As a popularity leader in both the law enforcement and civilian circles, the Model 1903 dominated the early 20th century.
What makes the Colt Model 1903 special and collectible?
- The Colt Model 1903 and later 1908 were quite popular in the early 20th century.
- More than 572,000 Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistols were produced for civilians.
- An additional 134,500 Model 1908s were produced for the civilian market.
- The pistols were popular among police, civilians and criminal elements.
- There are four different variants for both the Model 1903 and 1908.
- Pistols marked “U.S. Property” are especially popular and valuable with collectors.
In the waning years of the 19th century, Colt was the first American gun manufacturer to take the semi-auto pistol seriously. The revolver was king — both single- and double-action variants — and civilian, law enforcement and military shooters of the day had not yet accepted the concept of the new “automatics.” Colt’s management believed that when the designs of semi-autos were perfected and could be counted on to function reliably, the world of handgunning would be changed forever.
The legendary gunsmith and inventor John M. Browning had designed several single-shot and repeating rifles in the 1880s and 1890s, some for his own company and some for Winchester, including several of that company’s most famous lever actions. Browning was also interested in the idea of self-loading firearms and, as early as 1889, was working on several designs, both full-auto and semi-auto models. In fact, the first firearm he created for Colt was the Model 1895 Automatic Machine Gun, a full-auto that was known as the “Potato Digger” in the Spanish-American War.
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Browning shifted his focus to handguns, and the next design he did for Colt was a semi-auto pistol, the Model 1900, named for the year that Colt put the gun on the market. It was chambered for the .38 Auto, a cartridge developed by Browning. It had a 6-inch barrel, wasn’t very well balanced and not a success on the market. Only about 3,500 were manufactured, including a few hundred for the U.S. Army and Navy. The Model 1900 was replaced by the Model 1902, which had a few improvements, including a rounded butt and a round hammer spur. Next came the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer Pistol. It was essentially identical to the 1902 except for its 4 ½-inch barrel, which led to the “pocket pistol” concept.
Going Hammerless … Almost
The next Browning-designed model was the Model 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol, which became one of Colt’s most successful handguns of the 20th century. The “hammerless” reference was not accurate of course, but rather it was a marketing term to call attention to the pistol’s streamlined profile. The hammer was enclosed by the rear of the slide. Browning also designed a new cartridge for this model, the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) round, which became one of the most popular handgun calibers in the world.
The Model 1903 Hammerless was on the market for more than 40 years, from the year of its introduction until the end of World War II. More than 572,000 were made for the civilian market and another 200,000 or so for military contracts, including several thousand for England, Belgium and the Philippines. An additional 134,500 Model 1908s in .380 ACP were manufactured, plus several thousand for military contracts at home and abroad.
John Browning gave the 1903 and 1908 design a smooth, graceful silhouette that epitomized what was called a “pocket pistol” at the time — today we’d call it a concealed carry gun. It’s a handsome pistol, and I know several writers who have referred to it as one of the best-looking handguns ever. Thanks to the film industry, the 1903 and 1908 Colt is one of our most recognizable pistols. In almost any black-and-white movie from the ‘30s and ‘40s that has a crime/drama theme, sooner or later one of the good guys or the bad guys pulls out one of these pistols.
The Pocket Hammerless was also known as the Model M, the official factory designation. It’s a straight blowback single-action design with a fixed barrel. When the gun is fired, the slide moves back, the empty case is ejected and the spring beneath the barrel returns the slide forward and the next cartridge is stripped off the top of the eight-round magazine, seven for the 1908 .380 ACP. There’s a thumb safety on the left side of the frame and a grip safety much like the one found on the Model 1911 series of pistols. The overall weight is a handy 24 ounces, and dimensions are 6.75 inches long, 4.5 inches high and 1.16 inches wide.
In both .32 ACP and .380 ACP versions, these pistols became very popular in police and civilian circles, including the criminal element. Al Capone was known to have carried a Model 1903 and John Dillinger was said to have had a Model 1908 on him when he was gunned down in July of 1934 as he came out of a movie theater in Chicago. It was reported that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had two Colt Pocket Models in their car when they met their demise a couple of months earlier in Louisiana.
Variations Of Success
Over its 40-plus-year run, there have been four variants of the 1903 and 1908 pistols with features mostly relating to barrel length and the presence — or lack of — a barrel bushing in the design.
Type I models, made from 1903-1910, have a 4-inch barrel and a barrel bushing. Type II models (1908-1910) have a 3.75-inch barrel with bushing, Type III models (1910-1926) have no barrel bushing and retain the 3.75-inch barrel length, and Type IV models (1926-1945) have the addition of a magazine disconnect safety, meaning the gun will not fire unless the magazine is in place.
For those who have always wanted a brand new Colt Pocket Hammerless, there’s good news: Colt has licensed U.S. Armament Corporation to produce a limited run of Model 1903 General Officer’s Pistols. The project will be limited to 3,500 guns. It’s a well-crafted and faithful replica of a WWII-era Parkerized model. Grips are checkered walnut and wear gold Colt escutcheons instead of the original silver ones. The suggested retail price is $1,395. For more information contact USArmamentCorp.com.
This “Collector's Corner” column is an excerpt from the October 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.