Without a doubt, the Luger semiautomatic pistol is one of the most famous firearms of the 20th century. It's distinctive toggle lock and sleek lines make it very recognizable, as do the fact that it was a standard sidearm of the German, Swiss, and other armies for a period spanning nearly a half century, and produced in large quantities. It is well-known even to many people who know or care nothing about historic firearms.
The Luger has always been known for it's accuracy. Factors contributing to this include tight manufacturing tolerances, excellent grip angle and shape, good trigger pull, and the fact that the barrel stays in a fixed position relative to the rest of the pistol except in the front-back dimension (no tipping as in Browning-style designs).
Further, it is a piece that has sparked the interest of collectors, perhaps due to the many variations of it that have been produced over the years. Specimens of rare types can command prices more appropriate to a new automobile than a firearm, while a basic, operational, if not particularly attractive, example can be had for US$350.
Hugo Borchardt and the C/93
Georg Luger 1849 - 1923
Georg Luger, an employee of Loewe & Co., took the Borchardt pistol as a starting point for designing the first pistols resembling what we would call a "Luger." The changes he made included development of a new cartridge, the 7.65 Parabellum or 7.65x23 cartridge (also called .30 Luger in USA), which is a 2mm shorter version of the Borchardt cartridge with a different powder charge. (The 7.63 Mauser has a 25mm case). In addition to the new cartridge, Luger also redesigned the complex mechanism behind the grip. He retained the toggle-locking action of the Borchardt, but replaced the Borchardt's bizarre mainspring and the large housing it necessitated with a leaf spring in the grip, improving the balance of the pistol. He also angled the grip for better pointability. A grip safety was added to the rear of the frame by 1904.
After making the changes described above, Loewe vigourously sought military contracts for production of the pistol. The first major success came in Switzerland, which adopted the Luger as its service pistol in 1900, in the 7.65 caliber. Switzerland produced Lugers for army use at an arms factory in Bern. Swiss pistols can be identified by the Swiss federal cross above the chamber. A number of other countries evaluated the Luger, including the USA, for which Loewe & Co. manufactured a number of Lugers in caliber .45ACP. The Luger was defeated in trials by the Colt-Browning that became the model 1911. Lugers were also sold commercially in this period, but the Luger was never a big seller due to it's high cost.
In an attempt to allay concerns about poor stopping power with such a small-caliber bullet, Georg Luger developed a second cartridge, the 9mm Parabellum. The 9mm Parabellum also goes by the names 9mm Luger and 9x19mm, and is distinct from a number of other cartridges that use the designation "9mm" in their names (such as 9mm short, 9mm Makarov, 9mm largo). The 9mm Parabellum cartridge cartridge case has the same base dimensions as the 7.65x23 Parabellum cartridge, but is not necked down, and is shorter, only 19mm long. A number of design changes to the Luger were made in the early 1900's, including replacing the leaf mainspring with a coil spring, and deleting the grip safety. Some pistols were produced with a lug to attach a shoulder stock. The so-called "new model" Luger of 1904 in caliber 9mm Parabellum was accepted by the German navy and later the army and designated the P08. Thereafter, German military sales accounted for the vast majority of Lugers ever produced.
In the pre-WWI period Lugers were produced by the German government arms factory in Erfurt as well as by Loewe's company, which was at that time named Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM). The DWM monogram or Erfurt Crown logo can be found on the toggle of the pistols they manufactured (usually... in the world of Luger markings there are always exceptions). The Luger was the standard German sidearm throughout World War I. Luger production continued sporadically during the post-war period, in part due to restrictions on German arms manufacture imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The allies permitted official production to begin in 1925 at Simson and company. Simson, however, was owned by Jews, and the company was liquidated when the Nazis came into power. The Luger manufacturing machinery was purchased by Krieghoff. Mauser purchased DWM's Luger manufacturing machinery in 1929, and produced Lugers until the later part of World War II. The Luger was officially replaced for German military use in 1940 by the Walther P38 double-action 9mm Parabellum pistol, but certainly Lugers saw service throughout the war.
Switzerland replaced the Luger with more modern designs in the late 1940's, which ended the era of use of the Luger as a service pistol. Lugers continued to be used as police side arms in the German Democratic Republic, which refurbished a number of existing guns.
A number of revivals have occurred in the post-war years. In the 1960's, a .22 caliber blowback toggle-action Luger was produced by ERMA, a successor of the Erfurt company. Mauser produced a series of Lugers somewhat similar to the Swiss military model in the early 1970's. In the USA, in 1980, A. F. Stoeger, which had owned the Luger trademark in the USA since the 1920's, began to sell newly manufactured stainless steel Lugers. These are still in production.
The most distinctive feature of the Luger is undoubtedly the toggle-lock mechanism, which holds the breech closed by locking in a manner not unlike the human knee, which can sustain a heavy weight when straight, but once bent, is quite easy to continue to bend. The toggle joint in its straight position resists the rearward force of the detonating cartridge, then "buckles" after enough time has passed. When a round is fired the entire breech, barrel and toggle move straight rearward (on rails) until the toggle begins to ride up on a pair of cams that "breaks" the toggle (makes it bend at the joint). Once the toggle joint is no longer straight, it bends freely, allowing the bolt to come rearward, and the striker to be cocked. The spent cartridge is extracted by a combination extractor/loaded chamber indicator on the top of the toggle, and is ejected as the toggle nears the end of its rearward travel, and a new round is stripped from the magazine and chambered as the toggle is driven back to the straight position by a spring.
The Luger is a fairly complicated pistol, requiring quite a bit of precision hand-fitting to manufacture, and tight tolerances between parts. These things contribute to it's accuracy, but detract from reliability. Even for it's time, the Luger was considered complex, expensive, large, and powerful. These factors limited civilian sales especially, given the ubiquity of small, cheap Browning-style pistols. Ultimately, even for military applications, more reliable and cheaper pistols replaced it. Even a little dirt on the exposed parts of the firing mechanism on the left side can cause failure to function. Remember also that the Luger was designed to feed only round-nosed bullets, and hollow-points will almost certainly cause problems. Polishing or reshaping in an attempt to get hollowpoints to feed, is not recommended.
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