Any firearm designed by John Moses Browning was destined for greatness. From the 1911 to the BAR, he could do no wrong.
Browning had done such great work designing small, semi-automatic pistols for Fabrique Nationale that the company was outselling Colt designs 10 to one by 1900. In an effort to reclaim some of the market, Colt contracted Browning to create a similar design for it. The resulting guns were the Pocket Hammerless Models of 1903 and 1908.
One of the first semi-automatic pocket pistols on the market, the name Pocket Hammerless is a bit of a misnomer. The gun does indeed have a hammer; it is just hidden from view at the back of the slide. Small in size, with a concealed hammer and rounded corners, the Pocket Hammerless models made for great pocket guns because they were easy to conceal, and there was very little for them to get hung up on when being drawn.
The 1903s and 1908s—chambered in .32 ACP and .380 ACP, respectively—were popular little pistols that fired ammunition that had also been designed by Browning. The 1903 used eight-round magazines, and the 1908’s magazines held seven rounds. Many police forces, at home and abroad, carried the Model 1908. It wasn’t until World War II, however, that these guns were deemed fit for military use in significant numbers.
World At War
By March of 1942, more than 2,000 Model 1903s had been issued for American government contracts. Some went overseas under lend-lease programs; others were used by the Navy, the Pentagon and the Office of Strategic Services. All told, just under 17,000 were shipped as part of U.S. military contracts. By comparison, just over 3,000 Model 1908s were issued between 1944 and the end of the war in 1945.
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Civilian sales of the Model 1903 were very good. More than 500,000 were made for public purchase. The Model 1908, however, was not as popular. Less than 150,000 were made for civilian use.
The use of 1903s and 1908s as General Officers’ pistols came about as a matter of practicality. The officers wanted to be armed but did not want to be inhibited by the hefty .45-caliber Model 1911—also a John Moses Browning design. Thus, the Colt Pocket Hammerless models fit the bill perfectly.
During World War II, there was little accountability with the issuing of these guns. The first 1,000 or so have no written record. The officer simply asked for a pistol and was given one. Written regulations regarding the little autopistols did not emerge until April 12, 1956, with the creation of Army Regulation 725-78. This regulation stated that officers would be issued a .32-caliber pistol, a leather belt with a gold-plated buckle and holsters for the Model 1903 and the larger M1911A1. The officer could keep the accoutrements, but the pistol was to be returned to the Army at the end of active service. If desired, he could purchase the pistol for a sum of $27.50.
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Many officers of note carried the Colt Pocket Hammerless autopistols. Even Patton had one, issued to him in August of 1944, though he preferred to carry a revolver.
Douglas MacArthur took possession of a .32-caliber Model 1903 when he was superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point from 1919 to 1922. Of course, he went on to tremendous military success. Between the World Wars, he became the Army’s youngest major general. In 1942, he became the commander of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. After the war, he became the supreme commander of the Allied powers in Japan.
General Isaac White was issued a .380-caliber Model 1908 in 1945. He participated in the invasion of Normandy in 1944 and commanded the 2nd Armored Division, known as “Hell on Wheels,” during the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. Near the end of the war, his division covered 190 miles in 13 days and captured 45,000 Nazi troops in the process.
Lieutenant General Ridgeley Gaither was issued a .380-caliber Colt Pocket Hammerless Model 1908 in September 1944. Gaither participated in Operation Varsity in March 1945, when the 17th Airborne Division assaulted German positions along the Rhine. Gaither’s troop landed near a 20mm gun held by Nazi paratroopers. Armed with his Model 1908 .380 and Model 1911 .45, Gaither and his men successfully suppressed the German attack, making this one of the few General Officer’s pistols to see use in combat.
General Frank Mildren received a .32-caliber Model 1903 in August 1960 from the Army. The pistol was engraved and then re-presented to Mildren at a later date. There are three stars on the slide, denoting the rank of lieutenant general. It is possible that the engraving was done in 1965, when he obtained this rank. During World War II, Mildren and his troops landed on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion in 1944.
A total of 1,500 Model 1908s and 2,500 Model 1903s were issued to U.S. military officers over the years. Colt officially stopped producing both models in 1945, but there were enough leftover parts to keep the guns in production until 1953. Because of this overrun, the pistols continued to be issued to officers until 1972—almost 30 years after the last piece was manufactured.
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The Pocket Hammerless has long since been replaced as an official military sidearm, but the tradition inspired by one of John Moses Browning’s creations continues today. The Pocket Hammerless design has stood the test of time, finding its way into belt holsters (and pockets) long after production ceased. Some of the U.S. military’s biggest names held these little guns in their hands as they made their mark on history. Because of this, these Colts hold true to the old saying, “Big things come in small packages.”