Walther P-38

Walther P-38

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Walther P-38

The Walther P-38, a gas-operated semi-automatic pistol, chambered for the 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge, came into service in 1940.

Image provided by http://www.adamsguns.com/

How the P-38 became the definitive German pistol of World War II

/>Walther P-38 pistol.

The Walther P-38 arguably supplants even the infamous Luger P.08 as the definitive German pistol of the 20th century. Its development began in the early 1930s, when a cash-strapped German army looked to replace the elegant but expensive Luger. The Carl Walther firm responded with a larger version of its PP (Polizei Pistole), but the gun’s blowback system was deemed unsuitable for 9mm rounds.

Walther worked through several design variants that ultimately led to the short-recoil HP (Heeres Pistole). It was this version that the German army adopted in 1938 and two years later put into mass production as the Walther P-38.

Weapons Check | Walther P-38

The Walther P-38 arguably supplants even the infamous Luger P.08 as the definitive German pistol of the 20th century. Its development began in the early 1930s, when a cash-strapped German army looked to replace the elegant but expensive Luger. The Carl Walther firm responded with a larger version of its PP (Polizei Pistole), but the gun’s blowback system was deemed unsuitable for 9mm rounds. Walther worked through several design variants that ultimately led to the short-recoil HP (Heeres Pistole). It was this version that the German army adopted in 1938 and two years later put into mass production as the Walther P-38.

The P-38 broke new ground in the design of semiautomatic handguns. It was the first locked-breech pistol with a double-action trigger mechanism plus a hammer decocker. Together, these features meant that the pistol could be holstered safe but ready with a round in the chamber to fire, the user had only to draw the pistol, flick off the safety, and pull the trigger. A loaded chamber indicator at the rear signaled that the weapon was “hot.” The P-38 was smooth shooting, accurate, and reliable—everything a soldier could want from a sidearm—and Walther produced some 1.2 million of them from 1940 to 1945.

The P-38 wasn’t again produced for the German military until after 1957. In the 1960s a modular, modified P-38 starred as a pistol carbine on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. Often called the “godfather” of the modern combat handgun, the P-38 is revered today by collectors as much for the grace of its lines as for its history. MHQ

Chris McNab is a military historian based in the United Kingdom. His most recent book is The Falklands War Operations Manual (Haynes Publishing, 2018).

This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue (Vol. 31, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Weapons Check | Walther P-38

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Walther P38 (Pistole 38)

The Walter concern of German designed and developed the "Pistole 38" ("P38") semi-automatic pistol as a direct replacement for the famous Pistole Parabellum 1908 - better known as the "Luger" or "P08" model. An excellent weapon for its time (it first appeared in 1904 with the German Navy), the sidearm was still a turn-of-the-century design at its core, lacking some of the newer features being encountered with handguns of the interwar period, and not wholly designed for expedient, lower-cost serial production. With the emergence of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s, and a rearming of the German ground military, though was given to adopting a modern service pistol to go along with the revitalized German soldier.

The Walther concern was founded back in 1886 and went on to develop a line of useful pistols in the run-up to World War 2 (1939-1945). Developments generally centered around concealable pocket designs which found favor with various markets around the world. Using this knowledgebase, Walther set to work on a pistol designed from the outset as a military sidearm, built for the rigors of battlefield abuse, with construction and assembly methods more suitable for mass production.

Walther's police-minded designs then evolved to become the Walther AP ("Armee Pistole") of 1936. This weapon sported a locked breech arrangement and featured a concealed hammer to prevent snagging. It was chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum, the standard German pistol cartridge, and fired from an 8-round detachable box magazine inserted into the base of the pistol grip. A short-recoil action was used and a iron sights allowed for the necessary training of the gun at range. The P38 was a Double-Action ("DA"), semi-automatic service pistol with ribbed plastic grips and a cut-out slide design - wholly unique in the grand scope of World War 2 service pistols where many mimicked the famous lines of the Browning M1911.

While only a few of the AP-models were manufactured, it was this design that was passed to the German Army for testing. While evaluations were underway, Walther offered the weapon to the civilian market as the Walther HP ("Heeres Pistole"). The Germany Army then came back and requested an external hammer be fitted as soldiers appreciated the quick recognition of the hammer status. Additional review eventually led to the gun's formal adoption in 1938 as the "Pistole 38" or "P38". 1939 also saw an order come in from the Swedish Army who looked to make the P38 their next standard service pistol as well.

When Germany committed to total war through its invasion of Poland in September of 1939, World War 2 had officially begun. Walther ramped up its production of the P38 pistol and this led to the Swedish order being cancelled and civilian market forms disappearing to shore up the German Army need. While primary manufacture of the gun emerged from Walther itself, Waffenfabrik Mauser AG and Spreewerke GmbH were also tabbed with serial production of the series. As more and more factories in foreign lands fell under the might of the German Army, so too did places like Fabrique Nationale of Belgium and Waffenwerke Brunn and Ceska Zbrojovka of Czechoslovakia contribute to the overall total of available P38s. Production for the German Army ran until the end of the war in 1945.

In practice, the P38 became a valuable sidearm for its operators. It was of a sound semi-automatic design whose operation proved excellent and reliable even under the most adverse of conditions. Indeed, soldiers praised its service along the Eastern Front where weather proved just a much an enemy as did the Soviets. Its design made for a weapon that was easy to clean or repair in-the-field and short range accuracy was well noted during close-quarters fighting. The P38 was nearly as prized by Allied soldiers as was capturing a fully-working Luger pistol in the fighting - such was the respect for this weapon.

With the end of the war in 1945, production of P38s was allowed to continue though none were meant for the German Army. Operators went on to include Austria, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa and Sweden (among others). During the ensuing Cold War years, when Germany remained a politically and geographically divided nation under the victors of World War 2, the West German army was allowed to re-adopt their P38 as its standard service pistol. Renewed production for the Army from Cal Walther began in 1957 and the P38 remained the standard service pistol from that time until 1963 - one key difference lay in the aluminum frame now used over the original wartime model's steel frame. From late 1963 onwards, new post-war manufacture produced the "Pistole 1" ("P1") designation which brought about further subtle changes in design. The P1 was in service until retired in 2004 in favor of the modern Hecker & Koch USP ("Universal Self-Loading Pistol") as the "P8" detailed elsewhere on this site.

Some police and military forces today continue use of the famous P38 series. Manufacture has totaled about 1 million units.

P.38 Masterpiece or misfit? Part II--The postwar era.

In Part I (4/20 issue), Kokalis examined the many wartime variants of the type. Now he details its lengthy postwar career.

Some very interesting handguns went into and came out of World War II. Americans overwhelmingly think that the M1911A1.45 ACP was the best hand-gun before, during and after the war.

Certainly, with regard to caliber, it was. But as fielded during those years, its grip tang was too short and constant hammer bite made it unpleasant to shoot. The Browning High Power also had a venerable history during World War II and thereafter for quite some time. Because of its large magazine capacity it was a documented favorite of the Waffen SS.

Technologically, the most advanced handgun to be fielded during the war was the innovative German JP Sauer & Sohn 38(H), which unfortunately was chambered for the rather anemic 7.65mm (.32 ACP) cartridge. During Part I of this article, we discussed in considerable detail the P.38 during World War II, which replaced the svelte, but finicky, P.08 Luger.

Total World-War-II production of the P.38 by three manufacturers--Walther, Mauser and Spreewerk--was about 1,190,500. At the time of its introduction, the P.38 was a very modern single-action/double-action design with a manual safety combined with a decocking device and it was chambered for the still quite popular 9x19mm Parabellum round. The P.38 was fielded in substantial numbers throughout the world by many nations for almost half a century after the war.

Germany expended the greatest bulk of its manpower and material on the Eastern Front. Tremendous quantities of P.3.8s, manufactured by Walther, Mauser and Spreewerk, from the earliest variants to the last, were swallowed up in the inferno against the Red Army.

When the war ended, many East European nations found themselves with substantial inventories of captured P.38 pistols. In the West, smaller, but still significant, quantities of P.38s were also stockpiled. From both the East and West, P.38 pistols found their way into law enforcement and military organizations throughout the world.

Captured, and usually refurbished, P.38s were fielded from mid-1945 to the early 1990s in fairly substantial quantities by the military and police units of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria. Limited use of World-War-II-era P.38s was made by Afghanistan/Pakistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Chad, Chile, China, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Republic of South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Yugoslavia.

The French Come Marching In

On 20 April 1945, production of German issue "SVW45" code P. 38 pistols ceased at the Mauser factory ("SVW" was the German manufacturer's code for Mauser that replaced the "byf" code at the end of 1944). The Mauser factory was located in the French occupational sector of Germany. In complete contravention of the previously agreed-upon Allied regulations, the French immediately instructed Mauser to continue production of the P.38, which occurred on 10 May.

Manufacture of the P.38 resumed, using components on hand that were ready for assembly or required only minimal machining. Only after these components were exhausted was available raw stock put to use. The Mauser code, "SVW45" was retained and then changed to "SVW46" at the beginning of 1946. Many of these P.38s were sent to Indochina and ironically ended up in the hands of members of the French Foreign Legion who had served in the Wehrmacht during the war.

These are interesting and desirable pistols with some unique features. On the right side of the slide will be found a French five-pointed star proof mark, which indicated a pressure/proof of "Ordinary Smokeless Proof (Powder "T") Pressure."

Collectors have noted 11 different finishes for the French P.38s, but the two most often associated with this variation are a phosphate finish, ranging from light gray to very black and a blue/black or black oxide finish. French P.38s are frequently referred to as "Grey Ghosts" by collectors.

There are two types of grip panels most often associated with the French P.38 pistols. The first is the glossy black plastic grip panel found on the German issue "SVW45" P.38s. This is the least desirable to collectors. More common are the stamped sheet metal grip panels, mostly matching the finish of the pistol, that were introduced by Mauser just before they terminated German issue production.

French "SVW45" and "SVW46" pistols in excellent condition now sell for $800 to $1,000. Substantial numbers of them were imported by Interarms before it closed its doors forever. For many years Interarms was the official U.S. importer for postwar Walther firearms.

Postwar Germany, with four occupation zones (American, British, French and Russian) was strictly controlled with regard to armaments under the Four Powers Agreement. This protocol forbade the German production of weapons, as well as the formation of any German armed forces or centralized police force.

Each of the occupying countries interpreted the agreement to suit its own ends, as evidenced by P.38 production under both French and Soviet authorities. The first armed groups in the four zones were decentralized police organizations armed with an eclectic mix of allied small arms and German weapons, such as the K98k bolt-action rifle, the Walther PP and PPK pistols and the P.38.

In the American zone, all captured German weapons were destroyed, except for a few P.38s, and the police units were equipped with the small arms of the U.S. Army. In 1949, the American, British and French zones were united as the Federal Republic of Germany and a new military force was authorized and formed in 1956.

By 1957, the P.38 was accepted and World-War-II-era pistols were cannibalized and rebuilt, with the swastika defaced and the pistols refinished. By the middle of the 1950s, German police units were issued new P.38 pistols with aluminum alloy frames that were manufactured by Walther at U1m-Donau.

The Walther factory was completely destroyed by the end of World War II and the Red Army confiscated all of the machinery. Escaping to the west, the Walther family established a modest facility in U1m-Donau on the Danube River in the early 1950s.

Fritz Walther secured a contract with the newly reestablished Bundeswehr for 100,000 so-called P1 (Pistole 1) in 1954. It was the standard sidearm of the Bundeswehr until at least 1994. Commercial sales commenced in 1957 and production by Manurhin in France also began that year.

Sales of the P1 were also made to Austria, Norway, Portugal, the Republic of South Africa, the Pakistani air force, the army of Ghana, and the armies of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. It was manufactured in 9mm Parabellum, 7.65x25mm Parabellum (.30 Luger) and .22 LR rimfire.

At first, these pistols were manufactured with steel frames, but quickly a black anodized aluminum alloy frame was introduced into series production. Walther was a pioneer in the development of alloys applied to handgun design.

Equipped with this frame, the P.38/P1 was 6 ounces lighter for a total weight, empty, of 28 ounces (the steel frame P.38 weighs 34 ounces, empty). In addition to the aluminum alloy frame, several other differences were incorporated into the P1. The shape of the firing pin was changed and the safety system was altered.

The further to reduce production costs, the barrel, formerly machined from one piece, was fabricated in two steps--first a hammer-forged liner with the lands and grooves and then the barrel's outer housing. By 1958, further small changes were made to the safety, slide and hammer, followed by major changes to the whole pistol in 1967.

As high-pressure ammunition had occasionally resulted in cracking in the area of the slide that holds the locking block, the slide thickness was increased by 1.5mm (.059") and a 2mm (.079") reinforcement rib was added to the upper slide rail between the bridge and breechblock.

In 1968, the slide's cocking serrations were widened from 24mm (.95") to 42mm (1.65 inches) to facilitate manipulation with gloves. This new slide is referred to as the "thick" type, as opposed to the earlier "thin" slide.

Production for the commercial market commenced in 1971. Further changes were instituted shortly thereafter. The barrel pin retaining the liner to the outer housing was replaced by a flange. The barrel's muzzle was altered and the liner protruded to form a step-like end. Finally, in 1976 a hexagonal steel crossbolt was added to the alloy frame to inhibit wear in the locking area as a consequence of design work on the Walther P4.

I have two specimens of these interesting pistols and they exhibit several significant differences, as they represent both early and late production. Interestingly, the black plastic, checkered grip panels are quite similar to those of the original Walther HP model. The only difference appears to be a slightly narrower incipient thumb rest on the left P1 grip panel. The steel components were provided with a phosphate finish.

My early specimen was manufactured in April 1958. The right side of the slide carries the date "4/58," German proofmarks and a NATO stock number. The left side of the slide is marked with the Walther banner and "Carl Walther Waffenfabrik U1m/Do P38 Cal. 9mm" and the last three digits of the serial number. With the exception of the aluminum frame, grip panels, completely round firing pin and the slide rollmarks, this specimen is very little different from the P.38.

My second specimen was manufactured in October 1982 and displays a number of important differences from earlier production series P1 pistols. The right side of the slide now bears only a proofmark. The left side of the slide carries the Walther banner and "P1 Kal.9mm 10/82" with the last three digits of the serial number and a four-pointed star.

When the safety mechanism was changed, this affected the disassembly procedures. It was no longer necessary to retract the slide completely before removing it. Just remove the magazine, make sure the chamber is empty, engage the safety, push the barrel against a hard surface only slightly, turn down the front locking lever, push forward on the plunger and the locking wedge will be cammed into its disengaged position, and then move the barrel/slide group forward and off the frame.

Push the locking plunger forward and this will force the locking block out of its seat under the barrel. This unlocks the barrel from the slide. Pry off the sheet-metal dust cover on top of the slide to expose the firing pin, loaded chamber indicator pin and the thumb safety's internal components.

Use a small screwdriver to remove the grip panels. Disassemble the magazine. No further disassembly is recommended. After cleaning and lubrication, reassemble in the reverse order. Make sure the hammer is fully forward. Press down on the ejector, disconnector and hammer release as you move the barrel/slide group rearward. Turn the slide's locking lever back up to its horizontal (locked) position.

The sights were changed after 1973. The front sight blade was made noticeably wider and has a white dot. In addition, the open U-notch rear sight was widened and became almost a square-notch. There is a white square directly under the notch.

Unfortunately, the white dot on the front sight has been placed too high on the blade. There were several different front sight heights available for the P1. Further, there were also three different rear sights. If the rear sight is unmarked, it is centered. If it is marked with an "R", the notch is slightly offset to the right. Likewise, a rear sight marked with an "L" is offset to the left. The sight radius is 7.1 inches (180mm) in all instances.

The P.38 was a battle-proven, reliable series, but the verdict on the P1 is somewhat different, as we shall see. Changing to an aluminum frame improved its handling characteristics, as it is now somewhat muzzle-heavy. The perceived recoil has not been noticeably increased by the weight reduction of 6 ounces.

The accuracy potential is no better or worse than any other military/police sidearm with fixed sights and is more than adequate for the average operator. In general, you are well advised to employ only round-nosed FMJ bullets (loaded in brass or steel cases) in military service pistols of this era. There have been several attempts to produce hollow-point projectiles with plastic plugs that increase feeding reliability. They have been especially popular in law enforcement circles in Germany.

Unfortunately, comprehensive tests at the U.S. Army's Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the Presidio clearly demonstrated that much of the time the plug failed to separate from the bullet prior to impact with the target.

In the late 1970s, Interarms imported small quantity of late P1-type pistols marked with the Walther banner and "Carl Walther Waffenfabrik Ulm/Do. P38 Cal. 9mm" on the left side of the slide and the serial number, Interarms sunburst logo and nitro proofmark on the right side of the slide. This very desirable variation sells for approximately $800 today in excellent condition.

About five years ago, a substantial quantity of surplus West German P1 pistols were imported by Inter Ordnance of America L.P. and others. They were declared surplus by the German government as a consequence of the Cold War drawdown and by the adoption of the Heckler & Koch USP. They sold for $349.95 each, including one magazine, a cleaning kit and a police flap holster, and most were in excellent to almost new condition.

Subsequent to their initial importation, the BATFE declared the Walther P1 to be an "Implement of War," as apparently some of them were former Bundeswehr issue and no more could be imported. Unfortunately, most had rather large importers markings on the underside of the barrel, but today they sell for $400 to $550.

In 1974, what was clearly fakery during World War II became reality. As a consequence of the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich and establishment of the SEK (Spezialeinsatzkommando, formerly known as the Sondereinsatzkommando--special response units of the German state police forces), which is the state police equivalent of the German Federal Police unit known as GSG 9, Walther developed the P38-K. SEK units vary in composition from state to state and are located in major cities noted for high crime rates.

The P38-K has a 70mm (2.76 inches) barrel with the front sight integral with slide's front bridge, and with many other characteristics that distinguish it from the short-barreled P.38s supposedly favored by the Gestapo and Waffen SS. The P38-K was developed between October of 1972 and May of 1973.

The slide's sheet metal top cover and cartridge indicator pin at the rear were deleted. The hammer spur was shortened. The decocker system of the Walther PP Super was incorporated. Thus, there is no manual safety and the slide-mounted lever merely drops the hammer if it was cocked. In all other regards, the P38-K is a late-type Walther P1.

Series production commenced at the beginning of 1974 with serial No. 500000 and was terminated in 1978 after approximately 2,600 P38-K pistols were produced. A few hundred were supposedly imported by Interarms with their logo, but the specimen I have is devoid of any importer or Interarms markings.

The front face of the trigger is serrated. There is a single white dot on the front sight and a white square directly under the rear sight's open square notch. The rear sight can be adjusted for windage zero. Very few P38-K pistols were imported to the United States, and on the rare occasions when one can be located for sale, it will sell for at least $1,600.

From the P38-K was derived a pistol that was used for a very short period only by the German customs and border police. After World War II, the police units of the Lander were principally armed with Walther PP and PPK pistols chambered for the 7.65mm (.32ACP) cartridge.

Eventually,, the BMI (Bundesministerium des Innern--federal ministry of internal affairs) procured both the 9x19mm Parabellum Swiss SIG 210-4 and Spanish Astra 600 and subsequently the Walther P1 to replace the largely ineffective Walther pocket pistols. The Walther PP Super, chambered for the unique 9x 18mm Ultra cartridge was also tried briefly, but found wanting. The federal police units wanted a faster first shot capability and were attracted to the decocker system used first on the Walther PP Super and then on the P38-K.

The P1 barrel was shortened by 15mm (.591"). The locking block was made of a stronger material than previously and to its recess in the aluminum alloy frame was added a steel insert. Small changes were made to the sights. In all other regards, what became known as the P4 was identical to the P38-K.

The French company of Manurhin produced 500 of the P4 variation for the West Berlin police. A total of approximately 7,300 of these pistols were manufactured at Ulm, of which Interarms initially took only 200 and these were marked "P38/IV" and provided with the commercial proofmarks of Ulm to include the antler, eagle over "N" nitro proof and the code of the acceptance year (two capital letters).

The P4 was withdrawn from service after only a short time and most were sold to Hammerli in Tiengen, refurbished and sold on a European commercial market. The specimen I own is marked on the left side of the slide with the Walther banner and "P4 Kal. 9mm 1/76" (indicating manufacture in January of 1976) and the last three digits of the serial number.

The police marking on the right side of the slide was milled out and filled with a clear epoxy. The "BMI" rollmark on the right side of the frame was crossed out. The spine of the Walther banner P1 magazine is marked "12/75", probably indicating that it was the magazine originally issued with the pistol. The pistol was imported by Interarms, as evidenced by the box it came in, which carries the serial number. Although it's not common, excellent examples of the Walther P4 sell for only $600 to $700.

During the 1970s, Interarms imported a substantial variety of Walther handguns, including the PP, PPK and PPK/S pocket pistols and a wide range of P.38/P1 variations to include a .22 LR rimfire P.38 that is now difficult to locate and will fetch up to $1,900 if found in excellent condition. Only a few thousand were produced and production terminated by the mid-1970s as it was not a commercial success.

Around the late 1960s, Interarms imported a very small quantity of P1 pistols marked "P38" and equipped with checkered wood grip panels very similar to those sometimes found on commercial versions of the Walther HP (Modell Heeres Pistole--Model Army Pistol) sold in Germany during the late 1930s.

This very early P1-type, without the hexagonal frame reinforcement pin, today sells for $700 to $800. In 1986, at the behest of Interarms, a very limited quantity of P1-type pistols was fabricated to commemorate Walther's 100-year anniversary. The left side of the slide was roll marked, "P38 100 Jahre" Walther banner "1886-1986" with the right side of the slide carrying the nitro proof, serial number, Interarms sunburst logo and "MADE IN GERMANY".

These pistols were packaged in a blue leatherette case with red velvet lining and two magazines, one of which is high-polish blue. These sets sell for $800 to $1,000, on the rare occasion they are offered for sale.

As previously mentioned, Norway was one of the nations that adopted the Walther P1 pistol. It proved to be a very demonstrable failure. After World War II ended and the German Wehrmacht left,. 13,200 P.08 Luger and P.38 pistols stayed behind. The 4,000 P.38s in this group saw hard usage by the Norwegian army during the 1950s and 1960s.

Lack of spare parts lead to a steady reduction in the Norwegian P.38 inventory to only 2,300 by January of 1953. Spare barrels were in especially short supply. From 1958 to 1965, the Norwegian army purchased barrels and slides from Walther.

By 1960, the Norwegian army decided to adopt a new pistol. After tests were conducted, the Walther alloyframe P1 was adopted. The first delivery was to the Norwegian air force in 24 June 1966. Again subjected to heavy use, slides cracked close to the ejection port, together with severe metal wear close to the breech locking points.

Because of a soft feed ramp and the use of Geco ammunition with a truncated-cone bullet, failures to feed were all too common. Sometimes the barrel liners blew out. In spite of this, the P38N (Norwegian contract) stayed in service until the late 1980s.

Less than 30 were imported to the United States by a prominent P.38 collector. The specimen in my collection was one of 152 that went to the Norwegian Air Force War Academy. These pistols can be identified by the slide markings. The left side of the slide carries the Walther banner followed by "Carl Walther Waffenfabrik Ulm/Do." Over "P38", a Norwegian crown shield with the letter "N" inside the shield and "Cal. 9mm".

The right side of the frame and slide are double-marked with "413" inside a Norwegian crest. Very seldom encountered, when found for sale these will bring over $2,500. It's interesting to note that the original price was about $33.

The Walther P.38 concept reached its apotheosis and termination with the P5. Development of the P5 commenced in 1975 after a significant number of German police departments indicated they would prefer something other than the P1. Walther designers took what they felt were the best qualities from both the P.38 and the PP Super and fused them into what was supposed to be the "perfect" handgun.

Competition included the SIG SAUER P225 (P6) and Heckler & Koch's PSP (P7), this latter often referred to as the "squeeze cocker."

An experimental production run was made in February of 1976 and delivery to government agencies commenced in November of 1978, with delivery to the commercial market starting in January of 1979.

With a lightweight aluminum alloy frame and the steel hexagonal frame reinforcement pin of the later P1 pistols, other features were those of the PP Super and P4. There is no safety lever and a combination decocking lever and slide hold-open lever is mounted on the frame.

There is no loaded chamber indicator pin and the guide rails found on the P.38 for the barrel were deleted. There are four independent safeties. (1.) The firing pin is locked in place at all times until the instant of firing. (2.) The hammer is equipped with a safety notch into which it drops when released by the decocking lever. (3.) The hammer has a hole at the bottom of its front face that rests opposite a lug on the head of the firing pin and consequently, the hammer cannot make contact with the firing pin until the instant of it forward rotation. (4.) If the slide is not fully forward into the battery position, the trigger bar remains disconnected from the trip lever. A compact model was introduced in 1987 with a shortened slide, frame and barrel.

In addition to German police units, the P5 was adopted by the Dutch police, Portuguese army and several Scandinavian and South American countries. Substantial quantities were also exported to the United States and Nigeria. Three thousand P5 Compact pistols were adopted in the 1980s by the British army as the Pistol L102A1 for issue to the Royal Irish Regiment.

The P5 is still in use by the Dutch police, who reportedly have never been satisfied with its reliability. It was essentially abandoned by Walther in the late 1980s, when apparently fantasizing that they might snatch the US JSSAP quest for a new pistol to replace the M1911, the Walther P88 was developed using the short recoil, locked breech method of operation pioneered by John Browning. Of course, they never really had a chance at that prize and the real irony is that the pistol selected, the Beretta Model 92 (which was adopted as the M9), uses the tilting block method of operation taken right out of the P.38.

During World War II, the P.38 proved to be a modern, excellent design that was clearly superior to the P.08 Luger. However, after the war Walther quickly went to a lightweight aluminum-alloy frame, as before the war they had experimented extensively with lightweight frames in the PP and PPK series.

However, these pistols were chambered for relatively weak cartridges--7.65mm (.32 ACP), 9mm Kurz (.380 ACP) and .22 LR rimfire--and could be successfully, and reliably, operated by means of un-locked pure blowback. The 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge used in the P.38 was quite another matter and required locked-breech recoil operation with a frame of substantial strength.

The aluminum alloys of the 1950s were not of the same metallurgical integrity as those eventually developed for the firearms industry a half century later. When subjected to heavy and constant use, such as by the Norwegian armed forces, aluminum-framed P.38/P1 pistols crash dived.

In my opinion, the post-World-War-II-era aluminum alloy P.38/P1, while not a disastrous failure, was most certainly not a resounding success. The 6 ounces removed from the P.38 proved to be an engineering mistake of significant magnitude.


The P.38 Pistol, Volume One--The Walther Pistols 1930-1945 by Warren H. Buxton. Copyright 1978. ISBN 0-87833-303-7. Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544-2350. 328 pages with numerous black & white photos. Recently reprinted--$80.

The P.38 Pistol, Volume Two--The Contract Pistols 1940-1945 by Warren H. Buxton. Copyright 1984. ISBN 0-96-140240-7. Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544-2350. 247 pages with numerous black & white photos. Recently reprinted--$80.

The P.38 Pistol, Volume Three--International Distribution Post 1945--Addendum to Volumes 1 and 2 by Warren H. Buxton. Copyright 1990. ISBN 0-96-140240-1-5. Published by UCROSS Books, P.O. Box 764, Los Alamos, N.M. 87544-2350. 270 pages with numerous black & white photos. Recently reprinted--$80.

Walther--A German Legend by Manfred Kersten. Copyright 2001. ISBN 1-57157-174-4. Published by Safari Press, Inc, P.O. Box 3095, Long Beach, California 90803. 400 pages with numerous full color and black & white photos.

Walthers P.38 Pistol In Norway and The Norwegian Ulm Contract by Per Mathisen. Copyright 2005. ISBN 82-994456-3-9. Published by Bohmische Forlag, Korvaldveien 10, N-3050 Mjondalen, Norway. 442 pages with numerous black & white photos, drawings and charts.


Lockheed designed the P-38 in response to a February 1937 specification from the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). Circular Proposal X-608 was a set of aircraft performance goals authored by First Lieutenants Benjamin S. Kelsey and Gordon P. Saville for a twin-engine, high-altitude "interceptor" having "the tactical mission of interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude." [21] Forty years later, Kelsey explained that he and Saville drew up the specification using the word interceptor as a way to bypass the inflexible Army Air Corps requirement for pursuit aircraft to carry no more than 500 lb (230 kg) of armament including ammunition, and to bypass the USAAC restriction of single-seat aircraft to one engine. Kelsey was looking for a minimum of 1,000 lb (450 kg) of armament. [22] Kelsey and Saville aimed to get a more capable fighter, better at dog-fighting and at high-altitude combat. Specifications called for a maximum airspeed of at least 360 mph (580 km/h) at altitude, and a climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) within six minutes, [23] the toughest set of specifications USAAC had ever presented. The unbuilt Vultee XP1015 was designed to the same requirement, but was not advanced enough to merit further investigation. A similar single-engine proposal was issued at the same time, Circular Proposal X-609, in response to which the Bell P-39 Airacobra was designed. [24] Both proposals required liquid-cooled Allison V-1710 engines with turbo-superchargers and gave extra points for tricycle landing gear.

