50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
THE P08 LUGER
This highly collectable “bring-back” Luger and memorabilia was auctioned off by the well-respected firm of Lock, Stock & Barrel on-line auctions (www.LSBauctions.com).
Little did Georg Johann Luger realize, when he first patented his toggle-linked, recoil operated semi-automatic pistol, in 1898, that his surname would become synonymous with one of the most famous and collectable military handguns in the world. The Luger, as it commonly known today, was initially called “Pistole Parabellum,” but, when the German Army adopted it, in 1908, they rechristened it the P08.
Luger was born in Austria, in 1849, and was destined for a career in business. But, at the age of 18, he volunteered as a Reserve Officer Cadet in the 78th Infantry Regiment, where his exceptional ability as a marksman caught the attention of his commanding officers, who enrolled him in the Austro-Hungarian Military Firearms School at Camp Bruckneudorf. Luger soon became an instructor and, eventually, was promoted to Lieutenant.
After his military service, he befriended Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher, a contemporary of Luger’s who was soon to make his own mark in the firearms world. The two men collaborated on various rifle magazine designs, including a rotary device that would lead Mannlicher on his own road to fame. But Luger was intrigued with the concept of how magazines functioned in the overall gun. So, in 1891, he went to work as a designer for Ludwig Loewe & Company, which was soon to be reorganized as Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken Aktien-Gesellschaft—the German Weapons and Munitions company or, as it is better known, DWM. It’s a familiar script that would be found on the receivers of many a Luger pistol.
While employed at DWM, Luger was sent to the United States to demonstrate the rather ungainly Borchardt C-93 semi-automatic pistol, which itself was based upon the Maxim machine gun, developed in 1884 by American-born British inventor Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim. The Maxim was one of the first weapons to be successfully operated by its own recoil, rather than by manual cranking. The U.S. government found favor with the Maxim and would, eventually, adopt it as the Maxim Machine Gun, Caliber .30, Model of 1904, but both the Army and Navy failed to be impressed with the C-93 pistol Luger showed them.
Luger, however, found something intriguing with the C-93’s toggle-link system and the Maxim’s recoil operation. He set about designing a pistol that would combine the best elements of both. What finally emerged was the Parabellum-Pistole (the two words are often inverted), one of the most innovative handguns the world had yet to see. After all, this was still the age of the single-action revolver; double-actions were just coming into their own, and semi-automatics were yet to be embraced by most shooters.
Central to the Luger’s operation was its toggle-link action. Consisting of two ball-of-the-thumb-sized steel knobs on either side of a reciprocating, two-piece toggle (by which the bolt could be grasped and manually pulled back to either cock the gun, clear a jam, or chamber a round), the rearward force from the detonating cartridge drove the straightened link (which was attached to the barrel, which also briefly retracted with the breech), backwards, until it reached a “breaking point” where both pieces were joined. The two-piece link then arched and rode up against a curvature in the frame, fully withdrawing the breechblock, which ejected the spent casing and picked up a fresh round as the toggle link was forced home again via a return spring.
In all, there were 37 parts to the Luger’s mechanism, not counting the two-piece grips and eight-round magazine (a 32-round detachable drum was later offered). This included the trigger (slide) plate on the left side of the receiver, which was the key to disassembling the Luger. After insuring the gun is empty and locking the toggle bolt assembly in the “open” position, the locking bolt on the left side of the receiver is rotated down and the trigger plate removed by lifting it straight up. The toggle link assembly can then be lifted from the receiver by withdrawing the axle pin that holds it in place.
The grip was almost perfectly angled in relationship to the bore axis of the tapered barrel, designed to fire practically to point of aim by instinct. Many earlier semi-automatic pistols tended to shoot low, because the grip was angled less in relationship to the bore. In addition, the Luger’s wide, fixed rear sight (milled into the rear portion of the toggle), and the blade front sight (which was drift-adjustable for windage) were surprisingly accurate out to 25 yards at man-sized targets.
A 1915 Luger with original holster from a later post-WWI period. Note the toggle-link action.
The Luger was originally chambered for the 7.65×21mm Parabellum, also known as the .30 Luger, which had previously been developed by Georg Luger as he worked with Hugo Borchardt in an attempt to find a better cartridge for Borchardt’s C-93. In so doing, Luger created a shorter case that permitted the use of a correspondingly shorter toggle action and a narrower grip—thus setting the stage for the development of what would become the P08.
