Classic is an overused and seldom defined term. What exactly is a “classic” handgun? Ask ten people and you’ll probably get ten different answers, and ten different lists of “classic” guns. However, there are a small number of handguns which I’m fairly confident would appear on most people’s list, including the one I want to talk about here: The Walther PPK. Although it was introduced almost eighty-five years ago, the PPK is still available, virtually unchanged from its original form. That in itself is testament to good basic design, but the PPK is also perfectly sized, a decent shooter and of course is has an association with a certain British secret agent…
The pocket pistol (what we’d now call a compact or sub-compact design) wasn’t a new idea in the 1920s. A number of manufacturers including Colt, Mauser and Steyr all offered small, easily concealed semi-auto pistols. However, most were of a hammerless design and were intended to be carried with a round in the chamber. Manual safeties were provided, often of the cross-bolt type, but accidental discharges due to light, single action triggers were frighteningly common. Revolvers, which required a long, double action trigger pull were generally safer, but less popular for concealed carry due to their greater bulk. What the market wanted was a compact semi-auto pistol which incorporated a revolver style double-action trigger.
Fritz Walther, the eldest son of founder Carl had persuaded his father to enter the pistol market in 1908. Recognising the need for a safer pocket pistol, in 1924 Fritz registered a German patent for a “self-loading pistol with magazine and revolver self-cocking lock and double action trigger“. Development continued until 1929 when the Walther PP (Polizei-Pistole) was released. The PP was a mid-sized, blowback operated design with an external hammer and double and single action trigger. Additional safety elements included a manual safety which also locked the trigger and hammer, a de-cocker and a loaded chamber indicator. Another notable feature was the takedown system – rather than using a separate lever or catch, the trigger guard of the PP was hinged at the rear. Rotating the trigger guard down and letting it rest against the frame allowed the slide to be removed. Reliability, safety and a reasonable price ensured that the PP immediately became popular both as a police handgun in Germany and as a civilian weapon in that country and elsewhere.
The Walther PP
However, though it was smaller than a full-size military pistol, the PP was still relatively large and was mainly used as a sidearm by uniformed police. Walther almost immediately began work on a more compact version suitable for use by undercover and plain-clothes officers. In 1931, the Walther PPK was released. Visually and mechanically similar to the PP, the PPK featured a shorter barrel and grip and a smaller capacity magazine, making it the perfect concealed carry weapon. Incidentally, the “K” in PPK stands for Kriminalmodell (Detective model) and not Kurtz (Short) as is sometimes claimed.
Early Walther PPK produced in Zella-Mehlis
The PPK was an instant success, being quickly adopted by police and civilian users in Germany and elsewhere. Both the PP and PPK also became very popular as German officer’s sidearms. In this period, German army and navy officers were given an allowance to select and purchase their own pistols, and very large numbers chose the small and light Walther pistols and not, as Hollywood would have us believe, the larger and heavier Luger.
Why was the PPK so popular? The de-cocker and double action trigger certainly made it less prone to accidental discharge than some other pocket pistols and it was a reliable and effective shooter. It was also relatively cheap, being one of the first commercially produced handguns to use pressed steel parts. But most of all it was the perfect size. Very small handguns are difficult to grip and fire accurately. The PPK was just big enough to provide a good and comfortable grip while being small and light enough for concealed carry. Even more than the PP, the PPK was an instant commercial success.
Post-war Walther PPK from Ulm, with “pinky rest” magazine extension
Initially, the PPK was manufactured at the Walther plant at Zella-Mehlis in Thuringia, Germany. Following World War Two the plant was relocated to Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, though for a number of years firearm manufacture was forbidden by the Allied powers. As a result, in 1952 Walther licensed production of PPK series pistols to Manufacure de Machines du Haut-Rhine, a French engineering company better known as Manurhin. Manurhin produced the PPK from 1952 until 1986, though their licensed versions continued to feature Walther markings. Production of the PPK at the new Walther plant in Ulm finally resumed in 1955, though early models utilised many parts manufactured by Manurhin. It wasn’t until 1986 that full manufacturing and production of the PPK was undertaken in Ulm and this continued until 1999. The only significant new version produced during the post-war period was the PPK/L, featuring a lightweight dural frame.
