By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Walther PPK, 7.65 millimeter. Only three men I know use such a gun. I believe I’ve killed two of them.”
— Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane, as Valentin Zukovsky, in the James Bond, spy film Golden Eye, 1995.
The world-famous, iconic, Walther PPK pistol has been in production for 90 years now, and it remains arguably the most aesthetically-beautiful handgun ever designed, the top supermodel of the firearms world, with clean, sleek, stylish lines, a slim frame and slide, light weight, and perfect proportions, a timeless classic that’s still as sought after today as it was when it was first introduced in 1931.
The Polizeipistole Kriminal (PPK, or “Police Pistol, Criminal,” intended for police criminal-investigation units, is a shorter, lighter version of the previous Walther PP (“Police Pistol”) from 1929, with a shortened grip, barrel, and frame, reduced magazine capacity, and two-piece, wraparound, grip panels covering the backstrap. The smaller overall size makes it more concealable, and ideal for detectives or undercover work.
From the very beginning, the PPK was produced in three calibers: 7.65x17mm (.32 ACP, holding seven rounds) was the most popular in Europe, followed by the 9x17mm (.380 ACP, with six rounds) and .22 LR (with nine rounds) versions. It was one of the world’s first successful, double-action (for the first shot only, as an option)/single-action (for all subsequent shots, and sometimes for the first shot), semi-automatic pistols, still manufactured by Carl Walther Sport Weapons today in .380 ACP and .22 LR, and it has been the most widely-copied handgun in the world, with very similar, if not identical designs, produced in Argentina, China, France (until 1986), Hungary, Poland, and Russia.
The Walther PPK is actually a very simple, streamlined design, a straight-blowback action with a traditional trigger configuration, an exposed hammer, single-column magazine, and a fixed barrel that acts as the recoil-spring guide, normally manufactured of all steel, but aluminum-framed models have existed in the past. It incorporates some innovative safety features for its time, including an automatic hammer block, a combination safety lever and de-cocker, and a loaded-chamber indicator.
This very-compact weapon measures only 6.1 inches long, 3.9 inches tall, and exactly one inch wide at the grips (the slide itself is only .8-inch wide), with a 3.3-inch barrel, weighing in at a modest 21 ounces, which is still fairly light for an all-steel pistol. The aluminum-framed versions varied from 20 ounces originally in the 1930s, down to just 16 ounces in the PPK-L (“L” for “Lightweight”) model of the 1960s, but they were only chambered in .32 ACP or .22 LR.
The standard finish in the 1930s and 1940s was blued, with marbleized, Bakelite (an early form of plastic) grips (usually brown), coming in a woodgrain, cardboard box with one spare magazine, for the German equivalent of just $15.50 (based upon a devalued, Reichsmark currency after World War One, and a 1931 currency crisis.) As World War Two progressed, and Walther mass-produced primarily P.38 service pistols in 9mm Luger at their Zella-Mehlis factory in Thuringia, the external finish and grip materials on PP and PPK models suffered somewhat, but company president Fritz Walther never allowed the overall quality of the PPK models to decline.
It proved to be an instant sensation with police departments, military forces, and civilians alike, manufactured just in time for the dramatic rise in German nationalism and the Nazi Party takeover in 1933, which led to a massive demand for handguns to equip a variety of police and paramilitary forces, the army, the SS, and party officials. The PPK was reliable, concealable, very well-manufactured, and it quickly became more of a status symbol than a frontline, service handgun.
On September 12, 1943, SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Otto “Scarface” Skorzeny took part in a daring, special operations raid to rescue deposed, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy, where he was photographed wearing a Walther PPK pistol on his belt. After his seemingly-impossible raid, Skorzeny earned a fearsome, wartime reputation as “the most-dangerous man in Europe.”
Then, on August 25, 1944, young Major Erich Hartmann, age 22, Germany’s top-scoring, ace fighter pilot, who had just scored his 301st confirmed, aerial kill (his total score would reach 352 confirmed kills by the end of the war) the day before, arrived in East Prussia (currently part of Poland) to be presented with the exalted Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds, equivalent to earning a third U.S. Medal of Honor, as the youngest person ever to receive the Diamonds version, Nazi Germany’s very-highest award for valor at that time. But, he was wearing his Walther PPK military pistol in a belt holster, and refused to take it off, leading to a very tense and awkward moment. Hartmann later told the story this way:
“When I arrived at the Wolfschanze (‘Wolf’s Lair’)...everyone was under suspicion...and no one was allowed to carry a weapon into the last (security) section. I told Hitler’s SS guard to tell the Führer that I would not receive the Diamonds if I were not trusted to carry my Walther (PPK) pistol...(Nicolaus) von Below (Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant), who was a colonel then...said it was all right. I hung my cap and pistol belt on the stand, and Hitler came to me...and he gave me the Diamonds, which were encrusted upon another set of Oakleaves and Swords...That was the last time I saw him...I went back to marry my Ushi (Ursula Paetsch), that was all that mattered to me.”
