For most collectors, especially Americans, the concept of “Walther” begins with the innovative double-action PP (Polizei Pistole) of 1929, and then leads on through the PPK, the Olympia-Pistole of 1936, the Heeres Pistole that became the P.38, and the Walther semi-auto G41 and G43 to the modern Walther service and target firearms (and air guns, a post-WWII development). In fact, the company itself had been producing fine firearms for over 40 years before that PP revolutionized pocket pistols forever, and it had forebears that went back still further into German history.
Walther before Walther
The history of the Carl Walther company and its firearms begins, naturally enough, with Carl Walther in the 19th Century; but according to family lore, they descend from Mathias Conrad Pistor who was born in 1691 in Offenbach in the state of Hesse, and rose to be Oberzeugmeister (a wonderfully German word which means literally “Superior master of things,” but idiomatically Chief of Arsenal or Ordnance) of Hesse (whose arsenal was in Kassel). He worked in Bettenhausen (1732-43) and established a shop known to 20th Century Walthers alliteratively as “Pistor’s Pistol Plant” in Schmalkalden, Thuringia in 1744. Pistor himself passed away in 1761, but his plant was still producing pistols in 1780, as 12 September 1780 correspondence by Goethe notes a visit in the company of the Duke of Weimar, Carl August. (The letter, alas, seems to have noted only the bare fact of the visit, so we’ll never have a description of the then high-tech plant from the greatest writer in the German language).
The location of Schmalkalden plant was ideal; there was plentiful water power and a nearby iron works that was producing hundreds of tons of iron per annum by the mid-18th Century. This was right in Thuringia’s Gun Valley. It is about 12 miles northwest of Suhl; Zella-Mehlis, which looms so large in Walther lore, is barely two miles northwest of Suhl. According to Moller, Count Carl of Hesse had established a musket factory at Schmalkalden in 1687, even before Pistor was born; this plant was idled in 1720 until Pistor re-opened it in 1745. It is unclear whether Pistor opened the plant as a private enterprise
Some Pistor pistols survive. In 1998, Christie’s notes the sale of a pair of flintlock Pistors that were possibly (but not provably) presented by Frederick the Great to Major-General Baron Christoph Hermann von Manstein, Fred the G’s adjutant and, yes, of the same Manstein clan that we watched go down to defeat before Stalingrad in The Hot Snow. The beauty of history: it all ties together. Here’s an excerpt from the listing:
A fine pair of 28-bore German silver-mounted flintlock holster pistols by Matthias Conrad Pistor of Kassel, Bettenhausen, and Schmalkalden, circa 1745.
With swamped two-stage rifled barrels inscribed ‘Lazaro Lazarino’, the breeches octagonal then polygonal and chiselled in low relief with a mask and designs of running flowers and foliage all on a punched and gilt ground, and struck with copper-lined maker’s mark (Neue Støckel 5571), silver fore-sights, engraved tangs each incorporating a silver back-sight, plain bevelled locks, lightly carved moulded figured walnut full stocks, foliate engraved shaped silver mounts, silver escutcheons each with a coat-of-arms surmounted by a ducal coronet, baluster ramrod-pipes, set triggers, horn fore-end caps, and original horn-tipped ramrods.
The arms are those of Manstein. According to the Parke-Bernet catalogue the original owner was probably Baron Christoph Hermann von Manstein (1711-1757), who rose to be Major-General in the Prussian service and Adjutant-General to Frederick the Great, who may have presented the pistols to him.
Unfortunately, the online reproduction of the 1998 catalog listing (.pdf; will attempt to print, which you must cancel) does not include a photograph. The pistols sold for £9,200 in 1998, which was equivalent to about $15,000 at the time. A sum of $15k in 1998 is equivalent to about $22k in 2015 purchasing power,
It’s interesting to see those pistols being auctioned in 1944 by a US officer. In 1945, American GIs would occupy the Walther factory in Zella-Mehlis and loot both the production lines and Carl and Fritz Walther’s carefully assembled museum of prototypes and historical arms. Our first thought on seeing a wartime date was “looted from the museum!” but unless Lt. Col. James W. Flanagan was a time traveler, he couldn’t have sold a 1945 pick-up in April, 1944. We’d have to read the listing from the Parke-Bernet Galleries auction in 1944 to be sure.
