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P.38 Masterpiece or misfit? Part II--The postwar era.

In Part I (4/20 issue), Kokalis examined the many wartime variants of the type. Now he details its lengthy postwar career.

Some very interesting handguns went into and came out of World War II. Americans overwhelmingly think that the M1911A1.45 ACP was the best hand-gun before, during and after the war.


Certainly, with regard to caliber, it was. But as fielded during those years, its grip tang was too short and constant hammer bite made it unpleasant to shoot. The Browning High Power also had a venerable history during World War II and thereafter for quite some time. Because of its large magazine capacity it was a documented favorite of the Waffen SS.

Technologically, the most advanced handgun to be fielded during the war was the innovative German JP Sauer & Sohn 38(H), which unfortunately was chambered for the rather anemic 7.65mm (.32 ACP) cartridge. During Part I of this article, we discussed in considerable detail the P.38 during World War II, which replaced the svelte, but finicky, P.08 Luger.

Total World-War-II production of the P.38 by three manufacturers--Walther, Mauser and Spreewerk--was about 1,190,500. At the time of its introduction, the P.38 was a very modern single-action/double-action design with a manual safety combined with a decocking device and it was chambered for the still quite popular 9x19mm Parabellum round. The P.38 was fielded in substantial numbers throughout the world by many nations for almost half a century after the war.

Germany expended the greatest bulk of its manpower and material on the Eastern Front. Tremendous quantities of P.3.8s, manufactured by Walther, Mauser and Spreewerk, from the earliest variants to the last, were swallowed up in the inferno against the Red Army.

When the war ended, many East European nations found themselves with substantial inventories of captured P.38 pistols. In the West, smaller, but still significant, quantities of P.38s were also stockpiled. From both the East and West, P.38 pistols found their way into law enforcement and military organizations throughout the world.

Captured, and usually refurbished, P.38s were fielded from mid-1945 to the early 1990s in fairly substantial quantities by the military and police units of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria. Limited use of World-War-II-era P.38s was made by Afghanistan/Pakistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Chad, Chile, China, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Republic of South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Yugoslavia.

The French Come Marching In

On 20 April 1945, production of German issue "SVW45" code P. 38 pistols ceased at the Mauser factory ("SVW" was the German manufacturer's code for Mauser that replaced the "byf" code at the end of 1944). The Mauser factory was located in the French occupational sector of Germany. In complete contravention of the previously agreed-upon Allied regulations, the French immediately instructed Mauser to continue production of the P.38, which occurred on 10 May.

Manufacture of the P.38 resumed, using components on hand that were ready for assembly or required only minimal machining. Only after these components were exhausted was available raw stock put to use. The Mauser code, "SVW45" was retained and then changed to "SVW46" at the beginning of 1946. Many of these P.38s were sent to Indochina and ironically ended up in the hands of members of the French Foreign Legion who had served in the Wehrmacht during the war.

These are interesting and desirable pistols with some unique features. On the right side of the slide will be found a French five-pointed star proof mark, which indicated a pressure/proof of "Ordinary Smokeless Proof (Powder "T") Pressure."

Collectors have noted 11 different finishes for the French P.38s, but the two most often associated with this variation are a phosphate finish, ranging from light gray to very black and a blue/black or black oxide finish. French P.38s are frequently referred to as "Grey Ghosts" by collectors.

There are two types of grip panels most often associated with the French P.38 pistols. The first is the glossy black plastic grip panel found on the German issue "SVW45" P.38s. This is the least desirable to collectors. More common are the stamped sheet metal grip panels, mostly matching the finish of the pistol, that were introduced by Mauser just before they terminated German issue production.

French "SVW45" and "SVW46" pistols in excellent condition now sell for $800 to $1,000. Substantial numbers of them were imported by Interarms before it closed its doors forever. For many years Interarms was the official U.S. importer for postwar Walther firearms.

Postwar Germany, with four occupation zones (American, British, French and Russian) was strictly controlled with regard to armaments under the Four Powers Agreement. This protocol forbade the German production of weapons, as well as the formation of any German armed forces or centralized police force.

Each of the occupying countries interpreted the agreement to suit its own ends, as evidenced by P.38 production under both French and Soviet authorities. The first armed groups in the four zones were decentralized police organizations armed with an eclectic mix of allied small arms and German weapons, such as the K98k bolt-action rifle, the Walther PP and PPK pistols and the P.38.

In the American zone, all captured German weapons were destroyed, except for a few P.38s, and the police units were equipped with the small arms of the U.S. Army. In 1949, the American, British and French zones were united as the Federal Republic of Germany and a new military force was authorized and formed in 1956.

