EPU Gun of the Week

Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless

Originally posted January 26, 2016

This week, a little pistol with a pretty big backstory: the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless.

Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, right side

1903 was a busy year for John Moses Browning, who had recently ended his long working relationship with the Winchester company and started seeking other takers for his services. Given that he was the world's leading firearms designer at the time, it is perhaps not surprising that he found them. In that one year, no fewer than three handguns he designed entered production, two in the United States and one in Belgium. One, the .38 ACP Colt 1903 Pocket Hammer, ultimately proved less popular and was withdrawn from production in only a few years (although some time later, a larger pistol that looked quite a lot like it did achieve some measure of notoriety when it was selected as the United States armed forces' new sidearm). The other two were based on the same design, but at different scales and for different calibers, and both would go on to be popular and well-remembered.

The European version was produced by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium and sold initially as the FN Browning Modèle de Guerre (Browning War Model), but in time became known simply as the FN Model 1903. They were popular on the civilian market and were also adopted as police and military sidearms by such diverse clients as Sweden, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). It used a cartridge called 9×20mmSR (semi-rimmed) or 9mm Browning Long, which was eventually made obsolete by the widespread popularity of 9x19mm Parabellum, but that's a different story.

The American model, like the Pocket Hammer (so called because it had an external hammer mechanism, not as some kind of cute marketing riff on how powerful and portable it was), was produced and sold by what was then still called Colt's Patent Fire Arms Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Browning had worked with Colt for some time, having designed their Models 1900 and 1902 pistols (which were, like the 1903 Pocket Hammer, precursors of the eventual M1911 military pistol), and the 1903 Pocket Hammerless was his entry into the then-popular pocket pistol category. It was essentially a scaled-down version of the design that became the FN Model 1903, and it used the smaller .32 ACP cartridge.

Colt 1903, left side

I've mentioned .32 ACP before, and you can be reasonably sure it will turn up again in Gun of the Week; it was once, and for a long time, the go-to cartridge for small automatics in both the US and Europe (where it was called 7.65mm Browning Short, or formally 7.65×17mm). Browning originally designed it in 1898 for what became the FN Model 1900, his first handgun design for them (and, in what would become a trend, not to be confused with the Colt Model 1900, which was also Browning's work but which was a markedly different gun in .38 ACP). It quickly caught on, and before long pretty much anyone who was making small auto pistols was making them in .32/7.65mm. And not just for the civilian market—if you got shot by a policeman in western Europe between about 1905 and 1975, chances are it was with a .32 automatic.

The thing that is attractive about .32 ACP to a gun designer is that it's near the high boundary of cartridges that can safely be used in a simple blowback¹ semiauto design, but powerful enough to be reasonably effective at close ranges, which puts it in a "sweet spot" for use in compact handguns intended for self-defense.

The 1903 Pocket Hammerless is an interesting design, because it's so clearly a transitional design. Browning was in the middle of what, if he had been a musical composer, musicologists would probably call his "handgun cycle" at the time, and the 1903 PHL shows evidence both of refinements made and of details that are not quite there yet.

A first thing to note: unlike virtually all modern semiautomatic pistols, the 1903 PHL doesn't lock open when you've fired the last round in the magazine. This was a thing that had been done by 1903; the Mauser C96, so called because it debuted in 1896, did so. However, the C96 had a fixed internal magazine that was fed by stripper clip from above (as with many rifles of the period; see the Gun of the Week files on the SMLE and Mosin-Nagant for examples), so it had to lock open in order to be reloaded. The Colt 1903 PHL has a detachable box magazine (it holds eight rounds, by the way), and it evidently hadn't occurred to Browning yet that locking the slide open for reloading could also be a useful convenience feature in that case as well. Thus, if you haven't been keeping count, your first indication that you're out is when it goes click.

However, he did include a way to lock the slide open by hand if desired; as you can see in the photo below, the safety lever also engages a notch in the slide, and conveniently, two such notches are provided, one to lock it closed and one to lock it open.

