The handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 2: 1902 – 1908

Colt Model 1902

The original Colt Automatic Pistol achieved some sales but nothing to equal the success of the FN M1900 in Europe and Colt continued to refine and improve the basic design. This resulted in the Colt Model 1902. Now, this wasn’t really a new pistol, it was just a development of the original Colt Automatic Pistol but it did introduce new features which make it worth looking at in detail. The Model 1900 was produced in two versions; The Sporting and the Military Models which I’ll discuss separately.

Colt M1902 Sporting Model

The Colt 1902 Sporting Model was overall very similar to the original Colt Automatic Pistol (many of the same jigs and dies were used in manufacturing). It was chambered for the same .38” ACP round but the 1902 did introduce a number of small improvements and refinements. The sight safety was removed though it wasn’t replaced – neither version of the Model 1902 had any form of manual safety. The only way to safely carry a 1902 when a round had been chambered was to manually lower the hammer to a half-cock position, something that led to all too many accidental discharges. Slide serrations were now deeper and at the front of the slide and many 1902s had a smaller, rounded hammer following criticism that the hammer on the Colt Automatic Pistol was so large that it obscured the sights. All Sporting Models were finished using Colt’s charcoal blueing process which involved placing the parts to be blued in a large coal-fired oven and both wood and black hard rubber grips were used.

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Colt Model 1902 Sporting

However, the single most significant change was the introduction of a spring-loaded plug in the end of the recoil-spring housing to allow for field stripping without tools. We now take it for granted that the slide on any semi-auto pistol can be removed without using tools, but this was the first John Moses Browning design (and one of the first semi-auto pistol designs) where this was possible. Almost 7,000 1902 Sporting Models were produced up to July 1907.

Colt M1902 Military Model

The Colt 1902 Sporting Model was very similar to the Sporting Model but it did incorporate additional changes suggested following US Army trials of the Colt Automatic Pistol. These included a longer grip incorporating a lanyard ring (the longer grip also allowed a larger eight round .38” ACP magazine). However, the most important change was in response to a military request that the slide should remain back when the magazine was empty to make reloading simpler. Browning designed a simple mechanism that would hold the slide back after the last shot was fired and added a small slide release catch to the left side of the frame. This is another of the features that we now take from granted in a semi-automatic pistol. It seem so self-evidently a good idea that it’s difficult to imagine that this wasn’t included in all these early pistols, but the M1902 Military Model was the first time that this was seen.

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Colt Model 1902 Military

Colt were very confident that the US Army would be impressed by the new pistol and two hundred examples of the Model 1902 Military were supplied for testing in 1902. These were distributed to a number of cavalry and other units for evaluation. It took almost a year for the army to say what it thought of this pistol and the results were a crushing disappointment to Colt. The army considered the 1902 to be insufficiently powerful, liable to accidental discharge, hard to use one-handed, unbalanced, heavy, clumsy, unsafe and possibly even dangerous. The conclusion was that the M1902 was fundamentally unsuited for military issue. Colt were stunned and for the next few years their semi-automatic handgun production would focus on “pocket pistols” for the civilian market.

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Mexican revolutionaries around 1912. The lady on the left is packing a Colt 1902 Military Model.

Remarkably, given the US military lack of enthusiasm, Colt sold around 18,000 Model 1902 Military versions until production ended in 1928. Although this pistol was never officially adopted by any military unit, it became widely used in both the Mexican and Chilean revolutionary and armed forces in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Further development of this pistol led to the Colt Model 1905 (the first Colt semi-auto to be designed for the new, more powerful .45” ACP round) but this was simply a further refinement of the M1902 and had little involvement from Browning so it won’t be covered in this article.

Replicas

Nope, nothing at all. Sigh!

Colt 1903/1908 Pocket Hammerless Pistol

Following the rejection of the Model 1902 by the US Army, Colt decided that it might be best to focus on the civilian market for semi-auto pistols. The Models 1900 and 1902 both sold reasonably well to the civilian market, but what was wanted was a small, light semi-automatic pocket pistol which could be carried in a pocket, handbag or concealed holster and drawn quickly without fear of snagging. Sometime in 1901, Browning offered Colt the design for a new design based around the .32 ACP round which FN had used in the M1899/M1900. Colt readily accepted and in August 1902 released the new gun as the Model 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol.

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Despite the name, the Model 1903 wasn’t hammerless at all – the hammer was concealed inside the rear of the slide.  Mechanically, it was a relatively simple and reliable straight blowback design with a single action trigger and a fixed barrel.  A manual safety was included on the left side of the frame (the safety could also be used to prop the slide open) and it incorporated a grip safety in the rear of the grip – the first time that this feature was seen on a Browning designed pistol. Unlike the Model 1902 Military, the slide on the 1903 did not lock back after the last shot was fired. The release for the magazine was a serrated catch on the heel of the grip, a great improvement over the fiddly catch on previous Browning pistols.  Weighing just 1.5 pounds and seven inches long overall, the 1903 Hammerless was a compact, easily concealed weapon which stood out from the bulky handguns generally available when it was released.

