Walther, founded by Carl Walther, is one of the oldest firearms manufacturers in the world with a history of producing quality firearms pieces, starting with a little gun shop in the town of Zella, Germany. At first they just produced shotguns and rifles, but Carl's son brought his engineering acumen to the family business, expanding their production to pistols.
The predecessor of the P1 is one that more of you will be familiar with, the famous P38 Model HP (Heerespistole - army pistol) in the late 30's. It's roots were in pre-war Nazi Germany, when the German Army High Command wanted German arms manufactures to develop something of the large-caliber variety to replace the P.08 Luger. The Luger was a fine piece but it was also costly and difficult to manufacture. The goal was a pistol less labor intensive, one easy to assemble and reassemble, preferably one that could be produced by multiple manufacturers if needed, with interchangeable parts among them all. Frankly, pistols don't have the biggest role to play in winning a war, but equipping your armed forces with a hand fitted, expensive pistol didn't make a lot of sense. Therefore, the High Command wanted something revolutionary in design and concept that was easier and cheaper to produce.
Like the Luger, it had an eight round magazine and fired the 9 mm Parabellum cartridge. Unlike the Luger it was one of the first double action semi-auto pistols fielded to a military force. It seems commonplace to you and I but it was a unique concept back them, wherein a soldier could carry with a round in the chamber, hammer down, and all he had to do to use his weapon was pull the trigger. Certainly it was a longer, heavier pull, than a single action, but when your life is on the line, either offensive or defensive, simple is good. (of course, after the first double action pull, the pistol cocks itself automatically and subsequent rounds are single action).
In late 1941, Mauser and Spreewerke began production of the P.38 and its place in firearm history was a matter of record, with over a million produced from 1939 to 1945 by three companies, each having their own distinct markings and variations.
As the Federal Republic of Germany rose out of the ashes (with a lot of Allied help), Walther retooled and modified this old warhorse, replacing the all steel frame of the P.38 with a lighter aluminum alloy frame. It defied the traditional German tradition of re-inventing adesign but rather, built on a proven formula. This "new" pistol was produced, though I don't believe it was named P1 until much later, with not only a aluminum alloy frame, but improved sites and a few other minor modifications.
My Dad survived the war, came back, got married, and late into the Cold War, was taken off guard when my Mom said "let's adopt some kids". The Cold War didn't seem so bad after taking on two redheaded little ones in middle age, but I don't think his generation ever let their guard down. The Cold War certainly changed some things, where the Soviets, formally allies (of convenience perhaps, sort of like your cat) were now a threat. West Germany was a new country needing many things, but not needing a million communists strolling through the Fulda Gap without as much as a RSVP, and a well equipped military force was suddenly on the agenda again.
Somewhere in there, it came time for a new sidearm and the P1 was surplussed. Many were rebuilt, given a slide and hex pin upgrade and found their way to the United States as "obsolete" firearms, where a firearm buyer can get one for a surprisingly low price, many not seeing a lot of action, not even that well aimed throw, and being in decent shape.
There are a lot of P38's out there, several governments gaining possession of large quantities of them for their own military and police agencies post WWII. Many of these have been reworked with both original and new component parts, with the former USSR being the primary source of reworked P.38's. Many of them have similarly been refinished and re-proofed by a number of other countries. If you're looking at a collectors piece, you need to examine the firearm very carefully to determine if it's original German military issue before you pay the price for one. (Hey, here's an "original" German P.38 painted in the colors of Paraquay for only $159.99!)
Post War, the P.38 and P.1 both designated pistols for the police forces and armed forces and post war, they were pretty much identical, including the frame. It's a common misconception that the .38's all have steel frames, as far as I know, only those manufactured under the Third Reich and a small handful assembled by the French immediately after the war using "boosted" German parts did so. With just one exception, I've heard, the post war Walther P.38's have the same basic frame as the P1. If you're not careful you can spend $200 more just for the name P.38 when it still has the aluminum frame without the steel reinforcing lug in the frame, better slide, and other improvements made in later model P1's.
The Range Report:
This little model is NOT one of the bashed together Soviet remakes. It was born sometime in the 70's.
Frankly it is more accurate than expected. With an aluminum frame, five inch barrel and a slide that's not all that long, there's a bit more "snap" to it than the old all-steel .38. Still, with a feel that's a bit "bottom heavy", the muzzle flip will be less than you expect. This one does have the reinforcing steel 'hex pin" in the frame to provide additional strength (it was found that the aluminum frame developed cracks in the most highly stressed area, where the locking piece and barrel were slamming against it on recoil, so the frames of late production pistols were reinforced with the addition of this hexagonal cross-pin) but that is more for overall strength than stability.
If you have small hands, you might find the grip a bit wide, but that being said, it does spread the recoil out nicely.
Would it win a target contest with a Makarov PM? Maybe not, but you won't embarrass yourself wondering how your target jumped out of the way of your bullet. I wouldn't recommend +P high pressure self defense ammo through this firearm; if you want something in 9 mm you can boss around, belittle and make it get you a beer, get a Glock. If you want something inexpensive with a taste of history that's all warm and fuzzy with a box of white box ammo, you'll like it.
Sight Picture - if I didn't get a great grouping it wasn't due to the sight picture.
Safeties: The standard safety also functions as a decocker and is located at the left side of the slide. It's easy to manipulate and reach with your thumb. That being said, if you are used to a 1911, you may well find yourself flipping it to safe and then pulling the trigger as the positions are backwards.(or so I've heard :-)
I'd give my left arm to be ambidextrous: The mag release, one of those European anomalies we Yankees just don't get used to (sort of the bidet of releases) is the long standing heal clip type. Maybe one eventually gets used to it, but it certainly didn't do wonders for reloads (but then again compared to a Czech CZ52 it's positively Speedy Gonzales).
Magazines were single-stack, with the magazine release located at the heel of the grip. This came with one, I'm not sure how hard it will be to find additional ones.
The pistols were also fitted with a loaded chamber indicator in the form of a small pin that projected from the rear of the slide, above the hammer, when a cartridge was loaded in the chamber. It wasn't distracting, and it seemed to work.
If you're interested I'd be on the lookout for one now. The firearm is said to be eligible as a Curio and Relics by the BATF, though they have said they have not updated the list to include it. That would be worth checking out if you have a FFL03 license, especially given current rumor has it that Germany is destroying the remaining stocks of P1's as part of the UN arms agreement.. I have no source to verify the rumor but if it's true, these inexpensive little curios might sell like an AR15 after a filibuster. If your only plans for it are a little piece of history to remind us of what fighting is all about, it might well be a nice little addition to your collection while they are still available at a more than reasonable price.