Colt 1903, locked open, left side

Another somewhat questionable feature of this piece from a modern standpoint is the way its trigger mechanism works. Once the chamber has been loaded, there's no way of uncocking the firing mechanism without actually firing, and that safety lever is too small and basic to provide any real sense of security, at least to me. It does work, engaging the safety locks the trigger so that the gun can't be fired, but no mechanical safety is 100% reliable, and that lever just doesn't feel positive enough to give me confidence in it. I carried this pistol on a regular basis for a couple of years, and because of that shortcoming I always carried it with a loaded magazine but the chamber empty (that's Condition III for you tactical jargon buffs). I figured the extra half-second or so it would take to make ready to fire was worth the massive reduction in probability of a negligent discharge. Modern pistols have much more involved safety systems, often with multiple redundancies.

(I should note at this point that the 1903 PHL also has multiple safeties—you can see in the top photos that it has a grip safety. That protruding bit on the back of the grip is spring-loaded and must be depressed, theoretically by the shooter having a firm and proper hold on the pistol, before it will fire. Grip safeties were popular features for a while in the early 20th century, and Browning used them on many of his designs, including the famed M1911, but they went out of fashion—in large part because they could go wrong the other way, and leave the shooter unable to fire when it was really, seriously wanted.)

Further details are probably best shown by taking it apart. In order to disassemble this item, you have to (once you've made certain the gun isn't loaded, of course!) position the slide at a specific point along its line of travel, which is helpfully indicated by this mark engraved on the right side:

detail, takedown helper mark on Colt 1903

This is where it ends up if you lock it open using the safety. A trifle inconveniently, that is not quite far enough back to actually start the disassembly. To get it there requires a slightly odd bit of maneuvering, which involves holding the gun in such a way that you can move the slide and frame independently with the same hand. This is a little tricky to figure out, but since it's a blowback .32, the spring tension is such that it's fairly easy to do once you've worked out where to put your hand.

Once you've done that, you can rotate the barrel 90°, which disengages a set of lugs on its underside from slots machined in the frame (we'll see this in later photos). Now that the barrel is unlocked from the frame, the slide will come forward past its usual rest position and completely off the front of the frame, bringing the recoil spring and its guide with it:

Colt 1903, with magazine and slide/barrel assembly removed

From here, the spring and guide can easily be removed from the slide, and then the barrel comes out with a bit of finagling.

Colt 1903, field stripped

This is one of the areas where the 1903 PHL's design is both refined and yet not entirely finished. On the one hand, it's a very elegant design mechanically. Field-stripped in this fashion, including the magazine, it breaks down into all of five parts (six if you count the recoil spring and its guide rod separately, but you never need to take them apart). Obviously there are a bunch more pieces inside the frame, where all the trigger lockwork and whatnot is, but that stuff isn't really "user serviceable" as such. It's certainly not meant to be disassembled for cleaning, which is what field stripping like this is really meant to facilitate. There are no screws to undo, no pins that need to be punched out, no small parts easily lost.

On the other hand, that slide-slightly-farther-back-than-locked, rotate-the-barrel-just-so business is pretty fiddly, and not easily documented. I've read the user's manual for this pistol several times, but I couldn't really figure out how the hell the takedown worked until I just started fooling around with it. Once you get it apart, it becomes fairly obvious how it all works, but from the outside, there's very little indication beyond that one positioning mark of what you're supposed to do, or how much.

Now that we've got it apart, let's take a closer look at a couple of features. First, now that the slide is no longer in the way, an examination of the frame reveals something interesting. Despite its trademarked name, the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol...

detail, Colt 1903 frame, with arrow indicating cocked hammer

... is hammer-fired. It's only called "Hammerless" because you can't see the hammer when the pistol is assembled, nor interact with it directly as part of the user interface. It's completely contained within the back of the slide, so that it can't snag on things. Back in those days, when manufacturers marketed something as a pocket pistol, they meant it literally. Inside-the-belt holsters and all that fancy concealed carry rigging you find today hadn't been invented yet, and if he didn't rock a shoulder holster like a film detective, the armed gentleman-about-town was expected to tuck his pistol into an actual pocket, probably in his coat or overcoat.

