Firearm History

The Most Iconic Handgun — Ever!

Artillery Luger in 9mm Parabellum with 800-yard adjustable sights

One would be hard pressed, indeed, to deny that the P08, Parabellum pistol, German Luger is the most recognizable firearm in history. As one who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, I can say that every movie bad guy and gal was always packin’ a Luger. That’s right even the dames! Even the inscrutable Charlie Chan sans “Honorable Number One Son” was seen Luger in hand.

I am sure that it comes as no surprise then that every red blooded boy raised on the Saturday Matinee Serials could not wait to get their hands on one — especially the one Cousin Ralph took off the SS Colonel at Normandy. I know that I fell into that category. Unfortunately, it took some time before I laid hands on one that I finally got to call my own.

Paul Henreid playing an evil Nazi pointing a Luger pistol
Paul Henreid playing an evil Nazi needed nothing but a Luger to show us how bad he was. You didn’t have to see the bad guys to know they are up to no good — the Luger was enough.

My first Luger encounter came — like so many firearms encounters before it — at the infamous Pony Express Gun Shop when it was still located in Encino California. At the time, I really knew nothing much about guns in general and even less about Lugers in particular. One of the owners, Ray, a real Used Car Salesman, knew what a rube I was and pulled out a very nice “American Eagle” Luger and a C96, both of which he assured me I could not live without, let alone afford to pass up.

Needless to say, I put down a hefty deposit for both and made regular biweekly installments until they were both mine. BTW, other than paying more than anyone else would have, I have no regrets and still enjoy both. And yes my collection of Lugers and C96s has grown ever since. Parenthetically, I used my first Broomhandle to eliminate the hordes of Jacks infesting Southern California back in the day.

The Luger’s History

At this point in the narrative, I suppose it would not be out of place to provide some history about how the Luger came to be. That cannot be done without mention of the C96 “Broomhandle” Mauser pistol. The C96 was the first successfully commercial Automatic Pistol, and although ungainly by today’s standards, it still maintains a certain amount of cache.

A quick look at the C96 pistol reveals that there are no pins or screws holding it together. In fact, the entire mechanism goes together like a jigsaw puzzle. Remember, it was done in an era before electrically powered mills and lathes… Amazing! Here is something I’ll bet you didn’t know, the .30 Mauser (7.63×25mm Mauser) was the fastest and most powerful commercially-available handgun until the debut of the .357 Magnum in 1935. However, I digress…

In 1896, an employee of the Ludwig Loewe Company in Germany named Georg Luger, was tasked with improving the design of the C96. He succeeded in doing just that. The new pistol design was originally adopted by the Swiss army in 1900 and later by the Germans in 1908. When the Germans adopted it in 1908, they named it the Pistole-08 or P-08 for short.

American Eagle Luger chambered in .30 Luger
The author’s first Luger, The American Eagle in .30 Luger was so named because of the U.S. Crest stamped on the receiver ring.

The Luger Pistole originally used the 7.65x22mm cartridge also called the .30 Luger, but Georg Luger invented a different sized cartridge for the German army and redesigned the pistol to use this new cartridge, the now famous 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge, more commonly known as the “9mm Luger” cartridge.

The 9x19mm cartridge is still with us today and is the most common military handgun cartridge currently in use. BTW, the name Parabellum, comes from the Latin phrase, Si vis pacem, para bellum “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

Operation

Visually the most distinctive feature of a Luger is its toggle lock mechanism. Its operation is best described as being like the human knee. Like the human leg, it can withstand a lot of pressure when the knee is straight and locked, but once the knee is bent, the leg suddenly becomes much easier to bend. The toggle lock mechanism works the same way.

Luger, right profile, showing the lack of pins or screws in the construction
Notice no pins or screws holding it together except the one holding the grips on. The entire mechanism goes together like a Chinese jigsaw puzzle. This was done all by hand in an era before electrically-powered tools.

