Articles of Interest

Military Surplus/C&R

'The Ballester-Rigaud & Ballester-Molina Pistols' by R. W. Simms


A primitive guide for the collector and shooting enthusiast

By R. W. Simms

Military semiautomatics in .45 ACP are the apex predators of the service sidearm world.  For sheer knock-down power nothing else really even comes close.  Those individuals looking for a good mil-surp .45 automatic will find that there is no shortage of options, so long as you’re willing to pay $500 and up.  This is what makes the Argentine Ballester-Rigaud and Ballester-Molina pistols such a great value.  Generally, for less than $500 you can purchase a Ballester of either the Rigaud or Molina persuasion (they’re mechanically identical) and get a well-made, full size service sidearm that functions and groups on par with a USGI M1911A1.  There’s much to like about the Ballester series of pistols, and some of its features would be nice to see on your basic M1911 (such as that nice wide grip tang that prevents hammer bite, for one).


Because it greatly resembles a 1911A1 pistol externally, many people just assume that it is a M1911A1 clone without a grip safety.  It isn’t.  Internally the frame is much more closely akin to the Star Model P, although some of the slide assembly features do resemble those found on the M1911A1.


After the M1911 entered U.S. service in 1912, Argentina was quick to get on the .45 ACP band wagon.  They ordered 10,000 M1911 pistols from Colt in Hartford and designated it the Modelo 1916.  Later, in the mid-1920’s the Argentine government ordered another 10,000 of Colt’s new M1911A1 pistols, which they designated the Modelo 1927.  It was at this point that money apparently became an issue because Argentina asked Colt about building the Modelo 1927 in Argentina.  Colt obliged the Argentines with a licensing arrangement and even sent Hartford technicians to Argentina to train the workers and ensure a successful product launch.  Argentina named their new native pistol the Modelo 1927 Sistema Colt or “Model 1927 Colt System” (recognizing Colt’s design by putting this wording on the slide was a condition of the licensing agreement; hence, the Sistema designation).  The Sistemas, as they are commonly referred to, are very much the equal of any WW2 USGI M1911A1 in terms of accuracy, dependability, metallurgy, and workmanship.  USGI parts interchange readily.  They are NOT a “cheap Spanish copy” as some individuals have derisively labeled them.  There is also a persistent myth (untrue) that Sistemas, Ballester Rigauds, and Ballester-Molinas were made from steel salvaged from the sunken German battleship Graf Spree.  In fact, much of the steel was imported from Sweden.


In 1929 two Spanish entrepreneurs named Arturo Ballester and Eugenio Molina went into business together and set up an automotive parts company in Buenos Aires to supply the Argentine automotive industry.  They named their company Hispano Argentino Fabrica de Automoviles Sociedad Anonima, or HAFDASA for short.  The English translation is “Spanish-Argentine Automobile Manufacturing Corporation”.  As it turned out, one of their biggest customers was the Argentine government.  HAFDASA won several contracts to supply trucks and engines to the Argentine military.  As their fortunes prospered, they hired Rorice Rigaud, a French engineer, to head up their engineering department.  They also hired a man by the name Carlos Ballester Molina, a member of both the Ballester and Molina families.  In short order, Carlos Ballester Molina would become HAFDASA’s CEO.   


HAFDASA must have made a good impression on the Argentine government because in the 1930’s they were asked to investigate the feasibility of designing and building a full-size .45 ACP service pistol resembling the Modelo 1927 Sistema Colt at a lower cost.  There were several conditions that Hafdasa was required to meet.  The pistol had to fit into the same holsters as were being used for the Modelo 1927 Sistema, and it needed to have accuracy and dependability on par with the Sistema.  The Argentine government also wanted it to use barrels and magazines that could be interchanged with the Sistema to simplify parts logistics.  Of course, it absolutely had to cost less to manufacture than the Sistema.  Otherwise, HAFDASA were given a free hand to deviate from the M1911A1 design so long as the end result was a service pistol meeting the above specifications at a lower cost than the Sistema.


Being Spaniards, Ballester and Molina were well aware that Star Escheverria, the Spanish firearms company, had gone through this exact iteration in designing their 9mm Models A & B pistols.  Star had even produced a 1911-size .45 auto pistol called the Model P, although there was virtually no parts interchangeability between it and the M1911 pistol.


However, Star’s design made a great springboard for HAFDASA.  Star had been able to cut costs and improve parts logistics on their pistols by eliminating the grip safety and simplifying the trigger and disconnector on the models A, B, and P.  Also, the thumb safety on the Star A-B-P series blocks the hammer, not the sear as on the 1911.


Some M1911A1 features were retained on the HAFDASA design.  An internal extractor was used and the slide was machined to accept M1911 barrels.  The firing pin is captured by a firing pin stop plate, similar to (but not interchangeable with) that utilized on M1911 pistols. 


