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German police dilemma: 9mm VS?

* The recent U.S. Army pistol trials have an interesting European parallel: the selection of the new German police pistols. The procedure and outcome of the latter allows one to draw comparisons between two different trials for a 9mm semi-automatic sidearm.

In order to understand the background of the German trials, it is necessary to look back a few decades. After the second world war, the newly formed West German police had to start their rearmament from scratch. In the early days, they borrowed Colt pistols and S&W revolvers from the occupation forces. Standardization was brought about by the renaissance of an independent German arms manufacture. From the 1950s on, a standard pattern of police weaponry emerged in all states of the young Federal Republic. The main sidearm of uniformed policemen became the Walther PP auto in .32 Browning; plainclothes police carried the short PPK, also in .32 Browning; and the Bereitschaftspolizei, a police body akin to the National Guard was equipped with the Walther P1, the postwar P-38 version in 9mm Luger.

The guiding idea behind the adoption of the puny .32 caliber was the principle that a police gun should be powerful enough to sufficiently incapacitate an offender, but not potent enough to endanger innocent bystanders by ricochets. The holsters (stiff leather containers, in fact) reflected the same principle: safety rather than efficiency! Safety is, of course, a point of real (and political!) importance in a densely populated country in the heart of Europe. But the West German police quite clearly got the balance wrong--and the policy backfired. In post-war Germany, some 300 officers fell victim to their ineffective and impractical guns and holsters. Practical tests in the 1970s established that it takes a policeman between 5 and 14 seconds to draw the pistol from the issue holster; and that the .32 Walther pistols would produce, on average, one malfunction to every 50 or 60 rounds fired--under controlled range conditions!

The traumatic experience of the left-wing Baader-Meinhof terrorism in the early 1970s was the last straw. The contrast between between terrorists armed with two 9mm service pistols each, and German coppers equipped with .32 pocket pistols was too much to stomach, even for the most conservative authorities. Some police departments introduced the new Walther 9mm Super, a kind of compromise between the .38 Browning and the 9mm Luger, and closely corresponding to the Soviet 9mm Makarov. Other departments, particularly in large urban areas of northern Germany, such as Hamburg, Hannover, and Braunschweig, bought S&W revolvers in .38 Special and .357 Magnum for their plainclothes police and SWAT teams. Throughout the first half of the seventies, the calls for a more effective sidearm for all police forces grew louder, and more convincing, every day.

The wealth of bad experiences, and the general mood in the police, put enough pressure on the authorities to start a profound rethinking at high level. In 1974, the conference of the ministers of the interior of all states making up the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, agreed, in principle, that a new police handgun should be introduced. In the best of bureaucratic fashions, their Committee No. 2 (Internal Security and Order) set up a sub-committee to define, in detail, the desirable properties of that future sidearm. In 14 months of research and hearings, a complete and exhaustive Pflichtenheft ("book of requirements"--an auspicious name with a biblical ring to it!) was compiled. According to it, the new German police pistol should meet the following criteria: FIREPOWER: caliber--9mm or .38/.357 muzzle energy--minimum of 367 ft. lbs. muzzle velocity--minimum of 1,148 feet per second (fps) magazine/cylinder capacity--minimum of six rounds WEIGHT: maximum of 35 1/2 ounces, fully loaded DIMENSIONS: maximum of 180x130x34mm TRIGGER: double action (DA) for first shot; trigger weight--DA maximum of 12 lbs. (5.5 kg), SA minimum of 4 1/2 lbs. (2.0 kg) GRIP ANGLE: about 110 degrees RELIABILITY: barrel, receiver, mainspring and recoil spring must last for 10,000 rounds, firing pin and extractor for 5,000 rounds; the weapon must operate reliably after being recovered from sand or dirt SAFETY: no external safety, no magazine safety; internal safety must prevent a discharge from impact of any kind; firing the gun may only be possible with the slide (or cylinder) locked, and the trigger pulled back; carrying the gun safely must be possible with a round in the chamber, and with the hammer down; decocking the hammer must be possible without touching the trigger SIGHTS: high-visibility sights ACCURACY: five shots unsupported at 25 meters must group within a circle of 6 1/4 inches diameter TECHNICAL REQUIREMENTS: semi-auto--long slide track; revolver--revolver gap smaller than 0.15mm; all types--simple field stripping for cleaning, and easy replacement of all parts.

