When in 1956 the building up of the Bundeswehr was started, the question of a suitable armament for the new army was soon raised. The first tendencies towards the reconstruction of a German weapons industry had already existed a few years earlier, when the establishment of the Federal Border Guard (BGS) in the Federal Republic of Germany suddenly created a need for weapons again. The Bundeswehr opted for a pistol model that was already well established in the Third Reich's Wehrmacht: the P.38.
An invitation to tender, extensive trials or even a troop trial had not yet been announced. Fritz Walther, who moved with his family from Zella-Mehlis in Thuringia to Swabia shortly after the World War 2, re-founded the weapons factory. In the meantime, modern production facilities had been built in Ulm, on the Danube.
A look back: the history of the P.38 pistol
With the P.38, the former Carl Walther gun factory in Zella-Mehlis saw the high point in its company history. The P.38 was not only to replace the already legendary Pistol 08 in the Wehrmacht stocks, it also remained Wehrmacht's standard pistol until the end of the war and was manufactured – besides Walther's plants in Zella-Mehlis – also at Mauser's in Oberndorf and at Spreewerk's in Zittau-Grottau. Parts were also supplied by FN in Belgium. In total, some 1.3 million guns of this type were produced between 1938 – the year the P.38 was accepted as a new service pistol – and the end of the war. Walther did not actually start mass production until 1940, the year when the pistol was officially approved for production.
After the start of mass production in 1940, modifications to the gun remained minor. A small change in the frame shape brought more material around the hammer pin hole, the slide stop lever was also produced in a variant from stamped sheet metal, and towards the end of the war Spreewerk installed a hammer featuring coarser serrations. Mauser also phosphated gun parts and produced stamped sheet-metal grips. Furthermore, the manufacturer's markings had to be applied in code for the weapons delivered to the Wehrmacht from 1940 onwards. Walther first used the numerical code "480", then the letter code "ac", and finally a combination of letter code and year, such as "ac 41".
In the Federal Republic of Germany: the P.38 becomes the P1
When production was restarted after the war in May 1957 at Walther in Ulm, the pistol had undergone various modifications. The gun frame was now made of aluminum. Its surface was black anodized, which gave it a silk-matte finish. The grip plates were now made of a modern plastic, black and checkered. The slide – as well as the pistol's barrel – was now parkerized. The barrel was no longer made from one piece when production was restarted. Rather, it consisted of an interior barrel tube (lining) that included rifling, and an exterior barrel jacket, that is the outer contours of this gun part with guide rails, accommodation for the locking block and front sight.
The markings on the slide again named the manufacturer, now the Carl Walther arms factory in Ulm. The gun was designated as “Pistole P 38”, written without a dot.
In 1959, the Bundeswehr changed the names of the firearms it used. Caliber groups were created and guns were numbered in sequence. The former P 38 now became the P1, 9x19 mm caliber. Walther changed the markings on the slide in 1963.
Over decades of use of the pistol by the German Armed Forces, parts had to be modified again and again to meet the increased demands of service life. Generations of conscripts in the Bundeswehr put more strain on the guns than a short hard frontal engagement in World War II. Thus the light metal grips got a reinforcement in the form of a steel insert. The way the grips are attached also changed over the years. The slide was reinforced. Not only did it receive more material on the sides, but also a raised edge around the ejection port. In the course of this overhaul, slide serrations were also extended – they now began in front of the safety lever. The barrel lining was also changed several times. While the early barrel linings were still shrink-fitted and secured by means of a transversal pin, two variants followed featuring a collar at the end, first a narrow one and finally a wider one. At the very end of the P1 service life in the German Army, Walther returned to a one-piece barrel. The locking block was also changed. Initially a casting, later blocks were milled. The sights were also modified. If early P1s still have a U-notched rear sight and an inverted-V front sight, the pistol later gets a rectangular notch rear sight and a post front sight, now also with white dots. The slide release lever and the firing pin were changed too. Early magazines are blued, later ones are phosphated.
Since P 38 and P1 pistols were repeatedly repaired by the German Army, mixed versions of old and new parts were built over the decades.
A comparison of the two service pistols P.38 and P1
We now compare two typical representatives of the Wehrmacht P.38 and Bundeswehr P1.
The P.38 shown here bears the manufacturer code ac 43, which identifies it as a product of the Carl Walther arms factory in Zella-Mehlis. The year of manufacture is 1943 and it's a pistol of the second version, produced between July and October 1943 in about 50,000 pieces. The gun shows the black bluing on all main and small parts, which is typical for the large-scale production at Walther. The finish of the gun is already matte. Furthermore, the gun already shows the reinforcement around the hammer pin hole. The gun is equipped with bakelite grips giving the Wehrmacht's P.38 its characteristic look. The pistol bears the typical acceptance marks of the German Ordnance Office.
The Bundeswehr P1 shown for comparison shows the typical grey-black phosphating on the slide. The frame made from Dural aluminum alloy is deep-black anodized. The most striking distinguishing feature, however, are the black plastic grips. The gun shown here has the white dots on the rear and front sights. The corresponding magazine has the model designation P1 and the caliber indication 9x19. The weapon shows the approval marks of the Federal Office of Military Technology and Procurement, BWB for short.
What distinguishes the two historical pistols: a conclusion
A direct comparison of the two guns allows not only a look at the further development of production technology and the use of new materials, but also at the historical development within the Bundeswehr. At the beginning, the Bundeswehr was still named after the Wehrmacht, but after a short time it went its own way.
In essence, however, the pistol remained the same – a typical post-war career.