Monday, December 23, 2013

Прощай, Михаил Калашников

That is, farewell, Mikhail Kalashnikov. A living legend, he passed away today at the age of 94. Inventor of the famed AK-47, its variants (such as the RPK), and its successors, Lieutenant General Kalashnikov's designs have been produced around the globe. He'll live on through the millions upon millions of rifles that bear his name, past, present, and future. Rest in peace, comrade.

Kalashnikov and his progeny. The world will never be the same.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Scandinavian Shooters: The Lahti L-35 and Husqvarna M/40 Pistols

Pistols don't win wars.

That's not to say they don't play an important role. Indeed, a good pistol can be the difference between life and death on the battlefield, especially in close quarters combat situations (think Sergeant York). But as renowned firearms instructor Clint Smith said, the primary purpose of a handgun is to allow one to "fight your way back to the rifle you never should have laid down." If we accept Mr. Smith's view as an axiom (and many do), that leaves us with some criteria we'd want in a good fighting pistol. Since the combat pistol's role is to suppress or delay the enemy rather than destroy him, it needs to have adequate power and accuracy. Hand cannons or target pieces are overkill. Secondly, as the pistol will likely be employed under extreme duress, an ergonomic design that can be quickly put into action is important. And finally, since the pistol is literally the last line of defense between one and the grave, it must be reliable. For your consideration, I present the Lahti L-35 and Husqvarna M/40 as two such pistols.

This month's subjects from top to bottom: the Husqvarna M/40 and the Lahti L-35.

Historically speaking, Scandinavian firearms have an air of uniqueness about them that intrigues collectors. Both the Swedes and the Finns have taken otherwise ordinary weapons, fine examples that they were, and improved them to fit their specific needs. The Swedes did this with the Model 1896 Mauser, (a derivative of the 1893/1895 design) and the Finns elevated the Mosin-Nagant 91/30 to a higher class, culminating with their M/39 rifle. Our subjects at hand this month, however, were born and bred in Viking country, from the ground up. In my view, this makes them some of the most interesting semi-automatic pistols ever fielded to a fighting force.

The mainstay pistol of the Finnish military for the first part of the 20th Century was the Luger P.08, chambered in 7.65mm Luger. In Finnish service, it was known as the M/23 Pistol. Luger pistols, as I mentioned in my first post about the Walther P1, are ergonomic weapons that border on being works of art, but their design doesn't lend them to being rock-solid, reliable combat pistols. Indeed, they can be quite finicky. Besides, the 7.65mm Luger caliber, while interesting from an enthusiast's point of view, was obsoleted soon after it's introduction due to Georg Luger's development of his famous 9mm cartridge in 1902. The Luger pistol's shortcomings illustrated the need for something uniquely Finnish, and besides, who wants to rely on another country to equip one's fighting forces?

A German made M/23 Luger, complete with shoulder stock and holster.

Aimo Lahti to the rescue. Finland's most famous firearms designer, Mr. Lahti's story is an interesting one.  Born at the turn of the 19th century (itself an exciting time for firearms development), he quit school at an early age and went to work in a glass factory. Being bored with school but fascinated with the workings of firearms, he literally taught himself how mechanical engineering and firearms design. Honing his craft as a Master Armorer in Finland's army, he created one of the finest sub-machine guns ever: the Suomi M31. By the time he died in 1970, he had over 50 firearms designs to his credit, ranging from the pistol to the anti-tank rifle. I like to think that he and John Browning are hanging out somewhere, drinking vodka and arguing the merits of each other's designs. Perhaps I'm a romantic.

A Finnish soldier with Lahti's Suomi M31. Photo credit: E. Voutilainen / SA-kuva

Lahti's pistol was adopted in 1935 and is appropriately designated the L-35. To the untrained eye, The L-35 resembles the Luger M/23 which preceded it in Finnish service. Like the Luger (and Nambu pistol), the L35 has a sharply angled grip frame, which has the effect of reducing felt recoil (not that the 9mm Luger is going to break your wrist), something which can contribute to increased accuracy. Similar to the Luger, Lahti's new pistol was a single action design with an internal hammer, eschewing the double-action designs that were being tested and fielded elsewhere in Europe at the time.  Fed from an eight round detachable box magazine, the L-35 sported a loaded chamber indicator, great sights (for a mil-spec pistol, anyway), an ergonomic thumb safety, and the most interesting piece: a bolt accelerator system. This handy feature ensured positive cycling in the brutally cold Scandinavian winters. In sub-zero temps, bolts could stick, but the bolt accelerator gave the L-35's bolt a firm, rearward push. It worked quite well, which was fortuitous, because it arrived just in time for the Winter War with the USSR.