Pistor’s sons maintained and improved the plant, and products are generally marked with the boss’s initials, first T.W. Pistor (Thomas William, 1761-1787) and B & E.W. Pistor (Bernhard and Engelhard William), from 1787 to an unknown date. According to Moller (again) and Stutzenberger, Pistor was the principal producer of muskets and of Jäger type rifles for the Hessian forces supporting George III in the American War of Independence; Moller has some production numbers from 1750-63.
Hesse-Cassel Rifle by TW Pistor, sometime between 1761 and 1787. From Bailey via Stutzenberger.
Despite the fact that the United States forces captured thousands of these rifles and muskets and still had hundreds in inventory as of 1797, very few of these Pistor muskets and rifles survive, a mere handful. There are more in the USA than in Germany or Britain, but the worldwide total is probably barely in double digits. An unadorned Hessian rifle or musket by Pistor, therefore, especially one with Revolutionary War provenance, might sell for more than the presentation pistol set described above.
Sometime about 1800, readily accessible Pistor records peter out.
Walther before World War I
The first Walther firm, the one that operated until 1945, was founded in 1886 by Carl Walther in Zella-Mehlis, a small industrial city just outside of Suhl in Thuringia. Like Suhl, Zella-Mehlis had long been a center of weapons production, going back to the days before firearms, when such items as pikes, halberds, swords and armor were made here. Zella-Mehlis was originally two separate communities, Zella St. Blasii and Mehlis; the Walther factory was in Zella St. Blasii until the 1919 merger, and very early Walthers, like many of the pocket pistols we are about to describe, may be marked “Carl Walther Zella St. Blasii” or “Zella St. Bl.” (A firearm marked “Zella-Mehlis” is definitely post-WWI production). The church dedicated to Saint Blaise that gave the town its name still stands; weapons production, however, ended in 1945 when brief US occupation looted the inventory and museum for souvenirs, and more longstanding Soviet occupation looted the machinery and transported it to points unknown.
Despite his own Pistor provenance, Carl Walther did not try to compete with big manufacturers for military contracts. Instead, he focused on producing sporting long-arms. Walther soon had a name for making accurate target rifles. Rifle technology was undergoing a revolution at the time, with metallic cartridges replacing muzzle-loaders and the first smokeless powders coming to market.
When rifle demand was slow, a parallel line produced another modern, Steam Age wonder — mechanical adding machines. Carl’s sons came up in one side of the business or the other.
The Walther Pistols 1908-1929, By the Numbers
It was Carl’s eldest son Fritz, who had grown up in the firearms side of the business and pursued an engineering education, that first steered the company into pistol design and production. Everywhere, the FN Browning Model 1906 pocket pistol was selling at a staggering rate — perhaps half a million of them sold to middle- and upper-class Germans, and it seemed like every gentleman and lady had one in vest pocket or purse. German makers like Mauser and Walther didn’t see why all those Reichsmarks should be going down the river to Liège, and rushed competitive models into production.
The first Walther Pistol, the Model 1, entered production in 19081, in the Browning’s 6.35mm (.25 ACP) caliber.
The first and the next-to-last of the pre-PP Walthers (they were a lot in a 2010 Rock Island auction). Left, the awkward Model 1, this one a 3rd Variant produced in 1914; right, the sleek (but large for 6.35/.25 ACP) Model 8. The Model 8 incorporated not one, but six new patents, including the hinged-guard takedown method that would be used in the PP.
