Colt’s Hammerless Pocket Gun – The 1903 and 1908 Pistols

Courtesy Sam Lisker/ Colt Autos

One of the most interesting and perhaps underrated handguns of all time is the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless. The 1903 is a product of John Moses Browning’s engineering genius. The pistol is attractive; it is so thin it is downright svelte. The pistol was called the Model M internally at Colt and the Pocket Hammerless in advertising. The pistol isn’t a true hammerless pistol as the hammer is simply hidden from view. Browning designed a .45 Auto with a hidden hammer along with many other prototype pistols indicating the 1903 pistol is an example of his thoughts at the time.  The 1903 had in place many of the advantages of the later Colt 1911 .45 automatic. These included a removable box magazine, a slide lock safety that made the pistol safe for carry with the hammer cocked and to the rear, and a grip safety that prevented the pistol from firing unless the grip were firmly depressed. The pistol fit most hands well and was no larger than needed for the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol chambering. While similar to FN produced handguns the Colt seemed to have an American profile in comparison to the Browning 1910 pistol.   

The Colt 1903 is a straight blowback handgun without the complications of a locked breech. It was popular when introduced and  Americans widely accepted the new self loading pistol. While the impression exists that the revolver was more popular in America and the self loader practically universal in Europe quality self loading pistols were very popular in American. The flat profile and increased number of shots over the revolver was appealing. The small caliber .32 ACP was much more powerful than the .32 Smith and Wesson revolver cartridge. As an example the 71 grain full metal jacketed .32 ACP breaks about 1,000 fps from the Colt while the .32 Smith and Wesson Long’s 98 grain round nose lead bullet exhibits 680 fps in a four inch barrel hand ejector revolver. Penetration, the single most important component of wound potential, was better with the .32 ACP round. The Colt with its nine rounds of ammunition was obviously the better personal defense handgun than a small .32 caliber revolver.  During the life of the Colt 1903 some 572,000 were manufactured. In addition another 134,500 Colt 1908 models were sold. These were the Colt 1903 in .380 ACP caliber. The 1903 Model M handguns were produced in four variants. They were popular with cops, especially detectives, bad guys and civilians. While I prefer more smash than offered by the .32 ACP cartridge it was more powerful and with more penetration than the common .32 revolver cartridges of the day and the .380 ACP even more powerful. When armed with a Colt automatic you had a fine handgun well worth the price.

Colt was a pacesetter in the introduction of reliable self loading handguns. Colt’s pistols changed the handgunning world forever. Smith and Wesson offered the oddball .35 Smith and Wesson, which was really a generation behind the Colt 1903 when introduced. Savage claimed Ten Shots Quick with their pistol and the Savage .32 was interesting, but it did not handle as well as the Colt. Colt manufactured excellent double action revolvers and the 1911 .45 but did not neglect the small pistol market either. The Colt was most famously carried by NYCPD detectives. It was a favored lady’s gun and was the piece carried by Eleanor Roosevelt during her travels. Fictional characters also used the Colt 1903. Humphrey Bogart hefted either a 1903 or 1908 in Casablanca and early Dick Tracy detective comics had the fearless detective armed with a Colt 1903. Real bad buys such as John Dillinger and the very bad girl Bonnie Parker, from the other side of the fence, carried the Colt 1903 as a backup. 

The Colt 1903 was very popular worldwide. Records show that dozens of Japanese Army and Navy Officers ordered Colt automatic pistols for personal use. Considering the size and weight of the underpowered 8mm Nambu I would have preferred the Colt as well.

The pistol was issued to general officers as the official sidearm, along with a holster and spare magazine. The 1903 saw use with CID personnel. The 1908 handgun was purchased by the Shanghai police and saw a great deal of action. The pistol was air dropped into Europe and snuck in by OSS agents. Many resistance fighters were armed with the Colt 1903 pistol. The movie Operation Anthropoid depicts this use accurately, and the price many of these brave men and women paid. The pistol was trusted worldwide as a reliable accurate and lightweight handgun. After the end of World War Two the Model 1903 was no longer manufactured but remained in use for decades longer, including serving as the General Officer’s Pistol until the 1970s. Today a modern replica is licensed by Colt and manufactured by Advanced Armament Corporation. This pistol follows the General Officer’s Pistol pattern, with a parkerized finish and wooden grips.    

The Colt Model M as the factory referred to it was among the lightest Colt self loading pistols at 24 ounces. The pistol is 6.75 inches long and only 1.15 inch wide. No wonder John Dillinger had one under his shirt on that hot and sultry day when he was shot dead by FBI agents. The pistol features a grip safety and a slide lock safety. The handgun was touted by Colt as safe with only the grip safety in use as a safety measure. The ‘flipping sear’ arrangement indeed made for a very safe handgun. I have carried the Colt 1903 as a backup to the Colt 1911 and find the similarities in handling make for a very nice pair. While there are more modern choices the Colt 1903 is well made of good material and I would not hesitate to trust an example in good condition for personal defense. Modern lightweight 9mm pistols caused the retirement of my 1903 for this purpose some time ago.

When the new breed of ultra compact .32 ACP pistols was introduced beginning with the Kel Tec polymer frame pistol it was fashionable to provide an illustration of the new pistols beside the larger Colt 1903. While there is a size difference there is also a difference in combat ability. The .32 ACP pocket pistols basically fill the niche once owned by small .25 ACP pistols. They are difficult to hit with past a few yards. The Colt 1903, in comparison, is as accurate as many service pistols. I have fired mine extensively. With the CCI Blazer 71 grain practice load I have fired a five shot group into a spacing of less than two inches at 15 yards. The pistol’s practical accuracy is limited by the small sights but then they were the norm for the day. In fast paced combat drills such as the Applegate Point, in which the pistol is quickly brought to bear and fired as soon as the slide breaks the plane between the eyes and the target, the Colt 1903 is a very fast handling pistol with a high hit probability. The Colt 1903 is a great handgun, with a rich history and much practical value.    

Variations – There are four primary variations of the Colt 1903, not counting military versions that were parkerized. The first model featured a four inch barrel and barrel bushing. The next model, beginning in 1908, has a 3.75 inch barrel with barrel bushing, the third type have the short barrel but no barrel bushing. The final version introduced in 1926 has the same 3.75 inch barrel and bushingless barrel and also a magazine safety that prevents the pistol from firing if the magazine is not in place.

Leather for the 1903 – There are a number of custom makers that offer good quality leather holsters for the Colt 1903. World War Supply offers a replica of the original military flap holster, complete with a cleaning rod as originally issued. This is a good addition to an original Colt pistol. Wright Leatherworks is among a very few makers offering quality leather for the Colt 1903. I have used the Wright inside the waistband holster for the Colt 1903 pistol. Well made and with an excellent fit and finish this holster allows good concealment of the flat and light Colt 1903. This holster is still ordered occasionally and the company keeps a mold available, indicating that folks are still using the Colt 1903 as intended.