My wife’s grandfather was a hero of mine. He passed away recently with very little fanfare at age 96, but this extraordinary man was one of the first paratroopers in the Army. After breaking his leg on a training jump he was assigned to a conventional Infantry unit after he healed. He served in North Africa, fought with Patton across Sicily, and slogged up the Italian peninsula through places like Rome and Monte Cassino. Also, he enlisted in 1940 as a Private and left the Army in 1945 as a Sergeant Major.
Ever resourceful and a product of the Great Depression, there was very little this man could not do. On the troop ship coming back from the war, he took a stock German P38, stripped it down, and silver-plated it using a silver dollar and a jeep battery. He sold the shiny pistol to an Army doctor on board who had never been anywhere close to combat for $400. That’s more than $5,000 today. The hapless physician assumed that Goering himself must have been the only one to wield a silver-plated P38.
Adolph Hitler’s megalomaniacal aspirations stretched his nation and his military to their breaking point and beyond. Actively engaged in a global war on three fronts, the German war machine was forever short on armaments. By the end of the war both children and retirees were mustered out in the final defense of the Reich. In no place was the Germans’ desperate shortage of weapons made more manifest than in combat handguns.
The humble handgun does not win wars. Modern special operators occasionally wield the handgun as a primary weapon, but this was rare in WW2. Pistols during that time were most commonly badges of rank or tools of execution. Carrying one can be a great boon to morale, but this was not the tool that topples governments.
The Germans produced vast quantities of indigenous handguns, but they had to reach out to their occupied territories to meet the ever-growing demand. Early in the war most all of the pistols used by Germany were well built and effective. By the end around-the-clock strategic bombing had taken its toll. Even domestically produced versions became crude and rough. Those guns made by slave labor in the occupied territories were at times unsafe. Here is a brief roundup of the many-splendored handguns used by the Wehrmacht, Waffen SS, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine during World War 2.
Georg Luger’s P08 Parabellum
An evolutionary development of an earlier Borchardt design called the C-93, the eponymous Luger pistol was an elegant and overbuilt combat implement. Of all the common souvenirs from the war, it was the Luger that was most fiercely coveted. The P08 Parabellum fired the standard 9mm cartridge via a brilliant toggle-locked adaptation of the human knee joint.
The Luger fed from a single stack 8-round box magazine and sported a remarkably mushy single action trigger. Although the sights were too small, everybody’s sights were too small. The P08 pointed naturally, but its meticulous manufacture made it overly susceptible to battlefield grunge.
The Walther PP and PPK
Designed in 1929 as a Law Enforcement weapon, the PP-series pistols introduced the world to the single action/double action trigger on an autoloading handgun. Chambered predominantly for the .32ACP round, this tidy little defensive gun fired via unlocked blowback. The PPK was slightly stubbier than the PP but used the same basic action.
The PP-series pistols served with all branches of the German military primarily as an officer’s weapon. Its small footprint of the gun made it easy to carry, while its advanced design offered solid close quarters combat performance. The .32ACP round was grossly underpowered but remained nonetheless effective for a close range killing shot to the base of the neck.
The Walther P38
The P38 reflected an evolutionary development of the trigger system of the Walther PP-series pistols. Offering true single action/double action operation, the P38 was arguably the most advanced combat handgun design of the war. It fed from an 8-round box magazine and employed the European-standard heel-mounted magazine release.
The P38 was made in both Germany and Czechoslovakia, and quality varied based upon how late in the war the gun was produced. Just shy of half a million of these guns saw action, and it remained in active military use up until the 1980’s. Glock pistols replaced the P38 in Austrian Army service in 1983.
The Mauser HSc
The HSc competed in the same space as the Walther PPK. Intended for Law Enforcement use as well as service as an officer’s close combat tool, the HSc was phenomenally advanced for its day. Sporting science fiction lines and features not bested even today, the HSc was decades ahead of its time.
The HSc included a semi-shrouded no-snag drum hammer that was accessible by the shooter’s thumb. A slide-mounted safety blocked the firing pin but, unlike that of the PPK, did not drop the hammer. The slide locked back on the last round fired, but there was no manual slide release. An operator simply slammed in a fresh magazine, and the slide closed automatically. Nothing is faster even today. Had it not been for the gun’s heel-mounted magazine release it might have been the most efficient combat pistol design of the war.
