The Walther PPK may be the most famous and widely-known handgun in the world, due to one thing–it’s the gun that was carried by the fictional “licensed to kill” British spy James Bond, Agent 007, in nearly all of his 25 films. But aside from its place in Hollywood film history, the Walther PPK has a real-world history that stretches back over 75 years, tracing a course through World War Two and the Cold War.
Walther PPK, with the distinctive finger rest on the bottom of the magazine
In 1929, the Walther Waffenfabrik firearms company in Germany (the correct German pronunciation is “vall-ter”, but virtually everyone in the US pronounces it “wall-ther”) introduced a new semi-automatic pistol designed for the law enforcement market, which it called the Model PP (Polizei Pistole). Originally produced in .32 caliber (European 7.65mm), it was thereafter made available in .380 caliber (9mm Short) as well, and was sold throughout Europe, mostly to police forces. In 1931, Walther introduced a smaller version intended as an easily-concealable pocket firearm for undercover and plainclothes policemen, which was dubbed the Model PPK–Polizei Pistole Kriminalen, “Kriminalen” being the German title for a police detective. (Some sources give this as “Polizei Pistole Kurz“, kurz meaning “short”, but this is incorrect–“Kurz”referred to the .380 caliber ammunition used in some versions, not to the pistol itself.) The PPK has a shortened barrel and frame (by about half an inch), and held one less cartridge in its ammunition magazine (six rounds instead of seven). It too was available in .32 and .380 caliber (a small number were also made in .22 Long Rifle caliber). The PPK was intended as a short-range gun that did not produce a lot of recoil or muzzle flash, but still fired a large enough bullet to be lethal at short range–and the design allowed it to be safely carried with a round loaded into the chamber and the hammer down, ready to fire. It became enormously popular, and was issued to police forces all over pre-war Europe.
When the Nazis took power in 1933, they adopted the P08 9mm Luger pistol as the standard sidearm for military field officers in the newly-rebuilt German Army. But for officers in the Navy and Air Force and higher-ranking Army officers, whose sidearms served mostly as distinctions of rank and did not need to be utilitarian, the more elegant (and much smaller) Walther PPK was issued instead. The PPK was also carried by the German civilian police detectives, the Gestapo Secret Police, the SS, and Nazi Party officials. High-ranking officials of distinction received a special edition “Party Leader” PPK pistol with engraved handgrips, awarded on Hitler’s own authority.
In 1938, just before the war, the Nazis began replacing the standard-issue Luger sidearm with the newer Walther P38 9mm. Walther manufactured many of its firearms during the war, including the P38 and the PPK, inside the prison camp at Neuengamme, part of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Hamburg, where it used the prisoners (mostly political arrestees and Soviet and Polish POWs) as slave labor in its factory.
When Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945, in a Berlin bunker, a standard issue Walther PPK, in .32 caliber, was reportedly found next to his body–he had used the pistol to shoot himself in the temple at the same moment that he had bitten down on a cyanide capsule. Hitler had carried two guns with him during his time in the bunker, the Walther PPK he used to kill himself, and a .25 caliber Walther Model 8. Both of them were taken by an aide who was shortly later captured by the Soviets–and both guns disappeared.
In 1939, for his 50th birthday, Hitler had been given an ornate Walther PP, a presentation version of the police model, by Carl Walther himself–that pistol was found in Hitler’s apartment after the war. Nickel-finished with gold overlays and ivory handgrips, this gun was heavily decorated and engraved, with the silver initials “AH” in the handle. In the early 80’s, this gun was bought at auction by a private collector for over $100,000–today it would be worth at least ten times that.
When Herman Goering was arrested as he tried to flee Germany in a Mercedes limousine, he was carrying a presentation PPK model from Walther, with gold plating and engraved oak leafs, as well as a plain .38-caliber Smith&Wesson revolver. The American intelligence officer who arrested him, Lt Jerome Shapiro, confiscated Goering’s PPK and his ceremonial Nazi Party dagger, but allowed him to keep the revolver (emptied of bullets) to give to General Eisenhower as a formal token of surrender. When Shapiro died, the gold-plated PPK was given to a family friend, who sold it to a private collector. In 2012, Goering’s pistol came up for auction, and sold for $40,250.
After the war, Germany was forbidden from manufacturing any firearms, a ban that lasted until 1951, when the Cold War required the re-arming of Germany and the production of new weapons. Walther relocated his company to the city of Ulm in West Germany, and began manufacturing sidearms for the new West German Army. To raise money, Walther began licensing the rights to manufacture copies of the PPK to other companies, and in 1952, the first new PPKs were made in France by the Manurhin firearms company. Manuhrin continued to produce Walther PPKs under license until 1986. Walther resumed manufacturing its own PPKs again in Ulm in 1957.
During the Cold War, the pistol got a new life. Licensed versions and pirated copies of the PP and PPK design started appearing all over the world, with versions made by the Argentinian Bersa, the Spanish Astra, the Soviet Makarov, and the Swiss SIG companies. Within a few years, intelligence services across the world had adopted either the PPK or their own homemade version of it as a concealable weapon for their agents, including the British MI5 and MI6, MOSSAD in Israel, the West German Federal Intelligence Service, France’s Counter-Espionage Service, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, and, reportedly, the American CIA.
When British author Ian Fleming (who had himself served in the Royal Navy’s intelligence service during World War Two) wrote his novel Casino Royale in 1954, he armed his fictional spy hero James Bond with a .25 caliber Beretta. It wasn’t until the 1958 novel Dr No (and its 1962 movie version) was written that Bond was, reluctantly, forced by his boss “M” to give up his Beretta and replace it with the .32 Walther PPK (“the American CIA swears by them”). Bond has been identified with the PPK ever since (even though in some of the later movies he carried a different Walther model pistol).
In 1968, the US passed the Gun Control Act, which set specific size and weight requirements for any pistol imported into the US. The Walther PPK did not fall within those requirements, so in response the Walther Company designed the slightly larger PPK/S model, which is basically a PP frame with a PPK barrel and slide. And because the Gun Control Act provisions did not apply to weapons manufactured within the US, Walther expanded its production to America in 1978, licensing its PPK design to the Interarms Company in Virginia. Interarms manufactured PPKs until the mid-90’s. In 2002, the American Smith&Wesson Company bought the rights to the PPK design. After some modifications (the PPK slide was notorious for causing cuts to the thumb if the shooter had large hands), S&W has produced American-made Walther PPKs from 2002 until today.
And that is how a German pistol that was manufactured in France came to be used by a British spy in a series of American movies about the Cold War with the Soviet Union.