By 1957, the P.38 was accepted and World-War-II-era pistols were cannibalized and rebuilt, with the swastika defaced and the pistols refinished. By the middle of the 1950s, German police units were issued new P.38 pistols with aluminum alloy frames that were manufactured by Walther at U1m-Donau.

The Walther factory was completely destroyed by the end of World War II and the Red Army confiscated all of the machinery. Escaping to the west, the Walther family established a modest facility in U1m-Donau on the Danube River in the early 1950s.

Fritz Walther secured a contract with the newly reestablished Bundeswehr for 100,000 so-called P1 (Pistole 1) in 1954. It was the standard sidearm of the Bundeswehr until at least 1994. Commercial sales commenced in 1957 and production by Manurhin in France also began that year.


Sales of the P1 were also made to Austria, Norway, Portugal, the Republic of South Africa, the Pakistani air force, the army of Ghana, and the armies of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. It was manufactured in 9mm Parabellum, 7.65x25mm Parabellum (.30 Luger) and .22 LR rimfire.

At first, these pistols were manufactured with steel frames, but quickly a black anodized aluminum alloy frame was introduced into series production. Walther was a pioneer in the development of alloys applied to handgun design.


Equipped with this frame, the P.38/P1 was 6 ounces lighter for a total weight, empty, of 28 ounces (the steel frame P.38 weighs 34 ounces, empty). In addition to the aluminum alloy frame, several other differences were incorporated into the P1. The shape of the firing pin was changed and the safety system was altered.


The further to reduce production costs, the barrel, formerly machined from one piece, was fabricated in two steps--first a hammer-forged liner with the lands and grooves and then the barrel's outer housing. By 1958, further small changes were made to the safety, slide and hammer, followed by major changes to the whole pistol in 1967.

As high-pressure ammunition had occasionally resulted in cracking in the area of the slide that holds the locking block, the slide thickness was increased by 1.5mm (.059") and a 2mm (.079") reinforcement rib was added to the upper slide rail between the bridge and breechblock.

In 1968, the slide's cocking serrations were widened from 24mm (.95") to 42mm (1.65 inches) to facilitate manipulation with gloves. This new slide is referred to as the "thick" type, as opposed to the earlier "thin" slide.


Production for the commercial market commenced in 1971. Further changes were instituted shortly thereafter. The barrel pin retaining the liner to the outer housing was replaced by a flange. The barrel's muzzle was altered and the liner protruded to form a step-like end. Finally, in 1976 a hexagonal steel crossbolt was added to the alloy frame to inhibit wear in the locking area as a consequence of design work on the Walther P4.

I have two specimens of these interesting pistols and they exhibit several significant differences, as they represent both early and late production. Interestingly, the black plastic, checkered grip panels are quite similar to those of the original Walther HP model. The only difference appears to be a slightly narrower incipient thumb rest on the left P1 grip panel. The steel components were provided with a phosphate finish.

My early specimen was manufactured in April 1958. The right side of the slide carries the date "4/58," German proofmarks and a NATO stock number. The left side of the slide is marked with the Walther banner and "Carl Walther Waffenfabrik U1m/Do P38 Cal. 9mm" and the last three digits of the serial number. With the exception of the aluminum frame, grip panels, completely round firing pin and the slide rollmarks, this specimen is very little different from the P.38.

My second specimen was manufactured in October 1982 and displays a number of important differences from earlier production series P1 pistols. The right side of the slide now bears only a proofmark. The left side of the slide carries the Walther banner and "P1 Kal.9mm 10/82" with the last three digits of the serial number and a four-pointed star.

When the safety mechanism was changed, this affected the disassembly procedures. It was no longer necessary to retract the slide completely before removing it. Just remove the magazine, make sure the chamber is empty, engage the safety, push the barrel against a hard surface only slightly, turn down the front locking lever, push forward on the plunger and the locking wedge will be cammed into its disengaged position, and then move the barrel/slide group forward and off the frame.

Push the locking plunger forward and this will force the locking block out of its seat under the barrel. This unlocks the barrel from the slide. Pry off the sheet-metal dust cover on top of the slide to expose the firing pin, loaded chamber indicator pin and the thumb safety's internal components.

Use a small screwdriver to remove the grip panels. Disassemble the magazine. No further disassembly is recommended. After cleaning and lubrication, reassemble in the reverse order. Make sure the hammer is fully forward. Press down on the ejector, disconnector and hammer release as you move the barrel/slide group rearward. Turn the slide's locking lever back up to its horizontal (locked) position.

