The Evolution of the Walther P.38

The Walther semiautomatic handguns of the mid-20th Century, including both the PP and P38 families, would become some of the most influential weapons of the latter half of the century. The PP and its smaller stablemate the PPK was perhaps the premier pocket semiautomatic handgun for many decades, and its legacy carried over to the Russian PM Makarov pistol, many American pistols of all sizes, virtually countless European blowback semiautomatics, and it would inspire two major calibers, the 9×18 Makarov of the aforementioned Soviet pistol, and the 9×18 Ultra Police.

The locked-breech P38, too, was an incredibly influential design. While not the first double-action semautomatic handgun (the PP, as well as the much earlier Little Tom pocket pistol, preceded it), it was the first highly influential one. It operation and ergonomics would go on to be the pattern for almost all major post-war “Wondernines”, including the Beretta 92 series that became the M9 service pistol of the United States armed forces. The P38’s locking block even bears a striking resemblance to that of a later rifle, the Czechoslovakian vz. 58.

Forgotten Weapons’ Ian takes a look at the development of the P38, and how Walther went from the blowback PP in .32 ACP or .380 ACP to the excellent locked-breech P38 in a recent video embedded below. If you’re at all interested in Walthers, take a look, as you’ll get a rare glimpse at both the original MP prototypes as well as the mysterious sheet metal Walther:

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • Matthias

    Greetings from Germany and thank you for the look at this rare pieces. M.H.

  • datimes

    Very interesting collection and history. I enjoy these videos.

  • Walther doesn’t get nearly enough credit for innovation.

    In addition to the PPK and P38, some of their other highlights are:

    P5: invented the firing pin safety.

    P88: First duty pistol with completely ambidextrous controls.

    P99: First duty pistol with removable backstraps and ‘sculpted’ ergonomics, as well as first DA/SA striker pistol.

    PPS: First of the scaled down single stack ‘duty/CCW 9’s’ years before the XDS, Shield, or G43.

    PPQ: First of the SAO striker pistols, now being incorporated into the VP9, Strike One, N09.

    • derpmaster

      Yet they run their company like they don’t actually want to sell guns. They make great products (minus the P22) and are leading edge/ahead of the curve quite frequently, but they never market their stuff or produce enough of it to meet demand. The PPS was totally slept on by everyone due to lack of marketing, and is probably my favorite CCW sized 9mm, and even better now with rev 2.

      The sad fact about the gun industry is that you have to constantly spend money to get your product out in front of eyeballs for it to go anywhere. Walther America really does not do a very good job at that.

      • Doug Wicker

        Well, to be fair on the P22, Walther Ulm doesn’t make it. Rather, parent company Umarex in Arsberg put that together and slapped the Walther brand on it. Same thing with the other faux Walthers from Arnsberg — the CCP and PK380, all of which have had their share of issues.

        If you want a real Walther, stick with something from Ulm. My primary carry weapon for going on eight years now is the P99c AS, because I’ve never found anything even close to it.

        I 100% agree that Walther suck at marketing, but then I blame Umarex for diluting the brand as well.

    • Glocks are effectively SAO, though.

      • They’re more like 1.33 action vs single action, which may not seem like much but in practice makes a world of difference.

        90% of the rounds I’ve ever fired have been out of a Glock, and I can say unequivocally that the PPQ’s single action trigger is head and shoulders over the Glock trigger, even with a metal trigger shoe and polished internals.

    • RickOAA .

      The HS2000 had the PPQ beat by over a decade.

      • Very cool, I had no idea the HS2000/XD were a true SA, I thought they were the same ‘partially cocked’ system as the Glock.

        However, the SA mechanism used in the PPQ is patented by Walther, and in practice makes for a much nicer trigger. Curious what the difference is between the two systems.

  • iksnilol

    So… which one turns into Megatron?

    • ostiariusalpha

      I don’t see the U.N.C.L.E. carbine, so it seems like the auction house is safe from dastardly Decepticons. This time. ?

      • iksnilol

        Yes, Megatron’s plan to steal a bunch of old guns so that he can sell them to Mitchells Mausers has been foiled 😛

        • ostiariusalpha

          Sounds about as sensible as Megatron’s hypnotic dance club scheme.

          • iksnilol

            He did what!?

            Too sober for this at the moment. I need to rest my head.

          • ostiariusalpha

            Now you’re wondering where dubstep really comes from. Mwuh-ha-ha-ha!

          • iksnilol

            You mean: Mwuh-mwuh-ᵐʷᵘʰ-ᵐʷᵘʷᵘᵇ⁻ʷᵘᵇ⁻ʷᵘᵇ⁻ʷᵘᵘᵘᵘᵇ


      • Lew Siffer

        That’s because Walther stole the design from Mauser.

  • gunsandrockets

    Excellent video.

  • VF 1777

    Wow, what an incredible collection. Thanks for the video, that was incredibly informative and entertaining. The fact that the lineage started with the PP is very interesting to me, and I can’t help but feel the heritage of the PP in the new PPS M2. I honestly think the M2 something of a masterpiece, an evolutionary triumph.

