The Surprisingly Modern Colt 1903
By Joel Kolander
At the 2015 Shot Show in Las Vegas there was the usual hullabaloo around a lot of new guns and gadgets, and rightly so. For those unfamiliar, Shot Show is basically the Detroit Auto Show of the gun world. It’s on par with the biggest industry shows in the country: E3, CES, Comic-Con, NRA Convention, etc. Annually, new stuff gets unveiled before throngs of both the passionate and the curious. However, one little pistol stuck out at Shot2015 that was not the usual piece of innovative technology. In fact, its roots go back over 100 years. Needless to say, the presence of a Colt Model 1903 “General Officer’s Pistol” surprised more than a few people.
Also known as the 1903 Pocket Hammerless, even though they possess a shrouded hammer, these classy little pistols are perhaps more at home in today’s world of concealed carry options than most folks recognize. Here’s how it compares side-by-side with the Glock 43, arguably one of the most anticipated handguns in recent memory.
Glocks are frequently heralded for their utilitarian nature, but at over one century old, the Colt still holds its own. In addition to the comparable dimensions, the 1903 has something else going for it that newer pistols simply cannot match: history.
Designed by John Moses Browning and initially called Model M by Colt, these “hammerless” pistols were made for over four decades (1903 – 1945) with approximately 572,215 entering civilian production and 200,000 more for the military. They were immediately popular with the public, and approximately 10,000 were sold in the first year. Even though production stopped in 1945, so many parts had been produced that they continued to be assembled until 1953, and were issued to general officers in the Army and Air Force as late as the 1970s. These totals include all five variations of the 1903. The Model 1908 was a nearly identical pistol in .380 ACP that differed only in chamber/bore size and magazine capacity. The larger round of the Model 1908 meant that only 7 rounds could fit in the magazine, but the new cartridge, developed by John Browning for the Colt 1908, could not compete with the popularity of the .32 ACP that had been in production since 1899. Only 138,000 Model 1908 pistols were sold retail and an unknown amount were made for military contracts.
The smooth lines and relative small size, compared to other early semi-autos, made the Model 1903 a hit with good guys and bad guys alike. Besides being issued to general officers in the military the pistol also saw service with the Shanghai Municipal Police (M1908) in the 1920s and 1930s, including by noted knife fighter, secret agent, commando, and all-around dangerous guy, William Fairbairn. Pistols used in Shanghai are clearly marked as such and are likely to have seen heavy use given the infestation of crime the city during the early 20th century. Perhaps it was Fairbairn’s positive experience with the Model 1908 that led to its use by both the OSS, a precursor of the CIA, and the British SOE, both organizations that greatly valued Fairbairn’s covert contributions. George Patton was also known to own a 1908 Pocket Hammerless.
However, the same advantages that made it so desirable to many police departments, including the NYPD, also made it popular among criminals of the day. Bonnie Parker of “Bonnie & Clyde” infamy had two with her the day they were gunned down in their V8-powered Ford. John Dillinger, despite his affinity for .45 caliber weapons, and a well-known quote of, “Never trust a woman, a district attorney, or an automatic pistol,” was photographed wearing a Model 1908 and was killed with one on his person.
At Shot Show 2015, Colt had a Model 1903 at their booth. There was no grand reveal, no unveiling, hype, or fanfare. Just a pistol displayed under glass and one being shown by one of the creators in the massive Colt booth. The full story is that Colt contracted U.S. Armament Corp to make a licensed copy of the 1903 pocket hammerless general officer’s pistol. This U.S. Armament Corp is the same organization that made exact replicas of the Colt Model 1877 “Bulldog” Gatling gun several years back. Not only are the Gatling guns gorgeous with their highly polished brass and walnut, the reproductions are said to be so exact that parts of the originals and the reproductions are said to be interchangeable. That’s the kind of precision and attention to authenticity U.S. Armament brings to the table when reproducing the Colt Model 1903 pistols. (Note: According to USAC, the parts of the new pistols may or may not fit the original Colt pistols because many of the original Colt pistols were hand fitted, as are the parts for the reproductions. Sometimes, even original parts don’t properly fit on original guns.)
That said, the guns are reproduced with most of their imperfections. The grip safety that some users found difficult to activate appears in its original form. The right-handed, manual safety that offers no tactile or audible feedback, yet is easy enough to use, is still a simple checkered lever with a smooth pivot. The small sights, curiously prevalent among guns of that period, have not been enlarged. No push button magazine release has been added, so the original heel release must be used. Also since the Model 1903 pre-dates the 1911, the slide does not lock open on the final shot, nor is there accompanying slide release for such a feature. Those wishing to carry this gun as an alternative to modern concealed carry options will be pleased at the authenticity, but may also wish to consider the lack of many common and desirable features.