"I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle. And Finland."

The Winter War kicked off right after WWII did. Germany invaded Poland, and the USSR invaded Finland, hoping to regain territory it lost during the 1917 communist revolution and resulting civil war. The Soviet Union's shameless land grab didn't go unnoticed by the international community, which expelled the CCCP from the useless League of Nations. Oh no! More importantly for our purposes, Finland's next door neighbor, Sweden, took note. It sent aid in the form of money and troops. I've read that the money that Sweden sent was twice the amount of Finland's defense budget at the time. As far as troops go, since Sweden was technically neutral, only "volunteers" could be "sent" to aid Finland. Roughly 10,000 of these "volunteers" of the aptly name Swedish Volunteer Corps (which was also comprised of Danish and Norwegians) fought alongside their Nordic kin in the Winter War. Many of them saw the Lahti L-35 pistol in action, and it won their respect. The war didn't end the way either the Soviet Union or Finland wanted it to end, but in my opinion, Finland came out ahead. They inflicted massive casualties against the Soviets, and proved their mettle.

If the L-35 had a downside, it was that it was costly to produce, which meant that not many of them made it into the hands of Finnish soldiers by the Winter War. The pistols that did make it to the front lines served well, and Finland continued to produce the gun into the 1950s. Indeed, it remained the issue sidearm of the Finnish military until 1980s, when it was replaced with FN HP-DA, better known to most folks as the Browning BDA. Eh.

The BDM was a somewhat uglier, double-action version of the Hi-Power. AKA a solution looking for a problem.

Much like the Finns, the Swedes were using a “third party” pistol design prior to the Winter War. The primary Swedish pistol in service was the Browning designed FN 1903 pistol, chambered in the obscure 9 x 20mm semi-rim.  The Swedes had purchased 10,000 of these pistols in 1907, and later obtained a license to manufacture it themselves.  In Swedish service, this pistol was appropriately designated the m/07. The m/07 served adequately, but as the 1930’s came to an end was simply outclassed by nearly every other military pistol in Europe. The alarming Winter War, so close to Sweden’s border, and the general deteriorating condition on the continent convinced the Swedes it was time to upgrade their gear. The Swedish Volunteer Corps experiences with the L35 in the Winter War, and Sweden's cooperation with the Finn government and military made the L-35 a natural choice.

Even the Swedish Chef gave the L-35 tvu thoombs up, fur sure.

Sweden quickly licensed Lahti’s design and began producing it domestically as the Husqvarna M/40. The pistol was affectionately (or not so affectionately?) nicknamed “The Iron Stove”, which referred both to its hefty weight and Husqvarna’s reputation as a builder of domestic products. Check your garage, you may have a Husqvarna chainsaw there. Anyway, Husqvarna’s product was very similar to Lahti’s pistol, though to cut costs and streamline production, some features were removed. The loaded chamber indicator was quickly scrapped, the nifty bolt accelerator was changed a couple of times, and on some later guns removed altogether. Not all the changes to the design were “bad”:  the barrel was given an integral outer “nut” at the breech end to facilitate barrel changes (a great feature), and the trigger guard was enlarged to better accommodate the heavily gloved hands of Swedish soldiers.  About 100,000 M/40’s were produced from 1940-1946.
L-35 (top) vs. a late production M/40. Note the changes to the top of the slide, barrel, and trigger guard.

Sweden had the good fortune to remain “neutral” during WWII, so the M/40 didn’t really see much action. Like the L-35, it quietly served as Sweden’s front-line pistol until the 1980s…when something unfortunate began to happen. In the 1960’s, Sweden switched to a more powerful loading of 9mm cartridge in an effort to standardize pistol and submachine gun ammunition. While this made sense logistically, the hotter ammo beat up the M/40, ultimately proving too much for the gun to bear. Cracks developed in the slides and bolts of the M/40s, forcing the Swedes to remove them from service in the 1980s. This left the Swedish military without a sidearm.  Have no fear: it’s John Browning to the rescue! Remember the m/07? Well, it was called up from retirement to serve as a substitute sidearm until a new pistol could be procured. Sadly, all of Sweden’s military M/40s were melted down in the 1990's due to safety concerns, a rather ignominious end for a really cool pistol (there’s an Iron Stove joke there somewhere, I’m sure). It was officially replaced by a somewhat new, relatively unknown pistol: the GLOCK 17.
Just in case you needed another reason not to buy one. Poor little guy.