  • Blake

    [reposted from the last P38 article]

    My Dad inherited my uncle’s P38 when he passed away a few years ago. It came back with him after his Marshall Plan service, & it had pretty much been sitting in the back of his closet with two mags & the leather holster since then. Luckily it survived their house fire in the late ’90s unscathed.

    I got Dad a fresh set of Wolff gunsprings & magsprings for it, & dug up a manual on the ‘net. When we replaced the springs we did a full takedown & deep-cleaned & re-lubed everything.

    It runs like a top.

    We’re extra-careful to keep hot ammo far far away from it but it eats the cheap & dirty stuff like Wolf & Brown Bear all day long without complaining, & it’s easy to field-strip & clean once you’ve done it a few times & get the hang of it. The trigger has quite a bit of takeup but it breaks cleanly enough for a weapon mass-produced for military use 70 years ago. It’s not quite as accurate as our fixed-bbl CZ-83 but it’ll certainly hold its own against any of the other semi-auto pistols in the safe (& is better than several of them).

    It’s really cool that such an interesting piece of history (both world history & family history) can be enjoyed safely at the range, especially given that it had been stored for so long. Starts some nice conversations at the range too.

    I just got him a set of “modern” P1 “police” sights for it, as I consider the military blade sights to be the weakest point of the weapon (& replacing them is easily reversible, along with a set of walnut grips that preserve the “window blind” look of the originals). Looking forward to seeing how that works out…

  • Blake

    “See, I don’t hate all German stuff, Alex”

    cute tag Nathaniel 🙂

    • I’ve gotten a reputation, I guess. Alex once told me “Nate, I’ve never met anyone as reflexively anti-German as you.”

      Hrm, I guess that’s because I don’t talk enough about the Luger, P.38, MP.40, MP5, and MG-34, all world-class firearms.

  • ciscokid3750

    George Nonte wrote an article in Shooting Times Magazine back in 1972 about the durability of the P38 (Post War Aluminum Frame, two piece barrel, improved safety) versus the Smith & Wesson M39 (also aluminum frame and Walther type safety). After 5,500 round of fired out of each gun the Smith’s frame rails broke off at the rear and the cheap cast safety broke as well (M39’s were noted for this). The Walther on the other hand did not break any parts but did suffer wear on the aluminum frame where the slide recoils against the frame. This was later corrected by Walther by inserting a steel hex cross pin through the frame for the slide to recoil against. The Smith lost more accuracy in the test than the Walther did as well.
    Of course the P38 was not without its faults. The top cover would blow off the P38 if hot loads were used (or the top cover removed and slightly bent and then re-installed), as it was only held on by friction which would allow some of the internal parts to blow out of the pistol as well. Surprisingly the top cover post war was made even more prone to blow off because Walther made it with only two legs instead of four legs. Also the extractor tended to blow out of the gun as well. Late, late post war guns had a step milled into the extractor to prevent the extractor from walking out under its detent. How well this worked is still open to debate but it was better than the original style extractor.
    P38’s also had a tendency to crack the slide at the ejection port where the slide metal was most thin. This problem also showed up in the Beretta 92 whose slide was loosely based on the P38 slide.
    The P38 WWII models also had a faulty safety which would crystalize and break and supposedly permit the gun to fire when it broke. Post war models supposedly corrected this with a design change to the safety. Still it is not a good idea to simply flip the safety and let it crash down onto the back of the slide but rather its more prudent to ease the hammer down with the thumb. Something the average user does not have the intestinal fortitude to carry out which can result in damage to even post war P38 safeties.
    Accuracy of the P38 was never the equal of other 9mm WWII pistols such as the FN High Power or the Polish Radom or the German Luger (but it had its problems too).
    Although the WWII P38 was often condemned because of the defectively designed safety that could break letting the pistol fire, on the plus side a gun in good condition was a much safer gun to carry and handle than its predecessor the German Luger because the P38 had a visible hammer and a manual de-cocking safety and a long hard double action pull for the first shot. More than a few G.I.’s accidentally shot themselves with war trophy Lugers because unlike the P38 the Luger did not have a visible hammer letting one know that the gun was cocked or not, a single action trigger pull and the Luger’s safety was often left in the “off position” which resulted in G.I.’s accidentally shooting themselves with it, often with fatal results.
    The steep feed ramp of the P38 worked well enough with full metal jacketed bullets which in all fairness is what it was designed to work with but trying to shoot hollow point or soft point bullets out of it often resulted in constant jamming. Winchester long ago made a truncated hollow point bullet that would work in the P38 and even in the German Luger and Remington once made a hollow point bullet shaped like a full metal jacketed round which also worked in both guns. I whish I had bought more of them back in the old days when they were still being made.

  • disqus_f62emCdwDh

    Ian,, WELL DONE. My own bent after reading an early copy of W.H. Smith’s “Small Arms of the World” decades ago was that the progression of technology through history is utterly fascinating. I’ve done a bit of writing myself on the subject, noting developmental trends, material choices, and operating mechanisms as you have done here. Great work.

  • Richard Lutz

    Overrated gun as are most of the weapons used by the Nazis. Top cover was prone to flying off along with the firing pin/spring and rear sight, while the ludicrously heavy DA trigger pull was a joke. The Browing Hi-Power was by far the best combat pistol of WWII.