Old Tech – The Luger Parabellum Part 1
An airgun with a history older than almost any other
By Dennis Adler
We take a lot for granted these days with so many excellent CO2 air pistols on the market, and new models arriving every year to expand the scope of firearms history available to airgun enthusiasts, some of who might otherwise never pick up a handgun because they have no desire to own an actual cartridge-firing pistol. Others live in countries where it is not a choice, or ownership demands extensive paperwork, time and limitations to the types of guns and where and how they must be stored. We have a very centric view of gun ownership in the U.S. because we have the Constitutional right, for others who do not share that great privilege airguns are of far more significance, the only practical means to indulge, hands on, in the history and design of firearms, if for no other reason than the appreciation of the gunmaker’s craft. In the U.S., airguns are a window into a world of firearms from past and present that can be enjoyed as a hobby or recreational shooting sport; in other nations it is more than a window, it is a door that opens into a world of firearms history that can otherwise only be seen (as in a museum) or read about. Air pistols become a tangible object one can experience first hand (or second hand if you use a two-handed hold). That is one reason (actually the reason) there are so many more airguns and model variations abroad than reach our shores, though we are getting an increasing share. But it is firearms history that I am most interested in sharing with you in this Airgun Experience because among the many excellent and authentic looking and handling air pistols available today is one of European (German) origin that is old enough to have become so collectible, that original examples in fine to excellent condition are almost out of reach for many; gun laws, government regulations and constitutions notwithstanding. It is the Luger, an arguably antiquated concept that in its time was nothing short of revolutionary.
When it comes to historic handguns as a raison d’être for investing in the tooling to manufacture a fully working, all metal reproduction designed to fire a .177 caliber steel BB, instead of a metallic cartridge, history plays a very large role in that decision. Two of the most important requisites for building a blowback action air pistol are the desirability and value of the gun it is based upon. Rarity is a factor, too, but not as important as you might think, there can be a great number of originals available (like Lugers), but if they are prohibitively expensive or have legal restrictions on ownership (such as Class II firearms) the number of originals is almost a moot point if you can’t afford one. I have a perfect example, the Borchardt, one of the most significant early semiautomatic (self loading) pistol designs in history. They are rare but every so often one will come up for sale through major auction houses like Rock Island Auction Co, and one can expect an estimate somewhere in $50,000 range. That puts the majority of firearms enthusiasts and many serious collectors out of the market, but is anyone going to make a Borchardt air pistol? Probably not, but you can get the next best thing in .177 caliber.
The man responsible for the 1893 Borchardt design was Hugo Borchardt. You might not recognize his name if you are not a gun collector, but there is hardly anyone who has not heard the name of the man who improved upon Borchardt’s pistol, Austrian born arms designer Georg Luger. The Borchardt (manufactured by Ludwig Loewe of Berlin, Germany, and Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken after 1896) became a modest success in the last years of the 19th century.
Like Borchardt, Luger worked for Ludwig Loewe (DWM), which manufactured and sold Luger’s first models. In 1900 Switzerland was the first country to adopt the new Luger as its military service pistol. The Swiss also licensed the manufacturing rights to begin building Lugers at a factory in Bern. The Swiss built around 50,000 Lugers for their military.
Georg Luger’s better idea
Luger had envisioned building a smaller and more efficient version of the Borchardt with the toggle link action having its mainspring relocated inside the grip frame. Hugo Borchardt had placed the pistol grip and magazine almost in the middle of the frame with the toggle action well behind it. Luger’s redesign allowed a much more compact pistol and somewhat simplified operation. Even so, the knee-joint-style toggle breechblock was complicated. Upon firing, the entire breech, barrel and toggle moved straight rearward on the frame rails until the toggle began to rise on a pair of cams that caused it to bend at the joint (like your leg being pulled back from a locked position to bending at the knee). Once the toggle rose to its full unlocked position, also ejecting the spent shell case, the bolt was allowed to move rearward and re-cock the striker. The toggle was then driven forward by spring tension stripping a new round from the magazine and chambering it as the toggle moved forward and back into the locked position. The only drawback to the design, other than the number of individual parts necessary for its operation and the demand for precision manufacturing and hand fitting, was the that rear sight was integral with the toggle and every time the pistol was fired the rear sight picture was lost. This made it more difficult for fast, aimed shots.
