The P38 Was the Wehrmacht’s Workhorse Pistol
The Allies coveted Lugers as souvenirs — but treated captured P38s as practical weapons
U.S. Army Sgt. Ivan Schwartz survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge by remaining very, very careful.
Schwartz had landed on Utah beach, going ashore when the sand was littered with dead men and smashed vehicles. He carried rounds for an 81-millimeter mortar, survived a close call when Allied planes dropped bombs close to friendly lines, and strung wire for a field telephone to a forward observer post while under artillery fire — an act that earned him the Bronze Star.
But near Saint Lo, France, the infantryman in Company D, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, saw an item lying on the ground that caught his eye. “I seen something wrapped in a kind of a blue cloth,” Schwartz told an interviewer collecting oral histories for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center in 2000. “I thought ‘That looks like the butt of a pistol sticking out.'”
“I thought, well, booby traps or no booby traps, here goes.”
It was the butt of a pistol — a P38, the hugely popular, handy to hold, and reliably accurate semi-automatic handgun meant has a replacement to the Luger. “So I had a shoulder holster and carried it all through the war,” added Schwartz, who died in 2010.
Above — British soldiers inspect captured P38s. Public domain photo. At top — a P38 pistol in the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Museum. Bukvoed/Flickr photo
That frequently was the story with the P38. The Luger was most commonly an item for trade or a prized souvenir — a collector’s item heavily derived from its association with the Third Reich. But Allied soldiers who found P38s on the battlefield or liberated them from German soldiers often carried them as personal weapons.
It’s easy to see why. Perhaps it doesn’t have the stopping power of the M1911 .45-caliber pistol, but a P38 uses nine-millimeter Parabellum ammo (just like a Luger) and was readily available. And it doesn’t have exposed parts that attract battlefield grime (just like a Luger).
In short, the Luger is a keeper. The P38 is a shooter.
Despite its good technical reputation, the Luger is a complicated machine with several downsides.
When the pistol’s breech is open, the jointed arm sits at an acute angle — the kind of mechanics that make the pistol susceptible to malfunctions because of fouling. In addition, like a lot of German military hardware during World War II, it was expensive to produce, which was one of the reasons why the Wehrmacht turned to the less-expensive P38.
During the early 1930s, the Germans quietly began to rebuild their military might once Adolf Hitler came to power. Enter Walther, one of Germany’s best weapons manufacturers with a solid reputation following the success of the Walther PP and PPK pistols. Walther gunsmiths borrowed from an unproduced design developed in 1929 by the Hungarian firearms innovator Pal Kiraly. His gun was a short recoil auto-loader with a swinging lock under the barrel.
Then, Walther designers added features they knew the Germany army wanted, including an external hammer and various safety features such as a “chamber loaded” indicator pin. After some additional modifications, the Wehrmacht approved the P38 for use in 1938 — hence, the Pistole 38 designation — and issued the new pistol mostly to tank units, the apple of Hitler’s eye when it came to German fighting forces.
German tank crews carried the handgun when they smashed through Polish forces at the beginning of the World War II in 1939. They loved the gun, and soon the Germans distributed the pistol throughout the armed services. Germany made more than 1.2 million P38s in three plants from 1938 to 1946, almost a year after the end of the war. In one of the minor ironies of firearm’s history, even Mauser — the maker of the Luger — churned out P38s.
In fact, demand was so high that there were never enough for the men who wanted them. The P38 was unable to replace the Luger before the war ended. One reason was that German troops in occupied territories were required to carry a weapon at all times except when they were on base. In many cases that meant pistols, but in quantities that German planners did not expect.
But troops who received the P38 valued them highly. It is an accurate pistol — and sits well in the hand and the weight of the pistol is well suited so the user can draw a steady bead on a target. It also has a crisp trigger action that improves the shooter’s chances of staying on target.
Like so many other military small arms beloved by their users, it is a reliable pistol that is easy to maintain — far easier than the Luger. On the Eastern Front where dust and mud were commonplace, the pistol just kept shooting.
There was just one problem. German soldiers were trained to strip, clean and lightly oil their pistols daily. However, the Russian winters were so cold that gun lubricants actually froze on the metal, jamming the pistols. German soldiers soon learned to remove all the gun oil from the pistol’s moving parts — and the P38 functioned perfectly, a credit to its robust design.
After the war, the pistol remained in use because surplus weapons were gathered up and distributed to cash-strapped nations. In 1957, West Germany put the pistol back into production as the P1 (Pistole 1), issuing it as the standard sidearm for the Bundeswehr.
France and Czechoslovakia used P38s until they were replaced with other pistols in the 1960s. The Portuguese used the P38 during 20 years of colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique. South African police even carried a variant of the P38 until very recently.
In terms of longevity as a practical weapon, the Luger didn’t come close.