Unblinking Eye
The Zehna Pistol

The Zehna Pistol
Part 1, History and Prototypes

by Ed Buffaloe


Zehna Prototype

Zehna Prototype

There is not a lot of information available about the Zehna pistols. Most sources agree they were made by Emil Zehner sometime between 1920 and 1928.

Emil Zehner

Zehner is, apparently, a common surname in Thuringia, and Emil is a common given name. There are traces of various Zehners in Suhl in numerous sources:

  1. The book Patentblatt: herausgegeben von dem Kaiserl. Patentamt, Volume 18, p. 296 lists the following patent: “Z.1767. Maschine zur Herstellung von Spiral -bohrern durch Ziehen im Drall [machine for the production of drill bits]--Emil Zehner in Suhl i. Th. 14 September 1893.”
  2. The Sauer & Sohn pistols, made in Suhl between 1913 and the end of WWII, are credited to Fritz Zehner, the chief design engineer for the company. His son, Hans Zehner, was chief of development.
  3. The online Archive of Thuringia lists the company “Ch. and P. Zehner in Suhl” dating from 1904 to 1937.
  4. The online Archive of Thuringia lists a company “Zehner & Hölzer in Suhl,” dating from 1924 to 1934.
  5. Emil Zehner appears to have been listed, as early as 1901, in a German book about the iron and steel industry, as a maker of gas-permeable core pieces for metal casting. Indeed, he filed German patent 137084, on 14 September 1901, for this device which eliminated gas bubbles in the casting of metal tubes, and makes casting of hollow items possible.
  6. The online Archive of Thuringia lists the company “Emil Zehner, Suhl, Metallwarenfabrik und Temper-Gießerei [Metalware Factory and Cast Iron Foundry]” dating from 1909 to 1952.
  7. The book Gemeinfassliche Darstellung des Eisenhüttenwesens [General Description of the Iron and Steel Industry], published by Verlag Stahleisen m.b.H. in 1912, lists Emil Zehner in Suhl, province of Sachsen, on page 379.
  8. John Walter, in his Dictionary of Guns and Gunmakers, lists “Emil Zehner, Suhl, Thüringen. This German ‘gunsmith’ is recorded in the 1914 Deutsches Reichs-Adressbuch as a specialist screw maker.”
  9. The publication Die Werkzeugmaschine: Zeitschrift fur praktischen Fabrikbetrieb [The Machine Tool: Journal of Practical Factory Operation], 15 March 1916, page 35, features an advertisement for “Metallwarenfabrik und Tempergeißerei [Metalware Factory and Cast Iron Foundry] Emil Zehner, Suhl i. Thür.” (See below.)
  10. The publication Der Waffenschmied, 25 August 1919 reports that Emil Zehner, senior boss of the Wilhelm Zehner Company, died in Suhl at the age of 74.
  11. The publication Der Waffenschmied, 25 September 1919, reports that D.R.G.M. number 706362, for “Laufbefestigung für Selbstladepistole” [barrel fixation for self loading pistol], was granted to the company Emil Zehner.
  12. A company by the name of Emil Zehner, Motorradbau, manufactured light motorcycles in Suhl during the years 1924-1926. Very little information is available about the motorcycle or its maker.
  13. There was also an Emil Zehner who became secretary of the Freie Arbeiter Union in 1933. This union was known by the acronym FAUD and was an anarcho-syndicalist workers union in Erfurt. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1937 and sentenced to three years in prison for high treason. He was still alive, living in the Russian occupied zone in 1947, but I do not believe he is the same Emil Zehner who designed the Zehna pistol.
  14. A very interesting letter appears on Alain Daubresse’s Littlegun.be website, on the page about the Haenel Schmeisser pistol, which reveals that Hugo Schmeisser’s wife was a member of the Zehner family. According to the letter, Hugo was repatriated from Russia, in 1951, where he had helped design the AK-47 rifle. He was in poor health after his years in Russia, died in 1953 in relative poverty, and was buried in his wife’s Zehner family cemetery in Suhl.
  15. The marital link between the Schmeisser and Zehner families is interesting because of the strong resemblance between the 6.35mm Haenel Schmeisser pistol and the Zehna Pistol, both being designed and manufactured at almost exactly the same time in the period between 1919 and 1921. Both of these pistols bear a striking resemblance to the 6.35mm Dreyse pistol which was designed by Hugo’s father, Louis Schmeisser, around 1908, and manufactured by the Rheinische Metallwaaren & Maschinenfabrik.
Advertisement in der Werkzeugmaschine, Volume 20, 1916

Metalware Factory and Cast Iron Foundry
recommended for quality casting for various purposes in any desired finish at competitively low prices

1. Execution of work suitable for precision machine tools,
2. Screws and fittings made from any metal on automatic machines in a precise execution according to a sample or drawing; furthermore drill bits for metal, made on special machines, as well as
3. Bulk articles of any kind for the metal industry, according to sample or drawing.

