Choosing A 1950s Service Handgun


by R. K. Campbell

Photography by R. K. Campbell

October 16th, 2005




Among the most interesting times in firearms development is the late 1940s.    Immediately after World War Two the great war nations went into overdrive to rearm and prepare for what was seen as an inevitable conflict between western forces and the Soviet Union. We can all thank God that this never happened on a world scale.  Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and other wars large and small underscored the Cold War but with either side managing to stay their hand from the nuclear trigger.  The FN FAL, M 14, AK 47, and the AR-10 are very much products of this time. The exotic Swedish K and the Uzi also came into prominence during the 1950s.  The European powers had seen their armies wasted and demoralized, and the Dutch, French, and German services were basically starting from a clean slate.  Britain maintained the anachronism of the Lee-Enfield bolt action rifle into the Korean War.  Pistols were far less important but just the same a number of interesting developments are worth study.

We must remember that the handgun is not very important in military terms.  Historians agree that the pistol and rifle don’t kill the enemy on a scale with larger weapons. Enemy casualties are produced by bombs, grenades, machineguns and shrapnel.  But the pistol is a necessity in many matters. After 1945 standardization became vital. With the prospect of soldiers of many different nations fighting together, the ability to use the other’s ammunition was important.  It was considered a necessity that the sub machinegun, then an important military weapon, and the pistol share the same ammunition.  Standardization was not the only criteria.  Ballistic superiority was also a consideration.  The 9mm Luger cartridge was recognized as a singular handgun cartridge with excellent ballistic properties. Compared to the various short 9mms and the .32  French long the 9mm Luger is clearly a far more effective cartridge. 

With the necessity of using the same cartridge in the handgun and the sub machinegun, the issues of supply and adequate training are addressed properly.  Inconveniences in the logistics sector are alleviated.  Naval and air borne units working in isolated areas or those engaging in raids now have greater access to ammunition. With modern armies often facing guerilla warfare at their flanks, all personnel have a need to be armed. The pistol accomplished this need, allowing  all personnel to be armed at all times with a weapon of admittedly limited effectiveness, but capable of dealing with short range immediate threats. 

I attempted to take a look at several of the most popular service handguns offered for international sales during this era. Two were very successful and stand out although there were many others on the market. The ungainly French MAC 50 was a so-so handgun,  used only by the French and their colonies.  The Star pistols were moderately successful in Latin America.  The Browning High Power had been in use since 1935 and had seen extensive use by both sides during the war. Obviously, the High Power, a veteran of actions in Europe, China, Africa and virtually every theater of operations,  had the inside track for procurement by emerging nations and NATO allies.  The High Power was adopted by more nations than any other handgun in history.  The High Power was adopted most notably by Great Britain.  However, a new design from Pietro Beretta would prove popular. The Beretta 1951 found particular acceptance just across the Mediterranean. Arab nations such as Iraq and Egypt adopted the Beretta pistol and so did the fledging democracy of Israel.  The Beretta 1951 was manufactured under license in Iraq and Egypt and faced itself over the battlefield many times. 

Let’s compare the two pistols at length.  Pretend that you are the buying agent for a small nation and you must choose the best handgun for your armed forces.  We will leave bribes and the sultan’s favors out of the picture.  Since several of these nations were on a war footing for much of the time the handguns were issued, the pistol was considered more than a badge of office.  The Beretta and the High Power differ considerably in construction. The High Power uses the traditional Browning short recoil operation known as the locked breech type. The pistol locks up via conventional lugs and angled camming surfaces.  The Beretta uses an oscillating wedge as first used on the Mauser M 96 pistol. The barrel tilts down in either pistol but the Beretta unlocks by wings or wedges moving on the loading block, the Browning barrel tilts out of its locking lugs. Either method works. Both pistols boast great reliability in action by dint of historical accounts as well as test programs. The Beretta features an open top slide while the Browning has an enclosed slide, a Browning trademark.  Both pistols are of steel construction. Either was also offered experimentally in aluminum frame versions, but these lightweight versions are rare.  The Browning was once offered with a carbine type stock and tangent sights, but by the early fifties this type of gear was unfashionable.  The Beretta was offered in a special version with a full auto switch and an extended magazine. This version also featured a compensator to control muzzle rise. This type of handgun seems popular enough to warrant the type still being offered in the Glock and Beretta line but it seems very few 1951s of the type were manufactured.  I have seen photographs and a guess at the length of the magazine is that the single column magazine may have held perhaps fourteen cartridges.  The shoulder stock Browning fell out of favor and the new full auto pistols offered by Beretta were not particularly popular, but the standard pistols would flourish.  (there were versions of the High Power FM made up in full auto in Argentina but I have never seen an example).

