Unblinking Eye
                  The 1902 Colt Sporting and Military .38 Pistols


The 1902 Model Colt Automatic Pistol

by Ed Buffaloe

1902 Military & Sporting Models

Colt Model 1902 Automatic Pistol
Military Model (top) & Sporting Model (bottom)

The Colt Automatic Pistol 1902 Model was a direct evolution from the original Colt Automatic Pistol of 1900.  There are two distinct versions of the 1902, known as the Sporting and Military models. Like the original model of 1900, both the Sporting and Military model fired the .38 auto cartridge.

The Sporting Model

Colt’s considered the Sporting Model to be the same gun as the 1900, with improvements, which it was, since the same dies, jigs, tools and machining procedures were used to produce both guns and there was never an interruption in production. In fact, the name change from Colt Automatic Pistol to the Sporting Model did not occur until near the end of 1902, well after the Military Model had been introduced. Colt’s apparently decided to give the Sporting Model a distinct name to clearly distinguish it from the Military Model, but also in an attempt to distinguish it from the 1900 which had never sold well. However, collectors have always considered a Sporting Model to be any gun with a slide that was not machined to take the sight safety, no matter when it was made.  The gun continued to say simply “AUTOMATIC COLT / CALIBRE 38 RIMLESS SMOKELESS” on the right side.

The Sporting Model featured many of the changes requested by the U.S. military during their testing of the 1900 pistol, including elimination of the sight safety, checkered grips, front slide serrations, an inertial firing pin, and an optional hammer with no cocking spur. These features had already appeared on the model of 1900, except that the earlier slides had been milled for the sight safety and the slot where the safety went had to be filled to allow installation of a conventional sight.  Additionally, the gun was provided with a spring-loaded plug in the end of the recoil-spring housing to allow for field stripping without a separate tool.  However, the hole in the bottom of the frame to allow insertion of a tool continued to be part of the manufacturing process until late 1908.

The earliest 1902 model pistols were marked identically to the 1900 model on the left side:

PAT’D APRIL 20. 1897                     HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.       

Somewhere in the vicinity of serial number 5000 a second patent date was added:

PAT’D APRIL 20. 1897                   HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.    
SEPTEMBER 9. 1902                                                                           

Probably in late 1904, in the middle of the 7000 serial number range, the markings were simplified:

APRIL 20. 1897. SEPT. 9. 1902                    HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.           

Finally, in early 1906, in the low 9000 serial number range, Browning’s name was omitted, with his permission:

                                 PATENTED                 COLT’S PATENT FIRE ARMS MFG. CO.                
APRIL 20. 1897. SEPT. 9. 1902              HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.  

All of the Sporting Models were finished with Colt’s charcoal (or heat) blue process, which was done in a large coal-fired oven. Even the barrels were blued. Smaller parts were finished in a brilliant “fire blue.”

1902 Sporting Model

Sporting Model of 1902

Early magazines were nickel plated and stamped “PAT’D SEPT. 9. 1884” on the base plate. Between the 5000 and 6000 serial number range the magazines began to be blued. When all of the magazines with the patent date were used up (somewhere in the mid-8000 serial number range), they were issued with a plain base plate.

Early Sporting Models featured 16 square-cut “plunge-milled” slide serrations that tapered toward the top and bottom. The serrations were placed toward the front of the slide, per the request of the U.S. military.  Somewhere in the mid-8000 serial number range the slide serrations were changed to 19 triangular-cut serrations, and in the early 9000’s the serrations were moved back to the rear of the slide, where they had been on the earliest 1900 models.

Colt’s had developed a rounded spur-less hammer for the 1900 pistols to address complaints that the high spur on the early pistols made it difficult to see the sights, but they still had a lot of the original high-spur hammers left.  When the 1902 Model came out, Colt’s decided to install high-spur hammers on even-numbered pistols and round spur-less hammers on odd-numbered pistols until all the high-spur hammers were used up in the low-7000 serial number range. However, they were not completely consistent with this scheme.

Approximately 6900 Sporting Model pistols were produced. Production ended in July of 1907. 

Production Statistics for the Sporting Model


Serial Number Range (approx.)


4275 - 4900


4900 - 6400


6400 - 7700


7700 - 8800


8800 - 10100


10100 - 10999
30000 - 30190*

* Assembled from parts stock.