The end result debuted in 1938 as the “Pistola Automatica Calibre .45 Ballester-Rigaud, Modelo DGME 1938”, more commonly known as the Ballester-Rigaud.  Although Rorice Rigaud had his day in the sun and 15 minutes of fame, by 1942 the decision was made to rename the pistol the “Ballester-Molina” (small wonder, as it was about this time that Carlos Ballester Molina became the CEO of the company).  In any event, this explains why the occasional Ballester-Rigaud turns up.  There are no functional differences between the Ballester-Rigaud and the Ballester-Molina pistols except for the markings on the slide (Ballester-Rigauds are designated as .45 caliber while the Ballester-Molinas are designated 11.25 mm, but the difference is purely semantic.  They both shoot the .45 ACP round).


The new pistol was an instant success.  It proved as accurate and reliable as its cousin, the Sistema, and all the operating controls were located in the same place as on a M1911 so training logistics were basically the same.  An obvious plus was that it was cheaper to manufacture, as well.


Pundits frequently advise that the only interchangeable parts between a Ballester-Molina and a M1911A1 are the barrel and the magazine.  This is technically not true.  In fact there are eight different parts that interchange perfectly.  They are the barrel, barrel swinging link, link pin, magazine, barrel bushing, recoil spring, recoil spring guide, and recoil spring plug.  In addition, aftermarket front and rear sights will generally install, although some slight fitting might be required as the rear dovetail is slightly different (.005” shim stock works well to hold the rear sight in place).


A formerly inoperable Ballester-Rigaud that was returned to serviceable condition by adding MMC sights (the rear sight is secured  with .005” shim stock) and a shiny donor trigger/sear bar from a Star PD to replace the broken original.  Although not visible, a M1911 barrel bushing, recoil plug, and recoil spring were also used to replace the missing originals.  Note the late-style Argentine rubber grips that greatly resemble the old Bianchi Lightning grips once offered for the M1911 pistols.  The finish is someone’s poor attempt to duplicate a Suncorite or “stoving” finish as seen on many British military firearms.  This old warhorse was purchased and repaired for less than $200, making it an ideal truck gun.


All the parts that interchange with the M1911A1 (except the magazine) are part of the slide assembly which partially explains why many want to denote the Ballester a M1911A1 clone.  The frame is almost pure Star Model P though.  In fact, some parts from the Model P will work in a Ballester, although fitting may be required.  One good example is the trigger assembly.  It is almost impossible to find a factory Ballester trigger/sear bar assembly to replace a broken one.  However, a trigger from a Star Model P or PD will work with just a bit of Dremel grinding to remove a little material from the upper rear portion of the trigger pad that comes in contact with the Ballester frame.  The Star trigger pivot pin is even the same length and diameter as that used on Ballesters, and it is located in the same place on both pistols.  Since Star triggers must be fitted (even to Star pistols), it is imperative to check for a correct sear bar /sear/disconnector relationship.  Some small amount of filing on the sear bar may be necessary to prevent the hammer from following the slide home after the first shot.  The point is that the Ballester frame is much more akin to a Star design than the M1911.


It is interesting to note that even though many more Ballester-Molina pistols were manufactured than its earlier Ballester-Rigaud counterpart, most collectors hold the Ballester-Molina version in higher esteem.  This is reflected in gun book price guides that generally give the Ballester-Molina version a 15% edge in value over their Rigaud counterparts.


A Ballester-Rigaud with about 90% of its original blued finish remaining.  This particular specimen is still capable of 3-inch groups at 25 yards.  Note the broad grip tang that prevents hammer bite.  Despite occasional claims to the contrary, experts generally agree that no steel from the sunken German battleship Graf Spee was ever used for manufacturing Ballester-Rigaud or Ballester-Molina pistols.


Information concerning dates of manufacture is sparse.  The chart below from Alex Gherovici’s excellent book, Military Pistols of Argentina provides what little is generally known and the dates given should be considered approximations only:


Serial Number Range                       Date Range

1-12,000                                              1938-1942       (mostly Ballester-Rigauds)

12,000-23,000                                     1942-1944      

23,000-108,000                                   1944-1953


Early Ballester-Rigauds will have “Modelo 1938” stamped on the slide.  They also have checkered grips, checkered backstraps, and twenty fine retraction grooves on the slide similar to those on the Sistema.  Later Ballester-Rigauds have grips with vertical grooves, horizontally grooved backstraps, and interrupted retraction grooves on the slide as do all Ballester-Molinas.  The early Ballester-Rigauds are seldom encountered. 


It should be noted that the serial number on Ballesters is located in two places only.  One location is the left side of the arched mainspring housing and the other is the underside of the slide.  This is a significant point of confusion because military issued Ballesters were assigned a “rack” or issue number in three places on the pistol.  This would normally appear on the right side of the frame, top of the slide, and on the barrel hood, but they are not serial numbers.  In fact, these three locations are where the serial numbers are generally located on the Sistema, but not on a Ballester-Rigaud or Ballester-Molina.


