Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Colt Model M 1903 & 1908 Pocket Hammerless

My favorite vintage pistol has to be the Colt Model M Pocket Hammerless also known as the Model 1903 in .32 ACP and the Model 1908 in .380 ACP.  They reek of class.  These pistols, while anemic, were sleek and almost Art Deco in appearance.  They were hugely successful for Colt in an era when Americans tended to like big handguns in big calibers like .44s or .45s.  Those big rascals were fine in rural areas or the still partially unsettled west but in the big city and polite society they were beginning to see the virtue of a small, thin self loading pistol tucked into their waistband or stashed in their oversized pockets.  Now, let’s clear something up right away.  Although called the pocket hammerless the colt pistols did have a hammer it was just concealed inside the slide of the pistol.  Additionally it was single action and therefore required the use of the manual safety on the pistol’s left side. This is important for those who may be allowed to shoot one that a kind fellow shooter has brought to the range.  Modern shooters who have been brought up on double action or striker fired pistols will be expecting a longer, heavier pull and may find the pistol going bank before they were ready for it.

The Colt Model M pistols were produced by Colt from 1903 and 1908 respectively until 1947.  The Pocket Hammerless is another design by firearms genius John M. Browning.  The story goes that he presented the design to Colt Management in 1899 and they weren’t interested as they were busy trying to produce a new larger caliber pistol which would win them another military contract.  Short sighted American firearms manufacturers made the mistake of passing on Browning designed on several occasions  and when they did, Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre of Belguim was always ready to welcome one of John Browning’s new designs.  While Colt toiled away on the military sidearm FN produced Browning’s self loading pocket pistol and the FN Model 100.  In a relatively short period of time Colt found that their civilian sales in Europe were drying up as the market was in love with the FN-Browning pocket gun.  Colt also realized that American retailers were beginning to import this pistol in fairly large quantities.  Colt quickly brokered a deal with Browning and FN to be able to produce the handgun for U.S. sales.  On June 19, 1903 Colt began shipping out their new Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .32 ACP.  Five years later they also released the Model 1908 in .380 ACP and a smaller vest pocket version in .25 ACP.  The Pocket Hammerless was vastly popular and by the time Colt ceased production after WWII they had manufactured over one million of these well-made pistols—that’s with the .32, .380, and .25 ACP.  By the end of WWII Colt’s the machinery that Colt used to make the Pocket Hammerless pistols was worn out and the staff that made them was retiring.  These pistols required a fair amount of hand fitting and Colt felt the reinvestment in the equipment and personnel to make the model 1903 and 1908 would raise the cost of making the handgun beyond the reach of their customer base so they let it slip from their catalogue. 

The Hollywood Connection
But the Model M Pocket Hammerless lived on in motion pictures.  It was preferred in its .32 caliber platform by prop masters, sound technicians, directors, and actors for several reasons.  The prop masters liked it because the .32 ACP blank cartridges were more reliable than .45 ACP blank ammunition.  Similarly the .32 ACP blank rounds had a much lower decibel report when fired so it made it easier for actors to be heard during and after the shooting; sound technicians didn’t have to change the settings for sound levels during the shooting sequences and then reset them when the actors began to speak again.  The forced perspective of using smaller handguns also made their actors look larger and more imposing.  Lastly, the recoil of the .32 was relatively mild which allowed any actor to look pretty macho especially since the actors of the 30’s and 40’s all fired their handguns one handed.  A two handed hold did not come into vogue until the 1960’s. 

Rumor had it that Humphrey Bogart had small hands and liked the 1903 as it made him look bigger which is why it appeared in so many of his pictures like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Desperate Hours,

(Desperate Hours)

 The Big Sleep 
(The Colt 1903 in The Big Sleep)

and Key Largo 

(The Colt 1903 in Key Largo)
where it is also carried by Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco.

Couldn't help posting this photo from the Bogart Estate.  Obviously a posed photo but certainly of another time and era when handguns were not declared evil and those that owned them branded as potential terrorists.  When did this change and why?

George C. Scott carried one in “Patton”.

Both Movie Mogul R.K. Maroon and Jessica Rabbit brandished them in Disney-Touchstone’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  R.K. Maroon’s was gold plated and engraved while Jessica seems to have filed the front sight off of hers.  (In the photo below Eddie Valiant picks up R.K. Maroon's 1903 after Maroon gets shot through his office window)

James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith used one to murder Kevin Spacey as Sgt. “Hollywood” Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential; the murder was preceded by one of my favorite lines where Capt Dudley Smith looks at Vincennes and says “Don’t start trying to do the right thing now boy-o, ya haven’t had the practice”. 

And even Johnny Depp carried one in his portrayal of John Dillinger in “Public Enemy”.

The Gangster Connection
The use of the Pocket Hammerless by the Gangster contingent is not just movie myth.  Bonnie Parker taped one to her thigh and smuggled it to Clyde Barrow to facilitate his escape from jail.  