Comparing the pistols required that I have examples on hand bearing a close resemblance to the originals.  I could hardly use my modern FM High Powers, they are superior to most Browning pistols!  I was not able to locate an original Beretta but did obtain a Helwan, a licensed Egyptian-manufactured clone of the 1951.  I also obtained a Browning High Power manufactured about 1972. So, while the evaluation was imperfect,  either handgun was very close to the original template.  In the test firing and examination, I attempted to compare the handguns but also to evaluate each on its own merits.  The bottom line, price, would have been an important consideration as well as the willingness of the parent to offer a license for manufacture in the purchasing nation.  I have no idea what either pistol would of cost a republic or regime in those days, but common sense tells us the Browning pistol would have been more expensive.  The Browning tested set the author back three hundred and seventy dollars, and it is in fair condition, the new in the box Helwan cost one hundred forty dollars.  That is a wide spread and the modern shooter may also be interested in the relative merits of each. 

First, general operation. Either pistol is smooth in operation, with the slide running smoothly on the frame. The cocking serrations of either handgun are generous and easily grasped.  The Browning demanded more effort in cocking the slide, but not enough to be difficult.  The Browning magazine release is located behind the trigger guard and is very positive in manipulation.  The Beretta type is a button in the grip that requires some shifting of the grip to use.  Either magazine is easily inserted, but the larger well of the Browning accepted the double column thirteen shot magazine more quickly than the Beretta accepted the thinner eight shot magazine.  The slide release of the Browning is acceptable but the Beretta featured an even handier slide lock and slide release.  The safety levers were not ideal.  The Beretta features a crossbolt in the grip that allows safe cocked and locked carry. It requires some shifting of the thumb to properly strike this safety. If actuated on the draw it is not too bad.  The small safety of the Browning is ideally placed and would have been much faster than the Beretta if it were a little larger.  One wonders why it took forty-five years of production to cure this defect.   As such, the safeties come about even, with the Beretta just as positive and as fast as the Browning.  Later variants of the Browning with a proper enlarged safety are much better arms.  Since military regulation called for the weapon to be carried with the chamber empty,  the safety may have been less of an issue with procurement agents than it is to the interested defense shooter.  The sights of the Browning are small military types similar to those found on the GI .45.  They are typical of the era. The Beretta design features larger sights better suited to marksmanship.  The Beretta sights are definitely an advantage. 

The trigger action of the Beretta was surprisingly clean, breaking at five pounds with little creep. The Browning trigger was typical for the age, with compression measured at six pounds with our RCBS trigger gauge, after considerable take-up.  Each handgun feels good in the hand and balances well. The Beretta has a thinner grip that seems unnecessarily long.  The Browning grip frame is wider due to the need to enclose a high capacity magazine, but it is comfortable.  Persons of normal hand size will have no difficulty with either.  Finally, in field stripping neither pistol is difficult, with an advantage given the Beretta. The Browning slide stop is not captive while the 1951 pistol features a take down lever on the right side for ease of field stripping.  The Beretta recoil guide end is exposed, the Browning is hidden.  The reliability of either type is difficult to address in a short test program, but either would fire hundreds of cartridges without difficulty.  Each attained a good reputation in all climatic conditions.  We elected to perform a firing test in order to qualify the differences in handling and accuracy.

9mm NATO ammunition was developed to offer an alternative to the many different classes of 9mm Luger ammunition then available.   I remember much of our commercial ammunition being loaded rather light, and it was well known that the Luger would not reliably function with such light loads.  124 grains at 900 fps was  common.   On the other extreme you had sub machinegun ammunition that would reach 1400 fps with the 116 grain bullet, much too hot for a pistol.   The 124 grain ball load at 1250 fps was chosen.  This is hot enough for good performance in a sub machinegun but not too hot for a well made handgun.  I was able to obtain a good supply of Winchester 124 grain NATO ammunition.  This ammunition burns clean with a minimum of muzzle flash and is accurate in quality handguns.  To broaden the test program, I also included standard Winchester USA ball ammunition in 115 grain weight.

I field stripped and lubricated the pistols before firing, making certain the long bearing surfaces of each were well oiled.  I fully loaded each magazine.  In each case I was able to obtain spare magazines from Gun Parts Corporation.  The Browning magazines are not particularly difficult to find, but the Helwan is becoming another matter.  I obtained two in good condition for each handgun, the Helwan magazines turning out to be one used magazine and one new magazine marked ‘Beretta 1951.’ 

Either is easy to load with the Browning requiring considerable effort to seat the twelfth and thirteenth cartridges.