It's been said that the Swedes used sub-standard steel in the M/40’s compared to that used in the Finnish built L-35, and that this was another contributing factor to the cracked bolts and slides. There’s some evidence to show that nickel was in short supply during the war and that the first Husqvarna guns had problems as a result, but I’ve read that this was fixed. Even if it wasn’t fixed, I don’t know that it’s fair criticism, as M/40’s didn’t start to disassemble themselves en masse until the switch to the hotter ammo. I just find it hard to believe that the Swedes would make nearly 100,000 of these pistols out of junk steel. Granted, I’m no metallurgist, but I know a teeny bit about history: in the late 19th century the Swedes were so particular (and proud) of their steel making abilities that they stipulated to none other than Mauser that all m1896 rifles had to be made from superior Swedish Steel. But that’s another story.
The Mauser Model 1896. Thing of beauty. Write-up coming soon....

Sweden also exported 13,500 M/40 pistols to Denmark for use with that country’s military and police forces. Most Denmark pistols were made toward the end of the production run and were known as the M/40S in Danish service. They’re easily identified by the “D” prefix stamped in front of their serial number, as well as the Danish crown on the frame with HV marking. For collectors concerned about the safety of the M/40, the Danish contract pistols are a good buy. They weren’t subjected to the same use and abuse as the Swedish issued pistols; indeed a great many of them were exported as surplus in excellent condition. I was fortunate to acquire one of these pistols from the noted dealer a few years back. It came with three magazines, a very battered leather holster, a cleaning rod, and a magazine loading tool that doubles as an emergency screwdriver. I rate the condition at 98-99%, with just a trace of holster wear on the high points of the gun. Mine also has the bolt accelerator, not that I'd need it in the temperate Shenandoah Valley. The gun wasn’t exactly cheap, but not much is these days. Plan on spending more than you would on a GLOCK, and less than you would on a Colt 1911, and you're in the ballpark.

My M/40S with loading tool. Like the Luger, the M/40 and L-35 had provisions to attach a shoulder stock, but this wasn't used.

Some may scoff at idea of the loading tool, calling it a crutch for inexperienced shooters or those with weak thumbs. Trust me, this thing isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity. Due to the ergonomic grip angle of Lahti’s design, the magazines require a heavy spring to ensure reliable feeding. There's a circular knob on the side of the magazine that you need to depress to load the single stack, 8 round magazine. The tool does this for you. You can try to do this without the tool if you want, but good luck getting more than 4 rounds in it without cursing and sucking your bruised thumb/fingers.  Use the tool, or risk looking like one at the range. It’s your choice.
I’ve put a couple hundred rounds of mid-power handloads through my M/40S (no cracks yet!), and I’ve been suitably impressed with its performance. It fits naturally in the hand, is very comfortable to shoot, has great sights (for a mil-spec pistol, anyway), and is reasonably accurate. It also field strips and cleans easily. The trigger is a bit mushy and long, but not very heavy In fact, it almost reminds me of the trigger pull on certain striker fired pistols that are so popular today. Perhaps that's damning it with faint praise. Still, it's miles better than my VZ.52's trigger.
In collector circles, the L-35 carries a premium over the M/40, usually to the tune of a few hundred bucks. This is due mainly to the connection to the Winter War (and Continuation War), the relative scarcity of the piece (~9,000 pistols total) and the higher quality (actual or perceived) over the M/40.  I won't lie: I'd like to have both someday, but for now I’m happy to own a derivative of the L-35, and a fine example at that. It’s certainly one of the more unique firearms of the period, and is a worthy addition to any WWII or Cold War military gun collection. For that, Mr. Lahti, we thank you.

It's hard to overstate Aimo Lahti's contribution to firearms design in general and Finland's defense in particular.

For more fantastic information about the M/40 and its variants, please visit the following sites:  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

British Blaster: The Enfield No. 2 Mk I

And now for something completely different!

The Enfield No. 2 Mark 1 Revolver. You were expecting Monty Python, perhaps?

I've touched on the Russian, German, and US sidearms of the 40's and 50's, but I've yet to tackle anything from Old Britannia. To borrow a phrase from our friends across the pond, this month's subject is an "interesting bit of kit". The Enfield No. 2 Mk 1 began its life after World War I. The primary British sidearm at that time was the stout Webley Mk VI revolver. Weighing in at roughly two and a half pounds, the Webley was a six shot, single/double action top-break revolver chambered in .455 Webley. The .455 Webley cartridge boasted a .454", 265 grain lead round nose projectile that moved along at a leisurely 650 fps. Yes, it was a heavy, fat, slow-moving beast of a cartridge, but it was quite effective for what it needed to do: put half-inch holes into the Hun enemy, and save the Holy Grail from Nazis.

Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. with a Webley revolver chambered in .455 Webley.