Manurhin Walther PPK
In 1978, Walther also granted a manufacturing license to US company Ranger Manufacturing to produce both the PPK and the new PPK/S. These versions were distributed in the US by Interarms. The PPK/S was produced in response to the US Gun Control Act of 1968 which set minimum sizes and weights for imported handguns. The PPK was simply too small to comply with these new requirements, and the slightly larger PPK/S was produced by combining the slide and barrel of the PPK with the frame and grip of the original PP. From 2002 Smith & Wesson began production of a licensed version of the PPK/S in the US. S&W are now the only producers of the PPK and the pistol remains part of their current range.
Interarms stainless steel Walther PPK/S
The PPK was produced in several calibres. The majority were 7.65mm, though a 6.35mm version was produced in relatively small numbers. The PPK was also available chambered for the .22LR round, principally to provide a police practice and training weapon which used much less expensive .22 rimfire ammunition. The PPK was also chambered for the 9mm short (9x17mm, also known as the .380 ACP) cartridge, but this was considered the limit for the strength of the slide, and no versions were produced using the more powerful 9mm Parabellum (9x19mm) cartridge.
I don’t normally consider the appearance of a pistol separately. After all, a handgun is a functional piece of equipment which is principally designed to operate efficiently rather than to look good. However, there is something about the appearance of the PPK that I can’t entirely explain but which makes this pistol look as fresh now as it did in 1931. As is the way of things, I started to wonder why that might be…
The design of any item is inevitably influenced by events in the wider world. The Walther PP and PPK were designed at a time of political change and social turmoil in Germany. However, this period was also notable for the influence of the German Bauhaus art movement. Started in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius, Bauhaus took the concepts and philosophy of high art and translated them into the industrial production of everyday objects. Rejecting the ornate and ostentatious Art Nouveau which had gone before, Bauhaus stressed simplicity, functionality, unity and ease of use and manufacture. A Bauhaus artist had to be not just creative in an abstract sense, but also capable of translating this into functional and useful manufactured objects. Though it’s notable that many of the things created by Bauhaus artists also have a timeless and elegant aesthetic that makes them as visually appealing as they are functional.
“It is harder to design a first rate chair than to paint a second rate painting – and much more useful.”
Walter Gropius, the Bahaus Manifesto
Take a look at this “cesca” chair above, designed by Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer, a leading member of the Bauhaus movement. Look familiar? The chances are that if you visit any modern office or public space, you’ll see something very similar to this 1928 creation. Why has this design lasted so long? I suspect the answer is because it’s comfortable, practicable and simple to manufacture and yet it somehow manages to appear contemporary more than eighty years after it first appeared.
Tokarev TT-33 (top), Walther PPK (centre), Enfield Number 2 (bottom)
I haven’t found any evidence that the engineers at Walther who created the PPK were directly influenced by Gropius or the philosophy of Bauhaus. But by the late 1920 the ideas inherent in the movement, that industrial production could and should generate objects which had artistic value, were prevalent in Germany and elsewhere. Take a look again at the PPK and consider the Bauhaus ideals of simplicity, unity and ease of use and manufacture within a visually pleasing whole. Is the PPK a Bauhaus pistol? I certainly think so. Also, try comparing the PPK to a couple of roughly contemporary handguns – the British Enfield Number 2 revolver and the Russian Tokarev TT-33 for example. Both were perfectly adequate handguns, but unlike the PPK both now look very dated and neither could be mistaken for a modern design. Somehow the PPK looks as good now as it did in 1931, which suggests a design which, in some indefinable way is “right“. Whether or not its designers were consciously influenced by Bauhaus, I believe that the PPK embodies the ethos of the movement perfectly.
James Bond and the PPK
However, one of the reasons the PPK is so well known has nothing to do with its abilities, design or appearance. The James Bond novels of Ian Fleming were hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Strangely however, for the first five novels Fleming provided his hero with a Beretta 418 in .25 calibre. Which is an ineffectual and rather rubbish gun for such a tough hero.
Beretta 418. James Bond gun? Really?
In 1957 while he was writing the sixth novel, Fleming received a letter from Bond fan and firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd who pointed out that the Beretta was “a lady’s gun – and not a very nice lady at that!” Boothroyd suggested that it would be much more appropriate to provide Bond with a Walther PPK in 7.65mm calibre. Fleming agreed and Boothroyd went on to provide advice about firearms for the following Bond novels. In recognition, a new character was introduced in Dr No; – Major Boothroyd, the MI6 armourer known as “Q” who is described as “the greatest small-arms expert in the world”.
