The Postwar Walther P-38 and P-1
By David Tong
As the first double-action service pistol issued, the WWII Walther P-38 led a somewhat checkered life. While pundits lauded the hammer down carry mode for its supposed safety and speed into action, the exigencies of the late WWII period meant that the pistol’s quality was often substandard. Late wartime production versions had the slave labor workforce further sabotage its quality and finish.
Included in these problems were firing pins that were improperly heat-treated, causing accidental discharge when the safety lever was rotated to “safe” and the hammer fell onto the firing pin, whose integrally-machined locking shoulders sheared. The P-38 did not have the more modern oversized drum that interposed between the hammer and the firing pin, such as was incorporated by the later Smith & Wesson and Beretta designs. This problem was prevalent enough that even my post-war instruction manual stated that one should lower the hammer with one’s thumb when rotating the safety downward and to always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
There were also quality issues with the slide. The P-38 uses a pair of captive recoil springs located within the frame rails. These parts, along with the thin section slide (due to the dropping block locking system) caused slide fractures adjacent to the locking lug cuts after normal levels of training shooting, possibly due to excessively hard heat treatment or poor metallurgy in the late war years.
The trigger pulls on nearly every military P-38 I’ve handled is execrable. The DA stroke is roughly 16 pounds and stagey, while the SA pull is usually between 6-7 pounds with notable creep. Having trigger pulls that heavy against a 32 ounce weapon does not aid accuracy.
The pistol’s reloading speed is hampered by a heel type magazine release. This was a marked disadvantage compared to the P-08 Luger it replaced, which had the conventional left side button. It was not uncommon for the era however, as magazines in military use are limited in number and it was a method of sure retention of a scarce resource.
The U-notch rear sight is located by a sheet metal “dust cover” that also covers the loaded chamber indicator pin and its spring. These are somewhat flimsy and I’ve seen several examples bent to the point that they would not hold the rear sight in correct windage alignment. Fortunately these are inexpensive to replace. The front sight is a thin Patridge type angled smooth blade of 1/10” width. While there is plenty of light available around it and it does not obstruct one’s target, it is both slow to acquire and hard to see in fading light.
While the pistol is theoretically somewhat less ammunition and debris sensitive than the P-08, it is poorly balanced (muzzle light), points badly and is nowhere near as accurate as the match grade Luger. In addition, the pistol was designed to reduce the amount of raw materials and machining time required for production, compared to the P-08, by about a third each. While some 1.2 million P-38s were built during the war, it remained labor-intensive, as well as requiring a fairly high degree of precision.
The Soviets overran the Zella-Mehlis factory and removed the blueprints, machinery, tooling and many of its workers. Due to the lack of funds after the war, the German army (Bundeswehr) found it impractical to fund R&D to replace the design. Existing stocks of WWII pistols were supplemented by newly manufactured examples built in French occupied territory through 1946 at the former Mauser factory. Ironically, these pistols were then issued to former Wehrmacht NCOs who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion, serving in Indo-China and elsewhere.
Fritz Walther started a new plant in Ulm / Donau, Germany in anticipation of government orders, due to the Cold War. Series production began in 1956. At first marked P-38, these were later marked “P-1” to designate it as the first issue pistol for the Bundeswehr, and were issued to military and police units.
The postwar pistols differed in several respects from the World War II classic. There was a minor change to the firing pin shape that helped prevent breakage when the hammer dropped onto it. The finish reverted to a fine (but not bright) polished blue for all steel parts on earlier examples of commercial P-38s, but was later replaced by a sandblasted blue for later commercial and all P-1 pistols adopted by the German forces. The grips became checkered plastic, which was another lightening change from the original WWII striated sheet steel or heavy Bakelite items.
The most significant change was the replacement of the original steel frame with one made of aluminum alloy. This was a blessing and a curse. It was more comfortable to carry, but it also proved fragile and there are reports of frames cracking due to recoil in heavy use adjacent to the locking block seat. The weight savings from the original steel framed pistol (34 ounces) was six ounces. Neither the frame’s soft anodized surface finish, nor its basic metal hardness proved to be longwearing. A modern hard-anodized surface can harden the wear surface of even a hard aluminum alloy to several thousandths of an inch in depth. It also aids in corrosion protection.
Barrel construction changed from the one-piece design to a two-piece version involving the use of a hammer-forged rifled liner press-fitted to the outer barrel contour. The barrel features a so-called “fully-supported” chamber, in that the case head is completely surrounded by steel, with just a slight clearance cut for the extractor on the left. Said chamber is also of commercial grade standards, not oversized as in some popular newer designs.