The Military Model

Browning 1902 Patent Drawing

Drawing from Browning’s 1902 Patent

By early 1902 Colt’s were chafing over the dismal sales of their first Colt Automatic Pistol of 1900, particularly in light of the sterling success of the FN Browning of 1899/1900.  The U.S. Ordnance Department and the Navy Department had both tested the gun and found it lacking for military purposes.  Colt’s eventually made all the changes requested by the Ordnance Department to the 1900 pistol, up to the point where major modifications of the frame were necessary--for this they created the Military Model of 1902.

The U.S. military wanted a longer grip, primarily to allow a man to get a better hold on the big gun, but a secondary advantage was that it would allow for an additional cartridge in the magazine. They also wanted a way to hold the slide open after the last round was fired, which would enable quick reloading without changing hands, and they wanted a means of field stripping the gun that did not require a tool of any kind. So John M. Browning designed a slide stop mechanism for the gun and modified the plug in the end of the recoil spring housing such that it could be pressed inward to take tension off the transverse bar that locks the slide to the frame.  These two changes were the subject of Browning’s patent #708794 of 9 September 1902. Finally, the military requested that a lanyard ring and swivel be installed on the pistol grip, which required that the bottom rear of the grip be squared, rather than rounded, to accommodate it.  The firing pins of the last of the 1900 models had already been modified so they did not protrude from the breach (a spring held them back), and were made of bronze rather than steel.  As noted above, this inertial firing pin design was used in both the Sporting and Military models.

1902 Military Model U.S. Army Contract

1902 Military Model
U.S. Army Contract Pistol

Colt’s had agreed to make the requested changes as early as March of 1901, but the new pistol was not ready until late in the year. On 16 December 1901 the pistol was examined by members of the Ordnance Board at the Springfield Armory; and on Christmas Eve, after additional magazines had been delivered, the gun was test fired using approximately 6,000 rounds.  The Board reported that “...no difficulty of any kind was experienced during the test,” and recommended that a number of the guns be purchased for further testing.  The Board met again on 11 January 1902 and allocated $4000 for the purchase of 200 of the Military Model Colts.

The first hundred guns, serial numbers 15001 through 15100 were delivered to Springfield Armory on 15 July 1902, and the second hundred, serial numbers 15101 through 15200, were delivered on 25 July. The pistols were issued in September to officers and enlisted men in the Second, Fourth, and Thirteenth Cavalry and the Eighth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Seventeenth field batteries stationed at Fort Riley and Forth Leavenworth in Kansas and at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri.

Military Model in Mexican Revolution

1902 Military Model in the
Mexican Revolution, 1911

The gun was supposed to be field tested for about six months, but a lack of ammunition caused the tests to be extended for an additional six months.  The gun was praised for its high magazine capacity, overall simplicity, good trigger, accuracy, and rapidity of fire, but the resistance to change in the conservative military men became evident in the faults found with the gun.  Criticisms were that it was impossible to determine if it was loaded by simply looking, liable to accidental discharge, hard to put on half-cock one-handed, poorly balanced, clumsy, unsafe, outright dangerous, etc., and the bottom line was “unsuited for issue.”  Additionally, due to experiences in the Philippine insurrection, many military men had come to the conclusion that .38 caliber guns have insufficient stopping power and that the minimum caliber suitable for military handguns is .45. These criticisms were passed on to Colt’s, which soon turned its attention to the commercial market and produced the .32 Hammerless Pocket Model of 1903, as well as the .38 Pocket Model.

The finish on the early Military Model was the same as on the Sporting Model--a mirror polished rich charcoal blue with the small parts fire blued. According to Douglas Sheldon, the finish changed color somewhat around 1915, and less polishing was done prior to the bluing process.  A dozen or so pistols were special ordered with nickel finishes, but nickel was never a standard offering. About 20 guns were special ordered with factory engraving, and another 20 or so with inscriptions. Hammers and lanyard loops were all case hardened. Early production pistols came with nickel plated magazines, but after a couple of years Colt’s switched to blued magazines. The same hard rubber grip pieces were used on both the Sporting and Military models--they just didn’t cover as much of the grip area on the larger Military model.

The hammers used were all the spur-less rounded “stub” hammer, up to somewhere in the 32000 serial number range. After that point, a low-spur hammer was used (which was also used on most of the 1905 .45 pistols).  The stub hammers and the first thousand or so low-spur hammers were hand checkered, with a neat line cut around the checkering. Later low-spur hammers had their checkering machine stamped.  Hand checkering was too time-consuming and expensive.