The Lockheed design team, under the direction of Hall Hibbard and Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, considered a range of twin-engine configurations, including both engines in a central fuselage with push–pull propellers. [25]

The eventual configuration was rare in terms of contemporary fighter aircraft design, with the preceding Fokker G.1, the contemporary Focke-Wulf Fw 189 Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, and the later Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter having a similar planform, along with a few other unusual aircraft. The Lockheed team chose twin booms to accommodate the tail assembly, engines, and turbo-superchargers, with a central nacelle for the pilot and armament. The XP-38 gondola mockup was designed to mount two .50-caliber (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns with 200 rounds per gun (rpg), two .30-caliber (7.62 mm) Brownings with 500 rpg, and a T1 Army Ordnance 23 mm (.90 in) autocannon with a rotary magazine as a substitute for the non-existent 25 mm Hotchkiss aircraft autocannon specified by Kelsey and Saville. [26] In the YP-38s, a 37 mm (1.46 in) M9 autocannon with 15 rounds replaced the T1. [27] The 15 rounds were in three five-round clips, an unsatisfactory arrangement according to Kelsey, and the M9 did not perform reliably in flight. Further armament experiments from March to June 1941 resulted in the P-38E combat configuration of four M2 Browning machine guns, and one Hispano 20 mm (.79 in) autocannon with 150 rounds. [28]

Clustering all the armament in the nose was unusual in U.S. aircraft, which typically used wing-mounted guns with trajectories set up to crisscross at one or more points in a convergence zone. Nose-mounted guns did not suffer from having their useful ranges limited by pattern convergence, meaning that good pilots could shoot much farther. A Lightning could reliably hit targets at any range up to 1,000 yd (910 m), whereas the wing guns of other fighters were optimized for a specific range. [29] The rate of fire was about 650 rounds per minute for the 20×110 mm cannon round (130-gram shell) at a muzzle velocity of about 2,850 ft/s (870 m/s), and for the .50-caliber machine guns (43-gram rounds), about 850 rpm at 2,900 ft/s (880 m/s) velocity. Combined rate of fire was over 4,000 rpm with roughly every sixth projectile a 20 mm shell. [30] The duration of sustained firing for the 20 mm cannon was approximately 14 seconds while the .50-caliber machine guns worked for 35 seconds if each magazine was fully loaded with 500 rounds, or for 21 seconds if 300 rounds were loaded to save weight for long-distance flying.

The Lockheed design incorporated tricycle undercarriage and a bubble canopy, and featured two 1,000 hp (750 kW) turbosupercharged 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engines fitted with counter-rotating propellers to eliminate the effect of engine torque, with the turbochargers positioned behind the engines, the exhaust side of the units exposed along the dorsal surfaces of the booms. [31] Counter-rotation was achieved by the use of "handed" engines: the crankshafts of the engines turned in opposite directions, a relatively easy task for the V-1710 modular-design aircraft powerplant.

The P-38 was the first American fighter to make extensive use of stainless steel and smooth, flush-riveted butt-jointed aluminum skin panels. [32] It was also the first military airplane to fly faster than 400 mph (640 km/h) in level flight. [33] [34]

XP-38 and YP-38 prototypes Edit

Lockheed won the competition on 23 June 1937 with its Model 22 and was contracted to build a prototype XP-38 [35] for US$163,000, though Lockheed's own costs on the prototype would add up to US$761,000. [36] Construction began in July 1938, and the XP-38 first flew on 27 January 1939 at the hands of Ben Kelsey. [37] [Note 1]

Kelsey then proposed a speed dash to Wright Field on 11 February 1939 to relocate the aircraft for further testing. General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the USAAC, approved of the record attempt and recommended a cross-country flight to New York. The flight set a speed record by flying from California to New York in seven hours and two minutes, not counting two refueling stops. [31] Kelsey flew conservatively for most of the way, working the engines gently, even throttling back during descent to remove the associated speed advantage. Bundled up against the cold, Arnold congratulated Kelsey at Wright Field during his final refueling stop, and said, "don't spare the horses" on the next leg. [39] After climbing out of Wright Field and reaching altitude, Kelsey pushed the XP-38 to 420 miles per hour (680 km/h). [40] Nearing his destination, Kelsey was ordered by Mitchel Field tower into a slow landing pattern behind other aircraft, and the prototype was downed by carburetor icing short of the Mitchel runway in Hempstead, New York, and was wrecked. However, on the basis of the record flight, the Air Corps ordered 13 YP-38s on 27 April 1939 for US$134,284 each. [4] [41] (The "Y" in "YP" was the USAAC's designation for a prototype, while the "X" in "XP" was for experimental.) Lockheed's Chief test pilot Tony LeVier angrily characterized the accident as an unnecessary publicity stunt, [42] but according to Kelsey, the loss of the prototype, rather than hampering the program, sped the process by cutting short the initial test series. [43] The success of the aircraft design contributed to Kelsey's promotion to captain in May 1939.

Manufacture of YP-38s fell behind schedule, at least partly because of the need for mass-production suitability making them substantially different in construction from the prototype. Another factor was the sudden required expansion of Lockheed's facility in Burbank, taking it from a specialized civilian firm dealing with small orders to a large government defense contractor making Venturas, Harpoons, Lodestars, Hudsons, and designing the Constellation for TWA. The first YP-38 was not completed until September 1940, with its maiden flight on 17 September. [45] The 13th and final YP-38 was delivered to the Air Corps in June 1941 12 aircraft were retained for flight testing and one for destructive stress testing. The YPs were substantially redesigned and differed greatly in detail from the hand-built XP-38. They were lighter and included changes in engine fit. The propeller rotation was reversed, with the blades spinning outward (away from the cockpit) at the top of their arc, rather than inward as before. This improved the aircraft's stability as a gunnery platform. [46]

High-speed compressibility problems Edit

Test flights revealed problems initially believed to be tail flutter. During high-speed flight approaching Mach 0.68, especially during dives, the aircraft's tail would begin to shake violently and the nose would tuck under (see Mach tuck), steepening the dive. Once caught in this dive, the fighter would enter a high-speed compressibility stall and the controls would lock up, leaving the pilot no option but to bail out (if possible) or remain with the aircraft until it got down to denser air, where he might have a chance to pull out. During a test flight in May 1941, USAAC Major Signa Gilkey managed to stay with a YP-38 in a compressibility lockup, riding it out until he recovered gradually using elevator trim. [31] Lockheed engineers were very concerned by this limitation but first had to concentrate on filling the current order of aircraft. In late June 1941, the Army Air Corps was renamed the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), and a total of 65 Lightnings were finished for the service by September 1941 with more on the way for the USAAF, the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the Free French Air Force operating from England.

By November 1941, many of the initial assembly-line challenges had been met, which freed up time for the engineering team to tackle the problem of frozen controls in a dive. Lockheed had a few ideas for tests that would help them find an answer. The first solution tried was the fitting of spring-loaded servo tabs on the elevator trailing edge designed to aid the pilot when control yoke forces rose over 30 pounds-force (130 N), as would be expected in a high-speed dive. At that point, the tabs would begin to multiply the effort of the pilot's actions. The expert test pilot, Ralph Virden, was given a specific high-altitude test sequence to follow and was told to restrict his speed and fast maneuvering in denser air at low altitudes, since the new mechanism could exert tremendous leverage under those conditions. A note was taped to the instrument panel of the test craft underscoring this instruction. On 4 November 1941, Virden climbed into YP-38 #1 and completed the test sequence successfully, but 15 minutes later was seen in a steep dive followed by a high-G pullout. The tail unit of the aircraft failed at about 3,500 ft (1,000 m) during the high-speed dive recovery Virden was killed in the subsequent crash. The Lockheed design office was justifiably upset, but their design engineers could only conclude that servo tabs were not the solution for loss of control in a dive. Lockheed still had to find the problem the Army Air Forces personnel were sure it was flutter and ordered Lockheed to look more closely at the tail.

In 1941 flutter was a familiar engineering problem related to a too-flexible tail, but the P-38's empennage was completely skinned in aluminum [Note 2] rather than fabric and was quite rigid. At no time did the P-38 suffer from true flutter. [47] To prove a point, one elevator and its vertical stabilizers were skinned with metal 63% thicker than standard, but the increase in rigidity made no difference in vibration. Army Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth B. Wolfe (head of Army Production Engineering) asked Lockheed to try external mass balances above and below the elevator, though the P-38 already had large mass balances elegantly placed within each vertical stabilizer. Various configurations of external mass balances were equipped, and dangerously steep test flights were flown to document their performance. Explaining to Wolfe in Report No. 2414, Kelly Johnson wrote "the violence of the vibration was unchanged and the diving tendency was naturally the same for all conditions." [48] The external mass balances did not help at all. Nonetheless, at Wolfe's insistence, the additional external balances were a feature of every P-38 built from then on. [49]

Johnson said in his autobiography [50] that he pleaded with NACA to do model tests in its wind tunnel. They already had experience of models thrashing around violently at speeds approaching those requested and did not want to risk damaging their tunnel. Gen. Arnold, head of Army Air Forces, ordered them to run the tests, which were done up to Mach 0.74. [51] The P-38's dive problem was revealed to be the center of pressure moving back toward the tail when in high-speed airflow. The solution was to change the geometry of the wing's lower surface when diving in order to keep lift within bounds of the top of the wing. In February 1943, quick-acting dive flaps were tried and proven by Lockheed test pilots. The dive flaps were installed outboard of the engine nacelles, and in action they extended downward 35° in 1.5 seconds. The flaps did not act as a speed brake they affected the pressure distribution in a way that retained the wing's lift. [52]

Late in 1943, a few hundred dive flap field modification kits were assembled to give North African, European and Pacific P-38s a chance to withstand compressibility and expand their combat tactics. Unfortunately, these crucial flaps did not always reach their destination. In March 1944, 200 dive flap kits intended for European Theater of Operations (ETO) P-38Js were destroyed in a mistaken identification incident in which an RAF fighter shot down the Douglas C-54 Skymaster (mistaken for an Fw 200) taking the shipment to England. Back in Burbank, P-38Js coming off the assembly line in spring 1944 were towed out to the ramp and modified in the open air. The flaps were finally incorporated into the production line in June 1944 on the last 210 P-38Js. Despite testing having proved the dive flaps effective in improving tactical maneuvers, a 14-month delay in production limited their implementation, with only the final half of all Lightnings built having the dive flaps installed as an assembly-line sequence. [53]

I broke an ulcer over compressibility on the P-38 because we flew into a speed range where no one had ever been before, and we had difficulty convincing people that it wasn't the funny-looking airplane itself, but a fundamental physical problem. We found out what happened when the Lightning shed its tail and we worked during the whole war to get 15 more kn [28 km/h] of speed out of the P-38. We saw compressibility as a brick wall for a long time. Then we learned how to get through it. [54]

Buffeting was another early aerodynamic problem. It was difficult to distinguish from compressibility as both were reported by test pilots as "tail shake". Buffeting came about from airflow disturbances ahead of the tail the airplane would shake at high speed. Leading edge wing slots were tried as were combinations of filleting between the wing, cockpit and engine nacelles. Air tunnel test number 15 solved the buffeting completely and its fillet solution was fitted to every subsequent P-38 airframe. Fillet kits were sent out to every squadron flying Lightnings. The problem was traced to a 40% increase in air speed at the wing-fuselage junction where the thickness/chord ratio was highest. An airspeed of 500 mph (800 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,600 m) could push airflow at the wing-fuselage junction close to the speed of sound. Filleting solved the buffeting problem for the P-38E and later models. [47]

Another issue with the P-38 arose from its unique design feature of outwardly rotating (at the "tops" of the propeller arcs) counter-rotating propellers. Losing one of two engines in any twin-engine non-centerline thrust aircraft on takeoff creates sudden drag, yawing the nose toward the dead engine and rolling the wingtip down on the side of the dead engine. Normal training in flying twin-engine aircraft when losing an engine on takeoff is to push the remaining engine to full throttle to maintain airspeed if a pilot did that in the P-38, regardless of which engine had failed, the resulting engine torque and p-factor force produced a sudden uncontrollable yawing roll, and the aircraft would flip over and hit the ground. Eventually, procedures were taught to allow a pilot to deal with the situation by reducing power on the running engine, feathering the prop on the failed engine, and then increasing power gradually until the aircraft was in stable flight. Single-engine takeoffs were possible, though not with a full fuel and ammunition load. [55]

The engines were unusually quiet because the exhausts were muffled by the General Electric turbo-superchargers on the twin Allison V12s. [56] There were early problems with cockpit temperature regulation pilots were often too hot in the tropical sun as the canopy could not be fully opened without severe buffeting and were often too cold in northern Europe and at high altitude, as the distance of the engines from the cockpit prevented easy heat transfer. Later variants received modifications (such as electrically heated flight suits) to solve these problems.

