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Classic Carry: Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless

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It’s hard to overstate John Moses Browning’s impact on the early evolution of the self-loading pistol. In the closing decade of the 19th century, he inked two momentous deals. The first one, in 1896, gave Colt the exclusive rights to sell JMB’s pistol designs in the United States and the British Isles. This was quickly followed by a deal inked with Fabrique Nationale of Herstal, Belgium, giving them the exclusive rights to Browning designs in most of Europe. Significantly, it prevented Browning designs initially bought by FN from being sold in the U.S. and United Kingdom.

This gentlemen’s agreement lasted without major disruption for better than half a decade. The European market got the 7.65 Browning blowback-operated guns it liked (“Browning” became shorthand slang for a self-loading pistol in much of Europe at the time), while the U.S. market got larger short-recoil operated pistols chambered in .38 Auto, better suited for American ideas of pistols for belt holsters and military service.

Then came a new pistol from FN, designed to seek out military contracts in Europe that had thus far resisted the little 7.65 FN1900. The result was the Fabrique Nationale FN1903.

While still blowback-operated, this was a larger autoloader. It had sleek external contours hiding an internal hammer as opposed to the 1900’s striker, and it chambered a larger 9x20mm semi-rimmed cartridge. While larger and more potent than the 7.62 Browning, it wasn’t as hot as the .38 Auto, so it could be used in a blowback action. (Note: Neither the 9x20mmSR nor the .38 Auto is the same as the .380 ACP — that came later.)

The FN1903 was adopted by the Swedish military as well as the police forces of both the Ottoman Empire and the Czar’s Russia.

U.S. sales reps took one look at it and were like, “Dude, that pistol is hawt-looking,” or whatever the 1902 version of that phrase was.

Colt penned a deal with FN to make the pistol stateside but chambered in .32ACP — which is how you say “7.65 Browning” in Amercan — and soon enough they hit the market here as the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless.

Unlike Browning’s original blowback .32 designs for FN, the new Colt 1903 shared some features with the larger recoil-operated guns Colt had been selling in the U.S. market.

For one thing, it could be disassembled without tools, a feat that the FN1900 couldn’t duplicate, despite the latter having been designed with an eye toward military sales. For another, the recoil spring was enclosed beneath the barrel by the dust cover, rather than being nestled above it like the FN1900’s. This made for a simpler design as well as bringing the bore axis and sight axis closer together.

Thirdly, it was hammer-fired. The FN1900 was striker-fired, with a pretty unique mechanism for operating the striker — via a bellcrank-type lever, the recoil spring over the barrel also powered the striker, eliminating the need for separate recoil and striker springs. That John Moses Browning was a clever dude …

The Colt 1903, on the other hand, used a conventional hammer to whack the firing pin, completely enclosed by the slide. Externally, there was no hint of the hammer.

The lack of an external hammer spur might make some 1903 purchasers nervous since, after all, self-loading pistols were still something of a novelty at the time. To allay these fears, Colt included not just a thumb safety, but also a grip safety.

While there seems to be a prevailing opinion on the gunternet that most mechanical safety devices on handguns are recent inventions caused by modern litigiousness, that’s actually not true at all. The early pocket pistols produced by the major American manufacturers, whether Savage, H&R, or Colt, featured a host of mechanical preventatives. In the case of the Colt 1903, the original thumb and grip safeties were joined in 1926 by a magazine safety. When you consider the mechanism behind most negligent discharges with self-loaders (an error in the order of removing the magazine and clearing the chamber) and the fact that semiautomatic pistols were a novelty in revolver-centric America at the time, the addition of a magazine safety is understandable.

At any rate, Colt’s introduction of a purely commercial and civilian-oriented pistol in the 1903 paid enormous dividends. They sold roughly 100,000 pistols in the first seven years of production. Compared to current pistol sales numbers, that may not seem a lot, but it’s important to keep two factoids in mind: For starters, the 1910 census pegged the U.S. population at some 92 million people, barely a quarter what it is today. Further, the Colt sold for something like $25, which is over $400 when adjusted for inflation to today’s prices, so it was relatively more expensive than a polymer-framed LCP or BG380.

