Spanish Blue Steel

 

Astra Pistol

       by Rui Aballe Vieira                                                       pics by Cliff Carlisle

 The Astra “Puros” (this is the nickname given by the Spaniards themselves to all tubular slide Astras and their clones: in Spanish, besides from the normal meaning - pure, untouched - “puro” also means cigar, normally a big one).

The most charismatic of all Spanish tubular designs is undoubtedly the 400.  D. Pedro Careaga, its designer, began work on a modernized Campo Giro in 1919.  The new design was officially granted a state patent, slightly altered two years after, in 1921.  The gun was intended from the earliest drafts as a military product, to be marketed also on the world market.  This can help to explain the effort taken to produce it under a multi-calibre guise, since it was originally conceived to fire an impressive array of different 9mm ammunition: Bergmann Bayard or Largo, Steyr, Parabellum, Browning Long and the .38 ACP.

The official Spanish military designation is Modelo 1921 (M-1921 for short), the pistol having been officially adopted on October of that year, slowly replacing the Campo Giro patterns 1913 and 1913-16.  A year later, on 26th September 1922, the gun was declared regulation pistol for the Cuerpo de Carabineros.  The next service branches to adopt it were the prison guards, on November and ultimately the Navy, on September 1923.  This last variation is becoming rare and it is very interesting.  It differs from regular 400’s in that it possesses a magazine catch style identical to the one used in the model 300.  The naval variation has a small Navy crest on the slide with crossed anchors toped by the royal crown.

The Navy also ordered some match grade pistols with altered sights.  Only a few hundreds were built.  I had the opportunity to examine one.  The fit and finish was nothing short of superb.  The checkered grips on every 400 match pistols are made from top-notch walnut.

 The Chilean Navy 400’s are extremely rare in Spain and much sought after by collectors. The order amounted to 842 guns, delivered in 1930.  Anyway, I suppose this variation may well be difficult to find even in the USA.  According to Spanish sources, the Astra 400 totals reached 106.173 guns, including those manufactured specifically for the civil market.

As for the copies made in the Republican factories, they form an interesting story of their own that deserves to be told in some length.  These arcane guns are rated among the most valued 400 variations, but few examples are known outside the Spanish borders.  The Spanish collectors grasp avidly every example that pops up, and I suspect that most if not all survivors in decent condition are in Spain.  When the Astra factory, located in the Basque town of Guernica, fell into Nationalists hands the Republican army was forced to start pistol manufacture from scratch using the resources available, a task undertaken with the aid of many former Astra employees.

The Republican 400 clones are split into two major variations and a minor third one. The most numerous variant was built in Valencia, and it is readily identifiable by specific markings on the slide with the initials R.E. (República Española). Another distinctive feature of this variation, known simply as R.E., are the grips fitted. The grips are not checkered, showing instead vertical grooves styled after the Russian pistols of the era (a la Tokarev). The initials R.E. are repeated in injected black plastic grips, and inserted by way of a brass medallion when the grips were made from wood. The R.E.’s lack the classic Spanish inspection marks, replaced by a small five-pointed star on the trigger guard bridge. The finish is very good, almost matching the peacetime commercial Astra standards, and surely surpasses those seen in many pistols manufactured under war conditions in other countries during WW 2. The lack of documentation on this gun and its manufacture hamper further details. Some Spanish authors calculate the total R.E. production at the non-negligible 15.000 mark, but this is only an estimated figure without any solid documented backup.

The other main clone was produced at the industrial town of Tarrasa, in Catalonia. The gun was christened after the Catalan anarquist Francisco Ascaso, who died in Barcelona during the first stages of the Civil War. The obvious propaganda purpose of the gun’s name is self-evident upon examination of any of these pistols: instead of the classic Astra logo on the slide the gun exhibits the model name, F. Ascaso (this designation is used as such by Spanish gun historians and collectors) over the words Tarrasa (the place of manufacture) and Cataluña (Catalonia enjoyed a high degree of autonomy back then) inside an oval cartouche. The model “designation” F. Ascaso is repeated inside a typically Art Deco logo in the plastic grips and at the magazine bottom. The estimated totals are still debated. The opinions vary between 5.000 and 8.000 guns. The F. Ascaso guns are exceedingly well made. The finish is absolutely superb, surpassing the R.E. pistols made in Valencia and equalling the best handguns manufactured abroad. The high degree attained in the manufacture of this gun is attested by the fact that its parts are interchangeable with the original 400’s.

The third and less frequent of all three Republican Astra 400 clones is an elusive gun on which very little is known. Apparently, it was manufactured in Vich and assembled in some workshop in the vicinity of Valencia. The gun lacks the typical grip safety, common to all “Puros” with the sole exception of the model 4000. The finish is of inferior quality and, besides from the serial number, no markings have been reported.

The other two Spanish pistol manufacturing companies, Llama and Star also benefited from lucrative export contracts during the WW 2 period, the bulk of whose destined to the German Werhmacht, but the case of Astra is unique in several aspects. In first place, because the number of guns sold was far higher and secondly because they’ve gone to the length of developing a gun suited to their German customers. The company link with the Germans was reinforced when a sizeable order was placed for the 300(in 9mm short) and 400. At least 5.950 guns of the later type were dispatched to the Werhmacht during the fall of 1941 (serial nos. from 92.851 up to 98. 800) in the original 9mm Largo chambering. Some Spanish authors, most notably Luis Pérez de León, suggested that some guns in this batch may have been fitted with 9mm Parabellum barrels and adapted magazines, but again I must insist that there is no proof of this whatsoever. The Astra 600 was essentially an export venture, designed as an intermediary weapon between its bigger sister, the 400, and the smaller 300. The end result was, as you know, a well-balanced, finely made and robust gun.
 

By the spring of 1944, the number of Astra 600’s actually delivered to the Germans through the Spanish-French border at Irún reached had reached 10.450 guns. The Allied invasion of France frustrated the delivery of the rest. The situation was ambiguous and difficult to solve. For their part, the Germans had paid most of the order, and at the same time the Spanish firm was left with a lot of finished parts and completed guns without the slightest chance of having them delivered to the customer. The guns paid for by the Germans were seized under direct orders of the Spanish Government and stocked in Burgos – this is the origin of the 31.350 Astra 600’s received well after the war end by the West German Police. The German Government also contracted with the firm Unceta y Cía. for the delivery of the remaining unsold 600 pistols still stocked by the Basque arm company.

The batch of brand new pistols still not paid for by the Germans was immediately offered for export. The Spanish civilian market absorbed a small quantity. Portugal acquired 800 for the Navy, Chile 450 (they must have liked the 400’s…), Turkey 200 and Jordan also 200.
 
 

copyright Carbines for Collectors 2003