Firearm Anatomy: Eight Pistols of WWII

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By popular demand this design is now being offered as a poster!

For those of you who may not know, we’re in the middle of an Anatomy Project in an attempt to put together a heck of a book.  It will cover the major eight powers of WWII and we’ve already released the first batch of rifles.  Well now it’s time for phase two: pistols.  We’ve already provided the country summaries in the previous link so let’s get right to it.

Greater German Reich

Anatomy Pistol German Walther P38

Walther P.38

Germany’s rapid rearmament and expansion strained existing firearms production to its limit.  Looking for a replacement for the Luger, the army began searching for a simpler to manufacture 9mm Parabellum pistol.  Walther provided their Armee Pistole and after some changes, it was tentatively adopted in 1938.  Trials models produced in 1939 yielded further small changes and so the official P.38 did not begin full production until 1940.

Walther’s replacement for the Luger was one of the most advanced pistols of its day.  It features a de-cocker and DA/SA trigger system resulting in easy and safe carry of a chambered cartridge.  Essentially a soldier can load the pistol, chamber a round, and then depress the de-cocker.  This drops the hammer safely.  With the safety off, a pull of the trigger will cock the hammer back, then drop it (double action).  The discharge cycles the action and leaves the hammer in the back position, which means follow up shots will all be single action.  Additionally the pistol features a contoured grip excellent for two-handed shooting, prominent sights, and a loaded chamber indicator.  The P.38 locks with a short-recoil mechanism incorporating a rising/falling wedge block.

Ultimately this design was a great success as over 1,000,000 were produced during the war and were found to be extremely accurate and reliable side arms.


Cartridge 9x19mm Overall Length 8.5″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 4.9″
Magazine 8 rounds Weight 1.75 lb





French RepublicAnatomy Pistol French Mle1935a

Model 1935 A

The French were slow to update their automatic pistols after WWI due to a vast surplus of Spanish-made “Ruby” handguns.  Eventually trials were held and a design descended from the U.S. M1911 pistol was selected.  It featured a magazine safety, loaded chamber indicator, and simplified, slide mounted safety that permitted the hammer to be dropped (but did not actually de-cock on its own).  Instead of a single barrel link, two were used.  The grip safety was dropped and, most importantly, the hammer mechanism was worked into a single, removable package for easy replacement during repair.

French officials, however, did not care for the “brutal” recoil of .45ACP.  They selected a different U.S. cartridge: .30 Pedersen.  This ammunition was developed for the semi-automatic conversion kits for the M1903 Springfield rifle during WWI.  Slightly reduced in power, it was chosen as the new standard pistol cartridge in France.

The winning design, adopted in 1935, was provided by Societe Alsacienne de Construction Mechanique and so the pistol was suffixed “A” for “Alsace.”  Production was slow at the start and only a few thousand were completed and delivered before the German invasion.  The captured facility was put to work by the occupiers and 1935 A pistols continued manufacture for the German forces.  With the Allied invasion the facilities were handed over once more and again produced for France through the end of the war and on until 1950.


Cartridge 7.65×20mm Overall Length 7.4″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 4.1″
Magazine 8 rounds Weight 1.6 lb





Kingdom of ItalyAnatomy Pistol Italian Beretta M1934

Beretta Model 1934

Most of the features for the Beretta Model 1934 existed in a previous model, the 1923.  This was a simple fixed barrel, blowback design with the now iconic open-top slide.  Its most notable change from the earlier models was the use of an external hammer.  It was produced in order to chase military contracts and chambered the 9mm Glisenti cartridge.

With the popularity of pocket pistols and .32 ACP in Europe, Beretta scaled down the Model 1923 and improved the styling slightly.  This became the Model 1931.  Italian Army curiosity towards the Walther PP series inspired further, minor changes in styling to make a more swept grip angle and a rechambering to .380 ACP.  This became the Model 1932 and further changes to the grip panels resulted in the Model 1934, which was adopted by the Italian armed forces.  A .32 ACP version was later adopted by the Air Force and Navy as the Model 1935.

These handy and reliable little pistols were extremely popular with Italian troops.  A contract was also provided to Axis Romania.  Captured Beretta pistols were greatly appreciated by U.S. troops and led to great post-war commercial sales of the Model 1934 and respect for Italian handguns.


