Pistols Designed by Aimo Lahti

One of the more intriguing projects an arms writer can undertake iscomparison testing of a classic gun against a near-identical foreigncopy of same, built with or without benefit of license. Interest isespecially keen when one “sibling” is said to be”better” than the other; better fitted, better finished, morereliable, etc.

And thus have I, in the past, been particularlyenthralled when investigating such pairs of “sister” firearmsas the U.S. Colt 1911/Norweigian 1914 (the Norwegian is by no meansbetter made than most U.S. And now comes yet another pair of sibling auto pistols to hold myattention: Finland’s Lahi L-35 and its Swedish derivative, theLahti L-40. Neither gun is the subject of any particular ill-regard inthis country, but fact is that the L-40 has been rumored to be the lesswell-fitted, less well-finished, and less reliable of the two Lahtis.to what extent is this so? Only side-by-side examination and firingtrials of L-35 and L-40 test pieces would seem to promise a partialanswer to this question.

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Before we commence said inspection and testing though, let us firstmake a brief examination of the history of both Lahtis, that we may gainsome inkling of just why the Lahti “sisters” might differqualitatively. The prototype L-35 was a Depressionera product of thegenius of one Aimo Lahti–a designer employed at Valtion Kivaarithedas,the Finnish state arsenal. Lahti’s intent was to provide hiscountry with a pistol especially engineered for Finland’s harsh,wintry climate; the Finns were certainly in need of such since theirstandard sidearm of the period was the Luger, which did not take well tooil-congealing temperatures or to snow. Accordingly, what emerged from Lahti’s drawing board was amonument to functionality under dreadful conditions.

The pistol was,for example, “well-sealed,” impeding entrance of ice, snow,and foreign debris as much as possible. Too, it was built rugged beyondall reason: size and weight considerations had been pretty well ignoredin its design, to a point where a 9-1/2-inch long, 44 ounces-emptyhandgun had been created. And, as a final concession to winter usage,an “accelerator” had been incorporated in the design. Thiswas basically a dual-armed, lever-style affair engineered so as to givethe breechbolt an added “kick backward” just after unlockingoccurred.

Such a kick helped ensure complete cycling when oil hadthickened due to low temperatures. In less severe climes, though, theaccelerator was not an unmixed blessing: Lahtis that are subjected toprolonged use in temperate countries will tend to develop stress crackscountries will tend to develop stress cracks in that area of the barrelextension which houses the accelerator. Anyhow, Finland ordered this grizzly bear of a pistol into quantityproduction in the year 1935, but manufacture proceeded at an extremelyslow pace; this was because the Lahti was no easy pistol to build andalso because the conscientious Finns refused to craft haphazard guns.As of the Winter War of 1940 only about 500 Lahtis were in service, butthese acquitted themselves handsomely in combat, and as a result,production proceeded with somewhat more energy following the armistice.

It is at this point–mid-1940–that Sweden entered the picture. TheSwedes had ordered Walther P-38 pistols from Germany early in 1939, butthe Second World War had halted deliveries of such guns to any armyexcept the German Wehrmacht. Thus the notion of building Lahtis underlicense in Sweden held appeal. There was little point in orderingcompleted guns from Valtion–not with the Finns’ rate ofproduction.

And so, by 1942, Husqvarna Waffenfabriks was busilychurning out a somewhat modified Lahti variant which was dubbed the L-40pistol. Modifications introduced by this arm included a captive recoil spring, a heavier and more ovalshaped triggerguard, a barrel that becamehexagonal where it joined the barrel extension, and the absence of aloaded chamber indicator. Most importantly though, the L-40 introduced the idea of realquantity manufacture to the Lahti concept: corners wer cut everywhere,particularly in the areas of polish (tool marks abound on L-40s), finish(the painstaking rust-blue applied by the Finns was scrapped in favor ofa quick-to-apply, high-gloss hot blue), and–if one published source isto be believed–materials (the Swedish steel used was allegedly not sofine as the Finnish). Fit was somewhat less conscientious, too.

