Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Walther P1 - A "P"iece of History

For someone that grew up on the whole James Bond series, just the name Walther conjures up scenes of adventure with spies, bad guys and beautiful women  (though Bond's Pistol was  a PPK and later, a P99 being carried in the Brosnan and early Craig films).

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.

About this time. Walther had completed its Model HP for worldwide distribution, giving them a big of a leg up on the competitors in Germany, winning the High Commands approval in 1938, with small numbers of the original HP bought by Sweden before the Wehrmacht adopted it as the Pistole 38 and took over all production guns.  The term 38 wasn't used as the designator on the commercial firearms, but was known as MOD HP until later in the war, when a few came up marked as MOD P.38, taking advantage of the identity of the military pistol.

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.
We all know how the War turned out for Germany. My Dad was over in England with the 8th Air Force while they bombed the heck out of them in Liberators. After the bombing campaigns and the end of the war, manufacturing capabilities of the country were about obliterated, with the Walther factory destroyed, even as the patents, know-how and a lot of the people involved, survived. After the war, most of the ex-Walther machinery ended up in France as war reparations, and you will find that many post-war P38 pistols were actually built in France by the Manurhin factory.  But Germany was not down and out in the P38 market.

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.

The post-war P1 versions were less than popular in the Armed Forces ( Bundesweh), given the unofficial description of “eight warning shots plus one aimed throw”. Although revolutionary, the design was also over thought, with the P38 pistol having eleven springs (most of a size that if you drop one you will never find it) which is about double what the older Luger had that it replaced. Small parts and pins that are easy to lose during full disassembly doesn't make for a popular piece. Add in an intricately shaped firing pin that easily broke, well, it was only a matter of time before other firearms replaced it.

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.

Buying One - P38 versus P1.

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.

This is indeed your grandfather's double action: The trigger has an exposed hammer and trigger bar (the link between the trigger and sear) unusually located outside of the frame at the right side. It's not a modern design, so while it's pretty smooth, there is a bit of stacking and I'd guess the trigger pull of double action is near 10 pounds.  The single action is nice and crisp and about half that by way of trigger pull, making it a decent "service pistol" though. Feeding between the magazine and chamber is fairly shallow, but it ate a white box of .115 without burping.

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).

You might want to stand over there -You will find extractor is on the left side of the gun, so the brass gets flung in the opposite direction of most autos. "Fore!"

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.

Clean up: it appears to be fairly easy to clean and maintain, but keep tabs of the parts of you're doing a full disassemble. .But don't let it mate with your Mark III, the resulting offspring, might be a handful to field strip..

 Does This Make my Slide Look Fat?  In the 70's, when this particular firearm originated, Walther incorporated several important design improvements into the P.1 in addition to the hex pin.  This included a somewhat thicker sidewall on a section of the slide (commonly referred to as a "fat slide" though frankly, at a glance, I couldn't tell the difference). If you have bigger hands (mine are quite large for a female, with long slender fingers) with a high thumb grip - watch the bottom edge of the  slide. It won't  bite you but it will try and give you a hickey.

The fit and finish of the pistol is as what one expects from Walther, with a level of care in the machining, and a nice even finish, though it's more of a utilitarian parkerized finish than the high polished blued finish of the PP and PPK's that was second to none.  It's also not particularly concealable, but it's not going to be a piece for that.  It's not likely to be my favorite firearm either.  But for a little spot of history to practice pistol basics such as trigger squeeze and sight alignment in the $300 range, it's worth a spot in the safe.

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.


  1. Brigid,

    I have a war trophy from my dervice in Vietnam. It is a Walther P.38 manufactured by Walther in 11941 (factory ID markings "AC 41"). It has all matching serial numbers on the parts. I got it from an NVA officer who didn't need it any longer. I have always wondered how it came into his possession. Maybe a Frenchman captured it from a German officer during WW II, and had it taken from him at Dien Ben Phu. Who knows?

    1. Lots of SS signed up for the Foreign Legion after WWII to get away from...stuff. Many of them died in and around Dien Ben Phu.

    2. Not really. There was a big up roar in France when it was found out that most of the fighting was being done by former SS. Give the Devil his due the SS knew how to soldier and fight. They were winning.
      The French people were upset by this. French boys could do their own fighting. Germans were not needed. So the French Foreign Legion was withdrawn and replaced by the Regular Army. As you say they got their fanny kicked bad at Dien Ben Phu.

  2. Great post, now I know more about my own P38. Life, it's an education.

  3. In general, I have found P1s to be far better guns than their rep, which was smeared when The Colonel held up the P38 as the ingenious solution to a nonexistent problem Back in the Back When. I put a lot of rounds through my father's surplused P38 and have had a series of P1s, including the excellent one I have now.

    Magazines used to be all over the place for around $12 (I picked ups couple back them), but it'll cost you close toe $30 now as the flood of German surplus has dried up (probably forever).

    One of my nitwit projects on The List was to get a custom kydex holster for the P1 and shoot it in IDPA. The heel magazine release is a pain, and the one on my P1 is darn stiff, but years back I worked with an Sig P220 with a heel release and I know a person can get sufficiently fast with it.

    For years I carried a Sig P225, or in German police parlance, the P5, which I always thought of as an "evolved" P1. If I was stuck with the P1 as my only self-defense gun, I'd be okay with it…

    Michael B

    1. The heel release does take some practice so it's good to know you made that work. I LOVE my Sig P220, my all time favorite carry piece.

      Thanks for stopping Michael. Always good to hear from you.

  4. I took a lot of pics of the guts of a P1 if anyone is interested.

    Pistole Modele Ein

  5. Thank you for this great review. The part wth the aimed trow made me laughing. Like your kind of writing and will follow,also for the tasty recipes! Best regards from Germany :-) Hans

    1. Han - thank you for stopping in and commenting. I do hope you will return. If you see any recipes picture that don't have an actual recipe attached let me know in a comment and I'll get them to you.


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