Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Black Guns Before Black Guns were Cool - Colt Pocket Pistol Review

The pocket hammerless is another design by firearms legend John Moses Browning.  Manufactured by Colts's Manufacturing Company from 1908 to 1948,  it was originally said to have been presented to Colt Management before the turn of the century but they passed on it, allegedly in efforts to produce a larger caliber pistol that would help them secure a military contract.  Their loss was Grabrique Nationale de Herstal's gain as GN welcomed the design, producing Brownings self loading pocket pistol and the FN Model 100 both chambered for the Browning introduced .25 ACP (Automatic Colt pistol) cartridge.

The European market fell in love with it, a loss which was felt by Colt as their European sales took a hit. Colt wasted no further time in brokering a deal with Browning and FN to produce the handgun for US sales, marketing it as a small concealable firearm which could be easily tucked into a gentleman's vest pocket for discrete carry.
On June 19, 1903 Colt began shipping out their new Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless in .32 ACP releasing the Model 1908 in .380 ACP five years later as well as a smaller version in .25 ACP which is the Range weapon.  Many felt that the model 1908 was the first serious challenge to the reign of the 41 rimfire Remington Double Derringer as the preferred discreet gun for the ordinary and the infamous of  society.  

In military use, more than one was privately purchased during WWI and slipped in to the trench coat of the American Expeditionary Forces as a little extra protection as one slipped  into the enemy's Trench.  By the time WWII rolled around they were standard issue to General Officers of the US Army. General Dwight Eisenhower carried one, as did Patton and General Omar Bradley.

Although wildly popular in the United States, Colt ceased production after WWII, the machinery that made hundreds and hundreds of thousands of these firearms was wearing out, staff  was retiring.  A firearm that required a fair amount of hand fitting, Colt made the decision to let it slip from their catalog, the cost of reinvestment in equipment and personnel making the firearm too expensive for the average consumer.

But if Colt was no longer in love with the little Pocket Pistol, Hollywood still was.

If you've watched the Maltese Falcon you've likely noticed at least one version of the little Colt Pocket Hammerless.  It was a classic of old movies, and many modern ones.

A popular weapon of movie redheads, at least the kind that are "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way", Jessica Rabbit in "who Framed Roger Rabbit", had a Hammerless Pocket Pistol (though she filed the front sights off of hers). Another gold plated one showed up in the same film, carried by another character.   George C. Scott carried one in "Patton" and there are dozens of other films, many I've seen, and some I haven't ,where the firearm made its presence known, even today.

It's early on popularity in motion pictures was due to a number of factors.  In using blank rounds, the prop masters liked it because the .32 ACP blanks had a much lower decibel report when fired than the less reliable .45 ACP blanks so the technicians didn't have to fiddle so much  with the settings for sound levels between shot and speaking sequences.  Humphrey Bogart was said to prefer one as he had small hands and it made his hands look bigger, but rumor or truth, the forced perspective of the Colt's size would make the actors who carried them appear more threatening.   Additionally, the recoil of the .32 was mild, and easily managed with one handed shooting, the style of hold that was popular in earlier films.
Some of its history is more than movie myth, as Bonnie Parker taped one to her thigh and smuggled it to Clyde Barrow to help him escape from jail.

John Dillinger was said to have owned several and had one in the pocket of his pants the night he was shot in the alleyway next to the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Actor Johnny Depp carried one in his portrayal of Dilinger in the movie "Public Enemy".

Al Capone was known to have kept one on his night stand.

A lot of long retired cops  will remember carrying one of these for undercover work or as a backup gun. Others will remember confiscating more than one of these from criminals back in the day.
I like the looks of it, history notwithstanding.  Almost Art Deco in appearance, they are light and sleek  and easy to tuck into a pocket.   That made them quite successful for Colt when Americans were embracing larger calibers like .44's or .45's.  Those firearms were fine for the outdoors, but pretty hard to tuck discreetly away in polite society (the term of which is a misnomer, as if society was polite, you'd not need a firearm for self defense).

Accuracy:   The sight picture is small (think almost non existent).  The sights consist of a dimple on the rear of the slide leading to a trench down the length of the aforementioned slide.  A VERY teensy front site sits right at the front in the middle of the trench.  This isn't a pistol for winning pistol matches, but at 21-35 feet the accuracy is pretty good.though for self defense though it's a weak caliber.

