World War 2 was the world’s bloodiest, most expansive conflict. For the first time in human history, man’s quarrels with his fellow man were settled via warfare around the globe fought on an industrial scale. Never before or since has there been such killing.
Today’s generation seems awash in a lamentable soul-drenching ambiguity. The good guys are never fully good, the bad guys are never fully bad, and classical mores once held sacrosanct are now open for moral dissection. Where previously our enemies were vilified on grounds that were cultural, spiritual, and anthropomorphic, nowadays such stuff smacks of racism and is pitilessly suppressed. The moral challenges for American youth are implicit and insidious. When playing cowboys and Indians, for instance, for whom should one root?
Alas, the Second World War was not encumbered with such. The Axis powers were undeniably evil. Ethnic cleansing was their tool, and world domination their goal. For what more detestable combination might Roosevelt and Churchill have hoped? We find in the Nazis the alpha villains. Convinced as they were of their innate superiority in all things martial, industrial, physiological, and cerebral, they were imminently hate-able, to coin a phrase.
Despite the Nazis’ unambiguous moral failings, they did produce both superb weapons and comparably superb soldiers. In the words of a friend who was there, “The SS would frequently leave a sniper or two behind whenever they bugged out of a position. You had to always be careful moving into someplace the Germans just left. Those SS men were just bad, ruthless. We never took those SS men prisoner.”
Additionally, the weapons and tactics the Nazis gifted to the world changed the face of warfare. Blitzkrieg morphed into our own Air-Land Battle Doctrine and that became whatever the Army calls it this week. At its heart, it is simply combined arms warfare, and the Germans invented it all.
The Nazis birthed the transoceanic combat submarine, the ballistic missile, the smart bomb, and the assault rifle. In most every field of martial endeavor, those legendarily industrious Germans developed weapons that eclipsed those of their enemies. The German Tiger tank, as an example, was extolled as the baddest war machine on the battlefield. For all their martial acumen, however, the Germans issued their soldiers some of the most pathetic combat handguns. While certain designs like the P08 Parabellum and P38 were indeed serviceable enough, the sundry small caliber pieces really seem incongruous to a race that considered themselves supermen.
The Exigencies of Total war
Truth be known, for all its touch and go drama, World War 2 was over soon after it began. Germany lacked the population base and natural resources to sustain total war on multiple fronts, while Japan was little more than a glorified island bereft of substantial natural resources. Both nations entered the war for their own reasons, but neither could hope to match the manpower reserves of the Allies or the massive industrial output of the United States. Additionally, the competing manufacturing mindsets between the Axis and the Allies doomed them from the start.
I do so love poring over World War 2-era German small arms. The MP40, as an example, is simply festooned with acceptance stamps and maker’s codes. Everything large enough to accept it is identified with a serial number. Even the firing pin on the iconic German burp gun sports one. Trying to build these guns this way must have been a constant nightmare independent of day and night bombing by the British and Americans.
By contrast, while the Germans were engraving their MP40 firing pins with individual serial numbers American industry was churning out 65,000 M1 Carbines per day. There were no spare parts made available for the earliest American M3 Grease Guns. If something about these stamped steel subguns broke you were to simply run over it with a tank and go draw another one. It was such as this that won us the war.
The Germans never had enough weapons. Before the end, old World War 1-era Maxims and captured small arms by the bushel basket were reissued for the final defense of the Reich. Handguns, in particular, were imported from every corner of their occupied territories.
Variety is Definitely Not the Spice of Life
The Nazis got their guns wherever they could find them. Quality ranged from impeccable to abysmal with everything in between. The Germans issued more than 300,000 Browning Hi Powers made under occupation in Belgium. Designated the Pistole 640(b) in Wehrmacht parlance, the Hi Power was arguably the finest combat handgun of the war.
A bit more than 100,000 Astras served the Reich. Around 350,000 Polish wz. 35 Vis 9mm pistols were issued to German troops, and there were 480,000 P38’s produced by three manufacturing firms before the capitulation. While most of these guns at least fired a proper cartridge, there were literally hundreds of thousands of handguns issued for use by the Kriegmarine, Heer, Luftwaffe, and Waffen SS that fired the 7.65x17mm round. Called the .32ACP on this side of the pond, this diminutive cartridge was the brainchild of the luminary John Moses Browning and seems almost pathetic by modern ballistic standards.
