Retrospect Series Part 1 – Walther CP 88
The first multi-shot, semi-auto pellet pistol
By Dennis Adler
Before 1996, the idea of a multi-shot pellet pistol, that was not a revolver, was just that, an idea. In Germany, one of the world’s leading firearms manufacturers, Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen, and Umarex Sportwaffen GmbH, began developing a new type of air pistol with a design based on the 9mm semiautomatic Walther P88.
From the late 1980s until the early 2000s, the P 88 was a well-liked 9mm military and law enforcement pistol in Europe (manufactured in various models from 1988 until 2003) but it eventually found its greatest fame among small arms enthusiasts and competition shooters. They found the gun’s sturdy construction, adjustable sights, and accuracy a perfect combination for the target range. It was also an ideal choice for the Umarex Walther project because the P 88 used an alloy frame. One feature that had made the gun a choice for law enforcement was its 15-round capacity double stack magazine. That feature, however, could not be adapted to the air pistol since the design would need to use the grip frame to house a 12 gram CO2 cartridge and part of the CO2 delivery mechanism.
As a 9mm pistol, the P 88 had been one of the top ranked semi-autos in Germany for law enforcement, but it was an expensive handgun to manufacture, which had a limiting effect on its overall value for law enforcement. To make it more affordable, the original version, built from 1987 to 1993, was replaced by the slightly smaller and less expensive P 88 Compact. To lower manufacturing costs, minor changes to the pistol’s design were implemented by doing away with the original ambidextrous decocker and slide releases, which were simplified to a conventional ambidextrous safety and single slide release. Other internal and production modifications were made and the P88 was renamed P88 Compact. Walther itself claimed it was not the same gun, but was better suited to law enforcement. For police, the original P 88 had been almost too good of a handgun, yet it had provided every feature someone carrying a semiautomatic pistol could possibly want.
Built on a lightweight, precision alloy frame with a 31.5 ounce carry weight, the original P 88 offered fully ambidextrous operation making it suitable for right and left-handed users, a DA/SA trigger, the decocker, and, more uncommon for a police pistol, adjustable sights. Overall, as a law enforcement gun it was closer to a target pistol, and in fact, two target pistol versions of the recoil-operated, locked-breech, semi-automatic 9mm were produced. One was the P 88 Competition with an SAO (single action only) trigger, standard length 4-inch barrel (the P 88 Compact had a shorter 3.93 inch barrel), and a very limited production P 88 Champion model fitted with a 6-inch competition barrel and SAO trigger. Discontinued in 1992, today you’ll pay thousands for a mint condition P88 Champion. And this is the gun that would become the basis for the 1996 Walther CP 88.
P 88 Champion on Air
Like the original 9mm semi-autos, there were (are) two versions, the Umarex Walther CP88 Competition, with the 6-inch Champion barrel length and shroud, and the CP 88 with standard 4-inch barrel, but it is the Competition version that is the more appealing of the two 4.5mm pellet-firing models. At one time during the CP 88’s production run there were also nickel plated model of the 4- and 6-inch guns, which are still the best looking of the models offered. If you were lucky enough to purchase one, it is now something of a collectible itself commanding a little more money on the secondary market than the black oxide finish versions.
The example pictured is the CP 88 Competition model fitted with the factory optional hardwood checkered grips in place of the standard hard plastic grips. It’s a worthwhile upgrade both for looks and handling. But the CP 88 is more than just a good looking version of a legendary 9mm Walther semi-auto, the Competition model is also an impressive and reasonably affordable 4.5mm target pistol.
The CO2 system precluded the use of a magazine in the grip frame, another idea that was, at the time, just an idea, and thus to create an authentic looking air pistol version of the P 88, another means of loading pellets had to be found. It was already established that the new airgun would be pellet-firing and have a rifled barrel. To have the gun fire multiple shots Umarex adapted a revolver approach, only the cylinder would be a small, cast alloy rotary magazine operated internally like a revolver, with each pull of the DA trigger rotating the magazine to the next chamber. This could also be accomplished for more precision single action shots by manually cocking the hammer, again, just like a revolver; a revolver dressed as a very handsome semi-auto, and the first of many such designs to come from Umarex.
The P 88’s touted 15+1 round (chambered) capacity in 9mm was reduced by half to 8 rounds of 4.5mm pellets carried in the CP 88’s rotary magazine. Loading was another ingenious repurposing of an authentic feature copied from the centerfire model, with the pellet magazine loaded at the breech by depressing the disassembly lever, which releases the forward portion of the slide containing the barrel, and allowing it to move forward on the frame exposing the loading chamber. Once the rotary magazine was inserted, pushing the slide back to the closed position made the gun ready to shoot.
With magazine rotation operated by pulling the trigger (or cocking the hammer) all of the CO2 charge for each shot was dedicated to the pellet. The advent of blowback action and need to divide the CO2 charge to perform two separate tasks was still a ways off. With only one job to do, the CO2 could send 4.5mm lead pellets downrange at an average velocity of 400 to 425 fps. With the Competition length 6-inch rifled barrel, (which is a full length, one piece barrel, not an extension), the pistol’s accuracy at 10 meters was impressive.
Unlike the single action trigger on the 9mm Champion model, upon which the CP 88 is based, the CO2 design required a full double action trigger pull for each round, and trigger pull longer and heavier, but not uncomfortable. Of course, you could also manually cock the hammer, which moved the trigger into the single action position and reduced average pull from 8 pounds, 15 ounces, to 7 pounds, 10.5 ounces. Fired DA, the trigger required a 1-inch take up with continual stacking to a clean break. A straight pull through of the trigger proved no harder than manually cocking the hammer for each shot, since the final 0.315 inches of resistance in single action remained north of seven pounds. Once you got a rhythm for handling the long, heavy trigger pull, the CP 88 is a very predictable gun to shoot.
The CP 88 is still offered today by Umarex making it a 21st century standard bearer for a legendary 20th century model now long gone and considered a collectible firearm. Interestingly, with the CP 88 having been in production since 1996, the Umarex Walther pellet version has now been manufactured longer than the 9mm P 88 models!
In Part 2, I will run accuracy tests with traditional RWS Meisterkugeln Professional Line 7.0 grain wadcutter lead pellets and lighter weight 5.25 gr. H&N Sport Match Green alloy wadcutters to see what this 24-year old design can deliver.