Some Ballesters were exported to other countries.  After losing the bulk of their small arms in the 1940 Dunkirk disaster, the British government purchased weapons wherever they could get them.  HAFDASA produced around 9,000 Ballester-Molina pistols for the British in 1942.  These pistols occur in the serial number range 12,000-21,000 and were given a separate British government issue number with a “B.” prefix on the right side of the frame to denote the British contract.  These pistols were used by British Special Operations Executive (SOE) troops operating behind enemy lines.  As a result of this World War 2 heritage the British contract pistols command a premium price among collectors.


Other less notable Ballester pistols were produced for other countries and the civilian market.  These can be identified by the lack of the Argentine crest on the right side of the slide.  The remainder exhibit the crest and the name or abbreviation of the agency to whom the pistol was issued.  Some smaller Argentine police agencies received pistols that had just the crest without any agency markings on the slide.  Just learning the nature of some of the arcane Argentine military agencies can be daunting (there are at least four with an Argentine naval connection alone).  Although perhaps not all-inclusive, a list of agency markings commonly seen on Ballesters with translations believed to be accurately translated is listed below:







Air Force Ballesters marked “Aeronautica Argentina” will usually bring a little more on the collector market because there are fewer of them and they are generally found in better condition than some other agency-marked pistols.  Ballesters marked “C.F.S.” also have a cult following.  The Consejo Federal Seguridad (CFS) agency allegedly consisted of bad news secret police that spirited people away in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again. 


Two other variations that compel interest are the “Provincia Juan Peron” and “Provincia Eva Peron” marked pistols.  When Juan and Eva Peron ruled Argentina they renamed two provinces after themselves.  Provincial police for these two districts carried Ballesters with these province markings.  After the fall of the Perons the provinces reverted to their original titles and the Juan and Eva Peron markings were ground off the Ballester-Molinas carrying their names just prior to arsenal refinishing.  Unaltered Juan/Eva Peron marked specimens are uncommonly encountered if not outright rare.


One side note to the Peron dynasty involves the clasping hands that are often found on Ballester-Rigauds and Ballester-Molina pistols.  The Perons established a welfare foundation that apparently was mostly for the welfare of the Perons themselves.  The foundation was in business from 1946-1955.  Its logo was two clasped hands (as in helping hands).  Police who “assisted” with the collection effort often carried Ballesters stamped with the clasped hands foundation markings.  There is another clasped hand logo that appears on some 1909 Argentine Mauser rifles and, although it looks similar, has no connection with the Peron’s regime.


Field stripping the Ballester-Rigaud or Ballester-Molina is pretty much identical to the process used on a M1911 pistol.  If unsure though, here's the correct method...

Remove the magazine and cycle the slide to ensure that the gun is unloaded.  Point the muzzle straight up and press the recoil plug under the barrel in about 1/8 inch.  Keep the plug depressed while simultaneously rotating the barrel bushing clockwise 90 degrees as viewed from above. Slowly ease up on the recoil plug until no spring tension remains.  Pull the recoil plug off the spring and set it aside.  Retract the slide until the hold-open notch on the left side of the slide lines up with the slide stop.  Press the visible end of the slide stop pivot on the right side of the slide.  Pull the slide stop out from the left side of the slide and set it aside. Ease the slide forward until it comes off the frame. Rest the slide upside down on the sights. Grasp the recoil spring guide and spring and pull rearward to remove both parts.  Rotate the barrel bushing 180 degrees while pulling the bushing forward until it separates from the slide.  Flip the swinging link on the barrel forward and push the barrel out the front of the slide.  Reassemble in reverse order.

When cleaning a Ballester for the first time, it's a good idea to clean out the firing pin and extractor channels, and it's easy to do. A tool to depress the firing pin will be required.  Use something non-marring but stiff, like an old ink pen refill.  A small punch can be used if care is taken, or a #0 Phillips screwdriver will work.  It might be prudent to put the slide in a large clear Ziploc bag the first time to catch the firing pin and spring when it ejects itself (after one or two times it will be easy to do this without the bag and without losing the firing pin or spring). 


In any event, press in on the firing pin with your tool of choice while sliding the firing pin retainer (the part surrounding the firing pin) down. Gently ease the retainer out and have your hand positioned to catch the firing pin when the retainer clears it. If the firing pin spring is not attached to the firing pin then it can be fished out of the firing pin channel with a small bent paper clip or similar tool.  The extractor (the round part sticking out the back of the slide) should now pull easily rearward until it comes out.  Swab out the firing pin hole and extractor channel using Q-tips wetted with bore cleaner.  Let stand for 5 minutes. There will be lots of mung and drool in those holes. Use dry Q-tips to clean until they no longer come out dirty when swabbed. Then put a couple drops of BreakFree or machine oil in the holes and reassemble the extractor and firing pin to the gun using the reverse order of the instructions above.

