Old guns remain some of my very favorites. I love shooting any gun, but the level of satisfaction I get from a classic pistol will always top what I get from the latest Glock clone. I’ve never owned a Colt, but a recent auction presented me the opportunity to get hands-on with a Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless. This specific model represents a Type 1 example from 1905. The Colt Pocket Hammerless series went through numerous models that varied by different types. There are five types in total.
Type 1 guns like you see here featured a 4-inch barrel, but later models would sport a 3.75-inch barrel. Type 1 guns also featured a separate barrel bushing and lacked a magazine safety. The M1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol was designed by John Browning. Browning was selling pistols across the world at this point with contracts with both FN and Colt.
I picked this gun up for an absolute steal. Sure the finish is rough, and one of the grips is slightly broken, but the gun has a great bore and is mechanically nearly perfect. I was incredibly excited to pick it up and hunt down a few boxes of .32 ACP.
The M1903 – Classic Features and Ergonomics
In 1903, the automatic pistol was still fairly new. Most of the world was sticking to their six guns, but the automatic handgun was catching fire. Guns like the Colt M1903 laid the groundwork for the firearms we have today. You can certainly see how Browning developed the 1911 by looking at the M1903.
The name Pocket Hammerless is a bit of a lie. The gun has a single action-only hammer, but it’s hidden. Colt marketed the gun for concealed carry firearms, and Pocket Hammerless was part of that marketing. No one wants their hammer getting caught in their jacket pocket while drawing their firearm.
The weapon features two safeties. One is a thumb-operated, frame-mounted safety that sits on the left side of the gun. The second is a grip safety, much like the M1911s. Later, Pocket Hammerless types would incorporate the always-useless magazine safety as well.
The manually operated safety is textured and somewhat easy to operate. It does sit rather tight to the frame, and it’s easy to miss when sweeping it on safe. Luckily, sweeping it off safe is easy and likely more important. The manual safety also doubles as a way to lock the slide open, although the gun does not have a last-round bolt hold-open function.
A heel magazine release plagues the gun, but it was common at the time. While simple and effective, swapping magazines is rather slow and cumbersome.
Svelte and Thin
Everything about the Colt M903 Pocket Hammerless is svelte and smooth. The grip is quite thin and fits well in your hand. Much like the M1911, the grip angle is just perfect. It feels natural and is just long enough for my entire hand to sit comfortably on.
The slide features some rear serrations, and it doesn’t take much effort to pull the slide rearward and charge the weapon. Pulling back the slide is a wonderful feeling, and the gun has this unbeatable smoothness. The very thin, lithe nature of the weapon does make it seem like a great coat pocket gun.
While it seems large for today’s users, it’s essentially the same length and height as a Glock 19 but much thinner. We joke that there is nothing new in the gun world, but the M1903 Pocket Hammerless is the Glock 48 of its time. Little guns have always been tough to shoot, and big guns have always been tough to conceal. Guns like the M1903 Pocket Hammerless and the Glock 48 are a compromise in both directions.
Colt At the Range
This will never be a gun I torture to test. It’s old and retired. Now it’s just shot for fun and not much else. I took out some basic Fioochi and Remington ammo and hit the range running. The little single-stack magazine holds eight rounds of ammo and is very easy to load.
What first caught my attention was just how lovely this gun is to shoot. The recoil is barely anything and is closer to a .22LR than a .380 ACP. It’s soft, with a little push and the slide seems to be moving almost slow enough to grab. There is no pressure or pain, no slide or hammer bite. Just a pleasurable, soft shooting gun.
The grip safety is well-worn and doesn’t take much pressure to deactivate. It glides right on in and is easily forgotten about. The manual safety can be thrown off in a flash and sits nice and out of the way while firing. While a two-handed, thumbs-forward grip wasn’t in vogue at the time of the gun’s design, the modern grip doesn’t cause problems or shooter discomfort.
Easy To Shoot – Hard to Aim
While the gun is soft shooting, it’s tough to aim. You often hear the phrase, “You won’t see your sights in a gunfight!” Well, that’s probably true with the Colt M1903. Like most guns of its era, the sights seem like an afterthought. They are very small, and there is no contrast between the front and rear sight. Sometimes it’s tough to tell if they are aligned or not. Patience is a virtue, and a good slow-fire cadence is welcome.
When I really take my time, I can put those rounds wherever I want them. The gun does shoot straight. It just doesn’t make it easy to shoot straight. If you’ve ever fired a 1911, you know what to expect from the trigger. It’s smooth and light with a great reset. That single-action-only hammer-fired design has yet to be replicated.
For a gun made in 1905, you’d expect it to start choking. Rather, this gun chewed through all 150 rounds I had without much issue. Sure, that’s not a ton of ammo, but it’s an old gun.
There is something very satisfying about ringing a steel gong with a .32 ACP. I passed the FBI’s current handgun qual. Well, mostly, I didn’t draw and started from the low ready. I felt like a real Junior G-Man on the case trying to track Capone down. The Colt M1903 Pocket Hammerless might sit in the shadow of its little brother, the M1911, but it has an interesting legacy.
Police organizations like the NYPD and Boston Police Department adopted the weapon, as did the Shanghai Municipal Police. Generals carried them until the 1970s, and the OSS even issued weapons to European agents. Lord knows where this specific M1903 has gone, but I bet it’s lived a rich life in its 117 years on this earth. If you get a chance ever to handle or shoot a Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, I’d suggest you do it.
They don’t make them like this anymore.