Shooting History: Colt’s 1903 Pocket Hammerless–Old Gun Review

Shooting History.  We’re firing up a new series here at GunsAmerica.  We are working on some historic guns. We’ll shoot them and review them not unlike our new gun reviews (thought the round counts may be a bit lower). If there is a gun you would like to see us cover in this series please let us know in the comments below and we will do our best to procure one.

It was seeing the new production Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless at SHOT Show this year that got me to thinking about starting this series of articles. So, it makes sense to kick it off with an original 1903.

Specs

Lets take of look at what makes up a Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless. From here on I will refer to it as the 1903. There was another 1903 Colt Pocket pistol, but it had a hammer. If I can get my hands on one, I will write it up too. The hammer version was not as popular and there were a lot less of them made. But I digress…. Here are some specs:

It is easy to see some of the lines that John Browning carried on into the 1911.

It is easy to see some of the lines that John Browning carried on into the 1911.

  • Designed by John Browning
  • Produced from 1903-45
  • Total production more than 500K
  • Weight 24oz
  • Length 6.75 inches
  • Barrel 3.75 inches
  • Height 4 inches
  • Width .75 inches
  • .32 ACP
  • Single-action Blowback
  • Fixed front blade sight, rear can be drifted
  • 8 round magazine

Design

What set the Pocket Hammerless apart from other pistols of its time was how smooth, rounded and concealable it was. Take a look at the pictures. The 1903 has the features that I look for in a concealed carry piece. There is very little here to get hung up when drawn from concealment. The hammerless part of the name is not exactly true. The 1903 does have a hammer–it is covered by the slide, which makes it that much more well suited for concealed carry.

With the black grips was this the original "black gun"? Note the small safety.

With the black grips was this the original “black gun”? Note the small safety.

There are a couple of draw backs to the 1903 (especially when comparing it to modern concealed carry pieces). The first are the safeties. If you are a proponent of the no-external-safety-philosophy on a carry piece, this is not the gun for you. The grip safety shouldn’t be a deal breaker; it is easy enough to engage when holding the pistol. The manual safety on the side of the frame is a different story. It is not very easy to flip down/off when the pistol is gripped. The safety doesn’t stick out very far, a product of its ergonomic design. Think of it as a trade off.

The other issue is the magazine release. The 1903 has the type that holds the magazine in on the bottom. This is not the push button that we are all so familiar with that can usually be working with one hand. Dropping the magazine on a 1903 is a two handed job.

Variants

There are a number of variants of the 1903 that need to be mentioned. The first model, the Type I, had a slightly longer barrel and a separate barrel bushing. The Type I was made from 1903 until 1908. The Type II was made from 1908 until 1910. The only major difference was the barrel length changing from 4 inches to 3.75. The Type III was made from 1910 until 1926 and was the largest of the run of the 1903. The Type III had an integrated barrel bushing. The Type IV was last major change and added a magazine disconnect.

The 1903 was also used by the US Military as a General Officer’s side arm. The vast majority of these pistols were similar to the Type IV but were parkerized.

Then there is the 1908 Colt Pocket Hammerless. The 1908 is, for all practical purposes, the exact same as the 1903 except it was chambered in .380 ACP.

The Review Gun

The 1903 Pocket Hammerless feels good in your hands.

The 1903 Pocket Hammerless feels good in your hands.

The gun I used for this review is a Type III 1903. It was made in 1916. I have had it for 5 or 6 years. When I picked it up, it was in pretty poor cosmetic condition. It was functionally sound, but there was little to no finish left and pretty extensive pitting on the exterior surfaces of the slide and frame. But the bore was bright, the rifling was decent. The frame to slide fit was tight and everything else worked.

I eventually refinished the pistol and replaced all the springs. Yes, refinishing a gun as old as this is not usually a good idea. But I wanted to be able to use and carry this pistol and it needed to have some sort of finish on it for basic protection. A Type III 1903 is also not exactly a rare gun, either. I hot salt blued it and niter blued the manual safety, grip screw and guide rod. But for some reason I didn’t reblue the barrel. Not sure what I was thinking at the time, but one of these days I will get around to rebluing it, tool.