Despite the weight of the Webley, firing that large, heavy bullet meant that the shooter experienced considerable felt recoil. The British believed this to be a detriment to marksmanship training, as trainees would anticipate the recoil and flinch, spoiling the shot. Of course, this simply would not do. Gentlemen shouldn't have to deal with unwieldy, beastly firearms. Nasty loud things, make you late for luncheon and whatnot. The solution: adopt a lighter, daintier, cartridge with less recoil so that it would be easier for gentlemanly officers to shoot whilst extending their pinkies as they sipped on their Earl Grey tea and ate cucumber sandwiches.

As you can see, I'm only slightly exaggerating here. Slightly.

You can probably tell I don't think much of this decision. Instead of devoting the time and energy into training their soldiers to shoot properly, the Brits copped out by adopting a pistol which fired a less effective cartridge. Lest you think I'm being too hard on the British: they weren't the first nation to replace a powerful cartridge with a less powerful one for dubious reasons, and they surely wouldn't be the last to do so, either. At any rate, the powers that be decided that a .38 caliber type cartridge could, in theory, do an adequate amount of damage but with much less recoil than the .455. After "careful" review of the plethora of decent .38 caliber cartridges available at the time, they decided on adopting a new loading of an obsolete American cartridge: the .38 Smith and Wesson.

Left: 38 S&W. Right: 38 S&W Special.

Not to be confused with the more powerful .38 Smith and Wesson Special, the .38 Smith and Wesson was developed in 1877, and had become a popular caliber for law enforcement in the States. The British took the .38 S&W and topped it with an elongated, 200 grain lead bullet. The thinking was that such a heavy bullet would be poorly stabilized, and would have the tendency to tumble (or keyhole) in the wound cavity, thus increasing lethality. Granted, some tests on animals supported this theory, so it wasn't with complete lunacy that the British Empire adopted the  "380-200 Cartridge, Revolver Mk 1" (aka the 38/200). It loped along at 625 fps and generated a measly 180 foot pounds of energy. Do those ballistics remind you of anything? Yes, the British had just adopted a cartridge with similar performance to the infamous 38 Long Colt. Rumor has it that laughter from the Philippines was heard 'round the British Empire that day.

At any rate, Webley submitted a scaled-down variant of their successful revolver in the new 38/200 cartridge for acceptance, designated the Webley Mk IV. Here's where it gets interesting: in a legendary douche move, the British authorities took Webley's design to the government run Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, where lo and behold, they came up with a very similar, but just different enough design of their own. Webley sued (and lost), and in 1931 the Crown officially adopted the new revolver as the Enfield Revolver No. 2, Mk 1.

Ironically, The Webley Mk IV in 38/200 was fielded as a substitute when Enfield couldn't keep up with production. Karma.

As WWII loomed, the No. 2 got some revisions. In 1938, it went from a single/double action design with wooden grips to a double-action only, spurless hammered pistol with a redesigned plastic grip which supposedly gave better control. Why the switch to double action only? Rumor had it that the British Tank Corps complained about the hammer spur on the No. 2 getting caught up on things, so it was removed. The new variation was known as the No. 2 Mk I*. The double action only pull didn't help with accuracy, but as a close quarters, last ditch weapon that didn't really matter much...especially if you were in a tank. The modification also helped speed up production (believed to be the real reason for the change), and most of the existing Mk 1s were converted to the 1* design during and after the war. This was received with unfavorable reviews from the troops, so much so that some unit armorers reportedly reinstalled the single action capability.

Pure Guts : an officer goes "over the top" with his Enfield No. 2 in North Africa.

At some point, I decided I needed one of these guns, and a year or so ago I found one in an online auction. My No. 2 shows a manufacture date of 1944, and features the bobbed hammer and plastic grips. It also is marked with a little arrow indicating that at some point in its life, it went through a FTR (Factory Thorough Repair). The bore is in excellent shape with just a bit of wear, and the numbers on the frame, barrel, and cylinder all match. When I got it, it had 100% of its finish.

The original finish on these wartime pieces was a type of tough black paint known as Suncorite. Suncorite doesn't come off easy unless you have a sand blaster. Well, my revolver must not have been refinished with Suncorite when it was FTR'd, because as I was cleaning it for the first time with good old Hoppe's No. 9, the finish started dissolving before my eyes. I suspect that a cheap, enamel paint was used during the FTR instead. Anyhow, I stripped the rest of the paint off, and under that spray paint was a very nice light gray Parkerized finish.