The above list is just a brief summary of the most important criteria and requirements. This Pflichtenheft was finalized in June 1975, and in July it was distributed to the arms manufacturers. While the gun factories were studying the details to prepare their submissions, a heated controversy about philosophy and contents of the "book of requirements" broke out among experts, and was given ample publicity in the shooting press. Protagonists praised the entire procedure as a novelty: for the first time, a police sidearm had not been chosen from among the already available models, but was going to be designed to meet clearly defined requirements.

Critics heaped scorn and ridicule on the Pflichtenheft and the research behind it. They claimed that practical experiences abroad (foremost in the U.S.A.) had been totally ignored, and that some of the planned tests were artificial materials tests, but not "police-specific trials" reflecting practical needs. But what is even worse, it can be demonstrated that the apparently objective requirements were, in fact, rigged in favor of a 9mm autoloader, and against the .38/.357 wheelgun that a great number of German police wanted (and still want). For a start, the firepower and size requirements combined to exclude, a priori, all revolvers: by 1974, six-shooters capable of delivering an effective muzzle energy of at least 367 ft. lbs. exceeded either the stipulated maximum width of 34mm by exactly 2mm (in the case of a .357 Magnum with 2 1/2-inch barrel), or the maximum length of 180mm by at least 50mm (.38 special 4-inch barrel and +P loads). In case this shouldn't suffice, the responsible committee wrote into the Pflichtenheft that "the ammunition must be capable of being fired from the submachine guns already introduced"--i.e., it's got to be 9mm Luger. Indeed, the stipulated minimum muzzle energy happens to coincide exactly with that of the 9mm service load! These, and other details, prove beyond a doubt that the "book of requirements" was not an unbiased list of objective criteria, but just the bureaucratically pedantic definition of the prejudice in favor of a semi-auto. In plain words: the adoption of a 9mm Luger (Parabellum) autoloader of West German manufacture was a foregone conclusion even before the first test shot was fired!

One premise of the entire exercise was correct; there was, in 1974, no handgun available that conformed to all of the specific criteria. Therefore, it took the guns' manufacturers some time to react. In early 1976, some 18 months after the completion of the Pflichtenheft, the official trials went ahead. They were held in northern Germany, at the Federal Border Force Academy in Lubeck and at the Federal Army Ordnance Depot near Meppen. The tests consisted of:

* checking the guns' properties against the list of requirements

* a reliability test over 10,000 rounds (one allowable malfunction per 1,000)

* a rapid-fire test of 500 rounds in 50 minutes

* an accuracy test

* a dirt test (gun dropped into sand and mud, picked up again and fired).

Four German firms turned up for the first test session, all of them arms manufacturers of world-wide repute. Carl Walther of Ulm, producer of the then-current police pistols, submitted their new P5. Heckler & Koch of Oberndorf, manufacturer of the West German assault rifle G3, handed in their P9S just to reserve a place in the contest until their brand new squeeze-cocker, the PSP, would be ready. Mauser, famous in history for their 98K military carbine and their C-96 semi-auto, entered the competition with a prototype called HSP. Sauer & Sohn of Echernforde, well-known for their fine sporting rifles and shotguns, joined in with the Swiss service pistol P220 designed by the Swiss firm of SIG, but built by Sauer's factory in Jutland. In spite of this impressive collection of big names, all guns submitted failed the 10,000 rounds test. Mauser resigned, and completely dropped out of the race.

For the second session, Heckler & Koch turned up with their revolutionary PSP design. Sauer & Sohn substituted their improved P225 for the oversize P220, with instantaneous success; it was the first entry to clear all the hurdles. But the testers didn't stop there. Walther's P5 was given a third chance to make it (yes, it did). And when the PSP failed the shooting tests yet again, a fourth and final trial session allowed Heckler & Koch to pass all tests.

Thus, the official result of the trials read: P5, P225 and PSP--all can be recommended for adoption by the police. The decision, which to pick, was left to the individual authorities at state and federal levels. In other words: all competitors that did not withdraw were winners! This might baffle some, but it won't surprise anyone familiar with the intricacies of a federal system. On their official recognition, the Sauer P225 was given the new model number P6, and the Heckler & Koch PSP became the P7. Before assessing introduction and first experiences, let's get an idea of the main characteristics of these three winners. WALTHER P5

The Walther pistol represents the oldest design of the three "new" guns: it is based on the time-tried P-38 system of World War II vintage, the first ever double-action 9mm auto! The post-war version P1, with a light alloy receiver, still serves as the issue sidearm of the West German Bundeswehr (Federal Army). For the police pistol trials, the Walther people shortened the barrel from 5 inches to 3 1/2 inches, did away with the safety, and combined the slide release with a decocking lever. But they had to operate within the limitations of an existing pattern. Their biggest headaches were certainly caused by the locking system; the locking lug under the barrel makes it necessary to place the recoil spring (or rather two small ones) on either side of the magazine well, which makes this 9mm bulkier than most .45 autos, and two recesses for the hooks of the locking piece create weak spots in the sides of the slide. The Walther engineers did their best by beefing up the weak front half of the slide, slimming and reshaping the receiver, and putting steel inserts into the light alloy receiver. That should prevent it from cracking which early P1 models were infamous for.

