Unblinking Eye
                                    The 1908 Steyr Pistol

 

The 1908 Steyr Pieper Pistol

by Ed Buffaloe

1908 Steyr Pieper. Top: 7.65mm (.32 caliber)
Bottom:  6.35mm (.25 caliber).

Steyr is a town in Upper Austria, founded about 980 C.E., which has been an important center of iron work, manufacturing, and arms production since the Middle Ages.  Josef Werndl, who came from a long line of gunsmiths in Steyr, worked in the Colt and Remington factories in Hartford, Connecticut in 1852-1853, where he learned the cutting-edge manufacturing techniques of his era.  He returned to Steyr late in 1853 and rejoined the family manufacturing business, which was well established and employed as many as 500 workers, making rifle parts.  With the company foreman, Karl Holub, Josef designed a breech loading rifle, and he and his brother founded the Josef und Franz Werndl & Comp. Waffenfabrik und Sägemühle to market them.  By 1869 the company employed 6000 workers, and when Werndl took it public to raise money for expansion, it became the Oesterreichische Waffenfabrik Gesellschaft, Steyr, Austria, sometimes referred to by the initials OWG.

Werndl gathered around him the most talented designers and engineers in Austria, particularly the railroad engineer Ferdinand Mannlicher, whose designs helped make OWG into the most important small arms manufacturer in Europe. Josef Werndl died in 1889, but the company he founded lived on.  In 1894 the company diversified into bicycle production, and in 1918 began producing automobiles. In 1923, the company became Steyr-werke AG, and in 1928 merged with the Austro-Daimler-Puchwerke AG to become Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG.  The company was and still is often referred to simply as Steyr for brevity’s sake and because Steyr is the most prominent name on the guns it manufactures.

1908 Steyr 6.35mm.

Steyr produced the Schonberger semi-automatic pistol as early as 1892.  The Schonberger was a locked breech gun with a reciprocating bolt in a solid frame and a clip-loaded magazine in front of the trigger guard.  It is said by Hogg and Weeks to be “the first practical automatic pistol to be offered commercially,” though only a few hundred were made.  The company also produced various Mannlicher designs, beginning with an 1894 blow-forward pistol; followed by an 1896 blowback pistol with a recoiling bolt, which was later refined into the widely imitated classic Model 1900 (sometimes referred to as M-1901) with a retarded blowback mechanism and an open-topped slide; then a 1903 locked breech pistol with the magazine forward of the trigger guard. None of these guns was produced in a very large quantity, but they do indicate that the Steyr company was at the forefront of European automatic weapons design and production.

1908 Steyr 7.65mm with breech open.

The 1908 Steyr Pieper pistol was based on a design by Nicolas Pieper and Jean Warnant. Pieper was granted various patents on the design from 1905 onward in Belgium, Britain, and Switzerland, and may have been assigned the rights to various patents by Warnant. Pieper licensed Steyr to manufacture the pistol. The Steyr version differed in external details from the gun Pieper manufactured in Belgium (particularly in the more pronounced angle of the grip) but was mechanically identical, though Pieper also manufactured a version with a fixed barrel.  The 1908 Steyr Pieper is sometimes referred to as the Model of 1909, because production did not begin until 1909.  It is also sometimes referred to as the Steyr OWG 1908 or 1909.

The 1908 Steyr Pieper is an extractorless blowback design with a drop barrel.  The recoil spring is mounted over the barrel, in the fashion of the FN Browning of 1900, and the guide rod for the spring has a hook on its rear which engages the reciprocating breech bolt when the barrel is latched down. There is a release lever for the barrel on the left side of the gun. A separate breech bolt receiver is mounted atop the rear of the frame and is secured by two transverse screws on the 7.65mm version, or by a single screw on the 6.35mm version.  The breech bolt moves freely in the receiver, but cannot be blown out of it to the rear. As the breech bolt moves rearward, it cocks the hammer, and on the 7.65mm version the cocked hammer forces a small pin out the rear of the frame to serve as a cocked hammer indicator.  According to W.H.B. Smith, the extreme light weight of the reciprocating bolt gave the 1908 Steyr a relatively heavy recoil.

Early Grip

Late Grip

Serrations

Both the 7.65mm and 6.35mm versions were marked “OESTERR. WAFFENFABRIKS- GES. / STEYR.” on the left side of the receiver. The right side of the receiver was marked “N. PIEPER PATENT”.  Both versions were marked “PAT. № 9379-05 u № 25025-06” on the left side of the barrel. After 1911 a third patent date was added to the 7.65mm version, to read “PAT. № 9379-05 № 25025-06 u № 16715-08.”  The right side of the barrel was marked with a Swiss patent (indicated by a cross) “PAT. + № 40335.” Later versions of the 6.35mm were marked with an additional British patent as well as the Swiss patent:  “PAT. ENGL. № 16715-08. + № 40335”. Also on the right side of the barrel will be found the last  digits of the date of manufacture. (The 7.65mm pistol pictured on this page was made in 1911. The 6.35mm was made in 1922.)  Some guns display proof marks.  The 6.35mm gun shown here bears the definitive proof of finished arms of the Vienna proof house on the left side of its barrel, and the smokeless powder proof of Vienna on the right side.