Shooting the Ballester-Molina and Ballester Rigaud pistols will generally give results similar to USGI M1911A1’s of the same era.  One downside is that the Argentines seemed to have gone out of their way to put the most miniscule sights possible on their pistols.  The earlier Ballester-Rigauds are even worse than the later Ballester-Molinas in this regard.  Also, Ballester sights are typically regulated for a six o’clock hold at 25 yards using standard 230 grain FMJ ammunition.  The net effect is that some shooters conclude that the pistol shoots high, when in fact a six o’clock hold should produce groups in the center of the target.  The barrels of many Ballesters on the market these days look terrible with dark bores and shallow rifling.  However, these barrels should be test-fired before considering a replacement as many still produce acceptable accuracy.  It is also not uncommon to find slightly oversize chambers on original barrels.  These will produce slight case bulges, but do not appear to adversely affect either accuracy or reliability.  In any event, any M1911 replacement barrel can be used if the barrel in question does not meet expectations.  One additional caution before replacing a barrel is to check the fit of the barrel bushing.  Many bushings on these old pistols will be found to be excessively loose.  Sometimes all that is needed to restore accuracy is to use a tighter or match-grade bushing, which is much less expensive than purchasing a new barrel.


While the Ballester Rigauds and Molinas were designed to use M1911-style magazines, it is not uncommon to find M1911 magazines that permit normal feeding and extraction, but do not hold the slide open after the last round.  This has to do with the design of the magazine follower.  The hold-open tab on Ballester-Rigaud and Ballester-Molina slide stops has a slightly different configuration than that on the M1911.  Some M1911 magazine followers will fail to engage the hold-open tab properly after the last round is fired.  Plastic followers seem to be more problematic in this regard than magazines that use steel followers.  This is not much of an issue on a range pistol, but use of a Ballester as a self-defense weapon requires experimentation to find and use magazines that function perfectly.  Mec-Gar brand magazines with steel followers work very well in Ballester pistols.  Original Argentine magazines are often unreliable.



 A Ballester-Molina pistol with about 85% of the original blued finish remaining.  This pistol is sporting new Argentine mil-surp grips.


Some brief mention should probably be made of the thumb safety.  The thumb safety blocks the hammer instead of the sear.  Thus, a properly operating thumb safety will cam the hammer back slightly when the safety is applied.  Some Ballesters that have seen a lot of use may have thumb safeties that refuse to engage when the hammer is cocked.  On these guns it may be necessary to manually retract the hammer a tiny bit in order to engage the safety.  This condition is more aggravating than dangerous, and it occasionally appears on older Star pistols that use the same design.  Fortunately, the safety can be disengaged in the normal manner on Ballesters (and Stars) that exhibit this problem.


Little mention of holsters for Ballester pistols is ever made, but any M1911 holster will generally work with a Ballester pistol.  Argentine issue holsters are typically of the military flap variety.  Because Ballesters have no grip safety, and in deference to the “iffy” nature of the thumb safeties as outlined above, it is advisable to carry a Ballester with an empty chamber.  One exception to this would be cocked-and-locked carry in a modern leather holster that incorporates a thumb break between the hammer and frame for an extra measure of safety.


Ballesters were issued with a blued finish.  Many importers chose to have them phosphated before putting them out on the U.S. market.  The refinished guns look much nicer than the originals with worn bluing.  Of course, the Ballesters sporting whatever is left of the original finish can usually be obtained for less money.  This situation will likely reverse itself if the Ballester series of pistols ever become truly collectible.


Due to the overwhelming dominance of the Colt-pattern M1911 and M1911A1 pistols, other .45 ACP military pistol designs like the Ballester-Molina and Ballester Rigaud pistols have assumed an unbecoming secondary status.  This clearly should not be the case as Ballesters offer the budget collector the opportunity to own a first-class .45 automatic that can actually be taken to the range.  It is likely that the last of the Argentine surplus Ballesters have been released on the U.S. market by now, so the timing is good to acquire one before they become yet another unaffordable military collectible.

At various times Argentine .45's have been fairly common on the U.S. market. This ad for all four variants appeared in a 1966 issue of 'The American Rifleman'. 




*Article written and graciously shared by R. W. Simms. Author retains all associated rights to this article including copyright of 2023. 

'The VIS-35 Polish Radom Pistol' by R. W. Simms

by R. W. Simms


Good accuracy, reliability, and handling qualities make this a great WW2 shooting classic.


One of the great “sleeper” handguns to serve in World War II was the Polish Vis-35 service pistol, often referred to informally as the “Radom” pistol.  The Vis-35 was a native Polish design but it borrowed heavily from the Colt 1911A1 and Browning Hi-Power pistols.  This heritage would form the basis for one of the best service sidearms of World War II.