When the weapon is fired, the toggle mechanism is straight and locked. The recoil causes the barrel and toggle lock to move backward (together) on rails. After some rearward movement, the toggle begins to ride over a pair of cams that bend the toggle at the joint.

Once the toggle lock is broken, it bends much more freely, allowing the bolt to accelerate backwards and re-cock the weapon. An extractor pulls out the old cartridge and ejects it. A recoil spring then pushes the bolt forward again, stripping a new round from the magazine and pushing it into the chamber, ready to be fired. This mechanism works well with high-pressure cartridges, but cartridges loaded to a lower pressure cause the pistol to malfunction. They do not generate enough recoil to work the action fully.

1917 Artillery model Luger semi-automatic pistol
My second Luger was this very nice “1917 Artillery” model, so named because it was initially intended for use by German artillery units who could not be encumbered using the long and heavy K98 rifle.

This design has a few disadvantages, one of the greatest being it was a complicated mechanism that required precisely-fitted parts to work properly. That is why we see Luger collectors looking for those with “all matching serial numbers.” Those tight tolerances contributed greatly to the accuracy of the weapon, but reliability suffered as a result. In fact, small amounts of dirt on the firing mechanism could cause the weapon to jam.

The Luger was also, by comparison, more expensive to produce than the Colt M1911 that was more reliable and faster to manufacture. That is no doubt why there are no modern weapons that use the Luger’s type of short-recoil action. It must be noted that handgun author and enthusiast Elmer Keith observed that the Luger design was a “natural pointer,” and one of the most accurate of all autoloading pistols — especially at long ranges. During its time, the Luger was the choice of more nations as the military sidearm than any other contemporary pistol or revolver.

Military Adoption

The Luger was produced in several models and by several nations from 1898 to 1949. It was first officially adopted by the Swiss military in 1900, then by the Imperial German Navy in 1906, and the German Army in 1908. The Luger was also the standard service pistol of Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Brazil, Bolivia, and Bulgaria. Adding to the aura of the Luger is the story of its brush with the U.S. Military and the value of existing examples from those trials.

U.S. Military Trials

In 1906 and 1907, the U.S. Army held trials for a large-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Due to the findings in the Thompson–LaGarde Tests, the military required a handgun in .45 (11.25mm) caliber. At least two, and possibly three Parabellum Model 1902/1906 pattern pistols were brought to the U.S. — by Georg Luger — for the 1907 trials, each chambered in .45 ACP caliber. The fate of the .45 Luger, serial number 1 is unknown, as it was not returned and is believed to have been destroyed during testing. The .45 Luger prototype serial number 2, believed to have been a back-up to Serial Number 1, survived the 1907 trials and is in private ownership.

Its rarity when last appraised gave it a value of over $1 million U.S. in 1994. No one knows the fate of number Luger #3. What we do know is that at least two other .45 caliber Luger pistols were manufactured for possible commercial or military sales with one exhibited at the R. W. Norton Art Gallery, in Shreveport, Louisiana. The other was sold in 2010 and remains in a private collection. A single .45 Luger carbine is also known to exist…. somewhere.

Luger semi-automatic handgun chambered in .45 ACP

Stay safe, train often and practice, practice, practice!

Do you agree with the author that the Luger is the most iconic handgun of all time? If not, which handgun would you choose? Do you have a Luger story? Share your answers in the Comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (36)

  1. Hiya Ed! All the “Dyed in the Wool” 1911 Aficionados aside I feel you are quite correct and I really enjoyed this “Throwback” article!
    A brief glance or screenshot of a 1911 Browning/Colt could easily in fact be a P-35, Ballester Molina or Star BM to name just a few.
    The same cannot be said for the unmistakable “Toggle Bolt” and Grip Angle of the P-08.
    Even the iconic Logo of the James Bond film franchise features the same profile as the “7” in it.
    Personal Preference and experience driven loyalty aside the Georg Luger design is and has been etched indelibly in the Minds and History of our community.
    BTW. All that not withstanding I still like my P-38 better. More likelihood to obtain replacement parts should I need them!😊

  2. Re: rare .45 ACP Luger pistols – too old to remember much, but I do remember a magazine article 20-30 or more years ago describing a manufacturer cutting original pistols in half lengthwise, rewelding them to make a frame wide enough to accommodate the .45 ACP, and selling them for quite a price back then ($1,500 or so each). No idea how many were finally made, FWIW.

