The area surrounding Suhl and Zella Mehlis in the district of Thuringia, Germany, has a history in weapons development that can be traced back for centuries. It’s a land rich in ore deposits, which makes it an ideal location for those seeking to extract some of the Earth’s most invaluable metals. Blacksmiths were the first primary tradesmen there, they built primitive weaponry, such as swords, battle hammers and body armor. Over time they would slowly evolve into specialty trades, such as gunmakers. Early on these skilled craftsmen built matchlock and then flintlock rifles, but eventually they would flourish into factories capable of producing firearms using the most modern technologies. This particular area saw the rise of several of Germany’s best-known firearm manufacturers, and our focus here will be on just one, and their journey to reach military acceptance. This company is Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen, or as most of the world knows them, Walther.
The company was founded in 1886 by Carl Walther and at first he specialized in building and repairing Schuetzen rifles for competition. Two years after launching the business, he would marry Minna Georgine Pickert, the daughter of a local revolver maker. They would have five sons, three of which Carl would guide to follow in his footsteps as rifle makers.
In order to become truly skilled gun builders, most young apprentices were often sent off to learn from more than just one master of the trade. Carl Walther’s eldest son, Fritz, would do his two-year apprenticeship with the master gunmakers at DVM (Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken), where the famed Luger pistol has its roots. This would be a key component in Walther's progression and sparked their growth from being a simple sporting rifle company to a well-rounded firearm manufacturer.
Upon his return to his family’s shop, Fritz would share with his father what he had learned about the new handguns being developed there. He convinced the elder Walther that the future of firearms was in automatic pistols, and if they were going to compete in the industry, they too would have to explore this new and exciting area of gun building.
The two of them worked on the first project together and eventually came up with what we know today as the Walther Model 1 Pistol. It was introduced in 1908, but wouldn’t go into full production until about 1911. It was a simple blowback, striker fired design in 6.35mm (.25ACP) caliber. The gun had a 6-shot magazine and featured an exposed barrel with a recoil spring and guide rod that ran parallel below the barrel.
They would follow up this pistol in quick succession, naming each in number sequence through the Model 9. Some of the noteworthy changes made throughout the series are as follows:
The Model 2 was introduced in 1909 and was the first Walther pistol to feature the barrel as a guide for the recoil spring. A feature that would be used on several of Walther’s future pistol designs. It was also their first hammer fired pistol. The Model 2 incorporated an innovative rear sight function that doubled as a loaded chamber indicator. It functioned by allowing the sight to recede into the slide when the chamber was empty.
The Model 3 and Model 4 saw a jump in caliber to 7.65mm (.32ACP). These two pistols would also, for some odd reason, have the ejection port placed on the left side of the slide. It caused the pistol to expel empty casings across the right-handed shooter’s field of view. This feature is not seen on any of the other pistols that we are covering here. The Model 4 would also see Walther’s first use of an adjustable rear sight and an 8-shot magazine.
The Model 5 introduced in 1913 returned to the familiar 6.35mm round and 6-shot magazines. However, after this model was completed it seemed that Walther started to recognize that a pistol would need military acceptance to be truly successful. Two years later they would make their first attempt to accommodate the German Army. The Model 6 would be chambered in 9mm Parabellum, the same caliber that was used in the German’s standard issue Luger P-08 Pistols. The Model 6 was very close in design to the Model 4, except it ejected from the right side. It also required a heavier slide and stronger recoil spring to handle the pressure of the larger 9mm caliber. These are likely the most rare pistols in the series, as they were never officially adopted by the Germans and were discontinued in 1917 after only a few were made.
After the failed attempt to gain military attention with this larger handgun, Walther went back to a design that could offer broader appeal. The Model 7 quickly took the place of the 9mm pistol that same year. Its appearance and design would again closely resemble their previous model, but it was considerably smaller. This little pistol marked the return to the 6.35mm chambering, and featured an adjustable V-notch rear sight. It was referred to as the Staff Officer’s Pocket Pistol.
Then in 1920 the pistol that would foreshadow the streamlined appearance, which would be seen on later Walther pistols was introduced. The Model 8 was a striker fired 6.35mm pistol that featured the first use of the trigger-guard lock that secured in the bottom of the frame and could be easily disengaged when disassembling the pistol. Finally, in 1921 the last of the numbered pistols would appear. It seemingly marked a full circle for Walther, as the Model 9 was a Vest Pocket Pistol that shared an identical profile to the Model 1. It had obvious design and mechanical improvements, such as the safety catch behind the trigger, but it essentially had the appearance of Walther’s very first pistol. The Model 9 would stay in production until 1945.
So here we had nine pistols that were introduced in little over a decade, and although they helped build a reputation and appreciation for Walther craftsmanship, none marked any great success that the company had hoped for. Their attempt at military adaptation was unsuccessful and at the close of WWI it would appear they might have missed their opportunity.
