Walther PPK .380 ACP Pistol

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff


Walther PPK .380 ACP
Walther PPK. Photo courtesy of Walther USA.

The Walther PP (Police Pistol) of 1929 was the first modern double action (SA or DA) autoloading pistol. It is a compact service pistol about the size of a Glock 19, but thinner, chambered for the .380 ACP (9x17mm) cartridge with a 3.9" barrel and a seven shot magazine. It was also available in .32 ACP (7.65x17mm) with an eight-shot magazine and in .22 LR. The PP became very popular in the years before the Second World War and was widely adopted by European police departments, as well as civilian shooters. The German Army was impressed by the double action auto concept and wanted a service pistol for the more powerful 9x19mm Luger cartridge embodying the same principle. The result was the Walther P-38, which served as the German service standard pistol throughout WW II. The PP was also pressed into service, principally with the Luftwaffe and as a substitute standard with various Axis military organizations.

The Walther double action PP and P-38 were generally recognized as superior designs compared to the various revolvers and SA semi-automatics used by the Allies during WW II and after the war most nations, including the NATO alliance, adopted the 9x19 cartridge in some sort of double action autoloading pistol as their service sidearm. Post-war, the Soviet Union ripped-off the PP design and adopted it as their standard service pistol in the form of the Makarov or model PM (Baikal IJ-70 in export form). They also adopted a Russian version of the .380 cartridge using a .36 caliber (approx. 9.3mm) bullet called the 9x18mm Makarov. (Western .38, .380 and 9mm cartridges actually shoot .35 caliber bullets.) Ballistically, the 9x18 and .380 are essentially identical and both operate at moderate pressure that allows them to be used in blowback actions.

The Walther PP remained a popular pistol through all of this, but there was a pressing demand for a smaller, lighter version of the PP for concealed carry purposes. Walther responded to this demand in 1931 with the PPK (Polizeipistole Kurz, or short police pistol). In Europe, the PPK served in the role that the Colt Detective Special .38 snubby revolver performed in the U.S. As a historical footnote, Adolf Hitler committed suicide using a PPK pistol and a cyanide capsule in his Berlin bunker at the end of the war.

The PPK became the archetypical pocket .380 (also available in .32 and .22) and it is still popular and still in production. Initially it was built in Germany, then after the war in France, later in West Germany and today the PPK is manufactured in the U.S. under license from Walther. It uses the PP action in a pistol with a shorter 3.3" barrel, shortened slide, shortened grip frame and six-shot magazine in .380 ACP. In the 1960's, the PPK pistol was popularized by the late Ian Fleming as the sidearm issued to fictional secret agent James Bond after Her Majesty's Secret Service forced him to abandon the .25 Beretta pistol he initially carried in Fleming's books due to its lack of stopping power. (If we remember correctly, Bond was issued a 7.65x17mm PPK.)

American shooters, inculcated with the mystique of the .45 ACP from an early age, are often surprised to discover that the .380 is considered a serious "stopper" cartridge in Europe. In this the Europeans are closer to the truth than we are, as the .380 with efficient JHP bullets closely approximates the stopping power of the 2" snubby .38 Special revolver shooting equally efficient JHP bullets. Both are the equal of the old .45 ACP shooting military type FMJ loads. Police shooting statistics compiled by Marshall and Evans show that all three of these cartridges/loads achieve about 64-65% one shot stops in actual shootings.

The Walther PP, PPK and PPK/S (a PPK with a longer PP type grip introduced to circumvent the loathsome U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968) are streamlined pistols that employ a blowback action with a fixed barrel, single stack magazine and an exposed hammer. Fixed sights are mounted on top of the slide.

We are convinced that part of the continuing popularity of Walther PP series pistols is due to their streamlined, slender lines; they are good-looking pistols that point naturally. Their single stack magazines limit their cartridge capacity, but make them thin and easy to carry or conceal.

The Walther PPK is an accurate little pistol, since the barrel does not tilt, slide backward and then return to battery, as in a Browning short recoil operated action. On the other hand, blowback actions require very heavy slide return springs, which make racking the slide difficult, especially on small .380's like the PPK.

The PPK can be fired with a light, single action trigger pull by manually cocking the exposed hammer for the first shot. After the first shot, the autoloading action reloads the pistol from its magazine and leaves the hammer fully cocked for subsequent shots. In this mode, the PPK operates like any single action auto, such as a Colt 1911. Alternatively, in an emergency, the pistol can be fired double action, meaning by trigger cocking, as with a double action revolver. A long, hard pull on the trigger cocks and releases the hammer for the first shot.

The safety is mounted on the left side of the slide. The safety is ON when the safety lever is down and OFF when the lever is up. This is the opposite of the way the safeties on most American pistols operate. The PPK's thumb safety also serves to lower the hammer if firing is ceased before the magazine is empty. Pressing the safety lever down when the pistol is cocked lowers the hammer onto a hammer block and locks the trigger and hammer so that the gun cannot be fired until the safety is raised to the fire (up) position. Modern PPK pistols also incorporate an automatic firing pin block safety in addition to the manual thumb safety.

