By Peter G. Kokalis
It may have been the single most innovative semiautomatic pistol ever designed. Some of its incredible features, and one in particular, were never seen before or since. Yet, for some totally inexplicable reason, its manufacturer turned to inexpensive and unattractive copies of the Colt Single Action Army revolver after World War II (distributed by the Hawes Company of Los Angeles), and the amazing Sauer 38(H) pocket pistol disappeared forever.
The Sauer 38(H), together with the MP40 submachine gun, commonly equipped German airborne troops. It is seen here together with a Luftwaffe Fallschirmjдger qualification badge, Iron Cross 2nd Class and a soldier’s book found at Stalingrad.
J.P. Sauer & Sohn, Suhl, Germany, which after 1945 was relocated to Eckernforde, West Germany, was established in 1751 and by the end of the 19th century had built up a considerable name for manufacturing high-quality hunting rifles and sporting guns.
Its first thrust into the military small-arms arena was its association with Spangenberg to manufacture the Reichsrevolver for German military contracts in the early 1880s. Together also with V. Ch. Schilling and C.G. Haenel (destined in World War II to make P.08 and MP40 magazines, as well as components for the MP43/StG44 assault rifle), it made Reichsrevolvers until the early 1890s.
Sauer’s first commercial handgun was the bizarre Bдr repeating pistol that in configuration looked like a revolver but had over/under barrels, followed by the Roth-Sauer pistol under an association with Georg Roth and operating by means of long recoil.
During the timeframe in which the Sauer 38(H) was developed and fielded, pistols were always fired with one hand only. The Sauer 38(H) was very popular with Fallschirmjдger personnel.
Sauer introduced its own design in 1913, a caliber 7,65mm (.32 ACP) blowback handgun. In 1930 it was redesigned and is often called the Behцrden Modell (Authorities or Official Model).
The most significant feature of the Behцrden Modell was a unique secondary trigger in the middle of the main trigger’s front face. Unless this secondary trigger was pressed together with the primary trigger, the trigger and sear remained blocked. This concept was to be duplicated a half-century later in the Glock series of handguns.
A simplified caliber 6,35mm (.25 ACP) pocket pistol was introduced in 1924 and called the WTM (Westen Tauschen Modell–Vest Pocket Model). Its only external distinguishing characteristic was an extremely large ejection port on top of the slide.
Internally, the bolt was a separate component and retained in the slide by a spring catch that protruded from the rear of the slide so that it could be released when disassembling the pistol. The firing pin also protruded out the rear of the slide and served as a loaded-chamber indicator.
In 1928 the WTM was slightly modified and in this form remained in production until 1939. It’s clear that during this time frame Sauer had built a well-deserved reputation for designing really innovative small handguns, although commercially they were of only moderate success. Its greatest triumph was to come with the Model 38(H).
Although this pistol was designated as the model 38 (for 1938), series production did not commence until the end of 1939. The serial numbers found on this pistol were a continuation of the numbers found on the Behцrden Modell. They begin at approximately 260,000 and end at close to 607,000. Almost 295,000 were produced for the military, police and NSDAP (Nazi party) prior to April 1945, when the U.S. Army occupied the plant. The German designation for this handgun was Sauer Pistole Modell 38 Hahn Selbstspannung (Sauer Pistol Model 38 Hammer Self-Cocking).
MANUFACTURER: J.P. Sauer & Sohn, Suhl, Germany
CALIBERS: 7.64mm (.32 ACP)
OPERATION: Unloacked blowback; semiautomatic double-action/single-action, concealed-hammer type with unique cocking/decocking lever; loaded-chamber indicator
BARREL: Four-groove RH
BARREL LENGTH: 3.38 inches (85 mm)
OVERALL LENGTH: 6.37 inches
WEIGHT: 22 ounces
FEED: Eight-round, single-column, detachable box magazine
FINISH: Salt blued
GRIPS: Black plastic with Sauer logo on left grip panel only. Sometimes encountered weith checkered wood grip panels
SIGHTS: Fixed, U-Notch rear, blade front
STATUS: No longer in production; approximately 295,000 manufacturered during World War II
Produced only in caliber 7,65mm (.32 ACP) during World War II, the Sauer 38(H) outwardly appears little different than about a dozen other contemporaneous German pocket pistols in this caliber. The 38(H) weighs 22 ounces (624 grams) empty. Overall length is 6.37 inches (163mm). The four-groove barrel has a right-hand twist and is 3.38 inches (85mm) in length.
Late-production Sauer 38(H) pistols (top) can be immediately distinguished from those of early production (bottom) by the absence of a slide-mounted manual safety.
We were fortunate to have two Sauer 38(H) pistols to examine for our test and evaluation, and they represented both very early and very late production. Our early-production specimen, serial number 312857, is marked “J.P. Sauer & Sohn, Suhl Cal. 7,65″ on the left side of the slide. The right side of the slide is marked “Patent” (omitted at some point during the war).
The serial number is located on the right side of the frame just below the rear end of the slide’s cocking serrations. The military acceptance stamp, “eagle over 37,” is located on the upper left side of the triggerguard. This specimen is equipped with a set of rare checkered wood grip panels. The commercial test proofmark, “eagle over N,” is located on the right side of the frame directly below the serial number.
Our second specimen, serial number 606910, has no slide markings other than “Cal.7,65″ on the left side and the commercial test proofmark, “eagle over N,” on the right side directly above the cocking serrations. The serial number is located on the left side of the frame just below the rear end of the slide’s cocking serrations. The military acceptance stamp, “eagle over 37,” is located on the upper left side of the triggerguard. The two-piece checkered black-plastic grip panels carry the Sauer logo on the left grip panel only.
The fixed sights consist of an open U-notch rear sight and a forward-curving front-sight blade. Both are more than adequate for a pistol of this type and caliber. The top of the slide is serrated to reduce glare.
A Sauer 38(H) pistol with a World War II German service holster, which was made by Vitouek of Hohen-Bruck in 1941.
These pistols were finished by means of a salt-blueing process. Toward the end of series production, many that I have examined exhibit a purple cast that is usually attributed to insufficient time in the blueing tank.
The method of operation is unlocked blowback, which is sufficient for this relatively marginal cartridge. A double-action, semiautomatic design, the 38(H) has no hold-open, and the slide does not remain to the rear after the last shot has been fired. There is a magazine safety, and the pistol cannot be fired unless a magazine is inserted.
The principal assemblies are the frame, barrel, slide, trigger mechanism and magazine. The drop-forged frame was configured to mount the trigger mechanism and form a grip into which the magazine is inserted. Its extension forms the triggerguard, and it has machined rails to accept the slide. A mount directly above the trigger mechanism is designed to retain the barrel and is integral with the frame forging. During World War II a small quantity of these pistols were made with duraluminum slides and frames, which substantially reduced the weight.
The barrel is permanently attached to this mount by a steel pin. It was not intended to be removed by the operator. The recoil spring wraps around the barrel and is compressed when the slide moves rearward during the recoil stroke. No barrel bushing is required, as the front end of the recoil spring rests in a seat at the muzzle end of the slide. All of this is quite conventional for a blowback-operated semiautomatic pistol.
A Sauer 38(H) fieldstripped.
The breechblock, left in-the-white, is permanently fixed to the slide by means of a steel pin. The breechblock holds the spring-loaded firing pin, the extractor and a spring-loaded loaded-chamber indicator that protrudes through a hole drilled into the rear end of the slide. The slide was machined to travel on the frame’s guide rails.
Early versions of the Sauer 38(H) were equipped with a slide-mounted manual safety with its lever mounted on the left side. When the internal hammer is cocked, pushing the safety lever down will rotate the pin, to which it is attached, to bring a solid surface into contact with the hammer. This both blocks the hammer from impinging against the firing pin and also rotates the hammer back slightly and out of contact with the sear. The manual safety was eventually eliminated, as it is totally redundant, as we shall see.