The genesis of the Polish VIS-35 pistol occurred shortly after World War I when the Polish military decided to upgrade their antiquated revolvers to a modern semi-auto handgun.  There was much squabbling and in-fighting about this decision.  The Polish cavalry in particular felt that a revolver was the sidearm of choice for horse-mounted troops.  By 1929 a decision was made to adopt a CZ pistol in .380 ACP caliber (this caliber is also known as the 9 x17 mm as well as 9mm Kurz or 9mm Corto depending on which country used it).

Two native Poles were distressed enough about this decision to act decisively.  Piotr Wilniewczyc was a Polish weapons designer.  Together with Jan Skrzypinski, the managing director of the Warsaw rifle factory, they formulated a plan to derail the CZ agreement.  Their success was offset by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 as Poland became the first casualty of World War II (the CZ BRNO plant fell into German hands as well).


Wilniewczyc borrowed some design concepts from the Colt 1911A1 pistol and the FN/Browning Hi-Power.  He also used some of his own ideas and Skrzypinski’s factory to create a first-class service sidearm.  Originally the pistol was given the designation of WiS-31.  This combined the first letters of the Wilniewczyc’s and Skrzypinski’s last names (the “i” in the middle translates to “and” in Polish) along with the 1931 prototype design date.  Military trials proved the soundness of the design.  The Polish military was impressed enough that they adopted the pistol in 1935 as the official Polish sidearm.  Ironically, the new designation was Vis-35, very close to the designers’ original moniker although they are frequently referred to as simply “Radom” pistols.  “Vis” means “power” in Latin and may be a borrowed attribute from the FN/Browning “Grande Puissance” or “High Power” pistol.  Whether this is true or not, there can be little doubt that Wilniewczyc’s decision to chamber his brainchild in 9mm Parabellum was a significant improvement over the .380 ACP round originally envisioned by the Polish military.


The Vis-35 pistol utilizes a Browning-style slide-on-frame arrangement.  The barrel has locking lugs that engage into recesses in the top of the slide similar to the 1911A1 and Hi-Power pistols.  The barrel is locked into these recesses by a cam reminiscent of that used on the Hi-Power.  The trigger is of double-stirrup design ala the M1911.  The Vis-35 incorporates a M1911-style grip safety.  Interestingly, there is no manual safety on the pistol.  Instead, a lever on the slide retracts the firing pin and drops the hammer when actuated, very similar to the way a modern Ruger P95 decocker works.  The 8-round magazine is of single-stack design and is released from the gun using a thumb-operated pushbutton, similar to that found on a M1911 or Hi-Power pistol.  Original magazines may be marked on the floorplate with an eagle-over-189 waffenamt , an eagle-over-623 stamped on the side of the magazine, or they may exhibit no markings at all.

Vis-35 pistols are said to be either “3-lever” or “2-lever” guns.  The earlier 3-lever models had a M1911-style slide stop, a hammer drop lever, and a take-down catch located where the thumb safety would be on a M1911 and frequently mistaken for one.  As the Germans implemented manufacturing shortcuts, one such “product improvement” was to eliminate the take-down catch entirely.  This version is referred to as the 2-lever model.


Vis-35 grips are sometimes thought by novices to be mismatched because they have different wording on the left and right grip panels.  The pistols were stocked with black or brown plastic grips that had “VIS” molded into the right panel and “FB” molded into the left panel.  “FB” stands for Fabryka Broni, the factory in Radom, Poland where the Vis-35 pistols were manufactured until the last months of the war.  Earlier pistols were issued with black grips.  Somewhere in the T-block series, the changeover was made to brown grips.  In late 1944, dark brown grips are often observed, and the last thousand or so pistols have crude wooden “cheese crate” grips.


The Vis-35 as manufactured by Poland was among the very best 9mm pistols utilized in World War II.  From an accuracy and dependability standpoint it is certainly as good as the P.38 pistol, probably better than the P.08 Luger, and is bested by the FN/Browning Hi-Power only by virtue of the latter’s 13-round magazine capacity.


The Nazi war machine of 1939 was impressive.  Their equipment and tactics were new and modern.  The German invasion of Poland in September of 1939 was the flashpoint that began World War II.  Although the Poles fought valiantly and desperately, their horse-mounted cavalry was no match for the most modern and efficient army on earth.  The Polish army suffered over 200,000 casualties during the Blitzkrieg, and the Germans took over 500,000 prisoners.  In this sad scenario lies the origin of the Polish Joke.  Apparently, the idea that brave cavalrymen, some armed only with pikes, would charge machine guns in defense of their country appeared ludicrous to some and the height of stupidity to others.  It is an unfortunate and untrue stereotype that remains with us to this day.