In a future article for this series I plan to talk about the refinishing vs. leaving it alone schools of thought on historic guns. What I will say now is that there are lots of opinions and that the decision isn’t always a big deal.

 Shooting

Not too shabby for a 99 year old pistol from 15 yards.

Not too shabby for a 99 year old pistol from 15 yards.

So how does this 99 year old pony shoot? Like a dream. .32 ACP in this steel framed pistol is extremely pleasant to shoot. Even with the tiny, antique sights it is quick on target and the lack of recoil make follow up shots fast and true. Check out the pictures of the targets I shot for this review. It is easy to place 8 round with in an inch from 15 yards with slow, aimed fire. There are a lot of pistols 90 years younger that can’t do that. Fast fire opens up as would be expected and the diminutive sights are hard to pick up fast. But this pistol points so well that you almost don’t need the sights when shooting from 15 yards or less at a torso sized target. And that is what this gun was originally designed to do.

The trigger on the review gun is great and it was when I bought it.  Other than replacing the springs, I have done nothing to the mechanics of this pistol. The trigger feels like a nice 1911 trigger.  It has very little creep and breaks at 4 lbs.

This 1903 and the others I have shot, do not like hollow points. They don’t hangup every round or even magazine, but they do tend to get caught on the feed ramp. I have put at least 1,500 rounds of FMJ though this gun since I refinished it about 3 years ago and have had zero malfunctions other than the occasional failure to feed a JHP.

Relevance?

So is the 1903 Colt Pocket Hammerless still a relevant pistol or just a cool old gun? It is a bit of both in my opinion. First there is the caliber. .32 ACP is not my first choice for a defense round. But then again it is not a slouch either. 71 grain FMJs moving around 1,000 ft/s is nothing to laugh at. I am a fan of the FMJ as a carry round for this pistol. I don’t trust the hollow point of this size to open up much or any at all. I had rather have the extra penetration, weight and energy of the FMJ. Of course this is an argument that is older than this pistol and a subject better explored in separate article.

The other negatives are the manual safety and the magazine catch that I talked about above. If you train and shoot your carry pistol or revolver these things can be over came for the most part. That is why I ultimately chose to refinish this pistol. I do occasionally carry this 1903. I tend to think of it as my dress gun. It goes well with a suit. I don’t intend to carry it when I go to the movies though. That didn’t work out so well for John Dillinger when he went to that movie in Chicago with a 1903 in his pocket.

I did shoot some HP for this review and about every 10 or so round would hang up. FMJ is the way to go here.

I did shoot some HP for this review and about every 10 or so round would hang up. FMJ is the way to go here.

The two infamuse Colt Pocket Pistols.  Hammerless and Vest Pocket.

The two infamous Colt Pocket Pistols. Hammerless and Vest Pocket.

Fast shooting from 15 yards.

Fast shooting from 15 yards.

Another group.

Another group from a different shooter. Nice group, but it is 2 inches right of point of aim!

A 1911 made in 1913 and a 1903 made in 1916. Which came first?

A 1911 made in 1913 and a 1903 made in 1916. Which came first?

The hammer on the hammerless.  It is there but hidden under the slide.

The hammer on the hammerless. It is there but hidden under the slide.

A bit of for shadowing here? 1911, 1903 and 1905.

A bit of foreshadowing here? 1911, 1903 and 1905.

{ 56 comments… add one }
  • Les B January 10, 2017, 6:00 pm

    Nice article and nice guns. I too have both the 1903 .32, and the 1908 .25. Mine are in really nice shape, and were made in 1925. Both have the walnut stocks which had replaced the hard rubber by then. They are great little shooters…John Moses Browning was the best gun designer ever.

    I have heard stories about the possibility of ADs if the pistol is dropped with a round chambered. But I think it would take a pretty good drop to cause a lightweight firing pin to have enough inertia to detonate a primer.

  • Larry upchurch November 16, 2016, 9:58 am

    Enjoyed your article, I have both the .32 and the .380 models. Shoot both and cc both. Who do I contact at colt to have them refinish the .380 and do you know the or price?
    Thanks again for your great article.

