Gunsmithing the Walther P.38 & P1 part 2: the P.38 and P1 may look identical, but that doesn't mean all parts interchange, especially those in the slide.
In fact, there are probably more P.38s and P1s in the U.S. now than ever before. Recently there's been a significant surge in imports. Companies such as Century Arms International and J&G Sales, whose ads you see frequently here in SHOTGUN NEWS, seem to continually offer new shipments of these classic handguns to the public.
In addition to complete handguns, outfits such as Numrich Gun Parts have been busy as well importing vast quantities of parts. Most of these parts are for the later P1s and have been stripped from pistols that were demilled in Europe. For gunsmiths, this parts bonanza has been especially valuable.
Keep in mind that the P1 went out of production in the early 1990s. Having a good supply of parts for a factory discontinued firearm is a rare and wonderful thing for a gunsmith.
While the P.38/P1 is without a doubt a durable, reliable handgun, like any firearm it'll require the services of a gunsmith from time to time. As these pistols get older, that need for servicing will certainly increase.
Because of this, it's worthwhile to take a look at some of the gunsmithing issues related to these handguns. By the way, there are a number of relatively limited production P1s that are rarely if every encountered. My comments are related only to the common, garden-variety 9mm P.38/P1s you'll normally run into.
Before we get into that, I want to make a comment or two about collectable P.38s. P.38s, like Lugers, have become quite popular with collectors. If you find yourself working on a collectable, note I said "collectable", P.38, then you don't want to do anything that would harm or reduce its value as a historic and collectable handgun. You wouldn't want to install a P1 barrel on a rare SS-marked P.38, for example. If work has to be done on a gun like that, you want to avoid using modern, postwar parts.
On the other hand, if you have a well-used, possibly refinished "beater" that's being shot regularly by the owner and is not a collectable, then that's another situation entirely. In cases like that, I would be much more comfortable using postwar P1 parts to keep the gun in service and the owner happy. The point here is to use caution and to avoid compromising the collectability and value of any nice World War II P.38.
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the interchangeability and fitting of barrels to the P.38 and P1, with special emphasis on headspace and how it was measured. I also touched upon some of the mechanical differences between the various generations of this pistol, as well as changes and adjustments to the sights.
With this last part of the series, we'll look at the slides and how they differ, as well as the interchangeability of parts in the slides. Due to the design of these pistols, if a gunsmith is called upon for servicing or repair work, it'll probably involve the slide.
The frames on the P.38 and P1 are virtually identical, except for the fact that the early postwar P.38s and the P1s had frames made of an aluminum alloy. Also, the later P1s had a reinforcing steel pin in the frame to prevent cracking. Other than that, the frames and frame parts are virtually identical. I've never had any problem using any P1 frame parts in P.38s.
There are two weaknesses in the slide that date from the wartime P.38s. The first is the firing pin and cartridge indicator cover. This sheet metal stamping is held in place in the top of the slide by "legs" that extend outward and engage under cuts in the slide.
As the top cover ages and as it is removed and put back in place time after time, these legs weaken. They tend to not press outward enough to engage properly. Also, the surface or top part of the legs may be worn or rounded over. If the top cover is not secure it may during the violent movement of the slide when the pistol is fired be lost or thrown from the gun. When this happens it's generally a disaster!
The P1 top cover is built a bit differently than the one used on the P.38. I have used some of these later covers on P.38s when I just simply could not locate an earlier version or when the owner didn't want to pay for this older and more expensive part. The basic difference is the lack of "legs" on the front end of the newer part.
The new part relies on the flaring of the body just behind the front as well as a pronounced shoulder that extends down and engages a matching cut in the slide. Admittedly at first glance it would not appear to be that much more secure than the old style, but it is.
One of the tricks to keeping your slide from going "topless" is to stay away from hot ammo that slams the slide back and subjects the top cover to needless stress. Standard velocity factory loads as well as similar handloads are all that you really need in these handguns. Anything more is just subjecting them to unnecessary stress.
The other thing you can do is avoid taking the top cover off the slide unless it is absolutely necessary. I wouldn't take it off any of my guns unless I have to. Every time you remove it you work the steel on the top cover and weaken it or compress it just a bit. The old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies in spades to the top cover!
When the top cover does come off, not only do you lose the top cover but several other internal slide parts as well. This would include the rear sight, the firing pin lock, the firing pin lock spring, the firing pin retaining pin, and possibly the cartridge indicator pin and spring.
If you're lucky, this happens while you're shooting on a nice clean concrete surface at the local range and you're able to find all those little parts. If you're not so lucky, it'll probably happen while you're standing in a grassy field and those parts are lost forever!