Although the Luger was “technologically” outdated before WWI (mostly by designs pioneered by John M. Browning), it remained a reliable, precision-built German sidearm. The Luger was kept in service even after being replaced as Germany’s standard military sidearm in 1940 by the innovative double action Walther P.38. The only thing these two German pistols had in common was their reliability and more powerful 9mm cartridge, which Georg Luger had developed in 1901. His earlier pistols had been chambered for a smaller 7.65x21mm round. Luger’s new cartridge, also known as the 9mm Luger and 9x19mm Parabellum, greatly outlived his pistol design for military use, with the 9mm having remained the most common semi-auto cartridge throughout the world for the past 117 years.
The first 9x19mm Luger models were manufactured in 1903, and five years later the improved P.08 model or properly, Pistole Parabellum 1908, was introduced. Named for the year of its manufacture, the P.08 (built without the grip safety as seen on earlier designs) became Germany’s first standardized semiautomatic military sidearm. The pistols were originally manufactured in Berlin by DWM. Later 9mm Luger design pistols were produced by Mauser (which acquired DWM in 1930), the Royal German Arsenal at Erfurt, and after WWI, under license by Simson & Company and Kreighoff in Suhl, Germany. In Great Britain, Vickers, Ltd. manufactured a small run for delivery to the Netherlands in 1920-21. The Luger Parabellum (specially manufactured to fire .45 ACP cartridges) was even considered by the U.S. government as a potential military sidearm, but lost out to John M. Browning’s Colt Model 1911.
The Luger design has never completely gone out of production and copies are still manufactured today. The guns are so popular that Lugers actually comprise an entire classification of collectible firearms, as well as one of the most popular Umarex Legends blowback action semiautomatic CO2 pistols.
The Umarex P.08 is offered in a matte black finish with black grips (original guns were also produced with black plastic grips, known as the “Black Widow” as well as brown plastic and checkered hardwood grips). The Umarex P.08 also comes in one of the most desirable battlefield finishes currently made, the Legends WWII series.
The Umarex models perfectly copy the original P.08 grip angle, a rakish 55-degrees, circular triggerguard and crescent-shaped trigger. The P.08 has a 4-inch external barrel length and this is optimum as 4-inch barrels are the most frequently encountered. However, Luger barrels ranged from 3-3/4 inches up to 8 inches on the Artillery Model with an adjustable graduated rear sight on the barrel, and just shy of 12 inches in length on the carbine variation.
What sets the Umarex WWII Edition apart from the standard CO2 version is that the black finish has just enough wear to lighten the edges and take the flatness out of the matte black color, which is far from the handsome blued finish on original Lugers. It also has aged brown checkered grips, which add a lot to the overall look of this air pistol.
This current WWII P.08 is the second issue of the Umarex Legends model and remains an excellent CO2 version of the original Luger Parabellum P.08. The Umarex has the correct proportions, approximate weight and balance of the 9mm pistol and is a decent shooter at 21 feet with more than acceptable accuracy considering the rear sight is integral with the moving toggle. It has a deep and wide enough V notch to center the tall ramped dovetail front sight. This air pistol is also accurate in the finer details of the trigger and trigger plate, forward and rear toggle link, which function exactly as the centerfire models, the safety lever with correct German lettering GESICHERT for safe or literally secure, and identical basic disassembly with operating take-down bolt. The grip also has the lower extension which would have been used for mounting a shoulder stock on some original P.08 and Luger variations. The self-contained CO2 BB magazine is authentic in style and is one of the easiest of all magazines to load with a large follower and a perfectly proportioned round loading port. With a capacity of 21 rounds the CO2 model definitely out shoots the original model’s 7-round capacity in 9x19mm. The airgun weighs in at 31.5 ounces with empty magazine inserted. Trigger pull on this latest test gun averaged 4 pounds, 8.4 ounces.
Saturday the 21 foot range test for velocity and accuracy.