  • fred glenn davis August 2, 2016, 9:40 am

    I GUESS I AN VERY LUCKY TO OWN A VEST POCKET LIKE THE ONE SHOWN IN THIS ISSUE.

  • Kent Escoe July 5, 2016, 12:44 am

    Where can you hin the new 1903 Colt 32 cal. For sale

  • Cyrus May 13, 2016, 4:28 pm

    I own 1903 Colt 32 auto & shoot the little thing now & then. Interesting gun to take down & if you don’t have instructions on doing it you should not try.

  • Robert Bogart March 14, 2016, 10:31 am

    I have a mint Browning 1910, 9mm court, made in Belgium. It has a grip safety. Imported by Browning Arms Co St. Louis Mo & Montreal PQ. I love this gun, shoots great and as I have small hands works perfectly for me. Love your reviews

  • Lou Cabanillas August 4, 2015, 10:30 pm

    I love the Colt 1903 and the lore surrounding it. However, John Dillinger was not armed with the gun on display at the FBI museum when he was shot and killed. In fact, there was no gun listed in the coroner’s inquest (Inquest no. 160747, office file no.268). The gun on display, serial number 119702, left the factory and was sold for the first time to the L. H. Kurz company of Des Moines, Iowa on December 19, 1934, five months after Dillinger’s death. Just sayin.

  • John March 16, 2015, 7:48 am

    I would love to see a review of the original Remington Model 51. With all the hoopla over the new R51 for the last couple of years, I think it would be a relevant review. Thank you

  • alan keithley March 15, 2015, 5:53 pm

    bravo,well done. looking forward to next review. great concept

  • petru sova March 3, 2015, 4:13 pm

    Just remember that the model “M” 1903 and Colts .25 acp will both fire if dropped. The .32 Colt has a documented case of going off and killing its owner despite the fact the gun had the manual safety on and the grip safety was in working order as well as documented by Massad Ayoob.

  • Rob Drummond March 2, 2015, 9:29 am

    I think the 1903 Colt Hammerless is my favorite handgun. I am a fan of the 1911 but I think there is something special about the 1903. Mine is in great shape but needs to have one of the hard rubber grips replaced. It shoots great and I like to carry it on walks around our farm or in the woods. Easy pistol to carry. Personally I wouldn’t want to get shot by a .32 or anything for that matter. I have run into a few rabid racoons over the years………no worries with that round!
    Rob

  • Alex R February 18, 2015, 8:49 pm

    Love this pistol. Mine is a 1926 in great shape. It shoots like a dream. I love plinking with 32 ACP pistols because the recoil is light, but it’s still well into centerfire territory (I shoot a fair amount of 25 ACP too). I’m excited that Colt is making these again and hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on one.

    A review I would like to see can be either a new or old gun–the S&W model 48. I have one from their classic line of revolvers and it is one of the nicest revolvers I have (and I have a bunch). It’s a 22 WMR K-frame revolver and really is a beautiful gun. I’d be interested to hear about an older one, although they are quite expensive. The current classic line model 48s are not cheap either, but are less than originals. 22 WMR is a fantastic round and, in my opinion, is one of the most fun cartridges out there.

  • Roscoe February 17, 2015, 12:38 pm

    I have had two model ’08’s for over 25 years. Recently when I had them appraised I was told they had incorrect barrels. I can’t find any info on correct or original barrels. Unfortunately my Tredlok safe is acting up and I can’t get in to check the serial numbers for date of manufacture. One had been reblued but both have sharp stampings with good relief. They both feed and shoot well. Can you give me any info on the correct barrels?

  • Dennis Hanisch February 17, 2015, 7:37 am

    I have a couple of 32’s and a 380 of this model Colt. They are great carry guns. I replaced the springs courtesy of Brownell’s and that’s it. No problem with .380 hp’s but the 32’s do seem to like fmj’s better. Also have a Savage .32, a CZ27, a pair of Remington model 51’s in 32 and 380. All of them great pistols. Much easier to shoot and more accurate than my Ruger lc380.