(The Pistol Bonnie Parker Smuggled into Clyde Barrow)

John Dillinger owned several and had one in his pants pocket on the night he was shot down in the alley next to the Biograph Theater in Chicago.  

And speaking of Chicago Al Capone was known to have kept one on his night stand.

I have owned three of these pistols all three of which were purchased on my birthday. The first was a 1903 in .32 ACP that I bought in a suburb of Chicago in the 1990’s.  The finish was in very good condition, it sported the uninspired black hard rubber grips and the price was high.  The second and third were purchased in Boise exactly two years apart.  Both were in .380 ACP.  The second pistol was also in very good shape and had the checkered wooden grips with brass Colt medallions inset into the wood.   The third was a project pistol.  It was a real junker and exactly what I was looking for.  With most vintage pistols doing most types of restoration negates the collector value.  I wanted to find one that had very little value and have it restored to its earlier grandeur.   My first two pistols were in very good condition and cost around $700 each.  The project pistol had no finish just a sickly brown-gray patina, cracked grips that almost disintegrated upon when the screws were removed, the manual safety spun freely in a circle, and the recoil spring was as crooked as a Chicago politician.  

All springs were replaced, a new safety was installed, Elk Stag grips were ordered, I had the gunsmith find some larger three dot sights and mill the slide for their installation and then the pistol was gorgeously re-blued.  It could not have looked much better when it first came out of the factory.  Had I to do it over again I would probably not have had the sights replaced.  It kind of ruined the look of the pistol.

These were all-steel handguns and rather large for their calibers so the recoil from the .32 and .380 ammunition brought negligible recoil.  These pistols were produced long before the advent of hollowpoint ammunition and the .32 ACP would not feed them at all.  However, after a little work with some 000 steel wool on the feed ramp it soon began to chamber Winchester Silvertips and Federal Hydra Shok ammo with no problem.  Both .380’s chambered hollowpoint ammo with no problems whatsoever.  One would tend to think that a .32 or .380 pistol would have a fixed barrel but the pocket hammerless models did not.   The barrel had a series of locking lugs under the chamber section of the barrel that held it in place.  In order to field strip the pistol for cleaning you would remove the magazine, check to make sure the pistol was completely unloaded including the chamber and then move the slide to the rear until the takedown markings on the slide and frame are aligned.  You then turn the barrel a half turn counter clockwise and it is now free and can be removed from the barrel.

The accuracy with all of these pistols at 21 to 35 feet was excellent, even with their minuscule sight pictures.  Once caveat if you should buy one.  Realize that most modern ammunition runs hotter than the loads prepared back in 1903 and 1908 and metallurgy and heat treatment has seen advances during the modern age as well.  You don’t want to feed them a steady diet of hot ammo and find cracks in the frame or slide. 
There are some downsides to the Pocket Hammerless pistols
  • ·       Fairly week calibers
  • ·       Almost non-existent sights
  • ·       And the magazine release on the heal of the grip

But, these are all the things that make up the mystique of the pistol.

There are some excellent resources for further information.  First is Sam Lisker’s website and John W. Brunner’s Book “The Colt Pocket Hammerless Automatic Pistols”.  Brunner’s book is out of print but you may find one on Lisker’s site or a used copy over on Amazon.  Lastly, the online auction sites usually have a fair amount of these great pistols in a variety of conditions.  The one problem with online sites is you may have someone wittingly or unwittingly trying to pass off a refinished pistol as original and the higher prices of the military marked pistols mean that someone somewhere is or has tried to fake that “U.S. Property” marking on the pistol.

The Military Connection

The little pocket pistols also had a storied past in the military.  Many were privately purchased during WWI and slipped into the trench coat of the American Expeditionary Forces as a little extra advantage when going over the top and slipping to the enemy’s trench.  By World War II they were standard issue to General Officers of the US Army General Omar Bradley had one as did General Dwight Eisenhower.  General George S. Patton in typical style carried two, one in each caliber.   

( General Patton's Pocket Handguns)
(General Patton's Revolvers)

Upon retiring the General had the option to purchase their little Colt pistol at the Army’s ridiculously low procurement price.  Their issuance to General Officers continued through the Vietnam War when the supply of them ran out as so most Generals did go ahead and purchase their pistol upon retirement.  Finding one with military markings brings a premium and finding one with provenance linking it to a General pushes the price into the stratosphere.  They were also issued, in much less moderate numbers, to members of the Office of Strategic Services during WWII but I have never seen one that can be linked to service with the OSS.

Not only do I want Colt, or Kimber, or US Firearms, or somebody to remake this pistol…I want them to make it in a 9mm!



Very nice post and you've got some very nice guns there. My friend has one in .32, his grandpa's, in a sweet and small flap holster. I've been on the lookout for one of these for awhile now. I'm sure I'll find one soon.

As an aside, my Ortgies .32 shoots very well also.

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Russ said...

The gun you fixed up looks pretty sweet there Joe. And if you're particularly torn up about the sights on it, I'll buy it off ya cheap!

De Moutard said...

Wonderful information on this beautiful little gun! I recently acquired an old family 1903 in 32. I was instantly charmed by its looks and handling. Your post was terrific reading.

Anonymous said...

This model reformulated into a 9mm would be a fantabulous firearm. The Kimber Solo has the right idea but needs to be slightly larger. Maybe a tad larger Solo would solve the reported reliability issues.

I notice that Springfield has introduced a single stack XD in .45 acp which is sumpin' Glock should have done. I know Glock has the G36 but its still a wee bit too short in both directions. This was nifty article and great resto job on your project gun.

Bishop746 said...

In 1949 Akira Kurosawa directed a film called "Stray Dog" about a young homicide detective who has his 1908 Colt Hammerless Vest Pocket Automatic stolen while on a bus. He spends the rest of the movie trying to recover the pistol so that he doesn't have the shame of reporting it to his boss.

Chris said...

I have a re-blued 1903 model with both a .32 and a .380 barrel. I love the feel of this pistol.

Dawg said...

I have my grandfather's .32 hammerless. Serial number puts the manufacturing date in 1914.

Someone chromed it back in the 60's (according to my da) and I just bought some new grips for it.

The gun shoots very sweet and is pretty accurate at 15-25 yards (as long as you can leep a bead on the target with the low sight profile).

Great little gun and fun to shoot!

mikee said...

I will note that in Key Largo, the 1903 carried by Johnny Rocco is the same one used later in the film by Bogart.

In a come-to-Jesus realization of her mortality, the gangster's moll picks Rocco's pocket and delivers the gat to Bogie just before he is forced to pilot the bad guys away from the hotel in his boat. Bogie uses it to eliminate two henchmen and finally Rocco himself.

My two 1903s are my favorite pistols, albeit from a sentimental rather than utilitarian perspective. I'd like one in .380, but these carry a price premium beyond my reach.

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Anonymous said...

Nice job on the article.

Regarding "Jessica seems to have filed the front sight off of hers." The gun Jessica is holding is actually a Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket .25, not a .32. Notice how there is a recoil spring guide, not a plug below the muzzle of the barrel. The 1908 Vest Pocket .25 also has a sight groove down the top of the slide.

Unknown said...

I was talking to a WWII vet this weekend and he has one that he got in Germany. He purchased it from a WAC who was on Gen. Eisenhower's staff. The WAC said that Ike gave each member of his staff a General Officer's pistol. According to the vet, the serial number is only 4 digits. Because he is 94, he asked if I would research the authenticity of the pistol. Where do I begin?

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

Rebes, find a copy of this book:The Colt Pocket Hammerless Automatic Pistols
By John W. Brunner

In it Brunner lists every serial number issued to a General Officer and tells you who had it. He also gives serial number ranges for the Colt .32 and .380 that were known to have been issued to special services.

Anonymous said...

You said:

"Not only do I want Colt, or Kimber, or US Firearms, or somebody to remake this pistol…I want them to make it in a 9mm!"

Actually, Bill Laughridge of Cylinder and Slide makes on of these in .45 ACP.C&S calls it "CSP900 - M2008 Standard Pocket Model 45 ACP". Not an exact copy to be sure, but a close copy. Price is not posted, but with all the work that goes into it as listed on their website I would bet it is several thousand $$.

Anonymous said...

Well, I messed up in my previous comment and gave the wrong version of the Cylinder and Slide 1903 pocket pistol- it seems there are two versions and the "CSP901 - M2008 Historical Pocket Model 45 ACP" is the one they make that is closer in looks to the old Colt 1903 pocket pistol.
I love the looks of the Colt 1903 that I have, but I had to install a new Wolff recoil spring for it, and the pistol is a bear to take apart (at least my aging hand has trouble holding the slide back for disassembly). Great looking gun though and I love your article on these pistols, btw!

Anonymous said...

3D gunmakers this is your project and it will sell.

larrytm said...

Sold me! I just purchased an M1908 .380 ACP circa. 1936 in excellent condition. Being a retired Marine I've fired just about everything in our inventory. My personal sidearm was an M1911 with which I was a Distinguished Marksman. But, I never got to try out the M1908. Our commanding General used to carry one and I've always wondered if it was as good shooting as it was to look at. Well, I'm going to find out. But, my question is, what would be the best loads to fire in it? I've read a number of comments re using using foreign loads like Fiocchi as well as possible metallurgy problems with high power ammo. Could I get some feedback from shooters out there who have had experience with these issues?

santi said...

Very nice archive photos :-)

big jake said...

It's a .25 ACP cal like a Baby Browning