On 20 September 1939, before the YP-38s had been built and flight tested, the USAAC ordered 66 initial production P-38 Lightnings, 30 of which were delivered to the (renamed) USAAF in mid-1941, but not all these aircraft were armed. The unarmed aircraft were subsequently fitted with four .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns (instead of the two .50 in/12.7 mm and two .30 in/7.62 mm of their predecessors) and a 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon. They also had armored glass, cockpit armor and fluorescent instrument lighting . [57] One was completed with a pressurized cabin on an experimental basis and designated XP-38A. [58] Due to reports the USAAF was receiving from Europe, the remaining 36 in the batch were upgraded with small improvements such as self-sealing fuel tanks and enhanced armor protection to make them combat-capable. The USAAF specified that these 36 aircraft were to be designated P-38D. As a result, there never were any P-38Bs or P-38Cs. The P-38D's main role was to work out bugs and give the USAAF experience with handling the type. [59]

In March 1940, the French and the British, through the Anglo-French Purchasing Committee, ordered a total of 667 P-38s for US$100M, [60] designated Model 322F for the French and Model 322B for the British. The aircraft would be a variant of the P-38E. The overseas Allies wished for complete commonality of Allison engines with the large numbers of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks both nations had on order, and thus ordered the Model 322 twin right-handed engines instead of counter-rotating ones and without turbo-superchargers. [61] [Note 3] Performance was supposed to be 400 mph (640 km/h) at 16,900 ft (5,200 m). [62] After the fall of France in June 1940, the British took over the entire order and gave the aircraft the service name "Lightning." By June 1941, the War Ministry had cause to reconsider their earlier aircraft specifications based on experience gathered in the Battle of Britain and The Blitz. [63] British displeasure with the Lockheed order came to the fore in July, and on 5 August 1941 they modified the contract such that 143 aircraft would be delivered as previously ordered, to be known as "Lightning (Mark) I," and 524 would be upgraded to US-standard P-38E specifications with a top speed of 415 mph (668 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,100 m) guaranteed, to be called "Lightning II" for British service. [63] Later that summer an RAF test pilot reported back from Burbank with a poor assessment of the "tail flutter" situation, and the British cancelled all but three of the 143 Lightning Is. [63] As a loss of approximately US$15M was involved, Lockheed reviewed their contracts and decided to hold the British to the original order. Negotiations grew bitter and stalled. [63] Everything changed after the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor after which the United States government seized some 40 of the Model 322s for West Coast defense [64] subsequently all British Lightnings were delivered to the USAAF starting in January 1942. The USAAF lent the RAF three of the aircraft, which were delivered by sea in March 1942 [65] and were test flown no earlier than May [66] at Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft Swaythling, the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment and the Royal Aircraft Establishment. [63] The A&AEE example was unarmed, lacked turbochargers and restricted to 300 mph (480 km/h) though the undercarriage was praised and flight on one engine described as comfortable. [67] These three were subsequently returned to the USAAF one in December 1942 and the others in July 1943. [65] Of the remaining 140 Lightning Is, 19 were not modified and were designated by the USAAF as RP-322-I ('R' for 'Restricted', because non-counter-rotating propellers were considered more dangerous on takeoff), while 121 were converted to non-turbo-supercharged counter-rotating V-1710F-2 engines and designated P-322-II. All 121 were used as advanced trainers a few were still serving that role in 1945. [66] A few RP-322s were later used as test modification platforms such as for smoke-laying canisters. The RP-322 was a fairly fast aircraft below 16,000 ft (4,900 m) and well-behaved as a trainer. [66] [Note 4]

Many of the British order of 524 Lightning IIs were fitted with stronger F-10 Allison engines as they became available, and all were given wing pylons for fuel tanks or bombs. The upgraded aircraft were deployed to the Pacific as USAAC F-5A reconnaissance or P-38G fighter models, the latter used with great effect to shoot down Admiral Yamamoto in April 1943. Robert Petit's G model named "Miss Virginia" was on that mission, borrowed by Rex Barber who was later credited with the kill. Petit had already used "Miss Virginia" to defeat two Nakajima A6M2-N "Rufe" floatplanes in February and to heavily damage a Japanese submarine chaser in March, which he mistakenly claimed as a destroyer sunk. Murray "Jim" Shubin used a less powerful F model he named "Oriole" to down five confirmed and possibly six Zeros over Guadalcanal in June 1943 to become ace in a day. [68]

One result of the failed British/French order was to give the aircraft its name. Lockheed had originally dubbed the aircraft Atalanta from Greek mythology in the company tradition of naming planes after mythological and celestial figures, but the RAF name won out. [62]

Range extension Edit

The strategic bombing proponents within the USAAF, called the Bomber Mafia by their ideological opponents, had established in the early 1930s a policy against research to create long-range fighters, which they thought would not be practical this kind of research was not to compete for bomber resources. Aircraft manufacturers understood that they would not be rewarded if they installed subsystems on their fighters to enable them to carry drop tanks to provide more fuel for extended range. Lieutenant Kelsey, acting against this policy, risked his career in late 1941 when he convinced Lockheed to incorporate such subsystems in the P-38E model, without putting his request in writing. It is possible that Kelsey was responding to Colonel George William Goddard's observation that the US sorely needed a high-speed, long-range photo reconnaissance plane. Along with a change order specifying some P-38Es be produced without guns but with photo reconnaissance cameras, to be designated the F-4-1-LO, Lockheed began working out the problems of drop tank design and incorporation. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, eventually about 100 P-38Es were sent to a modification center near Dallas, Texas, or to the new Lockheed assembly plant B-6 (today the Burbank Airport), to be fitted with four K-17 aerial photography cameras. All of these aircraft were also modified to be able to carry drop tanks. P-38Fs were modified as well. Every Lightning from the P-38G onward was capable of being fitted with drop tanks straight off the assembly line. [69]

In March 1942, General Arnold made an off-hand comment that the US could avoid the German U-boat menace by flying fighters to the UK (rather than packing them onto ships). President Roosevelt pressed the point, emphasizing his interest in the solution. Arnold was likely aware of the flying radius extension work being done on the P-38, which by this time had seen success with small drop tanks in the range of 150 to 165 US gal (570 to 620 L), the difference in capacity being the result of subcontractor production variation. Arnold ordered further tests with larger drop tanks in the range of 300 to 310 US gal (1,100 to 1,200 L) the results were reported by Kelsey as providing the P-38 with a 2,500-mile (4,000 km) ferrying range. [69] Because of available supply, the smaller drop tanks were used to fly Lightnings to the UK, the plan called Operation Bolero.

Led by two Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, the first seven P-38s, each carrying two small drop tanks, left Presque Isle Army Air Field on 23 June 1942 for RAF Heathfield in Scotland. Their first refueling stop was made in far northeast Canada at Goose Bay. The second stop was a rough airstrip in Greenland called Bluie West One, and the third refueling stop was in Iceland at Keflavik. Other P-38s followed this route with some lost in mishaps, usually due to poor weather, low visibility, radio difficulties and navigational errors. Nearly 200 of the P-38Fs (and a few modified Es) were successfully flown across the Atlantic in July–August 1942, making the P-38 the first USAAF fighter to reach Britain and the first fighter ever to be delivered across the Atlantic under its own power. [70] Kelsey himself piloted one of the Lightnings, landing in Scotland on 25 July. [71]

The first unit to receive P-38s was the 1st Fighter Group. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the unit joined the 14th Pursuit Group in San Diego to provide West Coast defense. [72]

Entry to the war Edit

The first Lightning to see active service was the F-4 version, a P-38E in which the guns were replaced by four K17 cameras. [73] They joined the 8th Photographic Squadron in Australia on 4 April 1942. [46] Three F-4s were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force in this theater for a short period beginning in September 1942.

On 29 May 1942, 25 P-38s began operating in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The fighter's long range made it well-suited to the campaign over the almost 1,200 miles (1,900 km)-long island chain, and it was flown there for the rest of the war. The Aleutians were one of the most rugged environments available for testing the new aircraft under combat conditions. More Lightnings were lost due to severe weather and other conditions than enemy action there were cases where Lightning pilots, mesmerized by flying for hours over gray seas under gray skies, simply flew into the water. On 9 August 1942, two P-38Es of the 343rd Fighter Group, 11th Air Force, at the end of a 1,000 miles (1,600 km) long-range patrol, happened upon a pair of Japanese Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boats and destroyed them, [46] making them the first Japanese aircraft to be shot down by Lightnings.

European theater Edit

North Africa and Italy Edit

After the Battle of Midway, the USAAF began redeploying fighter groups to Britain as part of Operation Bolero and Lightnings of the 1st Fighter Group were flown across the Atlantic via Iceland. On 14 August 1942, Second Lieutenant Elza Shahan of the 27th Fighter Squadron, and Second Lieutenant Joseph Shaffer of the 33rd Squadron operating out of Iceland shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor over the Atlantic. Shahan in his P-38F downed the Condor Shaffer, flying either a P-40C or a P-39, had already set an engine on fire. [74] This was the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF. [75]

After 347 sorties with no enemy contact, the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups transferred from the UK to the 12th Air Force in North Africa as part of the force being built up for Operation Torch. The Lightning's long range allowed the pilots to fly their fighters over the Bay of Biscay, skirting neutral Spain and Portugal to refuel in Morocco. The P-38s were initially based at Tafaroui airfield in Algeria alongside P-40 Warhawks and the rest of the 12th Air Force. P-38s were first involved in North African combat operations on 11 November 1942. The first North African P-38 kill was on 22 November when Lieutenant Mark Shipman of the 14th downed an Italian airplane with twin engines. Shipman later made two more kills: a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter and a very large Me 323 Gigant transport. [76]

Early results in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations were mixed. Some P-38 pilots scored multiple kills to become aces, while many others were shot down due to inexperience or tactical strictures. Overall, the P-38 suffered its highest losses in the Mediterranean Theater. The primary function of the P-38 in North Africa was to escort bombers, [77] but the fighters also targeted transport aircraft, and later in the campaign they were sometimes tasked with ground attack missions. When tied to bomber escort duties, the P-38 squadrons were vulnerable to attack from above by German fighters who selected the most advantageous position and timing. The ineffectual early tactical doctrine of the American units required the P-38s to fly near the bombers at all times rather than to defend aggressively or to fly ahead and clear the airspace for the bombers, and many American pilots were downed because of this limitation. Losses mounted, and all available P-38s in the UK were flown to North Africa to restore squadron strength. [76] After this painful experience, the American leadership changed tactics, and in February 1943 the P-38 was given free rein in its battles. [78]

The first German success against the P-38 was on 28 November 1942 when Bf 109 pilots of Jagdgeschwader 53 claimed seven Lightnings for no loss of their own. [78] Further one-sided German victories were noted on several occasions through January 1943. [79] The first P-38 pilots to achieve ace status were Virgil Smith of the 14th FG and Jack Illfrey of the 1st FG, both credited with five wins by 26 December. Smith got a sixth enemy aircraft on 28 December but was killed two days later in a crash landing, likely after taking fire from Oberfeldwebel Herbert Rollwage of JG 53 who survived the war with at least 71 kills. This was Rollwage's first victory over a P-38, and his 35th claim at the time. [80]

The two squadrons of the 14th Fighter Group were reduced so badly in December 1942 that the 82nd FG was flown from the UK to North Africa to cover the shortage. The first kill by the 82nd was during a bomber escort mission on 7 January 1943 when William J. "Dixie" Sloan broke formation and turned toward six attacking Bf 109s to shoot one of them down. Known for his maverick style, Sloan racked up 12 victories by July 1943. [80] After another heavy toll in January 1943, 14th FG had to be withdrawn from the front to reorganize, with surviving pilots sent home and the few remaining Lightnings transferred to the 82nd. [77] The 14th was out of action for three months, returning in May. [81]

On 5 April 1943, 26 P-38Fs of the 82nd claimed 31 enemy aircraft destroyed, helping to establish air superiority in the area and earning it the German nickname "der Gabelschwanz Teufel" – the Fork-Tailed Devil. [72] The P-38 remained active in the Mediterranean for the rest of the war, continuing to deliver and receive damage in combat. On 25 August 1943, 13 P-38s were shot down in a single sortie by JG 53 Bf 109s. [82] On 2 September, 10 P-38s were shot down, in return for losing one German pilot: 67-victory ace Franz Schieß who had been the leading "Lightning" killer in the Luftwaffe with 17 destroyed. [82]

The Mediterranean Theater saw the first aerial combat between German fighters and P-38s. German fighter pilot appraisal of the P-38 was mixed. Some observers dismissed the P-38 as an easy kill while others gave it high praise, a deadly enemy worthy of respect. Johannes Steinhoff, commander of JG 77 in North Africa, said that the unit's old Bf 109s were "perhaps, a little faster" than the P-38, but a dogfight with the twin-engined fighter was daunting because its turning radius was much smaller, and it could quickly get on the tail of the Bf 109. Franz Stigler, an ace with 28 kills, flew Bf 109s against the P-38 in North Africa. Stigler said the Lightning "could turn inside us with ease and they could go from level flight to climb almost instantaneously. We lost quite a few pilots who tried to make an attack and then pull up. One cardinal rule we never forgot was: avoid fighting the P-38 head on. That was suicide." Stigler said the best defense was to flick-roll the Bf 109 and dive, as the Lightning was slow in the first 10 degrees of roll, and it was not as fast in a dive. [83] Herbert Kaiser, eventually a 68-kill ace, shot down his first P-38 in January 1943. Kaiser said that the P-38 should be respected as a formidable opponent, that it was faster and more maneuverable than the Bf 109G-6 model he flew, especially since the G-6 was slowed by underwing cannon pods. Johann Pichler, another high-scoring ace, said that the P-38 in 1943 was much faster in a climb than the Bf 109. [81] Kurt Bühligen, third-highest scoring German pilot on the Western front with 112 victories, recalled: "The P-38 fighter (and the B-24) were easy to burn. Once in Africa we were six and met eight P-38s and shot down seven. One sees a great distance in Africa and our observers and flak people called in sightings and we could get altitude first and they were low and slow." [84] General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland was unimpressed with the P-38, declaring "it had similar shortcomings in combat to our Bf 110, our fighters were clearly superior to it." [85] Heinz Bäer said that P-38s "were not difficult at all. They were easy to outmaneuver and were generally a sure kill". [86]

On 12 June 1943, a P-38G, while flying a special mission between Gibraltar and Malta or, perhaps, just after strafing the radar station of Capo Pula, landed on the airfield of Capoterra (Cagliari), in Sardinia, from navigation error due to a compass failure. Regia Aeronautica chief test pilot colonnello (Lieutenant Colonel) Angelo Tondi flew the aircraft to Guidonia airfield where the P-38G was evaluated. On 11 August 1943, Tondi took off to intercept a formation of about 50 bombers, returning from the bombing of Terni (Umbria). Tondi attacked B-17G "Bonny Sue", s.n. 42–30307, that fell off the shore of Torvaianica, near Rome, while six airmen parachuted out. According to US sources, he also damaged three more bombers on that occasion. On 4 September, the 301st BG reported the loss of B-17 "The Lady Evelyn," s.n. 42–30344, downed by "an enemy P-38". [87] War missions for that plane were limited, as the Italian petrol was too corrosive for the Lockheed's tanks. [88] Other Lightnings were eventually acquired by Italy for postwar service.