With the drawbacks of either safety noted, we began the test holding either handgun in the hand and racking the slide to load and make ready.  I placed a number of man sized silhouette targets at ten yards to properly register the handgun’s accuracy.  After racking the slide, I took aim and fired at the silhouette as rapidly as possible while maintaining center hits.  It is possible to fire either more quickly than you can hit the target. Both handguns performed acceptably.  The Beretta rigger was faster to reset and smoother, but the Browning more controllable. Muzzle flip with either was not unpleasant, but the lower bore axis of the Browning gave better control.  Overall, you had a better chance of hitting the target with multiple hits quickly with the Browning than the Helwan/Beretta, and the greater magazine capacity of the Browning is an advantage. In rapid loading drills, firing to slide lock and quickly reinserting a magazine, the High Power is quicker to reload than the Beretta

We fired over two hundred rounds in each handgun. There were no stoppages of any type. Neither showed an accumulation of powder ash due to clean burning Winchester ammunition.   Overall, either handgun performed well.  As an ancillary weapon either would serve well. Special units that relied upon the pistol in combat would find the Browning High Power more suited for this task.  I think that the bottom line may have meant much and the countries adopting the Beretta tended to be closer to Italy geographically.

My final test was to bench rest the pistols from a solid rest and fire for accuracy.  Military accuracy standards have never been very stringent; with eight inches at twenty five yards a common benchmark.  My preliminary combat testing showed either gun should meet or exceed that humble standard.  I was correct.  Firing from the bench rest, both handguns were comfortable to fire. In this case, the Beretta trigger and sights gave an advantage over the Browning.  The results obtained with factory loads and one handload are plainly acceptable. 

Bench rest results, 25 yards.  Five shot groups measured in inches.

  Browning Helwan
Winchester 124 grain NATO 4.0 3.5
Winchester USA 115 grain 4.25 3.0
Nosler  115 grain JHP/HP 38/1199 fps* 4.5 2.8

*both pistols fed this hollow point loading perfectly.

The further development of these pistols is interesting.  As most of you know, the 1951 was modified into a high capacity double action variant known as the Beretta M 92, our current service handgun.  The Browning is still popular with civilian shooters and is a considerably developed pistol in its current form, with good sights and a speed safety.   I found this experiment quite interesting.  Either handgun gave good results, with all things being rather equal. The final choice would have depended much upon what you wanted in a service handgun and the bottom line or low bid.  Either will make an interesting addition to any collection. 

Other Choices

The Argentines have a good firearms tradition, producing some of the better handguns I have used. The FMAP pistols in both 1911 and High Power format have given the author good service. Today, among my favorite personal defense pistols are the FM High Power types. I had the opportunity to test fire a vintage FMAP High Power. I am used to the modern FM with the monolithic slide and should not have been surprised that this pistol is all High Power, identical in particulars to the vintage High Power. The lanyard ring and military grips made this pistol more suitable for comparison than my commercial High Power, but the FMAP came along at a later date. The finish was practically gone, but the pistol was comparable to Inglis High Power so the period. The firing test went smoothly, no surprises, but off the bench rest the pistols turned in a number of excellent groups. Pistols are individuals in some regards, but this is an accurate handgun.  The Argentines did well. 

Accuracy results

Winchester 124 grain NATO 2.5" group
Winchester 115 grain Silvertip 3.6" group



The P1

After the war, Walther was rebuilt but for a time the Walthers were produced by a French company. Some P 38s, also known as the P 1, were adopted by other nations and the P 38 became the standard arm of the rebuilt German Army. As the sole first shot double action 9mm service pistol, the P 38 was an influential arm. However, it adopted by only a few nations, including South Africa. The P 38 influenced Smith and Wesson greatly in the design of their Model 39, arguably an Americanized P 38.  The P 38 featured a long heavy double action trigger but some of the pistols in later production, including my 1970s P 1, are quite smooth. The pistol feeds modern hollowpoints and is quite accurate. The current US service handgun is a basically a P 38 with slight modification and a high capacity magazine.

Accuracy results

Winchester 115 grain Ranger JHP 3.0" group
Winchester 147 grain SXT  2.5" group



The Other Side Of The Coin

Many nations were concerned with the Soviets, but others were more concerned with their neighbors and domestic rebellions.  If they were concerned with the Soviets, they could take some comfort in their superiority in handguns to the great Bear, if nothing else. The Tokarev was not a technically advanced handgun although it usually worked well.  The new Makarov was tactically no more efficient than the Walther PPK.  At best, the Makarov was a badge of office.  But another handgun just coming into production would prove to be among the single most accurate service handguns ever produced,  an ultra modern handgun with many good features. This was the CZ 52.  It would have given any Western military expert pause.  It may have been a superior weapon in many ways to any other. 