The pistol itself is super-sleek for a CCW piece — sort of a Roaring ’20s equivalent of a Glock 48.

The original M1903 pistols, Gen I to collectors, sport a 4-inch barrel and plunge-milled slide serrations. Subsequent generations went to shorter 3.75-inch barrels, eliminated the separate barrel bushing, offered .380 as an optional caliber, and were even adopted by the U.S. Army during World War II as an issued sidearm for general officers.

The sights on the M1903 were as was common for their time, which is to say they were rudimentary. There was a skinny little half moon of a front sight, about the size of a toenail clipping set end-on on the slide, and a rear notch that was every bit as skinny. If you want to know why Sykes and Fairbairn were advocating weirdo point-shooting techniques, it’s because they had about 20 rounds of ammo per dude to train recruit officers to hit a bad guy from two wingspans away in a dark alley using these very sights. It’d be almost as effective to forcefully lob the gun at the perp at those distances.

The slide itself is slim and as smooth as a bar of soap. While the pistol may be hammer-fired, there’s nothing on the outside that gives a clue to that fact. Ironically, the striker-fired Savage 1907, which had an external spur that allowed manual cocking and decocking of the striker, briefly had a variant where that spur was removed and its channel blanked out with a cover plate just to compete with the “hammerless” Colt. That’s right: An actual hammerless pistol had to pretend to be even more hammerless to compete with a “hammerless” pistol which actually had a hammer. Ah, marketing!

On the frame, there was a thumb safety on the left side with a checkered pad for purchase, easily accessible by the strong-side thumb. When applied, the thumb safety doubled as a slide lock, either with the slide in battery and the hammer cocked, or with the slide retracted to allow visual examination of the chamber.

There’s no slide release lever, ambidextrous or otherwise, because the slide doesn’t lock back on an empty chamber. Your first clue that your sidearm is empty in the heat of the moment will be a click when you expected a bang.

When that happens, you’ll need to activate the magazine release mounted on the heel of the grip. Fortunately, this will be easy to do, thanks to the sharp checkering on the latch. Actuate the release, rip the empty magazine from the pistol (what, did you think it was going to pop out on its own? It’s 1903 up in here), stuff a new eight-rounder in there, and then manually cycle the slide to chamber a fresh round.

This might sound complicated, but it was enough of an improvement on stuffing fresh cartridges into the chambers of a cylinder that the semiauto pistol eventually took over the world.

Colt’s advertising marketed the pistol as ideal for everything from home defense to putting in a car’s glovebox to defend from “the growing menace of auto bandits,” but the popular name of “Pocket Hammerless” told the tale of where it was seen as ideal.

The fact that a pistol that was 7 inches long and the better part of 2 pounds of steel when loaded was called a pocket pistol says more about the strength and dimensions of the pockets on early 20eth century gentleman’s suit coats or trousers than it does about the dimensions of the pistol. Still, there’s hardly been a pistol since that’s as smooth and snag-resistant.

Field stripping is a breeze. Remove the magazine and clear the chamber. Then, retract the slide far enough that tip of the arrow helpfully stamped on the front of it is aligned with the end of the dust cover. Twist the barrel left as far as it will go, which will free the barrel’s lugs from their mortises in the frame. Then, run the slide assembly forward off the frame. With the slide off, you can remove the recoil spring and its cap, and then twist the barrel back to the right and pull it out. Reassembly is quite literally the reverse. Anyone who’s tried to teach a noob to strip a Glock will wish that Gaston had helpfully stamped an arrow on his slides.

Unlike most of its competitors, the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless was extremely reliable and remained in Colt’s catalog until the 1950s. Popular in some corners of the gun world today, it brings money as a collectible and has been revived with modern clones. If it has a downside, it’s that it’s big and heavy for a .32ACP and carry with a loaded chamber is inadvisable in anything but a very secure belt holster, as these antiques are the opposite of drop-safe.

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