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Historical

The Colt 1903 Hammerless

by Garry James   |  April 7th, 2017 0

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Throughout its 42-year production career, one of John Browning’s most enduring automatic pistol designs has been referred to as many things — the Model 1903, Model 1908, Model M (the factory frame designation), Pocket Hammerless and General Officer’s Pistol, to mention the most often used.

It was reliable, easy to carry and easy to draw. Over 700,000 were built and sold between 1903 and 1945.

While by today’s standards Colt’s all-steel Pocket Hammerless might seem a bit large and hefty for a pistol chambered in .32 or .380, during its heyday it was considered to be both handy and effective, even when pitted against such world standards as the 1910 Browning and the line of Walther PPS and PPKs.

The .380 version of the 1903 appeared in 1908, hence it is known as the Model 1908, though this was never an official Colt designation. Externally, it’s a ringer for the .32. Basically, both pistols were simply called “Colt Automatic Pistol Pocket Model, Hammerless.”

The .380 version of the 1903 appeared in 1908, hence it is known as the Model 1908, though this was never an official Colt designation. Externally, it’s a ringer for the .32. Basically, both pistols were simply called “Colt Automatic Pistol Pocket Model, Hammerless.”

When referring to the pistol generically, I’ll use the terms “Pocket Hammerless” or “Model M,” and when talking about the .32 we’ll call it the Model 1903 and the .380, Model 1908. (Although the latter is not technically an official designation.)

Markings on the .380 (left) were somewhat different than those on the .32 (right, next page), but there was no question either pistol was made by Colt.

Markings on the .380 (left) were somewhat different than those on the .32 (right, next page), but there was no question either pistol was made by Colt.

Despite its early introduction date, the Model M was not the first of Browning’s pocket pieces. His premier piece, a great pistol in its own right, was the Belgian-made Model 1900 FN Browning.

Based on his 1897 patents, the gun was slightly tweaked by Fabrique Nationale’s designers and then successfully peddled by that firm.

As well as Browning’s initial pistol, it was the first semiautomatic pistol to have a slide and to be chambered for the 7.65mm (.32 ACP) round.

Today the 7.65 is not considered much of a stopper, but when it appeared, it was highly regarded.

It was popular enough to allow the 1900 to be initially adopted by the Belgian government and to be chambered in scads of European, American and Asian handguns.

The 1903 Colt is one of the world’s great pocket pistols. Over 700,000 were made in .32 (shown) and .380 between 1905 and 1945. This one was built in 1920.

The 1903 Colt is one of the world’s great pocket pistols. Over 700,000 were made in .32 and .380 between 1905 and 1945. This one was built in 1920.

The 1900 proved to be so highly regarded that it was retained in FN’s catalog for about a dozen years, with some 700,000 being produced.

Though Colt had made its reputation on revolvers, just before the turn of the 20th century, company executives realized the auto pistol was going to be important and began looking at designs and chumming up with promising inventors — including John Browning.

While a good number of 1903s were lend-leased to the British in World War II, the Brits also bought a number in 1921 because of the difficulties in Ireland.

While a good number of 1903s were lend-leased to the British in World War II, the Brits also bought a number in 1921 because of the difficulties in Ireland.

In 1900, Colt came out with its first auto pistol, a recoil-operated repeater chambered in a rimless .38 cartridge.

The company tried to interest the U.S. government in the piece, but it had some flaws and the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy purchased only about 250. Production ceased after 3,500 were made.

This particular example, though it has a World War II-vintage Suncorite finish, exhibits all of the proper British proofs and government marks for the period. It is also dated “4.21.” Colt pockets were popular with many militaries and police.

This particular example, though it has a World War II-vintage Suncorite finish, exhibits all of the proper British proofs and government marks for the period. It is also dated “4.21.” Colt pockets were popular with many militaries and police.

Undaunted, Browning refined his design and a new pistol appeared, the 1902 (Sporting) Automatic Pistol, also in .38 Rimless.

Still, it left something to be desired, so Colt/Browning reworked the ’02 Commercial into the Model 1902 (Military) Automatic Pistol.

Though receiving lukewarm interest from the military, the gun became a good seller with the general public and 47,100 were manufactured from 1902 to 1929.

It was decided that an attenuated version of the 1902 could be marketed as a pocket pistol, so a year later the Model 1903 (Hammer) auto appeared.

Also chambered in .38 Rimless, this seven shooter, at 31 ounces, was not particularly light weight, and as it was really not much more than a bobbed version of the boxy full-size service pistol, its advantages as a hideout gun were somewhat compromised.

It did have the advantage of a reasonably effective chambering, however.

Thousands of .32-caliber 1903s were purchased by the U.S. military in World War II and used for a variety of purposes. They were generally Parkerized and had U.S. ownership marks. This one was made in 1942.

Thousands of .32-caliber 1903s were purchased by the U.S. military in World War II and used for a variety of purposes. They were generally Parkerized and had U.S. ownership marks. This one was made in 1942.

That same year, Colt brought out a serious competitor to its exposed-hammer hideout pistol, the “Pocket Model, Hammerless.” This superb, sleek little .32 eight-shot blowback became an instant hit.

