Unblinking Eye
                             The 1903 Colt .38 Pocket Model

 

The 1903 Colt .38 Automatic Pocket Model

by Ed Buffaloe

.38 Pocket Model with .32 Pocket Model

1903 Colt .38 Pocket Model (top right)
1903 Colt .32 Pocket “Hammerless” (bottom left)

In an effort to make an automatic pistol that would be a commercial success, The Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company issued two new pistols in 1903. The first was the “Hammerless” Pocket Model in .32 caliber, which continued in production for 44 years and had sales in excess of 500,000.  The second was the .38 Automatic Pocket Model, which is often referred to by collectors today as the “1903 Pocket Hammer” to distinguish it from the “Pocket Hammerless,” and which had a production run that spanned 25 years but with sales of only about 31,000 guns.

The .38 Pocket Model was essentially a 1902 Colt Automatic Pistol, Sporting Model, with the barrel and slide shortened by one and a half inches, and was a direct descendant of the original Colt Automatic Pistol of 1900.  Colt’s wanted to expand their line of automatic pistols, and thought a slightly smaller version of their pistol chambered for the powerful .38 auto cartridge might sell. To call it a pocket model is a bit of a stretch, in my opinion, but it was certainly less unwieldy than its predecessors, and it was only a little larger than the .32 Pocket “Hammerless”.

Colt .38 Pocket Model of 1903Bady states that preparations for manufacturing the .38 Pocket Model probably began early in 1903.  The various internal lockwork components, sights, hammer, barrel fittings, grip, magazine release, slide lock bar and takedown mechanism were all identical to that of the Sporting Model.  “A substantial amount of the machining and secondary operations on the slide, frame and barrel are the same for both pistols; these parts were probably run on an alternate lot basis through the tool and machining setups.  Preparation of forging dies and special machining setups peculiar to the Pocket Model required a few months work.” The first guns were probably ready for sale by December of 1903.

Throughout the entire production of the .38 Pocket Model the right side of the slide was marked “AUTOMATIC COLT / CALIBRE 38 RIMLESS SMOKELESS”.  The markings on the left side of the slide mirror those of the 1902 Military Model, so I will not repeat them here.  The early guns had the spurless “stub” hammer (through 1908 and approximately serial number 24900), which was replaced with a spur hammer. The gun originally had 16 plunge milled slide serrations at the rear of the slide, but early in 1906 (in the mid-17000 serial number range) they were changed to 19 triangular cut serrations like those that have been used on Colt automatic pistols ever since.  There are a few other minor variations that are documented in Sheldon’s book.

Early & late slide serrationsThe original design of 1900 had a safety incorporated into the rear sight, but the design was flawed and Colt’s eventually dropped it.  They didn’t bother trying to retrofit another safety mechanism onto the .38 Pocket Model, and I believe that was detrimental to sales over time.  When the .32 “Hammerless” Pocket Model came out it had both a manual safety and a grip safety, and people were much more comfortable carrying it with a round in the chamber.  Neither gun had a mechanism for holding the slide open after the last round was fired.

After the introduction of the two pocket pistols in 1903, Colt’s attention turned to trying to obtain a lucrative military contract.  Soon after the .38 Military Model failed to win approval by the U.S. military, the U.S. Ordnance Department decided U.S. handguns should be at least .45 caliber and Colt’s had already begun development of the .45 auto cartridge. Future military guns were required to use the .45, so Colt’s and Browning focused on designing a .45 automatic pistol that would meet the requirements of the military.  Further development of .38 caliber automatics was shelved for 25 years. The Colt .38 Military Model and Pocket Model were both discontinued around 1928--John Moses Browning had just passed away in 1926--and a year or so later the .38 super cartridge was introduced and a version of the Colt 1911A was chambered for it.  The .38 Super cartridge is too hot to fire in the early Colt .38 automatics.

.38 Pocket Model with custom holsterI bought this old gun cheap because it was lacking grips.  I ordered some plastic reproductions from Vintage Grips, as well as some screws.  Vintage Grips makes a lot of grips but apparently no one there knows much about the old guns. They sent me the wrong screws twice, and didn’t have escutcheons for this gun.  The person I spoke with said they have two sizes of screws, and they just eyeball the grips and send the screws that look to be the right size. Then I ordered some screws and escutcheons from ColtParts.Com.  I was very careful to state that I needed screws and escutcheons for the 1903 Pocket Model .38, but I still received a screw, escutcheon, and nut for a 1903 Pocket Model .32. I ended up paying $40 for four escutcheons and slim brass screws with the wrong threads that were made for the .32. Then I cut the screws down to size and let the steel in the Colt frame cut new threads in the soft brass. At least now I have grips on the gun and can take it out and shoot it. I’m still looking for the correct screws and a set of original grips.

The magazine release is backward from modern pistol designs. You squeeze the lever to release the magazine. If you have a third-party magazine that doesn’t fit perfectly, you may have problems retaining the magazine in the grip. This is usually remedied by cutting a deeper groove in the back of the magazine, or by adding a small amount of metal just above the groove.

The trigger is stiff, but not creepy.  The angle of the grip is not as great as that on the 1903 Pocket Hammerless, and so the .38 Pocket Model does not point quite as naturally. There are no bells and whistles on the .38 Pocket Model--it is simply a reliable and accurate gun, like most of Browning’s designs.  Despite its age, my gun holds a pretty good two inch group at 10 yards and three inches at 20.  Recoil is negligible and the action functions flawlessly.

 

Production Statistics for the Pocket Model

Year

Serial Number Range (approx.*)

1903

19999-19900

1904

19900-18700

1905

18700-17400

1906

17400-16000
20000-20800

1907

20800-23100

1908

23100-24900

1909

24900-26400

1910

26400-28500

1911

28500-30700

1912

30700-32000

1913

32000-34200

1914

34200-35700

1915

35700-37000

1916

37000-38200

1917
1918
1919

38200-40700

1920

40700-43900

1921

43900-44100

1922

44100-45100

1923

45100-45400

1924

45400-45900

1925

45900-46300

1926

46300-46800

1927

46800-47226

* The numbers given above are approximate. Colt’s did not assemble or ship guns in serial number order.  Prior to 1916 the figures above reflect ship dates rather than production dates.

Five Shots on a Paper Plate at 10 Yards
2.25 inch group

Field Stripping the .38 Pocket Model

  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.

Copyright 2009 by Ed Buffaloe. All rights reserved.
Click the small photographs to open a larger version in a new window.


References

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.

 

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