The Walther PP: The Autoloader That Changed Everything


This .25 ACP Little Tom pistol was made from 1909 to 1925.
If not the first DA/SA autoloader, it was surely among the first
and moderately successful.

The DA/SA Model HSc was Mauser’s answer to Walther’s PP
and PPK. Of exceptional design, production of the HSc was
resumed after World War II.

In 1929, Fritz Walther got the world’s attention with his 8-shot magazine, .32 ACP, Model PP autoloader, which could be safely carried fully loaded and in a state of instant readiness, just like a revolver. The safety/decocker lever created a double-action/single-action (DA/SA) where the first shot trigger weight was 13 to 14 lbs. and subsequent shots to an accuracy-enhancing SA pull of about 3 to 4 lbs.

The Walther PP and the smaller PPK model released the following year are significant to firearms development history. By virtue of their great commercial success, they set the standard for what a DA/SA operating system on an auto-loader should be; and the competition they instigated among other gun makers advanced innovation in double-action capable auto-loaders as a class of handguns. What Walther achieved in 1929 is commonplace today, but it was a big deal 95 years ago.

This hammer used for the PP, PPK functions similar to those
on Colt and S&W revolvers, having a strut for DA activation
pinned to the lower front.

Rise Of The DA Autoloader

At the start of the 20th century when autoloading pistols were first challenging the DA revolver for supremacy, their operational complexity was a significant drawback. A DA revolver was mechanically complex to build but simple to use. Autoloaders had slides and cocking pieces, magazines to charge, hold open controls, safeties, and so forth, and even with mastery of their varied manuals of arms, flawed ammunition or lack of a firm grip could induce malfunctions. It’s the same today, though, over 125 years, autoloaders became more popular than revolvers.
A study of auto-loading pistol designs before World War I reveals a few gems of ergonomic and practical engineering like the Colt Model 1911 and a lot of blind alleys like the 1907 Roth-Steyr, Bergman Simplex, 1907 Dreyse, and the blow-forward action Model 1908 Schwarzlose. Civilian sales were a key part of the market, and commercially successful autoloaders before World War II were mostly small caliber, concealable, single-action types (Colt 1903, Savage 1907, and FN 1910).

The SA auto-loader, with its characteristic shorter, lighter trigger pull, was easier to master than a DA revolver’s long, heavy pull. The magazine-fed auto-loaders could also be reloaded faster and usually had larger ammunition capacities than revolvers. Caliber was not an issue because most self-defense revolvers were .32 caliber too. A general drawback these SA autoloaders shared was they couldn’t be deployed as quickly as the always-ready revolver unless carried loaded, cocked and safety off. To the credit of our shooting forefathers, it appears they regarded this practice as unsafe. Most auto-loaders would have obviously benefited from a convenient manual thumb safety like on the Colt Model 1911. Instead, as if by some weird, unspoken design mandate, the manual safeties of the era were either awkwardly located, hard to manipulate, or both.

Walther clearly recognized the drawbacks common to SA autoloaders, but he was not a prophet. As early as 1914, Manufacture Francaise d’ Armas et Cycles de St. Etienne in France was making a unique DA-only (DOA) .25 ACP, striker-fired pistol with a tip-up barrel that addressed the safe-carry versus instant-readiness conundrum in its own way. Called the Le Francaise Staff Officer, it was the ancestor of a family of pistols produced until 1965. A solid and cleverly designed blowback unsuitable for calibers larger than .32 ACP, it appears to have been popular only in France.

The CZ Model 1938 was a DAO service pistol intended for
the Czech military. Production ended in 1945, never to resume.

Production of the DA/SA Bergmann Special Pocket Pistol ended in
1945 for good. Because of its peculiar manner of cocking, it took
longer than its peers to get a first shot off.

Right: The DA/SA concept for autoloaders really got traction in 1929 with the Walther PP.

Walther PP Emergence

Another notable antecedent of the Walther PP was the Little Tom invented by Czech gunsmith Alois Tomiska who patented its simple DA/SA firing mechanism in Britain and Austria around 1910. Unlike the later Walther PP, the Little Tom’s trigger had the same stroke length for every shot, though only the first shot was truly DA. The long trigger stroke must have slowed the gun’s rate of fire down compared to SA autos. Most of the estimated 28,000 to 50,000 guns produced from 1909 to 1925 were made by Wiener Waffenfabrik in Austria. The majority were diminutive .25 ACP models, the .32 ACP guns being much rarer. In 1919, Tomiska sold his stake in the company and returned to his native Czechoslovakia, where he remained in the arms industry. Why his clever and functional design wasn’t more successful is unknown.

There’s no doubt Fritz Walther was aware of the moderately successful Le Francaise and Little Tom pistols and appears to have considered their shortcoming. His solution for giving the autoloader the instant readiness and safety of the revolver was to adapt the revolver’s DA/SA mechanical operation to the autoloader. The hammer of the PP/PPK, with a double-action strut pinned to the front, looks a lot like that found on a Colt or S&W revolver. Walther’s was the best approach yet, and the PP and PPK took the lead position in the market with brisk sales.

Other manufacturers tried to catch up. Mauser’s DA/SA Model HSc pocket pistol in .32 and .380 ACP, was the most successful and, like the Walther PP/PPK and P-38, survived to reemerge into the post-war world in its excellent original form. Sauer & Sohn’s .32 ACP, Model 38 was not resurrected, though its unique cocking/decocking lever became a standard feature on SIG pistols decades later. Production of .32 and .380 ACP Bergmann Special Pocket Pistols also ended forever with the defeat of Nazi Germany; I suspect because its operation proved too novel. The trigger itself served as a cocking lever for the hammer but had to be released slightly and pulled a second time to fire the first shot.

The DAO, Czechoslovakian, .380 ACP, CZ Model 1938 was to be the Czech military’s first double-action service pistol, but instead was sucked up by the Nazi war machine and never produced again. By contrast, from 1936 to 1940, Ceska Zbrojovka produced and sold an estimated 12,000 of the tiny, DOA, .25 ACP vz 36 pistols designed by Frantisek Myska as a replacement for the single action vz 22 and then revived the design for commercial sale after the war as the CZ Model 45.

If you’re getting the impression the DA/SA and DAO autoloading pistol was kind of a European thing, I’d have to agree. Curiously, America was slow to embrace the DA/SA automatic, even after S&W introduced the first American-made DA/SA auto-loading pistol, the 9mm Model 39, in 1955.

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