Even if said P-38 would feed modern, rounded-profile JHP bullets, the alloy frame’s feed ramp and soft anodizing do not resist impact well, pretty much limiting their use to either round nose lead or FMJ bullets. No +P ammo is permissible, as it didn’t exist at the time. Even seldom-shot examples of the alloy framed guns show the impact marks of the dropping block onto the frame rails as it unlocked.
I once owned a commercial 1966 manufacture P-38. As a matter of fact, it was the very first handgun I ever owned. It taught me a lot of holding “hard” to keep the sights from moving with the lousy trigger pull, as well as learning to reload ball ammo, for I wasn’t old enough to buy the ammo.
My P-38 was also ammunition sensitive. Built under peacetime conditions and finished pretty well, one would have hoped it would have fed other ammo besides round nosed full metal jacket, but it did not. I had two factory polished blue postwar commercial magazines with the pistol and neither fed even ball with the surety of the P-08.
The lack of muzzle end barrel support inherent in the design also meant that it was no more intrinsically accurate than the wartime pistol. All barrel “support” was located on the frame’s surface, as the rear of the barrel slid back and forth under recoil.
If the alloy frame was not generously lubricated, the steel barrel and slide reciprocation would quickly open tolerances and generate looseness, further degrading accuracy. Sadly, most examples are fairly sloppy due to this.
In those far more innocent and pleasant years, my assistant Scoutmaster took me to an L.A. area gun show and purchased the pistol for me. I was all of 16 and my parents had full knowledge of this event. I owned this pistol until my mid-20s, before I apprenticed in Jim Hoag’s shop and fully understood the brilliance of the Browning 1911 design.
I sold that pistol long ago and frankly didn’t hanker after another one. I am glad that I started out with it, due to its light recoil and inexpensive appetite, but its obtuse trigger pulls and internal complexity meant it was pretty far down the list as something I’d want in a nightstand drawer.
Fast-forward some 35 years. A 99% example of the pistol, not a recent import, probably for commercial purchase came into my local gun emporium. Also manufactured in 1966, it came in a plain cardboard box numbered to the gun with a spare magazine and steel slotted cleaning rod. It also contained the original 25 meter test target and the instruction manual.
It is finished in matte blue for the steel parts and the same semi-gloss soft anodizing for the frame. As a result, I didn’t expect too much.
Upon further exam with more experienced eyes, the Walther Company did modify the action somewhat. It featured what may be the first use of a firing pin safety, thus providing far better drop safety than the original 1937 design. This is the usual spring loaded round plunger that is disengaged (pushed upward) by a lever when the trigger is pulled. This system is used by virtually every new pistol design in the past 30 years.
Not only that, this was the first P-38 I’d ever handled that has a crisp, 4.5 pound trigger pull in single-action mode. Take up is approximately 1/8”, while reset distance is similarly good. The DA pull remains heavy and stagey. About 5/8” of the way through the stroke, a hard point is reached with what feels like 50% more pressure needed to complete the trigger pull, which requires another ½” of pull. Since the number of Walther gunsmiths isn’t exactly thick on the ground here in the U.S., having at least the decent SA release right from the box is a good thing.
Noted firearms expert and historian Peter Kokalis has probably written the seminal work on the postwar P-38 and P-1 pistols. Having read his work for over 30 years, he has always struck me as the most well researched American author of 20th Century martial small arms history and technology.
His monograph is available online. In that work, he stated that in 1967 several engineering changes were made that bear out my above observations.
Three things I didn’t know about include the slide was increased in width by 1.5mm in 1967, to strengthen it adjacent to the locking block lug cuts. The locking block was strengthened by a combination of material and heat-treating. In addition, the cocking serrations were increased in length some 12mm to ease racking the slide. These newer guns can be recognized by the slide protruding beyond the height of the cocking serrations.
Moreover, in later years a hardened steel hex bolt was installed across the frame above the trigger guard, to provide a steel surface for the locking block to impact under recoil. In addition, the installation of a small hex screw within the trigger guard locked the hex bolt into place within the frame.
Both these seem like Band-Aid fixes, rather than simply improving the metallurgy of the base metal. Some commentators have opined that drilling the frame through to install the cross-bolt also weakened the frame. Suffice to say, the aluminum frame did not prove as durable as most other service pistols.
