Gun Review: 1903 Colt Automatic .32 Hammerless Pistol
Pretty Woman is a fabulous movie. A hooker with a heart of gold and no social diseases? Well grow my hair and call me Rapunzel. One of Pretty Woman’s most mythic moments: when Edward Lewis introduces Vivian Ward (a.k.a. Sugar Lips) to opera. “People’s reactions to opera first time they see it is very dramatic,” Eddy intones as the lights go down. “They either love it or they hate it. If they love it they always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” I feel the same way about guns. The moment I cast my eyes on the Colt Automatic Pistol, Pocket Model, Caliber .32, Hammerless, I knew I’d found my funk soul brother. Check it out now . . .
The Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless is not hammerless. The hammer is actually shrouded. I said, the 1903 doesn’t have a . . . oh forget it. Why bother with technical analysis or Bonnie-busted-out-Clyde-with-this-gun historical trivia when you can click and clock John Browning’s genius.
You don’t need me to tell you that the 1903′s design is as classic as the original Coke bottle: both of its time and timeless. Scope those elegant lines and perfect proportions. Like a Michelangelo sculture, you couldn’t add or subtract a thing. Like an Alden Bristol sailboat, the 1903 affirms the old adage “if it looks right, it is right.”
The 1903′s details are equally subtle, similarly beguiling. Colt manufactured our test model model in 1921, three years before the company started selling the standard weapon with contrasting walnut grips. This gun’s high-tech (for the time) Bakelite grips are monochromatic masterpieces that say “I was a black gun before black guns were cool.”
The Colt name embedded therein is sized appropriately, framed within the checkering, aligned with the bottom of the trigger guard. The rampant horse rears up on both the bottom of the grip and the left rear corner of the slide, where it’s etched with infinite care. Form follows function—with style!
Which brings us to the 1903′s once and future utility.
Those of you who worship on the altar of “stopping power” will dismiss the 1903 as an antique piece, less suitable for self-defense than a nearby table lamp. An eight-round .32? Yeah that’ll annoy ‘em. In this you are not alone. A few months after the Colt 1903 first saw the light of day, American Rifleman gun reviewer J. V. K. Wagar wrote that the Colt wasn’t powerful enough for “defensive purposes against great beasts or armed men of great virility.”
Fair enough on the beast front; I’m told that bears take some killing. As for armed assailants, today’s bad guys are more likely to be motivated by methamphetamine than manliness, and that’s not a good thing. But I would disagree with Mr. Wagar and latter-day proponents of the big ‘n fast school of terminating terminal ballistics who reckon the 1903 isn’t up to the job of personal protection.
Not all armed antagonists are indefatigable zombies that need to leave a good portion of their fetid brain matter dripping down a wall before they’ll end hostilities. In real life, a few rounds of carefully placed hollow-point .32s will de-motivate all but the most virile of men. Granted, there are 300-pound drug and adrenaline-crazed homicidal maniacs who can Mike Myers their way through a hail of lead to axe your ass. But are you preparing for the worst case scenario or the most likely assault?
If you’ve got an Armageddon mindset, well, fair enough. Get thee to a higher caliber. Follow Clint Smith’s dictum that a self-defense gun should be comforting, not comfortable. Muzzle Tov! If, however, you place carrying comfort, accuracy and speed over simple caliber considerations, this 89-year-old Colt 1903 is as good a self-defense gun as anything its size.
Needless to say, I’m cheating. There isn’t a similarly-sized, latter-day .32. No modern gunmaker would try to sell a 24-ounce .32 caliber carry gun with a 3 1/4″ barrel to a market hooked on palm-sized plastic pistols holding a plethora of 9mm bullets, or an octet of .45s. But the jacket-pocket-compatible Colt’s configuration offers two important advantages that give it modern relevance.
First, extremely low recoil. You can count on the fingers of one stinging hand the number of small concealed carry guns that don’t punish your paw for daring to fire them. Even the Colt 1908—the seven-shot .38 caliber variant of this design—is a bit “peppery” in action. The Colt 1903 is as smooth as silk. And that means you can fire eight rounds through the Colt 1903 really, really fast. Here’s Wayne from The American Firearms school, doing to do.
As you can now imagine, dry firing the Colt 1903 offers only a marginal improvement in the muzzle flp department. And this is where accuracy comes into the mix. Not only can you fire the 1903 quickly, but you stand an excellent chance of hitting what you’re aiming it; albeit using some of the smallest iron sights ever fit to a handgun (snaglessness has its price).
In the video directly above, Wayne was aiming, obviously. But I can assure you that the 1903 has the kind of point-and-shoot accuracy that’s more than welcome in real world combat, where you just might forget to line-up your shots. Or run out of time to do so. Or find yourself firing from the floor with your weak hand with blood pouring out of a brand new orifice. Or throwing the gun to someone who doesn’t know jack about guns and sights and Mr. Weaver’s stance.
Last but by no means least, there’s reliability. My man Solomon recently reviewed a box-fresh Springfield EMP which displayed not one but two egregious failures to fire. So much for bigger bullets. In contrast, I shot over 500 rounds through this 1903 without one problem. Not one. And 300 rounds through another 1903 with similar results. Would I bet my life on an 89-year-old Colt? Yes, I would.
With pleasure. And that, for me, is what seals the deal. The 1903 is an extremely pleasurable gun to fire. It’s not one of those small(er) concealed carry guns you take to the range and shoot at the end of your session just ’cause you have to maintain proficiency with the little snub-nosed bastard. It’s one of those guns you handle with, dare I say it, love.
And that builds confidence—one of the best things you can take into a gun fight. I’m not saying that everyone would feel confident carrying a 1903 Colt Hammerless .32 Pistol, or using it in most concealed carry self-defense situations. (I could see where a target’s heavy winter outerwear would be a problem.) I’m saying I would.
The fact that the 1903 is a gorgeous weapon favored by historically-significant gun-slingers (Al Capone, General George S. Patton) is neither here nor there. You can have your original Colt boxes and authentication papers. Just give me a mint condition Colt 1903, a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition and some quality time on the range. Done.
If you’re interested, find one (Colt manufactured over 530k of them) and try it. If you don’t like the Colt 1903 after the first shot, well, allow me to paraphrase the Archie Bunker conservatives of the 1970′s. The Colt 1903 Hammerless Pistol. Love it or leave it.
[Thanks to Steven Fusco at Estates Unlimited for loaning us both of his personal 1903s]
Magazine Capacity: 8
Overall Length: 6″
Barrel Length: 3″
Weight: 24 ounces
Sights: Fixed, rear half-moon, front peg
Muzzle Velocity (factory stats): 950 ft./sec.
Price: Approx. $1000 for mint condition example
Style * * * * *
One of the best examples of anti-style style extant. John Browning’s rep is well-deserved.
Ergonomics * * * * *
Loads, racks and shoots like a pair of sharp scissors, if you know what I mean. No fuss, no muss.
Reliability * * * * *
Not a hitch, not a glitch in 500+ rounds—in a nearasdammit 90-year-old gun. Do they still make ‘em like they used to?
Don’t you dare. You’ll even have to commission a holster.
OVERALL RATING * * * * *
You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul.
NOTE: I’ve read one story (perhaps apocryphal) where a 1903 owner dropped his gun, shot himself and died of his injuries. While the 1903 has a grip safety, I’d recommend leaving the chamber empty when carrying.