The alterations have made the P5 much more compact, handy and muzzle-heavy than the grandfather P-38 and father P1 ever were. But it kept some of the bulky appearance and feel. On the positive side, the new Walther is a much more practical gun than any of its ancestors. The operation of the pistol is foolproof and absolutely safe. There is only one operational lever that either releases the slide, or de-cocks the hammer if the slide is in forward position. Pulling the trigger will always fire a shot--provided the gun is loaded. In the tests, the P5 proved a reliable weapon that is easy to shoot thanks to high-visibility sights and an excellent, crisp trigger with a trigger stop. Even the DA trigger is nice; with an even 10 pounds, it is a vast improvement over the atrocious, almost useless DA trigger of the .32 PP. The only negative points are the conventional heel position of the magazine catch, and the considerable muzzle flash mainly due to the short barrel.

Yes, the Walther engineers did an excellent job--but is that enough to transform an old service pistol design into a modern police pistol? THE SIG-SAUER P6 (P225)

The history of the Sauer pistol, although much shorter than that of the P5, offers many parallels. It is also based on a prewar design (Browning); and it started out as a service pistol. In this case, it is the present Swiss military sidearm P220 cut down in size to conform to German police requirements. Sauer, German manufacturer of this Swiss-designed gun, shortened the barrel from 4 1/2 inches to 4 inches, reduced the magazine capacity from nine to eight rounds, and moved the magazine catch from the heel to the left side of the grip. All these adaptations hardly changed the external appearance of the pistol; the new model P225 (now the P6, in the bureaucratic numbering system) looks like the younger brother of the Swiss service auto. The family ties are marked--about half the parts are interchangeable between the two guns.

I mentioned the Browning design of the SIG-Sauer line. Actually, it is an advanced modification of the Browning Hi-Power (Model 1935) pattern. In the forward position, the barrel locks into the ejection port: an elegant solution that does away with the locking lugs in barrel and slide. On recoil, the barrel is guided by cams on its underside to swing down and disengage from the slide. The slide, incidentally, is made as a stell stamping, and the receiver is light alloy with steel inserts. Neither feature will please the purists, but it works. In fact, it works so well that the Sauer product was the first pistol to pass the rigorous 10,000 rounds test.

Much more critical, from a practical point of view, are numerous buttons and levers on the left side of the grip and the receiver: dismantling lever, slide release, de-cocking lever and magazine release button. This juxtaposition might confuse a policeman under stress--and if he is a southpaw, he's in trouble anyway because he was forgotten by the designers. At least he won't have to fumble for a manual safety. There isn't any, neither on this gun nor on its competitors. So, no "cocked and locked" carry at Practical Pistol events. Internal safeties do the job; the firing pin is locked by a vertical block at all times. This block will be lifted only if the trigger is pulled right through. Looks safe enough, but it is still less perfect than the Walther P5 system where the firing pin is completely out of range of the hammer unless you squeeze the trigger all the way.

In practical use and on the range, the SIG-Sauer delivers all the goods you may expect from the combination of Swiss design and German manufacture. Accuracy is excellent, and it actually improves with use. Handling and shooting the gun is easy, although perhaps not quite as comfortable as with its competitors. The sights are plain black, and the double-action trigger requires a good pull of 12 pounds. The single-action trigger (4.5 pounds) doesn't present any problems, but on many guns of this model it could do with a bit of polishing. The recoil shows up the fact that the P220/225 was designed with a .45 version in mind; the barrel is uncomfortably high above the hand, as high as in a .357 Magnum revolver!