Ittook sweden but four years then to complete some 83,000 of her L-40s,while Valtion labored from 1935 to 1944 to manufacture a paltry 5,000L-35s. All of which constitutes something of a reversal of normalpractice, since a neutral like Sweden would be expected to produce fewerand finer guns while a combatant like Finland would be expected toproduce more and messier arms. But all the same, these were theproduction figures. And they tell us much regarding just why thequality of Finnish and Swedish Lahtis might differ to a degree.

It should be noted, incidentally, that the Swedish and Finnishservices were not the only users of Lahtis. Denmark issued contracts toboth countries of manufacture, and there were commercial versions ofboth the L-35 and L-40 pistols. Indeed, in Finland, Lahti developmentcontinued throughout the 1950s in response to various civil and militaryorders. By 1958, when Lahti production finally ceased, more than 9,000pistols had been completed.

In Sweden, by contrast, manufacture did notcontinue beyond 1946, save for completion of a few replacement piecesfor the Swedish Army. The Lahti, interestingly enough, remains in both Finnish andSwedish service to this day. In the U.S. , either Lahti is an item forcollecting rather than using; this is especially so for the super-scarceFinnish pistol, since a fine L-35 can bring four figures.

By contrast,an L-40 is a bargain-basement special: a near-mint speciment withaccessories commands only a bit over $400, assuming no rare markings orvariations, etc. Now on to our inspection and testing of these twin sisters. Bothmy test pieces represented loaners from collectors’ arms dealer SydRachwal (3412 Mackin Road, Dept. GA, Flint, MI 48504); they comprisedone late-production Finnish L-35 in “80 percent” condition andone standard issue Swedish L-40 in near-mint trim.

Examination of thesearms quickly revealed that, in accord with expectations, finish and fitof the Valtion gun seemed superior to that of the L-40. The L-40, forexample, clearly showed machine marks on the exterior of its barrel; theupper surface of the frame was similarly unpolished; markings were, insome instances, crudely stamped. By contrast, the L-35’s surfacesand markings were as slick as those of a commercial Lugar.

Furthermore,part articulartions on the Finnish gun were tighter than on the Swedish;I cannot claim that the L-40 seemed at all badly made, however. Andinternally, where it really counts, there was a difference too: the L-40was marginally less well-polished. Of metallurgy, I could of coursetell nothing; it’s fair to concede here, though, that Swedish steeltraditionally has a fine reputation world-wide. All in all then, Iwould confirm the L-35’s superiority in fit and finish, but wouldquestion whether said superiority was so great as to have anyimplications at all for operational reliability.

Firing trials seemed to confirm my skepticism in this regard.Groupability of both guns proved to be in the “good” range,with five-shot 25-meter (27.3-yard) clusters running 2-5/8 inches forthe Finnish gun, 2-7/8 inches for the Swedish. These were printed usinga military-style 9mm FMJ loading.

I’ve no doubt in this world,incidentally, that both guns were capable–mechanically–of doing quitea bit better than this, but we’ll address that matter at lengthmomentarily. Controllability in rapid-fire was only”adequate,” with four “A’s” and two”B’s” being scored on the Stine ; Ressler silhouetteon the “six shots in three seconds at 10 meters” exercise.And yes, I too had expected state-of-the-art controllability from a44-ounce Parabellum but again, more on this later. Finally, functionalreliability was “excellent-but-only-with-certain-ammo” in bothguns.

One hundred percent functioning could be achieved, but only ifone was very careful regarding overall length and bullet configurationof cartridges utilized. Neither pistol, then, can be said to haveoutperformed the other. The L-35 was merely classier. I should add here that, in terms of design rather than execution, Ifound either Lahti singularly disappointin.