The Germans were nothing if not methodical.  As they overran countries they evaluated indigenous firearms designs with an eye toward utilizing them should the need arise.  Each firearm evaluated was given a fremdgeräte (foreign equipment) number.  The Polish Radom VIS-35 was given the fremdgeräte designation of Pistole 645.


At first no one in Germany seriously thought that the Wehrmacht would ever use (or need) anything other than German arms.  The thought was that foreign weapons would be used to arm turncoat overseers in each overrun country.  However, Hitler’s genius became somewhat less than self-evident after he decided to launch a second front against the Soviets in the east, and suddenly all manner of weaponry was in short supply.  It is alleged that the SS, who were not generally issued Lugers or P.38’s, preferred to carry the FN/Browning Hi-Power or Vis-35 Radom pistols as their sidearm of choice.  Certainly, the Vis-35 pistol was one of the best foreign service pistols the Germans had at their disposal.


Although the Vis-35 had only a short nine year run, from 1936-1945, collectors identify four distinct variations and numerous sub-variations.  The first variation is the Polish Eagle model, so named because of the beautiful eagle that graces the deep rust-blued slide.  These pistols were meticulously hand-crafted, and were as good as the best that Europe had to offer at the time.  The Polish Eagle model also came equipped with a slot on the pistol’s backstrap.  The idea was to create a wooden holster that could also be used as a shoulder stock that would fit into the slot to make a carbine of sorts.  Apparently this idea was scrapped as very few Vis-35 holster/shoulder stocks have ever surfaced.  The Polish Eagle Vis-35 Radoms are true collector’s items these days, fetching more than $1,000 when they appear on the market if they are in decent condition.


Things went gradually downhill once the Germans seized possession of the Fabryka Broni plant in Radom, which occurred less than two weeks after the invasion.  Collectors categorize the occupation pistols manufactured with Nazi oversight as Type I, Type II, or Type III guns.


It should be noted that some early Vis-35 Radoms were produced for the German navy and sport Kriegsmarine markings.  These are hard to find and expensive to buy when they do turn up.


Vis-35 pistols produced under Nazi supervision are usually separated into three major categories or “types”:


Type I Vis-35’s retain the slotted backstrap for a shoulder stock, and they have the takedown catch, making them 3-lever pistols.  The Nazis stamped their own marks, or waffenamts on each pistol manufactured under their control.  Type I Radom pistols have an eagle-over-WaA77 waffen stamped on the frame and frequently appear with the number 625 inspection/proof mark.  The very first pistols produced under Nazi control were made up of pre-invasion parts, and some of these early occupation examples can be found with both the Polish Eagle and German inspection waffenamts on the slide.  The serial number range for Type I Vis-35’s is 0001-E8000.  Around 60,000 Type I pistols were produced.  Most, if not all, are believed to have been  manufactured in 1940.


Type II Vis-35’s still retain all 3 levers but the slot for the holster/shoulder stock was eliminated.  Another cost-cutting exercise on the Type II guns was to change the labor-intensive rust bluing to the cheaper salt-bluing process.  The eagle-over-WaA77 waffen is still present up to serial number M8400.  Around the start of the K-block (K0001) the trigger relief cuts (like those seen on the 1911A1 pistol) were eliminated.  From S/N M8400-Z2000 the waffenamt was changed to eagle-over-77 (sometimes referred to as E/77).  The Type II is the most frequently encountered Vis-35.  Approximately 150,000 were manufactured from 1941 through late 1943.


Figure 1.  Typical profile of the Type I and Type II Vis-35 pistols showing all 3 levers.  This example is a Type II, identifiable by the absence of theM1911A1-style trigger relief cuts on the frame.  Type III guns look similar but lack the takedown lever on the left side of the frame above the grip safety.


It may be useful to know that hardcore collectors identify sub-variants within several of the Vis-35 types, but the differences are pretty minimal and beyond the scope of this topical article.  Most shooting enthusiasts will be satisfied just to know which type of pistol they have.


Figure 2.  View showing the right side VIS grip panel, different from the left side


Type III Vis-35’s really began to show the decline in workmanship and finish as the war deteriorated for the Nazis.  Several sub-variations of the Type III exist as cost-cutting intensified.  The most obvious change was the elimination of the takedown catch.  Additionally, the waffenamt changed from E/77 to E/623 for the serial number range Z2000 through most of the second alphabetic K-block (some Radoms in this range have also been reported with E/WaA623 waffens).   It is important to note that when the Germans got to serial number 9999 in the Z-block, they just started over with serial number 0001 and never missed a beat.  This, of course, means that some early-war and late-war pistols have the same serial number.  Grip color changed from black to medium brown to dark brown as the Germans began using sawdust and cardboard filler in the plastic resin used for making the grips.