The pistol’s alloy frame was still not made of the latest 7075/T6 aerospace-grade material, such as used in our 1960s-era M16 rifle, even at the end of its production. The effect of what very little shooting was done with the pistol in its 30+-year life was evident in the usual impact peening by the locking block. I would estimate that, including the very limited shooting I performed, this pistol had fired fewer than 100 rounds in its lifetime.
While I am not completely conversant about the exact manufacturing methodology used, the pistol appears to have been machined from bar stock. There are Blanchard, or surface ground surfaces present everywhere, or circular cuts left unfinished, especially on the frame. No attempt was made to remove these tool marks, but they do not affect function.
The slide stop and safety/de-cocking lever appear to be investment castings, but the pistol is refreshingly free of MIM, or plastics (save the grips). The cocking piece/sear and the locking block are left in the white, while the grips retain in place a number of thin clothespin type springs that seem endemic to modern German pistol designs.
In preparation for shooting the piece, I made sure that all moving surfaces were liberally lubricated to prevent wear and avoid opening the relatively tight tolerances between the barrel, frame and slide. This was done using Tetra Gun Grease and Oil, known for its high shear strength. I used the grease on the locking block impact points on the frame, as well as the main slide/frame rails, and the oil everywhere else. Use enough that the alloy’s wear areas are covered liberally, but not so much that it runs off due to gravity and you’re good to go.
Taking the piece out for a very brief shooting session proved that, due to its nearly unused condition, it was fairly accurate for a rack-grade service pistol. Shooting Sellier & Bellot 124 grain hardball, I was able to place my first eight hand held rounds into a 4” circle at 20 feet. It was obvious it would do better than that if bench tested. The original test target shot at 25m shows an approximately 4.5”, eight-shot group; again, not so hot compared to the P-08 pistol it replaced.
There was one failure to feed and this was a partial chambering of a round using the factory magazine in new condition. My suspicion revolves around the extractor claw shape and its relatively stout spring. The extractor’s profile is square and possibly some subtle rounding of the bottom of the claw’s hook, so that case rims can easily slip under it during feeding, would help. The second eight rounds functioned without a hitch, so perhaps shooting it in would also help.
The P-38 differs from most auto pistols in that it has a left-side mounted extractor and a right-side ejector. While this should enable the piece to send empties over one’s left shoulder, about four of them hit my baseball hat instead. This was something I remembered my first one did, as well. Recoil was moderate, as with any full sized service pistol firing standard pressure 9x19mm loads, even in this relatively lightweight arm.
I did hand-cycle some old style Remington 115 grain JHP and Winchester 115 grain Silvertip JHP cartridges through it and it seems to feed them just fine. However, even their rounded noses and narrow hollow cavities did slightly nick the soft frame feed ramp after just two magazines. I did not attempt shooting with them, as I did not want to damage this nearly mint condition pistol.
Due to the alloy frame, lightweight recoil springs and thin barrel not proofed for high-pressure ammo, it is not advisable to shoot modern +P in any P-38 or P1. Stay with either 115 or 124 grain ball and enjoy the piece as a historic plinker.
The lasting significance of the P-38 shows today in the U.S. military’s Beretta M9 pistol. That company essentially copied the dropping block short recoil system, open-topped slide configuration, double-action trigger with its right side external trigger bar and the slide mounted de-cocker/safety lever. Beretta did add some front-end barrel support by lengthening the slide and equipped it with the de rigueur double-stack magazine. However, if one strips both pistols one can clearly see the parentage.
Just as with its progenitor, the operating system makes the pistol quite wide and consequently not a real good choice for legal concealed carry, even though at 1-1/8” it is no wider than a G19. The earliest Beretta 92's issued to the military also had some slide separation failures. However, this was quickly resolved by different alloys and heat treatment.
Later developments of the P-1 include the P-4, a shorter-barreled pistol that looks nearly identical. However, its spring-loaded switch acts solely as a decocking lever and not as a safety and the sheet metal mechanism cover mentioned earlier was eliminated.
The P-5 was meant as a thorough product improvement. The barrel was fully enclosed by the slide and it no longer required guide rails in the frame. The slide stop and decocker were combined into a single lever on the frame’s left side and the sights became the now ubiquitous three-dot type. However, in service both pistols were not as durable as was hoped for by the manufacturer and few remain in service today. The last Bundeswehr issue of the P1 ended in 1990.
Author’s Postscript: If anyone knows the whereabouts of a Mr. Grant Wright, formerly of Reseda, CA and Assistant Scoutmaster of Troops 101 / 210, Great Western Council, I would greatly appreciate it if you would contact me. I hope he’s still with us.
Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.