Six rounds of .25? Well, that will annoy them., you say?  A few months after the Colt 1903 was out, American Rifleman gun review J.V.K. Wagar wrote that the Colt wasn't powerful enough for "defensive purposes against great bears or armed men of great virility".  Ouch.  Sure,  some would say it's better than a poke with a Phillips screwdriver but a couple well placed rounds of .25 WILL kill you.  I'm not saying it will be my carry piece, as more bad guys are fueled by meth, than by manliness. But .25, like .22 (below),  in the vitals can do some harm.  This was meant for an up in your face, NOW threat, not a distant one.
Recoil:  Surprisingly low for such a small pistol.  You can count on the still smarting fingers of your hand the number of small concealed carry pieces that don't snap at you for even attempting to fondle them.  The Colt 1908 has a bit of spice to it, but still it's manageable and the 1903 can be quite smooth so you can get those six rounds off really, really fast.

Capacity  - Six round box magazine, held in place with a heel based-clip

Length 4.5 inches (barrel is 2 inches)

Weight .81 pound.

Magazine Release - on the heal of the grip which took me a little getting used to.

Safety: Early marketing proclaimed the "advanced" safety features of the Model 1908, including a standard slide-locking safety catch and grip safety.  In 1916 Colt engineer George Tanley invented a third safety feature for the pistol, the magazine safety disconnector, which prevent accidental firing with the magazine removed.
The Home on the Range Colt is one manufactured after this additional safety  was added, based on its serial number and the change in inscription to:

COLT’S PT. F.A. MFG. CO. HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A.PAT’D AUG.25.1896.APR.20.1897.DEC.1903.JAN.25.1910.JULY 31.1917.

Unlike the grip safety of a 1911 pattern pistol, the grip safety on the Vest Pocket takes a deliberate forward flex of the web of the hand; which a few hands will find hard to get used to. The grip safety takes some definite pressure which is a good thing, as with the small size of the piece it's possible to get a finger in the trigger guard when trying to pick it up.

If you have big hands, you're going to have to make a concentrated effort to hold low on the grip or wear gloves, because the slide will come right on over the top of your hand and those little edges will bite.
As I said previously, the mag catch, heal style on the bottom rear of the gun, takes a little finesse (you know, as in starting a round engine takes a "little finesse"). With hands my size, I pretty much have to do the squeeze of death with the "how's my driving" finger around the grip and that's usually enough pressure to disengage the grip safety.

Loads:  Remember most modern ammo runs hotter than loads prepared back in the early 1900's with considerable advances in metallurgy and heat treatment during later years as well. If you are purchasing one of these that's had a regular and steady diet of hot ammo you may want to check the frame or slide for cracks. Corrosive primers back in the day could have also taken a toll and some degree of pitting of the barrel may be expected, which can range from lightly pitted to sewer pipe. Unless you're an expert, I'd recommend a gunsmith take a look at anything you are thinking of purchasing, even through these aren't terribly expensive firearms.

SA:  If you've been trained on double action or certain larger striker fired pistols, the  little Colt single action may take a little getting used to as you wait for the longer, heavier pull that's not going to happen (bang before you expect it, is never fun for either of you).
This is not a fixed barrel as you might expect. The barrel has a series of locking lugs under the chamber section of the barrel that hold it in place.  The slide lock on the Colt locks the breech open for cleaning, but not for field stripping. The later FN pistols have a second detent that allows the manual safety to hold the slide open at the correct location for field stripping.

Cleaning:  To field strip the pistol for cleaning, after removing the magazine and checking to make sure the firearm was completely unloaded, including the chamber, and it is not cocked for the dis-assembly.  Holding the gun in the left hand, push the slide back about 3/5 of an inch and hold it open with the left thumb. You should be able to see the barrel lugs line up with the slots inside the slide at the ejection port).  With the barrel lugs lined up with the slots in the slide, twist the barrel a quarter turn  (clockwise as if you face the front of the gun) and ease the slide and barrel off of the front of the frame.
But you're not going to be running this through any IDPA circuits, and it will be a fair bit of time before you get a lot of rounds through it, so a basic clean (remove the grips, pull the slide back and blast it out with some gun scrubber, let dry and generously re-oil and replace the grips), should work after firing a few rounds.