Handling qualities in bothpieces were invariably bad: everything was located in the wrong placeand/or was ill-configured for the human hand. Let us proceed then toenumerate the faults I found, recalling all the while that said faultsare common to both the L-35 and the L-40. In the first place, the Luger-like pitch of the Lahti grip, whencombined with the grossly oversized Lahti frame, cramps the hand in sucha way that the finger cannot gain proper purchase on the trigger. Infact, I believe that there are some men who could not fire the Lahti atall without assuming a very radical, contorted hold on the pistol.

Asit was, I could barely manage, despite my good-sized mitts and longfingers. In the second place, Lahti triggers are horrendous: they lend newmeaning to the words “gritty” and “stagy.” They canalso be overweight, the test L-35 went six pounds, the L-40, seven.Combine this with the fact that your finger can’t rest properly onthe trigger anyway and you have as positive a group-spreader as can beimagined.

Third, and to compound the practical accuracy problem stillfurther, Lahti sights are far from optimum, even for service use. Ashallow dimple is all you can get for a rear index of elevation andwindage. Fourth, the thumb safety is as badly placed as any I’ve seen. It cannot be manipulated with the hand anywhere near firing position.

Its movement is also a clumsy back-and-forth, rather than up-and-down,arc. And worst of all, it seems to wear badly over time, to a pointwhere, in its dotage, it wants to move all by itself. Fifth, there is nowhere truly convenient to place the support handon this gun, and with a muzzle-light arm like the Lahti, that supporthand has lots of work to do. it is difficult, for example, to mash yourthumb against the triggerguard with a Lahti to control muzzle flip.

Thethumb–at least my thumb–won’t reach comfortably. And whateveryou do, don’t allow the thumb to seek support on the disassembly lever. For no mater what the Lahti fieldstrip instructions say, thatlever often can be started downward even thouh there is no pressure atall being exerted on the muzzle. Result? A gun that startsdisassembling itself as, under recoil, the thumb pulls the disassemblylever down.

Lack of an appropriate anchor for the support thumb is,incidentally, what compromises the Lahti in terms of controllability,for kick is gentle. Sixth, ammo sensitivity is marked in the Lahti, much as it is inthe Luger, and for much the same reason. That reason is that, in bothguns, cartride overall length determines cartridge attitude in thesharply angled magazine, and the cartridge attitude in the mag affectsfeeding eliability. In the Lahti, this difficulty is accentuated by arather acute magazine-to-chamber feed angle; the cartridge has toporpoise quite a bit to make it into the chamber.

As a result of allthis, what the Lahti wants is a “long” Parabellum round–onethat measures close to the 1.169-inches that is max overall length for aParabellum cartridge. A FMJ round nose bullet is also desired. Ineither of my test pieces only the W-W 115 FMJ factory load, whichresembles European military-issue 9mm of the 1930s/40s era, gave 100percent reliability.

CCI Blazer FMJs were a bust, due to overalllength, and so were the few hollow point handloads I tried. Against all this, found relatively few virtues. The Lahti does, tobe sure, work well enough and group well enough if you feed it properammunition. Too, it’s bearstong and, particularly in its Finnishversion, it’s beautifully made. Also, it fieldstrips easily. Tostrip a Lahti, first extract the magazine, then draw back the breechboltand check to ensure an empty chamber. Now, while exerting rearward pressure on the muzzle, pivot the disassembly lever downward.Barrel/barrel extension can now be pulled forward off the frame.

Extract the breechbolt from the rear of the barrel extension. Thelocking block will not drop out of the barrel extension and, on FinnishLahtis, recoil spring and guide can be extracted from the rear of thebreechbolt. Reassembly is the reverse, but make sure that the lockingblock is reinserted so that the arrow engraved on it points toward themuzzle. So what can one conclude from this study regarding the relativeworth of our Finnish and Swedish “sister” guns? Well, asstated earlier, there is indeed a qualitative difference, though it isone that seems apparent only to the eye. In the hand, either Lahtiwould seem to perform about as well as the other. Or about as badly asthe other, depending upon your point of view!

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