The Luger, P.08 or Parabellum–whatever you choose to call it–could very reasonably be considered the most important automatic pistol ever. Yes, there were other autos before Georg Luger came out with his wonderful piece of machinery, but none of them had its far-reaching effect. The Luger, more than any other pistol, legitimized the concept of a reliable, handy service-caliber handgun.
Ultimately produced in scores of variations, the Luger was the first auto pistol to be taken seriously as a military arm, ultimately finding its way into the hands of soldiers around the world. Millions were manufactured by a number of different makers for more than half a century.
Was it the best auto pistol ever designed? For a while maybe, but when the first serious Brownings hit the market, the Luger began to be rapidly eclipsed, technologically. Still, despite its quixotic mechanism, it was still good enough to be carried as a primary and secondary service handgun by Germany in two world wars and by others well beyond 1945.There was probably not any more prized war trophy with returning Doughboys and GIs than a Luger. It has also had a brisk commercial and police trade and is a darling of firearms collectors.
Before the Luger, there was the Borchardt. German-born inventor Hugo Borchardt, who became a naturalized American citizen in his teens, returned to his native country, and in collaboration with manufacturer Lugwig Loewe, introduced his revolutionary, if somewhat ungainly, 7.6mm auto pistol in 1893. It was of an unusual design, but functioned well enough and had some features that showed real promise—most especially a knee-joint-style toggle breechblock arrangement.
Austrian Georg J. Luger saw real promise in the Borchardt, borrowed the toggle arrangement and simplified the awkward pistol into a streamlined, reliable, compact unit. Prototypes of this handsome locked-breech pistol were introduced in 1898. Originally chambered in 7.65x21mm, in 1901 Luger modified his 7.65mm round into a new caliber, the 9x19mm Parabellum—a load that would ultimately become one of the greatest handgun cartridges of all time, and one that is still NATO standard.
Interestingly enough, for a pistol so associated with Germany, and one that was initially manufactured by Berlin’s Deutche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken, it took a time for the Luger to catch on in that country. Initial tests were carried on by the Swiss who became the first nation to adopt the Luger in 1900, at the same time becoming the first major power to take an automatic pistol into its system as its primary issue sidearm.
In 1904, a number of Lugers in 9mm were accepted by the German Navy and then four years later, the Army picked it up, officially designating it Pistole 08 or “P.08.” Ultimately, this charismatic auto would find its way into the arsenals of many different countries, notably including, but not limited to, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, Luxembourg, Mexico, Norway, Persia, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Turkey.
It was also tested by the U.S. Government during its series of automatic pistol trials, special .45 ACP caliber versions of the gun even being made at one point. Too, the gun enjoyed some popularity with American civilians, models stamped with an American eagle, experiencing a limited vogue.
Lugers were made with different barrel lengths, sights and a varying number of accessories—everything from shoulder stocks to 32-round drum magazines. A limited number were even built as carbines—this being a favorite configuration of German Kaiser Wilhelm II who found it handy to shoot from the shoulder one-handed as he suffered from a deformed left arm.
Still, the four-inch-barreled basic service model was the one manufactured in the greatest quantities and the style that is most likely to be encountered today. While many of the more exotic versions of the Parabellum (the name for the pistol favored over “Luger” in most places, the latter originally being used by American importer A.F. Stoeger) are highly sought after and quite pricey. Some of the more common models, in good condition, are still fun shooters. If it were decreed only one handgun could be given the name “classic,” it would most surely be the Luger.