Cartridge 9x17mm Overall Length 6″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 3.7″
Magazine 7 rounds Weight 1.5 lb





United KingdomAnatomy Pistol UK Webley Mk.IV

Webley Mk. IV

During the Interwar Period the British decided the .455 Webley cartridge was excessively powerful and resulted in slower troop training and less accurate fire.  The heavy cartridges were also harder to carry and took up more inventory and transport space.  They decided a near-equally capable round could be produced in .38 caliber pushing a 200 grain bullet.  This .38/200 was identical to .38 S&W but set for a specific load.  This load was later reduced out of fear it might violate the Hague Convention.

Webley & Scott provided their MkIV revolver, scaled down to .38/200 as a potential new sidearm for the British military.  It was rejected and instead a design from the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock was adopted.  The trouble is, this design was nearly identical in every way except each component was reshaped enough that none were interchangeable.  Webley sued and lost, as the government claimed that Captain Boys had designed the new revolver himself.

Early losses in WWII created a huge demand for revolvers and Enfield could not keep up, so the Webley Mk IV was adopted in parallel, finally getting the role it deserved.  It served through the war and beyond, with roughly 500,000 manufactured.  Webley was concerned about soldiers seeing their rough machined and quickly finished military revolvers and assuming this would be the quality of their sporting arms.  So they marked the frames on the right side “War Finish” to avoid any confusion and hopefully preserve their good name.


Cartridge 9x20mmR Overall Length 10.3″
Action DA/SA Revolver Barrel Length 4.9″
Magazine 6 rounds Weight 2.4 lb





Union of Soviet Socialist RepublicsAnatomy Pistol USSR Tokarev TT-33

Tula-Tokarev 33

The Soviet TT-33 pistol is another descendent of the Model 1911.  During the 1920’s Russian officials sought a semi-automatic pistol to replace the aging M1895 Nagant revolvers.  Experience with the Mauser C96 had created a great respect for its 7.63x25mm cartridge but the gun itself was somewhat cumbersome and inefficient.  A slightly hotter loaded 7.62x25mm cartridge was selected as the new standard handgun and submachinegun round for the USSR.

Fedor Tokarev stepped in with what would become his TT-30 pistol by combining features of the Colt 1903 and 1911 pistols in the new cartridge.  Both the grip and thumb safety were dropped and the pistol features only a simple half cock position on the hammer.  Like the French 1935 A, the hammer group was packaged together for ease of replacement.  Most outstanding, the feed lips were moved from the magazine and into the frame.  This makes them extremely hard to damage and makes the TT-30 and 33 some of the most reliably feeding hand guns ever.  The TT-30 evolved into the TT-33 after the implementation of several manufacturing improvements such as a solid backstrap, reshaped trigger, and simplified barrel lugs.

The TT-33 served the USSR until it was replaced in 1952, although it did see second line use for a few years.  Copies and variants were also produced in a number of Soviet nations and continue to be in production today.


Cartridge 7.62x25mm Overall Length 7.6″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 4.6″
Magazine 8 rounds Weight 1.9 lb





Empire of JapanAnatomy Pistol Japanese Nambu Type 14

Nambu Type 14

Kijiro Nambu’s original pistol was an eclectic mix of ideas and many have pointed out he borrowed concepts from other military models such as the Glisenti or the Mauser C96.  Unfortunately there is no proof of which designs, if any, influenced Nambu and the whole must be considered as a unique assembly.  Known in the U.S. as the “Papa Nambu,” this 8mm handgun was developed by 1904 and sold well commercially and in small numbers to Thailand, China, and the Japanese Navy (as the 4th year naval pistol).

Unfortunately the design appeared needlessly complicated and expensive for official adoption.  The Great Kanto Earthquake changed the pistol’s fate when it destroyed much of the Koishikawa factory’s machining equipment and halted production of commercial models in 1923.   Afterwards the government took the initiative to update the Nambu with an eye towards adoption.  In 1925 the Fourteenth Year Type pistol was completed and officially adopted by the empire.

The Nambu Type 14 pistol is a short recoil, locked breach semi-automatic, striker fire chambering the 8x22mm cartridge.  Recoil force from the shot drives the barrel and extension rearward while locked to the bolt.  This locking of the barrel extension to the bolt is achieved by a rocking block roughly resembling a hammer head that is attached to the extension and engages the underside of the bolt body.  As the components travel rearward an opening in the frame allows the locking block to drop slightly, releasing the bolt but stopping the barrel and extension.

