In 1886, about the same time U.S. President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty, a 28-year-old German army veteran started a workshop in his parents’ home. His name was Carl Walther.
With simple hand tools, a vise, a small forge, and a foot-pedal lathe, Walther began making Schützen sporting rifles with falling-block actions based off the British Martini system.
He soon found success in this niche and expanded his production to hunting rifles, eventually hiring an apprentice and a journeyman to help him with his work.
“It is easy to see that the roots of the Walther Company began with the extraordinary creativity of its founders,” wrote Wulf-Heinz Pflaumer, editor of “Walther: A German Success Story.”
Creativity was evidently a Walther family trait, as Carl was eventually assisted by all five of his sons: Fritz, Georg, Willy, Erich and Carl.
In 1903, the prosperous business could no longer run out of the small house in which Walther had started 17 years earlier. The company soon found a new home in a three-story addition to the original building.
The new factory also came with diesel-fueled machinery to power the lathes that had run under human strength for nearly two decades.
Five years into its new residency, Walther saw its first major market expansion since deciding to make hunting rifles more than 20 years earlier.
From Rifles to Handguns
Carl Walther’s oldest son, Fritz, had returned to his small hometown of Katzenbuckel after spending two years in the burgeoning metropolis of Berlin. It was there that Fritz had seen an exploding demand for pocket pistols, especially those modeled after one of John Browning’s earliest designs: the FN Model 1910.
Fritz knew his father’s company was perfectly poised to take advantage of this new market, having just recently hired 15 journeymen to increase production. On Aug. 8, 1909, he submitted a patent request for a “blow-back weapon with a fixed barrel.” It would eventually become the Model 1, Walther’s first pistol.
Production began on the Model 1 in the summer of 1911. Like the patent described, it was a blow-back-actuated handgun chambered in .25 ACP. Magazine capacity was a total of 6 rounds, and the gun included a push-button safety just behind the left grip panel.
The Walther Model 1 was popular with civilians in Austria-Hungary, where the turbulent political climate in the run-up to World War I led people to seek out personal protection options.
The First World War
The Model 1 evolved throughout the second decade of the 20th century as Germany and other nations plunged into the miserable depths of World War I.
The horrors of war did not bypass the Walther family. Two of Carl Walther’s sons, Georg and Willy, were conscripted into the Kaiser’s army and were soon embroiled in the fight.
Christmas 1914 was a somber affair in the Walther home as news returned from the Eastern Front. Carl’s middle son, Willy, had been mortally wounded in the Battle of Lodz and died on Christmas Eve.
The news of his son’s death dragged Carl Walther, already in poor health, into the depths of despair. Seven months later, on July 9, 1915, Carl Walther died, leaving the factory in the hands of his eldest son Fritz.
The war drove Fritz to continue improvements on Walther’s signature pistol, eventually increasing it in size and caliber. Further revisions continued to push the introduction of newer models, ending with the Model 9 in 1921.
World War I had ruined Germany, though, and Allied demands for reparations soon pushed monetary inflation to extraordinary levels. German citizens found themselves unable to afford basic staples, let alone rifles and pistols. By November 1923, one American dollar was worth more than 4.2 trillion German marks.
Numerous German gun manufacturers crumbled. Walther’s firearms department suffered, but the company managed to survive by making a critical product for German businesses: adding machines.
Fritz Walther’s mind still focused heavily on the firearms market, however, and he soon realized that the company would have to develop a new kind of handgun to rise above the crowded marketplace of pocket pistols. His answer? The Walther Police Pistol, or PP.
The PP and its later version, the Police Pistol Kriminal (PPK), incorporated several unique features. First, it had a double-action trigger with a self-cocking hammer. This was later supplemented with a push-button safety and a decocking lever. The pistol was offered in .22LR, 6.35mm, 9mm Short and 7.65mm.
These small-caliber pocket pistols carried Walther through the turbulent 1920s, but Fritz Walther still found difficulty in making a reliable full-size pistol in the popular 9×19 Parabellum.
In 1931, he got his chance. The German army requested a replacement for the expensive and complicated P.08 Luger pistol. The new design had to be less expensive to manufacture, have fewer parts, be resilient and use a simpler design.
No stipulation was made on caliber, but Walther knew that only a 9mm design would be successful. Eventually, after several army requests and in-house revisions, the P.38 was born.
The Second World War
The first army order requested 800 P.38 pistols for testing on April 1, 1939. Five months later, the Wermacht crossed the Polish border, beginning the World War II.
Wartime production at Walther consisted wholly of army orders, which the company struggled to fulfill. In April 1940, the German Wermacht ordered 410,600 P.38s, in addition to standing orders for thousands of PPs and PPKs for the Luftwaffe and other German units.
Despite the difficulties, Walther hit its target production amount of 10,000 pistols per month in April 1941. As the war grew in scope, further requests necessitated that Walther outsource production to other factories, including Mauser. By war’s end, more than 1.2 million Walther P.38s had been produced.
However, at the end of 1944, it became clear that Germany was fighting a losing battle. Albert Speer, appointed by Hitler to oversee military output, constantly badgered the company about streamlining its production process.
Consequently, pistol finishes grew rougher, wood grips changed to plastic, and smoothly machined surfaces began showing up with tool marks. Steel shortages necessitated the use of aluminum frames, which were first painted black but ultimately shipped out unfinished. Finally, the inevitable happened.
On April 3, 1945, an element of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army rolled into Walther’s hometown of Zella-Mehlis and demanded the surrender of the village and the factory. The mayor and the three Walther brothers agreed.
The war’s end meant the cessation of production at Walther’s factory in the historic gun-manufacturing town of Zella-Mehlis. Additionally, a condition of the surrender to Allied forces was that private citizens had to surrender their personal arms. Fritz Walther watched somberly as American troops ransacked his home and office for guns, carrying off precious examples of Walther’s history. Ironically, it was the Americans who would soon prove to be saviors of the company.
After the war’s end, Zella-Mehlis fell in the Soviet zone of occupation. Americans were reluctant to let small arms designers, scientists and other important individuals from the former Nazi regime fall into the hands of the Soviets.
On July 28, 1945, two GIs rolled up to the Walther home. They gave the family one hour to pack their belongings and then set out for an unknown destination. Shortly after the Americans departed, explosions thundered through Zella-Mehlis as occupying Soviet forces demolished what was left of the Walther factory. The future of the company hung on the plans of an emaciated Fritz Walther, who jostled with his wife and three children in the back of an American truck.
As part of its 130th anniversary celebration, Walther Arms has commissioned a two-volume set detailing its history, from Carl Walther’s humble beginnings in 1886 to the new Walther PPQ M2 released in 2012.
Chapters include “Attaining a World-Class Image: Walther Weapons and the Movie World,” highlighting Walther’s rise in popularity from James Bond and his beloved PPK; “From Hededheim to Ulm: A New Beginning in the New Hometown,” covering Walther’s rise from the ashes of World War II; and “A New Captain for the Ship: Full Speed Ahead,” illustrating the development of the P99 and Walther’s relationship with air-gun manufacturer Umarex.
To purchase Walther’s book set, visit the company’s online store or search your local book retailer.
Guns & Ammo is also hosting an exclusive giveaway of Walther’s two-volume history. Click here to enter.