Normally I wouldn't think of  refinishing a military weapon; it detracts from the history in my opinion. In this case, I made an exception. Nice as that gray Parkerizing was, it just didn't look right. Unfortunately, Suncorite is nasty, toxic stuff and can't be had easily, so I searched around the web and found a suitable substitute: Brownell's Baking Lacquer. For those who haven't used it, it's a bake-on epoxy type coating that's reasonably tough and mimics the original finish fairly well. Once cured, it is impervious to solvents. I have to say, it seems pretty durable so far, with just a touch of wear on the high points from holstering and honest use. Overall, I think it came out pretty nice.

My 1944 Enfield No. 2 Mk 1* with 1942 dated pistol belt and 1943 dated holster.

Say what you want to about the effectiveness of the 38/200 round, the revolver itself is a joy to shoot. It's lightweight and points well, and of course, there's very little recoil. Modern loadings of the .38 S&W feature a 145 grain lead bullet, which in my No. 2 shoots a bit low at 10 yards. The double action trigger pull is indeed stiff, but the pull is short, and it's easily ten times better than that of the Nagant.  Along with the revolver, I was able to acquire a Pattern 37 pistol belt and holster. Both were unissued and marked with wartime years. Frankly, they were harder to find than the revolver.

Though officially obsolete after the war (and unofficially obsolete before it), the No. 2 continued to serve as Her Majesty's sidearm until it was replaced by the Browning Hi-Power in the late 1960's. Many No. 2's were surplused, or sent to other parts of the former British Empire like Hong Kong, Africa, and India. Some are still in use today by their police forces. While over a quarter million were built, they aren't commonly seen these days, so if you get a chance to get your hands on a nice one, you should do so. It really is an "interesting bit of kit".

Best enjoyed with a nice cup of tea. Tea: The Soldier's Drink! (TM)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Czech it Out: The Vz.52 Pistol

I was digging around in the safe the other day, getting ready for a trip to range on a brisk Virginia winter morning. I have most of my handguns in generic, black Plano cases for storage, and they're not labeled, so finding the gun I want can be trial and error. So, I grabbed a gun case that I thought was my Colt 1911 WWI felt hefty enough, and it was a full sized pistol case. I opened it to verify and my Vz.52 was staring back at me. I realized that I hadn't shot it in a while. Then, I got to thinking that I've written a bit about the merits of 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev cartridge in the PPS-43, but that I never really talked about any of the pistols that were chambered for this interesting round. Long story short: I left the Colt at home, took the Vz.52 to the range, and when I came home I decided to Czech check this pistol off the list of guns I needed to blog about.

The Czechoslovakian VZ.52 Pistol, commonly known as the CZ-52.

Have I told you how much I miss the Cold War sometimes? I know it sounds strange, but things were simpler back then. You had the good guys (the free world), and the bad guys (everybody else). Oh well. At any rate, the Vz.52's story begins like so many other firearms of its era: in the post-WWII world. Czechoslovakia had a rough time of it during the unpleasantness with the Nazis, actually ceasing to exist as a country. Unfortunately, things didn't get better when the Red Army took Eastern Europe in 1945. It was inevitable that Czechoslovakia would fall under the Iron Curtain, though it took a little longer than expected: The communists seized power in 1948 in a bloodless coup. Though not directly influenced by Soviet Russia, the new communist government would not waste time consolidating its gains and allies.

Czechoslovakia falls. Be wary of any group that promises peace, land, and bread for all: even if they aren't lying, it comes at a heavy price.

The Cold War was in its infancy in 1948, a mere one year before the so-called Year of Shocks, but the Soviets weren't idle. They recognized the need to for communist nations to have standardized weaponry and ammunition in preparation for the inevitable WWIII, even prior to the creation of the Warsaw Pact. Czechoslovakia's sidearm at the time was the Vz.50. Designed by two brothers, Jan and Jaroslav Kratochvíl, the Vz.50 was chambered in .32 Auto, and was somewhat of a copy of the Walther PP series of pistols. This meant that it had all of the benefits and drawbacks of that gun: compact, but not particularly powerful. The USSR and its allies had standardized on the powerful 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev as its pistol round, but the straight blowback design of the Vz.50 was unsuitable for such a high pressure cartridge. It was obvious that a new pistol was needed.

The Vz.50. I own the later version known as the Vz.70. It's a decent pistol in its own right.

Romania, Poland, and Hungary had all solved this problem by adopting variants of the excellent Russian Tokarev TT-33 pistol, and it would have been very easy for the Czechoslovaks to do the same. But they wanted something different, something uniquely their own. Firearms manufacturing had long been a source of pride for the country: in fact, some of the finest military weapons ever made have come from Brno, Czechoslovakia. So the Kratochvíl brothers once again answered their country's call, and the Vz.52 was born.

