Walther P38

Type Semi-automatic pistol
Place of origin Nazi Germany
Service history
In service 1938-present
Used by See Users
Wars World War II[1]
Portuguese Colonial War
Production history
Designed 1938
Manufacturer Carl Walther Waffenfabrik, Mauser Werke, Spreewerk
Produced Walther P38: 1939-1945
Pistole P1: 1957-2000
Number built ~1,000,000 [1]
Variants HP, P1, P38K, P38 SD, P4
Weight 977 g (34.5 oz)
Length 216 mm (8.5 in)
Barrel length 125 mm (4.9 in)

Cartridge 9×19mm Parabellum
Action Short recoil, locked breech
Muzzle velocity 365 m/s (1,200 ft/s)
Effective firing range Sights set for 50 m (55 yd)
Feed system 8-round detachable single-stack magazine
Sights Rear notch and front blade post

The Walther P38 (also known as a Pistole 38) is a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol that was developed by Walther arms as the service pistol of the Wehrmacht shortly before World War II. It was intended to replace the costly Luger P08, the production of which was scheduled to end in 1942.


The first designs submitted to the Heer (German Army) featured a locked breech and a hidden hammer, but the Heer requested that it be redesigned with an external hammer.

The final developmental stage in the P38's design history was the Modell MP/H (indicating exposed hammer). Apparently only a few were produced before the army adopted the HP in 1938 (Modell Heeres Pistole—Model Army Pistol). The production relationship between the HP and the almost simultaneous P38 (Pistole 1938) is unclear and quite confused.

The P38 concept was accepted by the German military in 1938 but production of actual prototype ("Test") pistols did not begin until late 1939. Walther began manufacture at their plant in Zella-Mehlis and produced three series of "Test" pistols, designated by a "0" prefix to the serial number. The third series pistols satisfactorily solved the previous problems for the Heer and mass production began in mid-1940.

Early P38s were almost identical to the HP (which continued to be produced for "commercial sales," i.e., to well-connected Nazis). The major differences were different slide markings, an external extractor, a round firing pin rather than a rectangular one, a different configuration for the locking lever and slide stop lever on the left side, and a re-configuration of the grip panels.

It is interesting to note that in 1944 the cost of one complete P38 was $14.08, while the cost of one complete P08 Luger was $19.80. The commercial retail price of the Model HP during this time was $75.[2]

Several experimental versions were later created in .45 ACP, and .38 Super, but these were never mass-produced. In addition to the 9×19mm Parabellum version, some 7.65×21mm Parabellum and some .22 Long Rifle versions were also manufactured and sold.

Design details

From an engineering perspective the P38 was a semi-automatic pistol design that introduced technical features that are found in other, later, semi-automatic pistols like the Beretta 92 and its M9 sub-variant adopted by the United States military.

The P38 was the first locked-breech pistol to use a double-action/single-action (DA/SA) trigger (the earlier double-action PPK was an unlocked blowback design, but the more powerful 9×19mm Parabellum round used in the P38 mandated a locked breech design). The shooter could chamber a round, use the de-cocking lever to safely lower the hammer without firing the round, and carry the weapon loaded. Pulling the trigger cocks the hammer before firing the first shot with double-action operation. The firing mechanism extracts and ejects the first spent round, cocks the hammer, and chambers a fresh round for single-action operation with each subsequent shot - all features found in many modern day handguns. Besides a DA/SA trigger design similar to that of the earlier Walther PPKs the P38 featured a visible and tactile loaded chamber indicator in the form of a metal rod that protrudes out of the top rear end of the slide when a round is present in the chamber.[3]

P38 made by Mauser, coded "byf 44" with matching presstoff and leather holster

The moving-barrel design mechanism operates by use of a wedge-shaped falling locking block underneath the breech. When the pistol is fired both the barrel and slide recoil for a short distance together, where the locking block drives down, disengaging the slide and arresting further rearward movement of the barrel. The slide however continues its rearward movement on the frame, ejecting the spent case and cocking the hammer before reaching the end of travel. Two return springs located on either side of the frame and below the slide, having been compressed by the slide's rearward movement, drive the slide forward, stripping a new round from the magazine, driving it into the breech and, in the process, re-engaging the barrel; ending its return travel with a fresh round chambered, hammer cocked and ready to repeat the process. The falling locking block design provides good accuracy due to the in-line travel of the barrel and slide.

