Browning's Little Colts

Browning's Little Colts

I love the way this gun feels in my hand--sleek, comfortable, exceptionally well built, as any Colt would be.

Every shooter worth his salt is familiar with John Browning's more significant gun designs, but not everyone knows that he was responsible for creating some of the finest pocket pistols ever conceived. To enlarge this image, please click HERE

A significant delegation in the handgun world has great esteem for the pocket pistol, and even more significant are the reasons why this is so. Few things are more personal to a pistol-carrier than the piece that he or she carries every day for protection, thus the fascination with little guns. Because of this one-on-one relationship between human and handgun, individual preference reigns when it comes to the choice of a pocket or backup gun.

Excellent pocket pistols are available on the modern market, particularly since concealed carry has become widely accepted and practiced; however, the concept of little handguns is hardly new. Small, concealable pistols have been popular since the inception of the handgun. Tiny flintlock and percussion pistols that fit in small places in one's clothing were extremely popular in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. Small revolvers were later the rage, and beginning in the early 1900s, small semiautomatics took center stage in the concealed-carry arena. Among these little guns were several designed by the gifted John Browning.

Every shooter worth his salt is familiar with some of Browning's more significant designs, but not everyone knows he was responsible for creating some of the finest pocket pistols ever conceived. I'm referring specifically to the Colt 1903 and 1908 Hammerless and 1908 Vest Pocket models.

The 1903
When Browning went about outlining his idea of a great pocket pistol, he utilized the same principles we all consider today--small, easy to carry, and potent. He achieved these goals with the Colt 1903--for the most part. The 1903 was chambered for the .32 ACP, not the most powerful of handgun cartridges. The great thing about the gun, however, was its size. Thin and relatively short, with a great feel in the hand, the 1903 became quite popular with the shooting public. Its thinness allowed it to be carried easily in the waistband, under a jacket, and in a pocket.

Colt 1903 Model M Pistol


As Browning's first pistol cartridge design, the .32 ACP has been long-lived and is still running strong. The Colt 1903 Hammerless was a huge seller for the company, and close to a half-million were made. The 1903 was popular not only with everyday citizens, but also with the criminal element of the first decades of the 20th century. Toughs such as Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde favored the little Colt due to its concealability. The 1903 also caught the attention of the United States military and was standard issue to military generals.

The 1908
Though the 1903 enjoyed success, Colt recognized the need to upgrade to a bit beefier caliber, so in 1908 the company released the 1908 Hammerless in .380 caliber. The 1903 and 1908 were identical with the exception of the calibers and model designations. The 1908 was also produced with its own serial number range instead of having it mixed together with the 1903. The 1908 enjoyed popularity, though not nearly as much as its older brother, the 1903. About 170,000 1908s were made between 1908 and 1940. The .380 Colt was also popular among criminals and notable shooters. General Patton carried a personalized 1908 during much of his efforts in World War II.

A Real Surprise
I've long had interest in the 1908 .380 and was fortunate to obtain a fine specimen a couple years back from my friend, Iowa gun collector and noted wildfowl conservationist Lance Olson. Like me, Olson has a keen interest in the 1908 and was gracious enough to allow me to beat him out of a good one. This 1908 is mechanically in excellent condition, with a high amount of original bluing. Colt utilized a "fire blue" on screws, triggers, extractors, and other small parts back in the old days. This bluing process differed from the standard bluing--it was much brighter and more colorful; however, it wore off quite easily. The Olson gun still shows a good deal of fire bluing on the trigger and some screws, indicating it has been well cared for. This Colt is a very early model with a four-digit serial number, making it a first-year production.

I love the way this gun feels in my hand--sleek, comfortable, exceptionally well built, as any Colt would be. Most impressive is the 1908's performance at the range. With a small supply of Hornady 90-grain FTX ammunition, I initially ran several full magazines through my little 1908. Though the sights are small--a very short, thin front sight and a half-moon, notched rear--the pistol is incredibly accurate. I've found that my 1908 regularly hits half-dollar size target

s at reasonable ranges. On top of that, I've never had any sort of malfunction with the little Colt.

A few months back I had the good fortune of spending some time with friend Olson. I relayed to him my delight with the .380 I'd beaten him out of, and he seemed somewhat irked that the gun had performed so well. I believe he was a bit dismayed that he'd let me talk him out of it. Before we parted, he dug around in the back of his overloaded Suburban and finally produced a small black box.

"Better take this," he growled. "It goes with that .380."

I opened the black box and discovered yet another, older box inside. It was an original Colt box containing a Colt 1908 Vest Pocket .25 automatic pistol. The Vest Pocket model was also designed by John Browning and was a finely made little gun--a real pocket pistol, for sure.

Olson shook his head, looking disgusted, and said, "You've beaten me outta most of my good stuff. Might as well let you have that, too."

My Browning-designed Colt pocket guns have a special place in my gun safe. What's that cliché about blind hogs and acorns?

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