Gun Collecting: The Colt Model 1903

Winchester’s 71-grain FMJ-FP delivered acceptable accuracy, but, for centered groups, I had to aim a little to the left.

Winchester’s 71-grain FMJ-FP delivered acceptable accuracy, but, for centered groups, I had to aim a little to the left.

Shooting the .32 ACP

While virtually all cartridges for semi-auto pistols are rimless, the .32 ACP (known in Europe as the 7.65 Browning Short), a truly unique round, is actually semi-rimmed. What rim there is, is a puny protrusion only .021-inch larger in diameter than the case ahead of the extractor groove.

Nevertheless, the round headspaces on the case mouth, just as do other semi-auto rounds. A curious quirk is that, with its tiny rim, the .32 ACP can actually be fired in most .32 revolvers, in a pinch.

Ballistics of the .32 ACP are lackluster. The standard 71-grain FMJ bullet at a nominal 900 fps produces only 129 ft.-lbs. of energy. To put this in perspective, at handgun velocities, the 40-grain .22 LR has about 72 ft.-lbs., the 50-grain .22 WMR has 126, and the .25 ACP (ironically, introduced three years after the .32 ACP) has 64 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. However, remember the earlier admonition about infection? You still didn’t want to get shot with any of them—and still don’t today!

S.A.A.M.I. maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .32 ACP is only 20,500 psi, out of deference to the relatively weak blowback pistols that are more than 100 years old. The round must still see some use, as almost all the major manufacturers make factory loads, including the traditional 71-grain FMJ bullet, plus some new expanding types from Federal, Speer and Hornady. I gathered up as many of these rounds as I could and headed to the range.

The little M-1903 is really fun to shoot, mild of voice and recoil is downright pleasant. Groups were fired at 10 yards and were in the 2½- to 3-inch range. Never mind that the point of impact and point of aim didn’t exactly coincide. At this defensive distance, it was well within minute-of-bad-guy.

Velocities of the 71-grain loads are rated at 900 to 905 fps, but only the Aquila ammo (which does not list a velocity on packaging) beat this, at 920 fps. The Winchester, CCI Blazer as well as Federal American Eagle 71-grain loads were 869, 848 and 822 fps, respectively. Hornady’s 60-grain XTP-HP, rated at 1,000 fps, clocked 851 fps. This dropped muzzle energy to 96 ft.-lbs. The Federal HydraShok fared a little better at 888 fps and 114 ft.-lbs. Be aware, however, that some guns refuse to cycle with these lightweight bullets, so, if you decide to use them, be sure and check for reliability with them.

Actually, if a stalwart citizen carries a .32 ACP pistol for personal defense these days, a good argument can be made for the use of ammo with 71-grain FMJ bullets. Penetration would be considerably better than the 60- and 65-grain hollowpoints, and, at these pedestrian velocities, their expansion may be a sometimes thing. Lastly, and although this is a minor point, the muzzle energy of the FMJ loads is about 12 percent greater than with the HPs.

The .32 ACP is one of the most popular cartridges ever designed and, even today, new pistol models chambered for it are available. But the little gun still does what it was designed to do and continues to command considerable interest from shooters, collectors and historians alike.

In the M-1903 and the .32 ACP, we have a classic example from an era that had a different approach and mindset to the concepts of personal safety. Thus, as long as law-abiding citizens are allowed to defend themselves with firearms against law-breakers, the Colt M-1903 will maintain its status as One Good Gun.

This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest 2014 Annual Book

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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.