The world was a different place when I graduated from college in 1963. When I was stationed at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, I had the chance to purchase, and shoot almost all of the 9mm Parabellum (Luger) handguns that were used by both sides during World War II. During this period the European powers were modernizing their armies in the midst of the Cold War, and these old guns were being shipped by the boatload to willing buyers in the U.S. All I had to do was to go down the cobblestone street to the Interarmsco store at the waterfront in nearby Alexandra, Virginia, and pick out the pistol that I wanted to try.
Even at that time, the U.S. was the prime market for such guns. Only a few years before had the laws been changed making it illegal to order firearms by mail. As a young Second Lt. of Engineers, I had no problem purchasing as many handguns as I liked, having them on base, shooting them; and when I figured that I had learned what I could from one, trading it in on another.
This was the .308 M14 – .45 ACP Model 1911 Army; although I had done my pre-commission training at Ft. Benning with exactly the same guns used during World War II. Active duty units had the M 14, but the adoption of the 9mm Beretta by the U.S. Army was still some years in the future.
One book that I had that was of value then was W.H.B. Smith’s (no relation) Book of Pistols and Revolvers (Stackpole, 1968) which was later supplemented with Pistols of the World (Hogg and Weeks, Presido Press 1978) and DBI Books’ various editions of the Pistol and Revolver Digest, such as the third edition published in 1982.
9mm Broom-handle Mauser Conversion
As is well known by most people, the 9mm Parabellum was developed from the older .30 Luger cartridge in the early 1900s in order to provide a more powerful round. Various high-velocity, but low bullet weight, .30 caliber cartridges had preceded it, most notably the .30-caliber Mauser, used in that company’s semi-automatic pistols. Some of these pistols were converted to 9mm Parabellum, and this was one that I was most anxious to use.
Ultimately a wooden barrel (really) of these arrived at the importer, and I was able to get a 9mm Parabellum-chambered Mauser pistol. As was customary for these conversions, a “9” had been burned into the grip and filled with red ink to make it obvious that this was a 9mm. Winston Churchill wrote about using one of the .30-caliber Mausers in South Africa during the Boar War. He found it difficult to shoot well and stressed the desirability of touching the person before pulling the trigger.
The Mauser, with its box magazine in front of the trigger guard, felt like no other handgun that I had ever shot. It also had a side safety that was long and best activated by the off-hand. It had relatively mild recoil, but the rounded grip made it difficult to shoot well without it squirming in the palm. I concurred with Churchill. It was a functional and reliable semi-automatic pistol, but difficult to shoot with accuracy. I also found the sights somewhat less than optimum.
9 mm Luger
I had owned a short-barreled 9mm Luger with Nazi markings, and jumped at a chance to trade it in on an Artillery Model with an 8-inch barrel that had been issued during World War I. This gun originally came with a wooden holster-shoulder stock and a snail magazine so that it could be quickly converted into a semi-auto carbine. Mine had a bulged barrel, a ground-off stock lug and did not have its holster or large-capacity magazine.
The Luger was, and will remain, my favorite handgun in regards to looks and its marvelous expertise in machining and fitting the toggle action. I can easily see how collectors are enamored of it. It is a wonderful-looking handgun, but I did not find that I could shoot it particularly well. One reason is the trigger is connected by levers that makes it difficult to tune. Another is that when the grip when was held naturally in my palm the barrel pointed to the left – rather than being a straight-line extension of the wrist, like with the Colt Model 1911. Lugers can give reliability issues, although I had no problem with mine using U.S. factory loads.
I enjoy looking at Lugers today at gun shows, but would not own one today, except as an example of mechanical artistry.
The option of having either a double-action first shot or a more deliberately aimed second shot was a valuable attribute for this pistol. Not so desirable was its very thin, light-weight barrel which made it difficult to shoot well at distances beyond a few yards. With a myriad of small springs and screws it was very easy to lose parts when the gun was disassembled. (Keep this in mind if you ever do it.) As a combat handgun it certainly had desirable attributes, but as a shooting handgun I could not find too much to recommend it.
9mm Browning Hi-Power
Designed from the outset as a 9mm pistol, the Hi-Power incorporated a higher capacity 13-shot magazine in a wider grip, but remained a single-action pistol during the World War II period. When Belgium was over run by Nazi armies, production of this pistol was continued with the addition of Nazi acceptance stamps. It was one of these war-production pistols that I shot.
As a shooting pistol, I liked the grip of the pistol better than the Luger, but found its wide grip uncomfortable for my relatively small hand. It pointed better than the Luger, felt more natural and the 13-shot magazine was a decided improvement over the 8-round magazine in the Model 1911 Colt semi-auto. The Hi-Power’s shape, feel and shootability was better than the P-38, despite the Browning’s only being a single-action semiauto.
