Gun Digest

Gun Collecting: The Colt Model 1903

The Colt Pocket Hammerless Model 1903 is a very collectible pistol, and a great shooter – even by today's standards.


The approach to what we now call a “carry gun” was much different a generation ago. In those halcyon days, most folks tucked a neat little break-action revolver in their waistband or dropped a slim semi-auto in their pocket and went about their business. No one thought this was a menace to civil society. Such practices didn’t evoke mass hysteria in the media, nor were they considered dangerous by anyone, except crooks.

The choice of defensive calibers was also much different then. It was determined not only by the petite size of the typical handgun, but also because high-powered antibiotics had not yet become widely available, and someone shot with anything, even a .22, had a good chance of getting a serious infection and heading to their last roundup.

It is within this cultural context that we assess the Colt Model 1903 semi-automatic. It is a typical example of the period’s armament that, even today, fits Gun Digest’s honored definition of “One Good Gun.”

The M-1903 was designed by none other than John M. Browning and is the culmination of a series of pistols launched in 1896. Browning gave Colt the exclusive right to manufacture pistols of his design and market them, not only in the United States, but in Great Britain and Ireland, as well.

The M-1903 shown here is disassembled into its component parts. The recoil spring (called by Colt as the “retractor spring”) has a guide rod and fits into holes in the frame and slide. The eight-round magazine has witness holes to show the number of rounds remaining in it. The gun is easily reassembled.

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A similar agreement was executed between Browning and Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale (FN), in 1897, for Europe, but excluded the three countries noted above. The understanding was that Colt would make locked-breech guns and FN would manufacture blowback guns.

While this convoluted arrangement evolved into several models on both sides of the pond in .32, 9mm and .38 calibers, this geographical manufacturing dichotomy would later become significant in the popularity of the M-1903.

By 1900, Colt needed a sales success and petitioned Browning to allow them to make a blowback design. FN had introduced the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge, in 1899, in its 1899/1900 pistol. Browning acquiesced, cut a very lucrative deal with Colt, and slightly modified the gun’s design.

Thus, in 1902, Colt started production of the Colt Automatic Pistol, Pocket Model (factory designation Model M). The gun went on sale in August of that year and was a huge hit. It was also called the Hammerless Pocket Model; of course, it wasn’t truly hammerless, as the hammer was simply concealed in the frame.

The M-1903 has a manual safety on the left side of the frame and was the first gun to be offered with a grip safety. Edges and corners were rounded and smoothed so that it was indeed easy to slip into one’s pocket, hence the model’s moniker.

The W.C. Wolff Company can supply exact replacement springs for almost any rifle, shotgun or handgun. Here are new springs for the M-1903 Colt 32 ACP, from left: extractor, firing pin and recoil springs. The magazine and its old spring are at right. Note how it was definitely time for a new spring in the magazine.

A Marvel of Simplicity

The Colt M-1903 is a marvel of simplicity. It is a straight blowback, single-action design with a fixed barrel, and operation is simple forward. A loaded magazine holding up to eight rounds is inserted into the butt, the slide then retracted and released. This cocks the internal hammer, chambers a round from the magazine and then the arm is ready to fire. The manual safety can be applied at this point for pocket or holster carry.

Upon firing, the slide moves back, the fired case is ejected, and what Colt called the “retractor spring” on its guide beneath the barrel returns the slide into battery, stripping the next cartridge in line off the top of the single-stack magazine. The slide does not remain locked open after the last shot.

Disassembly is likewise easy and straightforward. Remove the magazine and make sure the chamber is empty. Pull the slide back to cock the hammer and release.

Move the slide back until the takedown arrow on the left front of the slide is even with the front edge of the frame, and rotate the barrel to the left. The slide with the barrel can then be pulled forward and off the frame, and then the retractor spring and its guide may be removed, if desired.

To remove the barrel from the frame, turn it back to its original position and pull the barrel out of the slide. Reassembly is basically in the reverse order, but you have to turn the barrel ever so slightly to get the slide back far enough to lock the barrel lugs into their corresponding cuts in the frame.

The M-1903 was designed by John M. Browning and is a single-action blowback with an eight-round magazine in the grip. A thumb safety on the left side of the frame and a grip safety made the arm relatively safe for pocket carry, which aided its popularity.

My Model 1903

I stumbled across my Model 1903 via a multi-item trade with a good friend who always seems to have something interesting with which to tempt the unsuspecting gun writer. Being a handloader at heart, the deal clincher was that the gun came with a huge jar containing hundreds of once-fired .32 ACP cases!

While my M-1903 is a quaint little gun, it’s obviously somewhat of an amalgamation. Five major variations (some say four) of the M-1903 were made over its production life from 1903 to 1946, with a total of about 572,215 .32s produced.

In 1908, a version chambered for the .380 ACP was introduced, known as the Model 1908. This resulted in the production of another 138,010 guns. (M-1908s in .380 could be easily converted to .32 ACP, but not vice versa.)

My .32 ACP is a “Type III” specimen, made from 1910 to 1926, with some 363,046 guns being produced in that period. The Type III guns eliminated the barrel bushing and magazine safety of earlier versions. The minutiae of the numerous design changes over all the production periods have delighted Colt collectors for decades.

My gun’s magazine is original, marked “CAL 32 COLT,” but its spring has lost its zip and the last round or two sometimes fails to feed. Not to worry. If a gun has a spring problem, there’s only one place to call: Wolff Gun Springs.

