It is fashionable in some circles to scorn the Germans in World War II for their near-chaotic firearms procurement system.
In their defense — my late father was a European-theater combat vet, and I grasp the irony of my defending the Germans — when the boss man jumps the gun and starts the war ahead of schedule, there is no time to retool to a common standard. You make what you’re already making and ship as many as you make.
That was the situation J.P. Sauer & Sohn faced in the late 1930s. Their 38H pistol, meant to be a competitive product against other makers in potential police pistol trials, was now a vital war product shipped to pretty much everyone.
The 38H is an all-steel, single-stack blowback pistol in .32 Auto (7.65mm Browning), although there are occasional rumors in collectors’ circles of samples in .380 ACP or .22LR. As an all-steel pistol, it is a bit on the portly side.
For a .32 to weigh 25 ounces is impressive, since you can find full-size 9mms and even lightweight .45s that are only 25 ounces.
The grips are Bakelite, one of the original synthetic materials, and while Bakelite was hi-tech in the 1920s and 1930s, it does not age well.
As a result, it isn’t uncommon for pistols of that era to have cracked or chipped grips. These, remarkably, are intact. The sights are not tiny, but they certainly are not modern easy-to-see sights. They are useable, however.
The controls are diabolical in their Teutonic inventiveness. First, the firing system is a DA/SA design, with the first shot double action, and then single action after that. However, the decocking lever on the side of the frame is also the cocking lever.
The “H” in the model designation indicates that it has an internal hammer; it isn’t a striker-fired pistol. If the hammer is cocked, you can decock it with the lever. You can then either fire the first shot DA, or you can use the lever again to cock the hammer.
The top of the slide, between the sights, is matted to reduce glare. The back of the slide has a cocking indicator, so you can tell if the hammer is cocked. But you can also tell from the position of the trigger. If the hammer is down, the trigger is forward in the DA position. If the hammer is cocked, the trigger is back in the SA position.
Plus, there’s a safety on the slide, so you can have it on safe or not, and you can fire your first shot four different ways. There’s also a magazine disconnector, so you practically have to consult the owner’s manual each time you shoot it.
The magazine disconnector is a small stud affixed to the side of the magazine tube, and it does not add to the trigger linkage but blocks it. This (thankfully) means the trigger pull is not affected by the magazine disconnector. The magazine is steel, single-stack, holds eight rounds and does not lock the slide open when empty.
The trigger pull is interesting. The DA is smooth and even but so heavy it maxed out my Lyman trigger pull gauge. So, it’s something greater than 12 pounds but still smooth and even.
The single-action trigger pull has a slight hitch to it, but not much, and it acts almost as a two-stage trigger pull. Once you have the trigger prepped, the hitch taken up, it is surprisingly clean and crisp for a wartime product.
I acquired this pistol. It came with two magazines, which was the way they were made and shipped.
Sauer shipped pistols where it was instructed to and did not produce specific serial number blocks for this or that organization. If you have a 38H that is unit or police marked, that was done after it left the factory.
The holster that this pistol was issued in did not make it to me, and one of these days I’ll find a suitable replacement. Of the two magazines, one looks like someone spent an afternoon adjusting its feed lips with a pair of pliers.
However, both feed full metal jackets (FMJ) just fine. The adjusted one is not at all a fan of Hornady XTP. But in 1938, when the 38H started coming out of Suhl, the idea of a hollowpoint bullet in a .32 Auto was laughable. (And in Germany then, probably illegal.)
Shooting an all-steel .32 pistol should be an easy task. However, the slide is relatively light, and the snappiness of the slide velocity makes recoil a bit more than expected. Also, the grips were designed for a time when pistols were fired one handed.
There’s a corner on the left panel, formed by two curves and the flat, which wedges directly into my hand at the base of the thumb. To shoot it comfortably, I have to keep both thumbs pointed pretty much straight up.
I can’t speak to all of them, but the performance of this particular 38H is a real eye-opener. The first time I shot it, I had a loose bag of .32 Auto reloads, a 71-grain FMJ over 2.2 grains of WW-231. It’s not a magnum load, and it seemed as if I could not miss.
At the time, I was in the midst of an acquisition run. I spent a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s snapping up every martially-marked pocket pistol that came by, and none of the .32s shot as well as this one.
At the time, we had full-size USPSA silhouettes made of steel. I’d stand one up at 50 yards and bet I could put every shot from a magazine, eight rounds, on the steel. I never lost a bet.
In the testing for this column, all the FMJ ammo worked 100 percent from both magazines, and the 38H was pouty only with the XTP in the tuned magazine.
Disassembly is a snap. Unload the 38H. Inside the triggerguard is a two-edged tab. Pull it down. Now pull the slide back, tip the rear up and ease it off the frame. The recoil spring is around the barrel. Scrub and degrease, lube, reassemble and then you’re done.
The first models had all the trimmings: the safety, the decocker, the J.P. Sauer & Sohn markings. As the war progressed, Sauer simplified the markings, stopped polishing out the toolmarks and deleted the safety.
Would a pistol such as the 38H be greeted with much enthusiasm today? Not really. By today’s standards, it is too heavy, it doesn’t hold enough of what’s considered an inconsequential cartridge, and the quality of the build would make it far too high-priced for today’s consumer.