A detailed examination of the lockwork reveals a brilliant combination of simplicity and almost revolutionary innovation on the part of the design team that developed the Sauer 38(H). Most unique is an external lever located on the left side directly to the rear of the triggerguard that permits lowering or raising the concealed hammer manually. Let me emphasize the word “raising.” There are literally dozens of current double-action semiautomatic handguns that have so-called “decocking” levers that safely drop the external hammer when pressed downward.
The Sauer 38(H) cocking/decocking mechanism, mounted on the left side of the frame, was completely unique.
You must then either fire the next shot in a double-action mode or manually cock the hammer with your thumb (if the hammer is of the exposed type). However, if you lower the Sauer 38(H) hammer by pressing down on the decocking/cocking lever, pressing it again will recock the hammer. This is a one-of-its-kind feature and an example of the remarkable engineering often so common in Germany during that time frame.
The decocking/cocking lever is pivoted to the frame and is free to travel downward in a cut in the left grip panel. When the hammer is cocked, the lever is at rest. If the operator wants to lower the hammer with the chamber loaded, pressing downward on the lever’s serrated thumbpiece will pivot the lever and bring its rear end into position to trip the sear while it simultaneously engages a projection attached to the lower surface of the hammer.
The Sauer 38(H) trigger, a pivoting type, has a long trigger bar inset in the right side of the barrel mount and the side of the frame’s inner wall.
This permits the concealed hammer to be eased downward as in the case of a thumb-manipulated external hammer, while at the same time preventing the hammer from reaching the firing pin. A spring under the decocking/cocking lever returns it to rest when thumb pressure is relieved.
When the hammer is down, pressure on the thumbpiece will cause the rear end of the lever to force the hammer projection upward, rotating the hammer back until it is at full cock and caught once again by the sear. This truly unique system provides all the advantages of a concealed-hammer handgun, such as a streamlined configuration and the absence of projections, which may interfere with presenting the pistol for firing and/or block the line of sight, with the advantages of an exposed-hammer handgun, which allows the operator to carry the pistol loaded but with the mainspring at rest and in complete safety. All of this was truly amazing for its timeframe and remains so even now.
When the magazine is inserted into the magazine well, a small projection on the right side of the frame’s inner wall raises the rear end of the trigger bar by means of a prominent dimple on the right side of the magazine body to bring it into contact with the hammer’s cocking notch, thus deactivating the magazine safety.
The concealed hammer is mounted in a conventional manner on an axis pin at the rear of the frame and has an attached strut that passes through the coils of the mainspring and through a compression shoulder at the butt of the frame. The hammer’s head rises up into a cutout in the slide behind the rear end of the breechblock and is completely enclosed.
The trigger, a pivoting type, has a long trigger bar inset in the right side of the barrel mount and the side of the frame’s inner wall. When the magazine is inserted into the magazine well, a small projection on the right side of the frame’s inner wall raises the rear end of the trigger bar by means of a prominent dimple on the right side of the magazine body to bring it into contact with the hammer’s cocking notch, thus deactivating the magazine safety.
Pulling the trigger rearward will pivot it and cause the trigger to draw its bar ahead in its guides. The bar then rotates the hammer on its axis pin, thrusting the hammer stirrup down and compressing the mainspring. When the hammer rotates past the cocked position, the hook on the end of the trigger bar will slip its notch in the hammer and allow the mainspring to drive the hammer fully forward against the firing pin.
The double-action trigger-pull weight of our early specimen (serial number 312857) was 91?2 pounds. With the hammer cocked, the single-action pull weight was 43?4 pounds. As the series production quality of these pistols declined toward the end of the war, so the trigger-pull weight at double action increased to 111?2 pounds on our late-war specimen (serial number 506910). The single-action pull weight of this latter handgun was 41?2 pounds.
As with all semiautomatic handguns, the slide must, of course, be retracted by hand to chamber the first round. This also cocks the hammer in the conventional manner. As the slide travels rearward, a solid surface on the slide impinges against the trigger bar, which rises into a disconnector cut. As the slide rides over the trigger bar, it forces it down and out of contact with the sear.