Near the end of the war in Europe, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the underground Führerbunker in downtown Berlin at 3:15 PM local time on April 30, 1945. He shot himself in the right temple with his engraved, gold-plated, 7.65mm Walther PPK pistol at the same moment that he crushed a glass, cyanide capsule between his teeth, just to make sure that one or both methods was completely effective. The actual pistol that he used is still missing in action, probably taken as a war trophy by a Soviet soldier, or secured and hidden by one of the last Germans to leave the Führerbunker before the surrender of Berlin. A larger, gold-plated, ornately-engraved, 1939 Walther PP, however, in 7.65mm, bearing the cryptic initials “AH,” has been photographed since the war, and is currently in a private collection.
Only eight days later, at midday on May 8, 1945, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring was captured alive by German-speaking, American First Lieutenant Jerome Shapiro of the 142nd Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon near Radstadt, Austria. Shapiro requested Göring’s sidearm, and the former, Nazi leader had a custom-engraved, gold-plated, 1943 Walther PPK in 7.65mm, with gray, plastic grips, in a red box with a white, velvet-lined interior, which he ceremoniously presented to Shapiro, who was later permitted to keep it as a war trophy. Shapiro was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star medal for his courageous actions deep behind enemy lines, and in June 2005, long after Shapiro’s death, the Simon Wiesenthal Center presented him with a posthumous Medal of Valor for his heroic acts in capturing the high-ranking leader.
Among Göring’s other prized possessions were two more factory-engraved, Walther PPK pistols, including a lavish, gold-plated, 1939 model with custom, golden-initialed, ivory grips (now worth up to $400k at auction), and the other, for his wife, Emmy, a 1935 wedding gift, was blued, with brown, plastic grips.
Likewise, in early May 1945, British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Lieutenant Odette Sansom was held prisoner in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp since April 1943, where she persuaded the camp commandant, SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Fritz Suhren, to drive her to U.S. Army front lines as the war ended. She took his blued, Walther PPK pistol as he was delivered into American custody. Suhren was subsequently hanged in 1950 for war crimes, and in 1946, Sansom became the first female recipient of the prestigious George Cross (GC) for valor, due to her bravery under Nazi interrogation, and the only woman ever to receive the GC while still alive.
After the war, Walther relocated its arms factory from Zella-Mehlis, in Soviet-occupied East Germany, to Ulm, in American-occupied West Germany. But the Allied powers forbade any weapons production within Germany for 10 years, so in 1952, PPK manufacturing was quietly transferred to the French firm of Manurhin under license, with the actual parts made in France, and then assembled either in France, or at the Ulm, Germany, factory. This bi-national arrangement lasted until 1986, but Walther also resumed their peacetime production of the PPK in-house at the Ulm factory in 1955.
Meanwhile, German and French-made PPKs became enormously popular in the postwar era, both with the American public and with many intelligence agencies, including the American CIA, British MI5 and MI6, French SDECE, German BND, the Israeli Mossad, and the Swiss Intelligence and Security Service.
In 1956, British author Ian Fleming, a former, naval intelligence officer and covert operative in World War Two (he was one of the founders of No. 30 Commando, a special intelligence unit), had been writing spy novels since 1952, including Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, and From Russia, With Love. His fictional hero, James Bond, Agent 007, initially carried the same Beretta 418 pocket pistol in .25 ACP that Fleming himself had carried during the war. But British weapons expert Geoffrey Boothroyd, a Bond fan, urged Fleming to provide his famous character with a more-suitable, more-powerful firearm, in time for his next book, Dr. No, and the Walther PPK was his choice.
The James Bond film series began in 1962 with Dr. No, immediately introducing the Walther PPK as 007’s issued weapon, and instantly making it the most-famous handgun in the world. There have been a total of 26 Bond films since then, with the latest being Spectre in 2015, and No Time to Die scheduled for release as number 27 in October 2021. The PPK has been featured in most, but not all of them, and it’s the only gun used by all six actors who have played the role of James Bond over the past 59 years. Bond will carry the classic PPK again in No Time to Die later this year, because movie fans just expectto see the timeless PPK in action in any 007 film.