Initial production P38 pistols were fitted with walnut grips, but these were later supplanted by Bakelite grips.[4]

Overall length of the P.38 is 210 mm (8.3 in). The barrel is 125 mm (4.9 in) with a six-groove bore with a 1:10 right-hand twist. The height is 137 mm (5.4 in) and the width, at the grip panels, is 29.5 mm (1.16 in). The empty weight is about 977 g (34.5 oz).

The sights are fixed, front and rear. The rear sight is an open U-notch and the front sight blade is dovetailed to an integral mount on the barrel.

World War II manufacturers and inspection stamps

The first weapons produced for the German army were marked with the Walther Arms banner on the left side of the slide. In 1940 the Walther banner was replaced by a secret code to indicate the manufacturer. The Germans feared that markings like the Walther banner would make it quite easy for the Allies to determine the weapon production sites and bomb them. Therefore, at the beginning of 1940 the pistols produced by the Walther plant were marked with the secret code "480" to indicate Walther as the manufacturer. This secret code was replaced after two months (and 7,200 pistols manufactured) with the new secret code "ac" and several weeks after changing the code, it was decided to include the last two digits of the year of manufacture directly under "ac". A handful of "ac41" P38s have been found with the death's head (Totenkopf) symbol on the right side of the slide however it is speculation if these markings are wartime applied. In the latter part of 1941, the finish was changed from a high gloss blue to a dull blue, obviously to enhance cost effectiveness, as the pressure of a wartime economy began to affect Germany's industrial potential.[5] During the Nazi period 584,500 P38 pistols were produced by the Carl Walther plant in Zella-Mehlis, Thuringia, Germany. Production was stopped when the American forces captured the plant in April 1945. Weapons produced had to be inspected before they were delivered to the German Army. After approval the weapons were stamped with an inspection stamp (Waffenamt). The Walther Waffenamt inspection stamp consisted of an eagle above the number 359 (E/359).

The increasing demand for P38 pistols resulted in two more manufacturers in 1942, Mauser and Spreewerk. The Mauser plant in Oberndorf, Baden-Württemberg, Germany produced 323,000 P38 pistols during the Nazi period and those pistols were stamped with the secret code "byf" to indicate Mauser as the manufacturer. At the beginning of 1945 the secret code "byf" was replaced by the new secret code "SVW" (in upper case letters). The factory was captured in April 1945 by the French military. With the captured machines and stocks of existing Walther P38 parts at this plant kept as war reparations, the French firm Manurhin manufactured these pistols between Jun 1945 and 1946 in contravention of previously agreed upon Allied regulations. The French pistols had steel grips, an overall gray parkerized finish and were marked with the Mauser production stamp "SVW" and the addition of a French "Rounded Star" stamp on the right side of the slide which indicated a pressure/proof of "Ordinary Smokeless Proof (Powder "T") Pressure". Ironically, many of these P38s were sent to Indochina and ended up in the hands of members of the French Foreign Legion who had served in the Wehrmacht during the war. These pistols are nicknamed "Gray Ghost P38s" due to their appearance.[6] The initial Mauser Waffenamt inspection stamp consisted of an eagle above the number 135 (E/135) and changed at the end of 1943 to (E/WaA135).

"P.38" model identification mark and Spreewerk "cyq" manufacturer's code on slide of P.38 pistol.
"Eagle over 88" Waffenamt inspection mark on frame of Spreewerk produced P.38 pistol.

The Spreewerk administration headquarters was based in Spandau, Berlin, however its production plant; initially a textile mill.;[7] was located in Hradek nad Nisou (formerly Grottau), Bohemia, Czechoslovakia and called Werk Grottau. Spreewerk was tasked as the third manufacturer of P38 pistols at the end of 1942 and assigned the secret code "cyq" This stamp was applied by hand after the metal bluing process. There are a number of P38s marked "cvq" leading to speculation that they could be damaged Spreewerk stamps with a broken tail off the "y", or an additional Spreewerk production sequence series,[7] or perhaps an unknown fourth manufacturing plant. Generally speaking the Spreewerk P38s were of rougher quality than those from Walther or Mauser. An asterisk stamped on any component of a Spreewerk P38 indicates a part designated as a repairable reject. Except for the locking block and sear, all other parts on any Spreewerk P38 were given a dull blue finish by means of a hot salt bluing process. Fabrique Nationale (FN) began providing frames to Spreewerk at the end of 1944 and these frames are marked either with FN's Waffenamt eagle over "140" (E/140) or with "MI" or "m" on the left front trigger guard. Spreewerk produced 283,080 pistols before being captured by the Soviet military in April 1945. Approximately 100 pistols were produced under supervision of the Soviet (00-series) before production was stopped and the factory was disassembled. The Spreewerk Waffenampt inspection stamp consisted of an eagle above the number 88 (E/88).[8]