Though touted as “hammerless,” the pistol actually employed an internal hammer in the frame, which struck a firing pin on the roof of the slide.

Weighing almost 10 ounces less than the 1903 (Hammer), it was compact (5 inches overall) and had rounded edges that made it easy to tote, draw and manipulate.

The 7.65mm (.32 ACP) Spanish “Ruby,” of which thousands were built for military and civilian use by several makers during and after World War I, was based on the Colt 1903.

The 7.65mm (.32 ACP) Spanish “Ruby,” of which thousands were built for military and civilian use by several makers during and after World War I, was based on the Colt 1903.

The pistol had both a grip safety and manual safety catch/slide hold-open. The magazine employed a heel catch and sights were simple — a fixed front rounded blade and drift-adjustable notch rear. Standard finishes were either blue or nickel, and grips were of hard rubber emblazoned with a rampant colt, checkered walnut being offered later on.

The barrel length was originally 4 inches, but this was altered to 3½ inches in 1908. In fact, over its lifetime, the Pocket Hammerless experienced a number of changes, now recognized by collectors as five distinct sub-variations.

Type I (up to 1908) had a separate barrel bushing and a 4-inch barrel. Type II (1908 to 1910) retained the separate barrel bushing but had a 3½-inch barrel and .380 chambering was introduced. Type III (1910-1926) introduced the integral barrel bushing. Type IV added a magazine safety. Type V were World War II-vintage pistols, the majority of which were Parkerized.

Depending upon when a model 1903/08 was made, different grips of hard rubber and/or checkered walnut were standard issue. Exotics, such as ivory or pearl, could be special ordered.

Depending upon when a model 1903/08 was made, different grips of hard rubber and/or checkered walnut were standard issue. Exotics, such as ivory or pearl, could be special ordered.

The 1903 had the advantages of simplicity, easy disassembly and extreme reliability. Perhaps its only drawback was the rather anemic .32 ACP chambering.

This was corrected in 1908 when Colt offered the gun in the more powerful .380 ACP round, a cartridge specifically developed by John Browning for this pistol.

The key to the popularity of the 1903 was its sleek silhouette and mechanical simplicity.

The key to the popularity of the 1903 was its sleek silhouette and mechanical simplicity.

Curiously, the .32 remained the more popular of the two, and more than twice as many 1903s would eventually be made than 1908s.

The .380 magazine held seven rounds, one round less than the 1903 magazine, and perhaps this is one reason for its lesser interest.

The 1903 safety/slide hold-open lever was well placed and easy to flick on and off with the thumb of the right hand. The pistol also had a grip safety and, in later versions, a magazine safety.

The 1903 safety/slide hold-open lever was well placed and easy to flick on and off with the thumb of the right hand. The pistol also had a grip safety and, in later versions, a magazine safety.

The Pocket Hammerless was a prepossessing little arm, and it was immediately recognized that it would provide a superlative canvas for some of Colt’s artisans.

Over its career, many highly embellished examples of the pistol were produced, with fancy engraving and finishes, gold inlay and exotic grip material being shown to excellent advantage.

Civilian sales for the pistols were brisk, though some law enforcement agencies also procured them.

Two of the Pocket Hammerless model’s more ardent admirers were the gangster Al Capone and the bank robber John Dillinger. Because it was so photogenic and easy to convert for shooting blanks, the pistol was featured in scores of movies.

The 1903 provided an excellent platform for embellishment as witnessed by this special-order engraved example with pearl grips. Photo courtesy of James D. Julia, Inc.

The 1903 provided an excellent platform for embellishment as witnessed by this special-order engraved example with pearl grips. Photo courtesy of James D. Julia, Inc.

Too, the Pocket Hammerless’ charms were not lost on the military. As early as World War I, the British purchased several thousand from Colt, following this procurement with another batch in 1921 because of the troubles in Ireland.

Thousands were also lend-leased to the UK during World War II. Officially and unofficially, the Model M found itself in the hands of military men the world over.

Japanese officers were particularly fond of the little pistol, and many were purchased through officers’ clubs.

As well as the 1903 Hammerless, Colt offered a Model 1903 Pocket Hammer model. Also designed by John Browning, it was based on the earlier Model 1900 auto pistol and was entirely different than the Hammerless. Caliber was .38 ACP. Photo courtesy of James D. Julia, Inc.

As well as the 1903 Hammerless, Colt offered a Model 1903 Pocket Hammer model. Also designed by John Browning, it was based on the earlier Model 1900 auto pistol and was entirely different than the Hammerless. Caliber was .38 ACP. Photo courtesy of James D. Julia, Inc.

Rather back-handedly, the Pocket Hammerless had a somewhat larger participation in the Great War than might be expected, as Browning’s design was adopted by Spanish makers as early as 1914 and incorporated into thousands of 7.65mm pistols, known generically as “Ruby” after one of the companies’ — Gabilondo y Uresti — brand name.

Thinly-disguised 1903 copies were also made in China and Japan.

While foreign purchases and knock-offs accounted for much military employment of the Pocket Hammerless, during World War II the U.S. military made copious use of the handy little pistol.