In December of 1944, as the Russians closed in, the entire Radom factory was moved to a Steyr facility in Austria.  Austrian Vis-35’s exhibit several unique features, among which was the change from bluing to phosphate as the finish of choice (some K-block pistols will be found with a blued finish).  Although phosphating was initially implemented at Fabryka Bromi it appears that only a relatively small number of pistols received the new treatment before the factory was relocated.  Brown plastic grips appear to be the norm for Steyr-produced guns, although the last 1,000 or so will be found with wooden grips and are typically marked with a bnz code.


Figure 3.  Typical Type III Vis-35.  Note the tubular style pins and the absence of the takedown lever.  The late-style dark brown grips look almost black.  With a serial number in the high 3,000’s of the second alphabetic K-block, this particular Vis-35 was most likely manufactured at the Austrian Steyr plant in the last month of production prior to the plant being captured by the Russians.


The total number of Type III Vis-35 pistols produced at both Radom and Steyr is between 65,000 and 100,000 pistols, depending on which reference source you choose to believe.  Part of this uncertainty lies in the fact that some letter prefixes were skipped in both the first and second alphabetic serial number series.  Specifically, it is alleged by some experts that the letter blocks I, O, Q, V, X, and Y were not used during the first alphabet series.  It is also believed by many that I and J were skipped during the second alphabet series.  Incidentally, the last pistols produced before the end of the war in May, 1945 show the crudest manufacture but command some of the highest prices due to their relative scarcity.  Many of these late-war pistols will be marked with Steyr’s E/623 or bnz code instead of the Radom eagle-over-77 waffen stamp.  Experts cite that between 21,000 and 24,000 Vis-35 pistols were produced at Steyr, but less than 1,000 pistols are believed to have been produced with the bnz code.


Exact Vis-35 production figures are unavailable, but it some experts estimate that the total number of Vis-35s manufactured is between 300,000 and 400,000 pistols.


The little production data available indicate that about as many 3-lever Type II pistols were produced as all other variants combined, so it is likely that this is the pistol the shooting enthusiast is most likely to encounter.  That’s not to say that the 2-lever Type III pistols are rare; they’re not.  It’s just that generally Type II pistols will more often be found for sale. 

Most Type II’s were originally issued with black grips.  Beware of reproduction grips.  Many will have a duller finish and are often thicker than the originals.  Original issue grips are brittle and easily broken.  Finding a set of original grips can be challenging so subtract at least $100 when purchasing a Vis-35 without them.    Type III pistols are usually found sporting brown grips, but with very late war pistols anything is possible.


Custom wooden, bone, or plastic grips were also fashioned by out-of-work European craftsmen and sold to G.I.’s.  One such commonly encountered non-factory Vis-35 grip variant is made from plexiglass aircraft windshields and sport the G.I.’s initials or photographs underneath where they can be prominently seen.  These modifications offer a unique historical perspective and do not affect the pistol’s function, but they do significantly lower the collector value.


Additionally, G.I. bring-back pistols were often customized by returning soldiers.  Chrome plated Lugers, P.38’s, and Vis-35’s are often encountered.  In 1945 a pack of cigarettes could buy a chrome plating job for a G.I.’s war trophy.  It is important to note that there are no recorded instances of German occupiers producing chrome plated presentation weapons for the Nazi high command.  Such stories are generally recounted by unscrupulous or uninformed sellers in order to artificially inflate the value of their wares.  Non-factory modifications like these do allow the shooting enthusiast to acquire a shooting specimen at a greatly reduced price though.


Vis-35’s are sometimes encountered with worn slide releases and/or hold-open notches on the slide.  Remove the magazine and check to ensure that the slide hold-open keeps the slide retracted when manually actuated without the benefit of magazine spring pressure.  This typically does not affect the pistol’s function, but it offers another negotiating point for a price reduction as this defect will prevent the slide from staying open after the last round is fired.


Many Vis-35 pistols were issued with an eagle-over-189 waffen stamped on the magazine floorplate.  Some can also be found with E/623 stamped on the side of the magazine.  Both early and late wartime (and some post-war) magazines were issued without this waffenamt.  These original unmarked magazines can be difficult to differentiate from modern aftermarket magazines. 


Don’t rely on the hammer-drop lever to safely lower the hammer.  The mechanism has been known to fail and accidental discharges have resulted.  Instead, point the pistol in a safe direction and gently lower the hammer with the thumb while pulling the trigger.


Original spare magazines will logically enhance the value of any Vis-35 pistol.  The same can be said for other original accessories such as an original holster.  Nazi issue holsters will be of the military flap configuration with an attached spare magazine pouch, usually in brown leather but infrequently found in black.  Add $100-$200 for an original issue holster, more if the holster is in excellent condition.


Figure 4.  Typical Vis-35 occupation holster.  Even in its current distressed condition this holster would likely sell for $250 or more to a collector.