These three factories produced a total of approximately 1.2 million P38 pistols. All wartime military P38's were marked with the Reichsadler Eagle stamp, whereas non-military commercial models were stamped with the commercial eagle proof.[9]

During World War II the Heereswaffenamt acquired P38 components from several captured factories. Bohmische Waffenfabrik, AG (Ceska Zbrojovka) in Prague, Czechoslovakia made barrels for both Walther and Spreewerk. Fabrique Nationale (FN) in Liege, Belgium built 4,720 P38 frames and 2,272 slides between August 1943 and September 1944. Spreewerk also had a second factory near Werk Grottau called Werk Kratzau, producing primarily ammunition and magazines. Magazines were also produced in Dolni Poustevna, Czechoslovakia by Erste Nordböhmische Metallwarenfabrik (code jvd).

There is absolutely no documentation that Walther, Mauser or Spreewerk ever made even so much as a prototype short-barrel P38, or that pistols of this type were ever fielded by the Gestapo or the Waffen SS. Those offered for sale usually have had the banner applied by a pantograph and are completely counterfeit.[5]

During the early and mid 1990s, large quantities of these wartime pistols captured by the Soviets on the Eastern Front were imported to the United States. All of these pistols had been "dipped," which means reblued without first polishing to remove defects. Most of them, in accordance with the Gun Control Act of 1968, have importers' marks prominently displayed on their barrels, although some do not. Further, these pistols can usually be distinguished by a black oxide finish that's suspiciously consistent on every single one of the components. Most were inspected and re-finished at the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant in Izhevsk, Soviet Union.

World War II magazines, holsters, grips, and accessories


The eight-round, single row, detachable box magazine has seven cartridge indicator holes on each side of its sheet-metal body. The magazine floorplate can be easily removed for cleaning. In total four manufacturers of World War II P38 magazines are known. The following Waffenamt acceptance stamps can be found on the magazines (sometimes the magazines have no stamps at all):[10]


The first P38 holsters were patterned after those for the P08 Luger. Early issue were made from top grain cowhide with a fully molded flap of the type common to European military holsters of the era. Of these leather holsters, most were black, although a few were made of brown leather. Very few were made of pebble-grain-stamped cowhide. Later holsters were made of Presstoff which was durable and easily adapted to be used in place of leather which under wartime conditions was rationed. Most of these holsters are marked at the rear with a large "P.38" and either a manufacturer's code with the last two digits of the date or all four digits of the year, and sometimes, but not always, with a Waffenamt.

Two types of P38 holsters were produced during World War II; hardshell and softshell. Hardshell holsters were produced from 1939 up to 1943. After 1943, mainly softshell holsters were manufactured. All wartime P38 holsters have the same hanging system, consisting of two belt loops. The closure strap can be down or upwards.[12]


A wide variation of grips can be found on World War II and postwar produced P38s:

Walther Grips, first variation (World War II).[10]

Carl Walther in Zella-Mehlis was the only firm that manufactured grips for the P38 pistols that it also produced. The first variation Walther grips were used on the four variations of the military Walther 0-series and the earliest commercial Walther HP series (including the Swedish contract). These grips can be easily recognized by the black color and the checkering, the left-side grip is characterized by a circular impression with a cut for the lanyard loop.

Four circles can be seen on the inside of the majority of these grips. The top circle contains the letters CeWe, a trademark of the Walther firm. The second circle from the top contains the number 480, which is probably a parts number of the mold or of the grips. The third circle from the top contains the MPBD supervision mark, with the company code (V7) in the upper part and the classification marking of the resin molding compound (Z3 or T1) in the lower part. In the last circle, the digit 1 will constantly appear. It is supposed to be the position number in the mold, but it is hard to imagine that there was just one position in the form. Between these circles the last three numbers of the serial number of the gun and the Walther Waffenamt E/359, was embossed. Some very early grip versions do not show the markings CeWe, 480, or the MPBD mark. They just have the last three digits of the serial number and the Waffenamt; some have the digit 1 in the lower part without a circle.

Walther Grips, second variation (World War II).[10]

The Walther grips second variation have the typical exterior form of the majority of P38 grips with transverse grooves, of which 6 grooves are broken by the hole for the grip screw. The upper groove is fairly short. The left-side grip shows, in the lower rear portion, a rectangular indent with a cut for the lanyard loop. Inside are three circles, of which the lower two typically are empty. In the upper circle are the MPBD marking with the Walther company code V7 and the material classification marking 57, 41, 31, or Z3.