The sights were changed after 1973. The front sight blade was made noticeably wider and has a white dot. In addition, the open U-notch rear sight was widened and became almost a square-notch. There is a white square directly under the notch.

Unfortunately, the white dot on the front sight has been placed too high on the blade. There were several different front sight heights available for the P1. Further, there were also three different rear sights. If the rear sight is unmarked, it is centered. If it is marked with an "R", the notch is slightly offset to the right. Likewise, a rear sight marked with an "L" is offset to the left. The sight radius is 7.1 inches (180mm) in all instances.

The P.38 was a battle-proven, reliable series, but the verdict on the P1 is somewhat different, as we shall see. Changing to an aluminum frame improved its handling characteristics, as it is now somewhat muzzle-heavy. The perceived recoil has not been noticeably increased by the weight reduction of 6 ounces.

The accuracy potential is no better or worse than any other military/police sidearm with fixed sights and is more than adequate for the average operator. In general, you are well advised to employ only round-nosed FMJ bullets (loaded in brass or steel cases) in military service pistols of this era. There have been several attempts to produce hollow-point projectiles with plastic plugs that increase feeding reliability. They have been especially popular in law enforcement circles in Germany.


Unfortunately, comprehensive tests at the U.S. Army's Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the Presidio clearly demonstrated that much of the time the plug failed to separate from the bullet prior to impact with the target.


In the late 1970s, Interarms imported small quantity of late P1-type pistols marked with the Walther banner and "Carl Walther Waffenfabrik Ulm/Do. P38 Cal. 9mm" on the left side of the slide and the serial number, Interarms sunburst logo and nitro proofmark on the right side of the slide. This very desirable variation sells for approximately $800 today in excellent condition.


About five years ago, a substantial quantity of surplus West German P1 pistols were imported by Inter Ordnance of America L.P. and others. They were declared surplus by the German government as a consequence of the Cold War drawdown and by the adoption of the Heckler & Koch USP. They sold for $349.95 each, including one magazine, a cleaning kit and a police flap holster, and most were in excellent to almost new condition.


Subsequent to their initial importation, the BATFE declared the Walther P1 to be an "Implement of War," as apparently some of them were former Bundeswehr issue and no more could be imported. Unfortunately, most had rather large importers markings on the underside of the barrel, but today they sell for $400 to $550.

In 1974, what was clearly fakery during World War II became reality. As a consequence of the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich and establishment of the SEK (Spezialeinsatzkommando, formerly known as the Sondereinsatzkommando--special response units of the German state police forces), which is the state police equivalent of the German Federal Police unit known as GSG 9, Walther developed the P38-K. SEK units vary in composition from state to state and are located in major cities noted for high crime rates.

The P38-K has a 70mm (2.76 inches) barrel with the front sight integral with slide's front bridge, and with many other characteristics that distinguish it from the short-barreled P.38s supposedly favored by the Gestapo and Waffen SS. The P38-K was developed between October of 1972 and May of 1973.

The slide's sheet metal top cover and cartridge indicator pin at the rear were deleted. The hammer spur was shortened. The decocker system of the Walther PP Super was incorporated. Thus, there is no manual safety and the slide-mounted lever merely drops the hammer if it was cocked. In all other regards, the P38-K is a late-type Walther P1.

Series production commenced at the beginning of 1974 with serial No. 500000 and was terminated in 1978 after approximately 2,600 P38-K pistols were produced. A few hundred were supposedly imported by Interarms with their logo, but the specimen I have is devoid of any importer or Interarms markings.

The front face of the trigger is serrated. There is a single white dot on the front sight and a white square directly under the rear sight's open square notch. The rear sight can be adjusted for windage zero. Very few P38-K pistols were imported to the United States, and on the rare occasions when one can be located for sale, it will sell for at least $1,600.

From the P38-K was derived a pistol that was used for a very short period only by the German customs and border police. After World War II, the police units of the Lander were principally armed with Walther PP and PPK pistols chambered for the 7.65mm (.32ACP) cartridge.

Eventually,, the BMI (Bundesministerium des Innern--federal ministry of internal affairs) procured both the 9x19mm Parabellum Swiss SIG 210-4 and Spanish Astra 600 and subsequently the Walther P1 to replace the largely ineffective Walther pocket pistols. The Walther PP Super, chambered for the unique 9x 18mm Ultra cartridge was also tried briefly, but found wanting. The federal police units wanted a faster first shot capability and were attracted to the decocker system used first on the Walther PP Super and then on the P38-K.

The P1 barrel was shortened by 15mm (.591"). The locking block was made of a stronger material than previously and to its recess in the aluminum alloy frame was added a steel insert. Small changes were made to the sights. In all other regards, what became known as the P4 was identical to the P38-K.