Early grips of both calibers were checkered hard rubber marked with the OWG initials in an oval cartouche, beneath which was the STEYR name.  Later grips were checkered hard rubber with only the circular STEYR logo.  The 7.65mm pistols produced between 1909 and 1914 had fine slanted serrations on the breech bolt. Those made between 1921 and 1933 had fine vertical serrations on the breech bolt. Those made from 1934 to the end of production (possibly in 1939) had a redesigned receiver and much heavier breech bolt, more nearly resembling a slide, which had coarse vertical serrations.  I have been unable to examine one of these late guns in person to offer more detail on its functioning. The serrations on the 6.35mm pistol were not changed.

A unique feature of Steyr Pieper is that it was designed to be fired in single-shot mode, while keeping a full magazine in reserve should it be necessary to fire multiple rounds. There are two detents on the back of the magazine. One holds the magazine a few millimeters lower than normal in the magazine well, so that the returning breech bolt cannot chamber the uppermost round in the magazine. However, a new round can be quickly inserted in the chamber by pressing the release lever and tipping the barrel down.  With the barrel open, the breech bolt is disconnected from the recoil spring and can be pulled back easily to cock the hammer and then pushed forward again to return the barrel to firing position.  The other magazine detent holds the magazine fully engaged in the grip of the gun for semi-automatic fire, and a quick tap with the heel of the palm is all that is necessary to move the magazine from one detent to the other. This feature sounds great, but doesn’t actually work very well.

The magazine release is difficult to operate.  It levers the magazine down, but the magazine inevitably catches on the second detent, and one has to hold the spring-loaded release down with one hand while pulling on the rear-facing magazine lip with the other to remove it. The magazine is strangely designed, with a long lip to the rear rather than the front, giving poor leverage for removal.  I struggled with magazine removal on both guns, particularly the .25.

The extractor-less design was no doubt simple to manufacture, but has the disadvantage that, should the primer not ignite when the hammer falls, the cartridge will inevitably be deeply seated in the chamber by the firing pin and can only be removed by tipping the barrel down and prying it out with a knife or screwdriver, or poking it out from the opposite direction. If one should forget that there is no extractor and work the action with a round still seated in the chamber, it will only serve up another cartridge from the magazine and cause an even worse jam.  All of the above scenarios occured while I was test firing these two pistols.

Both of these old guns had problems with not igniting primers, which of course caused cartridges to get stuck in the chamber and enabled me to quickly acquaint myself with the design flaws of the Steyr Pieper.

The receiver was easily extracted from the frame of the 6.35mm version by removing the screw at the rear of the gun--the receiver and breech bolt assembly can be lifted out, and the breech bolt can be removed through the front of the receiver. I thoroughly cleaned, polished, and lubricated all the parts in the receiver and frame of the 6.35mm Steyr.  However, I was unable to get the gun to ignite primers reliably.  I can only assume that the hammer spring is weak.

There are two screws in the 7.65mm Steyr Pieper, and I was unable to extract the forward one. So I soaked the entire gun in gasoline until the gasoline turned black, then carefully blew it dry with compressed air. I then applied Militec Oil to every surface of the gun.  I let the Militec soak into and bond with the metal for a while before I wiped the gun down with a soft cloth. Then I lubricated the internal mechanisms with Hoppe’s 9 Moly Oil. The old Steyr seemed to work fine after that, with the exception that it has a weak magazine spring and would misfeed on the last couple of rounds. But it shot a 2 inch group at 10 yards--not bad for an almost 100 year-old gun.

Copyright 2009 by Ed Buffaloe. All rights reserved.


References

The Complete Encyclopedia of Pistols and Revolvers, by A.E. Hartink. Chartwell Books, Edison, NJ: 2002.
Dictionary of Guns and Gunmakers, by John Walter.  Greenhill, London:  2001.
The Handgun, by Geoffrey Boothroyd. Bonanza, New York: 1970.
The NRA Book of Small Arms, Volume I:  Pistols and Revolvers, by Walter H.B. Smith, 2nd Edition, copublished by the NRA and The Military Service Publishing Co., Harrisburg, PA: 1948.
Pistols of the World, by Ian Hogg and John Weeks.  Arms & Armour Press, London:  1978.
Pistols of World War I, by Robert J. Adamek. Pentagon, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:  2001.
7.65mm Steyr-Pieper SelbstladPistole Model 1908
6.35mm Steyr-Pieper Pocket Pistol Model 1909
 

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