Pressure on the trigger must be removed before the trigger bar can come in contact again with the sear to release it from its bent (or notch) in the hammer. If the chambered round fails to fire, a second pull on the trigger will raise and drop the hammer for a second attempt at firing the round in the chamber. If that doesn’t work, I’d seriously consider either retracting the slide to chamber another round or transitioning to another weapon.
The detachable, single-column, box-type magazine holds eight rounds, which was the standard capacity for 7,65mm-caliber pocket pistols during the Sauer’s service life. Early magazine floorplates carry the superimposed double-”S” Sauer logo and “Cal.7,65.” Late-production magazines are commonly devoid of any markings.
When chambered for the 9mm Kurz (.380 ACP) cartridge, the magazine capacity invariably drops by one round. As very little was known about the science of wound ballistics at that time, the two cartridges were perceived to be equal in effectiveness, and users quite naturally almost always selected the caliber providing an additional round.
The black-plastic left grip panel of the Sauer 38(H) carries the superimposed double-”S” Sauer logo.
Both the magazine body, floorplate and follower are sheetmetal stampings. There are seven cartridge indicator holes on the left side of the magazine body. The magazine catch/release is located on the left side of the frame directly below the hammer-cocking lever. When it’s released, magazines drop freely.
Geco (Gustav Genschow & Co. AG) developed a 4mm adapter for inexpensive target practice that consisted of both a barrel and cartridge insert. When installed, the pistol operated as a single-shot weapon only, and the slide had to be manually retracted after each shot. As the priming was both rimfire and centerfire, no firing-pin modification was required. There was no propellant charge, and the priming composition propelled the .177-inch projectile.
Sauer 38(H) pistols procured by the Heereswaffenamt were all marked with the military acceptance stamp, “eagle over 37,” (this acceptance stamp also appears on Haenel-manufactured P.08 magazines) and often with the commercial test proofmark, “eagle over N.” Those issued to the police carry either “eagle C” or “eagle F” acceptance stamps.
There is no way to determine which pistols procured by the Heereswaffenamt were issued to the Heer (army), Luftwaffe or Waffen SS. There is no evidence that any were ever issued to the Kriegsmarine (navy). However, considerable anecdotal evidence indicates that the Sauer 38(H) was quite popular with the Fallschirmjдger (hunters from the sky) branch of the Luftwaffe.
German paratroopers dropped “naked,” with their shoulder-mounted weapons (the K98k rifle, MP40 submachine gun or FG42–the latter issued exclusively to the Fallschirmjдger) dropped in a separate container. Quite often the paratroopers would land a considerable distance from the squad’s weapons container. A handgun carried on the service belt–almost always in a crossdraw manner– was de rigueur and quite essential. Both the P.08 and P.38 were large, service-size handguns, as was the Belgian High Power (the latter was, in any event, used almost exclusively by the Waffen SS). A pocket pistol, such as the Sauer 38(H), was ideal for this purpose and provided the required placebo.
The Sauer 38(H) was a highly advanced design, and its cocking/decocking lever was totally unique, even to this day. Production quality, although cosmetically in decline by the end of the war, was more than adequate for military service. It was robust and totally reliable. Accuracy was on a par with it contemporaries. Its mysterious demise after World War II is to be lamented. It’s doubtful that we will ever see its likes again.
This is an extremely simple pistol to disassemble. Remove the magazine, and retract the slide to clear the pistol. There is a serrated slide-lock catch on the frame, just in front of the trigger. Pull it downward as far as it will go. This will bring its upper portion out of alignment with the slide. With the hammer cocked, retract the slide while lifting its rear end. The slide will lift off its frame guides and may then be eased forward over the barrel. Withdraw the recoil spring, which is wrapped around the barrel. Remove the grip panels to expose the lockwork. No further disassembly is recommended. Clean, lubricate, and reassemble in the reverse order.