Walther P1 [Review]: Milsurp Made Easy

Ever wanted to snag a cold-war heater with some pretty interesting World War history behind its development?

The Walther P1 might just be for you!

We don’t usually dive into historical guns, but occasionally opportunities do arise to play around with some less-common guns – so why not? 

If you want to watch some awesome video of us shooting the Walther P1, take a look at our video review! And don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!

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Wait, That Gun Looks Familiar…

Good eye! The Walther P1 is a direct descendant of the iconic P38 issued to a good chunk of the various armed forces of Nazi Germany in the lead up to and during the second world war.

Previously, the German military’s sidearm needs had been filled by the Luger P.08 – and while the Luger was by no means a bad pistol by any means, in true German fashion it was a bit needlessly complicated – especially when you’re planning to outfit a military gearing up to start a second global bar fight. 

Considering that sidearms were not a crucial part of the Third Reich’s military doctrine, it made sense to instead adopt a pistol that could be mass-produced at a cheaper per-unit cost than the Luger, as the P.08 required both significant labor hours and craftsmanship to create at the scale needed to sate the Wehrmacht’s demands.

A cutaway schematic showing the operational guts of a P38.

The P38 entered development in the mid-thirties, and by the time the design was finalized and operational, it could be produced for approximately 32 reichsmarks, and while conversion rate information for dead nazi money is sort of ambiguous, it appears as though that’d be about $14 USD.

Using the same conversion, that works out to about $5 less than the Luger’s $19 USD cost per unit.

Adjusted for inflation that is about $240 for the P38 and $330 for the Luger. To put that into some context, the U.S. Army paid roughly $560 per gun for the Beretta M9 (adjusted for inflation, we think).

Multiply that by the ~million units produced between 1938 and 1945, and it’s easy to see how you’ve got a massive chunk of change saved by switching over to the P.38. 

The P38 was also an improvement over the Luger in a few areas as well. The gun was one of the first semi-automatic double-action pistols ever fielded.

Beretta M9 Double Action Single Action
Beretta M9 Double Action Single Action

Meaning that users could safely carry the gun with a round chambered and the hammer down, needing only to draw and squeeze the relatively long double-action trigger pull to fire.

Obviously, after the first round was fired and the spent casing was ejected, the gun remained in a single action state for the rest of the magazine. 

The allied aerial bombing campaign that ruthlessly targeted German industrial manufacturing centers took its toll on the P38s production and distribution schedule, however, and the primary Walther plant located in Zehla Mellis was eventually captured by American soldiers and later destroyed by the Soviets in 1946.

While nearly 1.2 million P38s were produced during the war, they never quite replaced the Luger entirely.

Oh woops, was that your arms plant? haha my b

Fast forward another 10 years to a Germany divided into East and West during the tensions of the Cold War.

Fritz Walther and his brothers had set up shop in a new factory in Ulm, Southwest Germany, and had been lying low producing various goods while anticipating that an eventual West German Defense Force might someday need the firearms-making prowess of Walther again someday, and is it turns out, they were spot on.

In 1956, the West German government announced the formation of the Bundeswehr, which is the modern German army as we know it. 

New Army, who dis? The Bundeswehr sometime in the late 50s.

Shortly after, German authorities began soliciting designs for the Bundeswehr’s standard-issue sidearm.

The Walther brothers had managed to save both patent details and some surviving war-time P38s, and after a trial, the P38 was once again selected to outfit the German military.

The new production P.38s were dubbed the P1, and utilized an aluminum alloy frame over the P38s heavier steel, and saw an eventual switch to bakelite grips as well.

So where’s that leave us today?

To The Range!

Weirdly enough, the Walther P1 specifically imported by P.W. Arms is on California’s roster of state-approved handguns. 

Thankfully much less intrusive import stampings than some of their other firearms to boot.

Since the crown kindly consented to our ownership of this cool little almost-milsurp blaster, we snagged one pretty much just for funsies from Guns.com who nicely double-checked it was PW Arms imported.

620
at Guns.com

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

In no time at all, our relic was in hand and we were ready to sling lead downrange – 8 rounds at a time.

Shooting the P1 is pretty strange, but not necessarily in a bad way? Right off the bat, it’s apparent that this is a very old gun design – but there are some familiar trappings of modernity that are a bit surprising here. 

First things first – we were unfortunate enough to be hit by a pretty gnarly dust storm when we went out to put some rounds through this bad boy, so excuse my homeless borderlands cosplay I’ve got going on here.

I hate sand. It’s course, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere…

The P1 is overall pretty comfy and fits my hand reasonably well – though you’ll likely notice that the steel slide sitting on top of an alloy frame makes the gun feel a bit top-heavy. 

The fire controls are surprisingly modern, and it’s pretty obvious that Beretta wound up taking a good amount of design cues on the M9 from the P1 and P38. 

Look familiar? 👀

The safety and decocker sit on the left side of the gun and are reasonably accessible with a thumb flick – allowing you to chamber a round and safely drop the hammer if you’d like to carry the gun hot. 