The official Sauer prospectus recommends the P225 (P6) "for use by the armed forces and the police." So, if you want a service pistol for a police sidearm, this may be your gun. HECKLER & KOCH P7 (PSP)

The Suabian firm of Heckler & Koch (abbreviated HK) took a very different approach. Rather than doing some surgery on their existing--and successful!--police pistol P9S or military handgun VP-70, they decided to start from scratch. The HK engineers have never had a reputation for traditional solutions from the textbooks of firearms history. In a way, they are the European equivalent of Ruger. Not surprisingly then, the P7 is bristling with innovative features. In brief, it combines a revolutionary squeeze-cocking design with a novel gas-delayed blowback system and the unconventional polygonal barrel of P9S fame. Let's have a look at these features one after the other.

First, the squeeze-cocker. Its position and functioning is quite different from the grip-cocker offered by some U.S. custom gunsmiths for the venerable 1911 Colt Government.

Squeezing the front strap of the P7 grip with three fingers pushes the internal firing pin back to be engaged by the sear. The protruding end of the firing pin signals "Ready" for single-action shooting. If you want to de-cock the gun, you just relax your grip--it is as easy as that. It had to be a German idea because the German words for "de-cocking" and "relaxing" are identical. The required squeeze won't impair the shooting. Initially, it takes a force of about 16 pounds, but once the cocking lever has ben depressed completely, a plunger engages it and reduces the weight to a mere 1.5 pounds. Thus, the first shot is always single-action, and no further safety devices are required (apart from an internal impact safety). Squeezing the cocker even works as a slide release after the empty magazine had caught the slide in the rear position--and the gun is cocked for the next aimed shot. The double-action trigger of other "modern" semi-autos is antediluvian by comparison.

Second novelty; the gas-retarded blowback system. What do you do if you want neither the moving barrel, links and lugs of a conventional locking system, nor the violent kick of a straight blowback gun in 9mm Luger? Well, you ask Heckler & Koch. The recipe from Suabia: take some of the gas from the burning powder, channel it through a tiny bore from the barrel into a cylinder, and use it there to delay the rearward movement of a piston that is pushed back by the slide in recoil. The logical inversion of the gas-operated system, so to speak. There's only one drawback--the hot gas heats up the cylinder which is located directly above the trigger guard. But it would take an almost superhuman effort in continuous rapid-fire to draw blisters on the trigger finger. The big advantage of the P7 system is that it adjusts to the gas pressure. Thus, it will cycle soft loads that would jam in other 9mm autos.

Third, the polygonal barrel. This HK patent does away with the usual rifling: the barrel is a twisted octagonal tube. Thanks to the gas-retardation system, the barrel is fixed to the receiver which makes for excellent accuracy. But don't use soft lead bullets because the dirt might clog up the essential gas pipe! Stick to jacketed bullets--you simply can't shoot out that barrel, anyway.

In this way, with a lot of hard thinking, Heckler & Koch have succeeded in building a very sleek, compact pistol in a very potent caliber. Not only that it is the smallest of the three guns reviewed here--it is by far the most compact, all-steel 9mm police pistol I have ever handled. Also, it is the only truly ambidextrous handgun of the triad. It must have been with left-handed officers in mind that HK put the magazine release into the heel of the grip. Something new even here: you have to push the button forward -- much faster, and more comfortable, than poking it back.

Due to very low position of the barrel, the large grip angle of 110 degrees (same as in DA revolvers) and the clear color-marked sights, the gun points well and shoots even better, in rapid-fire as well as in slow-fire. In spite of the trigger, I am tempted to say, because I prefer it crisp. The P7 trigger is of the long, creepy variety--some might like it. I don't. In the trials, the HK brainchild was the last to pass the reliability test, but the production series doesn't give much occasion to complaints--unless you forget to keep that gas cylinder and piston clean, that's a critical point.

The Suabian engineers have certainly caught the spirit behind the original concept of a new police sidearm. But apart from some traditionalists who disliked this "new-fangled piece of ironmongery", there have also been some well-informed skeptics who warned that the P7 will require shooters to retrain their reflexes. This was said with a view to German police instruction which is known to be cursory (to say the least) when it comes to shooting. So, is this brilliant piece of innovative engineering what German police really need?

No doubt, this question, and other raised in looking at the P5 and P6, will be answered in the next few years because all three pistols are being introduced. As I said, the outcome of the trials left it up to the individual police authorities which gun to pick for their respective areas or forces. The criteria for these decisions are obvious in some cases, in others they can be inferred. The Suabian state of Baden-Wurttemberg where the Walther and Heckler & Koch works are located picked the Walther P5 for their regular police, and the HK P7 for the SWAT teams. Rhineland-Palatinate demonstrated friendly neighborhood in taking the P5. Schleswig-Holstein, the Jutland home of the Sauer factory, picked the SIG-Sauer P6, to nobody's surprise. They were joined by the majority of other states (Northrhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Saarland, Hamburg, Bremen, and West Berlin), and by most federal police forces, such as the Border Force, the BKA (the West German FBI), the Customs, and the Railway Police.

