In 1908, the German Army introduced the 9mm pistol P.08, also known as the Luger, as its main sidearm. Thirty years later, in 1938, this pistol was replaced by a more cost-efficient and modern 9mm pistol. The new pistol was designed at the Walther firearms plant and was called the P.38, an abbreviation for Pistole 38. Fritz Walther and Fritz Barthelmes are the two major names involved in the design and development of this pistol.
In the early years, the P.38 was produced only by the firm of Carl Walther in Zella-Mehlis, Germany. The first weapons were marked with the Walther banner on the slide. In 1940, the Walther banner was replaced by a code to indicate the manufacturer. The Germans were afraid that markings such as the Walther banner would make it easy for the Allied forces to determine a specific weapons manufacturer and attack the plant. Therefore, at the beginning of 1940, the pistols produced by the Walther plant were marked with the code 480 to indicate that Walther was the manufacturer. The 480 code was replaced after two months with the code ac, which was used by Walther for the remainder of the war.
From 1938 until 1945, approximately 584,500 P.38 pistols were produced by the Walther plant in Zella-Mehlis. Production stopped when American forces captured the factory in early April, 1945. The Walther factory in Zella-Mehlis was destroyed in 1946 by the Soviets. Fritz Walther and his brothers built a new factory in Ulm in the south end of the Western part of Germany and started producing goods in 1946. The new factory started to produce the P.38 pistol again starting in the mid 1950s.
The increasing demand for P.38 pistols during the war resulted in two more P.38 manufacturers in 1942: Mauser and Spreewerk.The Mauser plant in Oberndorf produced approximately 323,000 pistols; these were stamped with the code byf to identify Mauser as the manufacturer. At the beginning of 1945, the byf code was replaced by a new code,svw. The factory was captured in April of 1945 by Allied forces and shortly after was turned over to French control. However, the French did not stop production immediately; manufacturing of the P.38 continued until 1946. French authorities also took over the svw code to mark the pistols produced under their control.
Spreewerk, the third manufacturer, started producing P.38 pistols in mid-1942. The code cyq was used to indicate that these pistols were made at the Spreewerk factory. Spreewerk produced approximately 283,080 pistols before the plant was captured by the Soviets in May of 1945.These three factories produced a total of approximately 1.2 million P38 pistols. After the war, P.38 pistols were reused by different countries, such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Norway.
In 1956, the current German Army (Bundeswehr) was formed, and German authorities started selecting the most suitable arms to equip the troops. A wide variety of pistols were tested. The P.38 again was selected as the best and most cost-effective choice, becoming the standard sidearm of the German Army, this time under the name P1 (an abbreviation for Pistole 1). The Walther factory again began producing the P.38/P1; in subsequent years, some small improvements were made in the design to make it both lighter and stronger. Other countries, such as Norway and Austria, also used the P1 as the standard sidearm for its forces. In 1994, the GermanBundeswehr decided to phase out the P1 and replaced it with the more modern HK P8.
Through the years also new variations of the P.38 were developed. For instance the P4 and the P.38k were P.38′s fitted with a shorter barrel and lacking the safety function. Some P38 pistols were fitted with a silencer and introduced under the name P38SD. These are quit scarce and not much is known about these pistols.