Actor Jack Lord, who played CIA agent Felix Leiter in Dr. No, was presented with a gold-plated, Walther PPK with ivory grips by his friend, singer Elvis Presley, who also owned an engraved, silver-finished PPK.
In 1964, the lightweight, aluminum-framed PPK-L came into widespread usage, with 415 examples in .32 ACP ordered for Swiss Air Force pilots as the Fliegerpistole 65 (“Pilot Pistol 65”) and carried in a leg pocket, while 315 all-steel PPKs were subsequently acquired in 1972 for ground personnel. These were all later replaced by the SIG P220.
In the United States, the PPK’s largest sales market, by far, the stringent, Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA68) banned the importation of foreign pistols not meeting certain requirements in length, width, and weight. The PPK failed these criteria by single, nonsensical, “import point,” and was instantly banned. But Walther found a solution to this problem by mating the PPK barrel and slide to the taller, heavier, Walther PP frame, thus creating the PPK/S (“S” for “Sporting”) by adding 4/10ths of an inch in height, with one extra round of ammunition, and one additional ounce of weight, making it fully legal for importation, while not quite as compact or as concealable as the original, PPK models.
Interestingly enough, however, this height and weight restriction applied only to imported handguns. It was still perfectly legal to manufacture the short, handy PPK here in the United States, so Walther-licensed production began in 1978, with Ranger Manufacturing producing both PPK and PPK/S models (in either blued or stainless-steel versions) in Gadsden, Alabama, for national distribution through Interarms of Alexandria, Virginia, mostly in .380 ACP at first, with some .32 ACP models manufactured from 1997 to 1999, when the production license was finally cancelled.
Also in 1968, Walther introduced the tiny, TPH model, essentially a downsized PPK, offered only in .25 ACP or .22 LR calibers. The blued, lightweight, alloy-framed, European version was especially popular with U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies. It was prominently featured in the 1992 action novel Crossfire, by J.C. Pollock, about a covert, Special Forces mission into communist Czechoslovakia.
After the passage of GCA68, the legal availability of PPKs in the United States dried up completely, but it was still smaller and preferable to the PPK/S for covert operatives, so literally thousands of German PPKs were smuggled into America in State Department diplomatic pouches over the following years, for use primarily by the CIA.
During “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, from 1974 until 1992, the British Army issued 3,200 L66A1 (alloy-framed, Walther PP) pistols in .22 LR to members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Ulster Constabulary as off-duty, self-defense weapons. In the same period, Britain’s 14 Intelligence Company (or 14 Int.), also operating in Northern Ireland, issued Walther PPKs in all three calibers, and the PPK-L in .32 Auto or .22 LR, to its female operatives as either primary or backup weapons, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) was using PPKs in .32 Auto as pilot survival pistols.
In 2005, 14 Int. was absorbed into the all-new, ultra-secret, Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), which still employs some female operatives, and still issues the world-famous Walther PPK in all available calibers. (See my previous, three-part, Gunpowder Magazine article on the SRR from August 18, August 25, and September 1, 2019, for more information on this very-elite, British unit, the closest thing in existence to real-life, James Bond-style operatives.)
On October 26, 1979, a Walther PPK (which jammed) and Smith and Wesson Model 36 revolver were used by Kim Jae-gyu, the director of the Korean CIA (KCIA) and the president’s security chief, to assassinate South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee at a dinner in a safe house in Seoul. Kim claimed that the American CIA was behind his actions, since the U.S. wished to stop South Korea from developing and acquiring nuclear weapons at the time, something that Park was actively pursuing. Kim was hanged for this capital crime on May 24, 1980.
During the 1980s and ’90s, the Walther PPK was virtually the only reliable, .380-Automatic pistol on the market, so its sales soared. This author purchased a blued, German-manufactured PPK/S during a military assignment in Germany in 1983, and kept it for the next 16 years. It was utterly reliable, with absolutely no malfunctions, accurate at close range, easy to load, disassemble, and clean, and readily concealable in a shoulder holster. Since 1989, the best and most-effective ammunition available was the Federal Hydra-Shok 90-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP, #P380HS1), which is still offered today as the PD380HS1-H, although better loads are currently available. I’ve personally seen identical, PPK/S models used by high-ranking, special operations officers as backup, self-defense weapons, with the same ammunition, while traveling.
James Tarr recently wrote for Handguns magazine (October 10, 2019), while testing and reviewing a Walther PPK/S, that, “The Walther points so naturally and has so little muzzle rise that all I had to do was get my sights on target, and the hits took care of themselves. Four shots, four hits...the pistol ate everything without a hiccup.”