In a particular case when faced by more agile fighters at low altitudes in a constricted valley, Lightnings suffered heavy losses. On the morning of 10 June 1944, 96 P-38Js of the 1st and 82nd Fighter Groups took off from Italy for Ploiești, the third-most heavily defended target in Europe, after Berlin and Vienna. [89] Instead of bombing from high altitude as had been tried by the Fifteenth Air Force, USAAF planning had determined that a dive-bombing surprise attack, beginning at about 7,000 feet (2,100 m) with bomb release at or below 3,000 feet (900 m), [89] performed by 46 82nd Fighter Group P-38s, each carrying one 1,000-pound (500 kg) bomb, would yield more accurate results. [90] All of 1st Fighter Group and a few aircraft in 82nd Fighter Group were to fly cover, and all fighters were to strafe targets of opportunity on the return trip a distance of some 1,255 miles (2,020 km), including a circuitous outward route made in an attempt to achieve surprise. [89] Some 85 or 86 fighters arrived in Romania to find enemy airfields alerted, with a wide assortment of aircraft scrambling for safety. P-38s shot down several, including heavy fighters, transports and observation aircraft. At Ploiești, defense forces were fully alert, the target was concealed by smoke screen, and anti-aircraft fire was very heavy, seven Lightnings were lost to anti-aircraft fire at the target, and two more during strafing attacks on the return flight. German Bf 109 fighters from I./JG 53 and 2./JG 77 fought the Americans. Sixteen aircraft of the 71st Fighter Squadron were challenged by a large formation of Romanian single-seater IAR.81C fighters. The fight took place below 300 feet (100 m) in a narrow valley. [91] Herbert Hatch saw two IAR 81Cs that he misidentified as Focke-Wulf Fw 190s hit the ground after taking fire from his guns, and his fellow pilots confirmed three more of his kills. However, the outnumbered 71st Fighter Squadron took more damage than it dished out, losing nine aircraft. In all, the USAAF lost 22 aircraft on the mission. The Americans claimed 23 aerial victories, though Romanian and German fighter units admitted losing only one aircraft each. [92] Eleven enemy locomotives were strafed and left burning, and flak emplacements were destroyed, along with fuel trucks and other targets. Results of the bombing were not observed by the USAAF pilots because of the smoke. The dive-bombing mission profile was not repeated, though the 82nd Fighter Group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its part. [93]

Western Europe Edit

Experiences over Germany had shown a need for long-range escort fighters to protect the Eighth Air Force's heavy bomber operations. The P-38Hs of the 55th Fighter Group were transferred to the Eighth in England in September 1943, and were joined by the 20th Fighter Group, 364th Fighter Group, and 479th Fighter Group soon after. P-38s and Spitfires escorted Fortress raids over Europe. [94]

Because its distinctive shape was less prone to cases of mistaken identity and friendly fire, [95] Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, Commander of the 8th Air Force, chose to pilot a P-38 during the invasion of Normandy so that he could watch the progress of the air offensive over France. [96] At one point in the mission, Doolittle flick-rolled through a hole in the cloud cover, but his wingman, then–Major General Earle E. Partridge, was looking elsewhere and failed to notice Doolittle's quick maneuver, leaving Doolittle to continue on alone on his survey of the crucial battle. Of the P-38, Doolittle said that it was "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky". [97]

A little-known role of the P-38 in the European theater was that of fighter-bomber during the invasion of Normandy and the Allied advance across France into Germany. Assigned to the IX Tactical Air Command, the 370th Fighter Group and 474th Fighter Group and their P-38s initially flew missions from England, dive-bombing radar installations, enemy armor, troop concentrations and flak towers, and providing air cover. [98] The 370th's group commander Howard F. Nichols and a squadron of his P-38 Lightnings attacked Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's headquarters in July 1944 Nichols himself skipped a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb through the front door. [99] The 370th later operated from Cardonville France and the 474th from various bases in France, flying ground attack missions against gun emplacements, troops, supply dumps and tanks near Saint-Lô in July and in the Falaise–Argentan area in August 1944. [98] The 370th participated in ground attack missions across Europe until February 1945 when the unit changed over to the P-51 Mustang. The 474th operated out of bases in France, Belgium, and Germany in primarily the ground attack missions until November–December 1945.

After some disastrous raids in 1944 with B-17s escorted by P-38s and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, Jimmy Doolittle, then head of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, went to the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, asking for an evaluation of the various American fighters. Test pilot Captain Eric Brown, Fleet Air Arm, recalled:

We had found out that the Bf 109 and the FW 190 could fight up to a Mach of 0.75, three-quarters the speed of sound. We checked the Lightning and it couldn't fly in combat faster than 0.68. So it was useless. We told Doolittle that all it was good for was photo-reconnaissance and had to be withdrawn from escort duties. And the funny thing is that the Americans had great difficulty understanding this because the Lightning had the two top aces in the Far East. [100]

After evaluation tests at Farnborough, the P-38 was kept in fighting service in Europe for a while longer. Although many failings were remedied with the introduction of the P-38J, by September 1944, all but one of the Lightning groups in the Eighth Air Force had converted to the P-51 Mustang. The Eighth Air Force continued to conduct reconnaissance missions using the F-5 variant. [72]

Pacific theater Edit

The P-38 was used most extensively and successfully in the Pacific theater, where it proved more suited, combining exceptional range with the reliability of two engines for long missions over water. The P-38 was used in a variety of roles, especially escorting bombers at altitudes of 18,000–25,000 ft (5,500–7,600 m). The P-38 was credited with destroying more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF fighter. [4] Freezing cockpit temperatures were not a problem at low altitude in the tropics. In fact the cockpit was often too hot since opening a window while in flight caused buffeting by setting up turbulence through the tailplane. Pilots taking low altitude assignments often flew stripped down to shorts, tennis shoes, and parachute. While the P-38 could not out-turn the A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters when flying below 200 mph (320 km/h), its superior speed coupled with a good rate of climb meant that it could use energy tactics, making multiple high-speed passes at its target. In addition, its tightly grouped guns were even more deadly to lightly armored Japanese warplanes than to German aircraft. The concentrated, parallel stream of bullets allowed aerial victory at much longer distances than fighters carrying wing guns. Dick Bong, the United States' highest-scoring World War II air ace (40 victories in P-38s), flew directly at his targets to ensure he hit them, in some cases flying through the debris of his target (and on one occasion colliding with an enemy aircraft which was claimed as a "probable" victory). The twin Allison engines performed admirably in the Pacific.

General George C. Kenney, commander of the USAAF 5th Air Force operating in New Guinea, could not get enough P-38s they had become his favorite fighter in November 1942 when one squadron, the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group, joined his assorted P-39s and P-40s. The Lightnings established local air superiority with their first combat action on 27 December 1942. [101] [102] [103] [104] [105] Kenney sent repeated requests to Arnold for more P-38s, and was rewarded with occasional shipments, but Europe was a higher priority in Washington. [106] Despite their small force, Lightning pilots began to compete in racking up scores against Japanese aircraft.

On 2–4 March 1943, P-38s flew top cover for 5th Air Force and Australian bombers and attack aircraft during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, in which eight Japanese troop transports and four escorting destroyers were sunk. Two P-38 aces from the 39th Fighter Squadron were killed on the second day of the battle: Bob Faurot and Hoyt "Curley" Eason (a veteran with five victories who had trained hundreds of pilots, including Dick Bong). In one notable engagement on 3 March 1943 P-38s escorted 13 B-17s as they bombed the Japanese convoy from a medium altitude of 7,000 feet which dispersed the convoy formation and reduced their concentrated anti-aircraft firepower. A B-17 was shot down and when Japanese Zero fighters machine-gunned some of the B-17 crew members that bailed out in parachutes, three P-38s promptly engaged and shot down five of the Zeros. [107] [108] [109] [110]

Isoroku Yamamoto Edit

The Lightning figured in one of the most significant operations in the Pacific theater: the interception, on 18 April 1943, of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Japan's naval strategy in the Pacific including the attack on Pearl Harbor. When American codebreakers found out that he was flying to Bougainville Island to conduct a front-line inspection, 16 P-38G Lightnings were sent on a long-range fighter-intercept mission, flying 435 miles (700 km) from Guadalcanal at heights of 10–50 ft (3.0–15.2 m) above the ocean to avoid detection. The Lightnings met Yamamoto's two Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" fast bomber transports and six escorting Zeros just as they arrived at the island. The first Betty crashed in the jungle and the second ditched near the coast. Two Zeros were also claimed by the American fighters with the loss of one P-38. Japanese search parties found Yamamoto's body at the jungle crash site the next day. [111]

Service record Edit

The P-38's service record shows mixed results, which may reflect more on its employment than on flaws with the aircraft. The P-38's engine troubles at high altitudes occurred with only the Eighth Air Force. One reason for this was the inadequate cooling systems of the G and H models the improved P-38 J and L had tremendous success flying out of Italy into Germany at all altitudes. [72] Until the -J-25 variant, P-38s were easily avoided by German fighters because of the lack of dive flaps to counter compressibility in dives. German fighter pilots not wishing to fight would perform the first half of a Split S and continue into steep dives because they knew the Lightnings would be reluctant to follow.

On the positive side, having two engines was a built-in insurance policy. Many pilots made it safely back to base after having an engine failure en route or in combat. On 3 March 1944, the first Allied fighters reached Berlin on a frustrated escort mission. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Jenkins of 55th Fighter Group led the group of P-38H pilots, arriving with only half his force after flak damage and engine trouble took their toll. On the way into Berlin, Jenkins reported one rough-running engine, causing him to wonder if he would ever make it back. The B-17s he was supposed to escort never showed up, having turned back at Hamburg. Jenkins and his wingman were able to drop tanks and outrun enemy fighters to return home with three good engines between them. [112]

In the European Theater, P-38s made 130,000 sorties with a loss of 1.3% overall, comparing favorably with P-51s, which posted a 1.1% loss, considering that the P-38s were vastly outnumbered and suffered from poorly thought-out tactics. The majority of the P-38 sorties were made in the period prior to Allied air superiority in Europe, when pilots fought against a very determined and skilled enemy. [113] Lieutenant Colonel Mark Hubbard, a vocal critic of the aircraft, rated it the third best Allied fighter in Europe. [114] The Lightning's greatest virtues were long range, heavy payload, high speed, fast climb and concentrated firepower. The P-38 was a formidable fighter, interceptor and attack aircraft.

In the Pacific theater, the P-38 downed over 1,800 Japanese aircraft, with more than 100 pilots becoming aces by downing five or more enemy aircraft. [111] American fuel supplies contributed to a better engine performance and maintenance record, and range was increased with leaner mixtures. In the second half of 1944, the P-38L pilots out of Dutch New Guinea were flying 950 mi (1,530 km), fighting for fifteen minutes and returning to base. [115] Such long legs were invaluable until the P-47N and P-51D entered service.

Postwar operations Edit

The end of the war left the USAAF with thousands of P-38s rendered obsolete by the jet age. The last P-38s in service with the United States Air Force were retired in 1949. [116] A total of 100 late-model P-38L and F-5 Lightnings were acquired by Italy through an agreement dated April 1946. Delivered, after refurbishing, at the rate of one per month, they finally were all sent to the Aeronautica Militare by 1952. The Lightnings served in the 4° Stormo and other units including 3° Stormo, flying reconnaissance over the Balkans, ground attack, naval cooperation and air superiority missions. Due to old engines, pilot errors and lack of experience in operations, a large number of P-38s were lost in at least 30 accidents, many of them fatal. Despite this, many Italian pilots liked the P-38 because of its excellent visibility on the ground and stability on takeoff. The Italian P-38s were phased out in 1956 none survived the scrapyard. [117]

Surplus P-38s were also used by other foreign air forces with 12 sold to Honduras and 15 retained by China. Six F-5s and two unarmed black two-seater P-38s were operated by the Dominican Air Force based in San Isidro Airbase, Dominican Republic in 1947. The majority of wartime Lightnings present in the continental U.S. at the end of the war were put up for sale for US$1,200 apiece the rest were scrapped. P-38s in distant theaters of war were bulldozed into piles and abandoned or scrapped very few avoided that fate.

The CIA "Liberation Air Force" flew one P-38M to support the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'etat. On 27 June 1954, this aircraft dropped napalm bombs that destroyed the British cargo ship SS Springfjord, which was loading Guatemalan cotton [118] and coffee [119] for Grace Line [120] in Puerto San José. [121] In 1957, five Honduran P-38s bombed and strafed a village occupied by Nicaraguan forces during a border dispute between these two countries concerning part of Gracias a Dios Department. [122]

P-38s were popular contenders in the air races from 1946 through 1949, with brightly colored Lightnings making screaming turns around the pylons at Reno and Cleveland. Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier was among those who bought a Lightning, choosing a P-38J model and painting it red to make it stand out as an air racer and stunt flyer. Lefty Gardner, former B-24 and B-17 pilot and associate of the Confederate Air Force, bought a mid-1944 P-38L-1-LO that had been modified into an F-5G. Gardner painted it white with red and blue trim and named it White Lightnin ' he reworked its turbo systems and intercoolers for optimum low-altitude performance and gave it P-38F style air intakes for better streamlining. White Lightnin ' was severely damaged in a crash landing following an engine fire on a transit flight and was bought and restored with a brilliant polished aluminum finish by the company that owns Red Bull. The aircraft is now located in Austria.

F-5s were bought by aerial survey companies and employed for mapping. From the 1950s on, the use of the Lightning steadily declined, and only a little more than two dozen still exist, with few still flying. One example is a P-38L owned by the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas, painted in the colors of Charles H. MacDonald's Putt Putt Maru. Two other examples are F-5Gs which were owned and operated by Kargl Aerial Surveys in 1946, and are now located in Chino, California at Yanks Air Museum, and in McMinnville, Oregon at Evergreen Aviation Museum. The earliest-built surviving P-38, Glacier Girl, was recovered from the Greenland ice cap in 1992, fifty years after she crashed there on a ferry flight to the UK, and after a complete restoration, flew once again ten years after her recovery.

Version and total manufactured or converted [123]
Variant Built or
XP-38 1 Prototype
YP-38 13 Evaluation aircraft
P-38 30 Initial production aircraft
XP-38A 1 Pressurized cockpit
P-38D 36 Fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks/armored windshield
P-38E 210 First combat-ready variant, revised armament
F-4 100+ reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38E
Model 322 3 RAF order: twin right-hand props and no turbo
RP-322 147 USAAF trainers
P-38F 527 First-fully combat-capable P-38 fighter
F-4A 20 reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38F
P-38G 1,082 Improved P-38F fighter
F-5A 180 reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38G
XF-5D 1 a one-off converted F-5A
P-38H 601 Automatic cooling system Improved P-38G fighter
P-38J 2,970 new cooling and electrical systems
F-5B 200 reconnaissance aircraft based on P-38J
F-5C 123 reconnaissance aircraft converted from P-38J
F-5E 705 reconnaissance aircraft converted from P-38J/L
P-38K 2 paddle blade props up-rated engines with a different propeller reduction ratio
P-38L-LO 3,810 Improved P-38J new engines new rocket pylons
P-38L-VN 113 P-38L built by Vultee
F-5F reconnaissance aircraft converted from P-38L
P-38M 75 night-fighter converted from P-38L
F-5G reconnaissance aircraft converted from P-38L

Over 10,000 Lightnings were manufactured, becoming the only U.S. combat aircraft that remained in continuous production throughout the duration of American participation in World War II. The Lightning had a major effect on other aircraft its wing, in a scaled-up form, was used on the Lockheed Constellation. [124]

P-38D and P-38Es Edit

Delivered and accepted Lightning production variants began with the P-38D model. The few "hand made" YP-38s initially contracted were used as trainers and test aircraft. There were no Bs or Cs delivered to the government as the USAAF allocated the 'D' suffix to all aircraft with self-sealing fuel tanks and armor. [42] Many secondary but still initial teething tests were conducted using the earliest D variants. [42]

The first combat-capable Lightning was the P-38E (and its photo-recon variant the F-4) which featured improved instruments, electrical, and hydraulic systems. Part-way through production, the older Hamilton Standard Hydromatic hollow steel propellers were replaced by new Curtiss Electric duraluminum propellers. The definitive (and now famous) armament configuration was settled upon, featuring four .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns with 500 rpg, and a 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano autocannon with 150 rounds. [125]

While the machine guns had been arranged symmetrically in the nose on the P-38D, they were "staggered" in the P-38E and later versions, with the muzzles protruding from the nose in the relative lengths of roughly 1:4:6:2. This was done to ensure a straight ammunition-belt feed into the weapons, as the earlier arrangement led to jamming.

