Colt’s 1903 Safety Hammerless is Back!

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms, News

A handgun that saw much action from its introduction to the end of the Vietnam War was the Colt 1903 Safety Hammerless. Just the right size for comfortable carry, reliable, and more accurate than most any handgun in its class, the Colt was a remarkable handgun on all accounts. The pistol was offered in both .32 ACP and as the 1908 .380 ACP. It seems that the .32 ACP was the most popular. Colt has seen fit to recreate and reissue among the most interesting handguns of all time- yep, the Colt 1903 Safety Hammerless.

Colt 1903 on OD green bag with red WWII book

The Colt is suitable for collecting or shooting and isn’t made under the dome at Colt, but by US Armament Corporation. This is a licensed Colt or perhaps even a Colt Brevet. The original pistol, introduced in 1903, was well received by a public wishing to own a flat and easily concealable handgun. But the Colt was also reliable, accurate, and more powerful than the common .32 caliber pocket revolver.

The .32 ACP cartridge pushes a 71-grain bullet at well over 900 fps. Penetration is adequate and the cartridge is certainly deadly, if not ideal, for personal defense. Colt made the pistol for 42 years and over a half-million left the Colt factory. The Model M was wielded by Humphrey Bogart in the cinema and was the pistol used by Dick Tracy in early comic strips and the 1990 movie. It was a favorite hideout of New York City cops and thugs of all stripes as well. The Colt 1903 was issued to American Generals as the General Officer’s Pistol. The initial offering of the Colt 1903 is a replica of the General Officer’s Pistol.

The Colt 1903 isn’t as famous as the larger Colt 1911. Yet, the Colt 1903 was involved in quite a few actions. It was used by the Shanghai police. Japanese officers purchased it in quantity before World War Two. (I would rather have the Colt .32 than the Nambu—the 8mm Nambu is clumsy in comparison and only slightly more powerful in practical terms.) A flat light and reliable handgun goes places a larger handgun doesn’t.

Colt 1903 pistol with Fiocchi 7,65 Browning bullets

The Colt 1903 proved accurate and reliable with Fiocchi loadings.

Compared to the modern miniature .32 automatic pistols, the Colt 1903 is much easier to handle well and more accurate. The Colt 1903 is accurate enough to place K zone hits on a man-sized silhouette to 25 yards. In short, while light and compact, the Colt 1903 was as reliable and accurate as a service pistol. The pistol isn’t a true hammerless handgun but the Colt Pocket Hammerless is a concealed hammer handgun. The slide rides over the hammer, making for a snag free handgun.

The pistol weighs 24 ounces empty. The Colt 1903 is 6.75 inches long, 4 3/8 inches high, and less than one-inch wide. The barrel is 3.75 inches long. The caliber is .32 Automatic Colt Pistol. (7.65mm Browning.) The pistol uses a heel based spring-loaded magazine catch to retain the 8-round magazine. The 1903 is a straight blowback action. This type of action isn’t possible with more powerful handguns but works fine with this Colt. The pistol features precision crafted barrel lugs for lockup. The Colt 1903 pioneered the Colt grip safety and slide lock safety later used on 1911 handguns. The grip safety works differently than the 1911, with the primary pressure delivered to the bottom of the grip safety.

The reproduction Colt is supplied with a nice even parkerized finish and checkered wooden grips appropriate for the time period when the pistol was issued to General Officers. Fit, finish, quality control, and attention to detail are excellent. The sense of history and emotional attachment might drive a Colt collector to weeping! Period correct proof marks and the U.S. Property Stamp are well done.

The Colt 1903 .32 compared to a Colt 1911 .45.

The 1903 .32 compared to a 1911 .45.

As for shooting characteristics the pistol, not surprisingly, was faultlessly reliable. Initial work was done with the Fiocchi 71-grain 7.65mm Browning (.32ACP) load. The piece was properly lubricated. Then, the 8-round magazine loaded and the slide racked smartly. There were no failures to feed, chamber, fire, or eject.

The small sights limited accuracy. Using shooting glasses and concentrating upon the sight picture, excellent groups were fired from the benchrest. Two and one-half inch, 5-shot groups (or a bit smaller) were the norm at 15 yards. Neither quality nor function may be faulted. I also fired a single magazine of the Winchester Silvertip hollow point. Function was good. While primarily a collector’s piece—and expensive with a MSRP of some $1400—the Colt 1903 could serve as well as ever as a protection piece. If you are a Colt collector or anyone that appreciates a finely made firearm, the new Colt 1903 is a worthwhile investment.

Are you a collector? Where does the Colt 1903 rank on your top handgun list? Share your opinions in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (19)

  • BRUCE ORTIZ

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    I have a 380 1908 model in high polish chrome and 18k gold (mag release, ejector, safety grip, safety slide lever, trigger, and barrel button). Grips are laminated walnut and Ash. Two original (chromed mags) Operates like new! I was given the gun by a little old lady who sold me my first car fifty years ago, at age 15. Her husband had deceased, and she just wanted to get rid of it.. Nice collectible that I enjoy very much.

    Reply

  • g

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    This pistol (original or reissue) was not introduced at the end of the Vietnam War, as the article states in the first sentence. Someone needs to fix that.

    Reply

    • L

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      ….from it’s introduction to the end of the Vietnam war. Reread to sentence. Does not say that it was introduced at the end of the Vietnam war.

      Reply

  • Matt W.