While ammunition supply and spare parts for some twenty-two major handgun types must have driven many a kraut supply sergeant to drink, the preponderance of these small caliber handguns fell into just a few major types. Within these tiny little guns, we find some fascinating historical insights.
An FN Model 1910 chambered in .380ACP armed one Gavrilo Princip when he fired the shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and started World War 1. The subsequent Model 1922 used the same action but sported a longer barrel and magazine. Designated the Pistole 37(u) by the Germans, these two guns were rather uninspired direct blowback designs, but they did incorporate a tri-modal safety system. Used principally by the Luftwaffe, these trim FN pocket guns were also used by the SS, Wehrmacht, and German police. They were also still available commercially up until 1942.
The Mauser HSc was light-years ahead of its time. Sporting rakish lines that seemed to be drawn directly from Saturday afternoon sci-fi serials, the HSc incorporated certain features not bested in pocket guns even today.
The exposed hammer was only barely thus and remained both easily accessed and snag-free. The slide locked to the rear on the last round fired but closed automatically when a fresh magazine was rammed home. Literally, nothing is faster even today. The magazine release was located on the heel after the European fashion, and there was a manual safety on the left rear aspect of the slide that did not drop the hammer.
The Sauer 38H was a prescient design that incorporated a proper thumb-activated magazine release and, on early guns, a slide-mounted safety. The really nifty aspect of this gun was a manual cocker/decocker located under the right thumb. This handy appendage activated and deactivated the hammer fully shrouded within the slide. In fact, the typical German Landser generally referred to the gun as the “H” for “Hammerless” though this was not quite true. The gun had a hammer it just wasn’t visible unless the pistol was disassembled.
The decocker eventually found its way onto the side of every modern SIG P220-series pistol in the world. Uber-Nazi Sepp Dietrich, the SS commander of the 6th Panzer Army during the Ardennes Offensive, carried a Sauer 38H.
The Walther PP first drew breath in 1929 and its abbreviated progeny, the PPK, went on to become one of the most recognizable handguns in history thanks to a certain well-known fictional British MI6 agent.
Operating via a direct blowback action like all of these small-caliber handguns, the PP introduced the planet to the Single Action/Double Action trigger on an autoloading pistol. This same trigger system found its way onto almost all of the 1980’s Wondernine pistols that displaced the classic wheelgun from every Law Enforcement holster in America.
The Beretta 92F, SIG P226, and S&W family of autoloaders all trace their parentage to this seminal design.
Something Even Smaller
There were actually a few pistols used by Axis forces even smaller than these .32ACP heaters. The Mauser 1910 fired the 6.35mm round we call the .25ACP. While predominantly used during the First War to End All Wars, a few of them made their way into the Second. The .25ACP is a breathtakingly tiny cartridge that fires its 50-grain quarter-inch bullet at about 760 feet per second. I once saw a guy in an urban ER who had been shot in the left knee with a .25ACP and was literally not even aware of it until I showed him the x-ray with the bullet in his joint capsule.
My wife’s grandfather was a true American hero. Personifying the Greatest Generation, he fought as an Infantryman from North Africa through Sicily and then up the Italian peninsula. His tour of duty ended when the Nazis were beaten, and he was in combat for nearly two years. Of all the trinkets and mementos he acquired during his service, one of the most intriguing was a .25-caliber Beretta Model 1919 he took from a captured Italian Army officer. This truly tiny combat pistol could hide in the palm of your hand and was likely not dangerous past about twenty feet.
Motivations and Cerebrations
The Germans approached war differently than did we. The Allies were comprised of democracies, and for the Allies a handgun was an implement of war pure and simple. Our 1911 was a handheld close combat killing machine par excellence, while the various British double action revolvers were robust and reliable come what may. Whether wielded by a General Officer or a PFC, our pistols were designed to be effective close range mankillers.
By contrast, the Germans were an aristocratic people whose officers typically, early on at least, came from refined stock. While their 9mm handguns certainly had numerous laudable features, the small caliber pistols they used were really optimized more for carrying than shooting. These men used their handguns as badges of rank, for last-ditch defense, and as a sort of crowd control tool. Given the abysmal terminal ballistics of these pipsqueak cartridges, they were in these narrow applications just barely adequate.
Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the replica German gear used in our photographs.