Walther’s bread and butter had been high-tech, high-quality long guns, and at the time of the introduction of the Model 1, their flagship was a toggle-locking semiautomatic shotgun that was priced at the high end of the market and sold slowly; and their bread-and-butter products were rimfire rifles, including the KKJ (kleinkaliber Jagdrepetier, “small bore hunting repeater”). The KKJ and semi shotgun are avidly sought by Walther collectors, because the Model 1 started the company in a new direction. Walther didn’t call it the Model 1, except in retrospect; it was just the Walther “German Self-Loading Pistol, Caliber 6.35,” until the improved Model 2 came out in 1914.
The Model 1 had some unique features, and some common ones. It was striker fired with a striker system very like Browning’s as used in the Baby Browning, the 1900, and other early hammerless Browning pistols; the magazine closely resembled Browning’s; the recoil spring is under the barrel, as in some Browning designs, like the 1908 Colt .25. But the oddball slide was open-topped and -fronted; what looks like the barrel is actually a barrel sleeve, whose purpose is unclear; the trigger bar comes up diagonally under the left grip, rather than straight back as in many other designs. The takedown catch is located in the trigger guard bow at the front, which Smith suggests was copied from an earlier Steyr pistol. The recoil spring is located under the barrel (like a 1911’s or Glock’s, but much smaller!).
It was a homely pistol. But it worked, and it was popular; and the Quasimodo profile of the Model 1 was not all that unfamiliar to gun buyers, given the similarly hunchbacked FN Browning Model 1900, the pistol that launched the European auto pistol market. And the homeliness was all German. Introduced at about the same time, the Mauser Pocket Pistol 1910 was larger and perhaps a little better made. These two pistols gave Germans a home-grown alternative to the Belgian FN pistols.
The Walther Model 2 was an improved pistol. It had nicer lines, although the trigger-guard hosted disassembly catch was replaced as takedown initiator by a funny-looking knurled cap on the barrel. (This cap is often mistaken by those who do not know the guns as a thread cap for suppressor use. Nope). It features an ingenious loaded-chamber indicator: if the gun was ready to fire, the rear sight came up. If it was not, the sight subsided into the slide, providing a visual and tactile indicator of loaded status. It was introduced in 1913 or 1914, just in time for the outbreak of the war. Model 1s — retroactively numbered now, although the numbers were not marked on them — were assembled into 1915.
Internally, the Model 2 changed to an internal hammer system. From the outside, it looked like any other striker-fired small gun, but it had a hammer, a hammer-blocking safety in the convention left-rear of frame position (safe was up), and a recoil spring that wrapped around the barrel
Model 2s came in two versions — one had the loaded chamber indicator rear sight, and the other dispensed with any sights at all, having just a groove. Model 2 production ceased with the end of the war.
Model 3 was, essentially, an enlarged Model 2 in .32 ACP caliber… 7.65 mm. (7.65 x 17 SR). It was introduced within a couple of years of the Model 1’s debut and produced up to 1918.
The Model 4 was a still larger pistol, aimed at capturing more military and police sales. It was the first Walther pistol offered in multiple calibers, something that would become standard for the company later. Its production resumed after the war.
Model 5, previously mentioned, was a follow-on for the Model 2. It was intended to be a premium pistol with a finer fit and finish (and a higher price), 6.35 mm only. It co-existed with Model 2 in the marketplace pre-1918. It was not reintroduced after the war.
Model 6 was a unique pistol — a scaled up Model 4 for the military 9 mm Parabellum cartridge. It was taking the blowback-operated pistol to the extreme, and depended less on its heavy slide (like more recent blowback 9 mm firearms) than on a very stiff recoil spring for operation. In retrospect, Fritz Walther knew he’d taken the simple blowback system too far, and every future 9 mm Walther production or prototype pistol would have a locked breech. Surviving Model 6s are rare and when they turn up draw a premium. This one sold this month at a buy-it-now of $9,500 on GunBroker.