When Albert “Cubby” Broccoli came to make the first movie based on a Bond novel in 1962, the screenplay was based on Dr No, and so the movie Bond (then played by Sean Connery) exchanged his Beretta for a PPK from the very start. The PPK continued to be 007’s screen sidearm for sixteen more films and 35 years, until in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997 it was swapped for a Walther P99. However, with the advent of Skyfall in 2012, the third film starring Daniel Craig as Bond, the character has once again reverted to using a PPK, albeit modified with a palmprint recognition system. The Bond connection gives the PPK additional cachet, and ensures that it is recognised by people who otherwise know very little about firearms.
Walther PPK Replicas
Given the enduring appeal of the original plus the James Bond connection, there have been surprisingly few decent replica air pistols based on the PPK. Ignoring spring powered replicas, which are pretty dire, I’m aware of just two: The Umarex PPK/S in 4.5mm and the Umarex/Maruzen PPK in 6mm.
The Umarex Walther PPK/S
The Umarex CO2 powered 4.5mm version was introduced back in 1999 and was the first Umarex blowback pistol. In some ways it’s a great replica – all metal, heavy with great fit and finish and strong and snappy blowback. Unfortunately in other ways it’s not so good. I don’t care for the moulded-in-place slide-mounted safety, or the actual safety which is a moving lever at the front of the right grip (though it’s similar to the safety fitted to some prototype PPKs). It’s also not terribly accurate compared to more modern BB shooters. However, the main issues for me are when I first bought one were the large and visible CO2 tightening tab at the base of the grip and the shape of the grip itself, which has been stretched to accommodate the CO2 cartridge. The tab has been replaced with a less obtrusive recessed allen screw, but there’s nothing you can do about the lengthened grip which, to me at least, completely loses the pleasingly squat profile of the original. However, this is overall a decent PPK/S replica and it does have the virtue of being readily available and relatively cheap.
The Maruzen Walther PPK
The 6mm Walther PPK from Japanese manufacturer Maruzen is a much better visual and functional replica (it’s also licensed by Umarex, but for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to it as the Maruzen PPK here). It’s a gas powered blowback replica and the slide mounted safety, magazine release and takedown all work as they do on the original. It incorporates Walther markings and this version accurately replicates the short, squat grip of the original. Even the magazine incorporates a pinky rest, just like the original. The metal finish version looks particularly good and in 2011 a 125th Anniversary edition (celebrating 125 years of Walther) was released. However, this is an all plastic replica which is very light (around 375g) and it shoots only in the 220-240fps range, so it isn’t particularly powerful. It can also be very difficult to find new, and production seems to be sporadic.
Shooters Design (a company specialising in aftermarket parts for airsoft guns) produce a full metal kit for the Maruzen PPK, which replaces the plastic slide and frame with metal versions, though a heavyweight slide return spring is also required. I’m not sure if this kit is still in production and it is certainly hard to find. The Maruzen PPK has good functionality and looks good, but is too light to be an entirely convincing replica and it isn’t a particularly great shooter out of the box. Upgrading by using the Shooters Design kit is said to improve look, feel and function, but this is also a pretty expensive option. You can expect to pay around £125 ($200) for the basic pistol and over £200 ($325) for the upgrade kit, if you can find one. I have been looking for a Maruzen PPK and an upgrade kit for some time, and if anyone has either one they’d be willing to donate or sell for review, I’d be very happy to hear about it!
Whether you regard it as a piece of Bauhaus art, an industrial artefact from a significant historical era, a James Bond movie prop or simply a compact and pointable handgun, the Walther PPK doesn’t disappoint. It’s small, light, looks great, fits most hands and shoots better than its small size and relatively antiquated design would suggest. It’s no accident that in 2003, when Walther engineers set out to create a new compact pistol (the PPS), they used the weight and dimensions of the PPK as a guide to what looked and felt right. If ever a handgun deserved the “classic” label, it’s the Walther PPK.
It’s disappointing that the PPK is under-represented in the replica world. The Umarex and Maruzen versions both have good points, but neither is entirely satisfactory. We’re still waiting for a weighty PPK replica which is also a decent shooter and mirrors the functionality and distinctive look of the original.
The Walther PPK (on the Walther Arms website)
Shooters Design kit for the Maruzen PPK (on the redwolf airsoft site, but don’t get too excited because it’s currently out of stock)