Tour: The Walther Factory

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Walther firearms have always had an interesting time here in the States. Through the years, they’ve been available through various importers, with memorable stints from Interarms and Smith & Wesson. In fact, “Interarms Walther PPK” is a recommended google search for the Interarms brand. For many years, Interarms assembled PPK pistols in the US specifically because the PPK didn’t meet the import restrictions of GCA ’68.

After the end of Interarms, new Walther firearms were available through Smith & Wesson. To many of our readers, this is ancient history, but during the late 90s and up until fairly recently, Smith & Wesson and Walther shared a “strategic partnership” where Smith & Wesson acted as the importer of Walther’s guns and also took over the domestic “manufacture” of the PPK. In 1999, six years before the introduction of the M&P, Smith & Wesson and Walther collaborated on the SW99, which mated a Walther produced P99 frame to a Smith & Wesson produced barrel and slide. At the time, the only polymer pistol in Smith & Wesson lineup was the Smith & Wesson Sigma, which was not highly regarded by the shooting community. The SW99 was an interesting gun, but never really caught on. It was, in many ways, doomed by the Walther P99, which was better to look at and similar to shoot, and of course the market domination of Glock. The eventual introduction of the M&P killed the SW99 for good.

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During that time however, Smith & Wesson was importing the Walther P99, which gained a bit of a pop culture boost when James Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, used it as his sidearm in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is not Enough, and his last outing Die Another Day. In fact, it’s in Tomorrow Never Dies where he acquires his new pistol, identifying “the new Walther” in a Chinese spy base before sailing off to his final confrontation with the bad guys. The Walther P99 enjoyed modest success in the U.S., gaining a small but fairly loyal following.

At the 2011 SHOT Show, while still being imported by Smith & Wesson, Walther announced the new PPQ pistol. The PPQ wasn’t an entirely new design, but rather represented the evolution of the P99. The new PPQ impressed me at SHOT 2011, and I hoped that it would catch on and gain more support than the P99. It wasn’t much of a surprise then when in 2012, Walther announced that they were creating Walther Arms, Inc to manage the importation and distribution of Walther products in the United States.

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In 2013, I was invited to attend an exclusive tour of Walther’s production facility in Ulm, Germany. This facility is where Walther produces the PPQ, PPX, and PPS lines of pistols. The PK380 and .22 caliber Walther pistols are produced at Umarex HQ facility in Arnsberg.

The trip started with a flight from Minneapolis to Paris, a short layover there and then on to the Munich Airport. Thanks to an E.U. treaty, once I cleared customs in De Gaulle (a simple task) I didn’t need to clear it again in Germany. From there, I was driven to the town of Ulm, where the other invited writers were staying. My first day in Germany concluded with a delightful dinner in a local restaurant, accompanied by some of the best beer I’ve ever had.

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Day two of the trip is where the real fun began, as we toured the Walther production facility in Ulm. While most firearms producing facilities are similar in terms of the machinery, the Ulm facility left me with one major lasting impression: attention to detail. The constant emphasis on quality control and attention to detail was a constant theme in the factory. For example; every single Walther handgun that leaves the factory is pressure tested with two rounds that are loaded to 30-percent above the C.I.P. maximum pressure. That means if you buy a Walther handgun, they tried to blow it up and failed just to make sure it was good enough to leave the building. Every single gun that leaves the factory is also test fired and functioned tested, which is not something that every brand can say they do. That level of quality control isn’t required to sell guns on the U.S. market. Every gun that comes out of the Walther factory is test fired for a group, and if it’s for a police contract, they’ll test fire it with the ammo that police agency uses as their carry/duty ammo. The attention to detail and quality control is, for lack of a better word, maniacal. As a consumer, I appreciate that. I like knowing that my guns have been rigorously tested before they end up in my holster.

I saw some very impressive things walking the floor at Walther. There are only so many ways to build a gun, because at the end of the day cutting steel is cutting steel. What I was really impressed with was the sincere dedication on the part of the Walther employees to both putting out a quality product and taking pride of ownership in their own working environment. Employee workstations were neat, organized, and efficient – and watching them build a gun in that environment was a genuine treat for me. I’ve always been fascinated with the “business/industrial” side of the gun community, and seeing it come together with fastidious attention to detail was absolutely amazing.

That day concluded with a short walking tour of Ulm itself, and another excellent meal. Ulm itself is a delightful town that sits on the river Danube. Our German hosts would frequently point out buildings that were erected over a thousand years ago, and still stand today, not just as historic landmarks but as restaurants, shops, and working structures. My short stay in Germany definitely reinforced the truth behind the adage: “Americans think 100 years is a long time, and Europeans thinks 100 miles is a long drive.”

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The next day, we shuttled up the Autobahn to Arnsberg and the Umarex headquarters. The town of Arnsberg could merit an article all its own; during World War II it was the site of a successful attack by the RAF on Mohne dam using the bouncing bomb. The dam was targeted in an effort to damage the ability of the German industry located in the river valley to produce power and purify water for steel. While the attack initially was a success, the Germans had the dam fully repaired and operational within four months.

The morning after the drive to Arnsberg, we toured the Umarex facility. This is where production of all Walther-badged .22 LR pistols and rifles is handled, as well as the licensed .22 LR products such as the Colt 1911 .22, Smith & Wesson M&P22 pistol, and Umarex’s line of pellet guns, rifles, and airsoft guns. Much like the Ulm facility, there was a continued theme of quality control and attention to detail. Even the .22 LR guns are tested with overpressure cartridges to ensure their safety for retail sales.

At the Arnsberg facility, we were able to shoot products that are coming soon to the States, such as the new CCP pistol, just announced by Walther at the IWA 2014 show. We also played with excellent SBR versions of the AR15-style .22 LR rifles, full-auto airsoft guns, and amazingly accurate pellet rifles.

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The following day, we headed for Frankfurt, with our departure scheduled for the day after that. The most interesting thing that happened in Frankfurt was listening to the very kind hotel clerk attempt to pronounce “Sioux Falls” in English.

After nearly a week in Germany, I left having spent time with the people who make Walther tick. The German and American employees of Walther gave us an incredible experience, and more importantly than that showed us the resolve of Walther to make a considerable impact on the U.S. market. The attention to detail demonstrated at the Ulm and Arnsberg facilities was deeply impressive, as was the passion and ingenuity displayed by the employees.

As a gun writer, I am afforded the opportunity to attend trips and events that are unique and interesting. So far, nothing can compare to the time spent in Germany. The country is lovely, the people were kind, and most importantly – the Walther factories and their employees were incredible. We hope to see great things from Walther here in the United States.

By Caleb Giddings. Originally published in the April 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.

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