One of the more intriguing projects an arms writer can undertake is comparison testing of a classic gun against a near-identical foreign copy of the same, built with or without the benefit of a license. Interest is especially keen when one “sibling” is said to be “better” than the other; better fitted, better finished, more reliable, etc.
And thus, I have, in the past, been particularly enthralled when investigating such pairs of “sister” firearms, such as the U.S. Colt 1911/Norwegian 1914 (the Norwegian is by no means better made than most U.S.). And now comes yet another pair of sibling auto pistols to hold my attention: Finland’s Lahi L-35 and its Swedish derivative, the Lahti L-40. Neither gun is the subject of any particular ill-regard in this country, but the fact is that the L-40 has been rumored to be the less well-fitted, less well-finished, and less reliable of the two Lahtis. To what extent is this so? Only side-by-side examination and firing trials of L-35 and L-40 test pieces would seem to promise a partial answer to this question.
Before we commence said inspection and testing though, let us first make a brief examination of the history of both Lahtis, that we may gain some inkling of just why the Lahti “sisters” might differ qualitatively. The prototype L-35 was a Depression-era product of the genius of one Aimo Lahti — a designer employed at Valtion Kivaarithedas, the Finnish state arsenal. Lahti’s intent was to provide his country with a pistol especially engineered for Finland’s harsh, wintry climate; the Finns were certainly in need of such since their standard sidearm of the period was the Luger, which did not take well to oil-congealing temperatures or to snow. Accordingly, what emerged from Lahti’s drawing board was a monument to functionality under dreadful conditions.
The pistol was, for example, “well-sealed,” impeding the entrance of ice, snow, and foreign debris as much as possible. Too, it was built rugged beyond all reason: size and weight considerations had been pretty well ignored in its design, to a point where a 9-1/2-inch long, 44-ounce empty handgun had been created. And, as a final concession to winter usage, an “accelerator” had been incorporated into the design. This was basically a dual-armed, lever-style affair engineered so as to give the breech bolt an added “kick backward” just after unlocking occurred.
Such a kick helped ensure complete cycling when oil had thickened due to low temperatures. In less severe climates, though, the accelerator was not an unmixed blessing: Lahtis that are subjected to prolonged use in temperate countries will tend to develop stress cracks in that area of the barrel extension which houses the accelerator. Anyhow, Finland ordered this grizzly bear of a pistol into quantity production in the year 1935, but manufacture proceeded at an extremely slow pace; this was because the Lahti was no easy pistol to build and also because the conscientious Finns refused to craft haphazard guns. As of the Winter War of 1940, only about 500 Lahtis were in service, but these 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. The Swedes had ordered Walther P-38 pistols from Germany early in 1939, but the Second World War had halted deliveries of such guns to any army except the German Wehrmacht. Thus, the notion of building Lahtis under license in Sweden held appeal. There was little point in ordering completed guns from Valtion — not with the Finns’ rate of production.
And so, by 1942, Husqvarna Waffenfabriks was busily churning out a somewhat modified Lahti variant which was dubbed the L-40 pistol. Modifications introduced by this arm included a captive recoil spring, a heavier and more oval-shaped trigger guard, a barrel that became hexagonal where it joined the barrel extension, and the absence of a loaded chamber indicator. Most importantly though, the L-40 introduced the idea of real quantity manufacture to the Lahti concept: corners were 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 of a quick-to-apply, high-gloss hot blue), and — if one published source is to be believed — materials (the Swedish steel used was allegedly not so fine as the Finnish). Fit was somewhat less conscientious too.
It took 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 5,000 L-35s. All of which constitutes something of a reversal of normal practice since a neutral like Sweden would be expected to produce fewer and finer guns while a combatant like Finland would be expected to produce more and messier arms. But all the same, these were the production figures. And they tell us much regarding just why the quality of Finnish and Swedish Lahtis might differ to a degree.
It should be noted, incidentally, that the Swedish and Finnish services were not the only users of Lahtis. Denmark issued contracts to both countries for manufacture, and there were commercial versions of both the L-35 and L-40 pistols. Indeed, in Finland, Lahti development continued throughout the 1950s in response to various civil and military orders. By 1958, when Lahti production finally ceased, more than 9,000 pistols had been completed.
In Sweden, by contrast, manufacture did not continue beyond 1946, save for completion of a few replacement pieces for the Swedish Army. Interestingly enough, the Lahti remains in both Finnish and Swedish service to this day. In the U.S., either Lahti is an item for collecting rather than using; this is especially true for the super-scarce Finnish pistol, since a fine L-35 can bring four figures.
By contrast, an L-40 is a bargain-basement special: a near-mint specimen with accessories commands only a bit over $400, assuming no rare markings or variations, etc. Now on to our inspection and testing of these twin sisters. Both my test pieces represented loaners from collector’s arms dealer Syd Rachwal (3412 Mackin Road, Dept. GA, Flint, MI 48504); they comprised one late-production Finnish L-35 in “80 percent” condition and one standard issue Swedish L-40 in near-mint condition.
Examination of these arms quickly revealed that, in accordance with expectations, the finish and fit of the Valtion gun seemed superior to that of the L-40. The L-40, for example, clearly showed machine marks on the exterior of its barrel; the upper surface of the frame was similarly unpolished; markings were, in some instances, crudely stamped. By contrast, the L-35’s surfaces and markings were as slick as those of a commercial Luger.
