The earliest Czechoslovak service pistols are relative rarities that are enjoyed by advanced Czechoslovak pistol collectors. While they are rare, they were still factory produced, and enough exist that they come up from time to time. At the same time, their relative obscurity has meant that a really rare pistol can sometimes be scored for less money than you might think.
This Praga in the Springfield Armory Collection, SN 7300, shows off its lines. Note the divergent angle of the front and rear grip, which makes the pistol feel awkward and point low, relative to the Browning M1910.
These two pistols are the Praga, a 7.65mm (.32) stopgap, and the Czechoslovak vz. 22, the first Czech official military service pistol. Today, we’re talking about the Praga.
Other side of Springfield’s Praga, showing that this is the later model.
When Czechoslovakia was established as a result of the post-WWI collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the subsequent treaties, it had little indegenous small-arms production capability. Czech and Slovak units had fought under Russian and French command, as well as in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and so a mix of surplus European weaponry was available. Austrian rifles (Mannlicher M.95 straight-pull) and pistols (Rast & Gasser revolvers and Steyr autoloaders) were the most common, and a small subset of collecting seeks out these guns as overmarked with Czechoslovak military markings. But the Czechoslovaks continued wartime Austrian plans to establish more production facilities in the Czech lands, especially Bohemia, and private firms’ production was also exploited.
Zbrojovka Praga was the first armory established in the optimism of the new Republic, but its life was short, from 1918 to 1926, and its production consisted of a few thousands of two models of pistol.
Still, the first pistol the nascent Czechoslovak military adopted, if not entirely officially, was the Praga. It is a 7.65mm (,32 ACP) handgun of conventional blowback design, resembling the FN Browning Model 1910 in styling but quite different in manufacture, and comparatively poor in ergonomics. Some sources, including Dolínek et al., say that it was designed by Czech designer Vaclav Holek, who is definitely credited with Praga’s oddball .25; Holek would go on to greatness, but the Praga is concrete proof that in 1919, he wasn’t there yet, if indeed the design was his. Novotny also employed, at one time or another, František Myška, who would go on to design other pistols, and Karel Krnka, who already had. What role each of these took in the design is unknown. Some Pragas are marked with a patent legend, but not the patent number.
Some of these Pragas would be used by the police, and some would be purchased by the Ministry of Defense. It’s unclear now whether it was intended for them to be standard issue firearms, or whether they were bought with a view to being an interim service pistol, but they did wind up being an interim pistol, as the Czechoslovak military retained neither the pistol itself or the 7.65mm caliber.
(A previous Praga pocket pistol in 6.35mm had a folding trigger and some other highly unusual features. It was never, and was never intended to be, a service pistol; it was obviously a defensive pocket pistol. We’ll discuss that at some other time; we’re only interested in the service pistol today).
Two versions of the service Praga exist; as far as we can tell the principal difference is in the markings. The rarer first model, sometimes called the vz. 19 or Model 1919 by collectors, is marked Zbrojovka Praga on the slide in ornate cursive script; the later model has the same legend, but in block capitals. The safety on the earlier model tends to be crudely checkered and the later model machined with lines, but the parts do interchange. That said, parts including the receiver, slide, breechblock, barrel, grips, trigger and sometimes the magazine are usually numbered. Matching numbers are common.
Hogg & Weeks say this (via Springfield, with some typos corrected):
7.65mm Praga Model 1921 – The first pistol produced was the vz/21 (vz: vzor, ‘model’), a 7.65mm blowback credited to Vaclav Holek but little more than an adaptation of the 1910-type Browning. Some small changes were made; the breech block was a separate unit, inserted in the slide, while the return spring was retained by the nose of the slide instead of a barrel bush.1
We don’t have a 1910 at present, but used to, and in our opinion based on the physical manipulation of both firearms, the Praga borrows mostly styling and (we think) the 7-round .32 ACP magazine from its Belgian forbear. Even the magazine, though, is altered; it has a catch to allow you to cycle the slide with a loaded mag, without picking up a round; and the gun is hammer, not striker, fired. It lacks the Browning’s grip safety. Internally, it is more different from than similar to a 1910.
The pistol was initially touted for military or police use, 5,000 being ordered by the Czech forces when Škoda declined to co-operate. They had plain wooden grips and cursive Zbrojovka Praga on the slide; this later changed to block and specimens with the Prague police badge can be found. A commercial version appeared with block-lettered slides and moulded plastic ‘Praga’ grips. Some specimens have elongated barrels which protrude about 30mm ahead of the slide.2
Springfield thinks that the marking on the left nose of the slide of their example is a Prague police badge. Their gun is also marked with 12.4.21 on the slide which is probably an acceptance date (12 April, 1921). Most Pragas were intended for police and military markets and thus do not have Czechoslovak proof marks. (On those that are proofed, the Prague proof house retained its Austrian-era practice of marking with proof year and sequential proof number).
While Springfield’s archivists are professionals and seldom err, they aren’t perfect; they refer to the pistol as “Manufactured by Ceska Zbrojovka, Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1921.” CZ did not yet exist in 1921, and while it would mark many pistols as made in Prague, it never made pistols there, only in Strakonice and (post-1936) Uhersky Brod. (Some pistols were made by Škoda in Pilsen, and by the Czechoslovak State Armory in Brno, but they weren’t made by CZ, either. CZ is a specific firm, not a catch-all for Czech manufacture).
Hogg and Weeks also said this about the company:
The Praga Zbrojovka in Vršovice, in which Vaclav Holek worked on the design of pistols, offered its first pistols to the Army already in the spring of 1919. This was a 7.65 caliber pistol that was more suitable for civilian or police use, but which nevertheless was more acceptable than the 6.35mm side pistol which this firm also manufactured and later sold in the market using the designation ‘automatic Praga pistol, cal. 6.35mm, M1921.’ The ministry of National Defense ordered 5,000 Praga 7.65mm pistols as early as June 1919, even though at that time it was only testing this type and had some serious objections to the workmanship.3
Vrsovice is a neighborhood or district of Prague, so these are rare Czech guns marked “Praha” (or Prague or Prag) that were actually made in the city.
