by Bob Campbell
The Walther P 38, caliber 9mm, was one of the most important handguns of World War II and became among the most influential pistols of the twentieth century. It earned a reputation for accuracy superior to most service pistols, and the P 38’s takedown lever made field maintenance and cleaning simple compared to any other service pistol. The 9mm cartridge does not have the smash of our own .45 ACP cartridge, but the 9mm shoots flat over a distance and penetrates web gear in a superior fashion. The P 38 is reliable, a great shooter and a good recreational handgun. The postwar P 38 and the slightly modified P 1 use an aluminum frame. These handguns are well made with good material, lighter than the steel frame P 38, and reliable. Parts from the original generally interchange with the P 1.
Walther developed the P 38 as a result of the German military’s desire for cost savings, as the aging Luger P 08 was prohibitively expensive to manufacture for a rapidly expanding military. While a steel frame pistol with such precision workmanship would be expensive in today’s market, the P 38 was hailed as a great cost saver at the time. It also performed very well. Those who felt the single action design was outdated appreciated the double action lockwork, which was similar to that of the Walther PP series. The pistol used an external drawbar to operate the trigger, which both cocked and dropped the hammer, so the term double-action. The pistol featured a slide-mounted combination safety and decocking lever. It was as natural for Walther to draw upon the Mauser C96 as it would be for an American to draw upon the 1911 for design ideas. The P 38 used the Mauser’s oscillating wedge for lockup. The Army is reported to have requested a free-floating barrel, and Walther gave them this design feature.The Walther P 38 was easily the most modern service pistol in use during the war. Reliable in terrible conditions, the P 38 served from France to Russia, North Africa to Italy and every hotspot of the European war. Walther was off to a slow start with P 38 production, never really keeping up with war-time demands, but produced as many as 10,000 pistols a month during the height of production. After World War II, the French took over the Walther plant and built the pistol for themselves. The plant was soon closed and production undertaken again by Germany in 1957. The reorganized German Army needed a service pistol and there was nothing better than the Walther P 38 available.
Walther P 38 versus Beretta 92
The Walther impressed our own military to such an extent various trials were undertaken after the war to match the P 38 against the Colt 1911A1. The Walther is lighter than the 1911A1 at about 35 ounces, kicks less and has a double action trigger. Nothing came of the original pistol trials, perhaps because of budget restraints and the fact that the Army probably had twice as many 1911 pistols as soldiers in the downsized peace-time army, but eventually the Army got their P 38 in the modernized Beretta 92. The double action trigger and external drawbar of the Beretta are pure Walther design in their heritage. The open-top slide and oscillating wedge lockup are also very similar to the Walther, although Beretta changed the recoil spring to a single unit with a guide rod instead of the Walther’s dual springs. The primary improvement over the P 38 is the Beretta 92’s high capacity magazine. However, the Beretta must use a shorter safety lever due to the fat magazine in the frame, which causes a hump in the upper frame where the frame meets the slide. The Walther safety lever is much easier to manipulate quickly, although this may be a small point. The Beretta is little if any more accurate than the Walther.
I have fired many P 38 pistols and found them to be generally reliable unless they have been abused. A lack of lubrication or worn springs will certainly make any handgun tie up no matter how well the pistol is made. With a refreshed spring kit from W C Wolff, the Walther is usually good to go. The oscillating wedge should be examined and replaced if the edges are worn. The barrel seldom cracks, but if it does it is usually a result of battering due to weakened springs. I have seen a few Walther pistols with cracked slides. There are not many handguns that have been used hard that haven’t exhibited a cracked slide, and the Walther isn’t immune to such damage. I have seen Colt, SIG and Beretta pistols with cracked slides, Glocks blown up and Smith and Wesson 59’s battered. The slide illustrated was seen on a pistol that is still in service with a hobby shooter as far as I know. It was welded up and the old gent went back to shooting. This isn’t a recommended course but it shows the toughness of the design.
Now to the heart of the matter- how does the P 38 shoot? The performance of the Walther P 1 and aluminum frame P 38 pistols is similar to that of the original P 38. The only difference in handling and shooting the modern lightweight-frame pistols is that they kick more due to the lighter frame, but this isn’t that noticeable with standard loads. The P 38 is among the most feed-reliable handguns ever produced. The pistol features a straight line feed, where the bullet nose feeds from the magazine almost straight into the chamber. A wide-mouth hollow point feeds just fine. Since German military ammunition was by no means weak-kneed, the P 38 is fine for NATO specification or 9mm +P loads. This is of course in a handgun with fresh recoil springs and an un-cracked locking wedge. The pistol will feed, chamber, fire and eject with most commercial ammunition.Occasionally a Walther will short-cycle with low power ammunition. A weak hand-load – say, a 124 grain bullet 900 fps – will probably not function in the P 38. The same may be said for some generic ball ammunition. Full power ammunition but not necessarily ‘hot loads’ are good fare for the Walther.
The pistol is a joy to handle and fire. The grip is comfortable and fits most hands well. The single action break is usually right at four and one half pounds, light enough for excellent shooting. For sport shooting, I ignore the double action feature and simply cock the hammer for the first shot rather than running through the long trigger press. When handling the P 38, you will note that the safety, slide lock and take down lever are each well designed. The heel-type magazine release isn’t as rapid in action as a Browning type push button; you are not going to lose the magazine.
The P 38 is surprisingly accurate. I have fired mine a good bit with the Fiocchi 123 grain Combat loading. This is a truncated cone nose design that often gives match-grade accuracy in good handguns. The World War II vintage steel frame P 38 will turn in a 2.5 inch group at 25 yards with this loading. The 1960s vintage P 1 isn’t quite as accurate. The World War II P 38 feeds any hollow point you care to stuff into the magazine. As an example the Fiocchi 115 grain Extrema loading, using the Hornady XTP bullet, feeds perfectly and exhibits a 3.25 inch group at 25 yards. The 124 grain Extrema is sometimes more accurate. In a worn or dirty gun, the slightly heavier bullets are often more reliable. I would avoid the 147 grain loads, as these loads tend to transfer more momentum to the locking wedge, which causes early wear and even cracking. Also, velocity may be too low for good function.
Yes, I fire my P 38 pistols. I have owned a number of rather nice examples of the breed but most have been shooters. For field use to carry when hiking, I trust the P 1. It is reliable and more than accurate enough for pests and even small game, and I do not live in an area with large bears. When loaded with the Fiocchi Extrema loading, it would be up to the task of handling feral dogs, coyote or even a human aggressor. But I just like having something on my hip, and the Walther gives me a lot of confidence.
Production codes for the P 38
The Zero pistols, 01- 13,000 Eagle stamped P 38s
The original P 38 was marked 480/AC, soon changed to
AC 40 for 1940
AC 41 for 1941
AC 42 for 1942
AC 43 for 1943
AC 44 for 1944
AC 45 for 1945
Mauser pistols were marked byf 42, byf 43, byf 44, byf 45, and the pistols produced for the French (post war) were marked svw 45. These were produced for the French Army by my best information.
There were various slides produced by FN Belgium and by CZ in Czechoslovakia.