From the entries above, a picture emerges of a master machinist who patented a mechanism for making drill bits as early as 1893, a method of making hollow castings in 1901, and who specialized in precision machining, screw manufacture, drill bit manufacture, and cast iron. If we guess that he was at least twenty years old in 1893 when he got his drill bit patent, he must have been born in the late 1860’s or early 1870’s and, if he lived until at least 1952, he must have died sometime in his 80s.

We may never know the details surrounding the similarities between the Zehna, Haenel Schmeisser, and 6.35mm Dreyse pistols, but I think we can assume that some arrangement was reached, between the Schmeisser family members and Zehner in-laws, to allow similar guns to be made from the same basic frame and lockwork design. In each case, the patented portion of the gun is the method of barrel retention and disassembly, and that is the only major difference between the three.

Dreyse, Schmeisser, Zehna frames compared

Frame Comparison - Dreyse, Haenel Schmeisser, and Zehna 3rd Variant


Of the three patents that Emil Zehner filed for guns in Germany in 1919 and 1920, one, patent number 350727, was filed under the company name “Emil Zehner, Metallwarenfabrik u. Tempergießerei in Suhl i. Th. [Metalware Factory and Cast Iron Foundry in Suhl, Thuringia].” This is identical to the name in the above advertisement. In the other two patents, numbers 358103 and 378452, the company name is simplified to “Emil Zehner, Metallwarenfabrik in Suhl i. Th. [Metalware Factory in Suhl, Thuringia].” This is how the box for the Zehna pistol is marked.

Zehna Box

Zehna Pistol Box

On 17 May 1919, Hans Schmeisser filed a patent for “Laufbefestigung für Selbstladepistolen mit feststehendem Lauf” which translates as “barrel attachment for self-loading pistols with a fixed barrel.” Less than four months later, on 6 September 1919, Emil Zehner filed his first firearm patent for “mit Federbolzen versehene Laufbefestigung, insbesondere für Selbstladepistolen mit feststehendem Lauf” which translates as “barrel attachment with spring bolts, especially for self -loading pistols with a fixed barrel.”

Patent Drawing Comparison

Schmeisser Patent

Zehner Patent

Zehner filed additional patents, on 20 February 1920, and on 13 May 1921, for a pistol with a rigidly fixed barrel which was never manufactured. I suspect he was looking for a way to simplify his design, perhaps to further distinguish it from the Haenel Schmiesser and Dreyse pistols.

In fact, internally, the Zehna pistol is an almost exact copy of the 6.35mm Dreyse pistol. Its trigger, sear, safety, striker, transfer bar, and disconnector could easily have been made from leftover Dreyse parts. The Haenel Schmeisser has some differences in the way the sear is mounted and has different springs for the sear and magazine release, but the trigger, sear, safety, transfer bar, and disconnector are nearly identical between the three pistols. The Schmeisser has a cocking indicator which is lacking on the Dreyse and the early Zehna pistols, but it was added to the late Zehna pistol.

The Prototype Zehna Pistol

Mathews provides the following information: “The Zehna pistol...was designed by Emil Zehner in about 1919-1920 and prototype forms were made in 1920 and perhaps in early 1921. When commercially produced, in mid-1921, the pistol differed somewhat from the prototypes.” Mathews does not provide photographs or any further information about prototypes, nor does he give a source for his information. If Zehner filed his patent on 6 September 1919, it seems likely that he had a working prototype at that time.

I own a prototype Zehna pistol, and I have photographs of another that sold on Gunbroker.com. There are probably more yet to be identified.

Zehna Prototype Zehna Prototype

Zehna Prototype

The Zehna pistol is a striker-fired design with a pivoting trigger and a transfer bar that runs inside the frame on the left side. As with many such pistols, the disconnector is simply a projection at the top of the transfer bar that is depressed when the slide is out of battery. The Zehna has a removable backstrap to which is attached the sear and its spring, the magazine release and its spring, and the spring which tensions the transfer bar and trigger. The backstrap is secured in the frame by a small pin at the bottom and by the safety lever at the top. The safety lever locks the sear when turned to the rear and has a hook which is used to lock the slide open in order to disassemble the gun.  There is no magazine safety on the Zehna.

Of the two prototypes I have documented, both have the word Zehna  hand engraved in script on the left side in front of the slide serrations. Neither has an external serial number, but one has parts stamped with the number 8 and the other with the number 9. Both have the standard crown over N German nitro proofs, but no other markings. Neither gun came with the EZ monogram grips.