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    I still believe that the pre/early war Sauer 38h was the ultimate in .32 ACP pocket pistols. It was hammerless, reliable, and small, yet packed 8+1 rounds. It was straight blowback operated. It incorporated a loaded chamber indicating pin at the rear, slide safety on earlier models, and a hole in the rear of the trigger that allowed one to both visually and tactically determine if the hammer was cocked. It utilized a magazine disconnect that wouldn’t allow it to be fired without a magazine, and a very well placed and easy to reach magazine release button on the left side of the frame. It also incorporated a SA/DA side lever that not only allowed you to drop the hammer once loaded, but also cock it again, and then un-cock and re-cock it as many times as you wished, which was a new feature for the time, and unfortunately hasn’t been repeated since on any firearm to my knowledge. Most SA/DA hammerless models only allow you to drop the hammer and possibly cock it again, but not repeatedly. Basically, it had all the sought after features of a modern day small caliber carry piece, but 77 years ago.

    While never as popular as the other .32 Auto sidearms, notably by makers such as Walther, Mauser, Browning, and Colt, it sure was one of the best, if not better than several of its contemporaries; possibly even better than a lot of todays offerings.

    I carry my 1939 made example regularly.

    Now, if this 1903 Colt remake wasn’t so bloody expensive, I’d surely add one to my lineup. I quite like it.

    Reply

  • jhm

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    I have an original 1903 in 32acp. It has been in my family since new and is in excellent condition. Nice small pistol and I enjoyed shooting it as a child. It still works fine and many great memories of my dad and I shooting it on the farm. I am 74 now so we have both been around for a while. I carry a Model 60 but in a pinch I feel the old Colt could get the job done. Did not realize they were quite so valuable.j

    Reply

    • john

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      You were most fortunate. I introduced the 1903 in .32 to my boys when they were 6-7 years old and it was a great fit for their little hands and a good start into the centerfire world. Always regret trading mine off for something else (I don’t know what)…

      Reply

  • Matthew Carpenter

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    I want to see the 1910 browning brought back to life with modern machining and metallurgy.

    For those that don’t know, a 1910 is virtually identical to a 1911, sans the thumb safety.

    Reply

  • Witold Pilecki

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    That kind of gun money from me will be for a Winchester 1873 in .38/.357 Magnum, or for a little more a basic Springfield Armory M1A. I have a Beretta Tomcat in .32ACP and a Ruger LCP in .380 and don’t want any more pocket pistol caliber guns.

    Reply

  • ERonc

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    Would love to see a new 32acp pistol. Being a large man I feel they have gone the wrong way. Would like it to have a non staggered 10rd magazine, in a few states that is the legal limit. By doing this I would now be able to get my hand on the grip without fingers dangling. I feel utilizing the best of a few different pistols we could create something great. Basically would like it to be a single action or single/double action similar to the Walther PP. This pistol should come in either aluminum or titanium frame.The manual safety should be a frame mounted one that sweeps off like a 1911. Add a firing pin block, but no grip safety. Magazine release behind trigger like 1911. A round in chamber indicator while not need in my view hurts nothing and complies with some state laws. Pistol should lock open on last shot, slide release to be eliminated. Just pull back on slide to release. To lock open use empty magazine or manually manipulate catch while holding open slide. A fixed barrel would be nice along with slide-in-frame design. Though not the smallest it would still lend it self to a great carry by being thin. The action would be much easier to work, so that more people like women, elderly and people with arthritis could manipulate the slide. This round was used with success for years, while not the biggest pop it is easier to manage recoil and keep on target.

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      A modern version of the Savage 1910 .32 might be what you would need. The motto was ‘Ten Shots quick.’ It was popular and thousands were use by France during World War One.

      Take a look at the design. It did not prosper because it cost a few dollars more than the Colt. I think the Colt was 15 and the Savage, 17 dollars.

      Reply

  • Bobby G

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    At that price they’re not going sell too many. It’s too bad they can’t manage to offer a version of it at a realistic price point for those of us who are not well to do collectors. This is why the company is failing.

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      Bobby I am hoping Colt will choose to ramp up production and offer an affordable version as well. Perhaps a 1911A1 type version. The design has merit. It would be easy enough to offer a .380 ACP version.

      Reply

    • Michael Cumpston

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      This is the BEST review of this Pistol that Ive seen. Most of the writers dismiss the potentlal accuracy by muttering about the small sight and heavy trigger pull. Bob actually got down on the bench with it and let it deliver its potential. It’s not quite as accurate as my Walther PP .32 but it’s shootable enough to be more useful than most reviews reveal. II’d kind of like one in Blue or nickel but don’t find any in the marketplace right now.

      Reply

  • Big Al

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    …and the cartridge is certainly deadly, if not ideal, for personal defense. A 32ACP?!?!? What happened to “Big Calibers Rule”??? Nice little pistol to collect, but between 32ACP & a heel type magazine latch, it has to be WAY near the bottom of the list as a self-defense weapon. Vastly better than a knife, but only because it reaches further. 45ACP gas been my choice for 50+ years. Not about to change!

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      Big Al,

      A Mean on the .45. You would have to be a die hard Colt fan to think about this one– but is sure is a fun shooter. Much better accuracy and better fit than original.

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply

    • Adam

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      Because Colt is the Apple of firearms companies.

      If you’ve ever seen an Apple fanatic rave over their new iToy, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

      Reply

  • Edward Lewandoski

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    No AMBI safey. SA only I would not have it.

    Reply

    • Bobby G

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      Just one more reason why very few people are going to shell out $1400.00 for one.

      Reply

    • Stephen Jakubowski

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      along with the fact that you can find the originals in decent shape for half the price. At 1400 dollars im not even sure collectors would be that interested. I’d personally take the pistol with a story to tell then the reproduction for the same price.

      Reply

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