1902 Military Model

The slide lock on the early Military Models had a split lower section to tension it in its groove in the frame. The design of the slide lock was improved for the 1905 .45 pistols--the split was omitted and a small leaf spring was used to tension the lock. The last of the remaining split slide locks were used in the Military Models through 1907. The new locks appeared in the Military Model in the mid 15000 serial number range. After this point, the slide locks were standardized between the .38 and .45 pistol lines.  Very late in production, probably around 1927, the slide locks were changed to have a slightly larger surface area and were grooved instead of checkered. Only a couple of hundred of these grooved slide locks were made.

The lanyard was standard, but the gun could be special ordered without it. Left hand shooters often removed it after purchase.

Early production pistols (the first 3200, up to about serial number 12000) had a checkered pattern cut into the front portion of the slide in lieu of serrations. This was done in response to criticisms of the plunge-milled serrations voiced by the military men who had tested the 1900 model. Sometime early in 1906 the checkering was eliminated and Colt’s began using triangular cut “saw-tooth” serrations at the rear of the slide. (This took place at the same time as the .45 caliber Model 1905 pistol went into production with similar “saw-tooth” slide serrations.)

The right side of the slide was marked as follows:

                                                       AUTOMATIC COLT                                         MODEL 1902
                                                           CALIBRE 38 RIMLESS SMOKELESS

When the serrations were changed and moved to the rear of the slide, the “MODEL 1902” designation was dropped, and the gun was simply marked:

                                                                               AUTOMATIC COLT
                                                                                           CALIBRE 38 RIMLESS SMOKELESS

The left side of the slide was marked as follows:

PAT’D APRIL 20. 1897                   HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.    
SEPTEMBER 9. 1902                                                                           

Near the end of 1904 the patent dates were moved to one line, as follows:

APRIL 20. 1897. SEPT. 9. 1902                    HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.           

In early 1906 Browning’s name was eliminated:

                                 PATENTED                             COLT’S PATENT FIRE ARMS MFG. CO.     
APRIL 20. 1897. SEPT. 9. 1902                          HARTFORD. CONN. U.S.A.

Around 1918 the wording was further simplified:

                             PATENTED                                            COLT’S PT. F.A. MFG. CO.             
APRIL 20. 1897. SEPT. 9. 1902                                HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A.   

Starting in the 11000 to 12000 serial number range, Colt’s began stamping inspector’s marks on their guns, typically on the left side trigger guard bow.  Early examples may have the number 1, 5, or 6.  Later, Colt’s developed a Verified Proof mark consisting of the letters “VP” enclosed in a delta or upside-down triangle. Many examples are found with the VP mark and various letters or numbers stamped on the right or left side trigger guard.  See Sheldon’s book for additional information.

Magazines for the Military Model followed the same production sequence as the Sporting Model.  Early magazines were nickel plated, with “PAT’D SEPT. 9. 1884” stamped on the base plate.  Later the magazines were blued, and later still the patent date was eliminated.  Then, around 1916, in the 38000 serial number range the base plate was stamped “CAL.38 COLT,” and after a couple of thousand such magazines were produced the size of the letters was increased.

1902 Military Model U.S. Army Contract

1902 Military Model Field Stripped

Early production barrels were identical to those in the Sporting Model.  They were highly polished and then blued.  The width of the lands in the rifling was increased around 1915. In 1916, at the same time they began to stamp the caliber designation on the magazines, Colt’s stopped polishing the barrels before bluing. Only the visible breech and muzzle ends of the barrel were brightly polished.

Production ceased in December of 1928, with approximately 18,000 pistols produced.  Remaining inventories of the pistol were still being shipped as late as April of 1930.

Field Stripping the Sporting and Military Models

  1. It is not necessary to remove the magazine, but you should do so just to make sure it is empty. Clear the chamber.
  2. Press inward on the spring-loaded plug in the end of the recoil spring housing at the front of the gun.
  3. Tilt the gun to the left side and the slide lock bar should fall out.
  4. Cock the hammer and draw the slide off the rear of the gun.

Production Statistics for the Military Model


Serial Number Range (approx.*)



















































* The numbers given above are approximate. Colt’s did not assemble or ship guns in serial number order.

Copyright 2009 by Ed Buffaloe. All rights reserved.


A Collector’s Guide to Colt’s .38 Automatic Pistols, by Douglas G. Sheldon. Privately Printed: 1987.
Colt Automatic Pistols, 1896-1955, by Donald B. Bady. Fadco, Beverly Hills, California: 1956.
U.S. Military Automatic Pistols: 1894-1920, by Edward Scott Meadows. Richard Ellis Publications, Moline, Illinois:  1993.

Special thanks to Bill Gardner and Gus Cargile, who allowed me to photograph guns from their collections, and who also freely shared their knowledge of these rare early auto pistols.

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