  3. @THE REAL MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD “ROCKIT, you really should not stop taking your medication because it alters your perception. To help you back to reality the article you should be commenting on is whether or not the Luger is the most iconic pistol or not instead of.22 pistols and BB guns.” I was commenting on: “DAVID B FREEMAN “As I recall, when I was a kid (50s and early 60s) most of the waterguns and BB pistols were in the Luger format.”

    I also believe I did it without a “personal” attack on Mr. Freeman.

    Sorry my first experience with a Luger just happened to be considering purchasing, in a .22LR version of a new Erma Luger, with a direct comparison to the new Ruger Standard Model at that time.

  4. JOSEPH BONS
    Just a slight correction to your comment….
    Although the 1911 was phased out of general issue it remained in the inventory and in the armories of Special Operations to this day. There are those who still rely on it (myself among them, (
    EDC A ParaOrdance P-14) and who still rely on its solid and reliable action. The other that many still carry as a back up or CCW is the Browning HiPower. One can find the latest variant of the HiPower in the Springfield SA35 offering.
    I would expect that at some future point in history when the first laser or plasma pistol is manufactured that it may be styled after the 1911! I’d like to see that.
    Afterall, one of the base lines for something to be considered ICONIC has to be that it is still in production! The 1911 fits that and other parameters quite well.

  5. ROCKIT, you really should not stop taking your medication because it alters your perception. To help you back to reality the article you should be commenting on is whether or not the Luger is the most iconic pistol or not instead of.22 pistols and BB guns.

  6. I could’ve swore this was meant as a lighthearted comment section on the iconicness Lugers???. Now we’re discussing squirtguns?
    I feel ChatGPT has made TLDR a thing here at CTD. LOL.
    Afk!

  7. @SGT. DAVIS. “@Rockit, sorry, but them Blocks… err Glocks don’t point naturally for normal humans, left handed or otherwise. 😆”

    Sargent, looks like the trick is being left-eye dominant, but right handed, which seems perfectly normal to me. LOL

    So how do “normal” people successfully make the transition from a non-Glock, or non-Luger, semi-auto to a revolver? That must be a very dramatic exercise. LOL

  8. @PEDRO, Ok, so the Luger sadly died. Yes, compared to say a 1911, it seems more complicated in design and thus possibly more difficult to manufacture, similarly a Ruger Blackhawk is much more complex than a Colt Peacemaker, yet they are manufactured today, and usually at a lower price than a Colt.
    There is obviously enough interest here that people seem like they would be interested in an affordable, dependable, potentially “NEW” Luger, and with modern manufacturing techniques making the complicated more simple, and cheaper to manufacture, why is it no modern manufacture has yet to step up to the plate to bring back the Luger? Even if it came back to life with a polymer frame, for say the price of a Glock, it seems people would jump to buy one. Look at all the other clone stuff out there. So why is it no manufacture has made that potentially very profitable move, to bring back the Luger? Even in clone version. If anyone could, just saying, I would put my money on Ruger to produce a very dependable, affordable, possibly even all metal, improved version. Maybe Glock could bring out the plastic version? 🙂

  9. @DAVID B FREEMAN “As I recall, when I was a kid (50s and early 60s) most of the waterguns and BB pistols were in the Luger format.” Being raised about 10 miles from the lone Daisy factory in the 50’s, I vaguely remember the thing that sort of looked like a Luger, as I guess my “Spanky gang” went for the Daisy thing that looked sort of like a 1911, which as a kid was just as hard to work the (partial) slide (pump) as a Government model 1911 is for me today. And what is more iconic than a Red Rider? Right? All great tools for kids to build their upper body strength, much more so than video games. And proof there is a God, or at least proof we did listen to our mothers, we all advanced through that stage of our lives with all of our eyeballs intact. 🙂

    NOTE: As a Left-eye dominant one who caught a 9mm ricochet in the left lens of my safety glasses, fortunately only getting a scrapped up nose from the glasses being violently pushed back, PIEASE
    be sure to use safety glasses, and especially so for any little ones, as BBs are notorious for ricochetting.

