One of the things Umarex did was make Walther a top-notch competitive air rifle maker again, but thatâ€™s a story for another time. Here weâ€™re concerned with handguns.
When Umarex took over, the main bigbore pistol Walther had in the catalog was the P88. A high-cap 9mm, it was an entirely useful tool, but it was not something to be loved. It was heavy and bulky, and the trigger was not what American shooters wanted. The new team at Walther set about designing a replacement for the P88, and in 1997 the P99 was unveiled. While it was a great step forward, the feedback Walther received from we American shooters was pretty much the same: We didnâ€™t like that trigger either. While one set of designers and engineers went to work on the trigger, the rest went to work on the exterior. In addition to giving the slide cleaner lines and a profusion of cocking serrations, they also improved the already good ergonomics of the grip.
The frame is your basic nearly indestructible polymer (and with a degree in chemistry, I can tell you that chemists obsess over things like abrasion resistance, solvent resistance and the ability to shrug off UV rays), while its surface has a very interesting texture applied. It is composed of a random pattern of raised crescents and dots. They do not rise high enough above the surface to be obtrusive, but when you grasp the frame, your hand gets locked to the surface of the polymer. On the back of the frame are replaceable backstraps, so you can modify the shape to your hand. Iâ€™m sure that you could even take a spare backstrap and experiment it to scrap, looking for the perfect shape for your hand. And when done, you can just get another one or two to replace it.
The magazines for the PPQ are those of the P99. Hey, theyâ€™re reliable, capacious and durable, and there are plenty of them to be had, so why go reinventing the wheel?
Little did I know, standing at the SHOT Show in Vegas this January looking at the two-story-tall banner with a photo of the PPQ on it, that Iâ€™d soon be visiting the plant where they were made.
In the interests of giving G&A readers the lowdown on this pistol, I ran the gauntlet of airport gropers and undertook the origami-like folding necessary to fit myself into airline seats for the trip to Ulm. There I visited the Walther plant, and my surprise upon walking in to the plant was twofold. One, I did not need the hearing protection I always carry along when visiting production facilities. The plant was not a library, but the machines were quiet enough that I did not need to shout to be heard. And the plant was so spacious, clean and well lit that they had potted trees growing in the aisles. No dark, smelly, cavernous and drafty place, the Walther plant is a space youâ€™d want to work in even if you werenâ€™t into guns. But the guys and gals working there are into guns.
I saw many interesting things on the trip, some of which I canâ€™t tell you. Hey, Walther went to a lot of trouble to develop some of the tricks it uses to produce exemplary pistols. Why should I give its competitors a leg up? A few things I saw that I can tell you: Each CNC machine operator has a full set of gauges, and the blueprints posted, to make the part heâ€™s working on. He doesnâ€™t need to wait for an inspector to tell him afterward that his parts are in spec. He knows before he sends them on to the next guy.
One of the attributes of computer-controlled machining is that you can make parts to exacting precision and not have to hand-fit them. Well, Walther takes that a step further. I watched one of the assemblers, sitting at his bench with a bin of slides on one side and a bin of barrels on the other. He would snatch out a slide, grab a barrel and check for fit. If he didnâ€™t like the way it would pop in and out of battery, heâ€™d pull it out of the slide and set it on his bench. (He was careful to set barrels down ranked according to fits.) Heâ€™d try another, or a barrel off the bench, until he had one fitting the way he liked. Then heâ€™d put that assembled slide and barrel on a frame and check striker movement with a special gauge. After adjusting things, heâ€™d then cycle and dry-fire it until it felt â€śproper.â€ť Then, and only then, would it go into the â€śdoneâ€ť rack.
With a PPQ you get the benefits of old-school and the digital age combinedâ€”computer-machining and hand-fitting.
The slide, frame and barrel are all serial-numbered. How can he build a PPQ, then? Simple: The serial number isnâ€™t applied until after everything has gone together. You see, the steelâ€™s so hard, it would rapidly destroy any marking dies, so the markings all have to be laser-cut. The proofhouse of Ulm is cool with that, and thereâ€™s a full-time inspector in the Walther plant to keep an eye on things. Tradition cannot be denied, however, and the polymer frame of each pistol is stamped with the appropriate proofmark.
In addition to being inspected and proof-fired, each Walther pistol is test-fired for accuracy and zero, and each target is packed with its pistol.