The 7.62 Tokarev earned a good reputation for ruggedness and the ability to withstand harsh climates.  The Tokarev relied heavily upon Browning principles, and resembles the 1903 Colt. But it does feature an advanced system in which the action may be removed en bloc.  There is probably no more reliable service handgun ever produced, although many of the Chinese variants produced for dumping on our shores show shoddy workmanship. The .30 caliber cartridge it fired was basically an adaptation of the .30 Mauser.  While this cartridge may have less stopping power than the 9mm Luger, on the other hand it has greater penetration. The ability to penetrate light cover and web gear is important in a cartridge designed for submachine gun use.  Overall, for military use, the 7.62mm family was deemed suitable by the Soviets. I am glad that Winchester now offers 7.62mm ammunition, allowing the military collector to fire the Tokarev in its original caliber. I have managed for fire a number of original variants, including a Russian piece that returned form Vietnam. The original pistols will group into three to four inches at 25 yards with quality ammunition.  The best finished example may be the Polish production, while the Chinese pistols may be unsafe to fire. I have tested a Chinese variant that produced a ten inch 25 yard group. The Tokarev grip seems small for most hands but the pistol is usually pleasant to fire and better balanced than it appears. 

CZ 52

The Czechs were dominated by the Soviet Union after the Great War, but were independent enough to desire their own handgun.  They designed the CZ 52. The main claim to modern manufacture is the incorporation of roller cam action into the CZ.  This produced a very strong action capable of taking a potent loading.  The Czechs upped the Tokarev loading to a full 1,600 fps. This hot little number would prove capable of penetration superior to any 9mm caliber handgun.  In many parts of the world, police officers wear armor that is ‘Tokarev proofed’ in deference to the high penetration capability of the Soviet cartridge.  The CZ 52 cartridge is much more dangerous.  The CZ also features a positive safety superior to most.  The safety not only allows cocked and locked carry of the handgun but features a decocker that lowers the hammer with a press. This is superior to any other single action of the day, all of which require the hammer be lowered manually while the trigger is pressed. This is not the safest system.  The CZ’s decocker is superior on safety grounds. The only real problem with the CZ is that it is large and ungainly, but it makes up for this in performance.  The CZ is not a pistol that can be used by feel; rather it is a pistol that much be aimed carefully to realize its potential.

I obtained a good condition pistol from Century Arms some time ago, and broke it out to finish this report. The pistol is well finished of good material. I obtained a set of custom grips from some time ago, and this modest improvement improves the looks of the pistol a great deal. Manufactured by our premier grip maker, Hogue Grips, these are an excellent addition to any CZ 52.  The sights of this pistol are not high visibility but they are not bad either.             I had on hand two types of ammunition, Sellier and Bellot and Winchester.  Each gave good to excellent results, even surprising results. This is a much more advanced pistol than the others tested, and should display good accuracy but I was not expecting what I recorded. Still, I have heard good reports on the pistols accuracy so I was not completely surprised.

Accuracy results, 25-yard groups.

Sellier and Bellot ammunition 1.4 inches
Winchester 1.2 inches (!)
Russian 1943 marked* (Corrosive but good ammunition, hotter than the first two loads tested) 1.5 inches
Chinese ball* 6 inches

* Poor quality- several misfires and the common bang bang POW bang POW of Chinese ammunition.

I could not find any of the original 1,600 fps ammunition on the surplus market, but above loads fed and functioned. These are older handguns,  not the type I would trust for duty, save for the 1972 Browning perhaps, and very interesting recreational shooters. The FM pistol was quite interesting and probably would be my favorite of the service guns, based on long experience with the High Power type. The Helwan is a good buy and owners report good service. I would be interested in finding a ‘real’ Beretta 1951, as the fit and finish would no doubt be superior and perhaps the accuracy as well.

I hope this report has whetted your interest in these recreational handguns.

R. K. Campbell


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Click pictures for a larger version.


This young soldier tries out a Tokarev. Sgt Matthew Campbell could not help but yell, “KGB! Drop ze bomb!”



Well made of good material, the FM High Power is a good service handgun.



The Beretta 1951 and the High Power were relatively thin handguns, comfortable to fire and reliable. Note the open top slide of the Beretta.



The High Power and the Beretta were roughly comparable and the author feels that price would have been the bottom line in many procurements.



The author cheated a little, having fitted the CZ 52 with Hogue’s beautiful grips. The pistol is less ungainly than it looks once you have it in hand.



Here are two CZ’s, both decked out with Hogue’s grips. The CZ 75, bottom, is a great pistol, among the better service handguns of all time- but that is another story



The CZ is a complicated design that shows excellent fit, finish, and attention to detail.



This young soldier, trained on the Beretta, had no problem with the P 38/P1. He rates the elongated safety of the P 1 superior to the smaller unit found on the Beretta 92.



The P 1 field strips simply enough and seems to be reliable in action.



Light enough, well made of good material, and chambering the popular 9mm Luger cartridge, the P 1 is an interesting handgun.