    Leaping to the present, one can pretty much get an authentic looking, and functional, BB gun version of their favorite real handgun, and I think that includes the Luger, where the CO2 and the BBs are contained in realistic looking magazine, which can be switched out just like the real deal. There are “We The People” Sig version of the 1911, and Sig P365, BUT the real fun is having a 100% LEGAL version of everyone’s DREAM icon, an AR style SBR, complete with a faux suppressor and a “Giggle Switch”, shipped right to your front door. Yes, LEGALLY! For those who do not know, a “Giggle Switch” allows the safety to be bumped forward one more notch, where one pull of the trigger can send 25 BBs down range in just under a second. “Giggle, Giggle” With a bottle of 6,000 BBs for around $12, and a box of 40, CO2 cylinders for around $20, The whole “Giggle” package can usually be had for under $200, and THAT is a lot of Giggles! I believe I like the Giggle Switch replica even more so than any iconic BB gun. LOL

    CAUTION: These modern day BB guns look so realistic, if your neighbor calls the police, and they show up, do yourself a favor by throwing it down (don’t wait for them to ask), hands up, and screaming BB gun, BB gun! They do not have an orange tip, and can easily be mistake for the real deal.

  10. My father gunsmithed part time for Montgomery County Police, in Maryland. Somewhere around 1975 my father’s home in Pennsylvania was broken into by a man from Laos. He had stolen all of my father’s guns. Including a 7” barrel German Luger 9mm; serial number #6. The gun had a broken chipped sight. Other than that the gun was in pristine condition. It was promised to me when he passed. The man that stole it murdered someone with it.

  11. ROCKIT:  “I don’t think it is too far fetched that Luger manufactures were well aware Ruger was a very worthy competitor, and if Ruger had decided to make either Lugers or MK’s in 9X19, Luger would not be able to compete at that time, and yes, could have possibly had an impact on the future of the Luger.”
    ————-‐
    Whoa there. The Ruger Standard Model… let’s use the proper name here, was stylistically inspired by the ICONIC Luger. Beyond the silhouette, grip angle, barrel contour there is literally zero mechanical similarities between the RSM and the Luger. One stopped production in 1949 and the other started. The notion that Bill’s introduction of a fun reliable .22LR was suddenly going to start working with 9mm is so out there I can’t even fathom how to respond. So… the Luger manufacturers got so scared by something that was never gonna happen that they packed it in? Uh. Ok. Further….
    Comparing a 9mm to a .22 with regards to ammo sensitivity, reliability, ease of maintenance etc … oh my $@&* I think I need a beer.

  12. Disclaimer: I’m a Laporta on my moms side.That side was mostly undertakers with a pig farmer thrown in for good measure. Great article…they truly are, along with the 1911, the most recognizable pistol there ever was. If I wasn’t such a practical cheapskate I’d have one.

  13. I kinda get where Ed’s coming from… but I dunno if I’d say it’s the “most iconic- ever!”… But I will say it’s probably one of the most RECOGNIZABLE guns ever, its silhouette IS iconic. You KNOW what it is. I mean sure, everyone else is yakking about the 1911… yeah, fine… but they’re STILL being made. The Parabellum/Luger went out of official German production almost 90 years ago and people are STILL talking about them, STILL recognize them, and STILL seek them out. And like @David B Freeman mentioned about them in the ’50s/’60s… water pistols even into the ’80s were still modeled after the P-08. @Rockit, sorry, but them Blocks… err Glocks don’t point naturally for normal humans, left handed or otherwise. 😆 Sadly, the P-08 has that “wrong” angle and it points naturally high for me, just like a Glock.