This particular gun had a long adjustable rear sight, a smaller version of the Mauser rifle sight, and was cut for a combination shoulder-stock holster that was unavailable to me.
The Swedish Lahti was among the last of the European 9mms that I had an opportunity to purchase, and the very last that I sold. Although designed in Finland, the Swedish version was made during the 1940s and continued as that country’s service pistol after World War II.
As I recall, this Luger look-alike felt heavier than Luger’s with similar barrel lengths, but shot no better. The light barrel-heavy frame combination made the gun difficult to point well and it offered the same problems as the Luger in not lining up naturally in the hand. I found myself grasping the pistol and then having to twist it into place with my other hand to regrip the gun for target shooting. My pistol had apparently never been issued. I kept it as long as I did as a curiosity, rather than because I was impressed by its shooting characteristics.
My example of this pistol had received hard war-time use and arrived with rust pits and a not-so-hot barrel. Of all the European pistols, this one felt best in the hand, had adequate combat sights, and I found myself longing for a better-preserved example. Even so, the gun handled well and shot well for a combat pistol. I heard that the pre-war production pistols were very nice, but I have never seen or shot one. Between the German and Russian occupation of Poland, these guns really went through the mill, and mine looked it.
If you have noticed a trend in my remarks that the more the pistols looked like the Model 1911 Colt semi-auto the better I liked them, this is correct. The added forward weight of the long slide is helpful and the grip, particularly with the swelled magazine housing, felt and feels better to me. Although Colt never commercialized the concept, long slide versions of the 1911 were produced in small numbers by custom makers, and some more powerful semi-auto rounds with soft-nosed bullets were produced that would work in this platform.
I followed and read about these concepts with interest, but never used them. I purchased and shot what was more easily available in the .44 Remington Magnum in revolvers and the Thompson/Center single-shots with their longer (10-15 inch) barrels as hunting guns.
Unceta Astra Models 400 and 600
Astra produced two models of these rather strange-looking blow-backed pistols. The 400s were able to shoot the 9mm Luger, Largo, Styer and 38-Colt Super, and the Model 600 was almost exclusively chambered for the 9mm Luger. The Model 400 that I owned liked the .38 Colt Super best, but would digest round-nosed 9mm Luger cartridges. This gun was touchy in what it liked to be fed in the way of Luger cartridges, preferring round-nosed jacketed bullets and not tolerating target-level loads.
The heavy springs use to retain these powerful pistol cartridges make this gun particularly hard to operate. Once the operational characteristics were mastered and if used with ammo that it liked, it was a reliable gun. The gun has tiny sights that I found difficult to use for target work and plinking.
Colt likely produced some 9mm Luger chambered Model 1911s while developing their semi-rimmed .38-Super cartridge, but apparently never made any in 9mm for anyone during World War II. They did offered this chambering in later designs like the Colt Commander.
Because of the supply of free military ammo for the Colt .45 and my having to purchase factory stuff for the 9mms, I switched to the .45s and larger caliber handguns and hardly ever looked back. Never again was I to own a 9mm of any type because I was becoming more interested in handgun hunting. The 9mms – .38 Supers, Largos etc. did not then offer either soft-point bullets, sufficient power (arguable in case of the Super), or were illegal for taking deer-sized game animals in states where I lived.
Both Italy and Spain made large numbers of 9mm Parabellum handguns post World War II and many were sold in the U.S. However, these countries did not use this cartridge in the nations’ wartime handguns as first-line pistols.
In order of power the various 9mm started with what is known in this country with the .380 ACP. Hungary had an about worthless double-action only semi-auto in this caliber that was issued. Italy produced large numbers of .380 Berettas for holster carry for police and other units, although the 9mm Glisenti was their official military pistol cartridge during World War II.
The 9mm Bayard Long is the Spanish 9 mm Largo and is also quite similar to the 9mm Steyr. There was also a 9mm Browning long, but this one was never imported into the U.S. and is only found in a few European civilian pistols. I looked at the Austrian Steyr pistol, but because of the stripper clips needed to load it and the special ammo (all of which was corrosive at the time), I never purchased one. The semi-rimmed 38 ACP and the 38 Super fill out the 9mms (both non-military cartridges) that were available during the World War II years. The Russian 9mm Makarov was adopted after the war.
Shooting all of these guns was an interesting experience. My only regrets was that I did not bother to take any photos of the guns while I had them. As I have the opportunity to shoot some new digital images of the guns, I will change-out these photos.