The Most Iconic Handgun — Ever!

One would be hard pressed, indeed, to deny that the P08, Parabellum pistol, German Luger is the most recognizable firearm in history. As one who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, I can say that every movie bad guy and gal was always packin’ a Luger. That’s right even the dames! Even the inscrutable Charlie Chan sans “Honorable Number One Son” was seen Luger in hand.

I am sure that it comes as no surprise then that every red blooded boy raised on the Saturday Matinee Serials could not wait to get their hands on one — especially the one Cousin Ralph took off the SS Colonel at Normandy. I know that I fell into that category. Unfortunately, it took some time before I laid hands on one that I finally got to call my own.

Paul Henreid playing an evil Nazi pointing a Luger pistol
Paul Henreid playing an evil Nazi needed nothing but a Luger to show us how bad he was. You didn’t have to see the bad guys to know they are up to no good — the Luger was enough.

My first Luger encounter came — like so many firearms encounters before it — at the infamous Pony Express Gun Shop when it was still located in Encino California. At the time, I really knew nothing much about guns in general and even less about Lugers in particular. One of the owners, Ray, a real Used Car Salesman, knew what a rube I was and pulled out a very nice “American Eagle” Luger and a C96, both of which he assured me I could not live without, let alone afford to pass up.

Needless to say, I put down a hefty deposit for both and made regular biweekly installments until they were both mine. BTW, other than paying more than anyone else would have, I have no regrets and still enjoy both. And yes my collection of Lugers and C96s has grown ever since. Parenthetically, I used my first Broomhandle to eliminate the hordes of Jacks infesting Southern California back in the day.

The Luger’s History

At this point in the narrative, I suppose it would not be out of place to provide some history about how the Luger came to be. That cannot be done without mention of the C96 “Broomhandle” Mauser pistol. The C96 was the first successfully commercial Automatic Pistol, and although ungainly by today’s standards, it still maintains a certain amount of cache.

A quick look at the C96 pistol reveals that there are no pins or screws holding it together. In fact, the entire mechanism goes together like a jigsaw puzzle. Remember, it was done in an era before electrically powered mills and lathes… Amazing! Here is something I’ll bet you didn’t know, the .30 Mauser (7.63×25mm Mauser) was the fastest and most powerful commercially-available handgun until the debut of the .357 Magnum in 1935. However, I digress…

In 1896, an employee of the Ludwig Loewe Company in Germany named Georg Luger, was tasked with improving the design of the C96. He succeeded in doing just that. The new pistol design was originally adopted by the Swiss army in 1900 and later by the Germans in 1908. When the Germans adopted it in 1908, they named it the Pistole-08 or P-08 for short.

American Eagle Luger chambered in .30 Luger
The author’s first Luger, The American Eagle in .30 Luger was so named because of the U.S. Crest stamped on the receiver ring.

The Luger Pistole originally used the 7.65x22mm cartridge also called the .30 Luger, but Georg Luger invented a different sized cartridge for the German army and redesigned the pistol to use this new cartridge, the now famous 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge, more commonly known as the “9mm Luger” cartridge.

The 9x19mm cartridge is still with us today and is the most common military handgun cartridge currently in use. BTW, the name Parabellum, comes from the Latin phrase, Si vis pacem, para bellum “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”


Visually the most distinctive feature of a Luger is its toggle lock mechanism. Its operation is best described as being like the human knee. Like the human leg, it can withstand a lot of pressure when the knee is straight and locked, but once the knee is bent, the leg suddenly becomes much easier to bend. The toggle lock mechanism works the same way.

Luger, right profile, showing the lack of pins or screws in the construction
Notice no pins or screws holding it together except the one holding the grips on. The entire mechanism goes together like a Chinese jigsaw puzzle. This was done all by hand in an era before electrically-powered tools.

When the weapon is fired, the toggle mechanism is straight and locked. The recoil causes the barrel and toggle lock to move backward (together) on rails. After some rearward movement, the toggle begins to ride over a pair of cams that bend the toggle at the joint.

Once the toggle lock is broken, it bends much more freely, allowing the bolt to accelerate backwards and re-cock the weapon. An extractor pulls out the old cartridge and ejects it. A recoil spring then pushes the bolt forward again, stripping a new round from the magazine and pushing it into the chamber, ready to be fired. This mechanism works well with high-pressure cartridges, but cartridges loaded to a lower pressure cause the pistol to malfunction. They do not generate enough recoil to work the action fully.

1917 Artillery model Luger semi-automatic pistol
My second Luger was this very nice “1917 Artillery” model, so named because it was initially intended for use by German artillery units who could not be encumbered using the long and heavy K98 rifle.

This design has a few disadvantages, one of the greatest being it was a complicated mechanism that required precisely-fitted parts to work properly. That is why we see Luger collectors looking for those with “all matching serial numbers.” Those tight tolerances contributed greatly to the accuracy of the weapon, but reliability suffered as a result. In fact, small amounts of dirt on the firing mechanism could cause the weapon to jam.

The Luger was also, by comparison, more expensive to produce than the Colt M1911 that was more reliable and faster to manufacture. That is no doubt why there are no modern weapons that use the Luger’s type of short-recoil action. It must be noted that handgun author and enthusiast Elmer Keith observed that the Luger design was a “natural pointer,” and one of the most accurate of all autoloading pistols — especially at long ranges. During its time, the Luger was the choice of more nations as the military sidearm than any other contemporary pistol or revolver.

Military Adoption

The Luger was produced in several models and by several nations from 1898 to 1949. It was first officially adopted by the Swiss military in 1900, then by the Imperial German Navy in 1906, and the German Army in 1908. The Luger was also the standard service pistol of Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Brazil, Bolivia, and Bulgaria. Adding to the aura of the Luger is the story of its brush with the U.S. Military and the value of existing examples from those trials.

U.S. Military Trials

In 1906 and 1907, the U.S. Army held trials for a large-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Due to the findings in the Thompson–LaGarde Tests, the military required a handgun in .45 (11.25mm) caliber. At least two, and possibly three Parabellum Model 1902/1906 pattern pistols were brought to the U.S. — by Georg Luger — for the 1907 trials, each chambered in .45 ACP caliber. The fate of the .45 Luger, serial number 1 is unknown, as it was not returned and is believed to have been destroyed during testing. The .45 Luger prototype serial number 2, believed to have been a back-up to Serial Number 1, survived the 1907 trials and is in private ownership.

Its rarity when last appraised gave it a value of over $1 million U.S. in 1994. No one knows the fate of number Luger #3. What we do know is that at least two other .45 caliber Luger pistols were manufactured for possible commercial or military sales with one exhibited at the R. W. Norton Art Gallery, in Shreveport, Louisiana. The other was sold in 2010 and remains in a private collection. A single .45 Luger carbine is also known to exist…. somewhere.

Luger semi-automatic handgun chambered in .45 ACP

Stay safe, train often and practice, practice, practice!

Do you agree with the author that the Luger is the most iconic handgun of all time? If not, which handgun would you choose? Do you have a Luger story? Share your answers in the Comment section.

Source link: by Ed AKA “The Real Most Interesting Man in The World” LaPorta at