Field stripping the Vis-35 is fairly straightforward:


  • Remove the magazine and cycle the slide to ensure that the gun is unloaded.  Lock the slide fully to the rear.  On Type I and Type II pistols this is accomplished by pushing the takedown lever up to engage the takedown notch in the slide.  Type III Vis-35’s are missing both the takedown lever and notch.  On these pistols it is necessary to push the slide fully to the rear and push the hammer drop down so it engages the notch on top of the hammer. 


  • Pull the recoil guide rod forward while simultaneously pushing the slide stop out. 


  • Ease the slide forward off the frame. 


  • Remove the captured recoil spring assembly by rotating the recoil guide rod plate that bears on the barrel locking block 90 degrees and easing the assembly up and out. 


  • The chamber area of the barrel can be lifted up at this point and the barrel can now be removed by pulling rearward.


  • Reassembly is simply reverse order.


Whenever the Germans took over production of a foreign arms manufacturing facility they usually established a monthly production quota of 10,000 pistols.  It was not uncommon for factories to fail to meet this monthly quota early on, but it was occasionally exceeded as efficiency improved.  It is therefore necessary to extrapolate production dates based on the assumption of a 10,000 monthly pistol production rate.  The following chart provides what little actual information is known.  Note that production figures for 1940 and 1941 are detailed.  Total annual production figures for 1942, 1943, and 1944 are given but the quarterly output must be extrapolated.  It is important to note that while the figures below (from Berger’s book which he attributes to captured German war production records) are generally accepted to be accurate, actual production may vary slightly.  The Russians captured the Austrian Steyr plant in late 1944.  Any Vis-35 production past that time frame cannot be reliably documented at present.


Quarter      1940           1941             1942                1943                1944

First           -                 5,221             ------                ------                ------

Second       -                 6,800             ------                -------               ------

Third           1,583        6,842             -------               -------               ------

Fourth         10,656    11,134             -------               -------               -------

Total            12,239    29,997             51,000             140,000           65,000


Note that more than 270,000 pistols are believed to have been produced.  The first 10,000 pistols manufactured under Nazi occupation were produced in the serial number range of 0001-9999.  After this, the second 10,000 pistols were produced with an “A” prefix in the serial number range of A0001 through A9999.  This process repeats itself through Z9999.  Subtracting 60,000 pistols, to account for unused letter prefixes as noted earlier, leaves a total of 210,000 pistols in the first alphabetic range.  At this point the second serial number range begins as the Germans simply started over again with serial number 0001 (no prefix). 


A reasonable guess as to the quarter of production can be made by assuming that the first 10,000 pistols (which would have no letter prefix) were all manufactured during 1940.  The first 2,000 “A” block pistols (A0001-A2000) would have been produced late in the 4th quarter of 1940.  Extrapolating the remainder (based on dividing each year’s total annual production by 4 quarters) gives us the following production data, but due to the uncertainty as to exactly how many pistols were produced in any given month it can only be considered an approximation:








1st quarter






2nd quarter






3rd quarter






4th quarter












*  beginning of second alphabetic prefix series


Again, the above chart should be taken as a best-guess estimate.  Due to missing or incomplete production records it is very difficult to accurately pinpoint even the quarter of production for a given pistol.


Discriminating Vis-35 pistol collectors generally try to acquire premium examples.  These guns will typically have 90% finish or better, be in excellent mechanical condition, and will have been shot minimally.  Guns in this condition occupy perhaps only 20% of the market, which leaves a fairly large number of working guns in less than perfect condition.  These might well be referred to as “representative specimens” and may exhibit one or more of the collector’s three deadly

sins ---  refinishing, import markings, and/or mismatched serial numbers.  This is not necessarily bad for the shooting enthusiast as the price drops from thousands of dollars for a primo gun to mere hundreds for a good representative specimen, and their value won’t decrease if fired moderately.  Good Type II shooters can be had for as little as $500, or even less with a bit of luck.  Shop around.  The Vis-35 is a wonderful gun for the shooting enthusiast.  It is accurate and reliable with a trigger that will be very familiar to M1911 shooters.  Produced in standard 9x19mm caliber, ammunition is both relatively cheap and plentiful (refrain from using +P loads!), but the real thrill is being able to shoot a working piece of history.  With all this going for it, there is very little not to like about the Vis-35.



Caliber:                      9x19mm (9mm Parabellum)
Dimensions:               L=207 mm (8.1 in.) H=137 mm (5.4 in.) W=33 mm (1.3 in.)
Weight (unloaded):   822 g (29 oz.)
Barrel:                        121mm (4.75 in.), 6 groove, 1-in-10 right-hand twist
Magazine:                  8 round detachable box





















Exploded diagram of a Type II Vis-35 (typical of all models)








The Radom Pistol by Robert J. Berger, Copyright 1981


Axis Pistols – The Pistols of Germany and Her Allies in Two World Wars Volume III by Jan C. Still

Collection & Preservation Tips

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