  • David Reiss February 17, 2015, 2:02 am

    I really enjoyed the article and appreciate all old guns. I have a collection of over 80 Iver Johnson handguns, including most the semi-auto’s produced, revolvers models in 95% to 99% condition, cut-a-way salesman samples and some very scare models. I would be very interested in doing an article on any of them and some of Iver Johnson’s history, which is fascinating in itself. John please contact me if this would be possible.

  • Pete February 16, 2015, 10:11 pm

    Great to see the old classics get some attention. Thanks so much. Keep them coming.

  • John February 16, 2015, 10:08 pm

    Actually John Dillinger was carrying a Colt 1908 chambered in .380ACP when he left the Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. Ironically, he was born the year the 1903 Colt Pocket Hammerless .32 debuted.

  • Todd Sider February 16, 2015, 9:45 pm

    I enjoyed the 1903 review. Love my 1903 and I too can’t wait for the re-issue. I would enjoy a review of the Colt Woodsman. It is a great target pistol and a joy to shoot. A re-issue of this gun would be nice as well.

  • Jerry Haworth February 16, 2015, 7:15 pm

    I have one that was issued to the Shanghi Municipal Police, although it is the .380 version. Easily converted to .32 acp with a change of bbl. & mag.

  • arnold February 16, 2015, 6:43 pm

    one great thing about the “hammerless” that is actually a single action is the ability for a first and following accurate shots. Puts the striker fire to shame on feel and accuracy and shows it as clearly inferior to the John Browning design. I have an ’03 and a ’08. I really hope the re- introduction will include an alloy frame and keep the single action hammer fire design. That would be awesome..

  • Petru Sova February 16, 2015, 6:35 pm

    I just read that a machine shop is going to produce 1,000 parkerized Colts in .32 acp one for each General that was issued one. There will be a few fancy models made as well and then supposedly the machinery will be sold to Colt but seeing that Colt is filling for bankruptcy I wonder if Colt will produce the pistol again. I also wonder if this new model is made of modern junk castings, with a hammer fudged barrel or made like the originals out of forgings and deep cut original rifling.

    It is interesting to note that the .32acp was adopted by the German Army in stead of the .380 acp because the .32 acp would penetrate a helmet while the .380 acp would not.

    All in all though I would rather have the Browning Model of 1910 as it was a smaller gun and more concealable. The Colt is the more popular because it showed up in so many old time movies with famous Hollywood stars.

  • Jim February 16, 2015, 5:33 pm

    Great article. I like the old guns so much more than most of the new stuff. In the future I would like to see reviews for Beretta 1934 and/or 1935, Zastava M57, and anything from the Makarov family. I think any of those would give most modern guns a run for their money.

    • Damon February 16, 2015, 10:48 pm

      I have a Beretta Mod. 1934 that was a bring – back from WWII. It came in a flapped, buckled holster that had a spare mag pouch incorporated under the flap. Italian polizia markings on the holster.
      Family legend has it that my uncle traded a spare GI 1911 for it.
      I’ve fired several mags worth of various .380 through it, and found it didn’t like JHP, but ate up ball like nobody’s business. Oddly, the ammo that was most reliable was the alloy – cased CCI.
      The sights are rudimentary, it has the heel mag release with pinky rests on the mags, and the safety requires a strong thumb to release, but it disassembles in three motions and will put all the rounds in a 3″ circle from 15 feet. It’s a Beretta, and like a lot of Italian engineering, it’s good-looking, but quirky. And fun.

  • Pat Hillock February 16, 2015, 3:09 pm

    I would like to see the Browning/FN model 1910 in .380acp

  • Bailey February 16, 2015, 2:13 pm

    Thx, great article….especially to see how well an old gun still shoots.
    It’d also been nice for you to put current values of these old guns in the reviews.

  • Max Hoyle February 16, 2015, 1:39 pm

    I love the old guns also and look forward to your new series! I have a couple of these guns one a 1903 in .32 with a chrome finish made in 1921, talk about hard to put a value on something! Have a blue one in blue also. I would like to see a review on the Colt vest pocket, baby Browning or Bauer. Also I;ve never seen a review on the Erma baby Luger in .32acp, I have one but have never seen another except a couple in .380 Thanks

    • Sam Trisler February 16, 2015, 2:12 pm

      The Vest Pocket will be coming soon!