  14. There are two types of “ICONIC” I’m thinking…
    There is the Personal Iconic where each of us have an opinion on what is a what may not be based on there own personal personal choices and information. It’s GOOD to have a personal ICONIC platform
    Then there is the “ICONIC PLATFORMS” that to one degree or another we (for the most part) can agree on even if they are not personal favorites. These are likely to include the Colt 1911, PO9 Luger, BROWNING HiPower, Colt Peacemaker, Sharps rifles, 1903A3 Springfield, M96 Mauser, Winchester 1874, Glock, XD/XDm, and so on, an so on an so on!.
    I have to agree the to state “…. EVER!” shows a degree of ignorance and arrogance that is a bit self serving but if that’s what Ed thinks… fine, not worth the time to consider really.
    To each, their ICONIC, own!
    There are more that are considered iconic that we agree on than those which we do not!

  15. I wish someone could make an inexpensive reproduction of both the C96 and the Luger. They are so iconic. There are dozens of companies making 1911s in a variety of calibers and in a wide range of prices but the only way to get one of these is to slug it out on GunBroker and hope what you get is still safe to shoot, a hundred plus years later. I guess the mechanisms are just too complicated to do without sinking a lot of money into it. I can dream though.

  16. PEDRO. “Rockit: Do you really think some .22lr’s would have any effect on an historic piece of an entirely different era?” I think it is obvious the Luger had a huge positive influence on the design of the Ruger MKI, and as a result I believe Stoeger, and Erma, both introduced their versions of .22LR’s basically to produce income, cash flow, and potential customers to the Luger brand, and while no question the Luger’s “cool factor” was much higher than the Ruger MK, one didn’t have to be an engineer to appreciated the simplicity of the Ruger at, roughly half the price, of a Luger, and it didn’t take long before word got out the Ruger would just run any ammo endlessly, while the Luger was not only picky about ammo, it was also finicky in operation, and much more complicated from a maintenance standpoint. I don’t think it is too far fetched that Luger manufactures were well aware Ruger was a very worthy competitor, and if Ruger had decided to make either Lugers or MK’s in 9X19, Luger would not be able to compete at that time, and yes, could have possibly had an impact on the future of the Luger. Today, with modern CNC equipment, and/or injection molding, it may be possible to make a more dependable, affordable, and enjoyable Luger, but it would in no way satisfy a purist. At the same time, just like a Ruger Blackhawk (even though it is actually built much better) is not a Colt SAA, people love their Blackhawks, still buy, and enjoy them, even though they are not a Colt, just like people bought the MKI over the .22LR Lugers for the same reasons. I actually prefer the Ruger MK 22/45 over the MK, because the 22/45 mimics the controls of the iconic 1911, and shares the accuracy, the light trigger, and the dependability, of a very enjoyable classic, beside the fact that I cannot afford a Luger. 🙁

  17. Yeah, the title ,,The Most Iconic Handgun — Ever!” is wrong. Who decided that? It is Iconic and rare, hard to find, expensive but not ,,most iconic” and to say ,,ever” is even a bigger stretch. Everybody has their opinion of an iconic handgun. For me ( and now I’m gonna piss of some people😆) is the GLOCK, the handgun mocked as a,,Plastic toy gun”, but today almost all handgun manufacturers have their on ,,Glock knockoff” few better than the Glock most not even close.

  18. I think, as the author, that this is an iconic, classic gun. Few handguns are as recognizable as the Luger. I’m always on the lookout for one at the right price. Great article…

  19. Own a Luger from ww1 ( low s/n) and got to shoot it a few times! Real pain in the sitter, and the feed from the magazines is very sensitive! Slightest ding and a “ no go”! Also have the “ snail “ magazine ; but drought with feed issues! Still a nice conversation piece!