Two state police forces held another round of internal trials, asked their officers' opinions, and then opted for the Heckler & Koch P7. These are the Alpine state of Bavaria, and Lower Saxony on the shores of the North Sea. They were joined by the GSG 9 (the federal SWAT unit of Mogadishu fame) and several of the plain-clothes Special Patrol Groups where officers are allowed to choose their own sidearms. That pattern of preferences is clear enough, I dare say.

But wouldn't you think that half a dozen years after the end of the federal pistol trials, every Bulle (German slang term for policeman) has got his new semi-auto. They haven't. Left-wing terrorism has virtually died of old age, but the guns that had been called for to fight it are still being distributed. Of course, new sidearms for 185,000 officers represent a massive chunk (about 50 million dollars) of the Internal Security Budget, and the endemic spending economies didn't speed things up. But that is not the only problem marring the official picture of optimism and progress.

First, and most serious, is that confidence problem. The very first reaction to the result of the tests was that of the Police Officers Union demanding that a revolver be added to the list of options. And several Special Patrol Groups that used to carry revolvers decided to hang on to their wheelguns; not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence in the new semi-autos! It is a shame that the S&W revolver Model 547 in 9mm Luger didn't come out in time for the German trials--that might have been an interesting contest.

Second, and hardly less damaging; the ammo problem. Even the staunchest semi-auto fans among the experts and in the police forces had been stressing that a 9mm pistol could only be a successful police sidearm if special police ammo were introduced. But in 1975, in the run-up to the trials, new legislation entirely banned hollow-point bullets and related ammo from use in handguns! The excellent police ammo developed by two German manufacturers, MEN "Quick Defense" and Geco "Action," is sold abroad, but may not be used in West Germany. As if that were not enough, the state of Northrhine-Westphalia introduced a new "police issue load" with an FMJ bullet and a powder charge reduced by ten percent allegedly to reduce the danger of ricochets! Independent tests have shown convincingly that the only ammo to achieve what the police authorities had been aiming for is the legally banned, real police load with a full charge and a hollow-point bullet. The "Westphalian special' just increases the risk of malfunctions.

Third, the magazine capacity problem. Before the trials, the firepower of six-shooters was denounced as insufficient by some "experts," but they (and the authorities) pronounced themselves perfectly happy with the eight-round mags of the new semi-autos. Meanwhile, they are being overtaken right, left and center by brandnew magazines, no doubt helped by the U.S. Army pistol trials. Even the manufacturers of the German police pistols have jumped on that bandwagon--too late for the German police!

Fourth, the holster problem. A number of police forces, state and federal, used the opportunity to introduce new holsters. These are, quite often, similar or identical to the Heckler & Koch design: functional quick-draw holsters for concealed or open carry. But several forces adopted for their new guns holster models that are as bad as, or even worse than, the "suitcases" and "widow-makers" (as police called them) of unhappy memory.

Last, and by no means least, is the training and practice problem. This is highlighted by two tragic incidents that made the headlines recently. In Bavaria, a plain-clothes police officer shot a youth at point blank range with his Heckler & Koch P7. Might that indicate that the novel characteristics of this gun overtax some (if not all) police? On the other hand, the second incident happened with the "conventional" SIG-Sauer P6: a Hamburg policeman unintentionally killed a suspected car thief, again at point blank. Instead of relying on the double-action trigger, he had cocked the hammer of his pistol, and then "suddenly the shot went off!" Switching police handguns requires intensive instruction and practice--and quite obviously, a number of forces fail in that. Insiders reckon that by far not enough time has been allowed in the training schedule for this critical change of equipment.

On balance, the new German police pistols are well designed, excellently made guns. But they still have to prove their worth as police sidearms. In my view, the Heckler & Koch P7 is the only true police pistol of the lot, but possibly too advanced for the sad realities of German police training. The more conventional Walther P5 and SIg-Sauer P6 may better reflect the needs of many coppers, but in essence they are just modified service pistols. Thus, their adoption by the majority of the German police continues an unfortunate tradition in European police armament, and contradicts the original aims of the search for a new, "typical" police handgun.
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Title Annotation:selecting German police pistols
Author:Harke, Heinrich
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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