Unblinking Eye

The Sauer und Sohn 38H Pistol

by Aaron Shuler

Sauer 38H left side view.When a Sauer 38H walked up to me at an Alaska gun show years ago, I was hardly an expert on the weapon.  In fact, though I’d heard about it and seen a picture, I had never handled one.  This one had a slipover rubber grip on it but seemed otherwise in good condition.  The owner had a magazine loaded with Winchester Silvertips and a single cartridge in his pocket.  This was his concealed carry gun.

Something on my table had caught his eye and a symphony of horse-trading banter ensued.  It seems he had owned the .32 for years but wanted something more appropriate for concealed carry in Alaska where bad guys wear heavy jackets and you’re more likely to shoot an animal than a human with your CCW.  After a short time, he walked away with one of my guns and his Sauer was hiding below my table.  Now a proud owner, I sought out all the information I could find on this new pistol.  Here’s what I found.

Sauer 38H right side view.J. P. Sauer & Sohn was founded in 1751 in Suhl, Germany and made both military and sporting firearms.  Their first pistol, the Roth Sauer pistol was a bit of an awkward artistic representation of a real gun.  It did go bang and looked good doing it.  Unfortunately, Roth’s creation was typical of the time—milled from solid chunks of steel then finely polished and blued.  This was hardly an appropriate firearm for an army.

Sauer’s second attempt at a personal protection arm resulted in the excellent model 1913.  Designer, Fritz Zehner, incorporated many features later refined into the model 38H.  The bolt and slide were separately milled and the rear of the slide was closed by a threaded cap and kept in place by the rear sight!  I have it on good authority that this is not the best way to do things.  The model 1930 and Behorden pistols were evolutionary designs and led eventually to my hammerless beauty.

Variously called the model 38, 38H, or 38(H), the “38” stands for the introduction year and the “H” denotes hammerless or, in this case, a concealed hammer shrouded by the rear of the slide.  In layout, the 38H is similar to many contemporary pistols.  It has a 3.3” (83 mm) barrel fixed to the receiver.  The recoil spring surrounds the barrel as in the Walther PP series pistols.  The 8-round magazine is located in the grip and released by a button in the same location as on the M1911.  The trigger acts in double action for the first shot, single action for every shot thereafter.  Here, the similarity with other pistols ends abruptly.


Dispensing with the striker firing mechanism of the previous Zehner pistols, the 38H incorporated a conventional hammer.  From an operational standpoint, this meant that it could not be thumb-cocked, thus limiting its utility.  To cock the hammer, the pistol uses a lever on the left side of the grip behind the trigger.  For right-handed users, the thumb merely pushed the lever down to cock the hammer.  Ingeniously, another push of the lever decocked the hammer and safely lowered it.  There was also a low-profile lever safety on the slide (later eliminated towards the end of World War II).  A loaded chamber indicator pin stuck out the rear of the slide when there was a cartridge in the breech.

Construction methods on the 38H were no less revolutionary than its design.  Parts such as the trigger and magazine plate were zinc castings.  As with the earlier 1913, the bolt was milled separately from the slide.  This allowed the use of a higher grade of steel for the breechblock and simplified the machining process.

The 38H was offered in .32 ACP but some examples were made in .380 and .22LR.  With revolutionary design and construction methods, Sauer had a winner on its hands.  It would have surely taken the firearms world by storm were it not for two factors.  First, the huge American market preferred .38 caliber revolvers; what demand there was for autoloaders in America was taken up by single-action offerings from Colt, Savage, and Remington.  Second, an excellent double-action competitor from Walther had already dug its heels deep.  For the most part, there was nothing wrong with the Walther PP series so it was tough for the Sauer 38H and contemporary Mauser HSc to break in.


World War II meant large contracts for virtually all martial firearms.  Eventually, demand resulted in production of roughly equal numbers of these three similar pistols.  Unfortunately, when the war ended, the Sauer factory was on the wrong side of the border in East Germany.  Production ended with Soviet occupation.

Virtually all Sauers are, therefore, WWII production.  I had my example for a while, but there were other things on my mind.  I had a collection of CZ 27’s to nurture and three young kids to feed .  Eventually, I sold my jewel and made some lucky Alaskan very happy.  Yes, I was young and needed the money.  No, I didn’t regret it much.  I knew that I would eventually have enough money to track down another one.  A Florida dealer eventually satisfied my needs and, again, a Sauer 38H found its way into my collection.

The pistol handles like a dream.  It sits low in the hand, but not so low that the slide bites my hand.  This is a rarity for me.  The magazine release, cocking/decocking lever, and safety are all within easy reach of the thumb.  The trigger pull is heavy but smooth in double action, relatively light and crisp in single action.  The sights are small, but functional.  Loading the magazine to capacity is easy and charging the gun does not require significant hand strength.  Once charged, the loaded -chamber indicator is easy to feel at the back of the slide.

Second magazine.Despite all of my praise, I never shot the first pistol.  I only cleaned it a few times and admired its handling characteristics.  I was an idiot.  When I finally got it to the range, I was literally dumbfounded by the group fired off-hand with Fiocchi ball ammo.  This was my first magazine and I looked around to see if anybody other than my daughter had witnessed it.  Nobody would believe me otherwise.

Shooting the old Sauer was natural.  It pointed where I expected it to and felt good in the hand.  Having grown up shooting the 1911, I am very picky about how a gun points.  I had no problem putting holes in the black while shooting from the hip from seven paces.  Back at 50 feet I had no problem hitting the bull’s-eye.  I am not the worlds best shot, but I try to hold my own.  Recoil is no different than my various other .32’s.  The low bore axis means muzzle flip is negligible.  The only smoother .32 I own is a Remington 51.

Disassembly is simple and straightforward.  After removing the magazine and clearing the chamber, pull the disassembly latch located at the front of the trigger guard downward until it stops .  Retract the slide fully and lift the rear of the slide so that it clears the barrel then ease the slide forward and off.  The spring now comes off of the barrel.  Reassemble in the reverse order.  The most difficult part of reassembly is ensuring the barrel gets through the front of the slide.

Disassembly release catch Removing the slide. Sauer 38H field stripped.

Original grips for the Sauer 38H are brittle.  The cutouts in the left grip necessary for the cocking/decocking lever also weakened the already fragile grip.  Years of weathering and storage combined with oils, solvents, and possibly overtightening of the grips have taken their toll on most of the ones I have seen.  It is common to find grips cracked or crumbling.  Although I have an intact set of grips, I bought some reproductions that appear in all of the photos and video.  My originals are safely stored at home.

Overall, it is unfortunate the 38H did not survive the war.  Mauser produced their HSc for decades and the Walther PPK is still in production.  All was not lost, though.  SIG Sauer pistols to this day use a decocking lever and slides made the same way, with a separate breechblock.  Still, nothing beats the original.


Firearms Identification, Vols. I & II, by H. J. Mathews.  Univ. of Wisconsin Press: 1962.
Now published by C. C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.
Sauer & Sohn, A Historical Study of Sauer Automatic Pistols, by Jim Cate & Nico Van Gijn.
Walsworth Publishing, Marceline, MO:  1996.
Textbook of Automatic Pistols, by R. K. Wilson.  Small Arms Technical Pub. Co.: 1943.
Now published by Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA.

Copyright 2008 by Aaron Shuler.  All rights reserved.
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