Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cold War Warriors: The Walther P1

Walther. For firearms enthusiasts, the name conjures up James Bond, World War II, and fine German engineering. Founded by Carl Walther in 1886, the company is one of the oldest firearms manufacturers in the world, and to this day makes some very fine weapons. I could write a few paragraphs about Walther and its contribution to firearms design and history (and maybe I will at some point), but not now.

Our subject this month is the Walther P1.

Pictured above: the Walther P1. This one has been upgraded with the "hex" frame reinforcing pin.

The P1's predecessor is the famous P.38. Though it needs no introduction, for the benefit of the uninitiated I'll go into some detail here. The P.38 has its roots in pre-war Nazi Germany. The Germans were looking for a military side arm to replace the legendary P.08 Luger pistol. See, the Luger, fine pistol and incredible example of Old World craftsmanship as it was, simply was too labor intensive and therefore too expensive to produce. And honestly, when it comes to winning battles and wars, pistols really have a small role to play (unless you’re Sergeant York, but he had balls the size of cantaloupes, and the marksmanship skills to go with them, which makes him the exception that proves the rule), so equipping your armed forces with hand-fitted, expensive pistols doesn’t make much sense. Especially when you’re gearing up to conquer Europe, and maybe the world (which thankfully didn't turn out so well), you’ve probably got better things you could spend marks on.

Accepted by Germany in 1938 (hence the designation), the P.38 offered some significant advantages over the old Luger. First, it was of course cheaper to manufacture. Secondly, the P.38 was one of the first double-action semi-auto pistols fielded to a military force. This meant that a soldier could carry the P.38 with a round in the chamber, hammer down, safely, and all he had to do to get the pistol into action was pull the trigger. Granted, it was a longer, heavier pull than the single action, but it was simple, and in a battlefield situation, Simple is Good. Of course, after the first double-action pull, the pistol ejected the spent cartridge and loaded a fresh one from the magazine automatically, and the subsequent rounds were all fired single-action. Like the Luger, the P.38's magazine held eight cartridges, and fired the 9mm Luger cartridge. Though the P.38 never really replaced the Luger, the Germans sure tried, because they made over a million of them from 1939 to 1945 in three different factories.

A late war P.38, made in the Spreewerke factory. P.38s were produced at three different locations during the war.

Thanks to the Allies, Germany went 0-2 in World Wars. By late 1945, Germany was divided, its infrastructure was in shambles from the Allied bombing campaigns, and its manufacturing capabilities had been completely obliterated. Out of the ashes and with a lot of Allied help, the Federal Republic of Germany (also known as West Germany) arose. By the mid 1950s, the world was deep into the Cold War. Times had changed: where once the Soviets had been allies (of convenience, perhaps, but allies nonetheless), they were now the threat. West Germany, as an essentially new country, needed many things, and with the prospect of a billion Commies pouring through the Fulda Gap at a moment’s notice, a competent military force was somewhere near the top of the list. Somewhere on that list for equipping and fielding that military was the need for a new sidearm.

East German police clash with West German over a girl who dared cross the border.  The officer up front has a P.38/P1.

Which finally brings us to the Walther P1. In a most un-German like move, instead of completely reinventing and over-engineering the wheel, the Germans went with what they already had. The Walther factory had been destroyed during the war, but the patents, know-how, and people were still around. The P.38 had served the Wehrmacht well, so why couldn’t it serve the new Bundeswehr equally as well? Walther retooled and modified the venerable warhorse, giving it a lighter aluminum alloy frame vs. the all-steel frame of the P.38. This “new” pistol was given the moniker P1 in 1963. In addition to the aluminum alloy frame, the new P1 had larger, improved sights and a few other minor tweaks under the hood. The P1 was manufactured into the 1980s, with some additional upgrades along the way in the form of a beefier slide (known to collectors as the “fat slide”), and the installation of a strengthening “hex pin” where the pistol’s locking block engaged the frame.

How did the P1 do? Well...not bad. It served for about 30 years, but wasn't universally loved. More than one German soldier made a joke about "8 warning shots and one well-aimed throw". As a Cold War Warrior, it was carried often, but seldom used in anger. Eventually, the German military surplussed the P1. Many were rebuilt and given the slide and hex pin upgrades, and have since found their way to US shores as “obsolete” firearms. That's a stretch to say the least. There’s another aluminum alloy, 9mm, double-action, semi-automatic pistol in service today that shares similarities with the P1/P.38. Germany’s loss is our gain, because today, you can own an excellent to like-new example of one of these Cold War Warriors for around $300-$350. Many of these are in arsenal refinished shape, or only show a slight bit of use.

I purchased mine from in 2010. It was mechanically perfect, with a mirror bore, and with just a touch of finish wear on the high points. It came with a neato German issue Flecktarn holster and two, eight round magazines stamped with NSNs. My particular pistol was made in October, 1979, a mere 2 years after I was born. The serial numbers all match, but the locking block appears to have been replaced and then renumbered once upon a time. After replacing the grips with new ones and oiling the phosphate finish, you'd have a hard time recognizing that this was a 30 year old weapon.

My Walther P1 in excellent+'s almost as old as I am.
Shooting the P1 is an interesting experience. The aluminum frame and steel slide makes it a little top heavy, and there’s some muzzle flip to be had, but it’s overall a very pleasant-shooting pistol. I’ll be frank and say that this gun is one that I don’t shoot particularly well with. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate: far from it. In fact, when I want to practice marksmanship fundamentals like sight alignment, trigger pull, and breathing, I shoot my P1. If I do my part, it’s on target, but if I don’t, it is an unforgiving handgun (interestingly enough, my Makarov PM, which is the Soviet Cold War counterpart to the P1, shoots better than I do…more to follow on that in next month’s entry).

Some folks say you shouldn’t shoot hi-powered 9mm loads through these guns, as they’re 1) used, surplus pistols, and 2) have aluminum alloy frames. Personally, I think that’s not terrible advice, and there’s really no reason to shoot +P, high pressure self-defense ammo through these guns. If you want a 9mm that will handle abuse and come back for more, there are a dozen modern plastic fantastics that will fit the bill. If you want a piece of history you can shoot standard ammo through (Winchester “white box” or standard 124 gr 9mm ammo works fine), then the P1 is right up your alley. Loading your own ammo is even better, as you can really make some nice target loads that are easy on the gun.

The rumor is that Germany is destroying all remaining stocks of P1s as part of a UN arms agreement, and as such, no more will be exported. If true, this an absolute shame. It also means that prices will rise on these guns, so if you want one, get one now. They’re classified as Curios and Relics by the BATF, for those who have a FFL03 license, and frankly, they’re worth every penny at the asking price. If you’re thinking about buying one, don’t: buy two instead. You won’t regret it. If you do, you can sell one to me.

Welcome to Armed (But Not Dangerous)!

My intent with this piece of the internet is to provide a place where I can share my passion of collecting and shooting military and historical firearms. I'll start by showcasing one gun a month from my modest (but growing) collection, and hopefully providing some entertaining and informative history of it. Not all of the guns I'll be talking about will be famous or great, but I think they're all interesting. Enjoy!