Most American firearms enthusiasts know their gun design as the CZ-52, but this is a misnomer. The 'CZ' is an abbreviation for the manufacturer that produced the pistol, Ceska Zbrojovka, but the actual designation given it by the Czechoslovakian military is the Vz.52, or "model of 1952" pistol. The Vz.52 looks like something you'd expect to see in a 1950's science fiction movie. It's a very curvy, streamlined looking weapon, for a very curvy, streamlined time.

Also very curvy and streamlined: Anne Francis, starlet of 1956's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet.

Anyhow, as I mentioned, the Vz.52 is a hefty slab of metal, weighing in around 34 oz. That's only a quarter of a pound less than the M1911, and equal in weight to the Beretta M9 that's standard issue to US forces today...but heavier than the Soviet TT-33. Compared to its counterparts in both Western and Eastern Europe, the Vz.52 was notably different in both form and function. Whereas the TT-33 used a variation of the tried-and-true Browning 1911 style lock up, and the Walther P1 a falling locking block, the Vz.52 was a completely different animal altogether: its locking system employed a barrel assembly that interfaced with the slide on a set of steel rollers. This provided a very strong lockup, more than enough to handle the pressures generated by the 7.62 x 25mm (in fact, this roller lock system was inspired from that of the famous German MG-42 machine gun, which was chambered in 8mm Mauser). Perhaps it was overkill for a pistol cartridge, but the system worked quite well.

This picture from illustrates the roller locking system.

The locking mechanism wasn't the only noteworthy thing about the Vz.52: it also had a safety decocker. Decockers weren't new, they'd been around for quite some time. However, unlike firearms such as the Walther PP or P1, the Vz.52 could either be decocked, or placed on safe with the hammer back, a la the 1911. The decocker allowed one to safely drop the hammer on a loaded round vs. having to "ride" the hammer down. The unusual part of this was that decockers were traditionally featured on single/double action pistols, but the Vz.52 was single action only. Still, it was a useful feature. In addition to the decocker/safety, the Vz.52 employed a firing pin safety block, meaning that the gun couldn't fire if you dropped it on its muzzle. This is a common safety mechanism today (though of questionable benefit), but it's worth pointing out as something that was a bit ahead of its time.

As opposed to the Soviet TT-33, which didn't even have a safety.

The Vz.52 was fed by an eight round detachable magazine with a heel release, like the Pistolet Makarova and P1 pistols. This is something you don't see in military firearms anymore. The rationale was that push-button magazine releases could be activated by mistake, causing a soldier to unknowingly drop his magazine. Without a magazine, the pistol was useless. The heel release system ensures this can't happen, but it considerably slows down the reload process, as it requires both hands to change a magazine. Both the Vz.50 and TT-33 had push-button magazine releases...go figure.

The Czechoslovaks issued the Vz.52 to both their police and military forces, where it served quietly until the 1980s, after which they were sold as surplus. When the Vz.52 was first imported into the United States in the late 1990's, some of them had been factory refurbished (denoted by a blued finish vs. a gray Parkerizing), but a great number of them were in excellent to unissued original condition. Like many Cold War weapons, most Vz.52s saw little use, and in fact, more than a few just sat in storage. According to what I've read, those unissued pistols that were stored were carefully inspected and checked for function every few years. My pistol, purchased a couple of years back from, was advertised as one of these unissued pistols. It came wrapped in plastic with a new holster, cleaning rod, a single magazine, and a lanyard.

My Vz.52 from, minus the lanyard. Where did I put that darn thing?

Honestly, the Vz.52 is not my favorite gun to shoot. The first thing you feel is the wide, but thin grip. It's certainly not the most ergonomic design in the world, and I find that the grip angle causes me to naturally shoot low with the pistol. The military-grade sights are serviceable, similar to those on the M1911, though the wider rear notch makes target acquisition a bit faster. The trigger takes getting used to. For a single action, it's fairly heavy and a touch gritty, mostly due to the design of the firing pin safety block. Yeah, I have a hard time shooting the Vz.52 accurately. It's one of those guns that really makes me focus on my technique, and that's not a bad thing: guns that are easy to shoot give one a false sense of confidence. Oh, and when you do pull the trigger...ha. You're rewarded with a loud boom and a large gout of flame from the muzzle. This thing is a fire-breather. GLOCK shooters to your left and right will ask you what you've got, and then they will ask if they can shoot it. Let them. Because secretly, GLOCK owners want to shoot real guns like real men do. And we should encourage that.

"My gun is all purple and stuff, and made of plastic! Like, wow. Also, I like unicorns!"