Berger made a strenuous effort to get to the bottom of these exotics, and illustrates several and describes them, but he’s cautious in his conclusions. He illustrates Nº 552, then in the collection of O. Matyska. This example is an early version proofed in 1919 with the cursive Zbrojovka Praga legend, but with the striated wooden grips he suggests may be the mark of a military pistol, and a striated, not crudely cross-checkered, safety. His example of a “late” Praga is Nº 10828, dated 1923, then in the collection of E. Macaulay. This example has the block-capital marking ZBROJOVKA PRAGA PRAHA PATENT CAL. 7.65.
Some decent photos of another example are found here
Rock Island auctioned an interesting example, Nº 8950, slathered in markings revealing its history, in 2015. It was marked with a Czech military acceptance date, plus a partial commercial proof, hinting that it had been retired and sold off, plus it bore the markings of two Czechoslovak units, the 14th Infantry Regiment, gun 216 (on the right side of the frame, crossed out…) (RIA photos used with permission).
…and the 5th Artillery Regiment, gun 153 (on the left side).
…and close up, you can see the artllery unit’s mark, and the military acceptance date of 5 July 1921 under the rampant lion of the Czechoslovak Republic. Unit marks are often found on the grip strap of Czechoslovak Republic firearms, and are in the format: Unit Number / Letter for Type of Unit / Sequential Firearm or Rack Number. The most common letters are “P” for Pechotny, infantry, and “D” for Delostrelecky, artillery.
Our example is Nº 10024, and in the near future, we’ll post a more complete set of photos of it, including a field stripping. It doesn’t have the interesting unit history of Nº 8950, but it does have a military acceptance mark and apparently matching numbers. In one that’s in pretty decent shape like this, the original rust blue really shines.
One thing that only some (mostly later) examples have is the world’s most impressive lanyard lug.
We’ve literally never seen anything like it.
The Praga has some other unusual features like its elegant and manufacturing-friendly removable breechblock, and a notch in the magazine, allowing you to lock it into place, but below the level where it would actually feed rounds. (Why? Our guess is for training purposes, but it seems like an invitation to Murphy)
Dolinek et al. refer to the Praga and, later in their book, to the Praga M, which may have been a Czech designation for the later version of the pistol. But their discussion of the pistol is very brief. They have a little more to say about the company:
The private Zbrojovka Praga s.s.r.o (Arms works Praga, a limited liability company) had a competitive lead over Zbrojovka Brno. It was founded by Česka Prumyslová Banka (the Czech Industrial Bank) before the end of World War I in Prague’s Vršovice quarter with the participation of J. Novotny, the owner of the largest gunmaking company in Prague. The factory was originally designed to manufacture hunting guns and civil pistols. However, after 1918, it specialized in military arms. The company employed many gifted designers (Holek brothers, Ing. Karel Krnka, etc.) and a skilled labor force, partly emanating from the Austrian arms works, and it was well-equipped with machinery. They principally supplied automatic pistols but they were not very widely used within the army. The financial difficulties of the company were not even resolved by its incorporation into the industrial concern of the Česka Prumyslová Banka. In the MOD’s opinion, the collapse of the firm was mainly due to an incompetent management team that was not able to introduce the rational organization of production machinery within the plant. The firm was not even saved by the sale of the license for the light machine gun Praga designed by Vaclav Holek that, in Zbrojovka Brno, was to become an ever most successful Czech weapon in the years to come. Zbrojova Praga was wound up in 1926. 4
Hogg and Weeks dismissed the company rather abruptly, suggesting that they had not personally examined Praga firearms:
Zbrojovka Praga (Prague Small Arms Company) was founded in Vrsovice in 1918 by A. Novotny, a gunmaker. He is said to have employed talented designers such as the Holek brothers, Krnka and Myška, but Praga products showed little evidence of this. Two pistol were produced, one a copy of the Browning M1910 and the other an original design of odd appearance and poor quality. Not surprisingly, the company failed to prosper and in 1926 was foreclosed by the National Bank.5
While the Praga is generally thought of as a police and commercial pistol, they were used by Czechoslovak soldiers, and unit-marked examples are not unknown. One is for sale right now on GunBroker (and probably in-shop) by Historic Firearms.
Pragas are seldom found in the USA with import marks, suggesting that they were wartime bringbacks or pre-1968 surplus.
Finally, way back near the beginning of this post, we noted that “They can sometimes be scored for less money than you think.”
This one, Nº 3786, recently sold on GunBroker for $501! The typical going price is well over $1,000 in 2016.
- Hogg & Weeks, via Springfield.
- Hogg & Weeks, via Springfield.
- Hogg & Weeks, via Springfield.
- Dolínek, et. al., p. 40.
- Hogg & Weeks, via Springfield.
Berger, R.J. Know Your Czechoslovakian Pistols. Chino Valley, AZ: Blacksmith Corporation, 1989. pp. 83-85.
Dolínek, Vladimír, Karlický, Vladimír, & Vácha, Pavel. Czech Firearms and Ammunition: History and Present. Prague: Radix, 1995.
Hogg, Ian & Weeks, John. Pistols of the World. DBI Books, Inc. Northbrook, Il. 1992. Quoted vis Springfield Armory National Historic Site: retrieved from: http://ww2.rediscov.com/spring/VFPCGI.exe?IDCFile=/spring/DETAILS.IDC,SPECIFIC=10600,DATABASE=objects,