June 2011

Classic Military 9mms: Luger Falls to High Power, Walther

The Luger P-08, one of the archetypal handguns from WWII, fared badly when compared to a John Inglis High Power and a Walther P-38. Amazingly, the High Power is still in service.

More than 100 years ago, Georg Luger took the Borchardt pistol and redesigned it into one of the most famous military handguns of all time. While other handguns may have been better suited for warfare, none were better made of better material. Luger took the original pistol and changed the recoil spring, magazine, grip angle, barrel and even the caliber. But he kept the distinctive toggle action. The original toggle, we believe, was developed by Oliver Henry to give excellent leverage and operation in his Henry rifle, which later evolved into the Winchester ’66. Maxim took the toggle action and adopted it to his first machinegun. It was only natural Borchardt and then Luger took the toggle action and adopted it to a self-loading handgun. The original Luger was chambered for the 30 Luger cartridge, just another of the many 30-caliber pistol rounds current at the turn of the previous century. But when the German Navy and later the Army demanded more smash, Luger developed the 9mm Luger cartridge. The 9mm Parabellum, aka 9mm Luger cartridge as it is variously known, was an immediate sensation.

The virtues of the 9mm Luger cartridge are many. The round is compact for the power compared to the 9mm Steyr, 9mm Largo, and other cartridges, and much more powerful than similar-sized revolver cartridges of the day. The 9mm has sufficient power for service use and may prove deadly well beyond normal pistol range. It was among the first handgun cartridges with good penetration against web gear. This immensely popular cartridge eventually became the most popular military handgun cartridge of all time.

The Luger pistol and the Luger cartridge are inseparable, but it was only a matter of time until other handguns were developed using the 9mm cartridge. After World War I there were many such developments. Among the most successful was the Browning High Power. The High Power, or P 35, as it is variously known, was a single-action locked-breech design with a high-capacity magazine. The 13-shot Browning was arguably the first of the Wonder Nine handguns. The High Power saw use during World War II by both sides. The John Inglis–produced variant is still in service with our Canadian allies in Afghanistan, and the Belgian High Power is in use with Allied forces in Iraq. The High Power at one time armed the soldiers of some 100 nations. The pistol has been revered by combat shooters for nearly 75 years. The High Power runs a close second to the 1911 in the hearts and minds of those who favor the single-action pistol.

If the High Power was successful, the Walther P-38 was influential. The P-38 was adopted as the standard handgun of the German Army in 1938, about three years after the introduction of the High Power. The P-38 features a double-action first shot, a slide-mounted decocker, an open-top slide, and other modern features. It is interesting to note that the three 9mm pistols we are firing in this shoot-out all use a different locking system. The Luger uses the toggle lock, the High Power uses angled camming surfaces, and the P-38 uses the oscillating wedge first used in the Mauser C 96 pistol. While the toggle lock is far too expensive for effective modern manufacture, the other types of lock-up remain popular.

The High Power was very successful, but the P-38, pro­duced in smaller numbers, was more influential. The double-action first-shot feature made quite an impression on the Allies. The Walther was designed to be cost-effective in manufacture compared to the expensive Luger pistol, and the Luger was discontinued from manufacture in 1942. Just the same, the P-38 was well made of good material. Our current service pistol, the Beretta 92, is in most ways an updated P-38. The drawbar and action are the same, the open-top slide is similar, and the safety/decock lever is practically identical. The safety lever of the P-38 is easier to use quickly. The Beretta features a double-column magazine, but that does not necessarily make the pistol more effective. For some hand sizes, the high-capacity pistol is less steady.

We enjoy a good read and historical research. We are also interested in how the pistols shoot, and for that information we like to shoot them ourselves. These pistols are from the collection of one of our raters. He thinks that they are the three most important 9mm pistols of World War II. The Polish Radom was also considered for this test because it is well made, reliable, accurate and as fine a gun as any, according to our rater who also owns the Radom, but the Radom was neither successful commercially nor particularly influential. Its niche is as the last cavalry pistol. We also have on hand modern High Power pistols such as the Practical Model and also modern variants of the Walther P-38. The aluminum-frame P 1 addressed the weight issue of the original pistol and also solved some problems with the slide and slide cracking. The P 1 features a noticeable slide redesign and a strengthening pin in the frame. But these are not World War II variants.

So we went forward with three WWII pistols head to head, listing their actual purchase prices from the owner: a John Inglis High Power 9mm Luger, $650; a Luger P-08 9mm Luger, $940; and a Walther P-38 9mm, $800. We used new production 9mm Luger ball ammunition during the initial evaluation, from Black Hills Ammunition. We planned on using ball ammunition for firing impressions and broadening the ammunition selection during the accuracy testing. Attempting to find loads that would function in the Luger sidelined us for some time. During the test period we fired several Luger pistols and also a second P-38, but ran start to finish with the same High Power. After all, we were looking for impressions of the breed. Our rater was embarrassed that his rather nice Luger was not as reliable as some of the other Lugers fired on the side. Another Luger in his collection has fired more than 2500 rounds of modern Fiocchi ball and JSP loads without a hitch, but it did not quality for the test because it is a 30 Luger commercial pistol. Let’s look at each pistol and see what the raters thought.

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