The second variation Walther grips started to appear on Walther P38s as early as mid-1942, as well as at the beginning of production on the Mauser-produced P38s.

On the Mauser-made P38s, second variation Walther grips are often found with V7/57 or V7/31 in the MPBD marking. The lower two circles remain free of markings. Walther grips marked V7/41 have not been seen on Mauser-produced P38s.

It has not been proven to date that original grips manufactured by Walther were ever attached to the Spreewerk-made P38 pistols.

Allgemeine Electricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) Grips.[10]

The majority of P38 grips were produced by AEG. Externally and internally, they had the typical design of the so-called military-styled ribbed P38 grips. On the outside, they have the same structure as the second variation Walther grips, with six grooves broken by the grip screw. The top one is relatively short. The left grip shows, in the lower rear portion, a rectangular indent with a cut for the lanyard loop.

The variation up to mid-1943 had three circles on the inside. The upper one had the MPBD marking, with the company code 38 and the compounds classification marking Z3. The second circle is always blank. The lowest circle contains a typical marking that are found only on AEG grips: The left grip is marked with P 1529 and a digit between 1 and 9 beneath. The right grip is marked with P 1528 and a digit between 1 and 9. It is most likely that the notations P 1528/1529 are names for specific parts given by AEG, and the digits 1-9 may represent the positions in the mold (assuming that multiple grips were manufactured in the same mold at a time.)

Grips produced since the beginning of 1943 are found with a strongly changed MPBD marking in the upper circle. In these grips, the markings are often not identifiable. But it is known for certain that these are AEG grips because on some of them, the company marking 38 is still visible, and the markings in the lower circle (P 1528/29, which are only found in AEG grips) are still sharp.

These grips are found on P38 pistols from Walther and Mauser, as well as on the early Spreewerk P38s. AEG grips appeared for the first time on Walther P38s at the end of the fourth variation 0-series. The Walther firm marked those grips with the last three digits of the serial number; additionally, they were marked the Waffenamt E/359. With regard to the serial numbers, that continued with the P38 variations – 480, ac-no-date, ac40 added, ac40 standard, and ac41 up to about the mid b-block, and in regard to the Waffenamt, that continued until about the early ac42 variation. Beginning from about mid-1942, we can see mainly the typical early AEG grips without the serial number and Waffenamt on Walther P38 pistols. After that, sporadically, AEG grips with 38/Z3 and two lower empty circles were found.

The Mauser P38 pistols, for the first year and a half until approximately mid-1944, were equipped mostly with the typical early AEG grips. Grips on Mauser P38s never contained a Waffenamt. The first 20,000 Spreewerk P38 pistols featured AEG grips, which were shipped from Walther to the Spreewerk factory. After that, those grips vanished from the Spreewerk P38s.

Posselt Grips.[10]

The company of Julius Posselt in Gablonz produced the grips for the Spreewerk-made P38s from the end of 1943 until the end of World War II. No proof exists that Posselt grips have ever been assembled on any P38 pistols other than the Spreewerk models. The Posselt grips have the typical exterior of the majority found on P38s, except that they show only 5 grooves that are broken by the grip screw. The uppermost groove, when compared with the other models, is relatively long. As on the other military-styled grips, the left grip, in the lower rear part, bears a rectangular indent with a lanyard loop slit.

Julius Posselt originally worked with a compound consisting of phenolic resin with sawdust, which was renamed to 31 in the beginning of 1943. From mid-1943 on, a new recipe with less resin was introduced. This compound was classified as 41. The 31 and 41 compounds were not manufactured parallel to each other. This means that during the first months of production of Posselt grips, 31 was engraved in the MPBD mark, and from mid-1943 on the classification was 41.

It remains uncertain how many thousands of grips with the 31 marking still were in stock when the production of grips with the 41 classification began. That’s why even after August 1943, grips can be found with 31 and 41 on the same Spreewerk P38. Julius Posselt grips were never marked by a serial number or with a Waffenamt.

Durofol Grips.[10]

Durofol grips were observed rather rarely on very late Walther P38s. They have an interesting color, with a partly marbleized appearance. On the inside, a vertically directed rhombus (diamond) is seen, in which the word Durofol is engraved in script. In this longitudinal direction, numbers can be found that indicate its position in the mold, just as are on the Posselt grips. Those numbers are exactly the same as the ones on the Posselt grips. Waffenamts or serial numbers have not been found on Durofol grips.

