Gun Collecting: The Colt Model 1903

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The Colt Pocket Hammerless Model 1903 is a very collectible pistol, and a great shooter - even by today's standards.

The Colt Pocket Hammerless Model 1903 is a very collectible pistol, and a great shooter – even by today’s standards.

 

The approach to what we now call a “carry gun” was much different a generation ago. In those halcyon days, most folks tucked a neat little break-action revolver in their waistband or dropped a slim semi-auto in their pocket and went about their business. No one thought this was a menace to civil society. Such practices didn’t evoke mass hysteria in the media, nor were they considered dangerous by anyone, except crooks.

The choice of defensive calibers was also much different then. It was determined not only by the petite size of the typical handgun, but also because high-powered antibiotics had not yet become widely available, and someone shot with anything, even a .22, had a good chance of getting a serious infection and heading to their last roundup.

It is within this cultural context that we assess the Colt Model 1903 semi-automatic. It is a typical example of the period’s armament that, even today, fits Gun Digest’s honored definition of “One Good Gun.”

The M-1903 was designed by none other than John M. Browning and is the culmination of a series of pistols launched in 1896. Browning gave Colt the exclusive right to manufacture pistols of his design and market them, not only in the United States, but in Great Britain and Ireland, as well.

The M-1903 shown here is disassembled into its component parts. The recoil spring (called by Colt as the “retractor spring”) has a guide rod and fits into holes in the frame and slide. The eight-round magazine has witness holes to show the number of rounds remaining in it. The gun is easily reassembled.

The M-1903 shown here is disassembled into its component parts. The recoil spring (called by Colt as the “retractor spring”) has a guide rod and fits into holes in the frame and slide. The eight-round magazine has witness holes to show the number of rounds remaining in it. The gun is easily reassembled.

A similar agreement was executed between Browning and Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale (FN), in 1897, for Europe, but excluded the three countries noted above. The understanding was that Colt would make locked-breech guns and FN would manufacture blowback guns.

While this convoluted arrangement evolved into several models on both sides of the pond in .32, 9mm and .38 calibers, this geographical manufacturing dichotomy would later become significant in the popularity of the M-1903.

By 1900, Colt needed a sales success and petitioned Browning to allow them to make a blowback design. FN had introduced the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge, in 1899, in its 1899/1900 pistol. Browning acquiesced, cut a very lucrative deal with Colt, and slightly modified the gun’s design.

Thus, in 1902, Colt started production of the Colt Automatic Pistol, Pocket Model (factory designation Model M). The gun went on sale in August of that year and was a huge hit. It was also called the Hammerless Pocket Model; of course, it wasn’t truly hammerless, as the hammer was simply concealed in the frame.

The M-1903 has a manual safety on the left side of the frame and was the first gun to be offered with a grip safety. Edges and corners were rounded and smoothed so that it was indeed easy to slip into one’s pocket, hence the model’s moniker.

4 thoughts on “Gun Collecting: The Colt Model 1903

  1. aimandsqueeze

    I own one of these fine pistols. Mine is a wartime (WWII) officer issue, my stepfather’s brother carried it and I inherited it. It has the “US PROPERTY” stamp on the right side of the slide, and has the wooden grip stocks with the forward facing horse logos, and has a VGC blued finish.

    I used to use it as a concealed carry until I learned its value. From what I learned, tracing a military issue pistol to the issuee increases its value, especially if the officer was a Colonel or General.

    I have fired this pistol many times and concur with the article’s assessment. I found that JHP ammunition (Hornady Critical Defense) tends to misfeed more often than FMJ, probably due to the angle of the bullet ogive, and the fact that the locked-in-slide barrel doesn’t tilt and reduce the effective angle of the feed ramp. However, it is a pistol I will keep forever.

  2. cobrajocky

    GOOD LUCK FINDING ANY PARTS!!
    I have a 1903 Pocket 38 ACP (1906), the large model and I haven’t been able to find any parts in 20 years! Typical parts that wear out – sear, mainspring, firing pin, extractor, etc. are either NOT available or when one shows up on sell boards the prices asked are absurd!

    If you buy one of these in 32, 380 or 38ACP, it have better be complete and in mint condition and then you better expect to virtually never shoot it more than a box of rounds a year, if at all. This is not a shooter piece, only a collectors wall hanger.

  3. bhp0

    Too bad Colt and others do not make high quality guns like this anymore. Today all we have is junk plasticky guns or MIM cast iron garbage. Contrary to popular gun writer propaganda. They could be made today at affordable prices with CNC technology but they would not bring in the obscene profits the plasticky garbage does.

  4. twfarley

    I have a rare beauty that is my favorite handgun. It was made in 1906 and is not only in high-90′s condition but, with the right ammo, can hit pins at 50 yards on a regular basis. The key is bullet weight. with 71 grain bullets it patterns like a full choke 12Ga. However, with 60 grain ammo the accuracy peaks to the point of amazement. I bought it because it flirted with me from the used gun case and I was smitten. Beauty, class and performance…. what more could you want in a small caliber pistol.

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