  • Jake Adams February 16, 2015, 1:33 pm

    I don’t think you meant to refer to the guns as “infamous”? I thought you liked this model?

  • Don February 16, 2015, 12:49 pm

    I was excited to see this review as I have just inherited my fathers 4 Colts. Three 1903s in .25acp, .32acp and .380. Plus his 1911 which he carried in Korea. I have fully disassembled the 1903s are was wondering if I should shoot the old girls, and now I will. They were manufactured in 1909, 1915 and 1924 respectively.’ All are in good condition but I would like to know where to buy new springs. Any ideas?
    Thanks

    • Sam Trisler February 16, 2015, 1:00 pm

      I ordered the springs from Numrich when I redid the one in the article. I think it was around $50 bucks for all of the springs.

      • Don February 16, 2015, 4:22 pm

        Found them! Thanks!

  • Ron February 16, 2015, 12:47 pm

    Great review! I have a 4 digit serial numbered Type I 1903 which is still smooth & accurate. Hope l’m still functioning that we’ll at 111 years old.

    • Ron February 16, 2015, 3:45 pm

      Should have said it was manufactured early 1904….& auto corrected from well to we’ll.

  • Jim February 16, 2015, 12:24 pm

    Which hollow points did you try? I load a xtp for mine and they feed well enough. Colt must have made the type 3 with out a magazine disconnect as well because mine is in the type3 range yet has none. A narrow tennon 1911 site can be trimmed down for the front site and a rear can be filed down for the rear so that better sites can be had. My 1903 also is a shooter grade with pitting and will shoot very well. A palm size group can be had at 25 yards from a rest. It is a bit small for me in the grip and off hand shooting is a 9×13″ plate at that same range which of course is minute of man.

  • Ray Webb February 16, 2015, 12:10 pm

    Good article. Theses are great guns, I have two and carry them often as they are very easy to concel and quite accurate. I am not surpriesed surprised that people have had problems finding ammunition, although I never seem to have a problem, as it seems to be very easy to obtain. I have four other .32’s including a savage and a walther and I carry them often. I am extatic that colt is coming out with this pistol again and think they should have been doing this years ago. Anyway keep up the articles as these old weapons are not only interesting, but still viable weapons for self defense.

  • D. Michael Taylor February 16, 2015, 11:33 am

    I have the Colt Vest Pocket pistol (1901, I think). Somewhere, I read that these older handguns were designed for black powder ammunition; and may not be suitable for the higher pressures of modern, smokeless ammunition. I would like to know more about that issue, and whether the black powder ammunition is available.

    • Sam Trisler February 16, 2015, 12:22 pm

      None of the automatics were designed around black powder that I am aware of. Smokeless is what you want. However, do not try anything that is +P.

  • Don Pind February 16, 2015, 10:51 am

    I have a a 1903 for years carry it all the time, but i ahd the same problem with .32 ammo so converted it to 380, jjust a barrel and mag change

  • LARRY February 16, 2015, 10:24 am

    I have a 1903 and had a hard time finding 32acp rounds. a family member looked up the comparisons and we found that the 32 special is very similar. I bought some and seems to fire fine. I was surprised this wasn’t talked about. ids this what everyone is using?

    • Sam Trisler February 16, 2015, 12:18 pm

      32 ACP shouldn’t be that hard to find. I can find it in some of the big retailers and a couple of my local gun shops usually have it. I wouldn’t shoot 32 Special in one of these. I’m surprised it would work and it is never a good idea so shoot something a gun is not chambered for!

  • Gary Curnow February 16, 2015, 9:54 am

    FYI, this Browning design was also produced by FN and also was licensed to be produced by Husqvarna in 9mm Browning Long. Many were imported to America and converted to 380. This gun also, in my opinion, would make an ideal carry gun. Way slim.

  • johnathan February 16, 2015, 9:51 am

    Do a story on the 1902 colt auto. Great gun.

  • Bruce Cohen February 16, 2015, 9:44 am

    Sam: I carry the .380 version and It is my everyday go to dress gun. Never a problem in feeding, shoots soft and accurate. Great guns and Colt is coming out with them agin (in .32 cal) shortly.
    Sam, dont reblue the barrel it was never blued in the first place but in the white from the factory.

