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The Walther P-38

The history of combat handguns is replete with examples of guns that have earned either praise or condemnation...

The history of combat handguns is replete with examples of guns that have earned either praise or condemnation. One pistol that has earned almost unanimous respect is the Walther P-38.

During the 1930s, German industry began a crash program to rearm the Wehrmacht, and in 1934 the Wehrmacht announced that it was in the market for a new service pistol. Carl Walther Waffenfabrik was one of Germany's best-known firearms manufacturers. In 1934 Walther offered the army the Model MP (Militarische Pistole), an upsized model PP chambered for the 9mm Parabellum, but its blowback operation doomed it to quick rejection by the army. The following year, a design team led by Fritz Walther began work on a completely new DA/SA, locked-breech pistol to meet the army's requirements.

Two years later the 9mm Model AP (Armee Pistole) was announced. It was a hammerless, DA/SA pistol. The Wehrmacht expressed interest with one proviso; it wanted an external hammer. The design was suitably modified and renamed the Model HP (Heeres Pistole, "Service Pistol"). After a few minor modifications to the safety system, the Wehrmacht adopted the Walther in 1938 as the Pistole 38, or as it is more commonly known, the P-38.

The P-38 was the first DA/SA pistol adopted by a major power. When the hammer is forward, squeezing the trigger will cock the hammer--by means of a draw bar on the right side of the frame--and fire the first round much like a DA revolver. After that the hammer remains cocked, and subsequent shots are fired in SA mode.

The P-38's safety/hammer drop mechanism is very simple. If the hammer is cocked, rotating the safety lever on the left rear of the slide downwards will lock the firing pin in place. As the lever reaches the bottom, it trips the sear, allowing the hammer to travel forward. The safety can be left down, which blocks movement of both the trigger and hammer, or moved up, allowing the first shot to be fired in DA mode. A pin located above the hammer acts as a loaded chamber indicator.

Model:Walther Pistole 38
Caliber:9mm Parabellum
Magazine Capacity:8 rounds
Barrel Length:5 inches
Overall Length:8.4 inches
Weight, empty:34 oz.
Sights:Square blade front; U-notch rear


On the left side of the frame are slide stop and takedown levers. Grip panels were made of black or reddish brown plastic, and a prominent lanyard ring adorned the lower left grip frame. The eight-round, single-column magazine was retained by the traditional European heel-type catch. Of all forged steel construction, the P-38 is, by today's standards, a hefty pistol.

The P-38's locking system consists of a pivoting locking block under the barrel that locks the action by means of two lugs that enter matching notches in the slide. When the pistol is fired, the slide and barrel recoil together about 5/16 inch before a plunger at the rear of the barrel underlug impacts on the frame and forces the locking block down. The slide continues to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. Dual recoil springs, located on either side of the frame, pull the slide forward, stripping the next round from the magazine and chambering it. As the barrel moves forward, the locking block is cammed back up by a ramp on the front of the frame, locking the barrel and slide together again.

The Walther P-38 was the primary battle pistol of the German armed forces during World War II. It featured an exposed barrel, a DA/SA trigger, a heel-type magazine release, and a lanyard ring on the left side of the grip.

In 1939 the Swedish army adopted the Walther as the Pistole 39, but only about 1,500 were delivered before German army orders took precedence. Wartime demands for handguns became enormous, and Walther was not capable of supplying enough P-38s. In 1941 a contract for additional P-38s was given to the Mauser firm, to be followed in 1943 with another to Spreewerk GmbH of Berlin. In addition, arms plants in the occupied countries--FN (Belgium), CZ/Brno (Czechoslovakia), and Steyr-Daimler-Puch (Austria)--made P-38 components.

The P-38 proved to be a rugged, reliable handgun, although it was never available in great enough numbers to replace the Luger P08, and it appears that higher ranking officers preferred the P08 or small 7.65mm pistols over the P-38. The Germans also provided limited quantities of P-38s to Italy, Croatia, and Hungary.The quality of late-war pistols deteriorated. Machine marks were evident, a cheap phosphate (Parkerized) finish was applied, stamped-steel grip panels were used, and other shortcuts were adopted to increase production.

After the war large quantities of German small arms were used by the newly liberated European countries. Austria, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Rumania issued P-38s to their armies, while the French, whose occupation zone included the Walther factory, assembled new P-38s for its own forces. The French Manuhrin company produced Walther PP, PPK, and P-38 pistols under license for sale to foreign armies and police forces.

When the West German army was organized in the 1950s, the new Walther plant at Ulm-Donau began production of a version with a lightweight, alloy frame that was adopted by the West German Bundeswehr as the Pistole 1 (

P-1). In addition the P-1 was produced at Steyr for the Austrian army. The Walther P-1 has been sold in substantial numbers to several European, African, and Middle Eastern armies and police forces, and many are still in service today.

Firing from the bench at a range of 50 feet, the P-38's best target of the day had five rounds in 2.25 inches.

Test-Firing The P-38
My friend Brooks Hedrick provided me with a P-38 that his father had brought home from Germany in 1945. It was in VG condition with a bright bore that leads me to believe it has been fired very little, if at all. The left side of the slide bears the legend "P38," the "byf" code of Mauser Werke, and the date "44." The frame, slide, barrel, and magazine all have matching serial numbers and several Waffenamt acceptance marks.

It had a comfortable, hand-filling grip, and despite being a bit muzzle light, it pointed well. On the negative side were a DA trigger pull that made me grunt with effort and a very mushy SA trigger pull.

Most stories I've heard about wartime P-38s can be summed up as follows: "Sure, it's reliable enough, but the sights and trigger pull aren't worth a damn!"

This one was no exception.

Firing it from a benchrest at 50 feet proved to be a bit of an effort. The rear sight was too wide--or the front was too narrow (take your choice)--and a decent sight picture was not to be had. When combined with the poor trigger pull, they caused my shots to wander at will around the target. After a half-dozen irritating attempts, my best had five rounds in 2.25 inches, printing low and right.

Firing on an IPSC target, with the first shot of each magazine fired in DA mode, I was able to keep all my shots in a well-centered but not very compact group.

Except for the horrendous DA trigger, the P-38 was fun to shoot, suitably accurate, and 100 percent reliable with the 80+ rounds I fired through it. For a pistol produced during the dark days of late World War II, I think that is pretty darn good.

Many credit Walther with breaking new ground and developing the first truly "modern" semiauto pistol. After shooting the P-38, I can do little but agree with them.

AmmunitionVelocity (fps)50-Foot Accuracy (inches)
9mm Parabellum
Federal 115-gr. FMJ 1163 2.75
Remington 124-gr. FMJ 1131 2.63
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of three, five-shot groups fired from an MTM Predator rest. Velocity is the aver-age of five rounds measured 10 feet from the gun's muzzle with a Shooting Chrony chronograph.

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