By the way, back years ago in the '50s and '60s, many gunsmiths would solve the problem of wayward top covers by installing a pin that ran through the slide and the top cover. If you ever run into a P.38 that has a pin holding the top cover in place, it's not factory original. It was just an old-time repair. For the record, I would not encourage that type of repair today. Unless you have a totally trashed out, super beater P.38, those World War II pistols are too valuable to alter in that way. It would be much better to just install a newer P1 top cover.
Removal of the top cover on either the P.38 or P1 can be a bit tricky. After removing the slide from the frame, insert a small screwdriver from the bottom side of the slide and place the blade under the front hook of the top cover immediately above the breech face. Now just push up and at the same time pivot the screwdriver blade forward. This should free the top cover.
The second area or point of weakness relates to the safety and firing pin. The most typical problem here is the safety breaking. In use, the safety blocks the firing pin. The problem comes when the pistol is cocked and the safety applied. When that happens, the hammer is released and falls forward, striking the end of the firing pin. The pin in turn strikes the safety. If you do that enough, the safety can sometimes crack or break.
If you pull the safety out of the slide, the first thing you'll notice is the number and extent of milling cuts in the cylindrical body. The darn thing looks like a piece of Swiss cheese! It's a marvel of engineering and machining but it's also a major weakness.
This is especially true of the older P.38s. The body of the safety can crack and break due to repeated strikes by the firing pin, as well as possible metal fatigue and work hardening. By the way, this applies to the Walther PP and PPK as well.
If you try to use a P1 safety on the P.38, you'll run into some problems. First, the newer one is not cut for the same style firing pin. The old firing pin will just not work in the new safety and the new firing pin will not work in the old safety.
One of the unusual features of the P.38/P1 is the location of the extractor. It's on the left side of the slide. This is unlike most other pistols such as the Browning High Power or the 1911 or even other Walther models where the extractor is located on the right side of the slide. Consequently the Walther P.38/P1 ejects to the left. I don't know why the pistol was designed this way. The handgun could easily have been set up to extract and eject to the right. I'm sure there's an interesting story there!
The extractor is under a lot of stress and occasionally one will fail. I've seen extractors with the hook broken or chipped. I've also seen extractors where the post or pin at the back of the extractor body that extends into the slide has been broken. This then allows the extractor to be pulled from the slide and often lost.
Aside from that post, the only thing holding the extractor in place is a spring-loaded plunger. If the plunger spring collapses, rusts, or there is a buildup of crud in the spring and plunger hole in the slide, there may not be enough pressure from the plunger to hold the extractor in place.
It's a good idea occasionally to remove the extractor, plunger and spring from the slide. Clean out the hole in the slide as well as the individual parts. A little preventive maintenance here can help eliminate future problems. By the way, you can use P1 extractors on the earlier P.38s with no problems.
While the extractors can be interchanged, many of the other slide parts cannot. If you were to take apart World War II P.38 and postwar P1 slides, you'd find a number of differences.
We've already looked at differences in the top covers. With the top covers off and the rear sights removed, you'll immediately notice that the firing pin retainers are different and located in different spots in the rear sight slot. The World War II P.38s had a smaller diameter firing pin retainer. Because of this, you cannot swap out these parts.
The next item of importance is the firing pin. The older P.38 firing pins are flat while the new P1 firing pins are round. As you would guess, these will not interchange. Also, keep in mind the firing pin slot in the safety is milled to match the firing pin. A P1 safety will not work with the older flat firing pin and the P.38 safety will not work with the newer round P1 firing pin. The other part relating to the firing pin that won't swap out is the firing pin block. All of these parts must be used in the guns for which they were designed.
Aside from the extractor, top cover, extractor plunger, and extractor plunger spring, there are several other parts that can be swapped out. The cartridge indicator or loaded chamber indicator pin can be swapped, as well as its spring. The firing pin springs can be swapped though the firing pins cannot. Finally, the rear sights can be swapped.
You can swap out the entire slide assembly. However, if you do you'll need to check your headspace. That could change dramatically. In that regard it's no different than swapping out barrels.
Speaking of barrels, keep in mind that it's possible to assemble a P.38 or PI without the locking block and have it fire! If that happens, you can count on major damage to the gun and a darn good possibility of serious injury to the shooter. Always check every P.38 and P1 to ensure the locking block is in place before you shoot it.
As you can see, it's a mixed bag when it comes to using P1 parts in the P.38. Some of the most critical parts such as the safety, firing pin, firing pin lock and firing pin retainer are slide specific and can't be swapped. That's really unfortunate as some of these parts are getting harder to find. Fortunately things get a lot better when looking at the frame. All the frame parts will interchange.