There's been a lot written about the strength (or lack thereof) of the Vz.52, and I won't go into that here. Suffice to say, if you shoot it with factory ammunition or properly reloaded ammo, you won't have any problems. There used to be quite a bit of surplus ammo on the market, with the Romanian stuff being very good in particular, but it has since dried up. Remember, this gun served for treat it right, it'll do its part. As for guys who try to blow stuff up to prove a point: may Allah bring you bedbugs and warts. If you want to blow up a gun on purpose, please email me instead: I will make you a counter-offer.

As I mentioned, I don't shoot my Vz.52 often, but it's a valued part of my Cold War gun collection, and it's one of those guns I'll never sell. Czechoslovakia produced around 250,000 of these pistols from 1952-1954. This puts the Vz.52 into the "not rare, but not really common either" category. If you have the opportunity to pick one up, I recommend doing so. They can still be had in nice shape in the $300 range, and that's a small price to pay for a piece of history.

Also, it really annoys this woman. Good side benefit.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Prince of Pocket Pistols: Walther's PPK

M: "When you carry a 00 number, you have a license to kill, not get killed. Furthermore, since I've been head of MI7 there's been a forty percent drop in casualties, and I want to keep it that way. From now on you carry the Walther... unless you'd rather return to standard intelligence duties."

Bond: "No sir, I would not."

M: "Show him, Armourer."

Armourer: "Walther PPK, 7.65 millimeter, with a delivery like a brick through a plate-glass window. The American CIA swear by them."

-script excerpt from "Dr. No", 1962.

The PPK in action: "That's a Smith and Wesson...and you've had your six."

You've got to love Ian Fleming, and Hollywood. The CIA using a PPK? “Delivery like a brick through a plate-glass window”? Ha! Substitute the word “pebble” for brick, and “against” for through, and you get a better idea of the 7.65mm Browning round’s capabilities. Still, compared with the Beretta .25 Auto pistol that Bond was swapping for his new PPK, it was indeed a significant improvement. But before we talk too much about the cartridge, let’s explore the gun that fired it.
Released in 1931 by the famous Carl Walther company, the PPK was a modification of Walther’s earlier PP (the PP stands for Polizei pistole, or police pistol).  You can probably guess what the target market for the PP was based on its name. One of the first successful guns featuring what we now refer to as a traditional double/single action design, it quickly developed a reputation for being reliable, ergonomic, and easily concealable. Such features contributed to its immense popularity in Europe with both civilians and cops. The PP was first made available in 7.65mm Browning (also known as the .32 ACP and .32 Auto) and Walther soon followed with other chamberings, to include the rare .22LR and more powerful 9mm Kurz (.380 Auto). Magazine capacity varied between 8 and 10 rounds, based on the cartridge.
A near pristine, Cold War era Walther PP. Man, I miss the Cold War sometimes.
Concealable as the PP was, Walther decided it could be still smaller and lighter. The resulting design was the PPK, (the K for “Kurz”, or short or small).  The PPK’s main differences were its redesigned and shortened grip frame, and its slightly shorter slide/barrel. Basically, the PPK was about half an inch shorter than the PP in both length and height. The nipping and tucking also shaved off a couple of ounces of weight. The compromises were a slightly shorter sight radius and a decrease in magazine capacity by one round, which considering the gun’s role, were kurz small sacrifices. No pun intended.
Pun  completely intended. Sorry about that.
The PPK proved to be even more popular than the PP, because all the things that made the PP great were duplicated with the PPK, and then some. The most frequently encountered chambering was the .32 Auto, and it was well suited to the pistol’s simple blow-back recoil design. The PPK in .32 Auto had a seven round magazine, plus the ability to carry one in the chamber with the hammer down, thanks to the double action/decocker design.  As I alluded to earlier, the .32 Auto was a pipsqueak. Even other anemic rounds, like the 7.62x38r Nagant, or the 38 Long Colt, are veritable powerhouses compared to the little 32.
Left to right .32 Auto, .380 Auto, 9mm Luger. Some folks consider the 9mm Luger small.

Designed by none other than John Moses Browning himself at the turn of the 20th century, the .32 Auto is a straight-walled, semi-rimmed cartridge. In its original loading, it sports a mighty .311", 71 grain FMJ bullet that on a good day gets up to 900 feet per second. Before I sound like I’m too critical of the cartridge, it’s worth noting that Mr. Browning designed it specifically for use in pocket pistols, such as the classic Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. For what it’s supposed to do, it’s a very capable round. It’s light in weight, has low recoil, produces little if any flash, can be easily suppressed, and with proper shot placement in the hands of a decent marksman, is adequately lethal. In fact, two of the most famous deaths in history are attributed to the .32 Auto. As I mentioned in my article here, the cartridge started WWI *edit: the actual caliber was .380 Auto. My mistake*. What many people don't know is that it ended WWII, at least in Europe: Hitler committed suicide with a Walther PPK chambered in .32 Auto.