Polyamid-6 Grips.[10]

No company codes, trade names, serial numbers, or Waffenamts were found in the softer black grips that were seen predominantly on the late Mauser P38s. These also were found to a much smaller degree on the late Walther P38s. To date, it has not been proven that they have ever been found on Spreewerk P38s. Typical characteristics of these slightly lighter weight and less precisely manufactured grips are their shiny, jet-black color. Their external appearance is identical to the AEG grips. According to the grip’s internal configuration, two types (identified as I and II) are known. On the lower inner surface of the left grip of both types, two empty circles are situated. The inner center of the right grip of the type I variety shows an inordinate warping, which corresponds to the feeding opening of the injection material. Other characteristics cannot be found on the type I right grip. On type II grips, the left and the right grip have matching markings (each marked with two circles in the inner lower half of the grip); less the inordinate amounts of warping found on the type I right grips.

It is not known to date where these grips were manufactured.

"French" Grips (postwar).[10]

After the capture of the Mauser factory by Allied troops, the production of the P38 was continued for a while under French occupation for the French army. During that time, the grips were manufactured from sheet-metal and became famous for their unique metal design and appearance. These grips are mainly seen on Mauser SVW 46 “French issue” pistols. They also have been reported on some SVW 45 pistols as well. There are no markings. The thread for the screw was incorporated in the steel.[13]

Post-World War II P38s

Postwar Germany, with four occupation zones (American, British, French, and Russian) was strictly controlled with regard to armaments under the Four Powers Agreement. This protocol forbade the German production of weapons, as well as the formation of any German armed forces or centralized police force.

Each of the occupying countries interpreted the agreement to suit its own ends, as evidenced by P38 production under both French and Soviet authorities. The first armed groups in the four zones were decentralized police organizations armed with an eclectic mix of Allied small arms and German weapons, such as the K98k bolt-action rifle, the Walther PP and PPK pistols, and the P38.

In the American zone, all captured German weapons were destroyed, except for a few P38s, and the police units were equipped with the small arms of the U.S. Army. In 1949, the American, British, and French zones were united as the Federal Republic of Germany, and a new military force was authorized and formed in 1956.

By 1957, the P38 was accepted and World War II-era pistols were cannibalized and rebuilt, with the swastika defaced and the pistols refinished. By the middle of the 1950s, German police units were issued new P38 pistols with aluminum alloy frames that were manufactured by Walther at Ulm-Donau.

The Walther factory was completely destroyed by the end of World War II, and the Red Army confiscated all of the machinery. Escaping to the west, the Walther family established a modest facility in Ulm-Donau on the Danube River in the early 1950s.

Fritz Walther secured a contract with the newly reestablished Bundeswehr for 100,000 so-called P1 (Pistole 1) in 1954. It was the standard sidearm of the Bundeswehr until at least 1994. Commercial sales commenced in 1957, and production by Manurhin in France also began that year.

Sales of the P1 were also made to Austria, Norway, Portugal, the Republic of South Africa, the Pakistani air force, the army of Ghana, and the armies of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. It was manufactured in 9×19mm Parabellum, 7.65×21mm Parabellum (.30 Luger), and .22 LR rimfire.

At first, these pistols were manufactured with steel frames, but quickly, a black anodized aluminum alloy frame was introduced into series production. Walther was a pioneer in the development of alloys applied to handgun design.[5]


The P1 used by the Bundeswehr

The Walther P38 was in production from 1938 to 1963. From 1945 to 1957, no P38s were produced for the German military. Slowly over time, West Germany desired to rebuild its military so that it could shoulder some of the burden for its own defense. Walther retooled for new P38 production since no military firearms production had occurred in West Germany since the end of the war, knowing that the military would again seek Walther firearms. When the Bundeswehr announced it wanted the P38 for its official service pistol, Walther readily resumed P38 production within just two years, using wartime pistols as models and new engineering drawings and machine tools. The first of the new P38s were delivered to the West German military in June 1957, some 17 years and two months after the pistol had initially seen action in World War II, and from 1957 to 1963 the P38 was again the standard sidearm.

In late 1963 the postwar military model P1 was adopted for use by the German military, identifiable by the P1 stamping on the slide. The postwar pistols, whether marked as P38 or P1, have an aluminum frame rather than the steel frame of the original design. The aluminum frame was later reinforced with a hex bolt above the trigger guard.

The last death penalty in Germany was conducted with a variant of the Walther P38 with a suppressor in East Germany on June 26, 1981.[14] During the 1990s the German military started replacing the P1 with the P8 pistol and finally phased out the P1 in 2004.

An improved version of the P38, the Walther P4, was developed in the late 1970s and was adopted by the police forces of South Africa, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg.



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