In the 2001 HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers,” Scott Grimes plays the character Donald Malarkey in the famed 101st Airborne Division, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, E Company. One memorable scene in the series focused on Easy Company’s attack on Brecourt Manor shortly after the unit parachuted into Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion. Malarkey runs out into an open field and rifles through the body of the first dead Nazi he encounters in search of a Luger he had promised to bring back to his little brother. To the amazement of his friends, he exposed himself to German fire, only to return empty-handed.
Though somewhat embellished, such a scene played out and over again during both world wars. Americans are inveterate souvenir hunters, and to the average G.I. of World War I and II, the German Luger was the number-one-sought-after prize of their time in Europe.
Now, nearly a century after Doughboys first developed their taste for such a memento, Lugers still capture the imagination and command high prices on the show and auction circuit.
But it’s not only the history of this 117-year-old pistol that creates such an allure, it’s also the design. The ergonomic angle of its pistol grip makes it one of the most naturally pointing guns ever made. This is factor not lost on the Japanese designers responsible for the Nambu Type 14. William B. Ruger’s Standard .22 also bears more than a passing resemblance to the famed German military sidearm.
An American Connection
The Luger was designed by and named for Georg Johann Luger (1849-1923). Luger was an Austrian who worked closely with the arms designers Ferdinand von Mannlicher and Hugo Borchardt. Borchardt was instrumental in developing a semi-auto pistol in the late 1890s, and Luger streamlined Borchardt’s designs into what we know today as the Luger P-08 9mm pistol.
Using a toggle link that used the force of a fired round to cock and reload the pistol, the Lugers unique action is amazingly similar to the link action found in a Henry rifle, as well as its successor, the Winchester 1873. This is not surprising, because Borchardt actually worked at Winchester when both rifles were developed.
Borchardt and Luger found a receptive audience with the Swiss Military Ordnance Board, which adopted the design in 1900—the first of many multi-national contracts that would continue until the 1940s.
Even the United States showed an interest in the pistol. The Luger came very close to being adopted by the U.S. in place of the Browning/Colt design that became the Model 1911. During the 1907 pistol trials, the Luger was favorably considered alongside the Savage and Browning designs. As a finalist, each of the designers was asked to supply the U.S. Army with 200 examples in .45 ACP for field trials. Savage and Colt manufactured their quota, but Luger, who had made only two pistols in .45 ACP, felt that it was doubtful their foreign design would be successful over two American designs and withdrew from the competition. Only one of the two .45-caliber Lugers is known of today, and it is considered to be worth over a million dollars.
The German Navy was excited to accept the Luger in 9mm, and adopted it in 1904. The German Army followed in 1908 and named it the “P-08.” The Germans continued to produce it in large numbers at numerous manufacturers until 1918 and then again in the 1930s and 1940s.
The standard infantry model had a 4-inch barrel; the Navy’s was 6 inches. An 8-inch barreled version with a matching shoulder stock that was capable of accepting a 32-round drum magazine was named the “Artillery” model and produced only during the First World War.
Nearly 20 other countries adopted the Luger over the next 50 years, and some Allied forces even used them for their clandestine units during World War II.
With dozens of variants with various manufacturer’s marks and calibers, the Luger remains a very desirable collector’s item, and demands prices exceeding $1,000 for guns in average condition.
And for the record, Sergeant Malarkey never did get a souvenir Luger for his little brother. Such are the fortunes of war.