History’s Great P38

Germany’s Groundbreaking WWII Sidearm Set The Stage
For Generations Of Double-Action 9mm Service Pistols

By Robert Kolesar

Germany’s legendary Luger (Pistole Parabellum 1908) was never a great service pistol. Difficult to manufacture, the Luger P08 needed extensive hand fitting and assembly by a highly skilled workforce. It wasn’t particularly reliable and was vulnerable to stoppages from dirt and foreign matter.

In 1938 the Wehrmacht adopted a new Walther-designed pistol, designated Pistole 38. It was a locked-breech, double-action 9mm employing several very innovative features which would become common in later postwar 9mm pistols. These included a loaded-chamber indicator, a large open-top chamber, a decocking safety lever, external slide release and a double/single-action trigger allowing safe carry with a loaded chamber.

Produced using inexpensive sheet-steel stampings, the P38 set the standard for future military sidearms. Over a million were made by Walther, Spreewerk and Mauser before the war’s end. After WWII, the German Bundeswehr wanted the combat-tested P38 as its NATO service pistol. The Walther P1, adopted in 1957, differed from the older P38 primarily by having an aluminum frame and strengthened slide. Another 600,000-plus P1s were manufactured by Walther in their new Ulm factory and sold to other countries as well as the Bundeswehr (which used the P1 until the mid-’90’s). The P38/P1 is truly one of the great military sidearms of the
20th century.

Bob’s typical wartime P38 was the German standard-issue service
pistol throughout the war, replacing the legendary P08 Luger.

A service pistol should be easily stripped for daily cleaning and care in a
combat zone. The P38 (above) passes the field-strip test. The 1911A1 stripped
(below) for maintenance. Parts interchangeability is somewhat better than the
P38, with little or no fitting necessary. Some replacement P38 parts may need
slight fitting to function.

A Likely Candidate

I had a “mid-WWII” P38 sitting in my safe I’d been wanting to shoot. I’d never shot a WWII-vintage P38 before, so this would be a treat. To make things more interesting, I threw in a 1943-era Colt 1911A1 for comparison and range work. The Mauser-contract P38 was also built in ’43 (wartime code: byf 43). The bore was, unlike a lot of older pistols, pristine with no pitting. All parts were matching. Grips were original brown Bakelite that weren’t chipped or cracked.

The P38 breaks down easily into three sub-assemblies (frame, slide, barrel/locking block) and is easily cleaned and inspected. On German pistols, all major parts like the slide and barrel are serial-numbered to the frame. Unlike the earlier P08 though, P38 magazines aren’t serial numbered to the gun — they’re marked with a subcontractor code only. In addition, WWII magazines will usually carry different Waffenamt inspection codes, depending on where they were produced (postwar mags will have the Walther banner).

If you own a Beretta 92/M9 or carried one in the military, a P38 will feel very familiar. Its open-top chamber makes clearing malfunctions easy and uses the same type of barrel locking block, decocking lever and safety. Unlike the Beretta, the magazine only holds 8 rounds and is held in place with the heel-type magazine release on the butt, typical of most European pistols. The grip configuration is comfortable and the pistol is very controllable when shooting rapid-fire strings.

I put together a range package of ammo, targets and spare magazines for both the 1911A1 and the P38 and headed for my favorite shooting spot in San Antonio. Over the course of three days my partner and I shot in excess of 200 rounds through both pistols. Not a whole lot, but enough to get a pretty good idea of what a wartime P38 was like and how it stacked up against a GI Colt 1911A1.

A GI Colt 1911A1 (top) and Bob’s P38 were both used for shooting and comparison.
Both were manufactured in 1943. The P38 did quite well in comparison with
America’s classic fighting pistol.

The P38 slide shows “byf 43” (below) denoting a Mauser contract pistol. Note the fixed
takedown lever and the external slide stop, features seen on later hi-cap “Wondernines.”
The P38, however, employed an 8-round single-stack magazine.

Easy Does It

Something to think about when shooting these old-timers is the wear and tear you’re putting on an older collectible. When they were made, steels were softer and heat treatment wasn’t as advanced. Pistols weren’t designed — or expected — to shoot hundreds of rounds in weekly practice. For instance, the 1911A1 slide wasn’t completely heat-treated until the very end of the war; slide cracking can and does happen with the older guns. Postwar replacement GI slides that were used in armory rebuilds are far stronger. Crack an original slide on a collectible 1911 and you’ll have ruined a piece of history that can’t be replaced. Keep the round count down and save the heavy practice for a newer commercial .45 that will take the pounding. On my ’43 Colt I have a spare GI “hard slide” from the 1950’s I use when I want to shoot my old veteran. I’d also replace the recoil spring with a new 16 pounder on any older GI gun.

The same goes for the WWII P38s. Slides can crack easily, so if you have a minty all-matched P38, you might want to reconsider shooting it. Also, be careful about what ammo you use if you do decide to. Surplus GI M882 9mm ball is very warm — about +P+ pressure. The old Walther design wasn’t designed to handle ammo this hot. Standard US-manufactured commercial ball is the way to go. Actually, the best solution would be to buy a postwar surplus P1 and use it as your range gun. There were lots of slightly used to almost-new P1s imported into the US a few years back; many are still available at still-reasonable prices. The German Army surplus P1s are superb shooters. A mismatched WWII pistol is also a good option, due to the lack of collectibility. And it’ll shoot just as well.

I used mild GI commercial match ball in my P38; these pistols need lots of lube on the contact surfaces to function reliably. Same for a 1911. A touch of oil on the P38 locking block is also a good idea before shooting. I put new recoil springs in both pistols — they’re cheap and I keep several spares on hand. Remember the pistol you’re going to shoot may not have had its recoil spring(s) replaced since it was built.

