory in Oberndorf, Germany and began to assemble P.38s from the thousands of parts on hand. They continued production into early 1946. The late war Mauser factory code and the year of production are on these pistols, i.e. “SVW 45” or the rare “SVW 46”. These pistols have a unique gray phosphate exterior finish and distinctive steel grips. They have earned the moniker “Gray Ghost” among collectors. A few of these pistols actually received a blue finish and were issued to the French Police. The blued pistols are prized collector’s items today. In early 1946, the Soviet Union objected to the continued French production of the P.38. There was a wartime agreement among the Allies not to continue production of German weapons in their sectors after the war. Consequently, the French closed the Oberndorf factory. However, the French did manage to produce and take delivery of about 55,000 P.38s.

Czechoslovakia also assembled P 38 pistols from the Spreewerke factory located there. Again, these were leftovers of Nazi German production and used to rearm the Czechoslovakian military and police. Second hand wartime German P 38s have found their way to France, Austria, East Germany, Morocco, Finland, Vietnam, and to America, in the duffel bags of returning GIs. In the last 15 years Eastern European countries, and former Soviet Republics, have released numbers of P.38s, presumably taken from German Forces during and at the end of the war.

Because of its sinister wartime image and rakish appearance, the P 38 became a mainstay of the Motion Picture and Television industries from the 1950s to the late 1970s. The P 38 operated well with blank ammunition, securing its place on the big and small screens. Its photo credits are much too numerous to list but the P 38s film career undoubtedly contributed to its continued popularity among civilians. Many WWII themed movies and television shows made during this time featuring the P.38. The P.38 was also widely used as a “communist” weapon in many Cold War thrillers in film and television.

The P 38 used a simple and robust magazine (left) unlike the more frail model used by the P08 Luger (right). Photo author

The P.38 returns during the Cold War.
The return of the P 38 during the Cold War was the culmination of two larger events. First, the fledgling North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decided to allow West Germany to reestablish its armed forces in 1955. Second, Walther built a new factory in the West German town of Ulm on the Donau (Danube) river. In the early 1950s, the French firm of Manuhrin and Walther reached licensing and production agreements for the PP and PPK pistols. This relationship continued when the P.38 design returned to production (German Police and Military designation model was changed to P1 in 1963). All three types of pistols can be with either Manhurin or Walther markings. For the P.38/P1, in post war (1958) nomenclature, the greatest change in manufacture was the substitution of an aluminum receiver replacing the steel one used in wartime P.38s. This was a revolutionary change in 1955. It also established another P.38 design innovation. Since that time, many manufacturers designed and produced aluminum receiver weapons and it is now a common feature.
Early Postwar (1958) Aluminum Framed P.38 with West German Army markings.

The P-1 enjoyed steady military and police sales from the 1950s to the 1980s. These pistols are marked with the trademark Walther Banner and model markings. The commercial P.38 with the aluminum receiver was marked with Walther/Ulm Donau markings. The German Bundeshwer and German Police used the P-1, until it was replaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s by newer designs. The commercial post war P.38 was a very nicely made pistol that achieved modest popularity. A snubnose version, the P38k was introduced for customers wanting a more concealable firearm. The P.38k was never made in large quantities and is a collector’s item today.
As seen on the cover of the factory manual, the P.38k was built with an even shorter barrel and with the front sight on the front of the slide. The pistol was built on P4 mechanicals, with the simplified slide and hexbolt.
As a curious side note, during the Cold War, the West Berlin Police were not allowed to use West German manufactured weapons due to treaty restrictions. Instead they used French Manurhin produced P-1s, successfully circumventing the restrictions. Note the markings on the slide and the starburst (West Berlin Police acceptance stamp) on the trigger guard.

The 1970s vintage P1 pistol (top) is typical of modern German production with aluminum frame, improved sights, and slight changes to the slide. The serial number is located on the frame. Lower pistol is early post war production. The last three numbers of the serial number are repeated on the slide and on the barrel. Photo Author

For purposes of clarity, the post war commercial aluminum framed P.38s made in Germany at the Walther plant in Ulm and so marked, will be referred to as P.38.
The post war Ulm manufactured P.38 is identical to the P1 except for slide markings. Walther did make a limited run of “All steel classic P.38s” in the late 1980s but they were quite expensive and the number produced was very small.
Options for civilian purchasers were the 7.65 Luger and .22 Long Rifle caliber pistols, these chambering are rare. The P.38 designation on commercial post war pistols was a clever and effective marketing strategy to capitalize on the excellent P.38 wartime reputation.

A comparison of early and late production postwar aluminum frames. A steel hexagon bolt placed above the trigger guard was added to aluminum frame P 38/P1 in mid 1970s. Although Walther was initially pleased with the durability of the aluminum frame, the hexagon bolt did increase strength. Photo author.

