Because I am a known gun guy, people often contact me to see if I can help them with firearms-related projects. Often, it's the usual, “find me a magazine for this,” or “I didn’t clean my hunting rifle last year and now it's rusty because I left it in a wet gun case.” But every once in a while, something cool will pop up. This was the case with this Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless 32.
This example came to me for a cleaning and general inspection. It belonged to my friend's grandfather and is still carried by my friend's wife. This one is a Type III, manufactured in 1921. The pistol is in decent shape, but shows its age, with most of the finish being worn off. It also wears a pair of mother-of-pearl grips, which do not appear to be factory, and are very possibly hand made.
But let's go over some quick history and features of the pistol. Introduced in 1903, this pistol was designed by no other than our beloved John M. Browning. Approximately 570,000 of these pistols were manufactured between 1903 and 1945. There were five variations of this pistol, with Type IIIs like this one being the most common.
Despite being called a "hammerless," this pistol does in fact use a hammer and firing pin ignition system, with the hammer being shrouded by the back of the slide and frame. The pistol uses a grip safety, as well as a manual thumb safety, and doubles as a slide lock. The grip safety pivots on the bottom, which is the opposite of other JMB designs I am familiar with. The slide stop must be manually engaged, and the slide does not lock open on the last shot. The magazine holds 8 rounds and is released with a latch of the heel of the grip.
Sights, much like the early 1911s, are skimpy at best, fixed front and a drift adjustable rear. Since it does use a hammer, it is actually a single-action design, although the trigger pull is still fairly heavy. One feature is the fact that the gun has almost no sharp corners on it anywhere, which would have been good for pocket carry as the name implies.
The 1903 was issued by the US Army and Air Force during and after WW2, and it has also been used by various police departments around the world. Aside from law-abiding citizens, this small pistol was also a favorite among the gangsters and outlaws of the early 20th Century, being carried by many famous villains such as John Dillinger and Al Capone. General Patton also received one of these pistols, which would have been engraved with his name and rank.
Take-down for cleaning on these guns is a bit different from anything I have personally played with in the past. The slide must be pushed back, and once the slide is in the proper rearward position, the barrel can be rotated 180 degrees. Once the slide is released, the whole assembly will come off, at which point the barrel can be turned 180 degrees back and pulled out of the front of the slide. There are some good, detailed full take-down videos on YouTube university, but I didn’t feel the need to take it down any further than basic field stripping. One thing I noticed right away, once field stripped, was the barrel locking lugs, of which it has six. Seems a bit excessive to me, but I'm sure JMB knew what he was doing.
Once the pistol was cleaned, inspected and reassembled, I took it out to shoot it. Using some American Eagle factory ammo loaded with 71 grain FMJ bullets, I shot five 5-shot groups at seven yards free hand. The smallest of these groups measured in at 1.052”, with a 5-group average of 1.577” for all 5 groups. Sure, it's not the most accurate, but at normal self-defense distances, it would sure get the job done. I did not encounter any malfunctions during the test firing that I did.
This is actually not the first one of these pistols that I have encountered still being carried. About 6 or 7 years ago, in a small town in North Eastern Montana, I got to talking to an elderly gentleman in the grocery store about the 1911 on my hip. As we were talking, he pulled back his coat and revealed a very well-worn leather holster, with an equally as well-worn Colt Pocket hammerless 32. I asked him how he felt about carrying a gun that old, to which responded, “Well, I’m pretty old myself, but I can still get the job done, just ask the ladies.” I think the old guy may have a point, because 99-year-old gun or not, I sure wouldn’t want to be shot with it.
Gary Westfall on November 18, 2020:
Daniel, I also owned one of these 1903 Pocket Model Colt's in .32 auto cal., in very nice condition. Mine was ser # 374193, blued with the standard factory grips. I bought it in 1967, for $58.00 After a bit of practice, at 20 paces, I was able to average 6 out of 8 hits on a round broom handle, in a vertical row. I carried it with me in my semi for a short time. I finally sold it to a collector at a gun show in 1989 for $200. I came very close to shooting a man with it in 1978, & have never carried a gun on me since.
richard gittlein on November 18, 2020:
good article dan i have a1903 qnd a 1908 380, sure fun to shoot,