And there was much rejoicing. Thanks, John M. Browning!

Speaking of WWII, the PPK served in other ways besides sending Der Fuerher to Hell. The German police and military were equipped with them, with PPKs being mostly reserved for higher ranking and/or elite officials in the military. The P.38, of course, was the mainstay German sidearm of the war, supplemented by the older (but still quite capable) Luger P.08.

After the war, Walther picked up the pieces as best it could. Having survived intact as a company, it faced the new reality that was a divided Germany. Walther was forced to leave their old headquarters, as it had the unfortunate chance of being located in the region that had become East Germany. They soon set up shop in Ulm, West Germany, but it would be some time before Walther resumed production due to prohibitions on domestic weapons manufacture by the victorious Allied Powers. As a result, the first new PP series pistols rolled off the assembly line in 1952: in France. Yes, France. Walther licensed licenced production of the PP series of pistols to Manufacture de Machines du Haut-Rhin, also known as Manhurin.  Even though these pistols were made in the heartland of Germany's former enemy and territory, they bore the mark of the new Ulm headquarters. Still, it was a bit of a kick in the balls.

Of course, the French weren't smug about it. Not in the least.

The post-war PPK was functionally identical to its pre-war siblings. Manhurin maintained the rights to produce the PPK all the way up to 1986, and exported it freely around the world. The new PPKs enjoyed the same good reputation as the old ones, and in 1962, Hollywood introduced it to the United States as the sidearm of none other than James Bond, 007, the consummate British Cold War spy.

I'd be a loud liar if I was to say that my interest in the PPK had nothing to do with the fact that 007 carried it (albeit reluctantly, at first). There's something interesting about a German designed gun, made in France, carried by a Brit, and used in America...even if it's complete fiction. At any rate, Connery's portrayal of 007 is timeless, and has made the PPK more famous than anything history has recorded. That's okay. Some guns are just cool to have, because of what they are. The PPK is one of those guns.

007's PPK is alive and well in Skyfall, pictured here in .380 Auto.

I've wanted a PPK for a long time, but there was always something else that seemed to be ahead on the list. Besides, wartime PPKs are strictly in the collector realm, with collector prices and availability, and even post-war French and German made PPKs are quite expensive. In 2002, Smith and Wesson acquired the licence to produce and distribute the PPK in the United States. They made some minor tweaks, to include improving the double-action trigger and extending the beavertail to protect larger hands from slide bite, and they also produced it in stainless steel, but the end result is a PPK at heart. Not long ago I saw a S&W made PPK at the local gun shop. The price was right, the caliber was .32 Auto, and my will power was weak, so 15 minutes later I walked out with a 21st century PPK.

My S&Walther PPK in stainless steel, with the flat base magazine.

I really enjoy shooting the PPK. Though S&W has a somewhat checkered reputation with this gun, and some purists will turn their noses up at one, I'm very happy with mine. The fit and finish are excellent, and the fixed barrel and low recoil contribute to exceptional accuracy. It came with two magazines: a flat base, which leaves your pinky hanging, and one with a finger rest. I prefer the flat base myself, but those with the .380 Auto version might feel differently. I already had some experience with the diminutive .32 Auto cartridge in my CZ-70, which I'll probably get around to writing about someday. It's a downright pleasant cartridge to shoot, even if it does take some dexterity handling and reloading the little rounds. Take down with the PPK is simplicity itself: pull down on the trigger guard, pull the slide to rear and up, and your pistol is field-stripped.

I've read rumors that S&W has either lost or given up its rights to produce the PPK, and that Walther will either be making it themselves in their US factory, or selling the rights once again to another company. There may be some truth in this: my PPK had just arrived at the gun shop two days before I bought it this month, but the test-fired cartridge that came with it was in an envelope dated 9/12. The PPK has long since been eclipsed as the perfect carry gun by lighter, cheaper, and more powerful pocket pistols, but in my opinion there's none that have yet been able to match its class and pedigree. I know I say this alot, but no serious collection is complete without one. And last I checked, 007 doesn't carry a polymer gun.

Because Oddjob eats polymer guns for breakfast.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

More to come....

Just wanted to drop a quick note in to let everyone know the blog isn't dead! I haven't had much time to do blogging as of late but there's still plenty of guns left in the safe that I'd like to say a few words about. Look for a new entry in March, and thanks for reading and sharing your comments!

And you just know it's a M1911, too.