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General Officers Pocket Pistol, a version of the Colt Model 1903 Hammerless issued to senior officers in the US Army up to the 1970s

In contrast to the Models 1900 and 1902, the Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless was an immediate and spectacular commercial success for Colt.  More than half a million were made between 1903 and the end of production in 1946.  In 1908, Colt added the Model 1908 Hammerless Pocket Pistol to their range, which was essentially the same pistol chambered for the larger .380 ACP round (a slightly less powerful cartridge than the .38 ACP round used in the Model 1902).  In addition to being popular with private owners, the Colt Models 1903 and 1908 were adopted by a number of Police departments in the USA (Including New York City Police) and were issued as a sidearm to General Officers in the US Army until the 1970s (Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Marshall and Patton all carried this model during World War Two).  It was also issued as an officer’s sidearm to Republican Chinese forces in the 1920s and 1930s and was adopted by Shanghai Municipal Police at the same time.  Interest in the 1903 remains so high that, in early 2015, Colt announced that they would resume limited production of this pistol.

Replicas

Finally, we have a replica to discuss! Given how popular the cartridge firing version was, it’s actually surprising that there only seems to be one current replica of the Colt 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol, and that’s a Chinese made, 6mm, spring powered all-metal version. I have seen this sold as both the Smart K-28 and the XueLang Smite 32. Overall, it’s not a bad replica given its limitations, but wouldn’t you love a blowback version of the Colt 1903 Hammerless? I know I would!

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Smart K-28. Stupid grips, but otherwise not actually a bad replica of the Colt 1903 Hammerless.

Smart K-28 review

FN Model 1903

FN also purchased Browning’s design for the same pistol, but FN enlarged it in size by around 15% to produce the very first semi-automatic pistol chambered for a 9mm round (the 9x20mm SR Browning long cartridge) – the Parabellum P08 (Luger) and the Mauser C96 pistols were still chambered for the 7.65mm round at this time. The FN Model 1903 was mechanically very similar to the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless, but it was notably bigger (the overall length increased from seven to eight inches and the barrel on the FN version was 5” long compared to 4” on the Colt). FN sold this pistol in Europe and elsewhere as the Browning Modèle de Guerre (Browning War Model) and Browning Grand Modèle (Browning Large Model) though it is now generally known as the FN Model 1903. Customers could specify whether they wanted the standard seven round magazine or an extended ten round version which also allowed the fitting of a shoulder stock.

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The FN M1903 became a popular military sidearm and was adopted by several armies including those of Belgium, Holland, Germany, Turkey and Estonia as well as being used by the Imperial Russian police. A version of this model was also manufactured under license by Husqvarna Vapenfabriks from 1917 until 1942 as the M/1907 which was used by the Swedish Armed Forces. FN sold around 60,000 examples of the Model 1903 and Husqvarna manufactured over 94,000 examples of the M/1907.

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FN Model 1903 with extended ten round magazine and shoulder stock

Replicas

As far as I am aware, there are no shooting replicas of this, the very first 9mm semi auto pistol. And, just like the lack of replicas of the Colt 1903 Hammerless, that’s a great pity.

Colt 1903 Pocket Hammer

In keeping with their decision to focus on civilian pistols, in late 1903 Colt released a compact version of the Model 1902 Sporting, the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer. This was designed by Browning and in almost all respects was simply a cut-down version of the earlier pistol. Like the Model 1902, it was chambered for the .38” ACP round and the magazine held seven rounds. The barrel was reduced to 4½” inches in length and the overall length to just over 7½”. Again like the Model 1902, no manual safety was fitted, though the hammer could be dropped to a half-cock position. The slide did not lock back on empty, there was no manual means of locking it back and the magazine release was a small catch in the heel of the grip.

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In addition to the shorter barrel and slide, the main differences between this and the larger pistol are that the slide serrations were moved to the rear of the slide and that two links were used to retain the barrel (rather than the single link on the Model 1902). The drawback to this design was the need to use a cross-wedge in the slide near the muzzle to retain the slide. If the slide cracked or the wedge became loose, the slide could be shot to the rear when the pistol was fired, potentially injuring the shooter. This design also limited the power of the cartridge which could safely be used in this pistol and all subsequent Browning pistols reverted to using a single barrel link.

Although it was initially popular, sales of the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer fell dramatically when newer models such as the Colt 1911 were introduced. Around 30,000 of this model were produced by Colt between 1903 and 1920 when production ended. Just like the Model 1902, many 1903 Pocket Hammers ended up in Mexico during the period of the revolution there and a small number were purchased for use by the Philippine Constabulary.

Replicas

As far as I’m aware, there are no shooting replicas of the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer.

FN 1906/Colt 1908

In 1902, Browning had completely ended his association with Winchester and had begun to work increasingly with FN. This came about after Winchester proved difficult when Browning offered to sell them the design for one of his most ambitious designs to date, the Auto-5 shotgun, in 1900. To his growing irritation, Winchester refused to say yes or no to the new design, and by 1902, Browning had had enough. In a stormy meeting with Winchester chief T.G. Bennett he gave an ultimatum – either buy the new design or release it so that another manufacturer could. Bennett refused to give a clear answer and Browning simply picked up the design for the Auto-5 and got on a ship for Europe. Although his visit was completely unannounced, he (and his new shotgun design) was welcomed with open arms in Herstal.