The Swiss Army was the first to see the advantages of the new Luger and placed an order with DWM, in May 1900. Through the years, other manufacturers, including W+F Bern, Krieghoff, Simson, Vickers, and Mauser, would all eventually add the P08 to their rosters, to meet demands. However, when the German government adopted the Luger, it was partly as a result of Georg Luger having developed a second cartridge, one specifically created for his gun, the 9x19mm Parabellum or, as it is more widely known, the 9mm Luger. As an aside, there were also two noticeably larger P08 pistols chambered in .45 ACP made by DWM under the personal supervision of Georg Luger—and stamped “GL” on their toggles to denote this fact—specifically for the U.S. Army trials of 1907. Numbered “1” and “2,” the .45 Lugers fared well enough to cause the Army to ask for certain modifications for further testing, but, perhaps because of the looming specter of WWI, or maybe the cost of retooling for additional prototypes, Germany refused to participate further. One of the two known test guns has disappeared, but the other—briefly alluded to via a prop gun in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie, Wall Street—sold at auction for $1,000,000, in 1989, and, thus, became known as “the million dollar Luger.” Unfortunately, the financial crash a few years ago resulted in that same gun selling for only $494,500 (including a 15-percent buyer’s premium), in 2010, at Greg Martin Auctions in Anaheim, California.
Produced with a standard barrel length of four inches plus a six-inch Marine Model, an eight-inch barreled Lange Pistole 08 (long pistol) Artillery Model was also made. The Artillery Model was outfitted with tangent sights and a detachable shoulder stock with corresponding holster. It was often issued with a Trommelmagazin 08 32-round drum magazine. In addition, there was a rare carbine model with an 113⁄4-inch barrel that was also outfitted with a detachable stock. Needless to say, there are enough dates and stamping variances to keep Luger aficionados preoccupied for years, as the P08, in all its guises, was adopted by more than 15 countries, many with variations. Thankfully, most military models feature the dates of manufacture (not usually present on civilian models) and nationality stampings. And, while collectors covet Lugers with numerically matching magazines, the reality is that this was often the first part to get separated from its original gun.
On military models, it is far more important that all the parts are numbered to match, as the Luger is a very intricate, hand-fitted mechanism. Just as desirous for many is the color of the “straw”-finished small parts, such as trigger, thumb safety, and magazine release, as these deep-yellow parts (the shades will very) are simply the result of the heat treating methods that were used. It is an important factor to collectors, as the amount of color remaining is an indication of how much the gun was used, but it also adds a cosmetic beauty to the Luger.
Most of the WWI standard military and Artillery Lugers were produced by the Royal Arsenal of Efert, Germany, while approximately 10,000 post-WWI Lugers were made by the British firm of Vickers, Ltd., on contract for the Dutch government. One of the most desirable of Lugers is the “American Eagle,” which was made for pre-war and post-war sales to the U.S. and bears The Great Seal of the United States stamped on the receiver. Also of interest is the fact that, in 1923, Stoeger, Inc., trademarked the Luger name and began importing these German-made guns—the first to bear the Luger name—into America. (Later, Stoeger and others actually began manufacturing Lugers in this country.)
In 1930, Mauser acquired DWM and produced most of the WWII-era Lugers, as well as non-military versions right up through the 1970s. And even though the Walther P38 officially replaced the Luger, in 1942, the P08 continued to be manufactured in Mauser’s Oberndorf factory until the Armistice in 1945. Thus, the pre-WWI P08 ended up serving the German army and its allies throughout World War II and beyond, as a number of these refurbished guns were used to arm the East German police.
The P08 was an intricate design and, therefore, expensive to make. It was also prone to jamming if the slightest bit of mud interfered with the delicate toggle-link action. In addition, a number of wartime guns would malfunction if somehow the exact, originally numbered parts weren’t used in reassembling the gun. Still, when functioning properly, it was an effective weapon, with the only real criticisms being the thumb-wrecking difficulty in loading its magazines, and its two chamberings, both of which were largely felt to be underpowered.
Nonetheless, while in a private collection, in 1960 the “million dollar Luger” was reportedly test fired 150 times without a single hiccup. In 1994, it was once again taken out of retirement and fired repeatedly without any malfunctions. But perhaps one of the greatest compliments to Georg Luger’s original design was that the P08 served as the inspiration for Bill Ruger’s first successful .22 semi-automatic pistol, the Standard.