I've seldom run into problems relating to any of the frame parts. From time to time you might see problems develop with the dual recoil springs. Not too long ago a fellow I know was shooting his P.38 when the slide basically jammed and stopped moving easily back and forth on the frame.
From the feel of the slide it seemed as though there might be something dragging on it or stuck between it and the frame. Sure enough, when the pistol was disassembled the shooter found one of the recoil springs had collapsed and was pressing against the inside of the slide. That was very unusual. I'd never seen anything like that.
While you'll probably never have a recoil spring fail so dramatically, you may well see them compress and shorten with age and use. These springs are vital for the proper functioning of the pistol and must be in good condition. Not only that, since the recoil springs are mounted on either side of the frame, the two springs should match perfectly. You don't want one to be shorter or longer, weaker or stronger than the other. Generally if you must replace one, replace 'em both.
My impression is that most damage to the recoil spring occurs when someone tries to remove it from the frame. Removal is easy to do but it must be done properly. The trick is to use the blade of a small screwdriver to compress the spring behind the spring guide. Just insert the blade into the spring coils behind the rear of the guide pin and pull the spring to the rear, compressing it as much as possible. You can now remove the guide pin and then carefully allow the spring to expand forward. Maintain control of the spring throughout this process. Once expanded without the guide pin in place, it can then be easily taken out from the slot in the side of the frame.
The most typical problem I've seen relating to the frame of both the P.38 and P1 is just standard finish wear. With the P.38's steel frame, that's not really a big deal, as like any standard steel part it can be blued or Parkerized.
The aluminum frame of the P1 is a bit more of a problem. The frames were originally anodized. While a few gunsmiths may offer anodizing, most don't. Refinishing of these frames is therefore limited to some type of paint or bake-on finish. That's not necessarily a problem as finishes such as Lauer DuraCoat are extremely tough and durable.
Aside from broken parts, the next most common problems I've seen have been related to feeding. More often than not, the problem has been caused by either a bad magazine or bad ammo. Some of the old World War II magazines have seen a lot of use and abuse. The bodies are often dented or mashed and the feed lips can be bent or worn.
Currently there are lots of P1 magazines available that are often virtually unused. If you don't need to have one with World War II markings, I would just suggest you go with one of these newer magazines. A good magazine can often solve a world of problems. Currently there's a good supply of P1 magazines and prices are very attractive. Within the last few months I've seen P.38/P1 magazines go for as little as $12 each, which is a darn good price.
I've had customers get upset when told their magazines needed to be replaced. They seemed to think a magazine should last forever. That's not the case. Magazines, no matter who makes 'em or for what gun, are expendable. They wear out and have to be replaced. That's just a fact of life.
Keep in mind the German military ammo for which this pistol was designed was loaded with a bullet that weighed about 124 grains and had a full metal jacket. Sometimes folks that load their own ammo can get a little too creative and try to get the guns to run with all sorts of strange bullets and loads. Sometimes these work and some times they don't. The point here is it doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem with the pistol. I've found it'll generally work quite well with the ammo for which it was designed as well as most good commercial ammunition.
While some guns might have problems with handloads or some of the more unusual commercial offerings, most P.38s and P1s will handle a variety of different types of ammo. Because of that and the advances and developments in bullets, this handgun is actually much more versatile and effective now than at any point in its history.
Back in the '60s there were more aftermarket accessories available for the P.38 than there are today. With grips or stocks, the only outfit I know of that can give you anything other than replicas of the original World War II plastic grips is Numrich. Numrich recently started offering some walnut grips. I got a pair and put 'em on my favorite P1 and really like 'em. It's unfortunate that there are not more commercial grips available.
There have been some P1s offered commercially years ago in .30 Luger, as well as a few factory .22 rimfire conversion units. Both are rarely if ever seen by the average person. I have read of a few interesting conversions or modifications such as installing a heavy barrel or building a one of a kind .45ACP P.38. These are interesting but not all that practical or doable. For most of us, this'll always be just a standard 9mm handgun and a darn good one at that.
If you are interested in a handgun with history, character, and a uniqueness all its own, I would urge you to consider adding a Walther to your collection. One of the late model P1s with a reinforced frame is a darn nice handgun that can give you many years of enjoyable shooting.
The next project will be building a replica U.S. Model 1903A4 sniper rifle. I've picked up a totally trashed out '03A3 and with a little work, I should be able to make it into a replica of the last Springfield bolt-action sniper rifle. This rifle saw use in World War II, Korea, and even into Vietnam. It should be a fun project. Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!
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|Date:||Jul 10, 2012|
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