    • Steve Loy February 16, 2015, 11:08 am

      I have a 1908 in .380, and find it hurts my hand to shoot. It seems that all the recoil is passed on to my hand with this gun compared to my Sig 238. Why would that be? I love the gun, and wish it was more comfortable to shoot!

    • Sam Trisler February 16, 2015, 12:14 pm

      Yes! That is why I didn’t reblue the barrel with I did the rest of it. I couldn’t remember my reasons when I wrote this article. Thanks for that.

  • Andy Buschmann February 16, 2015, 9:37 am

    I’ve always liked this gun’s look. I like the .32ACP and have a Seecamp and Kel-Tec P-32. The heel style mag release doesn’t bother me in the least. Thanks for the article.

  • Don February 16, 2015, 8:49 am

    I have one w/ hammer in ” good” condition. I do not shoot it very much but it is accurate at 15 yards. What is the range of $ value ? This along with who originally carried them always adds value to the story. Thanks.

  • Dave Hare February 16, 2015, 8:02 am

    Great article; thanks for doing it. As a suggestion, I would value more of the historical use by the military on these weapons; which wars and which branches of service carried this pistol; their serial number ranges etc. Knowing where these may have been increases their interest for me.

  • Driscoll Otto February 16, 2015, 7:46 am

    I have my Grandfathers that he carried while working for the M&P railroad in Texas. He got it from a man that owed him $5.00. It shoots well but I don’t carry it because of sentimental value. But I will own a new one they are sweet.

  • Buddy Altman February 16, 2015, 7:27 am

    Very nice article, I also have a couple of these guns. One of the things that I have enjoyed over the past five years as a new collector is looking up the history of these guns. Not just maker or designer, but also who carried them, what movie or incident they were used in. I’ve heard that Al Capone & Bonnie Farrow carried this weapon (not confirmed). For your next evaluation, would you consider a paragraph or so for this subject.

  • jeff weisman February 16, 2015, 6:35 am

    Was the grouping shown shot at 15-yards or 15-feet? If shot at 15-yards it is a very impressive group/

  • William Bell February 16, 2015, 6:21 am

    I’m glad to see these reviews of classic handguns like the Colt 1903. I have one made in 1910, all original. My gun feeds 60 gr. JHP ammo from Hornady and MagTech with aplomb. I’ve never had a big issue with the manual safety and “wipe” it off easily. I found a man selling pancake-style holsters for the 1903 on the Colt Forum, so mine gets some actual CC use. I carry spare magazines I bought from Triple K.

    Please tackle the 1907 Savage too. I just bought a Harrington & Richardson .32 Self-Loading pistol from the same era. I’d be willing to write it up for Guns America; let me know.

    • John February 16, 2015, 10:14 am

      Ah, thanks, an original mag for the 1903 can be over $180, now I know where to go for a remanufacture!

    • John February 16, 2015, 10:20 am

      Thanks for the 1903 review. I have one manufactured in 1921. Great finish, great condition, wonderful little defense gun. You spoke of refinishing your pistol and I agree completely with your decision. They are such interesting and fun little guns so it should be in as good a condition as possible. Of course, you’d have to think twice if it was a rare Gen 1 Colt SSA, but this little jewel should look as good as it shoots. Incidentally, mine is all original and the barrel was not blued, just saying!

  • joe gifford February 16, 2015, 6:16 am

    I own one and carry it in my pocket once in a while a very nice handgun easy to shoot well and regardless of what the experts say it is better than a rock.

  • Rafael February 16, 2015, 5:41 am

    I have one mfg. in 1936, I have 3 clips for it I used it extensively while stationed in Brazil, for competitive shooting. because the 7.35mm (32) was a legal carry in that country and through my contacts in the Bureau de Seguridad a permit was issued for me. I still fire it at least once a month, when I shoot on a farm. It is in A-1 condition both in looks and firing ability, I purchase it used in 1982 that is 33 years ago the gun is 79 years old, which is older than I am and it is a tribute to the Colt Mfg. Co. Even when back in Florida I used to keep it on me in my business, prior to retiring.

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