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Browning with an Auto-5 Shotgun

By 1905 Browning had become known as “Le Maître” (the Master) in Herstal and was making frequent trips to Belgium. He had both a permanent design office at the Herstal plant and a very able young assistant called Dieudonné Saive. Working at Herstal, Browning began refining the design for a true pocket pistol. The story goes that Browning, who certainly looks very dapper in most photographs, wanted a pistol for personal protection which was small enough to be carried in a pocket without spoiling the cut of a jacket.  The design began with a new cartridge: Browning had asked William Morgan Thomas of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (U.M.C.) to develop a small caliber cartridge suitable for a blowback operated pocket pistol.  In June 1904, the first batch of the new ammunition was delivered to Browning for use in his new prototype.  He demonstrated the new pistol to Colt who decided that they weren’t interested.  He then took it to Belgium and showed it to FN who immediately decided to go ahead with manufacture of the new round (the “6.35mm Browning”) and the new pistol, the FN Browning Model 1906, also known as the Modèle de Poche (Pocket Model) or Baby Browning.

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The new FN pistol was an immediate commercial success.  It was a hammerless, striker fired design which had no conventional manual safety (though this was added on later models).  Instead, it had a grip safety similar to that used on the Colt Model 1903/FN Model 1903.  The tiny magazine held just six, 6.35mm rounds and rudimentary sights were cast into a groove on top of the slide.  At under 4.5” in length and weighing just 13 ounces, the Modèle de Poche was small, compact and easy to conceal while also being comfortable to hold and shoot. To further cement his relationship with FN, browning gave the company exclusive rights to use his name as a trademark. That meant that only FN produced guns could use the revered Browning name. In much of Europe (and beyond), the term “Browning Pistol” became a synonym for any semi-automatic pistol.

Noting the success of the FN pistol, Colt quickly realized their mistake and took out an option to sell the same gun in 1906.  In 1909 they launched the Colt Model 1908 Hammerless (also known as the Vest Pocket Pistol) which was similar, but not identical to the FN version.  The most notable difference was that the Colt 1908 included a manual safety lever on the left side of the frame which could also be used to hold the slide open (there was no way to hold the slide open on the original FN version).  The 6.35mm cartridge was re-branded as the Colt .25 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round.  A few years later a third safety was added to the Colt Model 1908 in the form of a magazine disconnect which led Colt to proudly claim that “Accidental Discharge is Absolutely Impossible with the Colt Automatic Pistol.” The Model 1908 certainly proved to be popular: it remained in production for over forty years and Colt sold more than 400,000 of these tiny but effective and reliable pistols.

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In a fascinating commentary on the changing common meaning of words, in early marketing the Colt Model 1908 was often described as an ideal “muff pistol”, in other words a pistol which could be easily concealed within a lady’s muff. Just in case you’re not certain, a muff was a common item of ladies apparel in the early 1900s in which both hands could be placed to keep them warm. As the word “muff’ began to be commonly used to mean something quite different, the advertising provoked a degree of sniggering and was hastily amended to note instead that the tiny Model 1908 was ideally suited to concealment within a lady’s handbag.

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1909 advertising for the Vest Pocket Pistol notes that it “Just fits in a man’s vest, or can be carried in a lady’s muff…” Hmm…

Replicas

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Smart K-18

The only replica of the FN 1906 that I’m aware of is the Smart K-18. It’s a Chinese made springer, but it’s actually a pretty decent replica – it’s accurately sized and has sights within a groove on the top of the frame. Unfortunately, the Smart K-18 does not seem to be widely available in many parts of the world.

Smart K-18 review

There are two different spring-powered, metal 6mm replicas of the Colt Model 1908 available. One is the Chinese C.1 airgun (also branded as the Galaxy G.1 in some markets). It’s a reasonable replica, but it’s about 20% larger than the original and it has notch and post sights, which is wrong.

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C.1 Airgun

The other spring powered 1908 replica comes from Cybergun. In some ways this is better than the C1 in that it is accurately sized, has a working manual safety and magazine release and accurate markings on the slide and grips. However, while early versions were metal, the current iteration is manufactured in the Philippines out of chocolate brown and black plastic and looks more like a novelty pencil sharpener than a replica pistol. There used to be a Taiwanese gas powered (non-blowback) version of the Model 1908 too, but is no longer available. A blow-back gas powered version of the tiny Model 1908 would certainly be a very wonderful thing, but I guess that the pistol and magazine are just so tiny that this would be technically very difficult. So, for the moment we’re stuck with these spring powered replicas.

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Cybergun Model 1908

Next time on the World of Replica Air Pistols…

I hope you enjoyed this article. In the final part of this series we’ll be looking at some classic John Moses Browning pistols from the period 1910 onwards including the Colt 1911, the Browning Hi Power and the Colt Woodsman. And there will be more replicas than you can shake a stick at!

Related pages

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Handguns

The handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 1

The handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 3

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