Guns in the City

The sound of the well-made gun is precise. If you pull the slide back smoothly, the sound of the hammer locking back echoes with a sharp “clock” through the hollow grip. Slap a magazine into the grip, pull the slide back a little more and let it go. The sharp “smack” tells you a bullet has seated in the chamber. The tiny pin sticks out in front of the hammer to confirm the bullet is in place. If you pull the trigger, the next sound you hear will be considerably louder. While the boom reverberates on the range, you will hear the next clock-smack. The gun will fire again.

It’s not just a fine machine. It’s actually quite elegant in its function. The plastic grip is perfectly shaped to the hand. A tail protrudes from above the grip to protect the webbing of your thumb from being hit by the slide. The safety lever and slide catch are within easy reach of your thumb. The trigger, when the gun is cocked, takes a very light pull with the pad of your index finger. The barrel tapers smoothly out of the heavy slide down to its front sight, which is the shape of a shark’s dorsal fin. It is slightly beveled forward, though, so it won’t catch at all as you draw it from the leather holster.

The holster is also thoughtfully designed. It is heavy leather, with a flap that covers the gun to keep out the muck of war. But the strap that holds the flap down is simply impaled on a round steel knob and comes up easily. A second rear flap on the holster breaks away to allow the grip to come back, instead of just up, and permits the muzzle to bear on the target immediately.

The magazine holds eight 9 mm Parabellum rounds. The name comes from the old Roman adage, si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.

The gun has the usual markings and serial number. But nowhere is the name of its designer—Walther. There is clearly stamped on the left side of the slide “P.38,” the model, and “byf44,” which indicates it was built in 1944 at the Mauser factory in Oberndorf. On both sides of the slide, on the frame, and on the barrel are marks made after test firing the gun at the factory: “WaA135.” Between the two inspector’s marks on the right side is a tiny eagle perched on a swastika.

The Germans manufactured a fine gun sixty-two years ago. It still fires a very tight group. I shot 232 out of 250 with it three months ago on my proficiency exam to get my state permit to carry a pistol. Of course I wasn’t under the same pressure as the German officer who gave it up to my father six decades ago. Dad was able to take it, he once told me, because the officer “didn’t need it any more.”

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