It’s no secret that we are big fans of the Walther PPK. This pocket pistol, introduced in 1931, was a compact version of Walther’s excellent PP, whose initials stand for Police Pistol in its native German. Walther, which had previously made several models of high-quality but otherwise unremarkable small pocket pistols, introduced the PP in 1929. It was the first shot of a revolution; it became the model for most double-action/single-action auto pistols that would follow it, using a trigger bar that runs along the right side of the frame to activate its sear, and containing a then-patented decocking safety.
The PPK was the inevitable compact version; its German name, Polizei Pistole Kriminal, essentially means Detective’s Police Pistol. (You would not be the first student of German to laugh at the idea that regular beat cops are called a name that translates literally as Order Police, and detectives are Criminal Police, Kripo for short. We’ve known a few criminal police, too, but that’s what linguists call a “false cognate.” End of digression).
Even though both are pocket pistols by American standards, and were manufactured primarily in .32 ACP, the PP was normally carried by beat cops in a flap holster, and the PPK carried concealed. Both the PP and PPK were popular with German military officers, who until 1945 were allowed (and sometimes required) to privately purchase personal sidearms. Staff officers and aviators and others who didn’t really have a need to haul around a big 9mm horse pistol checked the pistol box with a little PPK. The Carl Walther firm in Zella-Mehlis, Thuringia (a suburb of the gunmaking center of Suhl), prospered.
The PPK was the same width as the PP, but its length (and sight radius) was reduced, and its height (and magazine size) was also reduced (the PPK held six rounds, then considered perfectly adequate). This made it as small as some of the more sloppily engineered .25s of the day. Instead of a solid backstrap with grip scales, the PPK has an open backstrap that is covered with a plastic (bakelite, originally) grip. The original grips are extremely prone to cracking and many PPKs today sport replacement or reproduction grips, but they made for a lighter and more concealable gun when new.
A number of PPs and PPKs were imported into the USA before the war, where the technical advancement of the pistol and its high price compared to domestic arms or cheap Spanish imports won it a very selective user base, and relatively few sales.
After the war, the wave of captured PPs and PPKs increased their popularity, and new ones began to be imported. With Zella-Mehlis and Suhl bombed flat and, after an American withdrawal to a mutually agreed line, behind the Iron Curtain, Walther produced guns at a former licensee in Alsace (Manurhin) beginning in 1952, and at a new factory in West Germany.
(Time for another digression of sorts. You can find pistols from 1952-1985 or so production marked Walther and marked Manurhin. The Walther marked pistols received roll marks, heat treatment of the slides, and final assembly in Ulm, Germany, and were proofed and inspected there, with German marks. The Manurhin pistols were finished, proofed and inspected in Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France, with French marks. Yet Alsace (Elsaß) was German from 1870-1918 and 1940-45 — maybe 1944. Because Walther and Manurhin used different heat treating methods, the slides of Walther pistols often don’t color-match the frames very well, and Manurhin ones match perfectly, usually).
As a result of this strange history and the usual churn of importers here in the USA, PP and PPK pistols are found with a very wide range of slide markings and proof marks, but except for 1940s production guns, which may have been sabotaged by slave labor, all are sure to be of high quality.
How a Gun Law Attacked the PPK
In the 1960s, Interarms of Alexandria, Virginia was the importer of the PP series and all was going swimmingly, until two political assassinations (Martin L. King and Robert F. Kennedy) led to a wave of gun-control legislation. American politics at the time was very different from politics today — gun control’s adherents were found in both parties, with opposition largely restricted to Southern Democrats and Western Republicans; and Democrats controlled, and had for years, both Houses of Congress and the White House. Two bills passed, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. (So, giving bills Orwellian names is nothing new).
The new laws were supported by the NRA and American gun manufacturers, because they also gave the manufacturers something that they wanted: protectionism. It was no skin off Colt’s or Smith & Wesson’s nose if foreigners wanted to sell their cheesy little guns here, but it was a major threat to high-cost, low-quality manufacturers like Harrington & Richardson or Iver Johnson. Rather that write the transparent ban on imports the manufacturers wanted, instead imports were subjected to a Sporting Purpose test (something drawn by Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd from Nazi and Weimar gun control laws, which he had come to admire, and placed in early drafts of the bill — before Dodd was censured by the Senate for his unrelated (we think) but legendary corruption, which would end his career this same year.
