One of my favorite handguns is a 1939 National Match Colt Government Model. It is the first shootable M1911 pattern gun that I ever came across. I call a gun shootable if it throws bullets where I aim it, with high precision and little fuss. All other M1911 handguns that I fired either made too much fuss for my taste or fell short of my expectations for precision. I consider a handgun fussy if it cannot be counted upon to fire 200 rounds fast without acting up. I do not consider it precise unless it can consistently hit a silver dollar at 75 feet. My Colt can do both in style. Most of its brethren fall short in one way or another.
The M1911 annoys me in other ways. Its design is demonstrably inferior to its descendants. Locating the barrel with a bushing at the muzzle and a swinging link at the breech makes this gun easy to tune for accuracy or reliability but hard to standardize for drop-in spare part replacement and tricky to take apart and put back together. An M1911 built tight for accuracy will not shoot reliably until it has been broken in with thousands of hardball rounds, at which point it loosens up and becomes less accurate. Its exterior bristles with hard edges and delicate notches. Its ergonomics are so poor that only collector editions are made without beavertail tangs, memory groove grip safeties, extended thumb safeties, and cut or arched mainspring housings. Its construction standards are so lax that three generations of gunsmiths have put their kids through college by charging fees for handfitting for accuracy and reliability tuneups. Its lore is akin to that of Harley-Davidson Big Twin, the flagship product of the oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer in the world, which putters around in grand style as long as the rider abstains from going too fast or turning too abruptly.
Sportbike riders will appreciate me naming the Luger, the Ducati of handguns. Disqualifying the Luger as a functional, battle-worthy sidearm is nothing short of idiotic. With is production numbers adding up to over a million, it belongs among the most successful military issues of all times. Its official international adoption count is over three times that of the M1911. It can be safely assumed that Swiss, German, Dutch, Russian, Bulgarian, Portuguese, Brazilian, Bolivian, Chilean, and Persian procurement agencies knew their business. The Luger was a premium benchmade device competing against assembly-line appliances. Then, as now, cost savings could only be trumped by overwhelming advantages in quality. The fact of its selection over less costly candidates bespeaks the supremacy of the Luger.
Like the Ducati twin, the Luger is notable for its balance. It is the only self-loading pistol that boasts the handling integrity of a big-bore Colt SAA revolver. For my part, any time I have to fire a single shot with speed and accuracy, I would choose no handgun other than one of these two. Their feel in the hand is that of a natural extension, with the barrel indexing intuitively. To be sure, in the Luger this indexing is enabled by the design that wedges the hand in place under the blunt end of the frame, whereas the Colt points like the proverbial plough handle, inspiring the shooter’s hand to align with its barrel axis. By contrast, the ergonomics of the M1911 grip hold are doubly compromised by the workmanlike feel of its slab-sided grip frame and the looseness introduced at a critical juncture therein by the installation of a pivoting grip safety, which many a target shooter felt compelled to pin into place.
The M1911 is easily compromised by sloppy manufacturing tolerances. No such slop is tolerable in the Luger. Accordingly, it is critically important to maintain the original ammunition dimensions, especially as regards the overall length and bullet configuration. This need arises because the Luger magazine feed is designed like most modern .22 rimfire autoloaders, with cartridges located by riding the bullet nose on the forward slope inside the magazine body. In a way, Georg Luger’s finest handgun design has suffered from the unmatched success and unchecked proliferation of his greatest creation, the 9x19mm Parabellum ammunition. The original German Army WWI 9mm Parabellum pistol ammo ballistics, as recapitulated as late as the Thirties Mauser owner’s manual, propelled a 123 grain truncated cone FMJ bullet out of a standard 4″ barrel at approximately 1,076 fps. Around 1917, the bullet configuration changed to a round nose shape of the same weight. The original DWM specification of the overall length of the 9mm Parabellum round measures from 1.14″ to 1.15″ for the truncated cone bullet load and from 1.169″ to 1.173″ for the round nose bullet load.
The toggle action of the Luger is capable of withstanding very high pressures. Thus the loads for the original DWM Parabellum carbine generated around 40,000 copper units of pressure (cup), nearly the 21,000 cup level of the maximum average pressure of the .45 ACP. Nevertheless, it is not advisable to shoot modern high pressure ammunition burning a fast powder in your classic Luger. All autopistols have their Achilles heel in the area of the loading ramp where the case head does not get very good support. Exposing your Luger to a pressure spike will blow out the case head on the bottom, removing the lower front edge of the breech block. The original slow burning powder was much gentler in this regard.
The tapered case of the 9x19mm round makes it inherently more robust and reliable in feeding than the straight-walled .45 ACP. (A typical problem in the latter cartridge is bullet setback in the case ensuing from several instances of chambering from the magazine, and resulting in a dangerous spike in chamber pressure as powder ignites in a space smaller than its original allocation.) But Lugers are both more accurate and more reliable when chambered for the bottleneck 7.65x21mm Parabellum cartridge, a.k.a the .30 Luger. One of the best Luger variants for shooting is the Swiss Model 1906/29, a simplified and strengthened successor to the more traditional Model 1900/06, first made by DWM and then by W+F. A well-worn Swiss .30 Luger pistol is likely to put 8 bullets well within 5 centimeters at 50 meters, from a machine rest. This is comparable to the results obtainable with the best bullseye 1911 pistols.
The longer barrel and the grip safety of the Swiss guns make them a bit more user-friendly than the P08. Generally speaking, in the Luger design longer and heavier barrels contribute to greater reliability by balancing out the snappier recoil impulse of modern ammunition. Unlike the massive M1911 design, the elegant 1900 and 1906 pattern grip safety of the Luger works the same mechanism as the safety lever, which functions as a sliding lock that secures its spring-loaded operation. With its point shooting characteristics second only to the Colt SAA revolver, a defensively minded pistolero might be tempted to leave the 1906 safety lever off, relying on the grip safety alone to bring the gun into action with a quick draw out of an open top belt holster. That is not a practice that I would recommend. But safety is always a matter of compromise in sidearms. With the notable exception of the occasional commercial Government Model Colt equipped with a Swartz firing pin lock operated by the grip safety, prior to 1943 no handgun manufacturer took the trouble to anticipate XXIst century handgun drop safety standards.
Some people balk at the Nazi connection of the Luger. But its original maker, Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (German Weapons and Munitions Works), known as DWM, was a successor in interest to Ludwig Loewe & Company, an arms maker founded in 1872. In addition to the Luger, Loewe owned the production rights to some of the finest contemporary firearms such as Mauser turnbolt rifles and Smith & Wesson break-open revolvers. This provenance makes the Luger a Jewish gun par excellence. My 1918 DWM P08 and 1917 DWM LP08 put me in touch with my inner Ernst Kantorowicz, who, but for an accident of Semitic birth, might have made an excellent Nazi. Needless to say, no sane man could have political or cultural qualms about a 1939 Colt.
There is no way to say which of these guns is a superior weapon under all defensive scenarios. Inside my house I usually carry the prewar National Match Government Model, loaded with 230 grain FMJ Winchester White Box ammunition, and modified only by installation of Crimson Trace laser grips. For outdoors use, I greatly prefer a 1917 DWM LP08 Artillery Luger, loaded with the 115 or 124 grain ammunition of the same brand, label, and configuration. It is by far the most accurate and comfortable centerfire semiauto that I ever fired. But for dual-purpose use, I prefer the SIG P210.