All good things must come to an end.
In the mid 1970s it became apparent that the P.38/P1 format was eclipsed by newer designs. Walther attempted to update the P1 design with the P4, truncated version of the P1. Although simplified and incorporating the evolutionary upgrades of the P1, the P4 saw very limited production and was not a commercial success. The official lack of enthusiasm for the P4 was probably due to the fact that it did not offer any increase in ammunition capacity, nor did its smaller size offer any significant advantages over the P1. In the atmosphere after the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack and the rise of the Baader Meinhof Gang, the German police establishment realized it need significant upgrades or replacements for its existing weapons. Consequently, the P4 saw only limited acceptance with the West German police.
The striking resemblance between the P1 and P4 surely hindered acceptance of the P4, as it was not a significant advancement over the P1. Adoption by the West German Border Police and some small foreign sales accounted for the 5000 P4s manufactures by Walther and Manurhin.

The P4 (above has a shorter barrel and simplified slide that eliminated the loaded chamber indicator which was a feature on all P.38s and P1s.

The Walther P.38, the most advanced pistol in the world at the time of its introduction, possessed some features considered obsolete by the late 1970s. Chief among these was the magazine capacity limited to 8 rounds of ammunition and heel of the butt magazine release. The P.38 pioneered the double action trigger system for service sized automatic pistols, however, by the late 1970s there were many competitive designs that possessed lighter and smoother double action pulls. These improved designs appealed to police organizations and private citizens alike.
Starting in the late 1980s, the German Armed Forces, State Police, and Border Police have sold as surplus their P1/P4s and replaced them with more modern designs by Walther, Heckler & Koch, and Glock.

The P.38 and P1 today.
Walther, with their new marketing alliance with Smith and Wesson, no longer manufacture or import the commercial P.38 into the United States. Large numbers of P.38s, P1s, and P4s were imported over the years and it can still be found at attractive prices on many used gun shelves. Many P-1s are reconditioned and are in excellent condition.
Excellent condition wartime P.38s are increasing in value and represent a wise investment. GI bring back P.38s may range from excellent to poor condition, with some even nickel plated by their GI owners. Owners WWII vintage pistols should have them appraised.
Wartime P.38s with parts that no longer match, are refinished, or import marked, usually do not command a premium on the collector gun market. These pistols represent a good value for an owner that wants a steel framed pistol for shooting purposes.
Since World War II P.38 pistols are “Curio and Relics”, imports may trickle in from the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries for a while. Germany may continue to divest itself of surplus P-1s as well.

Summary of Differences between the wartime P. 38 and the post war P.38/ P1 pistols.
Weight. The all steel wartime P 38 weighed 34 ounces, the P1 weighs 27.5 ounces, post 1968 P1 weighs 28 ounces, P4 weighs 26.1ounces.

Construction. The post war P 38/ P1 uses an aluminum frame, saving 6.5 oz in weight illustrated above. The later (1970s vintage) P 38/ P1/P4 pistols have a steel hexagon bolt to strengthen the aluminum frame and a beefier slide.

Slide. The post 1968 slide also has additional grasping grooves to improve handling. The slide contour is changed to improve strength. In the P4 and P.38k the slide is simplified with the top cover and loaded chamber indicator elimated.

Safety and firing pin. Post war pistols have an improved safety and a rounded firing pin. They are a few small parts in the slide not interchangeable with wartime P 38s counterparts. However, the entire slide assembly will interchange. The hammer drop and safety operate slightly differently on the P4 and P.38k as it flips back into the fire position after the hammer is lowered onto the empty chamber (per West German police requirements).

Grips. Wartime P 38s used ribbed grips constructed of plastic and later steel. The plastic grips could be black or brown. Post war P 38/ P1/P4s use a black plastic checkered grip or a wood grip on special models.

Barrels. World War II barrels are one piece construction. Post war barrels are of two-piece construction.

Finnish. World War II P.38s from all manufacturers had a blued finish applied at the factory. The Mauser produced SVW 45 and 46 date codes have a gray phosphate finish. Postwar P.38/P1/P4/P38k have a dark gray matte finish on the slide, hammer, trigger and a semi-gloss black anodized frame.

Special Notes:
After World War II returning G.I.s occasionally had their captured war trophy pistols decorated or nickel plated as souvenirs. At the time these pistols were plentiful and no one thought much about it. In subsequent years as these pistols hit the secondary market, specious stories of “special U-boat finish” cropped up to sell these pistols to unsuspecting buyers.
Another scam occurred in the 1980s during an early importation of P1 pistols. An unscrupulous importer stamped these pistols with Nazi Waffenamt markings in a foolish attempt to sell these as World War II era pistols. The same has occurred with leather holsters, postwar holsters are marked with Waffenamt markings and World War II dates. Buyer Beware!


  1. Thanks for these information about the pistols .When the pistol is fired both the barrel and slide recoil for a short distance together, where the locking block drives down, disengaging the slide and arresting further rearward movement of the barrel.

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  2. You're 100% correct Lucas, Thanks!