A Lever-Action Auto Pistol
January 18, 2019
Photography by Jill Marlow
It is a popular misconception that most of the guns manufactured in Spain in the last 100 years or so are blatant rip-offs of other designs. To be fair, there are plenty of Spanish arms based more or less closely on the works of Colt, Smith & Wesson, FN and the like, but there is also a body of Eibar product that is totally original. A prime example of the latter is the unique Jo.Lo.Ar. one-hand, semiautomatic pistol of the 1920s.
Double-action (DA) revolver aficionados always opine that one of the semiauto’s drawbacks is that to chamber the first round requires two hands. For those of us not blessed with preternatural manual dexterity and/or the knowledge of some sort of arcane trickery, is normally the case.
Early on, this predicament was recognized in such arms as the 1920s-vintage German 6.35mm (.25 ACP) Bergmann Lignose Model 2A and 3A Einhand pistols, whereby one could use his index finger on the concave front portion of a sliding triggerguard to retract the slide, chamber a round and cock the piece.
With early semiautos (prior to DAs), if one wanted to have a gun ready for use, it was necessary to chamber a round and rely on safeties (i.e., half-cock, grip, catch and magazine) to avoid accidental discharge. This was not always an ideal situation.
Basically, the Einhand, within its limitations, wasn’t such a bad idea. The only problem was, the more powerful the caliber a pistol was chambered in, the stiffer the recoil spring necessary to make things work properly. The stouter the spring, the more difficult it would be to use just one digit to operate the slide, so calibers were kept to a minimum. Some were built in 7.65mm (.32 ACP) and 9mm Kurz (.380 ACP), but were found to be too difficult to handle properly and were, accordingly, not offered for general sale.
About the same time in Eibar, Spain, the firm of Hijos de Calixto Arrizabalaga (henceforth referred to as Arrizabalaga) introduced a clever little item called the “Sharp-Shooter.” This pistol was something of a departure from many of the Spanish autos of the time in that it had an open-top frame to accommodate a system that involved a forward, hinged, spring-loaded barrel, which popped up and exposed the chamber by rotating the safety all the way to the rear. This allowed one to load or remove a round in the pistol with an inserted magazine. It also made cleaning considerably easier. The slide didn’t even have serrations as it was intended to put the first shot into the chamber and then manually cock the hammer.
At the time, this flip-up barrel was a novel feature that has subsequently been seen on a few other semiautos such as the Beretta 950 pocket pistol in 6.35mm and 5.56mm (.22 Short).
In 1919, Spanish inventor José de Lopez Arnaiz patented an arrangement whereby a lever was fitted to the right side of an pistol’s slide making it possible to operate the slide and cock the pistol by using the index and middle finger of the right hand.
A few years later Arnaiz took his device to Arrizabalaga who thought it might work well mated to a Sharp-Shooter-style pistol. The main problem with just sticking it on a standard Sharp-Shooter was that the pistol had a triggerguard which would make manipulation and firing of the gun using the lever-cocking technique difficult, if not impossible.
So, the Sharp-Shooter design was modified by eliminating the triggerguard completely. The pistol was also fitted with a proper extractor. Sharp-Shooters ejecting their empties by using the gas pressure that remained after a bullet had been fired and the slide traveled to the rear.
The resulting pistol, called “Jo.Lo.Ar.,” after the first two initials in the inventor’s name, hit the market in the mid-1920s. While the Jo.Lo.Ar. was far from elegant, it was well-built and worked quite well. It worked so well, in fact, the decision was made to produce the gun in several calibers. The first was 9mm Corto (.380 ACP) followed by 6.35mm (rare), 7.65mm (.32 ACP) and 9mm Largo, the latter being the Spanish designation for 9mm Bergmann Bayard. There are reports of some guns being made in 11.45x23mm (.45 ACP), but I have yet to see such a pistol and in questioning a number of serious semiautomatic pistol collectors. The consensus is, if indeed the 11.43x23mm Jo.Lo.Ar. ever existed in the first place, any extant example would be rare and desirable.
One of the gun’s main drawbacks — especially in the larger versions — was due to its configuration that made it unconducive to thumb-cocking with one hand. The gun had no safety catch, and instead relied on a rebounding hammer.