The Sporting Purpose test, as it was conceived, made it an object of US law that only hunting and organized target shooting are legitimate reasons to own firearms, and by implication, defense of self, others or property explicitly is not. As originally passed and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, these laws banned the import of military surplus weapons of all kinds (one objective of the manufacturers), and applied a “points test” to the importation of pistols. These laws have been modified by subsequent legislation (and by ATF regulation; the ATF Office of Chief Counsel holds that the “sporting purpose” test invalidates the 2nd Amendment), but the sporting purposes test and the pistol points test survive. (The law also banned the import of Class III weapons for private sale, under the sporting purposes test. The weapons in the market called “pre-May” or “pre-86″ dealer samples were brought in between October 1968 and May 19, 1986, under provisions of this law).
The points test was applied by ATF Form 4590. This image is a vintage form. The current version is ATF Form 5530.5.
Note that, while the ATF has taken up the cudgel of this law with great joy, the cudgel itself was crafted by the legislature, and signed into law in due course; it was upheld rapidly by 1960s liberal courts, and so only can be disposed of the same way it was spawned.
The sponsors of the law meant to come back and apply the points test to domestic production, but they never had the votes — some of the nation’s most anti-gun politicians shrank from voting to shutter factories in their home states of Massachusetts and Connecticut. (And some, like Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Dodd, who would be replaced by his equally crooked son after a brief interregnum, didn’t).
Now, the lip-service the gun bansters paid to just wanting to ban the bad guns would seem to have excepted the jewel-like PPK, but the little gun was caught on the horns of the points system. The points test counts: length, width, depth of the gun (larger is better); caliber (larger is better); target-shooting gingerbread like adjustable sights and thumb-rest grips; and safety mechanisms (more, and more fiddly, seems to please the Bubbas at Firearms Technology Branch better). The dimensional requirement from Form 4590 was (and on 5530.5 is):
The combined length and height must not be less than 10” with the height (right angle measurement to barrel without magazine or extension) being at least 4” and the length being at least 6”.
So the PP just barely sneaked through (especially in .380; the .32 version was borderline on points). But the PPK was hopeless as its overall dimensions were too small. The term used by the bansters at the time for a small handgun, implying a cheap and disposable nature, was
“Saturday Night Special,” but the application of the law didn’t affect any of the domestic shoddy pot-metal .32S&W revolvers, but did catch the safe-as-houses PPK.
With Continued Demand for a Suddenly Banned Gun, What’s Next?
By this time, the James Bond books, favorites of the late John F Kennedy, and the hugely successful movies had given the PPK new cachet, so Interarms was sitting on a stack of wholesale orders for guns it couldn’t bring into the country. It had a few potential courses of action, not including smuggling the guns and everybody going to jail (that was ruled right out).
- They could send the checks back to the wholesalers. If you ever met Sam Cummings of Interarms, you knew this was not on. Indeed, smuggling probably didn’t get dismissed as quickly as this approach.
- They could make the PPK in the USA. Walther wasn’t keen on this COA, and Interarms would have been taking a huge risk even if they could talk their German partners into it. Because Dodd, LBJ and others have sworn to come back and extend the “Saturday Night Special” ban (which is how they thought of the silly points system) to domestic production. Interarms did produce PPKs in the late 1970s, as this image from a 1979 catalog shows, but by then it was clear that the “Saturday Night Special” ban threat had passed. The failure of the gun control acts to influence crime was already patent.
- Or, they could modify the PPK to pass the points test, maybe.
It turned out that modifying the PPK wasn’t all that hard. It only needed about half an inch of height to pass the points test. The vast majority of Americans preferred the .380 caliber, which gave them a little headroom, although in time . (Hint: if you just want a PPK for some fun shooting, the .32’s a lot more pleasant to fire, even though the ammo’s more expensive, usually). And the half inch was easily come by: simply adapt the PP frame to the shorter PPK slide. As a side benefit, buyers of the new version would get an extra round in their mags.
A more imaginative marketer might have tried to get a Bond tie-in, or named it after Dodd, who indirectly created it, and sent the crooked ex-Senator a penny of graft for each one, in his involuntary retirement. It would have been publicity gold, but the industry was intimidated and more shy about controversy in those days, and the launch of the gun called it the PPK/Special or PPK/S. It was a US-only model of the already venerable gun (not many pocket pistols were still popular after their 35th Anniversary. Especially in a nation still in love with revolvers). The marketing materials played up the “Special” and played down the fact that this was merely a natural reaction to a dumb law.
At first, to a Walther fan, the PPK/s didn’t look right. The PP was familiar; the PPK was familiar; the S looked sort of deformed. Over time it grew more common. Nowadays, people have many options of smaller, lighter guns that pack a bigger punch, so the PP series has faded from actual employment as a defensive handgun. And they’ve been produced in many more variants in Germany, France and the USA, blued, stainless, and two-tone, engraved and plated, and copied even farther afield. But of all the variations, the PPK/S was the one created by a gun ban.