The Walther P38 is a German pistol, originally accepted in 1938 for use by the German Army as a replacement for the German Luger in World War II. It is a fairly recognizable pistol, often appearing in film, television, and video games set in World War II or even several decades later, including the television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The P38 was the first locked-breech pistol to use a double-action trigger. The shooter could load a round into the chamber, use the de-cocking lever to safely lower the hammer without firing the round, and carry the weapon loaded with the hammer down. A pull of the trigger, with the hammer down, fired the first shot and the operation of the pistol ejected the fired round and reloaded a fresh round into the chamber, all features found in many modern day handguns.
The first designs submitted to the German Army featured a locked breech and a hidden hammer, but the German Army requested that it be redesigned with an external hammer. This led to the subsequent adoption of the P38 in 1940. Several experimental versions were later created in .45 ACP, and .38 Super, but these were never mass-produced. In addition to the 9mm Parabellum version, some 7.65x22mm Parabellum versions were also created and sold.
The breech-locking mechanism operates by use of a wedge-shaped locking block underneath the breech. When fired both the barrel and slide recoil for a short distance, where the locking block drives down, disengaging the sliding and arresting the movement of the barrel.
The P38 uses a double action trigger design similar to the earlier Walther PPKs, and a loaded chamber indicator is also incorporated.
The 'traditional' European heel location for the magazine release reduces the speed of reloads, but acts in a manner that is less likely to see an accidental ejection of the magazine- compared to the more common 'thumb button' on the side of the firearm.
The handgun has a notoriously stiff initial shot in double-action mode, due to the amount of force required to cock the hammer through the trigger mechanism. This force is somewhere between 14 and 20 pounds of trigger force [without modifications to springs/etc]. On many individuals' handguns, the amount of force upon the trigger that is required to cock the hammer and fire in DA mode is close to 16 lbs.. This generally results in poor accuracy from the first shot, with rounds likely to be 2-3 feet off target [at 20 meters], without sufficient practice.
With sufficient practice, accuracy is still degraded, but not as severely. Anecdotal 'evidence' has been offered to suggest this stiff first pull was considered a desirable characteristic by the German military in 1938 as it would result in fewer accidental first shots due to anxiety [talk to the NYPD as to the feel and effectiveness of the NYC trigger- at 12 lbs].
The second through 8th shots [in Single Action Mode], generally require between 5 and 8 lbs of trigger pressure- making the follow-up shots easier to control. Most 'civilian' range use would probably be in SA mode, so the DA pull is a negligible concern- unless the intent was to carry the firearm for personal defense.
By comparison, single action semi-auto handguns have the same trigger pull for all shots, so there is no need to transition the grip, sight picture or expectations. A defensive purposed SA semi-auto handgun is generally sold by a manufacturer with a trigger pull of around 5-8 lbs. Glock standard pull is rated at 5.5lbs, for example. Browning Hi Standards seem to have a factory pull of 6-9 lbs. Some 1911 models are sold by the manufacturer with trigger pulls of 4.25-6 lbs.
For competition/target shooting, others will have their 1911s [and other SA handguns] tuned to a significantly lighter trigger pull. 3.5lbs is the lowest limit for some handgun competitions, but other people will have their trigger tuned to a pull as light as 2 lbs. This light of a trigger pull makes accuracy MUCH easier, as there is almost no chance of 'pulling/pushing' the gun sideways/up/down due to the amount of pressure that has to be transferred before the firearm is fired. Yet, this light of a pull requires much more diligent training to avoid prematurely firing when under tension. For that reason it is best avoided for defensive purposes unless someone will invest significant training time. For comparison, the US military specification for their rifle [M-16 or M4] is a trigger that has a pull of 5.5-8 lbs, to make accuracy relatively easy, but avoid too many unintended discharges.
A 'standard' DA/SA revolver has a DA pull of between 14 and 9 lbs, depending on the maker and any changes made by the armorer. Many DA/SA revolvers have a DA pull closer to 12, with an SA pull of around 4-6 lbs. DAO revolvers usually have a trigger pull of between 12 and 7 lbs- depending on manufacturer. Thus, the P38's DA pull of 14-20 lbs seems a tad excessive to most shooters, and generally has a negative impact on first shot accuracy.
Lastly, the Walther P38 is also notable for having a unique ejection pattern. It is one of very few handguns that eject spent brass to the left of the handgun, instead of to the right.
Accuracy [in SA mode] is generally deemed to be 'good', from a combat/defensive handgun point of view: which is what the handgun was designed for.
In 1957, the P38 was again put into production for the newly established West German Army. Sometime between 1961 and 1963, the nomenclature changed and the version made for the military and police was known as the model "P1", identifiable by the P1 stamping on the slide. The majority of the postwar pistols, whether marked as P38 or P1, have an aluminum frame rather than the steel frame of the original design, but there is evidence of up to 1600 steel framed versions with the P38 name sporadically made as recently as the 1990s.
The aluminum frame was later reinforced with a hex bolt above the trigger guard to provide longer lasting surfaces for the bolt locking block to cam over. In addition, the slide was thickened to avoid cracked slides around 1968 [give/take a year]. This version is known as the "fat slide" version, and was a durability upgrade.
By 1974, Walther P1 handguns were generally being made with both changes. During the 1970s, the German police forces began to adopt other handguns throughout Germany- including the Walther P4 [short barreled version of P1], Walther P5 [inspired by, but different from P1], the Sig P6 and H&K P7, in a city by city- type change [i.e., not nation wide at the same time for all agencies.] During the 1990s the German military started replacing the P1 with the P8 pistol and finally phased out the P1 in 2004.
When the P38 was adopted by the German Military, the standard issue sidearms of the 'major' European/North American powers were either revolvers or single-action handguns. The UK still relied on the Webly revolvers, while the USA used the 1911 SA handgun, Canada adopted the [Inglis] High Power 9mm SA Handgun [best known as the Browning Hi Power], Russia was moving from Nagant revolvers through the TT33 SA handgun, and much of the rest of the world was following these insights. Spain used a multitude of revolvers or SA handguns. The Walther was the first of a new trend of service sidearms that would change the world's military structures.
One area in which the Walther design legacy is evident is in the open slide design and short-recoil locking block designs of pistols such as the Beretta M9/ model 92 handgun, and earlier models.
In addition, the DA/SA hammer-fired design characteristic of the Walther design would go on to have an impact upon future pistol designs. Some noteworthy handguns which incorporated this feature [which the P38 borrowed from earlier Walther PP handguns] include firearms such as the CZ-75 [although it added 'cocked and locked' as an option as well], the Ruger P-89/90/91/93/94/95/97/345 handguns, S&W model 39/59 and 3rd gen semi-autos, as well as Sig-Sauer handguns [P220, P225/6, etc.]
Furthermore, the Walther P38 incorporated a Loaded Chamber indicator that allowed an officer/soldier/owner to verify if there was a round in the chamber, while the firearm was still strapped into the holster, in pitch black conditions. Most current loaded chamber indicators require the handgun to be removed from the holster before this can be verified.
The positive safety lever, firing pin lock and LCI were all relatively new designs for a major semi-auto handgun in the 1930s. Many handguns had manual safeties [be they grip or thumb actuated], but few had firing pin blocks or loaded chamber indicators. This made the P38 seem a significantly safer handgun for the German military- and for modern users.