The Sauer 38h
The Sauer 38h was another entrant in the running for use as a German pocket pistol that competed with the HSc and PPK. Firing the .32ACP round by means of an unlocked blowback action, the 38h fed via an 8-round box magazine. Slim and svelte, the 38h incorporated a number of prescient design features.
The most striking aspect of the 38h was the manual frame-mounted decocker. Accessible by the shooter’s right thumb, this pivoting lever allowed the hammer to drop safely on a live round. This same component found its way onto the modern 220-series SIG pistols. Around 200,000 38h pistols saw service, and SS commander Sepp Dietrich carried one during the Ardennes Offensive that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. This particular gun sold at auction for more than $40,000 within the last decade.
The Mauser C96
The Mauser C96 was the world’s first widely successful autoloading pistol design. Titled the Broomhandle based on the striking image it cut when mounted to its detachable holster stock, the C96 fired either 7.63x25mm or 9mm Parabellum via stripper clips fed from the top. A selective fire version fed from detachable box magazines.
The C96 was obsolete by the Second World War, but still saw service with Waffen SS troops, particularly early in the conflict. Expensive to produce and a bit unwieldy in action, the C96 was nevertheless compact and powerful. Mauser Broomhandle was produced both under license and not in large quantities, particularly in Spain and China.
The Browning Hi-Power
The last design of master gun designer John Moses Browning, the P35 Browning Hi-Power was completed after his death by a Belgian named Dieudonne Saive. As most know, Hi-Power incorporated a superb single-action trigger along with a revolutionary tilting-barrel short-recoil locking system. This mechanism was subsequently incorporated into almost every modern combat handgun on the planet. The Saive-designed double column, single feed 13-round magazine offered nearly twice the onboard ammunition load of comparable guns.
The Hi-Power was designated the Pistole 640(b) in German service and was produced in occupied Belgium throughout most of the war. Mainly used by Waffen SS troops and Fallshirmjagers, some 319,000 copies were produced. It was a coveted combat handgun on both sides of the lines.
Radom wz. 35 Vis
Colloquially referred to as the Radom after the Polish city in which it was produced, the Poles actually called the gun the Vis which is Latin for “Force.” A short-recoil design on the Browning pattern, the Vis fired 9mm Parabellum from an 8-round box magazine. The Vis was a prized Axis weapon issued primarily to Fallschirmjager troops.
The Vis was produced by Polish slave labor in occupied Poland and suffered from persistent efforts at sabotage as a result. Polish workers would smuggle component parts off of the production lines to assemble weapons at home for use by Polish partisans. Ultimately the Germans shifted barrel production to Steyr in an effort at curbing illicit production of these guns. The industrious Poles still hand-built barrels and kept the weapons in the pipeline to underground fighters opposing German occupation troops.
FN Model 1922
The FN Model 1922 was an elongated service version of the Browning 1910 pocket gun that Gavrilo Princip used to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and precipitate World War 1. FN’s M1922 could be found in both .32ACP and .380ACP chamberings feeding either 7 or 6 rounds respectively through a single column box magazine. A straight blowback design, the M1922 was issued predominantly to Luftwaffe fliers.
The M1922 was produced alongside the Hi-Power in occupied Belgium and remained available for commercial sale up through 1942. It incorporated a triple safety mechanism consisting of a magazine safety, a grip safety, and a manual safety lever. Widely used throughout the war, the M1922 even served as a private purchase handgun by Japanese military officers.
The Spanish Astra line of combat pistols was chambered in .32ACP, .380ACP, 9mm Largo, and 9mm Parabellum. Just over 100, 000 of these guns were delivered to the German armed forces by the end of the war. As the Astra guns fired via unlocked blowback they demanded a heavy slide and recoil spring along with robust construction.
One of the strangest service weapons issued by the Nazis was the Kongsberg Colt. Produced in Norway, this .45ACP handgun was a copy of the Colt 1911 service pistol used in all theaters by American forces. Issued to the German Wehrmacht as the Pistole 657, around 8,200 of these weapons were produced though few saw service.
Keeping these different guns fed and maintained must have represented an impossible task. In desperate far-flung battlefields ranging across continents, it was likely not practical to service all the various handguns used by German combatants. While the practicalities of issuing these weapons seemed doomed from the outset, it does make collecting odd old German service pistols a fascinating exercise.