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[Old School] Sauer 38H: Early German Innovation



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The Sauer 38H is a lesser-known sidearm, developed in Germany in the 1930s and widely distributed to the Wehrmacht during World War II. Like many German small arms, it continued to be widely issued following the war among police in West Germany. 

Unlike the P-38 — issued amongst militaries from Sweden to Germany to Portugal and contributed design features to handguns such as the M92 Beretta — the Sauer 38H has seen short shrift in the gun and collecting community. 

This is unfortunate, as it featured some remarkably forward-thinking design features that contributed to later designs such as the SIG Sauer Classic Series pistols that were the gold standard amongst special operations forces for years.

The first thing that comes to mind when many see or pick up a 38H is “pocket pistol.” Like many early to mid-20th century European pistols, it’s particularly small for a combat pistol by American standards. Further, since it’s chambered in 7.65 or .32 ACP, many immediately reject it as an effective self-defense weapon. 

With its tiny sights, fixed barrel, and blowback operation, the Sauer 38H is definitely a product of the 1930s.

If you lived through the 1990s and the endless fetishizing from some authors of percentages of “stops” based upon selective information with highly questionable or out of context data, the endurance of this obsession amongst the “tacti-cool” crowd is hardly surprising. 

The simple fact is that many handguns carried for self-defense in the civilian world — and no small number in military and police circles prior to 1945 — were chambered in this diminutive cartridge. The multitudes killed with it over the years must feel cheated.

The Sauer 38H has a nicely rounded profile and smooth lines. Without much imagination, it might be considered slightly art deco and futuristic in appearance. Perhaps the most notable features of the 38H are the lack of a visible hammer and what looks to modern eyes to be a de-cocker on the right side. 

To those familiar with firearms of the era, the lack of an external hammer is nothing new. Many pistols like the M1903 Colt and others were designed with either a concealed hammer or a striker. (Newsflash: Glock wasn’t the first.) Although other Sauer pistols featured a striker system, the 38H uses a concealed hammer system.

The Sauer uses the barrel as its recoil spring guide rod, simplifying manufacturing.

The lever on the side of the frame, however, is deceptive to modern sensibilities. Although it acts as a de-cocker, it also acts as a cocker, a remarkably handy feature on a combat handgun, though few designs over the years have sported such a feature. To be sure, it takes a little getting used to, but it works just “like it says on the box.” 

Although the 38H still has a manual safety installed on the slide, this feature greatly increases the flexibility and options for those so armed with it. 

The 38H sports a fixed barrel and an eight-round magazine as standard. Most of these pistols were issued or purchased with a holster that accommodated a spare magazine, but it’s easy to imagine that anybody who intended to seriously use the 38H carried extra magazines in pockets. Anybody who has read Jünger’s Storm of Steel can imagine the swollen pockets of any soldier given the opportunity to carry more ammo, of any potentially useful type, to suit the environment. 

The 38H lends itself toward accuracy, as does another legendary .32 ACP, the Walther PPK (the subject of a later article). Both were generally popular sidearms in Germany during WWII, as well as sought-after war trophies. 

In a departure from conventional German designs of the era, the 38H uses a push-button magazine release, rather than a catch at heel-of-butt.

With good ammunition, the pistol is perfectly viable up to 25 yards from an accuracy perspective, and well more than adequate at most defense ranges. The 38H is also quite reliable if the magazines are in good order and the pistol well maintained.

Disassembly is straightforward, relatively simple, and similar to some other pistols of the era. 

Compared to other WWII German sidearms, little has been written about the 38H, although the rumor mill always has much to say about it. 

Every branch of the German armed forces during WWII had some 38H pistols on its TO&E in one manner or another, although the story always has Luftwaffe pilots being particularly fond of it. Considering the cocker/de-cocker, this makes sense. 

However, these sort of “collectorisms” rarely hold that much water. The 38H was widely issued to police in Germany as well, and it survived in this capacity after WWII in West Germany and in limited numbers elsewhere. 

Compared to other WWII German sidearms, the 38H is still mostly in the affordable realm, except for a few rare variants. A nice example can easily be had for under $900, and a pistol, holster, and extra magazine, usually in nice shape, can go for less than $1,400. You can find the distinctive original magazines for under $90.

 Be careful of the magazine springs, which are often worn out; they can be easily replaced restoring reliable function. (Pro tip: If you have an “unreliable” Luger, take a close look at the magazines.) Search junk boxes at gun shows for original 38H magazines, as many dealers have no idea what gun takes “the weird little magazine with the hole in the side.” 

Special thanks to Jason Cobb for loaning his pistol for this article. 

SAUER 38H SPECS

  • OAL: 6.3 inches
  • Barrel Length: 3.4 inches
  • Weight: 25 ounces
  • Caliber: 7.65×17 (.32ACP)
  • Effective Range: 25 meters
  • Magazine capacity: 8

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