  20. No mention of the Saturday night special .22. I bought mine in Naples 1955. Twenty-five USD.

  21. I have to agree with the others that the most iconic firearm would have to be the M-1911A1. The design is over 100 years old and still going strong. Which is more than you can say for the P-08 Luger which was being phased out by the German Army during WW2 for the P-35. The M-1911A1 was in service with the US military for well over 50+ years before it was replaced by that piece of crap Beretta.

  22. Rockit: “The original Ruger MK pistols may have aided the death of the Luger”

    Do you really think some .22lr’s would have any effect on an historic piece of an entirely different era?

  23. You seem to have confused your “C #” pistols, Georg Luger didn’t work on the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” He massively refined the C-93 Borchardt pistol which had a toggle lock action where the C96 does not.

  24. As I recall, when I was a kid (50s and early 60s) most of the waterguns and BB pistols were in the Luger format. Stoeger had or imported a Luger type pistol a few years back. We definitely need one now.

  25. After wanting one for 60 years, I finally purchased an American Eagle luger. I bet I spent more than you did.

  26. The “Luger” (more correctly the Parabellum) was Georg Luger’s later refinement of the world’s first “mass-produced” semiautomatic pistol in 1893, the C93 Borchardt. It was designed by Prussian-American inventor Hugo Borchardt. Both firearms incorporated a toggle lock system derived from American Hiram Maxim’s iconic machine gun, which itself was borrowed from early Winchester, Henry, and Volcanic lever actions.

  27. “At the time, I really knew nothing much about guns in general and even less about Lugers in particular.” Probably because in the 50’s & 60’s, John Wayne, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, etc., were not carrying the Luger.

    I have to say the Colt SSA, is still in the #1 position, followed by the 1911, then possibly the Luger, for the title of Most Iconic Handgun – Ever. Almost all gun manufactures offer new versions of the first two here, but does anyone make a modern version of a Luger? There were some clones made back in the 60’s & 70’s, but they did not survive. If anyone does offer a modern clone of the P08, I would put my money on Ruger, or some company in Turkey to re-introduce an affordable one, and I believe they would sell. Well, to everyone except those who have issue with OH the “wrong” grip angle on a Glock. LOL

    The original Ruger MK pistols may have aided the death of the Luger.

    All that said, I would agree the 9X19 Luger round IS the most iconic, when it comes to ammo.

  28. Luger for me. I get it with the Colt and Browning tho. ……And the Clint guns. Lets do a top 5 poll. Just for the sake of arguing.

  29. Having had the pleasure of shooting and then cleaning a C96 I agree it was, and is, an absolute marvel of engineering, especially for its time.
    I really like Ed’s description of the action in comparison to a knee joint. I remember seeing a Luger for the first time thinking something like “how the heck does that work”.
    Great photos to boot!

  30. Yup, 1911; for strength, durability, accuracy and longevity of design and power od cartridge. Luger was state of the art for, what, 25 years? Even considered obsokete by 30 years. 1912 is absokutely superior, especially as a true fighting handgun. Well over a hubdred years old, and, while not state of the art, hardly improved on and far from obsolete. One of only two real fighting handguns ib use by WWII; the other being it’s younger cousin, the P-35.

  31. 4.7 million 1911 pistols and growing
    3.0 million P08 pistols and dead
    I seriously doubt that the P08 is the most recognizable gun in everyone’s eyes. Even the 1873 Peacemaker and it’s knockoffs would far outdistance the P08 worldwide.

  32. Luger no, Peacemaker Colt yes. Movies have made this revolver the all time winner. Following closely behind would be the Venerable Colt 1911…

  33. Actually, you used “US perceptions” and a particular model as designated– worldwide, the “cowboy revolver” is the most recognized– while most of Asia does not recognize non-Asian pistols, the most recognized non-Asian pistol being the 1911 family “because they are in movies about Americans” more than any other pistol.

    On a worldwide basis The 1911 family comes first, the P08 family next, but very close.

    Too much of the time we don’t really think worldwide.

    .

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