The only true downside to the reproduction of these once popular little pistols will be the limited run. initial reports after Shot Show 2015 were that 2,500 of these pistols were going to be produced, 500 of which would be GO-issued pistols. A quick call to USAC reveals that those numbers have been updated. Now, a total run of 3,500 pistols will be produced. 2,500 will be parkerized general officer’s pistols, and 500 of those will be “presentation” models with serial number duplicates to those issued to specific U.S. Generals, deluxe presentation cases, and information on that specific general. It is likely that those serial numbers issued to the most famous generals (Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, etc) will likely be donated or presented. The remaining 1,000 pistols are going to be shipped in the white to Colt’s Custom Shop where they will undoubtedly get any number of special grips, finishes, engravings, and inlays. Also disclosed at Shot Show was the base price of $1,395. In comparison, original models of the 1903 and 1908 in our December auction have low estimates ranging from $800 – $6,500. Those guns will be shipped with one mag in the military style kraft boxes, with wax pencil serial numbers on the box to boot. Model 1908 pistols will come later (likely 12 – 18 months out) with a limited production run of approximately 5,000. Before you can ask: no, Colt Pythons reproductions are not planned at this time despite the immense number of requests for the wheelgun.
New Info on the New Model
What has not yet been discussed or divulged is the possibility of USAC producing a special “OSS Presentation” version of the pistol. This gun would likely receive its own presentation case and some OSS related goodies, but would also be able to accept a suppressor! USAC says that the suppressor (as of this writing) would likely be outsourced, but the pistol itself would involve a longer, threaded barrel produced in-house. As if a popular old gun receiving its due renaissance isn’t cool enough, USAC will potentially take it one step further by giving a very visible modern nod to the pistol’s clandestine past. That is one idea that this writer personally hopes makes it all the way into final production, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Timeline for such a piece would be roughly 12 – 18 months.
Speaking of timelines, I spoke with Jake Nyman, Vice President of USAC, with a few clarifying questions regarding these reproductions. Of course, one of the questions I asked was if the timeframe for the 1903 was still correct. He gave details of the production that are perhaps not what people anticipate. His answer was that a run of 3,500 guns is still anticipated (though an extension of the license with Colt may be sought for the aforementioned “OSS version”). However, the way he answered it communicated that these guns are not being “released” en masse like the latest iPhone. There is no set “release date.” These guns are being carefully hand-fitted and will take time to produce. With some very recent hiring at USAC to build these guns more quickly, rate of manufacture should ramp up to about 100-120 guns per month, meaning about two more years of production. For those wondering, yes, that means these reproductions are already being sold.
On a side note, the original Model 1903 pistols are said to lack a mechanical firing pin safety and can discharge if dropped hard enough on its muzzle or rear of the slide. The inertia of such an drop has been known to whip the firing pin forward and touch off a chambered round. This is also the alleged reason for Fairbairn not permitting the Shangai Police to carry with a round in the chamber. Since USAC is known for their dedication to authenticity and accuracy in these reproductions, I asked Mr. Nyman about this design flaw and whether improvements had been made or they stayed 100% true to the old design.
Jake gave an answer that showed a little of each was taking place. A firing pin safety had not been added to the pistol design in order to maintain authenticity, but he did assure me that the sear and hammer pockets were deepened to prevent the accidental discharges. He said, “We and Colt have put this pistol through every drop test you can imagine,” with no experienced failures.
Models Appearing in Our 2015 December Auction
It should come as no surprise that the reason we decided to write about these sleek little pistols, in addition to their surprising modern relevancy, is the amount of exceptional examples in our upcoming 2015 December Premiere Firearms Auction. One collection, that of Ralf Eyster, focuses entirely on these pistols. Here are a few of the highlights appearing in this sale.
Not only are Model 1903 and 1908 pistols still relevant today, they basically set several standards upon their introduction. Their ability to be concealed and streamlined shape gave them practicality beyond their years. The popularity of the gun and its early appearance in the lifetime of semi-automatic pistols, made its design virtually the definition of how a pistol “should” look, especially in TV and movies. It was seen in early Dick Tracy comic strips (and the 1990 movie) and in the hands of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” It quickly turned into an “every pistol” and is a highly under-recognized accomplishment in the John Moses Browning design portfolio. They provide great alternative for someone who wants to concealed carry, but might not appreciate the aesthetics or lack of history of modern pistols.
Luckily, there is no shortage of either of these pistols in our upcoming 2015 December Premiere Firearms Auction. Likewise, there is also an excellent assortment not only of the 1903 and 1908, but also the 1908 Vest Pocket, and a splendid smattering of other early Colt semi-automatic pistols. Please click any of the links below to view the full selection. You can place bids directly on our website or just peruse the various roles that these guns filled through their four working decades. Whether you choose buy an original Colt, a licensed reproduction, or just look, be sure to do it fast, because the popularity of these little guns seems to be catching on quickly.
Click here to view all Model 1903 & 1908 pistols in the 2015 December auction
Click here to view the Ralf Eyster Collection
-Written by Joel R. Kolander
Ayoob, Massad F. Massad Ayoob’s Greatest Handguns of the World. Vol. II. Iola, WI: Krause, 2012. Print.
…and a big thanks to Jake Nyman for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions!