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P-38 (P-1)

Length Barrel Weight  Caliber Action Type Magazine Capacity
8.6 4.9 2.1 9mm DA Semi auto 8
    The world of the fifties and sixties was a place of intrigue, and mystery. The cold war was in full swing, the old colonial possessions were becoming the third world, and Europe was recreating itself. Over all of this, hung the specter of nuclear war, and the possibility of the destruction of world civilization. This new world had emerged entirely because of the Second World War, politically, geographically, technologically, and socially. Over the dismembered corpses of the old European nations, the superpowers of the free, and communist states glared at each other across what Winston Churchill called an "iron curtain". In the midst of it all, the cause and the catalyst, was Germany, and the mythology of the defeated Nazi state.
     The mystique of the Nazis is with us, even today. In part this is the mantle which covers all extinct cultures and dead governments, but there is more to it than this. The nazis have been credited with an almost supernatural list of abilities, and powers. To a certain extent, this was created consciously by hitler, and his associates, with their badges, orders, and heraldry. There was a certain effort made to instill a mythology as in the days of the old knights and secret societies. This may have been, in part, an attempt to reinforce the tenuous legitimacy of their authority, though it was also certainly a reflection of their own delusions of grandeur.
    Besides the vain self aggrandizement of the Nazi leaders, there was also the accomplishment of the German state. Germany did come frighteningly close to winning the war, after all, particularly in the rapidly moving initial stages of the conflict. The circumstances surrounding this near victory have been analyzed to death, over the decades, but a couple of things have become clear. The main point seems to be that the early success of the Germans was largely due to the failure in judgment and resolve, by the leaders of the democratic states. The pandering of Chamberlain, the isolationism of the U.S. Congress, and the refusal of the French to believe they were in a shooting war, along with the usual foolish efforts of the pacifists, all added to the "strength" of Germany. Unable, or unwilling, to admit their terrible error, the allies magnified Germany into a super state. The German soldiers became super solders, their planes and other tools of war became super weapons (even to the extent that, after the war, the term "wonder weapons" was applied to them), and their marshals became the last word in military genius.
    At war's end, there was a curious ambivalence in the attitude of the winners. There was, at once, an admiration, and deification of all things German, while at the same time, an absolute detestation, and morbid fascination with the Nazis, who had caused the whole mess. In particular, the weapons, and technology of the Germans were held in high regard. This began with the study of German jets, missiles, submarines, and guidance systems, and extended all the way down to German small arms. This included the issue piece of the war, the P-38 pistol. So it was, that in the multitude of spy movies, TV series, books, and other cultural paraphernalia of the times, the mythological pistols of the mythological dead Reich played a prominent part, in the new mythology of the cold war, and of the spy.
    My first exposure to the P-38 was it's use in the sixties television show, the Man From UNCLE. As a ten year old, I spent many hours watching the tongue in cheek heroics of Napoleon and Illia. The guns used in the series had their barrels cut down, in the manner of the P-38K, and had some kind of odd device hanging off of the muzzle which was supposed to be a flash hider. There was also a very awkward looking carbine version, which would have been pretty impractical in the real world. To the legion of young viewers, tuning in every week, these jury rigged firearms were the last word in exotic, and deadly weapons. Though firearms experts, and gun savvy viewers may have cringed, the rest of us were delighted. To my schoolmates in the sixties, as well as to myself, the P-38 was the Man Form Uncle gun. More recently, the P-38 was used by Indiana Jones, and by the Scorpio killer, in Dirty Harry. The unique look of the gun makes it a favorite, when a certain movie effect is desired.
    Due to such exposure, the P-38, along with the Luger, the Colt M1911, the Colt SAA, and the ever popular Walther PPK, have became icons and legends. In addition to it's television exposure, this was a favorite war trophy with returning soldiers, and many were brought back by homebound servicemen. After the war, these guns, along with many other surplus weapons, were part of a flood of firearms which were sold cheaply to collectors, sportsmen, and gun enthusiasts by the million. I can recall, before the imposition of the GCA of 1968, seeing magazine advertisements for the P-38, the Luger, and even the old Colt M1911, for $25 - $50. It makes my heart ache to see those ads today. As with many firearms, particularly pistols, the myth is as powerful as the gun itself, and turns it into something more than a mere piece of machined metal.

The Gun
     This is an example of the post war version of the classic German pistol of W.W.II, the P-38. The gun was designed on the eve of the Second World War, to replace the Luger, as the issue sidearm for the German army. The Luger, classic design that it may be, had a number of shortcomings. In particular, the Luger action was delicate, and it's open design made it very vulnerable to dirt. The initial offering by Walther, made to the German army, was essentially an enlarged version of the recently designed, and very popular PPK, chambered for the 9mm cartridge rather than the little 380. Ordnance officials found the unlocked blowback design unsuited to military applications, and requested a locked breech action. Walther's next offering was, a striker fired pistol (as with the current version of the Glock), with a locked breach. At the request of the German army, the striker was replaced by a traditional external hammer, and the gun went into production, and was adopted by the army, in 1938. The exposed barrel, and open top, gave this pistol a unique look, compared to the classic Browning style autos.
    The double action trigger is identical in design to that of the PPK, though the pull seems to be a bit lighter. The locking mechanism differs a bit, from the classic Browning type though. Rather than pivoting the barrel, as both of the Browning designs do (the 1911 via a toggle, the Hi-Power via a cam), the barrel of the P-38 runs backwards in a pair of grooves milled into the frame. A wedge is used to lock and then unlock the barrel and the slide. Interestingly, there is only one other series of combat pistols to use this system, the full sized Beretta. The Beretta too, has an open topped slide. As far as I know, no other modern pistols, other than Walther's own P-88, are derivative of this action. Manufacture of the P-38 ceased in 1945, after what most experts agree was production of roughly a million units, exact war time production figures being hard to come by.
    The post war production began in 1953, with a few changes. These guns were redesignated as the model P-1 by the German army, though they were still marketed to civilians as the P-38. Most noticeable was the change from steel to alloy, in the construction of the frame. The new guns are finely blued, and bear the Walther banner on the slide. Though a better design, more functional, and practical than the venerable Luger, the P-38 costs half as much to produce. The P-38 has been replaced in army use, by the newer P-88, and in police use by the P-5. The difference between the models is largely cosmetic. The P-5 is, essentially, a P-38 with the slide streamlined, and lengthened to cover the entire barrel. There were some changes to the safety system; but operation of the new guns remains the same. While the P-88, and P-99 have a more conventional Browning style locking system.
    The P-38 is comfortable to shoot, though it does not quite equal the great natural pointing characteristics of the Luger which preceded it. The grips are quite comfortable, the trigger wide and smooth, and the gun has reasonable handling and pointing characteristics. Accuracy is good, and the gun is nice and tight. This particular example is German military surplus P-1 version, and was produced in the early sixties. Large numbers of these guns were sold off as surplus, when the German Army changed over to the new P-88. The alloy frame is dark blue (almost black), the grips are of black plastic, and the upper unit (slide, and barrel) are of a black parkerized finish, which looks gray in these photos.
    Many soldiers brought these pistols back from the war, and were impressed by the unusual, for the time, double action trigger. The looks of the gun, along with the mystique of all German arms of the time, made the gun seem quite exotic to Americans. The 9mm cartridge, though common enough in Europe, also struck the Americans as exotic. The whole package was nothing like the 1911 autos, or double action pistols with which most of the troops were familiar. Great stores of these "exotic" pistols were available all over post war Europe, and the gun seemed to be turning up everywhere. There were also large numbers squirreled away by ex soldiers, and civilians.
     The European and military beginnings show up clearly in the placement of the magazine release, Euro style in the butt of the gun, and in the lanyard attachment on the left side of the grip. The fixed sights are great, unlike the terrible examples burdening the standard military version of the American Colt M1911. The single action trigger pull on the P-38 is great, with a tiny bit of slack, but a clean break once the slack is taken up. The double action pull is clean but heavy. The barrel moves straight back in the frame, and does not pivot in the manner of the Colt/Browning action. This would seem to make this pistol inherently more accurate than the Colt or Browning. The gun also points and handles great. The P-38 was one of the first handguns to feature the now ubiquitous hammer drop safety. To the soldiers and ordnance officers of the post Second World War era America, the P-38 made the standard issue M1911 45 auto seem quaint and outdated. The P-38 was the catalyst which helped to inspire the trials to replace the old M1911. These resulted in the S&W M39/M59 series of pistols, and in the development of the Colt Commander. The P-38 also features a loaded chamber indicator, pointed out in the photo to the left, just above the hammer. In the photo, the indicator is protruding, which indicates a loaded chamber. The indicator can be felt, as well as seen, making it usable in the dark. This is of doubtful utility, but is seen on many European pistols. As with the S&W autos, the hammer drop safety has up as fire, and down as safe.
    Depending upon production dates of the particular P-38, some of these pistols were well made, like the finely crafted instruments they were designed to be; others were roughly finished, due to war time requirements, and seemed to be pounded together in someone's basement. . The guns were popular with the troops, who found them dependable, simple to operate, and easy to care for, as well as with the armourers, who found them easy to service, when compared to the old P-08 Luger. The post war P-1 variants were very well made, and well finished. As in the immediate post war era, there is presently a large number of these guns available, at what today are pretty good prices. This particular example was purchased in mid 2005 for under $300, including holster and extra magazine. Though these were cutting edge handguns, when they were introduced, the lack of a double column magazine has put them slightly behind the times, despite the many features, and the general excellence of the design.
    All of these guns were issued with a standard field holster, and one extra eight round magazine. These were full flap holsters, which protected the guns well, and featured a section in which to store an extra magazine. The military holster is of heavy leather, and riveted construction. The P-38, and P-1 variant are oddly proportioned handguns; but many commercial holsters are available.
    The P-38 is not particularly difficult to disassemble; but the action does differ enough from the standard Browning action to be confusing. The action uses a pair of recoil springs in the sides of the frame, rather than the single center mounted spring of the classic 1911. Once gotten used to, the P-38 is much easier to disassemble than the Colt M1911.
Disassembling the P-38

After checking to ensure that the gun is empty, engage the slide hold open, either by directly raising the hold open lever, or by inserting an empty magazine, and then pulling back on the slide.

Pivot the takedown lever to it's lower position, and then  gently lower the hammer. If the safety is set to Safe, rather than to Fire, the hammer will drop as soon as the slide passes the back of the frame.

The slide unit will now come easily off of the frame.

The P-38 with the slide off of the frame.

In order to separate the barrel from the slide unit, the action must be unlocked by depressing the locking block pin.

The slide and barrel assemblies. Any further disassembly is not recommended.

To reassemble, the barrel must be inserted into the slide, and then locked in place by depressing the locking block, as shown.

The slide is then installed back on the frame.

The ejector must be depressed, before the slide can be pushed completely back onto the frame.

With a magazine in place, the action will lock back, otherwise, as in step one, you will need to raise the slide stop lever to lock the action. Once the action is locked back, the takedown lever needs to be raised to it's uppermost position. The gun is now reassembled.