Finish - The "vest pocket" was primarily produced with the familiar, high polished lustrous colt royal blue finish, which had cover-casehardening of the safety catch, grip safety and trigger.  Another popular option was nickel place and a number of various specialty and customer special order finishes are out there, including gold and silver plating as well as very detailed engraving. There are three major variants of grip for the gun. The earliest grips were hard rubber, checkered, had the word COLT in a banner at the top of the grip, and the rampant colt over an elongated, stylized letter C below that. The second grip was identical except it eliminated the letter C behind the colt. In the 1920’s checkered wood grips were introduced that had the Colt medallion inset near the top. You will also see some collections that include special order grips that were available in pearl and ivory, either carved or plain.
Ergonomics:  You know those old Irish Spring commercials where somebody says "Clean as a Whistle". It's like that.

Customization:  Do NOT Pimp this gun. This is a classic best left alone, in my opinion. Commission yourself the world's tiniest but coolest holster instead.
Would I get get one if given the choice again?  As a carry piece it would not be my choice, but as a little bit of history that's fun to shoot or as a collectible, it's a nice little firearm for the price. The Colt 1903 and 1908 series were what is so hard to find today, a pocket gun that was made with the same quality of machine forged components, hand fitted and beautifully finished as their larger counterparts. I'm not saying that gun makers now no longer have pride in their craft, as they certainly do, but to keep a small gun priced accordingly, sometimes a bit of that attention to detail and quality of components can be sacrificed.

If you see one, have a gunsmith check it out first, for the issues we talked about or other items, that someone more knowledgeable than I would know to look for. But consider it. Just because this firearm is never going to be your Battle Mistress, doesn't mean it can't be a nice piece of history to hold on to.

This may not end up as one of those small concealed pieces you shoot a few rounds through at the end of your range session just so you can stay proficient with the stubby little son of a gun. You may find that you truly enjoy it; for it's challenge, and challenge builds confidence which carries itself to any situation you may find yourself in, even those higher caliber ones.

But seriously,  despite what Bonnie did with her pistol to free Clyde, don't tape it to your thigh.  It's not a look I'd recommend and fast draw hurts like a bitch.
 - Brigid

17 comments:

Keads said...

A most through review of a little storied pistol! Thanks!

Sunnybrook Farm said...

I never got a good look at Bogart's gun, thanks for the history lesson!

Daniel Watters said...

For what its worth, William Morgan Thomas of Union Metallic Cartridge probably had more to do with the nuts-n-bolts of the various ACP cartridges than Browning himself. "UMC" Thomas was credited with many of the popular handgun and rifle sporting cartridges of the late 19th and early 20th century, except for those originating at Winchester. Thomas' greatest hits include the .22 Long Rifle and .38 Special, and some suggest that he also designed the .45 Colt.

armedlaughing said...

My Dad's Dad had one - the .25 - (as his backup) when he was a RR cop (20's-50's), then my Dad acquired it.
He carried it in it's ubiquitous Hunter holster on many a fishing/hunting trip.
Sadly, my stepmom gave it to a family friend upon my father's passing.
I bought a beatup one just to have it, but it didn't have the same mojo. :-(

gfa

Everett said...

The Hardy Boys! My Mom bought everyone of those whenever a new one came out. I grew up reading those along with Louie LaMour(sp).

mikelaforge said...

Nice post. My little .25 is the Beretta 21 flip barrel. And the second shot on that will also surprise you.

Ed Bonderenka said...

My Dad had one brought back from the war, but he gave it to his brother.
I got to see it and hold it often enough to remember it.
His was .25.
Nice writeup.

The Red Dragon said...

Very nice piece of writing.

Skip said...

Terrific, Thanks!!
Now, Igottagetthat Igottagetthat.
Doomed I tell ya.

Old NFO said...

Great little piece of history! And a nice range report too!

Mathew Paust said...

I think Bogie brandished a 1908 occasionally in Maltese Falcon. He took Peter Lorre's away from him and then slapped him around a bit. "When you're slapped, you'll take it, and like it."

Vincent Kanowsky said...

Great Write-up!
Not a Colt mind you but a Baby Browning and two Rem 41 Derringers came my way through family ties. I have fired them all and they are the most un-ergonomic handguns I own!
I find my Taurus flip barrel 22LR to be better in all respects and just as handy to carry.

PPPP said...

I'm not sure I want to know, but that last line demands the question:

"And you know it hurts like a bitch, how?"

:-)

God, Gals, Guns, Grub said...

Great review... it' always amazing how much and how little has changed in gun design over the years...

Dann in Ohio

Windy Wilson said...

That last picture shows some vintage magazines that were heat-treated to help the feed lips be more durable and bend out of spec less. You can tell by the two-tone bluing.

Brigid said...

Windy Wilson - I did not know that. Thanks!

Rumbear said...

Great review!