The first P-38E rolled out of the factory in October 1941 as the Battle of Moscow filled the news wires of the world. Because of the versatility, redundant engines, and especially high speed and high altitude characteristics of the aircraft, as with later variants over a hundred P-38Es were completed in the factory or converted in the field to a photoreconnaissance variant, the F-4, in which the guns were replaced by four cameras. Most of these early reconnaissance Lightnings were retained stateside for training, but the F-4 was the first Lightning to be used in action in April 1942.

P-38Fs and P-38Gs Edit

After 210 P-38Es were built, they were followed, starting in February 1942, by the P-38F, which incorporated racks inboard of the engines for fuel tanks or a total of 2,000 lb (910 kg) of bombs. Early variants did not enjoy a high reputation for maneuverability, though they could be agile at low altitudes if flown by a capable pilot, using the P-38's forgiving stall characteristics to their best advantage. From the P-38F-15 model onwards, a "combat maneuver" setting was added to the P-38's Fowler flaps. When deployed at the 8° maneuver setting, the flaps allowed the P-38 to out-turn many contemporary single-engined fighters at the cost of some added drag. However, early variants were hampered by high aileron control forces and a low initial rate of roll, [126] and all such features required a pilot to gain experience with the aircraft, [42] which in part was an additional reason Lockheed sent its representative to England, and later to the Pacific Theater.

The aircraft was still experiencing extensive teething troubles as well as being victimized by "urban legends", mostly involving inapplicable twin engine factors which had been designed out of the aircraft by Lockheed. [42] In addition to these, the early versions had a reputation as a "widow maker" as it could enter an unrecoverable dive due to a sonic surface effect at high sub-sonic speeds. The 527 P-38Fs were heavier, with more powerful engines that used more fuel, and were unpopular in the air war in Northern Europe. [42] Since the heavier engines were having reliability problems and with them, without external fuel tanks, the range of the P-38F was reduced, and since drop tanks themselves were in short supply as the fortunes in the Battle of the Atlantic had not yet swung the Allies' way, the aircraft became relatively unpopular in minds of the bomber command planning staffs despite being the longest ranged fighter first available to the 8th Air Force in sufficient numbers for long range escort duties. [42] Nonetheless, General Spaatz, then commander of the 8th Air Force in the UK, said of the P-38F: "I'd rather have an airplane that goes like hell and has a few things wrong with it, than one that won't go like hell and has a few things wrong with it." [97]

The P-38F was followed in June 1942 by the P-38G, using more powerful Allisons of 1,400 hp (1,000 kW) each and equipped with a better radio. A dozen of the planned P-38G production were set aside to serve as prototypes for what would become the P-38J with further uprated Allison V-1710F-17 engines (1,425 hp (1,063 kW) each) in redesigned booms which featured chin-mounted intercoolers in place of the original system in the leading edge of the wings and more efficient radiators. Lockheed subcontractors, however, were initially unable to supply both of Burbank's twin production lines with a sufficient quantity of new core intercoolers and radiators. War Production Board planners were unwilling to sacrifice production, and one of the two remaining prototypes received the new engines but retained the old leading edge intercoolers and radiators.

As the P-38H, 600 of these stop-gap Lightnings with an improved 20 mm cannon and a bomb capacity of 3,200 lb (1,500 kg) were produced on one line beginning in May 1943 while the near-definitive P-38J began production on the second line in August 1943. The Eighth Air Force was experiencing high altitude and cold weather issues which, while not unique to the aircraft, were perhaps more severe as the turbo-superchargers upgrading the Allisons were having their own reliability issues making the aircraft more unpopular with senior officers out of the line. [42] This was a situation unduplicated on all other fronts where the commands were clamoring for as many P-38s as they could get. [42] Both the P-38G and P-38H models' performance was restricted by an intercooler system integral to the wing's leading edge which had been designed for the YP-38's less powerful engines. At the higher boost levels, the new engine's charge air temperature would increase above the limits recommended by Allison and would be subject to detonation if operated at high power for extended periods of time. Reliability was not the only issue, either. For example, the reduced power settings required by the P-38H did not allow the maneuvering flap to be used to good advantage at high altitude. [127] All these problems really came to a head in the unplanned P-38H and sped the Lightning's eventual replacement in the Eighth Air Force fortunately the Fifteenth Air Force were glad to get them.

Some P-38G production was diverted on the assembly line to F-5A reconnaissance aircraft. An F-5A was modified to an experimental two-seat reconnaissance configuration as the XF-5D, with a plexiglas nose, two machine guns and additional cameras in the tail booms.

P-38J, P-38L Edit

The P-38J was introduced in August 1943. The turbo-supercharger intercooler system on previous variants had been housed in the leading edges of the wings and had proven vulnerable to combat damage and could burst if the wrong series of controls were mistakenly activated. In the P-38J series, the streamlined engine nacelles of previous Lightnings were changed to fit the intercooler radiator between the oil coolers, forming a "chin" that visually distinguished the J model from its predecessors. While the P-38J used the same V-1710-89/91 engines as the H model, the new core-type intercooler more efficiently lowered intake manifold temperatures and permitted a substantial increase in rated power. The leading edge of the outer wing was fitted with 55 US gal (210 l) fuel tanks, filling the space formerly occupied by intercooler tunnels, but these were omitted on early P-38J blocks due to limited availability. [128]

The final 210 J models, designated P-38J-25-LO, alleviated the compressibility problem through the addition of a set of electrically actuated dive recovery flaps just outboard of the engines on the bottom centerline of the wings. With these improvements, a USAAF pilot reported a dive speed of almost 600 mph (970 km/h), although the indicated air speed was later corrected for compressibility error, and the actual dive speed was lower. [129] Lockheed manufactured over 200 retrofit modification kits to be installed on P-38J-10-LO and J-20-LO already in Europe, but the USAAF C-54 carrying them was shot down by an RAF pilot who mistook the Douglas transport for a German Focke-Wulf Condor. [130] Unfortunately, the loss of the kits came during Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier's four-month morale-boosting tour of P-38 bases. Flying a new Lightning named "Snafuperman", modified to full P-38J-25-LO specifications at Lockheed's modification center near Belfast, LeVier captured the pilots' full attention by routinely performing maneuvers during March 1944 that common Eighth Air Force wisdom held to be suicidal. It proved too little, too late, because the decision had already been made to re-equip with Mustangs. [131]

The P-38J-25-LO production block also introduced hydraulically boosted ailerons, one of the first times such a system was fitted to a fighter. This significantly improved the Lightning's rate of roll and reduced control forces for the pilot. This production block and the following P-38L model are considered the definitive Lightnings, and Lockheed ramped up production, working with subcontractors across the country to produce hundreds of Lightnings each month.

There were two P-38Ks developed from 1942 to 1943, one official and one an internal Lockheed experiment. The first was actually a battered RP-38E "piggyback" test mule previously used by Lockheed to test the P-38J chin intercooler installation, now fitted with paddle-bladed "high activity" Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propellers similar to those used on the P-47. The new propellers required spinners of greater diameter, and the mule's crude, hand-formed sheet steel cowlings were further stretched to blend the spinners into the nacelles. It retained its "piggyback" configuration that allowed an observer to ride behind the pilot. With Lockheed's AAF representative as a passenger and the maneuvering flap deployed to offset Army Hot Day conditions, the old "K-Mule" still climbed to 45,000 feet (14,000 m). With a fresh coat of paint covering its crude hand-formed steel cowlings, this RP-38E acts as stand-in for the "P-38K-1-LO" in the model's only picture. [132]

The 12th G model originally set aside as a P-38J prototype was re-designated P-38K-1-LO and fitted with the aforementioned paddle-blade propellers and new Allison V-1710-75/77 (F15R/L) powerplants rated at 1,875 bhp (1,398 kW) at War Emergency Power. These engines were geared 2.36 to 1, unlike the standard P-38 ratio of 2 to 1. The AAF took delivery in September 1943, at Eglin Field. In tests, the P-38K-1 achieved 432 mph (695 km/h) at military power and was predicted to exceed 450 mph (720 km/h) at War Emergency Power with a similar increase in load and range. The initial climb rate was 4,800 ft (1,500 m)/min and the ceiling was 46,000 ft (14,000 m). It reached 20,000 ft (6,100 m) in five minutes flat this with a coat of camouflage paint which added weight and drag. Although it was judged superior in climb and speed to the latest and best fighters from all AAF manufacturers, the War Production Board refused to authorize P-38K production due to the two-to-three-week interruption in production necessary to implement cowling modifications for the revised spinners and higher thrust line. [132] Some have also doubted Allison's ability to deliver the F15 engine in quantity. [133] As promising as it had looked, the P-38K project came to a halt.

The P-38L was the most numerous variant of the Lightning, with 3,923 built, 113 by Consolidated-Vultee in their Nashville plant. It entered service with the USAAF in June 1944, in time to support the Allied invasion of France on D-Day. Lockheed production of the Lightning was distinguished by a suffix consisting of a production block number followed by "LO," for example "P-38L-1-LO", while Consolidated-Vultee production was distinguished by a block number followed by "VN," for example "P-38L-5-VN."

The P-38L was the first Lightning fitted with zero-length rocket launchers. Seven high velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs) on pylons beneath each wing, and later, five rockets on each wing on "Christmas tree" launch racks which added 1,365 lb (619 kg) to the aircraft. [134] [ page needed ] The P-38L also had strengthened stores pylons to allow carriage of 2,000 lb (900 kg) bombs or 300 US gal (1,100 l) drop tanks.

Lockheed modified 200 P-38J airframes in production to become unarmed F-5B photo-reconnaissance aircraft, while hundreds of other P-38Js and P-38Ls were modified at Lockheed's Dallas Modification Center to become F-5Cs, F-5Es, F-5Fs, or F-5Gs. A few P-38Ls were field-modified to become two-seat TP-38L familiarization trainers. During and after June 1948, the remaining J and L variants were designated ZF-38J and ZF-38L, with the "ZF" designator (meaning "obsolete fighter") replacing the "P for Pursuit" category.

Late model Lightnings were delivered unpainted, as per USAAF policy established in 1944. At first, field units tried to paint them, since pilots worried about being too visible to the enemy, but it turned out the reduction in weight and drag was a minor advantage in combat.

The P-38L-5, the most common sub-variant of the P-38L, had a modified cockpit heating system consisting of a plug-socket in the cockpit into which the pilot could plug his heat-suit wire for improved comfort. These Lightnings also received the uprated V-1710-112/113 (F30R/L) engines, and this dramatically lowered the amount of engine failure problems experienced at high altitude so commonly associated with European operations.

Pathfinders, night-fighter and other variants Edit

The Lightning was modified for other roles. In addition to the F-4 and F-5 reconnaissance variants, a number of P-38Js and P-38Ls were field-modified as formation bombing "pathfinders" or "droopsnoots", [135] fitted with a Norden bombsight or an H2X radar system. [136] Such pathfinders would lead a formation of medium and heavy bombers or of other P-38s, each loaded with two 2,000 lb (907 kg) bombs the entire formation releasing their ordinance when the pathfinder did. [9]

A number of Lightnings were modified as night fighters. There were several field or experimental modifications with different equipment fits that finally led to the "formal" P-38M night fighter, or Night Lightning. A total of 75 P-38Ls were modified to the Night Lightning configuration, painted flat-black with conical flash hiders on the guns, an AN/APS-6 radar pod below the nose, and a second cockpit with a raised canopy behind the pilot's canopy for the radar operator. The headroom in the rear cockpit was limited, requiring radar operators who were preferably short in stature. [7] [137]

One of the initial production P-38s had its turbo-superchargers removed, with a secondary cockpit placed in one of the booms to examine how flightcrew would respond to such an "asymmetric" cockpit layout. [138] One P-38E was fitted with an extended central nacelle to accommodate a tandem-seat cockpit with dual controls, and was later fitted with a laminar flow wing.

Very early in the Pacific War, a scheme was proposed to fit Lightnings with floats to allow them to make long-range ferry flights. The floats would be removed before the aircraft went into combat. There were concerns that saltwater spray would corrode the tailplane, and so in March 1942, P-38E 41-1986 was modified with a tailplane raised some 16–18 in (41–46 cm), booms lengthened by two feet and a rearward-facing second seat added for an observer to monitor the effectiveness of the new arrangement. A second version was crafted on the same airframe with the twin booms given greater sideplane area to augment the vertical rudders. This arrangement was removed and a final third version was fabricated that had the booms returned to normal length but the tail raised 33 in (84 cm). All three tail modifications were designed by George H. "Bert" Estabrook. The final version was used for a quick series of dive tests on 7 December 1942 in which Milo Burcham performed the test maneuvers and Kelly Johnson observed from the rear seat. Johnson concluded that the raised floatplane tail gave no advantage in solving the problem of compressibility. At no time was this P-38E testbed airframe actually fitted with floats, and the idea was quickly abandoned as the U.S. Navy proved to have enough sealift capacity to keep up with P-38 deliveries to the South Pacific. [139]

Still another P-38E was used in 1942 to tow a Waco troop glider as a demonstration. However, there proved to be plenty of other aircraft, such as Douglas C-47 Skytrains, available to tow gliders, and the Lightning was spared this duty.