The Walther DA design concept has been widely copied, as it allows safe carry. The lowered hammer rests on the hammer block and cannot be forced by dropping the pistol, even if the safety is off. The firing pin block keeps the firing pin from moving until the trigger is pulled back. The long DA trigger stroke is inherently safe and the gun is thus safe to carry with the safety off, just like a double action revolver. (Double action revolvers do not have manual safeties.) The safety lever, although it can be used to lock the action with the hammer down (rather pointless, actually), is most useful as a de-cocking lever. Alternatively, if you do not trust the safety lever to lower the hammer, the pistol can be manually de-cocked, like any exposed hammer pistol. Either way, keep the pistol pointed in a safe direction when you lower the hammer.

Our test pistol is the all stainless steel, naturally finished version of the PPK (see photo above). This is an exceptionally handsome little pistol, ideal for concealed carry in a fanny pack or small holster. (James Bond favored a shoulder holster.) Because it is small and flat, it carries comfortably. Its streamlined shape is unlikely to catch on clothing.

Stripping the pistol for cleaning is a simple matter and requires no tools. First, empty the chamber, remove the magazine and make sure the safety is ON. Then pull down the front of the trigger guard, which pivots on a pin at its rear, and displace it laterally just enough to rest on the frame, keeping it down. Pull the slide all the way rearward until the rear of the slide is clear of the frame rails and lift up the back of the slide enough to run the slide forward off of the fixed barrel. The barrel also serves as the guide rod for the slide return spring, which can then be removed from the barrel. This is as far as you need to disassemble the pistol for cleaning and maintenance. Reassemble in reverse order.

Specifications

  • Model: Walther PPK
  • Action: blow-back autoloading
  • Caliber: .380 ACP
  • Magazine capacity: 6 cartridges
  • Barrel length: 3.3"
  • Sights: Fixed rear notch and front blade
  • Trigger pull weight: DA = 13.4 lbs.; SA = 6 lbs.
  • Overall length: 6.1"
  • Width: 1"
  • Height: 3.9"
  • Weight: 21 ounces
  • 2010 MSRP: $626

We fired the PPK with Winchester, Remington and handloaded ball ammunition. These used a 95 grain FMJ bullet at a catalog MV of 955 fps. There were no malfunctions. However, German and French produced PPK pistols were designed to feed round nose FMJ bullets and often do not cycle properly with ammunition loaded with aggressive JHP bullets. Recent US production PPK's (made for Walther by Smith & Wesson under license) features a longer and smoother feed ramp designed for JHP ammo.

Unfortunately, S&W managed to screw-up the manufacturing of the 70+ year old Walther design. (S&W could screw-up a wet dream.) All S&W PPK and PPK/S pistols manufactured by S&W from March 2002 (when they started building PPK's under license) until February 2009 (when they finally admitted the problem) are potentially defective and unsafe. The hammer blocks are defective and the pistol may fire without the trigger being pulled when the manual safety is deactivated, or when the manual safety is used to decock the pistol. See the "Product Safety Information" portion of the S&W web site (www.smith-wesson.com) for recall details.

Our test pistol was equipped with small, Patridge style, fixed sights. (The rear sight can be drifted left or right in its dovetail to crudely adjust windage.) These allow a decent sight picture, but are not as visible, even in daylight, as the Siglite night sights on a SIG P238 pistol we were testing alongside the PPK. On the other hand, the PPK's single action trigger mode was lighter (about six pounds, which is still much too heavy) and crisper than the 8.5 pound single action trigger of the SIG. This, plus its fixed barrel design, allowed the PPK to shoot smaller bench rest groups at 25 yards than the P238. When we concentrated, our PPK's five-shot, 25 yard groups measured about three inches.

On the other hand, Walther PP and PPK pistols are notorious for their horrible DA trigger pulls, which are gritty and exceptionally heavy. A 13.4 pound trigger pull on a 1.3 pound pistol must represent some ultimate trigger control challenge. At the range or on the street, we would always cock the pistol manually for the first shot unless there was an emergency requiring an instantaneous, contact range, first shot.

One interesting point was that all of our Guns and Shooting Online test shooters felt that the blowback operated PPK subjectively kicked harder than the lighter (under 16 ounce) SIG P238 with the same loads. This we attributed to the difference in the operation of the actions, blowback vs. short recoil, for the PPK was not only heavier, it had a somewhat longer and more comfortable grip.

To summarize, the Walther PPK action is a versatile design that allows carrying the pistol safely with the hammer down and the safety off. The first shot can be fired single action after manually cocking the hammer, or by trigger cocking the pistol (double action); subsequent shots are always fired single action with a short, comparatively light trigger pull. The "backward" safety tends to confuse American shooters weaned on American pistols, so we used it simply to drop the hammer, not to lock the action. As has already been explained, it is not necessary to use the PPK's safety for safe carry. The PPK is an iconic pistol from the 1930's that remains popular today. It looks good, shoots good and has filled a real need for unobtrusive concealed carry for some 80 years.

NOTE: This review is mirrored on the Product Reviews page.




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