A better look at the hammer is afforded by letting it down (which in this case is literally up) into the "fired" position:

detail, Colt 1903 frame with hammer in fired position

Note that doing this is a bit of a hassle, because before you can put the gun back together again it has to be recocked, and the gun isn't designed for you to do that by hand.

Another common feature of early-20th-century pocket pistols is that they tended to have almost laughably rudimentary sights. This was, again, so that there would be less to snag on pocket lips and whatnot, but also because they weren't really considered necessary. It was expected that the average gunfight one of these things would be involved in, should the owner of such a pistol be unfortunate enough to find himself so embroiled, would be conducted at pretty much point-blank range. That thing guys do in old gangster movies where they hold their pistols at their sides, well out of their own line of sight, is not just a Hollywood thing, people really did that.

(Without a lot of training, this practice worked about as well as you would expect, which is why it's no longer a thing. Old West gunslingers did a similar thing, which is why it was called firing from the hip, but they practiced enough that they could actually make it work. At least the ones who lived long enough to develop reputations did.)

At any rate, you can see from the pictures at the top that the 1903 PHL at least has sights, which puts it ahead of more than a few of its competitors from the period. They're quite small, though, and hard to pick up against an even slightly busy background. Again, not considered important at the time. Nowadays we know better.

While we're checking out internal features, let's have a closer look at that barrel retention system and the fiddling around that goes into making it work. In the shot below, you get a good view of the lugs machined into the underside of the barrel.

detail, barrel partially removed from Colt 1903 frame

Note, also, that the way the cutout for the barrel in the front of the slide is shaped, the barrel will only come all the way out when it's in this position, that is, rotated with the retention lugs fully to the bottom—the position it's in when the pistol is assembled. Here's a shot of the matching slots machined into the frame:

detail, barrel retention lugs in Colt 1903 frame

Therefore, in order to disengage the barrel from those lugs, it must be rotated 90°, but then to remove it from the slide, you must rotate it back to its original position. This is relatively easy to do once the slide is off the frame and there's no spring tension on anything, but it's not very intuitive.

There is a cutout on the inside of the slide to make way for the lugs to rotate.

detail, Colt 1903 slide interior, showing cutout for barrel retention lugs to rotate for disassembly

Since the barrel remains fixed relative to the slide until the lugs are unlocked, the slide has to be positioned just so in order to make that cutout available, which is why the little dance with the marking on the side is necessary. I've put it partially back together with the barrel rotated into that cutout so you can hopefully get a better idea of how it works.

detail, Colt 1903 slide with barrel partially fitted, showing relation to assembly lugs

Reassembling the pistol also requires a bit of headscratching the first time, because it is not a straight-up reversal of disassembly. The intuitive thing to do, since barrel, slide, and recoil spring all come off as a single assembly—

Colt 1903 slide/barrel/mainspring assembly

—is to try to put them back on that way as well. The problem with that is that the free end of the recoil spring has to fit into a guide hole in the frame, which is hidden inside the shroud at the front...

detail, front view of Colt 1903 frame showing mainspring guide channel

... and you can't see to align it if you've re-engaged the slide with its rails on the frame, so you can end up missing the hole and kinking the spring, which is obviously not good for the spring, and it won't go fully back together that way anyway.

What you actually have to do, then, is put the spring's free end into that hole on the frame first.

detail, Colt 1903, showing proper order of mainspring/slide assembly

Then you can engage the frame and slide rails, and you have enough room to aim the guide-rod end of the spring into its channel at the front of the frame as you bring them together.

detail, Colt 1903 mainspring/slide reassembly

Once that's done, you repeat the sleight of hand required to get the slide into the right relative position to rotate the barrel, re-engaging it with its retention lugs on the frame, at which point you can let the slide come forward under spring pressure again and reassembly is complete. (You'll know if you missed because the slide will just pop off the front of the frame again if the barrel isn't locked.)

