I’m referring to the self-loading pistol.
In April of 1897, John Moses Browning was granted his first patent for a self-loading pistol. As was his practice, he offered it to Colt, which, while not keen on diverging from revolvers, felt it should hedge its bets.
In 1899, Browning sold the Belgian firm of Fabrique Nationale (FN) on a design for a blowback pistol in which the weight of the slide and tension of the recoil spring held the breech closed until the bullet had left the barrel. The slide then reciprocated, extracting and ejecting the spent case. The slide was then pulled forward by the recoil spring, and as it moved forward, it stripped a new cartridge out of the magazine and chambered it. Introduced as the Pistolet Automatique Browning Mle. 1900, the gun’s popularity was such that because of it the Browning name became synonymous with the word “pistol” in many parts of the world.
The Model 1900’s cartridge–the 7.65mm Browning–became even more famous than the pistol itself. It utilized a semi-rimmed case 17mm long loaded with a 71-grain full-metal-jacketed (FMJ) bullet. Rated velocity was 900 fps. While underpowered, it was well suited to blowback-operated pistols and was embraced by European military and police forces.
In 1902, recognizing the popularity of the Belgian-made pistol, Colt began marketing another Browning blowback design as the .32 Caliber Model 1903 Pocket Pistol. Realizing the dislike Americans traditionally displayed towards the metric system, Colt renamed the 7.65mm cartridge the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol (.32 ACP). Colt’s M1903 proved an instant hit.
The next entrant into the U.S. pocket-pistol market was the Savage Model 1907 pistol, which used a retarded blowback system to lock the breech. It also proved quite popular, and that in turn encouraged yet another American manufacturer to take the plunge. That firm was Harrington & Richardson.
In 1874, Gilbert Harrington and William Richardson established their gun-making company in Worcester, Massachusetts, to produce small, solid-frame revolvers with single-action, sheath triggers that were chambered for the .32 rimfire cartridge. These revolvers were of better quality than most of the competition, earning H&R a good reputation. By the 1890s, the most popular type of personal/home-defense/police-duty handgun was the hinged-frame/top-break, automatic-ejecting revolver, and to address this lucrative market, H&R introduced such a revolver in 1897. While loath to diverge from the proven market for revolvers, H&R saw the increasing popularity of the Colt and Savage self-loading pistols and, in the finest tradition of the Yankee entrepreneur, set about producing a competing product.
In 1905, the famous British revolver-making firm of P. Webley & Scott introduced a series of blowback-operated pistols in .25 and .32 calibers that were designed by William Whiting. The .32 model was adopted by a number of police departments in Great Britain and throughout the empire.
After negotiations with Webley in 1909, H&R obtained a license to produce the British firm’s pistols for sale in North America, and in 1912, H&R introduced the Harrington & Richardson .25 Caliber Self-Loading Pistol. Sales were lackluster, and production ceased after only three years.
While the .25-caliber pistol was almost identical to the Webley design, H&R’s engineers, with the assistance of Whiting, decided that some improvements would make the larger caliber model more attractive to American buyers. First, they substituted a simple internal striker mechanism for the Webley’s cumbersome, external hammer. This provided a smoother, snag-free exterior and also did away with the heavy hammer spring, which made retracting the slide to chamber a round much easier. Next, the Webley’s hammer-mounted safety was replaced with a lever on the frame above the left grip panel. The lever disconnected the trigger from the trigger bar when in the down position. While the Webley had a rather small ejection port in the right-hand side of the slide, the H&R utilized an open-top slide to ensure complete ejection of spent cases. Also added was a grip safety that blocked movement of the firing pin unless it was fully depressed.
In 1914 (some sources say 1916), the Harrington & Richardson .32 Caliber Self-Loading Pistol was released on the market. It possessed the slab-sided, squared-off silhouette; sharp grip-to-frame angle; and exposed barrel common to the Webley semiauto pistols. The recoil spring was located above the striker channel, and when the slide was completely to the rear, the firing pin extended past the breech face and acted as an ejector. The design also included a loaded-chamber indicator that consisted of a small pin at the rear of the ejection port that was raised when the extractor snapped over the rim of a chambered cartridge.
The pistol had a 3.5-inch barrel and measured 6.5 inches overall. It weighed 20 ounces unloaded. Grips were hard rubber.
An eight-round box magazine was retained by a push-button catch on the bottom of the grip. While the H&R was originally manufactured with a magazine disconnect safety, this feature was dropped on late-production guns. Sights consisted of a halfmoon-shaped blade on the barrel and a tiny “V” notch at the rear of the slide.
Ease of disassembly was a major advertising point. After checking the chamber to verify the pistol was unloaded, the magazine was inserted, and the trigger was pulled. This dropped the firing pin. The top of the spring-steel trigger guard was grasped and moved slightly to the rear and down, which disengaged a lug on the trigger guard from a notch in the bottom of the barrel. The barrel and slide were then pulled off the front of the frame.
There were three variations of the .32 pistol. The 1st Issue had 12 coarse slide serrations and the magazine disconnect. The 2nd Issue had 16 shallow slide serrations and the magazine disconnect. The 3rd Issue also had 16 shallow slide serrations, but it did not have the magazine disconnect.
Manufacture of the .32 pistol continued until 1924, with approximately 40,000 units being produced. Compared to the Colt and Savage pistols, sales of the H&R pistol were disappointing. While the .32 pistol was still listed in H&R’s 1939 catalog, that fact merely indicated that unsold pistols were on hand at the factory 15 years after production ceased.
During World War II, the U.S. government obtained numbers of nonstandard handguns, and a small number of H&R pistols were among them. According to Dutch arms expert Bas Martens, in 1941, the Koninlijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger (KNIL)–the military forces in the Dutch East Indies–obtained a quantity that were issued as the 7.65mm Pistool H&R. The Dutch national police used others in the postwar years.
H&R’s SLP At The Range
Fellow collector Don Francis provided a 2nd Issue H&R .32 pistol to test-fire for this report. While it displayed a bit of surface wear and pitting, it was in excellent mechanical condition with a mirror-bright bore. According to H&R authority Bill Goforth, the pistol’s serial number indicated that it left the factory around 1919.
Despite its odd shape, the H&R .32 fit my hand very nicely and proved to be a natural pointer, which was good because the sights were almost invisible to my aging eyes. Unlike many pocket pistols, the H&R’s long grip frame allowed a full, three-finger grip, and all of the controls worked easily–although I found the backwards safety lever to be a bit of a trial.
While it is often an exercise in futility with pistols of this class–what, with their almost invisible sights–the little H&R was test-fired for accuracy from a benchrest at a moderate 10 yards. To my surprise, it printed close enough to point of aim to make me happy, and it produced groups ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 inches in size.
As is my SOP, I set up a D-1 target at 7 yards and ran the H&R through a series of offhand drills, firing it both supported and unsupported (one-handed). Because of the hard-to-see sights, I used the point-pistol-and-pull-trigger method of shooting. Again to my surprise, its natural pointability came to the fore, and all but one of the rounds I launched downrange ended up in the target’s “X” and 10 rings.
When one considers that Colt produced 572,000 M1903 pistols and Savage built 280,000 M1907 pistols, one can only wonder if, perhaps, it was the H&R’s odd looks that doomed it to commercial failure in the American pocket-pistol market.