The Walther P.38 pistols have a mystique the started in late 1930s and continues today. This unique journey includes the sinister Nazi conquests of the Second World War and the intrigue of the subsequent Cold War.
The Carl Walther Waffenfabrik was a respected manufacturer of firearms in Germany during the early 20th century. Several successful small semi-automatic pistols were the mainstay of their product line. Walther revolutionized the semi-automatic handgun market in 1929 with the introduction of the Walther Polizei Pistol, called the PP. The PP, and later its compact version the PPK (Polizei Pistol Kriminal), used a double action trigger cocking mechanism. The PP and PPK are still popular today and in many cases they are considered the standard by which other small defensive handguns are judged.
The Walther double action system safely lowered the hammer on a loaded chamber and the trigger could be used to subsequently cock and fire the weapon. The long and somewhat heavy trigger pull for the first shot was similar to a double action revolver; subsequent shots were in the manner of a normal single action semi automatic pistol. This system allowed a cartridge to be kept in the chamber of the weapon instantly ready for long periods of time. This was ideal for both military and police use. However, both the PP and PPK were blow back pocket pistols chambered for relatively weak cartridges such as 32 ACP and 380 ACP.
The 9mm Parabellum cartridge, the standard service round of the German Army and Navy since the early 20th century, and a growing number of other countries’ military establishments, was too powerful for a blowback pistol design like the PP and PPK. In fact, Walther’s attempt to develop a blow back 9mm Parabellum in World War I, failed.
The 9mm Parabellum operated at a pressure higher than the smaller pocket pistol cartridges. The locked breach recoil system, which was mature design by the 1930s, was the most promising design avenue for a new service pistol.
In the process of rearming during the 1930s, German military started looking for a replacement for the venerable P08 Luger. Walther combined their expertise with double action trigger mechanisms with the 9mm Parabellum and the design evolved to became the P.38.
The first attempt resulted in the Walther Armee Pistol or AP. The Walther AP’s are rare collector’s items today. This was a striker fired design that was quickly changed to an exposed hammer design and renamed the Herees Pistol or HP.
In the final days before WWII, the HP was sold commercially and to the Swedish Army. HPs were made in small numbers during the war for German police use. Sweden became the first nation to adopt the P.38, the most advanced service pistol at the time.
As an interesting side note, The P.38 was offered on special order in 45 ACP and 38 Super for the American civilian market, few, if any, of these were ever made. The onset of World War II in 1939 prevented civilian deliveries of the P.38 to America.
The P.38 pistol would be almost unknown in America until G.I.s encountered it in combat in 1942.
The venerable P08 Luger was a design considered “long in the tooth” by the late 1930s. The P08 Luger was one of the first successful semi-automatic pistol designs and had given excellent service in World War I. It was also the service sidearm of several European armies and a successful commercial product. Expensive and difficult to produce, the P08 Luger was dirt sensitive due to it’s exposed action and required excellent quality ammunition to function correctly. The advanced design P.38 provided the answer to these difficulties. Extensive testing demonstrated the P.38 was very reliable in adverse conditions, especially the cold. Although the P08 Luger continued in production until 1942 and served until the end of the war, the P.38 became primary German service pistol.
World War II usage.
Many of the P.38s features were revolutionary at the time of its adoption are taken for granted today. The P.38 possessed large sights and was the only World War II era pistol so equipped. Its double action trigger system has been widely copied in many of post war designs. The grips were ergonomic and fit different sized hands comfortably. The 8 round magazines were simple and robust. The P.38 pistol was simple and comparatively easy to manufacture in large numbers. More than one million P.38s were produced by Walther, Mauser, and Spreewerke for the German armed forces in World War II. Quality of the exterior finish did deteriorate during the war with the later pistols evidencing tool marks and thin blued finishes. The P.38s reliability and durability were never compromised.
During the War the different factories were assigned identification codes. The production codes are 480 and later AC for Walther, BYF and later SVW for Mauser, and CYQ for Spreewerke. For Walther and Mauser, this code, with the exception of the rare 480 codes, is followed by the year of manufacture and usually a numeric/ alpha serial number. Spreewerke did not date it’s pistols. P 38s that do not have matching numbers have had a part replaced or were assembled from leftover parts after the war ended. There were probably some pistols with non matching parts assembled in the frantic last days of the war.
Although the P.38 was out of production by 1946, it had an impressive war record. Even the roughly finished late war specimens functioned reliably under the harsh battle conditions German soldiers faced. This included the desert of North Africa to the freezing winters on the Eastern Front. The P.38 pistol was able to successfully use the lower quality steel cased 9mm Parabellum ammunition Germany manufactured later in the war. This was something the P08 Luger pistol could not do. Moreover, the P.38 pistol was something of a symbol of Nazi advanced technology. Much like the STG 44 Assault Rifle, Tiger Tank, ME-262 Jet Fighter, and V2 Rocket, the P.38 was a symbol of the sinister and efficient technological advancements of the Nazis and the ingenuity of German industry.