During this time, several events took place that could have easily steered their focus away from their earlier military ambitions. Carl Walther had passed away a few years earlier in the summer of 1915, presumably sometime after the completion of the sixth pistol, leaving the family business in the hands of his son, Fritz. Then after WWI ended, the Treaty of Versailles placed restrictions on German firearms production, which left Walther just like many other German firearms manufacturers, in a difficult spot in regards to developing guns powerful enough to meet military standards. Fritz, who was determined to keep his family business afloat, found another way to make the company profitable. They began manufacturing calculators; which actually turned out to be a quality product line that would prove successful for many decades.
However, it wasn’t long before the enforcement of the treaty began to lag. After just a few years, many German firearm builders started to renew their focus on their military firearms, some even choosing to leave the country to pursue developments elsewhere. Walther would be no exception, and by 1929 they would introduce the pistol that many believe to be their greatest milestone. Placing their innovative muscle on full display with the introduction of the Model PP (Polizei Pistole) semi-automatic pistol.The Model PP would become their first real handgun success story, and it would be the first successful pistol to utilize the double action/single action trigger mechanism. It had an exposed hammer and featured the same clean line design that was seen in the Model 8. Another feature adopted directly from the Model 8 was the hinged trigger guard used for locking and removing the slide. Other innovations included the loaded chamber indicator, which would be present on all PP models (except the .22LR rimfire), a safety/decocker mechanism, and the automatic hammer block.
The PP gained acceptance as a service weapon by police forces throughout Europe, marking a true turning point for Walther. It was also quickly followed by the introduction of the Model PPK, its smaller counterpart, which Walther introduced in 1930. The PPK was also geared towards police work and was intended to be concealable and easier to carry for plain-clothes law enforcement officers. The PPK (Polizei Pistole Kriminal Modell) had a smaller barrel and slide than the PP, and the grip design was changed. Instead of a forged backstrap as part of the frame like what is found on the PP, the PPK had no backstrap and featured one-piece, wrap-around grips. A tweak to the design, that was likely done in order to reduce the overall weight of the pistol even further. Still to this day, the PPK allows Walther to claim that they are the founders of the conceal carry market.
Although, both of these pistols were commercially successful, the evolution of the series did not end there. Walther was still wishing to gain military acceptance, and the German military just so happened to have a growing concern about the cost of producing the Luger P-08, so the door of opportunity was opened.
In 1932, Walther began their mission by scaling up their popular PP model and labeling it the MP/PP. It was chambered in 9mm Parabellum and featured a 9-round capacity. It still looked quite similar to the PP, but with a shrouded hammer. However, the simple blowback action quickly proved to be problematic with the larger 9mm caliber and Walther developers moved on.
This lead to their next attempt which would be a complete change in design from all of their previous pistols. The Military Pistole prototype that Walther labeled simply as the Model MP, would feature a recoil action with a locked breech by way of two parallel locking lugs. The barrel was no longer secured to the frame like the blowback action pistols; it could now recoil while locked to the slide, until the pressure from the round dropped. The lug would then release and allow the slide to continue on and cock the hammer, before being returned by a pair of recoil springs. Despite being the genesis for what was still to come from Walther, this version of the MP model still had several flaws and would only be produced in a small quantity before they once again moved on to further development.
Sometime around 1935, Walther had completed their next pistol design, which would feature an almost identical recoil operated action as the last pistol. However, corrective steps were taken to improve the previously exposed flaws. A bridge was added to the front of the slide, which helped secure it to the frame rails even under the heavy pressure of the 9mm. Also, the locking block was made into a single piece, strengthening the overall action. The other notable change was the separation of the takedown and slide stop, which had been a single button on previous designs. This pistol was named the Armee Pistole or Model AP.
It can also be quickly noted that on both of the two previous pistols, Walther began toying with the idea of incorporating cuts on the rear of the frame to attach shoulder stocks, much like the ones used on the Mauser C96 Broomhandle Pistols. Variations of the Armee Pistol would also be made with a longer barrel to be paired with a shoulder stock to accommodate longer-range shots.
Then around 1936 Walther would return their focus back to the MP model. At first they were still using the shrouded hammer, but as the final design was completed, a rounded exposed hammer would be used, similar to what was seen on the PP and PPK models. The single locking block recoil action design that was used on the Armee Pistol would remain, which in hindsight would indicate that Walther was getting close to the desired end result, although there were still some minor changes to come on their next pistol.
The Heeres Pistole or (Model HP) was essentially the same gun except for the addition of a visible extractor, a small change to the profile of the takedown lever, and a spur instead of a rounded hammer. The Heeres Pistol would ultimately be the culmination of Walther’s almost 30-year effort to reach military acceptance. It was adopted by both the German and Swedish Militaries as their primary pistol in 1938.
The German Military would designate their new military pistol the P38. There would be further design changes made, which included chambering the P38 in .45 ACP, but our story will end with military acceptance for now. When we revisit Walther sometime in the future, there will still be plenty left to discuss, as they have since achieved tremendous commercial success with a number of pistols, and they have remained an industry leader with their innovative high-end competition rifles.