The decocker and safety are readily accessible with a flick O’ the thumb.

The slide release sits a little bit further forward, and feels simultaneously too small and too large. I’ll explain.

When the slide is locked, finding and manipulating the slide release feels a bit fumbly – overall it’s got a much smaller profile than what you’d find on any modern handgun. 

It could just be my hands, but the thumb groove feels like it partially blocks the slide release.

However, because of my weak side hand placement when shooting, I found that I was riding the slide release more or less constantly – which obviously prevents the slide from locking open on the last shot.

A surefire way to make the gun not lock open on the last round!

This isn’t really a fair criticism of the pistol per se, as it was developed well before shooting a handgun with two hands was remotely close to widespread or accepted.

As mentioned above, the gun can be fired in a double-action mode initially if you don’t mind creeping through that long ass trigger pull – but the single-action trigger pull is quite smooth with minimal creep, a very obvious breaking point, and a clean reset.

Single action firing is pretty damn pleasant.

It’s been said that this gun isn’t very forgiving, and if you concentrate on the fundamentals, you’ll do just fine with it.

I definitely found myself needing to slow down to take accurate shots, and the angry desert winds certainly didn’t help things, but I warmed up to the P1 pretty quickly – feeling reasonably confident with close up steel after a few mags or so.

The team also had some fun in a local night shooting competition with the P1…note it’s not optimum if you’re looking to rank!

Notably, the gun’s got the classic European style magazine release at the heel of the mag well. 

You’ll need to press back on the large tab on the bottom of the pistol grip to release the mag – which is obviously quite different to the trigger guard thumb releases we’re probably all used to as Americans.

Strange, but certainly not impossible.

I’m hesitant to criticize the design at all just because in our opinion,  this is much more of a fun conversation piece and plinker than anything we’d ever actually use or train for a defensive situation with, so take that as you will. 

Is the mag release sort of wonky? Sure, it’s weird because we’re not used to it, but if you find yourself in a situation where you get killed because you couldn’t reload your Cold War relic handgun fast enough, you’ve likely already made a series of questionable decisions to begin with 🤷‍♂️

The P1’s mag loaded with a snapcap.

The mag itself holds 8 rounds of 9×19, just like the P.08. The mag’s solid and single stack, and we had no issues loading the rounds by hand. They’re also readily available for ~$18 a pop from Gun Mag Warehouse, which is nice considering the age and surplus nature of the gun!

18
at GunMag Warehouse

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

It should be noted that while ProMag has a hit and miss reputation, these seem to be one of the hits. So far we haven’t had an issue and they come in a little cheaper than magazines from Walther.

But if you want real Walther mags, those are for sale too!

20
at GunMag Warehouse

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

It’s worth noting that anecdotal internet evidence suggests that the guns are not rated for defensive +P or +P+ rounds – and we’ll go ahead and assume that someone probably injured themselves in the process of coming to this conclusion. 

On that note, this is actually a slightly later model P1 with a few interesting fixes. 

The switch over to an aluminum frame brought with it a few issues regarding wear and tear on where the frame contacts and engages the locking block, and a hex bolt has been added to alleviate this issue.

The reinforcement bolt in question.

Additionally, later model P1s are going to have a fatter slide – a fix introduced to mitigate apparent issues with slides cracking or stretching that may have been related to the higher pressure 9mm ammunition that became common after WW2. 

Chunky boi

The fatter slide P1 is easily identifiable by the serrations near the safety and decocker that extend a bit forward of the safety markings themselves – thinner p1 slides only have serrations to the rear of the safety assembly.

A super easy way to differentiate a “fat slide” P1.

The gun’s slide is surprisingly easy to manipulate, and the action is quite smooth. Being a little bit more used to the slides and recoil slings found on glocks, the P1 is downright buttery in comparison, though we did run into a few issues while shooting it.

The P1 ran through an entire box of Blazer 115gr ball with absolutely no issues – but switching over to American Eagle ball began producing bizarre failures to extract that jammed up the gun due to the pressure the slide exerted on the magazine. 

Pictured: WELP

Unlike a lot of other FTEs, these were odd in that it looked like the gun started to extract the casing, but lost its hold on it for whatever reason – thus leaving a partially extracted spent cartridge bound up in the action as the gun’s slide returned and attempted to chamber another live round.

The slide’s relative ease of operation proved to be super useful here, as I was able to bring the slide rearward with one hand just enough to take the pressure off the magazine, drop the mag, and clear the malfunction.

Assessing the jam before attempting to clear it.

We’ve never really had any issues with AE previously, so we’re not sure what exactly caused this, but it did seem to be isolated specifically to the American Eagle 9mm. 

Using one hand to pull the slide bag, I was able to drop the mag and clear the obstruction.

We wouldn’t be surprised if a Milsurp gun that’d be eligible for AARP discount at Denny’s if it were a human was a little bit picky about the ammo you feed it for arbitrary, esoteric reasons.

The P1 also includes the P38’s loaded chamber indicator – providing a visual aid to the shooter via a small pin that extends rearward when a round is chambered that the gun is hot.

