The Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless

Old guns remain some of my very favorites. I love shooting any gun, but the level of satisfaction I get from a classic pistol will always top what I get from the latest Glock clone. I’ve never owned a Colt, but a recent auction presented me the opportunity to get hands-on with a Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless. This specific model represents a Type 1 example from 1905. The Colt Pocket Hammerless series went through numerous models that varied by different types. There are five types in total. 

32 ACP isn’t much, but it was capable back then.

Type 1 guns like you see here featured a 4-inch barrel, but later models would sport a 3.75-inch barrel. Type 1 guns also featured a separate barrel bushing and lacked a magazine safety. The M1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol was designed by John Browning. Browning was selling pistols across the world at this point with contracts with both FN and Colt. 

I picked this gun up for an absolute steal. Sure the finish is rough, and one of the grips is slightly broken, but the gun has a great bore and is mechanically nearly perfect. I was incredibly excited to pick it up and hunt down a few boxes of .32 ACP. 

The M1903 – Classic Features and Ergonomics 

In 1903, the automatic pistol was still fairly new. Most of the world was sticking to their six guns, but the automatic handgun was catching fire. Guns like the Colt M1903 laid the groundwork for the firearms we have today. You can certainly see how Browning developed the 1911 by looking at the M1903. 

The name Pocket Hammerless is a bit of a lie. The gun has a single action-only hammer, but it’s hidden. Colt marketed the gun for concealed carry firearms, and Pocket Hammerless was part of that marketing. No one wants their hammer getting caught in their jacket pocket while drawing their firearm. 

A heel magazine release isn’t optimum, but it’s very 1903.

The weapon features two safeties. One is a thumb-operated, frame-mounted safety that sits on the left side of the gun. The second is a grip safety, much like the M1911s. Later, Pocket Hammerless types would incorporate the always-useless magazine safety as well. 

The frame safety is easy to sweep off

The manually operated safety is textured and somewhat easy to operate. It does sit rather tight to the frame, and it’s easy to miss when sweeping it on safe. Luckily, sweeping it off safe is easy and likely more important. The manual safety also doubles as a way to lock the slide open, although the gun does not have a last-round bolt hold-open function. 

The thumb safety doubles as a slide lock

A heel magazine release plagues the gun, but it was common at the time. While simple and effective, swapping magazines is rather slow and cumbersome. 

Svelte and Thin

Everything about the Colt M903 Pocket Hammerless is svelte and smooth. The grip is quite thin and fits well in your hand. Much like the M1911, the grip angle is just perfect. It feels natural and is just long enough for my entire hand to sit comfortably on. 

The slide features some rear serrations, and it doesn’t take much effort to pull the slide rearward and charge the weapon. Pulling back the slide is a wonderful feeling, and the gun has this unbeatable smoothness. The very thin, lithe nature of the weapon does make it seem like a great coat pocket gun. 

While it seems large for today’s users, it’s essentially the same length and height as a Glock 19 but much thinner. We joke that there is nothing new in the gun world, but the M1903 Pocket Hammerless is the Glock 48 of its time. Little guns have always been tough to shoot, and big guns have always been tough to conceal. Guns like the M1903 Pocket Hammerless and the Glock 48 are a compromise in both directions. 

Colt At the Range 

This will never be a gun I torture to test. It’s old and retired. Now it’s just shot for fun and not much else. I took out some basic Fioochi and Remington ammo and hit the range running. The little single-stack magazine holds eight rounds of ammo and is very easy to load. 

What first caught my attention was just how lovely this gun is to shoot. The recoil is barely anything and is closer to a .22LR than a  .380 ACP. It’s soft, with a little push and the slide seems to be moving almost slow enough to grab. There is no pressure or pain, no slide or hammer bite. Just a pleasurable, soft shooting gun. 

The M1903 is a soft shooter

The grip safety is well-worn and doesn’t take much pressure to deactivate. It glides right on in and is easily forgotten about. The manual safety can be thrown off in a flash and sits nice and out of the way while firing. While a two-handed, thumbs-forward grip wasn’t in vogue at the time of the gun’s design, the modern grip doesn’t cause problems or shooter discomfort. 

Easy To Shoot – Hard to Aim 

While the gun is soft shooting, it’s tough to aim. You often hear the phrase, “You won’t see your sights in a gunfight!” Well, that’s probably true with the Colt M1903. Like most guns of its era, the sights seem like an afterthought. They are very small, and there is no contrast between the front and rear sight. Sometimes it’s tough to tell if they are aligned or not. Patience is a virtue, and a good slow-fire cadence is welcome. 

It’s sleek, svelte, and fun

When I really take my time, I can put those rounds wherever I want them. The gun does shoot straight. It just doesn’t make it easy to shoot straight. If you’ve ever fired a 1911, you know what to expect from the trigger. It’s smooth and light with a great reset. That single-action-only hammer-fired design has yet to be replicated. 

