50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
1903-1908 POCKET HAMMERLESS
In 1900, as the world rounded the bend heading into the twentieth century, Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing took the lead in the race for American handgun superiority. The company had already made the transition from single-action to double-action revolvers, and now, with what would prove to be a legendary link with firearms genius John Moses Browning, Colt’s had just introduced its first semi-automatic pistol, a gun that Browning had been developing since 1894.
The Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless came boxed with a set of instructions that reminded the owner the trigger had to be pulled once for each shot fired, in spite of the pistol’s “automatic” nomenclature. Remember, this was before The National Firearms Act of 1934, which prohibited private ownership of fully automatic weapons.
Years before, while duck hunting in a Utah marsh, Browning became fascinated by the way the blasts from his shotgun would sway the reeds surrounding the muzzle. Realizing this was an indication of energy, the young gunsmith began wondering how he could harness these escaping gases and trap them into operating the action of a pistol. The result was Colt’s first successful semi-auto, the Model 1900, although, at that early stage of its development, it was simply stamped, “Automatic Colt—Browning’s Patent.” Chambered in .38 Colt Automatic (.38 ACP), a semi-rimless round developed by Browning specifically for this gun—the magazine held seven rounds. With a six-inch barrel and a less-than-ergonomic grip, the Model 1900 did not balance well, although it can lay claim to being the first-ever “long slide” semi-automatic. Its high, thin hammer spur aided in cocking the single-action, blowback design, which had the unusual feature of a rear sight that doubled as a safety; when pushed down, it blocked the hammer from striking the primer.
Approximately 3,500 Model 1900s were manufactured (including about 350 military marked versions for the Army and the Navy). But, obviously, there was room for improvement. In 1902, a Sporting Model was introduced, which eliminated the rear sight/safety combination and, instead, had the gun rely upon a shorter firing pin to prevent accidental discharge; a full blow from the hammer was required to provide enough inertia to fire the chambered cartridge. At the same time, and inexplicably, a much more cumbersome rounded hammer spur replaced the previous thinner profile. A military version of the 1902 was also produced that featured a slide stop and lanyard ring, plus a longer grip and a correspondingly larger magazine that held eight rounds instead of seven.
The success of the Model 1902 was evident by the appearance, one year later, of a similar version, dubbed the Pocket Model of 1903, which sported a shorter 41⁄2-inch barrel. But that gun was quickly eclipsed by the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless, or the Model M, as it was factory designated, which had an even shorter four-inch barrel. This made the Pocket Hammerless a much more compact and practical pistol. In fact, it proved so popular, it remained in the Colt line until 1945.
The gun wasn’t actually hammerless at all, but the breech end of its closed, rounded slide concealed the hammer. The result was a snag-proof handgun that could easily be carried in pocket or purse and quickly drawn with little to hinder a fast presentation. Moreover, the Pocket Hammerless featured the first of Colt’s grip safeties, which was located under the rear arch of the backstrap. Unless the pistol was firmly grasped with the web of the thumb depressing this safety, the gun couldn’t fire. In addition, a newly incorporated “Slide Lock” on the left side of the frame prevented the cocked hammer from falling when the slide lock lever was pushed up. “This allows the arm to be carried cocked, without danger of accidental discharge,” stated Colt’s literature. In essence, this was the first instance of what is today known as “cocked and locked,” or the Condition One carry.
The Colt Hammerless Pocket Model of 1903 was chambered for the Browning-designed .32 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge, which had already achieved a fair amount of popularity in Europe, where it was known as the 7.65mm. Although considered a bare minimum for self-defense, its small size enabled eight rounds to be stacked in the 1903’s magazine, which had its release located on the heel of the grip frame. In 1908, a nearly identical variation, the Model 1908, was chambered for .380 ACP, another Browning-designed round that was slightly more potent as a man-stopper. Only seven rounds could be carried in its magazine, but the .380 packed a slightly bigger punch.
The guns were charcoal blued, with nickeled versions available, but noticeably scarcer. Grips were originally checkered hard rubber embossed with a rampant Colt; checkered walnut with an inset Colt medallion became standard, in 1924. Factory ivory or pearl grips were available at extra cost, as was engraving, although such guns are rare. Collectors categorize the 1903-1908 Hammerless into four distinct types, though with some overlapping features: Type I (1903-1910) has a four-inch barrel and barrel bushing; Type II (1908-1910) has a 33⁄4-inch barrel; Type III (1910-1926) retains the shorter 33⁄4-inch barrel, but no longer has a barrel bushing; and Type IV (1926-1945) has an added magazine safety.
The Colt 1908 (top) and the 1903 (bottom), were outwardly identical, except for the caliber, which was stamped on the right side of the slide.
The magazines of the 1908 and the 1903 Pocket Hammerless were stamped with their respective calibers and, of course, were not interchangeable between the two different guns.
With its fast action, easy pointability, and a weight of just 24 ounces, the Hammerless Pocket Model of 1903-1908 was a favorite of many notable personalities, including the infamous Al Capone and popular cowboy movie star Tom Mix. In addition, Humphrey Bogart, as Detective Phillip Marlowe, brandished one in The Big Sleep. More recently, Johnny Depp—a gun guy in real life—packed one as John Dillinger in Public Enemies. There was also a rare variant (sometimes referred to as a Type V version), known as General Officer pistols, which were issued to U.S. Army and Air Force officers, including Generals Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower. Prior to 1942, these “U.S. Property” marked guns were blued. After that, and up until 1970, when these General Officer pistols were replaced with a 1911 version (the M15), the guns were Parkerized. Several thousand hammerless pocket pistols were also sent to the British Home Guard, during WWII.
In all, more than 572,000 of these little guns, in both civilian and military guises, were produced, making it one of the most prolific Colts to ever leave the Hartford stables. Today, it is both a collectable and a classic self-defense arm, the purpose for which it was originally designed over a century ago. In either caliber, although my preference would be for the 1908 version in .380 ACP, it belongs on our bucket list.