After viewing the plant and seeing the pistols being made, I then had some time to spend on the indoor range using a computer-scored targeting system the cost of which I really didnâ€™t want to inquire about. (If it wasnâ€™t ferociously expensive, Iâ€™d probably want one for Gun Abuse Central.)
All fun times come to an end, and with a sigh I had to leave Bavaria and head home to wait for the arrival of the test PPQs being sent to me. When they did arrive, I had a thought and asked the Walther plant when they had been made. In an interesting twist, they had been assembled the very day I was standing there in Vegas, admiring the huge Walther poster. Funny how life works. I was curious to see if the ones sent to me were as good as the ones I had seen being builtâ€”and that Iâ€™d firedâ€”in Ulm. In a word, yes.
The big change Walther made, the one you are most likely to notice right away, is the trigger. Oh, youâ€™ll most likely get a warm, fuzzy feeling when you pick it up, as the frame shape has been tested, sculpted, altered and adjusted to be as comfortable as Walther can make it. But the trigger is the big thing. You see, unlike previous Walthers, the PPQ has a relatively light (just under five pounds), crisp trigger with a very short reset.
Now, Iâ€™ve spent a whole lot of time shooting revolvers, and short reset for me is not a big deal. I suspect that, at speed, my trigger finger slaps against the inside front of the triggerguard on reset. But if you want to slow down a smidge and make precise shots, a short reset is very advantageous.
Combine a short reset with a light, crisp trigger; package it inside a hand-filling frame that doesnâ€™t slip; add a hand-fitted barrel; and you get a pistol thatâ€™s easy to shoot. The weight is nice, while not being excessive. After all, a 9mm pistol that holds 15+1 and tips the scales at just under 25 ounces isnâ€™t exactly an anvil. Yet it is soft in recoil. I had to dip into the ammo locker and come up with some +P+ before I felt I was actually workingâ€”recoil was that soft.
The PPQ is also available in .40 S&W for those who feel that the 9mm isnâ€™t manly enough. There youâ€™ll be able to find some ammo that will smack your hands when you touch them off, but theyâ€™ll still feel softer in the PPQ than they will in a whole host of other pistols.
Accuracy is everything youâ€™d want in a high-cap 9mm. The magazines are solid, dependable andâ€”since theyâ€™re the same ones used in the P99â€”easy to find. Changing the backstraps is easy, as is disassembly. The backstraps not only change the shape and size of the frame, they have a slot at the back. Combined with the retention pin, the slot acts as a lanyard loop, so you can attach your sidearm to your person, if you wish.
Takedown is simple: The ridged block above the triggerguard opening is the key. Unload, dry fire, pull the block down, and the barrel, slide and recoil-spring assembly come off the front in one piece. The recoil spring is a self-contained unit, and the barrel is a cam-lug Browning drop-tilt design. And such barrels!
The PPQ barrel is so well made, I really wish there were some way to fit it to other pistols. Walther starts with a bar of steel, then machines it to a precise cylinder. It gets drilled, reamed, honed, then button-rifled. Once rifled, it goes into a CNC profiler that carves the exterior to barrel shape. Then the hood is induction hardened, the barrels are bead-blasted clean, and it gets hardened again in a nitride process that gives it an inside-and-out super-hard and corrosion-resistant finish. This means the surface is hard, and the load-bearing portions of it are heat-treated to withstand many rounds of ammo. I was gratified to see the labor that went into it and more than a bit jealous that I couldnâ€™t have something like that on other pistols.
There is only one fly in the ointment, and thatâ€™s the magazine release. The mag catch is worked by means of a pair of paddles that straddle the triggerguard. To release the magazine, you press down on either one, and through a very clever lever system, the magazine catch is withdrawn from its notch in the magazine tube. My only problem with this is that my gripâ€”decades in the makingâ€”is so high and hard on the gun that neither my thumb nor my trigger finger can easily push the paddles down. My second finger is riding up so high and tight that it refuses to allow the paddles to easily move. Sigh. This is such a great pistol, and my own hands make it difficult for me to manipulate it.
For those of you who have not built such ingrained habits, the Walther mag catch system will be easy to learn. As for me, if there were some way to get a PPQ with a mag button where my thumb expects it to be, well, Walther would already have my check.