A very obvious visual indicator that you’re hot, boiiiiii

A neat feature and certainly ahead of it’s time, but ultimately one of the pieces of classic German over-engineering that was eventually deemed to be too difficult to execute for the payoff provided.

However, far more features found in the P38 and P1 did continue on into the future – such as the decocker, safety, double action trigger, and locking block, which are all very conspicuously present in the US Military’s Beretta M9 pistols, among many other less prolific designs.

By The Numbers

Reliability 3.5/5

The fact that ammunition from one particular manufacturer consistently induced failures to eject is a bit concerning – but the issue may not have been the gun itself. While we unfortunately didn’t have too many different types of 9mm to play with, the P1 ran just fine with normal Blazer 115, and as we mentioned, we really wouldn’t want to run anything outside of ball through this old geezer.

Accuracy 5/5

While certainly not an easy gun to shoot, the P1 will absolutely shoot to your ability. Once you really get a feel for the trigger and the gun’s quirks, putting rounds on target is a relative breeze – it might just feel a bit odd if you’re used to modern handguns. Take your time and it’ll do its job!

Ergonomics 3.5/5

This doesn’t feel quite fair to dock points consider the dated design of the gun, but a few things are a bit wonky ergonomically on the P1. Fire controls can feel odd to manipulate if you aren’t used to them, and a modern grip can cause the gun’s slide to fail to lock to the rear on an empty mag. Overall however, the P1 is quite comfortable and points nicely once you’ve got the hang of it.

Looks 5/5

There is something undeniably cool about the burgeoning modern-ness of the P1’s design. It sits somewhere between the intersection of almost crude old-world handgun design, typical German flair and industriousness, and newly implemented advancements in pistol design that’d survive well on into the modern day. In a word – iconic!

Customization 1/5

While not any sort of negative reflection on the gun itself, we probably don’t have to tell you that there isn’t too much in the way of aftermarket accessories available for a 60+ year old German handgun.

That black leather, tho

Surplus and reproduction leather belt holsters are decently accessible, but if you’ve got some sort of bizarre fantasy about tricking this thing out with a brake or RMR, you’re SOL for off the shelf solutions.

37
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Bang for the Buck 3/5

This one’s a bit tricky, as it’s all going to depend on how much you value history, as that’s obviously the main selling point here. The P1 generally runs about $600 or so in good condition, which isn’t too bad as far as historical firearms go.

However, obviously you can snag a Glock for about that much too if any sort of practical applications are more your concern. You’re going to have to make that judgement call yourself.

Overall 4/5

All in all, the Walther P1 is a rad little piece of history that still shoots great! The design is obviously dated, but we presume you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already know that.

If that’s your thing, the P1 sits right in that sweet spot of being a fun collector’s piece that you won’t feel bad about shooting.

Conclusion

I’ve said it before, but I’m a huge history nerd, and firearms that hold any sort of historic importance or value have always fascinated me. 

On that note, it’s really cool to get some rounds through what, realistically, is a snapshot frozen in time on the grand scale of handgun evolution. 

If you find yourself in a similar mindset, I probably don’t need to tell you that the P1 is a fun toy that you’ll probably have just as much fun with as I did. 

620
at Guns.com

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

That being said – this is still firmly a novelty gun and certainly not anything we’d advocate carrying or using for defense purposes, though I’m almost positive we’ll get at least on dissertation on why the P38 is the perfect home defense handgun in the comments section below – and I assure you I will not read said comment.

What is your favorite milsurp or almost-milsurp gun? Is it American or did it have to immigrate to get here? Let us know in the comments! For some awesome ideas to expand your own collection, take a look at the Best Military Surplus Rifles (That You Can Still Buy)!

6 Leave a Reply

  • Connor B

    My favorite "milsurp or almost-milsurp gun," without question, has to be the Browning Hi-Power. The Hi-Power fits my hand, out of the box, better than nearly any other handgun I've handled, and it's also one of the smoothest shooting pistols that I have ever fired. In fact, I'd probably rank it as my all-time favorite handgun.

    1 second ago
  • Jim Frank

    "What is your favorite milsurp or almost-milsurp gun? Is it American or did it have to immigrate to get here?" My personal favorite was my CZ-52 in 7.62X25. Hard hitting, very good penetration, and OMG trigger slap

    13 hours ago
  • Peter Pollione

    I would love to see more articles on weapons in history. I am a WW II ,Civil War, and the American West history buff. I also am a cowboy action shooter (SASS). Great job. Peter

    1 day ago
  • Dave Bigbee

    Great article! I just wanted to add that pretty much every part of the P1 is available online if you need to replace a part. Using a WWII P-38 steel frame, I found every part needed to build a steel framed fat slide P-1 shooter. All parts were new-old-stock. It did take me 14 months, but it’s doable. It shoots well, but building it from scratch gave me a true appreciation for the engineering put into one of these pistols.

    2 days ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      That does sound like a cool project!

      1 day ago
    • Sean Kelly

      That's amazing! I would love to do something like that

      1 day ago
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