This company makes every spring for the M1903 (and M1908), so I ordered a “Pistol Service Pak” (stock no. 69082). In addition to a five-percent extra-power magazine spring, this kit includes recoil, firing pin and extractor springs. I installed the magazine spring, and presto, the little gun now functions as good as new. (I’ll get to the other springs later.)

The serial number of my gun is 430501, indicating it was made in 1923. It has been nicely refinished with a uniform satin Parkerized finish reminiscent of Type V military guns. Might this mean that it was factory-refinished during the military production period? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting historical speculation on the “if this gun could talk” theme.

A hint of very light pitting is barely visible under the new finish at the right front of the slide and at the top of the frame above the trigger guard.

The rifling is pretty sharp, but the bore is a bit frosty. There is a slight bulge in the barrel about mid-way; obviously, at some point there was a barrel obstruction (perhaps a stuck bullet?), when a round was fired. Thankfully, functioning and accuracy seem unaffected. I have searched for a new replacement barrel, but to no avail.

In addition to the finish, my pistol’s stocks are not original. Guns made in 1923 had checkered hard rubber stocks. In 1924, they were changed to checkered walnut with medallions, one on each side, featuring the rampant colts oriented so that they faced forward on both sides.

In other words, there were two different medallions. In 1926, one medallion was used on both panels, so that the colts face left making them face the opposite way from each other side. This dates the stocks on my gun to that year or later.

Winchester’s 71-grain FMJ-FP delivered acceptable accuracy, but, for centered groups, I had to aim a little to the left.

Shooting the .32 ACP

While virtually all cartridges for semi-auto pistols are rimless, the .32 ACP (known in Europe as the 7.65 Browning Short), a truly unique round, is actually semi-rimmed. What rim there is, is a puny protrusion only .021-inch larger in diameter than the case ahead of the extractor groove.

Nevertheless, the round headspaces on the case mouth, just as do other semi-auto rounds. A curious quirk is that, with its tiny rim, the .32 ACP can actually be fired in most .32 revolvers, in a pinch.

Ballistics of the .32 ACP are lackluster. The standard 71-grain FMJ bullet at a nominal 900 fps produces only 129 ft.-lbs. of energy. To put this in perspective, at handgun velocities, the 40-grain .22 LR has about 72 ft.-lbs., the 50-grain .22 WMR has 126, and the .25 ACP (ironically, introduced three years after the .32 ACP) has 64 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. However, remember the earlier admonition about infection? You still didn’t want to get shot with any of them—and still don’t today!

S.A.A.M.I. maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .32 ACP is only 20,500 psi, out of deference to the relatively weak blowback pistols that are more than 100 years old. The round must still see some use, as almost all the major manufacturers make factory loads, including the traditional 71-grain FMJ bullet, plus some new expanding types from Federal, Speer and Hornady. I gathered up as many of these rounds as I could and headed to the range.

The little M-1903 is really fun to shoot, mild of voice and recoil is downright pleasant. Groups were fired at 10 yards and were in the 2½- to 3-inch range. Never mind that the point of impact and point of aim didn’t exactly coincide. At this defensive distance, it was well within minute-of-bad-guy.

Velocities of the 71-grain loads are rated at 900 to 905 fps, but only the Aquila ammo (which does not list a velocity on packaging) beat this, at 920 fps. The Winchester, CCI Blazer as well as Federal American Eagle 71-grain loads were 869, 848 and 822 fps, respectively. Hornady’s 60-grain XTP-HP, rated at 1,000 fps, clocked 851 fps. This dropped muzzle energy to 96 ft.-lbs. The Federal HydraShok fared a little better at 888 fps and 114 ft.-lbs. Be aware, however, that some guns refuse to cycle with these lightweight bullets, so, if you decide to use them, be sure and check for reliability with them.

Actually, if a stalwart citizen carries a .32 ACP pistol for personal defense these days, a good argument can be made for the use of ammo with 71-grain FMJ bullets. Penetration would be considerably better than the 60- and 65-grain hollowpoints, and, at these pedestrian velocities, their expansion may be a sometimes thing. Lastly, and although this is a minor point, the muzzle energy of the FMJ loads is about 12 percent greater than with the HPs.

The .32 ACP is one of the most popular cartridges ever designed and, even today, new pistol models chambered for it are available. But the little gun still does what it was designed to do and continues to command considerable interest from shooters, collectors and historians alike.

In the M-1903 and the .32 ACP, we have a classic example from an era that had a different approach and mindset to the concepts of personal safety. Thus, as long as law-abiding citizens are allowed to defend themselves with firearms against law-breakers, the Colt M-1903 will maintain its status as One Good Gun.

Colt Model 1903 Specifications
Model: Colt Pocket Hammerless Model 1903
Type: Internal hammer, semi-automatic, single-action pistol, blowback
Patent Dates: April 20, 1897; December 22, 1903
Year of Manufacture: 1923, Model M, Type III (mfg. 1910-1923)
Caliber: .32 Automatic Colt Pistol (7.65mm Browning)
Capacity: 8+1
Barrel length: 3¾
Overall length: 6¾ inches
Overall width: ¾-inch
Overall height: 4½ inches
Weight: 24 ounces (with empty magazine)
Safeties: Slide lock safety, disconnector safety, and grip safety
Sights: Fixed
Finish: Bright blue or Parkerized, depending on model
Stocks: Checkered hard rubber or checkered walnut
Manufacturer: Colt Patent Firearms Mgf. Co., Hartford, Conn., U.S.A.

This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest 2014 Annual Book

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