Somewhat unintuitive takedown aside, this is an elegantly designed and very functional pistol. They were popular with civilians, police, military officers, and criminals alike. John Dillinger had one on him when he finally came a cropper in 1934. They have few moving parts and are plenty robust enough for the cartridge they use—robust enough that a same-size version could be produced in 1908 in .380 ACP (not to be confused with .38 ACP, which is longer). Between them, the 1903 and 1908 Pocket Hammerless pistols remained in production until the end of World War II, and some were still being issued to US Army and Air Force general officers into the 1970s.

According to the bounteous data available on these from The Internets, mine was made in 1919, which makes it a "Type III" in terms of revisions to its markings. You can see from the left side photo that, although the patent dates are still specified, it no longer says "Browning's Patent" as the earliest ones did, and the markings are in a very plain block typeface. Still later revisions would introduce the familiar gold Colt medallions on the grip panels and tinker around further with the wording of the inscriptions (note the Continental spelling of "calibre" on the right side of mine.

This gun has a fairly prominent role in one corner of UF; "gun Valkyrie" Gunnr Brynjelfr gives young Anne Cross an enchanted 1903 .32 Pocket Hammerless from her personal collection in S4M3 On the Road Again, and it turns up routinely in Anne's appearances thereafter. There's also mention of one in Warrior's Legacy, as having been the pistol Gryphon carried on "spy jobs" until it met with an unfortunate accident off-screen and was replaced by a Makarov. (If I were writing that story today, the replacement would probably be a CZ 82.)

There's also a mildly interesting side story attached to the one in my own collection. I bought it in the late '90s, after moving back to the East Coast from California, at a shooting range in Monson, Massachusetts, east of Springfield. I didn't have a firearms permit in Massachusetts, though, so I was never actually able to take it home with me; it stayed at the range where I bought it until I moved back to Maine a few years later, at which point I had to pay them to ship it to a licensed dealer up here and then go pick it up.

That's not the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that the range in Monson was in a building that had once been part of a private school, Monson Academy, until the school merged with one over in Wilbraham in the early '70s. The campus, right bang in downtown Monson, had then been repurposed as mixed commercial space, and Down Range (as it was called) was in the basement of the building that had been the gymnasium.

A little while ago, as I was copying my collection records over to a new notebook, I ran across the original display tag for the Hammerless, which stayed with it while it lived at the range and was included when they shipped it to Maine. Stapled to it is a corner cut out of one of their invoices, which someone had written the address of the shop in Maine on the back of, and which showed most of their own address on the front. Out of idle curiosity I ran it by Google to see if the range was still in business...

... and discovered to my surprise that not only was it not, the building is no longer there. It was destroyed by, of all things, a tornado in 2011.

OK, bit of a shaggy dog story, but I think it's interesting. Or at least I found it surprising. Gun shops and shooting ranges go out of business all the time, like any sort of small business, but rarely does one find that a place where one used to hang out in central Massachusetts has been leveled by a tornado since one was last there.

Next week, we'll look at a much later piece of Mr. Browning's work and do a little comparing and contrasting.


¹ Technical note: A blowback design is one that doesn't have a mechanically locked breech; instead, a combination of spring tension from the recoil spring and the simple inertia of the slide keep the action from opening before the bullet has left the barrel and the pressure in the chamber has dropped to a safe level for extraction. If the action of a semiauto opens prematurely, while chamber pressures are still unsafely high, lots of unpleasant things can happen. Ideally, you want the cartridge case to be extracted and ejected intact and in a tidy manner, not blown out so violently that it deforms or ruptures outright. This is why, for instance, plain blowback pistols in 9mm Parabellum generally don't work out; to keep that from happening, they have to be so heavy and/or have such stiff springs that operating them becomes a hassle.