Early Type 14 pistols suffered a number of problems, mostly with weak firing pins and springs.  Various updates led to an extended trigger guard, extra magazine retaining spring, stronger firing pins, and improves recoil springs.  The 8mm Namu cartridge was rather weak for such a large locking action and might have served better in a simple blow back.  Despite all of these issues there did not seem to be a push for their replacement and they served alongside the later Type 94 (perhaps a worse pistol) until the end of WWII.


Cartridge 8x22mm Overall Length 9″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 4.6″
Magazine 8 rounds Weight 2 lb





United States of AmericaAnatomy Pistol US M1911A1

Colt Model 1911A1

The 1911 hardly needs an introduction but let’s cover some basics anyway.  John Browning had been developing a series of semi-automatic pistols nearing the turn of the century.  His Model 1900 pocket pistol, manufactured by FN, had gained him international fame, but his other Model 1900, one licensed by Colt, would ultimately evolve into a legacy.  This pistol used a barrel held by two links (front and rear) to the frame.  When discharged the recoil force would drive the slide backwards, which was locked to the barrel by a series of interlocking lugs on the inside of the slide and top of the barrel.  After traveling together a short distance, the barrel links would cam the barrel downwards, out of lock with the slide which would continue to travel on its own.  This concept underwent several changes over a few models, but the Philippine-American War would ultimately decide its fate.   Troubles with the then-standard .38 Long Colt cartridge failing to adequately stop Moro guerrillas prompted the U.S. military to seek out a “man stopper” cartridge.

John Browning developed the .45 ACP cartridge (inspired by .45 Long Colt) along with a new military pistol.  Working up from his Model 1900 and 1902 locking actions, he put together what would be adopted as the Model 1911.  This single action, hammer fired, semi-automatic pistol features both an automatic grip and manual thumb safety.  The two-link system was simplified to one under the chamber, creating a tilting barrel.  The 1911 is also prized for it’s straight-pull trigger that does not rock on a pin but slides rearward with a stirrup wrapping around both sides of the magazine.  Ergonomic changes to the 1911 were consolidated in 1926 to form the Model 1911A1.  These include the shortening of the trigger, milling of recesses behind it on the frame, wider front sight, rounded mainspring housing, simplified grips, and a longer “beak” on the grip safety to prevent hammer bite.

Browning’s 1911 served as the official U.S. pistol through the Vietnam War and has continued as a non-standard pistol even today.  It was copied in numerous countries and adapted into a great many designs (two on this same page).  The core concept of a tilting barrel whose top locks to the slide is still present in a majority of modern hand guns.  It is often heralded as the most influential hand gun design in history.


Cartridge 11.43×23mm Overall Length 8.25″
Action Short Recoil Barrel Length 5″
Magazine 7 rounds Weight 2.4 lb





Republic of ChinaAnatomy Pistol Chinese Browning 1900 Clone

FN Model 1900 Copy

We’re not done with John Browning just yet.  While the 1911 was a descendent of his Colt Model 1900, this is a copy of his FN Model 1900.  This simple .32ACP blowback action, striker fired pistol represented a revolution in small arms throughout Europe.  As the first slide-operated military pistol, it set a standard for compact, small caliber pistols we’d see all the way through WWII.

As early as the 1920s Chinese arsenals began copying this iconic firearm and selling them to local warlords and soldiers.  Something of a cottage industry developed around the gun and examples can range from pretty OK to absolutely terrifyingly poor.  While 1900-derived guns from China can be found in remarkable shapes and sizes (many blended with features from the C96) the most common example is the one we have above.  A great majority of these handmade clones actually display the same serial number: 126063.  English and Belgian markings were applied to give a sense of quality to illiterate or at least non-English-speaking customers.  Unfortunately the producers couldn’t read them either so they are stamped haphazardly, often upside down or jumbled!

While not exactly reliable, these pistols did serve through the warlord years, mass nationalization, WWII, and the Chinese Civil War.  They are often completely worn out with failing springs and are definitely made from inferior steel.  We would not recommend shooting one.


Cartridge 7.65×17mm Overall Length 6.8″
Action Blowback Barrel Length 4″
Magazine 7 rounds Weight 1.4 lb



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