The French company of Manurhin produced 500 of the P4 variation for the West Berlin police. A total of approximately 7,300 of these pistols were manufactured at Ulm, of which Interarms initially took only 200 and these were marked "P38/IV" and provided with the commercial proofmarks of Ulm to include the antler, eagle over "N" nitro proof and the code of the acceptance year (two capital letters).


The P4 was withdrawn from service after only a short time and most were sold to Hammerli in Tiengen, refurbished and sold on a European commercial market. The specimen I own is marked on the left side of the slide with the Walther banner and "P4 Kal. 9mm 1/76" (indicating manufacture in January of 1976) and the last three digits of the serial number.

The police marking on the right side of the slide was milled out and filled with a clear epoxy. The "BMI" rollmark on the right side of the frame was crossed out. The spine of the Walther banner P1 magazine is marked "12/75", probably indicating that it was the magazine originally issued with the pistol. The pistol was imported by Interarms, as evidenced by the box it came in, which carries the serial number. Although it's not common, excellent examples of the Walther P4 sell for only $600 to $700.

During the 1970s, Interarms imported a substantial variety of Walther handguns, including the PP, PPK and PPK/S pocket pistols and a wide range of P.38/P1 variations to include a .22 LR rimfire P.38 that is now difficult to locate and will fetch up to $1,900 if found in excellent condition. Only a few thousand were produced and production terminated by the mid-1970s as it was not a commercial success.

Around the late 1960s, Interarms imported a very small quantity of P1 pistols marked "P38" and equipped with checkered wood grip panels very similar to those sometimes found on commercial versions of the Walther HP (Modell Heeres Pistole--Model Army Pistol) sold in Germany during the late 1930s.


This very early P1-type, without the hexagonal frame reinforcement pin, today sells for $700 to $800. In 1986, at the behest of Interarms, a very limited quantity of P1-type pistols was fabricated to commemorate Walther's 100-year anniversary. The left side of the slide was roll marked, "P38 100 Jahre" Walther banner "1886-1986" with the right side of the slide carrying the nitro proof, serial number, Interarms sunburst logo and "MADE IN GERMANY".


These pistols were packaged in a blue leatherette case with red velvet lining and two magazines, one of which is high-polish blue. These sets sell for $800 to $1,000, on the rare occasion they are offered for sale.

As previously mentioned, Norway was one of the nations that adopted the Walther P1 pistol. It proved to be a very demonstrable failure. After World War II ended and the German Wehrmacht left,. 13,200 P.08 Luger and P.38 pistols stayed behind. The 4,000 P.38s in this group saw hard usage by the Norwegian army during the 1950s and 1960s.

Lack of spare parts lead to a steady reduction in the Norwegian P.38 inventory to only 2,300 by January of 1953. Spare barrels were in especially short supply. From 1958 to 1965, the Norwegian army purchased barrels and slides from Walther.

By 1960, the Norwegian army decided to adopt a new pistol. After tests were conducted, the Walther alloyframe P1 was adopted. The first delivery was to the Norwegian air force in 24 June 1966. Again subjected to heavy use, slides cracked close to the ejection port, together with severe metal wear close to the breech locking points.

Because of a soft feed ramp and the use of Geco ammunition with a truncated-cone bullet, failures to feed were all too common. Sometimes the barrel liners blew out. In spite of this, the P38N (Norwegian contract) stayed in service until the late 1980s.

Less than 30 were imported to the United States by a prominent P.38 collector. The specimen in my collection was one of 152 that went to the Norwegian Air Force War Academy. These pistols can be identified by the slide markings. The left side of the slide carries the Walther banner followed by "Carl Walther Waffenfabrik Ulm/Do." Over "P38", a Norwegian crown shield with the letter "N" inside the shield and "Cal. 9mm".

The right side of the frame and slide are double-marked with "413" inside a Norwegian crest. Very seldom encountered, when found for sale these will bring over $2,500. It's interesting to note that the original price was about $33.

The Walther P.38 concept reached its apotheosis and termination with the P5. Development of the P5 commenced in 1975 after a significant number of German police departments indicated they would prefer something other than the P1. Walther designers took what they felt were the best qualities from both the P.38 and the PP Super and fused them into what was supposed to be the "perfect" handgun.


Competition included the SIG SAUER P225 (P6) and Heckler & Koch's PSP (P7), this latter often referred to as the "squeeze cocker."

An experimental production run was made in February of 1976 and delivery to government agencies commenced in November of 1978, with delivery to the commercial market starting in January of 1979.