For a gun made in 1905, you’d expect it to start choking. Rather, this gun chewed through all 150 rounds I had without much issue. Sure, that’s not a ton of ammo, but it’s an old gun. 

Satisfaction Guaranteed 

There is something very satisfying about ringing a steel gong with a .32 ACP. I passed the FBI’s current handgun qual. Well, mostly, I didn’t draw and started from the low ready. I felt like a real Junior G-Man on the case trying to track Capone down. The Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless might sit in the shadow of its little brother, the M1911, but it has an interesting legacy. 

The M1903 Pocket Hammerless is a solid shooter and an awesome antique

Police organizations like the NYPD and Boston Police Department adopted the weapon, as did the Shanghai Municipal Police. Generals carried them until the 1970s, and the OSS even issued weapons to European agents. Lord knows where this specific M1903 has gone, but I bet it’s lived a rich life in its 117 years on this earth. If you get a chance ever to handle or shoot a Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, I’d suggest you do it. 

They don’t make them like this anymore. 

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Henry November 25, 2022, 10:16 am

    Always liked the 1903.My uncle and I got 2 of them and a 1911A1 one time many years. Sorry I sold them, but I have the 1911A1 still. I have one in .32 and another in .380. I agree that it is fun to shoot them. One point you failed to mention and it is a liitle known fact. If you change the barrel and mag and possibly the return spring you can shoot .380 in a .32 and just the opposite. It does bring back memories of film-noir private eyes.

  • Ti November 22, 2022, 8:01 pm

    My wife inherited her maternal grandfather’s 1908. He was a 3 star in the Army Air Corps. He passed away and 20 years later, her grandma moved into an AF retirement community. The pistol was found loaded in the belongings. The mag release was frozen. One of the old timers there took the weapon, made it safe, cleaned and returned it. My first experience shooting one, and the .380 caliber. Beautiful gun, literally in like new condition with the box and papers.

  • Griffy November 22, 2022, 6:38 pm

    Good write up except for the totally wrong statement about magazine safeties. They are absolutely useful as a fail safe when a noob or absent minded owner may forget about one in the chamber after removal of a magazine. Its pure arrogance to think negligent acts can’t visit anyone, even pro’s.

    • Pantexan November 25, 2022, 1:26 pm

      Wrong. Magazine disconnect safeties are pathetic.

  • Hank Hurlstone November 22, 2022, 1:46 pm

    My oldest daughter talked me out of mine about 5 years ago, carries it in her handbag. Good news is, she can hit a tin can right regular with it.
    I’m glad that you like yours, Travis, but it ‘pears to me like the 1903 and 1911 are more different than they are alike, in terms of mechanical design and function.

  • William Bell November 21, 2022, 10:27 pm

    Glad to see you’re discovered the Colt Model 1903! I have an original circa 1917 and one of the repro General Officers Pistols that Colt offered for awhile several years ago. Both handle and shoot great. I’ve had no problems with JHP loads. I do limit use of them.

  • Old Vet November 21, 2022, 3:52 pm

    Sadly, I have to admit ownership and then being talked out of it to purchase my duty weapon as a young police officer in the early ’70’s. Wishing I had another but times were tough for rookie cops and I had a small budget at the time.

  • Max Hoyle November 21, 2022, 3:24 pm

    Hi congrats on your 1903! I got mine around 20 years ago and is a keeper! Its just like you said, fun fun fun! Its in chrome or nickel and looks nearly new. Was the reason that I started reloading .32acp also.

  • Walleye November 21, 2022, 11:33 am

    Even though 32 ACP is marginally better than a 22 LR, if it was good enough for John Browning and James Bond (Ian Flemming), then its good enough for me. Certainly a classic gun and mild to shoot.

  • Jim November 21, 2022, 8:52 am

    I picked up a 1918 ’03 in .32 ACP vintage for a song a year or so ago. Mine’s in pretty decent shape and shoots well.

    • Godfrey Daniel November 21, 2022, 7:10 pm

      Jim, mine’s a 1918 too and picked it up about 3 years ago. I love to shoot the thing and try to take it out a couple times a year to send a few downrange.

  • Bob gow November 21, 2022, 7:57 am

    I have one that was given to me in 1977 by a retired army general. You make excellent points about it being slim and easily fitting the hand. Excellent article about a old colt auto.

  • JohninMd.(HELP!) November 21, 2022, 7:27 am

    Love the old guns like this, and it’s Brother the 1908 in .380. I would not feel unarmed, with new springs,good grips and better sights, always the weakness on early colt’s a relic from a time when machining was expensive, and hand fitting was not….wonder what a CNC made example would cost, today.

    • Matthew White November 21, 2022, 10:54 pm

      Colt had some produced a few years ago, and they were around a grand. Precision Small Arms still makes baby brownings and they start around $600.

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