When we inspect German target pistols we should notice that two or three letters with a crown over them often appear stamped on the breech, frame and barrel. These are the crown B, U and G, which are explained by several authors. The Standard Directory of Proof Marks by G. Winsberger is a handy and most readily available guide to German and other European proofmarks. The German proof laws were enacted in 1891 and were in full force by April 1st 1893. Before that Britain and Belgium were the only countries requiring official proving of firearms. In order to compete in the arenas of quality and in international markets, Belgium and Germany established a network of official proof houses. Rifles and shotguns had two proofs, preliminary and final, whereas pistols were only subjected to final proof.
B – Beschuss (first proof)
U – Untersuchung (view mark)
G – Geschoss = For bullet (most often found on rifled barrels)
At the turn of the 20th century there were several proof houses in Germany, the two largest and best-known ones were in the cities of Suhl and Zella-Mehlis, in the principal gun making region of Germany. Although both cities are only a few miles from each other, one being in the German state of Prussia and the other in Saxe-Coburg and Gotha , both proof houses maintained their own standards and markings until 1939 when one standard was introduced. By this time, most fire-arms were proofed for nitro loads.
Between 1891 and 1912 most pistols were still tested by using a special type of blackpowder designed for the introduction of Germany’s new military Mauser rifle: The Model 1871.
To make things even more complicated the proofhouse of Suhl adopted a different system for marking their pistols. They used a so-called ‘Caliber number’ or gauge system which was borrowed from the British whereby one pound of lead equaled a set number of spherical lead balls with the same diameter. The greater the diameter of lead balls, the fewer make-up a pound of lead.
For instance, the caliber number 527 stamped underneath a pistol barrel would indicate that 527 lead balls, all with a specific diameter, are equal to the weight of one British pound of lead. Taking into account the density of lead, we can calculate that a pistol with a caliber number of 527, has a barrel bore or land diameter (caliber) between 5,1 and 5,4mm with an average of 5,25mm. As one can see, this system was not very accurate and difficult to comprehend! Thankfully, the proofhouse of Zella-Mehlis used a metric system for denoting the caliber from 1911 on, Suhl from 1912. For instance: “5,4mm”, however it does not indicate exactly which .22 cartridge or load it was originally made for.
About 1912 both proofhouses in Suhl and Zella-Mehlis stamped their proofed pistols for nitro loads with crown – Nitro.
The Zella-Mehlis proofhouse used italic Nitro lettering whereas from Suhl used a block letter Nitro.
Often other markings are found on the barrel consisting of two or more letters. For instance: MM which denotes the initials of the barrel maker Max Möller from Zella-Mehlis. Other marks were put on guns by workmen at various stages of completion. Time has put the meaning of most of these marks into obscurity.
In 1940, new proofmarks were introduced, which consisted of the Reich Eagle over N (Nitro proof).
In 1951 West Germany again introduced a new range of proofmarks, this time the ‘modern’ federal German eagle with a small N underneath is, the design modified slightly in 1968. This is often seen stamped with a symbol of one of the present day German proof houses.
Date of proof
German target pistols were most often not dated for proof, but the Zella-Mehlis proofhouse sometimes did from 1903 on. Often people have the misconception that the number ‘527’, was the date of the proof (in this example: May-1927). This is not the case for pistols. However, we do sometimes find a proof date. But when we do, it is often a re-proof.
In the above example, there are two sets of proofmarks from two different proofhouses and countries. The initial German proofmarks of crowns over B-U-G and the bold typed serial number ‘4467’. We notice that the initial German gauge number is ‘1193’, which corresponds with its previous 4mm (rimfire) caliber. At some later point in time this pistol was modified for the .22 LR cartridge. We can see that it was given a proofhouse ledger number ‘5476’ from the Vienna proofhouse where it was re-proofed in 1898. It began its life in Zella-Mehlis, travelled through Austria and finally came to stay in the Netherlands where it is now part of a private collection. The proof marks reveal a little of its historic travels!