With a lightweight aluminum alloy frame and the steel hexagonal frame reinforcement pin of the later P1 pistols, other features were those of the PP Super and P4. There is no safety lever and a combination decocking lever and slide hold-open lever is mounted on the frame.


There is no loaded chamber indicator pin and the guide rails found on the P.38 for the barrel were deleted. There are four independent safeties. (1.) The firing pin is locked in place at all times until the instant of firing. (2.) The hammer is equipped with a safety notch into which it drops when released by the decocking lever. (3.) The hammer has a hole at the bottom of its front face that rests opposite a lug on the head of the firing pin and consequently, the hammer cannot make contact with the firing pin until the instant of it forward rotation. (4.) If the slide is not fully forward into the battery position, the trigger bar remains disconnected from the trip lever. A compact model was introduced in 1987 with a shortened slide, frame and barrel.

In addition to German police units, the P5 was adopted by the Dutch police, Portuguese army and several Scandinavian and South American countries. Substantial quantities were also exported to the United States and Nigeria. Three thousand P5 Compact pistols were adopted in the 1980s by the British army as the Pistol L102A1 for issue to the Royal Irish Regiment.

The P5 is still in use by the Dutch police, who reportedly have never been satisfied with its reliability. It was essentially abandoned by Walther in the late 1980s, when apparently fantasizing that they might snatch the US JSSAP quest for a new pistol to replace the M1911, the Walther P88 was developed using the short recoil, locked breech method of operation pioneered by John Browning. Of course, they never really had a chance at that prize and the real irony is that the pistol selected, the Beretta Model 92 (which was adopted as the M9), uses the tilting block method of operation taken right out of the P.38.

During World War II, the P.38 proved to be a modern, excellent design that was clearly superior to the P.08 Luger. However, after the war Walther quickly went to a lightweight aluminum-alloy frame, as before the war they had experimented extensively with lightweight frames in the PP and PPK series.

However, these pistols were chambered for relatively weak cartridges--7.65mm (.32 ACP), 9mm Kurz (.380 ACP) and .22 LR rimfire--and could be successfully, and reliably, operated by means of un-locked pure blowback. The 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge used in the P.38 was quite another matter and required locked-breech recoil operation with a frame of substantial strength.


The aluminum alloys of the 1950s were not of the same metallurgical integrity as those eventually developed for the firearms industry a half century later. When subjected to heavy and constant use, such as by the Norwegian armed forces, aluminum-framed P.38/P1 pistols crash dived.

In my opinion, the post-World-War-II-era aluminum alloy P.38/P1, while not a disastrous failure, was most certainly not a resounding success. The 6 ounces removed from the P.38 proved to be an engineering mistake of significant magnitude.


The P.38 Pistol, Volume One--The Walther Pistols 1930-1945 by Warren H. Buxton. Copyright 1978. ISBN 0-87833-303-7. Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544-2350. 328 pages with numerous black & white photos. Recently reprinted--$80.

The P.38 Pistol, Volume Two--The Contract Pistols 1940-1945 by Warren H. Buxton. Copyright 1984. ISBN 0-96-140240-7. Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544-2350. 247 pages with numerous black & white photos. Recently reprinted--$80.

The P.38 Pistol, Volume Three--International Distribution Post 1945--Addendum to Volumes 1 and 2 by Warren H. Buxton. Copyright 1990. ISBN 0-96-140240-1-5. Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, N.M. 87544-2350. 270 pages with numerous black & white photos. Recently reprinted--$80.

Walther--A German Legend by Manfred Kersten. Copyright 2001. ISBN 1-57157-174-4. Published by Safari Press, Inc, P.O. Box 3095, Long Beach, California 90803. 400 pages with numerous full color and black & white photos.

Walthers P.38 Pistol In Norway and The Norwegian Ulm Contract by Per Mathisen. Copyright 2005. ISBN 82-994456-3-9. Published by Bohmische Forlag, Korvaldveien 10, N-3050 Mjondalen, Norway. 442 pages with numerous black & white photos, drawings and charts.

Walther Pistols, A Historical Overview, Models 1 Through P99 and Copies by Dieter H. Marschall. Copyright 2000. ISBN 0-9614024-4-X.Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544-2350. Soft cover, 130 pages with numerous black & white photos and line drawings. $22.

Website: bright shining example of what an Internet firearms forum should be, but almost never is. This one is moderated by a group of knowledgeable individuals very much dedicated to the P.38 and other Walther handguns, who are responsive, courteous and honest. Highly recommended to all those interested in the P.38, both beginners and advanced collectors alike.
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Title Annotation:P38 pistol
Author:Kokalis, Peter G
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:4E
Date:May 20, 2010
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