Dreyse 6.35mm & Zehna frames compared

Top:  Dreyse 6.35mm               Bottom: Zehna Prototype

Both the 6.35mm Dreyse and the Zehna have a lug at the rear of the barrel which fits into a hole in the frame. Both guns have flanges on the sides of the barrel which sit on top of the forward slide extensions. Both guns have nearly identical safety levers with checkered circular areas for turning by the thumb.

There are differences, of course: the early Dreyse pistol had a magazine safety (visible in the magazine well); the backstop for the striker spring is longer on the Dreyse; the frame and slide of the Zehna are longer than those of the Dreyse; and the Dreyse does not lock the barrel to the frame. Whereas the Dreyse barrel is connected to the breech block portion of the slide by what the British patent calls a “sliding or otherwise movable locking bar,” the Zehna locks the barrel to the frame at the bottom, both front and rear, both in the prototype and as shown in the patent.

Patent drawings

Patent drawings for Dreyse & Zehna Pistols:

Dreyse & Zehna barrels compared

Left: Dreyse Barrel                  Right: Zehna Barrel

On the Zehna prototype, the spring-loaded rod, which secures the lug at the rear of the barrel, passes through a tubular sleeve. Inside the sleeve, and surrounding the rod, is the spring which tensions it. The sleeve itself runs through the center of the recoil spring, serving as the recoil-spring guide rod. Since both springs are compressed during recoil, the gun effectively has dual recoil springs. A rectangular end-piece, at the front of the rod, has a thickened area that fits into the hole in the front barrel lug and fixes it in place. Another small pin fits into a hole in the front of the frame. With the slide locked open, the end-piece of the rod can be pulled forward and turned slightly; this unlocks both the front and rear barrel lugs and allows the barrel to be lifted upward. With the barrel removed, the slide can be unlocked and drawn forward off the frame.

Recoil-spring guide rod
Zehna Prototype detail Zehna Prototype detail

Zehna Prototype Barrel Retention Details

Why Zehner chose to redesign the prototype gun is impossible to know for certain. The man I bought my prototype from told me he had shot it for years and it had always functioned perfectly. We can see that the parts diagram from the Zehna manual shows a locking piece that looks more like the prototype than any later design and also shows evidence that, perhaps, the front lug was erased from the illustration of the barrel. It appears that Zehner had every intention of producing the gun shown in the patent drawing.

Zehna Parts List

Zehna Parts

 1. Barrel
 2. Barrel holder complete
 a) Closing spring sleeve
 b) Closing spring
 c) Barrel holder bolt
 d) Barrel holder spring
 e) Grip plate
 3. Extractor
 4. Extractor spring
 5. Extractor pin
 6. Firing pin
 7. Firing pin spring
 8. Firing pin spring guide rod
 9. Slide
10. Frame
11. Safety lever
12. Trigger
13. Trigger pin

14. Trigger bar (transfer bar)
15. Grip backstrap (mount for sear)
16. Sear
17. Sear spring
18. Sear pin
19. Magazine release
20. Magazine release spring
21. Magazine release pin
22. Safety spring
23. Trigger bar spring
24. Magazine
25. Magazine follower
26. Magazine spring
27. Left grip stock
28. Right grip stock
29. Grip stock screw and nut

In any case, the only changes necessary to make the first variant production gun were removal of the front barrel lug, a redesign of the plate at the front of the recoil spring, a redesign of the front of the barrel, and an additional hole drilled in the front of the frame to accommodate the repositioned pin on the back of the plate.

Zehna Prototype fieldstripped

Zehna Prototype Field Stripped (this gun is missing the recoil spring guide rod)

The Zehna Pistol, Part 2, The Production Pistols

Copyright 2008-2022 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.
Click on small pictures to open a larger version in a new window.


  • Cate, Jim and Van Gijn, Nico. J. P. Sauer & Sohn: A Historical Study of Sauer Automatic Pistols. Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, Missouri: 1996.
  • Hogg, Ian V. German Handguns.  Greenhill, London:  2001.
  • Hogg, Ian V. German Pistols and Revolvers, 1871-1945.  Galahad, New York:  1971.
  • Hogg, Ian V. and Weeks, John. Pistols of the World. Arms & Armour Press, London: 1978.
  • Konig, Klaus-Peter and Hugo, Martin. Taschenpistolen. Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart, 1965.
  • Matthews, J. Howard. Firearms Identification. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 1962.
  • Schroeder, Joseph J., editor. Arms of the World 1911 (ALFA Catalogue).  Follett, Chicago:  1972.
  • Walter, John. Dictionary of Guns and Gunmakers.  Greenhill, London:  2001.
  • Zhuk, A. B. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Handguns.  Greenhill, London:  1995.

Special thanks to Dr. Stefan Klein for his assistance in researching German sources and explicating German word usage. Special thanks to Bill Chase for his always excellent photographs. Thanks to Michael Carrick for assistance in researching sources, and to Al Gerth for proofing and corrections.

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