(Courtesy of Orv Reichert & P38forum.com)
The different P38 variations produced during the Nazi-regime will be discussed on this page. Variations are based on different manufacturers and changes in markings. However, it should be noted that only the main variations are covered here. There are many more sub-variations that are fo interest for collectors to discuss, but it goes into too much detail to discuss them all here. Please do reach out via email in case you have some specific questions around these.
The ArmeePistole (army pistol) was the very first prototype / predecessor of the P38 and was already produced in 1935 by Walther in small quantities (highest serial number known is 55). This pistol had a concealed hammer and extractor. Only a handfull of those pistols were produced because the German army decided to go for the more advanced P38. The grips have a very distinct look. They are checkered and have round loopholes for the lanyard.
The Walther HP (Heerespistole) was produced in parallel with the P38 for the commercial market. Production started halfway 1939. About 25.000 HP pistols were produced in mainly 9mm and also a few in 7.65mm. Around 1500 Walther HP pistols (serial number range 1000-2500) were exported to Sweden in 1939-40 to be used by the Swedish army under the name m/39. The grips of the Swedish m/39 have round loopholes for the lanyard and are checkered.
The 0-Series was the first official P38 variation issued to the German army. This variation is produced between june 1939 and may 1940. Serial numbers of this variation always start with a 0, hence the name 0-Series. Determination of a 0-Series pistol is easy. The Walther banner and P38 model indication are stamped on the left side of the slide with the serial number next to it. All parts of the 0-Series pistols are stamped with the Walther acceptance stamp E/359 and the sight is painted White/red. The bakelite grips are black checkered and have a round loophole for the lanyard. Most of the P38 pistols produced after this variation have rectangular loopholes. Magazines are stamped on the housing with the respective serial number and spare mags have an additional + in front of the serial number.
In 1940 the German army decided to use secret codes on weapons to designate the manufacture. The Germans were afraid that the Allied forces could easily locate the German weapon production sites and bomb them when they knew the manufacturer. In June and July 1940 Walther used the secret code 480. The pistols produced in this period are therefore stamped with 480. The serial number was stamped on the slide. A schematical drawing is shown below. 480 is also stamped on the triggerguard.
The secret code 480 for the Walther factor was already abandoned after two months use and replaced by a new code. This new code was ac and was introduced in august 1940. In addition to the secret code the last two digits of the year of production were also stamped on the slide. There are periods were ac + production year were stamped next to eachother and periods where this combination was stacked. Most of the serial numbers also have a suffix letter. Walther used serial numbers ranging from 1 to 10,000. The counting started over at 1 when the number 10,000 was reached. To ensure that every pistol had a unique serial number, the Germans added a suffix letter. The letter went up one character each time the serial number once more started at 1. At the beginning of a new year, both the serial numbers and suffix letters again started over. The first 10,000 pistols produced at the start of the year had no suffix letter. For example: the 25,000th pistol produced in a certain year had serial number 5000b, and the 35,000th pistol produced had serial number 5000c. The combination of year + serial number + suffix (or no suffix for the first 10,000 pistols) is unique for every pistol. From this combination it is easy to determine the production date of the pistol. The goal of every P38 manufacturer was to produce 10,000 P38 pistols every month. So every month started with a higher suffix letter. Below is a picture of an ac variation. During Walther production some minor technical improvements were introduced in the design, but that's too detailed to discuss on this website. At the start of the P38, all the parts were stamped with the Walther acceptance code E/359. In the years after, fewer and fewer parts were stamped with this mark.
In 1942 the Mauser factory started the production of P38 pistols to fulfill the huges demand for these pistols by the German army. The secret code for Mauser was byf and it can be found on th the slide just above the production year (last two digits). Mauser employed a comparable serial numbering system to the one used by Walther. Serial numbers ranged from 1 to 10,000. Mauser sarted over at serial number 1 each time the number 10,000 was reached. After the first 10,000 pistols were completed, the firm added a suffix letter to ensure that each pistol had a unique serial number. The suffix letter increased each time the plant started at serial number 1 again. In contrast to Walther, Mauser did not start over with serial numbers at the beginning of every year. After reaching number 10,000z in late 1944, Mauser started again witg serial number 1, without a letter suffix. The combination serial number + suffix + production year is unique for every mauser pistol. The Mauser acceptance stamp is E/135 (until mid 1944) and E/WaA (later 1944 - 45). In total 323,000 pistols were produced by Mauser during the Nazi regime.
The secret Mauser code byf was replaced in 1945 by the code SVW. In april 1945 the Allied forces captured the Mauser factory and became under control of the French. the French used the factory to produce P38 pistols for their own use and they kept using the SVW acceptance code till mid 1946. A schematical representation of this variation is shown below.
The third manufacturer of P38 pistols was the Spreewerk factory. Spreewerk production started in 1942 and the secret code was cyq. Spreewerk also used serial numbers with suffix letters and applied to same serial numbering system as Mauser. In february 1945 a pistol with serial number 10000z was produced and a new way of counting had to be introduced because all the letters from the alphabet were finished. Spreewerk decided to start recounting but instead of putting a suffix letter they now decided to use a prefix letter. So the first serial number after 10000z became a1. Two months later the Germans decided to abandon this form of counting and introduced a new system. A0 was now place before the serial number and no suffix/prefix letter was added anymore. This variation was called the zero seriesSpreewerk variation. The Russian army conquered the factory one month later and around 100 more pistols were produced under Russian control before the factory was dismantled. Pistols produced under Russian control have a serial number that start with 00 in stead of one 0 and this variation is called the double zero series variation. In total 282.080 pistols were produced by the Spreewerk factory. The inspection stamp 88 (E/88) was used by the Spreewerk factory.
For most of the P38 pistols it is really easy to determine the production date from the markings on the pistol (manufacturer + serial number + prefix/suffix letter). A handy guide to determine production dates of your wartime P38 can be found below. Also links to other technical date are included.