Here, the P38 hammer is cocked and its safety/decocking lever is in the
“off” position (above). Moving the lever downward (below) drops the hammer
safely on a live round and makes the pistol “safe.”

The P38’s large open-top ejection port makes malfunctions rare. If
one does occur, clearing it is quick and easy. The later Beretta 92
series copies the open-top slide and P38 locking block.

Shooting Impressions

I shot the P38 at 20 yards and found its accuracy to be quite good. Like most service pistols I’ve shot, this one shot high (almost a foot). The older pistols were all zeroed for a 6 o’clock hold, usually at 10 meters (33 feet). I was shooting at 20 yards (60 feet). Couple that with different ammo and bullet weight (the match ball load was 115 grains, European 9mm is 124) and it’s understandable why there could be such a discrepancy in point of impact vs. point of aim. The P38 grouped almost as good as a match pistol though. Fixing the point of impact would be an easy task. A higher front sight could easily have been installed by an armorer at depot level due to the fact it’s drift-removable. We experienced no malfunctions with the P38. It was a pleasure to shoot.

Compared to the bone-stock GI 1911A1, the P38 was more accurate, had a superior (and lighter) trigger, better, easier-to-see sights and simpler field stripping. The loaded chamber indicator worked well, is quick to use and would be an advantage in darkness. There are times when a press-check might be better (like shooting at the range, or chamber checking just after loading), but the Walther-designed indicator (a thin steel rod that protrudes slightly above the hammer when the chamber is loaded) is nice to have. A quick touch gives reassurance you’re still good to go while searching for partisans in an abandoned factory in Smolensk. No need to shift your shooting grip.

The P38 has another advantage over the old P08, as well as the 1911A1 … the DA/SA trigger is as easy to use for a lefty as for the other 85 percent of the population that’s right-handed. Since I’m hopelessly left-handed, this is a great feature. Hammer down on a loaded chamber with the safety/decocker lever up (off) would be my preferred form of carry. It’s as fast and safe as a good double-action revolver. Of course a cocked and locked 1911 is as fast or faster than a DA auto, but not for
a lefty.

I cleaned my veteran P38 thoroughly and put the original recoil springs back in after shooting. No need to shoot it again. It’s a piece of firearms history that will remain in the safe, ready for new photos or a quick wipe-down. I have a nice German police surplus P1 I just bought that’ll pick up the slack when I want to hit the range again. 

The P38’s European-style magazine butt release is disparaged by most American shooters,
but can be manipulated quickly with practice. It also works better when wearing gloves,
which is a good thing during the bitter-cold climates the P38 was used in.

Front view of the receiver. Note the serial number. It should match the
frame and slide if you’re looking for a collector-grade P38.

Tale of the tape: Eight rounds at 20 yards (above) with the 1911A1 using GI .45 ACP
match ball. Not the most accurate pistol, but it gets the job done. A better trigger
and sights would help, but rack-grade GI .45’s were never noted for match-grade accuracy.
(below): Best group with the P38. After figuring how high the pistol shot above point of
aim, good groups were easily obtained using 9mm commercial match ball.


Asian Axis Partners

The Type 14 (top) and Type 94 (bottom) Japanese service pistols. Both use
the 8mm Nambu round. The Type 94 is considered by many to be “the worst
service pistol ever designed.”

Type 14 Nambu accuracy wasn’t too bad, with this group shot at 15 yards holding
about 18″ below the bull. This was the first magazine Bob fired where no malfunctions
occurred! Usually the trigger group would pop down and halt his string until the
pistol was reassembled.

While working on this article I was loaned a couple of Japanese Nambus (a Type 14 and Type 94) and a small amount of 8mm ammo for some photos and a very quick range session. Shooting a Nambu was a real eye-opener. Neither pistol would be on a short list of handguns I’d want in combat. Both were early-war production. Assembly, fit and finish were not as bad as the late-war guns, but still crude. Both pistols had seen hard use, but were still in functioning condition, with surprisingly good bores and no rust or corrosion internally. But the sights were terrible, ergonomics poor and triggers on both pistols heavy, long and gritty. These were definitely not designed to be shot in competition.

Another issue with Nambus (especially the Type 94) is the complicated disassembly. Putting them back together is worse. A quick strip and clean would not be recommended during a lull in the fighting, unlike a .45 1911 or Browning Hi-Power. The Type 94 (called by some “the worst-designed service pistol of all time”) also has the nasty habit of possibly firing if the exposed sear bar is touched. Just handling this pistol could be hazardous. I decided not to shoot the Type 94 because of the complicated takedown procedure, the sear-bar issue and my shortage of obsolete, hard-to-find 8mm Nambu ammo.

That left the Type 14, which looks vaguely like a Luger. I was able to put almost 40 rounds downrange with it. I was surprised at the accuracy; after discovering where the point of aim was (it shot about 18 inches high at 15 yards). I was able to shoot a couple of decent groups one-handed slow-fire. I would imagine this pistol was probably shot the same way by its original WWII owner. I had several failures to feed and the trigger group had the disconcerting habit of dropping down during strings of fire more than once, disabling the pistol. I finally got through two complete magazines without any malfunctions though. Recoil was light, less than what a standard-velocity duty load would be in a 4″ .38 Special revolver. Actually it was fun to shoot, if you can get past the malfunctions, lousy trigger and tiny sights. 

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One thought on “History’s Great P38

  1. Steve V

    Very nice article. My father brought back several P38s from Germany after the war and I was raised with one at my side. The late war P38s may have been assembled with slave labor and the firing pin/decocking lever shoulders are a known weakness, prone to fall when most needed. Consider replacing these parts with post war parts for any WWII shooter.

    Reply

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