Something remarkable happened at the beginning of the 20th Century. Semi-automatic magazine-fed handguns were still a fairly novel concept, but new designs were popping up constantly. This was the era that gave us such novel designs as the iconic American M1911, the German Luger, and Japanese Nambu. While some these designs would echo throughout the ages, others would be left behind, all but forgotten. One of those novel, virtually forgotten designs, born in the prohibition era of the United States was the Remington Model 51.
John Moses Browning may be the most famous firearms designer of the era, but, at least in his own estimation, a man named John Pedersen was more deserving of that honor. Though he collaborated with other designers (including Browning himself) on a series of successful guns, the Remington Model 51 is possibly Pedersen’s most successful design to reach full production.
Pedersen designed the handgun in 1917 for Remington which was looking to introduce a semi-automatic pocket gun to the United States, a market that was dominated by less expensive and more reliable revolvers. The result was at least somewhat commercially successful. Remington produced over 65,000 units. The U.S. military even took a look at the Model 51 as a combat handgun design before the outbreak of World War II. But with the introduction of cheaper and more reliable direct blowback designs, Model 51 production eventually wound down.
Like most designs of the time the Model 51 is sleek and streamlined. Since it was conceived as a pocket pistol the exterior was worked to be as smooth and snag-free as possible making the gun very comfortable in the hand. It sports a set of notch and post sights that have been drastically lowered to keep them from snagging on the owner’s pocket, to the point that they are basically nonexistent. To Pedersen, that wasn’t an issue. In his mind the gun was so ergonomic it was “self aiming.”
The gun’s ergonomics are enhanced by the way the safety works. There’s a frame-mounted safety on the side of the gun that’s annoyingly difficult to engage and disengage in a hurry. Pedersen, though, also included a grip safety similar the one Browning had on his 1911.
It was a design feature present on other self defense revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Safety Hamerless that had been on the market for decades. The Model 51’s safety, which comprises the entire back strap of the pistol, rests comfortably in the hand with no sharp edges. When depressed, it lines up smoothly with the rear edges of the grip.
Speaking of the grip, the Model 51 uses a smooth single stack magazine, again like the M1911 before it. The original 51 held seven rounds of .380 ACP ammunition in its comfortable grip. The slim magazine creates an extremely thin handgun, something that revolvers of the era couldn’t match for bulk and concealability. Also borrowed from the M1911 design was the mag release mechanism located on the left hand side of the grip. Bakelite panels attached to either side of the finish the look.
While the external design of the firearm is quite good, the internal components are what really sets this firearm apart. Instead of using a barrel-based short-stroke recoil system like most handgun of the time, Pedersen’s novel design kept the barrel fixed. The breech itself tilts to impart the momentum needed to carry the slide through the operating cycle. You can see a video of it in action here.
This novel operating mechanism makes taking down the gun for cleaning a, well, interesting experience. You need to remove a crossbar pin to unlock the barrel. The user then grips the end of the barrel and pulls it forward to unlock the mechanism and remove the slide. Thankfully, the barrel is grooved for this purpose, making it easy to grasp. From there, the internal mechanism can be removed by sliding it back and tilting it out, which allows the firing pin and the spring to fall free.
At first glance this might seem more complicated than necessary, but it enables a series of really innovative features.
Since the barrel doesn’t tilt, there’s no need for a separate guide rod for the return spring. Most semi-automatic handguns of the era used an under-over placement for the return spring that provided the forward pressure to chamber the next round. This increases the height of the handgun, and makes it a little harder to conceal in a pocket or holster.
By placing the recoil spring around the barrel the gun could be much thinner with an extremely low bore axis…an edge over the competition. It’s a definite advantage when it comes to concealed carry.
The second advantage: felt recoil. For a look at why that low bore axis is such a good thing, check out this article. In short, the original Model 51’s lower bore axis reduces felt recoil, making it softer shooting and allowing for quicker follow-up shots.
There’s no doubt that this is a slick design, but the real question is how well it performs on the range.
This Remington Model 51 is chambered in the more powerful (for the time) .380 ACP cartridge instead of the .32 ACP cartridge so many of its pocketable competition used. Again, the recoil is incredibly tame. It feels like you’re shooting a rimfire cartridge than the centerfire .380 ACP.
There’s a tiny bit of take-up in the trigger. After that, the break is crisp and clean. Once cycled, a short reset gets you back in firing condition. Something noteable in this design: there’s a tactile reset. You feel and hear a small “click” when the trigger is back in firing position. That removes all doubt about whether you need to release the trigger any further and discourages “short stroking” (where the shooter will try to pull the trigger again without fully resetting the gun).
Accuracy for this 90-year-old firearm, one that’s seen plenty of use, is surprisingly good. At the standard 15 yards I was grouping my shots in a roughly two inch square, which is combat effective for the majority of threats you’ll encounter in the real world. Pedersen may have been over-selling a little bit when he declared the gun “self aiming” but the original Model 51’s ergonomics make for excellent accuracy.
The Remington Model 51 may have been lost to history but for the efforts of a couple of Remington employees. Remington redesigned the firearm for the modern world and re-released it a couple years ago, with an updated model recently released. A review of that gun will follow soon.
Specifications: Remington Model 51
Caliber: .380 ACP
Operation: Pedersen Action
Magazine: 7 rounds
Street Price: $500
Ratings (out of five stars):
Fit, Finish, Build Quality * * * *
This particular gun definitely isn’t the best example of a Remington Model 51 out there, but even here the build quality is evident. This gun has been ridden hard and put away wet, but the action is still butter smooth and the trigger is crisp and clean. The machining on the parts keeps everything fitting tightly.
Accuracy * * * *
For a pocket pistol with tiny sights the gun isn’t half bad. Two inches at 15 yards is nothing to sneeze at in the compact handgun world, even among modern firearms.
Function * * * * *
Works every single time. The action is smooth and the recoil is light.
Customize This –
It’s been about 80 years since there has been a need for aftermarket options. You can get some replacement parts but that’s about it.
Overall * * * *
I have a soft spot in my heart for old and interesting guns. The original Model 51 fits both categories. The gun is a work of mechanical art. The inner workings of the handgun are fascinating, and their impact on the size and function of the firearm are definitely beneficial. It’s a shame that direct blowback guns like the Walther PPK swooped in not too long afterward to capture the pocket gun market. I would love to see what this gun could have been in a .45 ACP configuration.