If there’s enough interest, we’ll do a “walk around” of the Model 6 based on that auction.
We believe (but are not certain) that the HP/AP/P.38/P.1 magazine is identical to the Model 6 magazine.
Model 7 was the last wartime Walther. It was an enlarged 6.35 mm pistol of generally the same dimensions as the Model 4 (which is more common in 7.65 mm). Its ejection port reverted to the conventional right-hand side. It had a short run — Buffaloe records the contradictory statements from the references, but they do agree on “short” — and apart from the curious Model 6, may be the most difficult Walther numbered-model pistol for a collector to find today.
After the war, the Model 8 and Model 9 defined the best pistols that Walther had yet made. The Model 8 had a new, closed-front slide that was far more attractive than the knobbly knurled nut (or sleeve, in longer-barreled pistols) at the business end of the Model 2 through 7 pistols. It resembled the nose of the Browning 1910, but instead of the Browning’s removable barrel bushing, offered a patented new way of taking down a pistol. The trigger guard was hinged where it attached to the front grip strap, and pivoted down. A lug on its forward end that retained the slide was now out of the way. With the slide in the right position fore-and-aft, its after end could be lifted out of engagement with the slide rails and slide off, forward.
Owners of later Walther pocket pistols will recognize this, of course, as the disassembly method of the PP and PPK (and the many guns they inspired, such as the Makarov PM). Indeed, apart from the single-action lockwork and enclosed hammer, the Model 8 is clearly a kissing cousin of the PP. Many of Walther’s manufacturing details would carry over from the number pistols to the later named pistols.
The Model 9 was a complete redesign of the vest pocket pistol and was, on its 1920-21 introduction, the most compact 6.35 mm pistol available in Europe. It may have been the impetus for the redesigned 1923 Baby Browning, which has a very close resemblance to it; more likely, Saïve (a Browning protégé whose point of departure was Browning’s 1906) merely responding to the same market demand as Walther. The Model 9 was a striker-fired, open-slide, spring-below-barrel pistol like the Model 1, and in stark contrast to the Models 2-7 which were internal-hammer, closed slide, spring-around-barrel designs.
The model 8 and 9 would remain in production until some time during World War II (here, too, sources disagree, with some suggesting that they were produced up until the Occupation). Whether production ended in 1940 or 1945, it’s clear that these early guns were produced alongside the later double-action firearms.
All of these early Walther pistols had a CW monogram either molded into their hard rubber or plastic grips, or on an enameled medallion on the left side (the right side bore the caliber designation). All but the earliest had a version of the familiar Walther banner trademark. The PP (1929) and subsequent designs would dispense with the monogram, using only the banner. Collectors break down all the higher production models in to “variants” or “variations,” most of which hinge only on differences in roll marks.
Apart from the Model 6, these early handguns are common enough and sufficiently low-priced to put collecting them all within the reach of anyone who really wants to.
Walther’s War (WWI) and Postwar
During the war, 7.65 mm pistols were widely used by military officers outside of the front lines, where a pistol was more an index of authority than something likely to be used to engage actual Tommies or poilus. The smaller 6.35 mm pistols were used by high-ranking and staff officers in tiny little flap holsters, just like a standard Army holster but smaller… this let a man advertise his authority and the fact that he was a gentleman, keeping his hands clean, and above expressing that authority in a brawl with commoners in the trenches. Practically speaking, if your position requires you to carry a gun but it is exceedingly unlikely you will ever use it, it makes sense to minimize the weight tugging on your belt.
The officers of Prussia and most other German Imperial states purchased their own firearms, although frontline officers might well draw Luger pistols from unit stocks and leave their privately-purchased Walthers in a trunk with their dress uniforms and swords, for their batmen to tote around.
Walther sold as many guns as they could make… as is normal always and everywhere, the wartime guns don’t show quite the finish of pre- and post-war Walthers, although there’s nothing wrong with them (Smith’s cautions notwithstanding).