Some 20,000 in both .32 and .380 were issued to specialized personnel and various agencies — most notably the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) between January 1942 and December 1945.

Sights were basic: a drift-adjustable notch rear and a fixed blade front.

Sights were basic: a drift-adjustable notch rear and a fixed blade front.

The guns were stamped “U.S. PROPERTY” on the right side of their frames. A Parkerized finish was common, though some were also issued blued.

Other than that, the pistols were much the same as one would purchase off a dealer’s shelf, standard markings and checkered walnut grips.

In 1944, it was decided that the Pocket Hammerless in .380 would make an apt general officer’s pistol, and it soon began to be issued. Probably the two most famous examples are the ones issued to Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton.

The Model M was first chambered in .32 ACP (above left) and later in .380 ACP (above right). Both rounds were designed by John Browning.

The Model M was first chambered in .32 ACP (above left) and later in .380 ACP (above right). Both rounds were designed by John Browning.

A special holster/belt rig was designed for the “General Officer’s Pistol.” Initially, it consisted of a brown leather belt finished off with a gold-plated, round locket-style buckle decorated with laurel leaves and an American eagle.

The holster was a simple utilitarian-style with a retaining strap secured by a snap. There was also a double magazine pouch. In 1950, the setup, as a configuration remaining essentially the same, had its color changed to black.

The Model M in .380 was issued to generals until the supply ran out in 1950, after which time .32s were substituted until the Pocket Hammerless was finally replaced all together in 1972 by the .45-caliber Rock Island M-15.

Officially, production ceased in 1945, though guns were available for a time until supplies ran out. But that, as they say, is not the end of the story.

The Pocket Hammerless lives on in U.S. Armament’s recently introduced 1903. Colt has officially licensed the design for manufacture once again.

COLT 1903 HAMMERLESS GENERAL OFFICER’S PISTOL

The author found the new General Officer’s Pistol, like the originals, to be a sweet shooter. Reliability was superb and groups were quite good.

The author found the new General Officer’s Pistol, like the originals, to be a sweet shooter. Reliability was superb and groups were quite good.

For those who lament the demise of the Colt Pocket Hammerless in 1945, salvation is at hand. U.S. Armament Corp., heretofore probably best known for its superb copy of the .45-70 Colt Bulldog Gatling Gun, has come to the rescue and is now producing, under license to Colt, what they term the Colt Model 1903 “General Officer’s Pistol.”

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A ringer for the original, this beautifully crafted little .32 is a faithful rendering of a parkerized World War II-vintage U.S. issue Model M. The barrel measures 3¾ inches, weight is 24 ounces (unloaded), overall length 6½ inches and sights a simple drift-adjustable rear and fixed rounded blade front. Magazine capacity is eight rounds.

(Above)Markings on the new 1903 (below) are virtually identical to the original’s (above) with the exception of a special “GOP” prefixed serial number. (Below)Licensed by Colt, U.S. Armament’s new 1903 “Hammerless” General Officer’s Pocket Pistol — with the exception of its gold grip escutcheon — is a ringer for an original U.S.-issue .32 (above).

Markings on the new 1903 (below) are virtually identical to the original’s (above) with the exception of a special “GOP” prefixed serial number. Licensed by Colt, U.S. Armament’s new 1903 “Hammerless” General Officer’s Pocket Pistol — with the exception of its gold grip escutcheon — is a ringer for an original U.S.-issue .32 (above).

Grips are checkered walnut, decorated with gold Colt escutcheons — the only departure from the wartime pistol, which had silver escutcheons. This has been done purposely so that one can tell at a glance that they’re encountering one of the new 1903 incarnations.

The General Officer’s Pistol comes wrapped in period-style brown waxed paper, packed in a plain brown cardboard box with a copy of the original Colt instructions. The serial number range has a special “GOP” prefix.

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 10.04.43 AMSome 3,500 of these nouveau 1903s will be made — 1,500 Parkerized, 1,500 blued, and a special run of 500 specially marked with the serial numbers of guns originally issued to actual generals, retaining the “GOP” prefix, of course, to thwart any nefarious characters who might try to pass one of these pistols off as the real article.

Each one of these pistols will be accompanied with particulars of the general. Guns with the serials of more well-known owners, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, will be donated to select firearms advocacy organizations to be sold at auction as fundraisers.

The U.S. Armament 1903 comes wrapped in waxed paper in a plain cardboard box, like the originals.

The U.S. Armament 1903 comes wrapped in waxed paper in a plain cardboard box, like the originals.

The author had a chance to give one of these pistols a good going over. It is superbly built, certainly up to the standard of the original, and shoots like a dream.

Offhand, 25-foot groups using Remington 71-grain FMJ ammunition hit about 2½ inches above the point of aim and provided regular 2½- to 2¾- inch groups with a best five-shot string coming in at 1½ inches — just about the same as I can manage with my 1942-vintage Parked government issue 1903. All in all, the U.S. Armament 1903 is a more than creditable recreation.

The suggested retail price of the General Officer’s Pistol is $1,395. It is currently available from Midwest Gun Exchange (574-257-0020; midwestgunexchange.com).

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