September 21, 2021
By Joseph von Benedikt
Introduced in 1918, near the end of World War I, the Remington Model 51 was innovative, useful, and superbly built. It was also complex and expensive. Over the next nine years, about 65,000 were manufactured and sold. Most were chambered for .380 ACP, but some were chambered for .32 ACP.
The Model 51 was designed by gun genius John Pedersen, and unlike most of the autoloading designs of the era, it is neither a blowback-operated pistol nor a tilting-breech design. Rather, it’s a “hesitation action.” When the pistol fires, the cartridge moves rearward a fraction, thrust by the pressure in the barrel, before the breech engages a shoulder in the frame and comes to an abrupt halt. This movement of the fired cartridge imparts momentum to the slide, which continues rearward, unlocking the breech and ejecting the spent cartridge case. The momentary “hesitation” allows chamber pressures to drop before the breech is unlocked.
The primary advantage of the system is the non-tilting barrel. Because it doesn’t tilt to unlock like so many other designs, there’s no need to house the recoil spring and its guide rod beneath the barrel. Instead, Pedersen put the recoil spring around the barrel itself and mounted the barrel very low. This put the axis of recoil very low in the fist, minimizing muzzle jump and maximizing the shooter’s ability to make fast, accurate follow-up shots.
Considerable research and engineering went into the design of the grip angle and shape, to enable the pistol to feel good in the hand and to point naturally. Pedersen went so far as to call the Model 51 “self-aiming.” Plus, the Model 51 was carefully engineered to have minimal corners and to be as snag-proof as possible.
The result was a pistol that fit neatly inside a pocket, pointed as naturally as one’s finger, and was very comfortable and fast to shoot. It also cost two or three times what a revolver cost.
The Model 51 was not a precision pistol. The sights were minimized so as to prevent snagging, and as a result, they are challenging to use in anything but bright light, by anyone without excellent vision.
I’ve already covered the “hesitation action” breech lockup of the Model 51. Field disassembly is complex, and I won’t attempt to describe it here.
The fire controls are unique. A grip safety somewhat reminiscent of that on the Model 1911 prevents the Model 51 from firing unless depressed. When not depressed, it serves as a slide lock; simply gripping the pistol firmly (to depress the grip safety) drops the slide.
A magazine disconnect prevents the pistol from firing without a magazine in place. A small thumb safety is located at the left rear of the frame.
Like the Model 1911, the magazine release is located just behind the trigger guard on the left side, rather than on the bottom of the grip like so many competing models of the time. Pressing it allows the magazine to be drawn from the frame but does not eject it under spring pressure.
If the pistol has been fired and the internal hammer is not cocked, drawing the slide rearward to chamber a round requires considerable force.
Interestingly, the pistol I used for this report was left sitting in a storage unit in Texas for years, until it was inherited by the college roommate of a friend of mine, who then sold it to my pal. At one point my friend hesitantly put about 200 rounds through it.
By the serial number, as well as the wording of the engraving that is faintly legible in the serration atop the slide, my friend’s Model 51 was manufactured in 1920.
With the Model 51 freshly cleaned and oiled, I test-fired it with Browning, Hornady, and Winchester .380 ACP ammo. We all know how difficult ammo is to find these days, but I was lucky to come up with the three loadings.
Due to the rudimentary sights, I fired it for accuracy at 15 yards instead of our usual 25 yards. Even in good light, my middle-aged eyes nearly rebelled at the pistol’s tiny sights. Quashing the optical resistance, I focused harder and managed to resolve them well enough to shoot groups, as long as I didn’t look through them for too long at one time.
To my surprise, the little pistol shot quite well. The best groups with the Winchester and Hornady ammo were a shade less than one inch. Overall average of all three ammo types was just 1.64 inches.
I experienced two stovepipe-type malfunctions early on while firing Winchester’s 95-grain FMJ load. With an average of 931 fps, it proved to be the mildest ammo. The Browning and Hornady loads were a bit zestier, and both ran flawlessly. Presumably, the Model 51 simply prefers ammo on the stouter side.
Point of impact was, as is so often the case with old fighting pistols, right on the money. Yep, with all three different loads.
Technical testing completed, I stepped away from the bench and spent some time running informal seven-yard drills with the Model 51 and letting my sons William (age 10) and Henry (age 6) shoot it. While the trigger was a bit heavy for Henry, both boys shot it well. The mild recoil made it easy for them to control. For my part, even without using the sights, I was able to shoot full magazines rapid-fire onto an 18-inch steel plate without a miss. Maybe there’s actually something to Pedersen’s “self-aiming” claim.
Original Model 51s can be found, but from what I can tell, most are somewhat overpriced. Based on limited research, it seems like a good, functional pistol can be had for between $350 and $500. Superb examples with nearly no wear could be worth up to $1,200.
Based on my handling and shooting of the Model 51, I can say it is a good, reliable design that was way ahead of its time. And it is easy to shoot well when the target is up close and personal.
Model 51 Specs
- MANUFACTURER: Remington Arms
- TYPE: Hesitation-action autoloader
- CALIBER: .380 ACP
- MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 7 rounds
- BARREL: 3.25 in.
- OVERALL LENGTH: 5.62 in.
- WIDTH: 0.90 in.
- HEIGHT: 4.4 in.
- WEIGHT, EMPTY: 21 oz.
- GRIPS: Black plastic
- FINISH: Blued
- SIGHTS: Square notch rear, blade front
- TRIGGER: 7.06-lb. pull (as tested)
- SAFETY: Manual thumb safety, grip safety