While Walther continued tweaking its models during the war, the one real wartime development was the Model 6. As mentioned above, it was simply a scaled-up Model 4, which made it a large and, frankly, marginal 9 mm pistol.
Under the treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact German was forbidden to produce military arms, and initially the Powers forbade the production of sporting and police arms as well, so the lines were stilled. This was not the catastrophe for Carl Walther GMBH that it might have been, though, because while Carl’s son Fritz had become a firearms designer and engineer, his equally talented other sons had gone into the design and engineering of mechanical adding and calculating machines, and they were in demand both in devastated Germany and worldwide.
Pistols were also in demand, and production of civilian pistols reauthorized in 1919. This allowed Walther to revamp and streamline the production line.
As permission was granted to produce firearms for the police and the Reichswehr, a 100,000-man heavy-weapon-less rump Army permitted to Germany for, primarily, control of unrest, Walther began producing pistols for these markets again.
With the excellent Model 8 and 9 pistols, many designers and manufacturers might have rested on their laurels. And Walther produced hundreds of thousands of these pistols (the exact numbers are not known, due to lost records at the end of World War II. The records and prototypes in the Walther factory museum were also “liberated” by GIs at war’s end). But the company’s greatest triumphs lay ahead — the .22 target pistol that would become the Olympia-Modell, the PP and PPK, and the P.38. But those are all a different story.
- That the Model 1 launched in 1908 is Walther official history, but it is far from undisputed fact. Some put the launch in 1910 or even 1911. Walther’s objective with the 1908 claim, now largely irrelevant, may have been to wrest conclusively the claim of German pocket-pistol primacy from rival Mauser, whose pistol premiered in 1910… or 1911.
- Any gun a century old should be inspected by a competent gunsmith experienced in similar firearms before being fired with modern, standard-pressure ball ammunition. Yes, people do shoot + pressure hollow points in WWI Walthers, Brownings, etc. We wouldn’t, from the standpoint of the gun’s historical significance and durability. For practical duty use, new and improved guns are available in almost every niche except the vest pocket pistol, where market’s been strangled by European gun laws and an American 1968 import ban, and even there some superior pre-1968 pistols are still circulating — but even those are closing in on the half-century mark.
Buffaloe, Ed. The Walther Model 1. Unblinking Eye.com. Retrieved from: http://unblinkingeye.com/Guns/WMod1/wmod1.html
Buffaloe, Ed. The Walther Models 2 and 5. Unblinking Eye.com. Retrieved from: http://unblinkingeye.com/Guns/WMod5/wmod5.html
Buffaloe, Ed. The Walther Model 3. Unblinking Eye.com. Retrieved from: http://unblinkingeye.com/Guns/WM3/wm3.html
Buffaloe, Ed. The Walther Model 4. Unblinking Eye.com. Retrieved from: http://unblinkingeye.com/Guns/Wm4/wm4.html
Buffaloe, Ed. The Walther Model 7 and 8. Unblinking Eye.com. Retrieved from: http://unblinkingeye.com/Guns/Walther7-8/walther7-8.html
Buffaloe, Ed. The Walther Model 9. Unblinking Eye.com. Retrieved from: http://unblinkingeye.com/Guns/WMod9/wmod9.html
Moller, George D. American Military Small Arms, Volume 1: Colonial and Revolutionary War Arms. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.
Smith, W.H.B. Mauser, Walther, and Mannlicher Firearms. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1971. (n.b. This is a reprint edition combining three books; it is still in print. The Walther section was first published stand-alone in 1946 and revised circa 1962).
Stutzenberger, Fred. The Jager Rifle: Forerunner of the American Longrifle. NMLRA Muzzle Blasts, April 2014: pp. 4-11. Retrieved from: http://nmlra.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/The-Jager-Rifle-by-Fred-Stutzenberger-APRIL-2014-2.pdf