While the pocket pistols were produced in reasonable numbers, Arrizabalaga placed most of its hopes on the 9mm Largo version, thinking it might be adopted by the Spanish and other countries as a military pistol. Though tested in Spain, it was rejected by the authorities. The largest military contract was placed by Peru who used Jo.Lo.Ar.s in 9mm Corto and 9mm Largo to arm its cavalry. When you come to think of it, it was a pretty good idea since the gun could be armed with one hand while the trooper held his horse’s reins in the other. Peru purchased considerable numbers of these pistols in 9mm Largo, making specimens in that caliber the most abundant on the collector market today. Portugal also ordered some, and goodly numbers of Jo.Lo.Ar. saw action during the Spanish Civil War (1936 to ’39).
Though a clever setup, the Jo.Lo.Ar. had a somewhat limited appeal, likely being considered as something of a gimmick by many potential buyers. Probably less than 40,000 in all calibers were manufactured between circa 1924 and 1931, which, all things considered, was still not an unsubstantial production run. The inventor also tried to interest other makers in his idea, but met with no success.
I was able to round up a 9mm Largo (probably Peruvian contract) Jo.Lo.Ar. in quite good condition. Quality of workmanship was excellent and the bore and mechanics were also in fine fettle. It’s a heavy handgun, weighing some 21/2 pounds (about the same as a Colt Model 1911).
The sights consist of a fixed U-notch rear permanently attached to the barrel above the breech and a blade front milled out of the barrel stock. While unimaginative, they offer a more than adequate sight picture. Grips are of checkered hard rubber emblazoned with the pistol’s name and molded with integral finger grooves to provide a better purchase when cocking.
The lever is spring-loaded, sort of. It doesn’t automatically snap back into place after it has been used to cock the pistol, but is held somewhat in check by a circular spring surrounding the attaching screw. When the pistol is fired, the forward movement of the slide moves it to a horizontal position — sometimes. In actuality, the lever usually remains mostly downward.
Does it smack the shooter in the hand the next time the gun is fired? Well, yes, but really not so you would notice. Actually, it’s sort of a gentle, almost nonexistent tap that goes virtually unfelt. Once in a while — as you’ll see in the accompanying photos — the lever does move upward and stays there, depending on the screw/spring pressure, though the screw has a tendency to loosen a bit with repeated shots, thus reducing the spring’s effectiveness. Loctite would probably help a bit here, but I’m unwilling to use it as it might also have a negative result on the spring tension, such as it is.
The next chore was to try and hold the pistol and cock it with one hand. For me, I found it impossible. The geometry makes it awkward for someone with smallish-to-medium-sized hands to properly position a thumb on the top, or even side, of the hammer in a manner that will allow it to be pulled back. Someone with bigger hands might have more luck.
The trigger let-off itself wasn’t too bad, around 4 pounds, and was quite crisp. Though the gun was heavy and appears ungainly, it really holds quite well and cocking the piece and chambering a round using the lever was easily accomplished — even against the heavy recoil spring required in a service-caliber blowback. Magazine capacity is nine rounds with the mag secured by a common European-style heel catch.
I loaded our Jo.Lo.Ar. to capacity with 1951-dated, Spanish-surplus, 9mm Largo made by Fabrica Nacional de Palencia, by squeezing the lever, cocking the hammer and chambeing a round. I decided to shoot the pistol offhand as a rest might interfere with the lever arrangement.
Recoil was quite pleasant. The gun functioned perfectly and, while I have to admit that I was initially more concerned with how it was going to work rather than accuracy, groups were surprisingly good! The best five shots fired at a distance of 10 yards, came within 1 inch at about 31/2-inches high. No spread was larger than 2 inches with most groups averaging around 1½-inches in diameter. (All were high.) There was no discomfort experienced vis-à-vis the oft-depending lever.
The Jo.Lo.Ar. is one of those curious birds that, while unquestionably an oddity, is more than just a philosophical exercise. It turned out to be a well-reasoned solution to a particular condition. With the onset of sophisticated DA pistols, which began appearing around the time of the Jo.Lo.Ar.’s demise, it is no surprise that it had such an attenuated lifespan, but one not altogether without merit and a peculiar élan.