Furthermore, some part articulations on the Finnish gun were tighter than on the Swedish. I cannot claim that the L-40 seemed badly made, however. And internally, where it really counts, there was a difference too: the L-40 was marginally less well-polished. Of metallurgy, I could of course tell nothing; it’s fair to concede here, though, that Swedish steel traditionally has a fine reputation worldwide. All in all, then, I would confirm the L-35’s superiority in fit and finish, but would question whether said superiority was so great as to have any implications 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 for the Finnish gun, and 2-7/8 inches for the Swedish gun. These were printed using a military-style 9mm FMJ loading.
I have no doubt in this world, incidentally, that both guns were capable–mechanically–of doing quite a bit better than this, but we’ll address that matter at length momentarily. Controllability in rapid-fire was only “adequate,” with four “A’s” and two “B’s” being scored on the Stine & Ressler silhouette on the “six shots in three seconds at 10 meters” exercise. And yes, I too had expected state-of-the-art controllability from a 44-ounce Parabellum, but again, more on this later. Finally, functional reliability was “excellent-but-only-with-certain-ammo” in both guns.
One hundred percent functioning could be achieved, but only if one was very careful regarding the overall length and bullet configuration of cartridges utilized. Neither pistol, then, can be said to have outperformed the other. The L-35 was merely classier. I should add here that, in terms of design rather than execution, I found either Lahti singularly disappointing.
Handling qualities in both pieces were invariably bad: everything was located in the wrong place and/or was ill-configured for the human hand. Let us proceed then to enumerate the faults I found, recalling all the while that said faults are common to both the L-35 and the L-40.
In the first place, the Luger-like pitch of the Lahti grip, when combined with the grossly oversized Lahti frame, cramps the hand in such a way that the finger cannot gain proper purchase on the trigger. In fact, I believe that there are some men who could not fire the Lahti at all without assuming a very radical, contorted hold on the pistol. As it was, I could barely manage, despite my good-sized mitts and long fingers.
In the second place, Lahti triggers are horrendous: they lend new meaning to the words “gritty” and “stagy.” They can also 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 on the trigger anyway, and you have as positive a group-spreader as can be imagined.
Third, and to compound the practical accuracy problem still further, Lahti sights are far from optimum, even for service use. A shallow dimple is all you can get for a rear index of elevation and windage.
Fourth, the thumb safety is as badly placed as any I’ve seen. It cannot be manipulated with the hand anywhere near the 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 point where, in its dotage, it wants to move all by itself. Fifth, there is nowhere truly convenient to place the support hand on this gun, and with a muzzle-light arm like the Lahti, that support hand has lots of work to do. It is difficult, for example, to mash your thumb against the trigger guard with a Lahti to control muzzle flip.
The thumb, at least my thumb, won’t reach comfortably. And whatever you do, don’t allow the thumb to seek support on the disassembly lever. For no matter what the Lahti field strip instructions say, that lever often can be started downward even though there is no pressure at all being exerted on the muzzle. Result? A gun that starts disassembling itself as, under recoil, the thumb pulls the disassembly lever down.
Lack of an appropriate anchor for the support thumb is, incidentally, what compromises the Lahti in terms of controllability, for the kick is gentle. Sixth, ammo sensitivity is marked in the Lahti, much as it is in the Luger, and for much the same reason. That reason is that, in both guns, cartridge overall length determines cartridge attitude in the sharply angled magazine, and the cartridge attitude in the mag affects feeding reliability. In the Lahti, this difficulty is accentuated by a rather acute magazine-to-chamber feed angle; the cartridge has to poise quite a bit to make it into the chamber.
As a result of all this, what the Lahti wants is a “long” Parabellum round – one that measures close to the 1.169 inches that is the maximum overall length for a Parabellum cartridge. A full metal jacket (FMJ) round nose bullet is also desired. In either of my test pieces, only the W-W 115 FMJ factory load, which resembles European military-issue 9mm of the 1930s/40s era, gave 100 percent reliability.
CCI Blazer FMJs were a bust due to overall length, and so were the few hollow point handloads I tried. Against all this, I found relatively few virtues. The Lahti does, to be sure, work well enough and group well enough if you feed it proper ammunition. Moreover, it’s sturdy and beautifully made, especially in its Finnish version. Also, it fieldstrips easily. To strip a Lahti, first, extract the magazine, then draw back the breechbolt, and check to ensure an empty chamber. Now, while exerting rearward pressure on the muzzle, pivot the disassembly lever downward. The barrel/barrel extension can now be pulled forward off the frame.
Extract the breechbolt from the rear of the barrel extension. The locking block will not drop out of the barrel extension, and on Finnish Lahtis, the recoil spring and guide can be extracted from the rear of the breechbolt. Reassembly is the reverse, but make sure that the locking block is reinserted so that the arrow engraved on it points toward the muzzle.
So what can one conclude from this study regarding the relative worth of our Finnish and Swedish “sister” guns? Well, as stated earlier, there is indeed a qualitative difference, though it is one that seems apparent only to the eye. In the hand, either Lahti would seem to perform about as well as the other, or about as badly as the other, depending on your point of view!