Standard Lightnings were used as crew and cargo transports in the South Pacific. They were fitted with pods attached to the underwing pylons, replacing drop tanks or bombs, that could carry a single passenger in a lying-down position, or cargo. This was a very uncomfortable way to fly. Some of the pods were not even fitted with a window to let the passenger see out or bring in light.

Lockheed proposed a carrier-based Model 822 version of the Lightning for the United States Navy. The Model 822 would have featured folding wings, an arresting hook, and stronger undercarriage for carrier operations. The navy was not interested, as they regarded the Lightning as too big for carrier operations and did not like liquid-cooled engines anyway, and the Model 822 never went beyond the paper stage. However, the navy did operate four land-based F-5Bs in North Africa, inherited from the USAAF and redesignated FO-1.

A P-38J was used in experiments with an unusual scheme for mid-air refueling, in which the fighter snagged a drop tank trailed on a cable from a bomber. The USAAF managed to make this work, but decided it was not practical. A P-38J was also fitted with experimental retractable snow ski landing gear, but this idea never reached operational service either.

After the war, a P-38L was experimentally fitted with armament of three .60 in (15.2 mm) machine guns. The .60 in (15.2 mm) caliber cartridge had been developed early in the war for an infantry anti-tank rifle, a type of weapon developed by a number of nations in the 1930s when tanks were lighter but, by 1942, armor was too tough for this caliber.

Another P-38L was modified after the war as a "super strafer," with eight .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns in the nose and a pod under each wing with two .50 in (12.7 mm) guns, for a total of 12 machine guns. Nothing came of this conversion either.

Old School Guns

Immediate post war use of the P 38.
Post war use of the P 38 came immediately after V-E day. The French occupied the Mauser Factory in Oberndorf, Germany and began to assemble P.38s from the thousands of parts on hand. They continued production into early 1946. The late war Mauser factory code and the year of production are on these pistols, i.e. “SVW 45” or the rare “SVW 46”. These pistols have a unique gray phosphate exterior finish and distinctive steel grips. They have earned the moniker “Gray Ghost” among collectors. A few of these pistols actually received a blue finish and were issued to the French Police. The blued pistols are prized collector’s items today. In early 1946, the Soviet Union objected to the continued French production of the P.38. There was a wartime agreement among the Allies not to continue production of German weapons in their sectors after the war. Consequently, the French closed the Oberndorf factory. However, the French did manage to produce and take delivery of about 55,000 P.38s.

Czechoslovakia also assembled P 38 pistols from the Spreewerke factory located there. Again, these were leftovers of Nazi German production and used to rearm the Czechoslovakian military and police. Second hand wartime German P 38s have found their way to France, Austria, East Germany, Morocco, Finland, Vietnam, and to America, in the duffel bags of returning GIs. In the last 15 years Eastern European countries, and former Soviet Republics, have released numbers of P.38s, presumably taken from German Forces during and at the end of the war.

Because of its sinister wartime image and rakish appearance, the P 38 became a mainstay of the Motion Picture and Television industries from the 1950s to the late 1970s. The P 38 operated well with blank ammunition, securing its place on the big and small screens. Its photo credits are much too numerous to list but the P 38s film career undoubtedly contributed to its continued popularity among civilians. Many WWII themed movies and television shows made during this time featuring the P.38. The P.38 was also widely used as a “communist” weapon in many Cold War thrillers in film and television.

The P 38 used a simple and robust magazine (left) unlike the more frail model used by the P08 Luger (right). Photo author

The P.38 returns during the Cold War.
The return of the P 38 during the Cold War was the culmination of two larger events. First, the fledgling North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decided to allow West Germany to reestablish its armed forces in 1955. Second, Walther built a new factory in the West German town of Ulm on the Donau (Danube) river. In the early 1950s, the French firm of Manuhrin and Walther reached licensing and production agreements for the PP and PPK pistols. This relationship continued when the P.38 design returned to production (German Police and Military designation model was changed to P1 in 1963). All three types of pistols can be with either Manhurin or Walther markings. For the P.38/P1, in post war (1958) nomenclature, the greatest change in manufacture was the substitution of an aluminum receiver replacing the steel one used in wartime P.38s. This was a revolutionary change in 1955. It also established another P.38 design innovation. Since that time, many manufacturers designed and produced aluminum receiver weapons and it is now a common feature.

Early Postwar (1958) Aluminum Framed P.38 with West German Army markings.

The P-1 enjoyed steady military and police sales from the 1950s to the 1980s. These pistols are marked with the trademark Walther Banner and model markings. The commercial P.38 with the aluminum receiver was marked with Walther/Ulm Donau markings. The German Bundeshwer and German Police used the P-1, until it was replaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s by newer designs. The commercial post war P.38 was a very nicely made pistol that achieved modest popularity. A snubnose version, the P38k was introduced for customers wanting a more concealable firearm. The P.38k was never made in large quantities and is a collector’s item today.

As a curious side note, during the Cold War, the West Berlin Police were not allowed to use West German manufactured weapons due to treaty restrictions. Instead they used French Manurhin produced P-1s, successfully circumventing the restrictions. Note the markings on the slide and the starburst (West Berlin Police acceptance stamp) on the trigger guard.

The 1970s vintage P1 pistol (top) is typical of modern German production with aluminum frame, improved sights, and slight changes to the slide. The serial number is located on the frame. Lower pistol is early post war production. The last three numbers of the serial number are repeated on the slide and on the barrel. Photo Author

For purposes of clarity, the post war commercial aluminum framed P.38s made in Germany at the Walther plant in Ulm and so marked, will be referred to as P.38.
The post war Ulm manufactured P.38 is identical to the P1 except for slide markings. Walther did make a limited run of “All steel classic P.38s” in the late 1980s but they were quite expensive and the number produced was very small.
Options for civilian purchasers were the 7.65 Luger and .22 Long Rifle caliber pistols, these chambering are rare. The P.38 designation on commercial post war pistols was a clever and effective marketing strategy to capitalize on the excellent P.38 wartime reputation.

A comparison of early and late production postwar aluminum frames. A steel hexagon bolt placed above the trigger guard was added to aluminum frame P 38/P1 in mid 1970s. Although Walther was initially pleased with the durability of the aluminum frame, the hexagon bolt did increase strength. Photo author.

All good things must come to an end.
In the mid 1970s it became apparent that the P.38/P1 format was eclipsed by newer designs. Walther attempted to update the P1 design with the P4, truncated version of the P1. Although simplified and incorporating the evolutionary upgrades of the P1, the P4 saw very limited production and was not a commercial success. The official lack of enthusiasm for the P4 was probably due to the fact that it did not offer any increase in ammunition capacity, nor did its smaller size offer any significant advantages over the P1. In the atmosphere after the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack and the rise of the Baader Meinhof Gang, the German police establishment realized it need significant upgrades or replacements for its existing weapons. Consequently, the P4 saw only limited acceptance with the West German police.
The striking resemblance between the P1 and P4 surely hindered acceptance of the P4, as it was not a significant advancement over the P1. Adoption by the West German Border Police and some small foreign sales accounted for the 5000 P4s manufactures by Walther and Manurhin.

The P4 (above has a shorter barrel and simplified slide that eliminated the loaded chamber indicator which was a feature on all P.38s and P1s.

The Walther P.38, the most advanced pistol in the world at the time of its introduction, possessed some features considered obsolete by the late 1970s. Chief among these was the magazine capacity limited to 8 rounds of ammunition and heel of the butt magazine release. The P.38 pioneered the double action trigger system for service sized automatic pistols, however, by the late 1970s there were many competitive designs that possessed lighter and smoother double action pulls. These improved designs appealed to police organizations and private citizens alike.
Starting in the late 1980s, the German Armed Forces, State Police, and Border Police have sold as surplus their P1/P4s and replaced them with more modern designs by Walther, Heckler & Koch, and Glock.

The P.38 and P1 today.
Walther, with their new marketing alliance with Smith and Wesson, no longer manufacture or import the commercial P.38 into the United States. Large numbers of P.38s, P1s, and P4s were imported over the years and it can still be found at attractive prices on many used gun shelves. Many P-1s are reconditioned and are in excellent condition.
Excellent condition wartime P.38s are increasing in value and represent a wise investment. GI bring back P.38s may range from excellent to poor condition, with some even nickel plated by their GI owners. Owners WWII vintage pistols should have them appraised.
Wartime P.38s with parts that no longer match, are refinished, or import marked, usually do not command a premium on the collector gun market. These pistols represent a good value for an owner that wants a steel framed pistol for shooting purposes.
Since World War II P.38 pistols are “Curio and Relics”, imports may trickle in from the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries for a while. Germany may continue to divest itself of surplus P-1s as well.

Summary of Differences between the wartime P. 38 and the post war P.38/ P1 pistols.
Weight. The all steel wartime P 38 weighed 34 ounces, the P1 weighs 27.5 ounces, post 1968 P1 weighs 28 ounces, P4 weighs 26.1ounces.

Construction. The post war P 38/ P1 uses an aluminum frame, saving 6.5 oz in weight illustrated above. The later (1970s vintage) P 38/ P1/P4 pistols have a steel hexagon bolt to strengthen the aluminum frame and a beefier slide.

Slide. The post 1968 slide also has additional grasping grooves to improve handling. The slide contour is changed to improve strength. In the P4 and P.38k the slide is simplified with the top cover and loaded chamber indicator elimated.

Safety and firing pin. Post war pistols have an improved safety and a rounded firing pin. They are a few small parts in the slide not interchangeable with wartime P 38s counterparts. However, the entire slide assembly will interchange. The hammer drop and safety operate slightly differently on the P4 and P.38k as it flips back into the fire position after the hammer is lowered onto the empty chamber (per West German police requirements).

Grips. Wartime P 38s used ribbed grips constructed of plastic and later steel. The plastic grips could be black or brown. Post war P 38/ P1/P4s use a black plastic checkered grip or a wood grip on special models.

Barrels. World War II barrels are one piece construction. Post war barrels are of two-piece construction.

Finnish. World War II P.38s from all manufacturers had a blued finish applied at the factory. The Mauser produced SVW 45 and 46 date codes have a gray phosphate finish. Postwar P.38/P1/P4/P38k have a dark gray matte finish on the slide, hammer, trigger and a semi-gloss black anodized frame.

The Walther P38: Godfather of the modern combat handgun

When you think German Army pistol, the Luger comes to mind. The thing is, the Germans themselves wanted something better and came up with one of the great-unsung handguns of all time.

You may call it the Walther P38 and its influence has been felt far and wide.

Why was it needed?

In the 1930s, the German military was quietly rebuilding. Even before Hitler came to power, the tiny Reichswehr had done extensive research into rearming their nation with the most modern of equipment. After Hitler came to power, this process got louder. One of the things the army wanted was a new handgun to replace the 1900-vintage Luger. While the Luger was a beautiful weapon, its toggle-action was prone to clogging, especially when dirty. It was also expensive, and every army in history had a budget.

Carl Walther, an up and coming firearms manufacturer who had just won a contract to supply his innovative PP and PPK pistols to the German police, threw a design from his workshop into the ring.


Pal Kiraly, a Hungarian firearms wonk living at the time in exile in Switzerland came up with a novel handgun he referred to as KD Danuvia. His gun was a short recoil auto-loader with a swinging lock under the barrel. The thing was, Kiraly introduced the design in 1929 at the beginning of the Depression and, with money drying up everywhere, it was never put into production.

Walther borrowed from Kiraly’s unproduced design, changed the delayed blowback bolt and controls, added the same type of trigger used on their PP series pistols, and came up with an entirely new gun. The Walther fired from a locked-breech with a double-action trigger, and was the first to use this arrangement, which is now almost standard on modern hammer-fired combat handguns. Twin recoil springs were located on either side of the frame top to keep the breech locked until the moment of firing.

It debuted with several features that take for granted today such as a decocker safety lever, loaded chamber indicator, a slide release, a rebounding hammer, a floating 4.9-inch barrel and a static takedown lever that did not leave the frame. Each of these are important, but the decocker placed it in a category above the popular military semi-autos of its day such as the Colt 1911, the Browning Hi-Power, and the Tokarev TT-33, all of which often had to be carried on an empty chamber by soldiers for safety’s sake.

Made from inexpensive sheet steel stampings, four of the new Walthers could be made for the cost of three milled steel Lugers. Further, with the solid action, innovative features, and huge ejection port, the Walther was many times as reliable. It was also slightly lighter, at 28-ounces, and shorter, at 8.5-inces over the 31-ounce, 8.74-inch Luger.

Chambered in German military standard 9x19mm Parabellum ammunition, it had a single stack 8-shot magazine held in by a heel release. Even though this type of release seems foreign to us

today, it has long been the standard in Europe and can be worked rapidly with a little practice. Further, it’s easier to manipulate while wearing heavy gloves, which is a good idea when you consider just how fierce winters can get in the Old World. Even before the German army could adopt it, Walther was already making sales to Sweden and entertaining interested parties from other countries.

Walther submitted their pistol to the German army for tests and it was adopted in 1938 as Pistole 38. As it would happen, this was but a year before World War 2.


Pushed into production in quantity by Walther at their Zella-Mehlis factory, when the war broke out the Germans urgently needed more than the company could ever produce. This led to subcontracting the gun out to Mauser (maker of the Luger!) and Spreewerk. In all over 1.2-million P38s were made for the Germans by the three plants from 1938-1946 when the end of the war halted production. They proved themselves so reliable in German service that whenever P-38s fell into Allied hands, they were pressed into frontline service against their former owners. The Luger was a collectable if captured, the Walther was a shooter.

With so many out there, these surplus guns were often used by cash strapped countries like France and Czechoslovakia until they were replaced in the 1960s. The Portuguese used WWII vintage pistols in their two decades long colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique (some claim the gun Rhodesian mercenary Mike Rousseau used in the original Mozambique drill was a Walther). Many a US serviceman carried personally owned or CIA issued surplus P38s in Vietnam. The South African police, never known for carrying junk weapons, issued variants of the P38 until just a few years ago.

When the West German government reestablished their Army in the 1950s, the call went out to Walther to put the P-38 back into immediate production. Since Carl’s old factory was now in Soviet-occupied East Germany, he built a new one in Ulm and went to work making pistols for both the military and police. From 1957-2000 nearly 600,000 more P-38s came off Walther’s line. Heck, the German military continued to issue the P38 (P1) as late as 1994—the old gun still had what it took to be the standard for the largest land army in Western Europe for over 50 years, comparable though not equivalent to the US reign of the 1911.


Besides the WWII guns, Walther switched to an aluminum framed gun designated the P-1 when they started production in their new factory. It was the standard P-38 on the line and remained in production as late as the 1990s. Besides sales in their homeland, Norway, Chile, Finland, and others also adopted the gun.