From 1999 to 2001, Walther USA of Massachusetts made the PPK and PPK/S through Black Creek Manufacturing, while Fegyver-és Gépgyár (FEG) in Hungary began producing the PPK-E, very similar to the PPK/S, in 2000. Then, Smith and Wesson took over in Houlton, Maine, from 2002 to 2013, incorporating a “beavertail” grip tang below the exposed hammer to eliminate slide bite for the shooter, and a modified feed ramp to accommodate hollowpoint ammunition.
In the 2008 war film, Valkyrie, actor Tom Cruise played the part of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the decorated, disabled, war hero and senior, German officer who was a key architect of the failed, July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Cruise carried a Walther PPK, as did many of the other senior officers in the movie, although the real von Stauffenberg carried a Belgian-made, FN P35 Hi-Power in 9x19mm.
The animated, adult, sitcom TV series Archer, introduced in 2009, features Sterling Archer as a James Bond-like spy employed by the fictious, International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), and carrying a Walther PPK as his primary weapon.
Since 2018, Walther Arms has produced updated, PPK and PPK/S models in .380 Auto, with the PPK/S also available in .22 LR (with 10-rounds in the magazine), at Fort Smith, Arkansas, shipping them to FFL dealers since March 2019. Its overall weight is now advertised as 19 ounces, which is two ounces down from the original weight. The manufacturer’s retail price is currently $749.
If the PPK series has any weaknesses, they are relatively minor complaints: The fixed, iron sights milled into the slide are a bit small by current standards, yet adequate for a compact, self-defense firearm. The frame has sharp edges, which are sometimes uncomfortable in the shooter’s hand, and needs checkering on the steel frontstrap, and the backstrap (on a PPK/S), for a more-secure grip.
Recoil is fairly snappy in .380 ACP, but that’s to be expected in a straight-blowback pistol, and the all-steel construction and stiff recoil spring help to mitigate some of the felt recoil. Finally, the double-action trigger pull for the first shot is perhaps the worst feature, at a fairly stiff 13.4 pounds. But this author carried the PPK/S Israeli-style, with a loaded magazine and empty chamber, cycling the slide very rapidly and simultaneously cocking the hammer as I drew the weapon, so I really never used the double-action feature. Overall, even after 90 long years, the PPK is still a superbly-made, small-caliber, self-defense handgun, certainly just as popular now as it ever was.
Modern, hollowpoint ammunition choices are very effective, with the Federal Hydra-Shok still a good choice in .380 ACP, but the 99-grain, Federal HST is quite impressive, and the faster, 80-grain, Barnes TAC-XPD solid-copper hollowpoint (SCHP) also performs very well. The very best, new product however, is the 85-grain, Norma MHP SCHP at 1,280 feet per second, typically expanding to .90-caliber or greater!
In late 2019, I test-fired the 108-grain, 9x19mm version of the MHP into wet, clay blocks for optimum penetration, expansion, and temporary wound cavity measurements. While it was admittedly more powerful than a .380, the bullet diameter is exactly the same, and the velocity is only slightly reduced in the .380, so the results should be generally similar, if not quite as dramatic.
The all-new, Swedish-designed SCHP (made in Hungary) penetrated 9.5 inches, left a massive, four-inch-wide, wound cavity, and expanded to an incredible .937-caliber!Norma advertises it as “the most-expanding, 9mm bullet in the world,” and it’s definitely not hype. They’re telling the honest truth, and I’d expect the .380 version to be only slightly less spectacular.
In .32 ACP, you’ll achieve the best results with Buffalo Bore 60-grain +P SCHPs at 1,150 fps, and in .22 LR, the most-effective, self-defense rounds that I personally tested in wet, clay blocks in early 2020 were the 32-grain CCI Stinger HP, and the 40-grain Browning BPR HP, with 8.5 to 10.6 inches of penetration, expansion in the .382 to .403-caliber range, and temporary wound cavities 3.25 inches wide, rivaling many 9mm JHP loads.
Walther PPK variants have been used by Bangladesh, Denmark (until 1998), France, Germany, Guyana, Hungary, Indonesia, Latvia, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom (MI6, and the Royal Air Force), and the United States. Its only real drawback was the lack of stopping power from its small-caliber chamberings, so it was never a really a primary, service pistol, but usually a backup, concealment weapon.
There are certainly newer, lighter, smaller, more-powerful, polymer-framed handguns on the market now, such as the Ruger LC9s Pro in 9mm, but the Walther PPK carries a definite mystique due to its association with Nazi Germany, James Bond, and the real MI5, MI6, and CIA, making it an incredibly-tough act to follow. It still remains one of the finest, compact, pocket pistols ever created.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.