Proof Marks, Date Codes, and German Firearms
Collectors who spend enough time around European firearms will often notice that the guns are littered with a variety of odd markings, letters, and other stamps that seem like some sort of secret code language from another world. Virtually every European pistol or rifle has these markings, but product manuals rarely cover what they mean. Despite this fact, decoding the stampings can be incredibly useful in determining the age and origin of a firearm. One country that seems to take these stamps to the next level is Germany; as products from Heckler & Koch, SIG Sauer, and Walther all feature prominent and similar markings on their receivers, frames, barrels, and slides. Today, we will take a look at what these stampings mean and what sort information we can glean from them.
Officially, these markings are known as proof marks or proof stamps. Though the European tradition of compulsory proofing (and subsequent marking) dates back to the English Gun Barrel Proof Act of 1868, Germany did not adopt a similar law until 1891. Intended to help guarantee the quality of firearms produced in each nation, proof laws laid forth a set of standards that gun manufacturers must adhere to in order to market their products. Though the measures seem heavy handed, collectors largely believe that the regulations did improve the overall quality of European arms in the latter half of the 19th century. Over the years, the specific proof stamps employed by German manufacturers have varied somewhat (especially during and after World War Two), but the markings have remained fairly consistent for most of the past half-century.
The first stamp we will discuss is the “eagle over N” that is consistent on all German firearms. The eagle is a federal insignia in Germany and in this case is indicative of the firearm’s acceptance according to government standards. The N stands for nitrocellulose and as you may have guessed, means that the firearm has been approved for safe use with nitrocellulose-based gunpowder. In order to obtain this certification, the firearm must successfully fire two rounds of ammunition that have been loaded 30% hotter than the accepted maximum caliber specification. In terms of mechanical assurances, this stamp is the most important on the weapon.
The most obvious proof marks on German guns are the pictograms that can frequently be found near the firearm’s serial number. These symbols represent the proof house that performed the testing. Typically, each manufacturer uses the same proof house for all of their firearms, but this is not always true. Heckler & Koch and the Walther products that are produced in Ulm all exhibit a set of antlers, the insignia of the proof house in Ulm. Meanwhile, Walther products produced in Arnsberg (usually their .22 LR offerings) undergo testing at the Cologne proof house and feature that facility’s “three crowns in a shield” emblem. Lastly, SIG Sauer’s fully German firearms (manufactured and assembled entirely in Germany) pass through the Kiel proof house and carry the “leaves” of that house.
The final markings are often most interesting to collectors. Almost every German firearm features a two-letter date code that indicates the gun’s birth year. For dating purposes, each letter corresponds to a specific number (0-9) and together, the two letters represent the final two digits of the production year. Heckler & Koch and Walther both use the same system, featuring an “I”, but no “J”. SIG Sauer’s system is exactly the opposite with a “J”, but no “I”. The association table can be found below, as can a photo of my 2006 production HK USP 9.
|German Date Codes|
I (SIG uses J)
Hopefully, this clears up some of the uncertainty that surrounds these European markings, especially the German proof marks that are so common on popular firearms today. Sometimes these symbols can be useful tools in assessing generational changes that occur over the lifespan of a firearm design. They are also critically important to collectors who seek examples from specific eras or date ranges. If readers have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below
An information security professional by day and gun blogger by night, Nathan started his firearms journey at 16 years old as a collector of C&R rifles. These days, you’re likely to find him shooting something a bit more modern – and usually equipped with a suppressor – but his passion for firearms with military heritage has never waned. Over the last five years, Nathan has written about a variety of firearms topics, including Second Amendment politics and gun and gear reviews. When he isn’t shooting or writing, Nathan nerds out over computers, 3D printing, and Star Wars.