In the 1960s, Walther engineer Siegfried Huebner developed a suppressed variant for use by NATO militaries on “special occasions”. Dubbed the P38-SD, its barrel was extensively ported and threaded to accept a large wipeless suppressor. The ‘can’ was so wide that it had its own set of sights at the front and rear of it. Used with subsonic ammunition it was quiet for its generation. An oversized slidelock prevented the weapon from cycling, further eliminating sound.

In 1974 the company came out with a chopped down version called the Kurz model (German for ‘short’) to compete for concealed carry sales. These were not very popular and only a small number of these P38-K variants were made before the line shut down a few years later.


The P38 was so influential in modern combat handgun design that it’s almost impossible to talk about the subject without mentioning it. If you have only ever handled the Berettas, SIGs, and S&W’s and Rugers of today, then get introduced to a P38, chances are great that it will seem uncannily familiar, natural and comfortable.

All of these aforementioned guns copied the double-action/single action trigger, take down lever, sights, and general mechanics of the P38. The Walther gun itself was outright copied in Croatia as the PHP pistol and it can be argued that the Beretta 51 and later 92 series of handguns are nothing but a P38 with a full-length slide and frame. Even holsters designed for the Beretta fit P38s.


The science of Walther P-38 serial numbers is very subtle and fascinating. Keep in mind that WWII serial numbers are all alphanumeric with Walther production starting with an ‘ac’, Mauser made guns starting with ‘byf’ or ‘svw’, and Spreewerk pieces coded ‘cyq’. After World War 2 in 1957, Walther started fresh with all numeric serial numbers that ran from 01001-607800.

Remember, more than 584,500 P-38s pistols were produced by Walther alone during the war at their Zella-Mehlis factory, making these guns common on the collectors market. You can still find nice shooter grade WWII-era Zella marked Walthers for $579. The big money goes for minty pistols with all matching serial numbers and the correct grips/leather, reaching well over the $2,000 mark. Spreewerk and Mauser made P38s have their own following of collectors.

For the next best thing (and a good thing at that), look for the aluminum framed P1, P4, and P5 series pistols made by Walther at the Ulm factory since 1957. Many parts interchange (especially the magazines, holsters, etc.) on these guns and the workmanship on most is better than WWII-era rush production pistols anyway. These are bargain shooters for $300-$400, and many have the bonus of being C&R eligible.

But the real prizes among Walther collectors are the post war commercial P38 pistols, including the P38 MKIV and the P38-K. These guns run as much as someone is willing to pay for them and as such the number of snub-nosed fake K-guns far surpasses the small number (2600) of the real thing. For a quick lesson, lads, real P38Ks will have a serial number between 500000-502600. The company also made deluxe models with factory polished and engraved slides and frames in even smaller numbers.

In short, if you want a classic combat handgun, the P-38 should be high on your ‘to get’ list.

Other Production

Generally, DWM held a monopoly on Luger production during WW1. A few enterprising industrialists were able to produce licensed copies of the Luger in order to keep up with demand for the Luger especially during the war. These maintained relatively small production numbers. They included the Erfurt Luger and Simson Luger.

Once the war ended these two producers struggled to stay in business. Erfurt eventually ceased production. The Simson factory also ran into very difficult times, and as a sad note in German history, the factory assets were seized by the German government as the Nazi’s came to power. Simson was a Jewish family owned business. Ironically, Heinrich Krieghoff was either given or purchased these assets (family members dispute this history) from the German government. Krieghoff was a hunting buddy and social friend of Herman Goring. Goring, of course, was the head of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). Subsequently, Krieghoff was given a Luger contract to make lugers for pilots and Luftwaffe troops including paratroopers. The Krieghoff factory made Lugers in very small numbers starting in 1936 and continued until the end of the war. They were the only manufacturer to continue production of the Luger beyond 1942.

Walther P-38 - History

Many books and articles have been written on the P.38 and its history, development, use, variations, holsters and magazines. However, not much information has been published about P.38 grips. This article is a good starting point in understanding a little bit more about P.38 grip variations and their use in WWII era pistols.

I have done a lot of research to compile this information, please feel free to reuse this summation but give credit to those who did the work!

Identification of Grips by Manufacturer

Mauser and Walter P38s used the same outside grip manufacturer until Mauser switched to the glossy, soft, black plastic in early '44 just before the dual tones.

On the outside of the grip you will see 6 broken lines around the grip screw and a short first line for a Walther or Mauser grip. When you remove the grips from the gun they will have, in most cases, a manufacturers code in the top circle and 1529 or 1528 (left and right) with the numbers 1-9 in the third circle at the bottom. Other less common variations exist and will be discussed later.

Spreewerk made P38s used a different grip manufacturer and the grip is slightly different with 5 broken lines around the grips screws and a long first line. When you remove the grips they will have the manufactures code in the top circle and a number from 1-12 in a circle at the lower part of the grip.

Variations In Walter and Mauser Production

Walther Grips

Checkered black bakelite* commercial grips that look similar to the post war ones.
Inside the grips is CeWe in a circle at the top of the grip (Registered trademark of Carl Walther) Under that will be the last three digits for the serial number of the gun, then the numerals 480 in a circle which was a mold mark and not the Walther assigned, short lived, manufacturer's code. Under 480 is the marking V7 above MD with Z3 or T1 in a circle and the number 1. This code is explained later on. These grips are marked with the Walther acceptance stamp of e/359.

I have seen 0 series grips where the e/359 acceptance stamp appears to be scratched out and also 0 series grips with no e/359 stamp at all, these are most likely for commercial production. Black 0 series and early commercial contract grips will have a "dished" indent in the grip where the lanyard loop cut out is located. Commercial black checkered Walther grips in the early 3,000 serial number range will no longer have the "dished" indent but a rectangular one the same as military grips.

3rd variation 0 series guns switched over to brown "ribbed" military grips match numbered to the gun with the e/359 acceptance stamp at about serial number 011000 according to P.38 researcher Orv Reichert. One set that I examined were from AEG Dahlem code 38 with Z3 (explained later).

1940 to end of production:
Dark brown to nearly black bakelite thru mid 1943. Reddish brown from mid 1943 thru mid 1944. A mixture of both thru the end of the war with mold number 1529 on left grip and mold number 1528 on right grip.

The last 3 digits of the gun's serial number will be found stamped on the inside until
approximately the early to mid 2nd variation AC 41. The grips will also have the E/359
waffenamt stamped on the inside until about the same time as the numbering of the
magazines stopped, in the 1942 c block. The e/359 marking can be found in between the first and second circle or the second and third circle.

I have reports from other collectors that the numbering on the grip panels on AC41's ended midway through the 1st Variation. AC41's in the low "a" block have been reported with the serial number and E/359 stamped inside both panels. However, AC41's reported in the high "a" and into the "b" blocks have E/359 stamps only. The numbering may have been on a random basis at this time. It is also apparent that the e/359 acceptance stamp began to disappear even before the numbered mags were phased out, around the early a-block on AC42 guns, this may also have been done on a random basis or grip panels already marked were being used mixed in with the panels that had the acceptance stamp eliminated.

The grips will have the first circle with a "MD" marking with the number 38 above it and Z3 below it. The 38 is the manufactures code according to the State Material Supervising and Testing Bureau in Dahlem (MD) and Z3 is the composition of the bakelite.

The second circle will be blank.

The third circle will have the P1529 (left grip) or P1528 (right grip) mold markings and the numbers 1-9 below them which I believe are the position that the grips were, in the mold. Further, I also believe that unlike the grips made by Julius Posselt which had right and left grips in one mold for a total of 12, the Allgemeine Electricitats-Gesellschaft(AEG) firm of Henningsdorf(Osthavelland) had separate right and left grip molds with 9 grips in each. An interesting observation is that all of the grips with either 1529 1 or 1528 1 will have the mold markings upside down!

Jim Cates & Martin Krause presented, in their copyrighted 8/99 AutoMag article, some interesting Sauer 38-H plastic grip research. They found the MD, used from 1936 and on, represented the "Staatliches Materialprufungsamt Berlin-Dahhlem" which is the State Material Supervising (& testing) bureau in Berlin's district of Dahlem. Further, through the German monthly magazine "Kunstsoffe - a 1939 issue", they found a listing of all the published German plastic producers, their MD codes, and the material composition numerals. For instance, they report the "38" we see above the MD is for the Allgemeine Electricitats-Gesellschaft(AEG) firm of Henningsdorf(Osthavelland) The T1, S etc. below the MD is for the composition of the bakelite-like plastic compound.

Dieter H. Marschall, in his 10/99 AutoMag submittal, expands further by stating the "MD" is actually the three letters "MPD". In the regular MPD publication "Kunststhoff (Vol.30, #3, 1940), for P.38 grips made before 1945, the "Z3" stands for "Bakelit" - a "duroplast" consisting of phenol resin mixed with wood chips or textiles and then pressed. Further "T1" stands for "Trolit" [tradename "Trolit(-an)]", a material based on cellulose-acetate-plastic.

D. Marschall goes on to say the P1528 can be read as follows: "1" for phenol
resin plastic, "5" for 45% resin, & "28" was the color code for red to mahogany.

In late 1943 the MD markings looks worn and faded and in late war examples completely eliminated. My thinking is this was no accident since the P1529 and P1528 markings in every example I have seen are very clear. The reason for the elimination of the manufactures code is a mystery to me.

Mixed in at the end of the war were also grips marked V7 above MD with 57, 41 or 31 and two blank circles below the MD code, these Walther marked grips appear at random throughout production. AEG grips with 38 above MD and Z3 with two blank circles below the MD code were also used. Just about anything can show up late in the war including some Durofol grips.

The following information is from Darrin Weaver's book on the G/K43's called Hitler's Garand. Pgs. 166-168 discussing the Durofol handguards used on the G/K43's,

"'Durofol', looks much like plastic, was the brand name of a type of phenolic resin, bonded, compressed wood. As an economy measure, a high proportion of wood filler was used, in order to minimize the volume of petrochemically-derived resin required. This material was only manufactured by one firm in Germany, Durofol KG, O. Brangs & Co."

P.38 Durofol grips have the script written word "Durofol" inside a diamond at a vertical position, in the grip. The numbers 1,2,3,7,8,9 are in the left grip following the diamond shaped logo and 4,5,6,10,11,12 in the right grip. The mold postition numbers are the same as the grips by Julius Posselt. In some cases the mold postion number will appear to be above the logo but in fact it still follows the logo which is in a reversed direction. So far the numbers 7,8,9 have been observed above the logo. Any other reports would be appreciated.

Mauser Grips

Very early grips for Mauser produced P.38's were supplied by either Allgemeine Electricitats-Gesellschaft (AEG) with the 1529 and 1528 mold markings or Carl Walther. The Walther grips observed were marked V7 above MD with 57 or 31 below that. These grips are very shiney dark brown or black brown bakelite and are not marked 1529 or 1528 but have two blank circles below the MD.

The rest of Mauser production is the same as the Walther grips until Mauser switched to the soft, black plastic grips around the "v" block. These can be identified by two low circles on the left grip and mid grip sprue on the right grip as the most common. The inside of these grips will be a "dull" black, another variation is the right grip having the same two low circles as the left grip with a more glossy appearance on the inside of some sets.

Very late war byf 44's in the "e" block and svw 45's in the "f" block have been reported and observed having the late war red/orange bakelite grips from AEG.

Grips Used in Spreewerk Production

The color of the grips will run dark brown to nearly black bakelite thru mid 1943 then
reddish brown or dark brown thru end of war.

Approximately, the first 20,000 (till the end of the "a" suffix) guns had grips from Walther/Mauser. Therefore, they will be brownish black Bakelite with the 1528 & 1529 mold numbers as described above and some very early guns may have the e/359 marking in one or both grip panels. After that, they were generally a very dark, very hard, shiny bakelite. The grips will have the first circle with the "MD" marking inside the grip with 1W above the MD and either 41 or 31 under it (I examined a grip number under the MD which could be mistaken for a 37 but the number appears to me as a 31 with a slightly bigger "crown" on the 1). The second circle has a number from 1 - 12 in it, these are the grip position numbers in the mold.

These are the mold position numbers as I have seen them, each mold had 12 grips.

Left grip have 1,2,3,7,8,9
Right grip have 4,5,6,10,11,12

The 1W is the manufactures code according to the State Material Supervising and Testing Bureau in Dahlem (MD) and stands for Julius Posselt. It is also listed in the 1940 issue Heft 3 from the Staatliches Materialprüüfungsamt in Berlin. This 1940 issue listed the following materials in their production. Presstoff Type S and Presstoff Type 2. His other code was gfc (Gablonz an der Neisse, now Jablonec nad Nisou, Czech republic) The code gfc is not found on the grips.

In his research Dieter H. Marschall also states that Julius Posselt worked with "Presstoff Type T2" only , which is classified as "Phenolharz mit Holzmehl als Füüllstoff" (aka "Bakelite"). The code numbers "31" and "41" designate the colors of the material: "31" = mahogany to greenish, "41" = grey to black. 1W marking is special code granted by Materialprüüfungsamt Berlin - Dahlem. (MD or actually MPD)

Dahlem P.38 grip manufacturer codes are:

V7 Carl Walther, Zella-Mehlis, Thüüringen
1W Julius Posselt
38 or Allgemeine Electricitats-Gesellschaft (AEG) firm of Henningsdorf (Osthavelland)

Z3 Trolitan-Presswerk, Weiskirchen, Trier, Saarland.
W1 Heinrich Kopp GmbH,Sonneberg in Thüüringen

I feel certain that Carl Walther, AEG, Julius Posselt and Durofol were the only manufacturers of bakelite grips for the P38.

There may be other variations of grips out there but I believe this grip information to be accurate for the most common grips that I have observed.

Late war grips will often have a lot of filler in the bakelite matrix. The filler was apparently ground cardboard or shredded paper. The end of the war was a real mixed bag of variations where many things can turn up.

Please send me an email, [email protected], if you have seen any P.38 grips that do not match the descriptions outlined above, complete information on your P.38 with the serial number would be appreciated.

*Bakelite (also called catalin) is a plastic, a dense synthetic polymer (a phenolic resin) that was used to make many objects including P.38 grips. Bakelite was the first industrial thermoset plastic (a material that does not change its shape after being mixed and heated). Bakelite plastic is made from carbolic acid (phenol) and formaldehyde, which are mixed, heated, and then either molded or extruded into the desired shape.

Bakelite was patented in 1907 by the Belgian-born American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (November 14, 1863 - February 23, 1944).

Watch the video: Walther P38 Chapter 2