Gun Collecting: The Colt Model 1903

The M-1903 was designed by John M. Browning and is a single-action blowback with an eight-round magazine in the grip. A thumb safety on the left side of the frame and a grip safety made the arm relatively safe for pocket carry, which aided its popularity.

The M-1903 was designed by John M. Browning and is a single-action blowback with an eight-round magazine in the grip. A thumb safety on the left side of the frame and a grip safety made the arm relatively safe for pocket carry, which aided its popularity.

My Model 1903

I stumbled across my Model 1903 via a multi-item trade with a good friend who always seems to have something interesting with which to tempt the unsuspecting gun writer. Being a handloader at heart, the deal clincher was that the gun came with a huge jar containing hundreds of once-fired .32 ACP cases!

While my M-1903 is a quaint little gun, it’s obviously somewhat of an amalgamation. Five major variations (some say four) of the M-1903 were made over its production life from 1903 to 1946, with a total of about 572,215 .32s produced.

In 1908, a version chambered for the .380 ACP was introduced, known as the Model 1908. This resulted in the production of another 138,010 guns. (M-1908s in .380 could be easily converted to .32 ACP, but not vice versa.)

My .32 ACP is a “Type III” specimen, made from 1910 to 1926, with some 363,046 guns being produced in that period. The Type III guns eliminated the barrel bushing and magazine safety of earlier versions. The minutiae of the numerous design changes over all the production periods have delighted Colt collectors for decades.

My gun’s magazine is original, marked “CAL 32 COLT,” but its spring has lost its zip and the last round or two sometimes fails to feed. Not to worry. If a gun has a spring problem, there’s only one place to call: Wolff Gun Springs.

This company makes every spring for the M1903 (and M1908), so I ordered a “Pistol Service Pak” (stock no. 69082). In addition to a five-percent extra-power magazine spring, this kit includes recoil, firing pin and extractor springs. I installed the magazine spring, and presto, the little gun now functions as good as new. (I’ll get to the other springs later.)

The serial number of my gun is 430501, indicating it was made in 1923. It has been nicely refinished with a uniform satin Parkerized finish reminiscent of Type V military guns. Might this mean that it was factory-refinished during the military production period? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting historical speculation on the “if this gun could talk” theme.

A hint of very light pitting is barely visible under the new finish at the right front of the slide and at the top of the frame above the trigger guard.

The rifling is pretty sharp, but the bore is a bit frosty. There is a slight bulge in the barrel about mid-way; obviously, at some point there was a barrel obstruction (perhaps a stuck bullet?), when a round was fired. Thankfully, functioning and accuracy seem unaffected. I have searched for a new replacement barrel, but to no avail.

In addition to the finish, my pistol’s stocks are not original. Guns made in 1923 had checkered hard rubber stocks. In 1924, they were changed to checkered walnut with medallions, one on each side, featuring the rampant colts oriented so that they faced forward on both sides.

In other words, there were two different medallions. In 1926, one medallion was used on both panels, so that the colts face left making them face the opposite way from each other side. This dates the stocks on my gun to that year or later.

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

    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.