Shooter's Showcase: The Hammerli Model 103 Free Pistol

The Hammerli Model 103 Free Pistol is the one modern firearm that can claim direct descent from the dueling pistols of the 18th century.

The annual parade of new products at the SHOT Show is now a deluge, so overwhelming that no one can possibly take in everything, much less evaluate it all. And anyway, in my lifetime with guns, there are still many old but fascinating artifacts I have not yet worked with. One such is the Hammerli free pistol.


The Olympic free pistol is the one modern firearm that can claim direct descent from the dueling pistols of the 18th century. Those were single-shot muzzleloaders, exquisitely crafted to deliver the ultimate in reliability, made in matched pairs, and fitted with hair triggers. Among others, the Manton brothers of London made dueling pistols, and this led indirectly to the English “best” shotgun.

Dueling survived on the Continent long after it declined in England. In Paris in 1812, Gastinne Renette set up an indoor shooting range to teach young men how to shoot, should they be challenged to a duel. Gastinne Renette survived as a dealer in fine sporting guns until 2003.

Through the late 19th century, competitive shooting with handguns became popular, and a whole generation of “gallery” guns was developed for indoor competition. When the Olympics were revived in 1896, shooting events were prominent.


The “free pistol” event was exactly as it sounds, competing with a pistol that was almost completely free of restrictions. Any barrel length, weight, trigger pull—the object was to produce the best score with no equipment limitations other than the use of open sights.

The greatest names in handguns produced pistols for these competitions, including Webley and Beretta. After 1945, the one that dominated was Hammerli of Switzerland. It became the name in target pistols.

Today, the Olympic free-pistol event consists of 60 shots at 50 meters (54.68 yards), with a two-hour time limit. The 10-ring is five centimeters (1.97 inches) in diameter, and the current record is 583/600. For this, competitors cheerfully pay $10 a box for 50 rounds of Eley Pistol Match ammunition, compared to $2.25 for standard stuff.


Having been intrigued by Hammerli free pistols since my teenage years, but never handled or shot one, when I came across a classic from 1960, I snapped it up. The urge to see how I could do, compared with Olympic masters, was irresistible.

In 1956, Hammerli introduced a new model: the 101. It was followed by the 102 and the deluxe Model 103. A modified design (104–107) replaced that family in 1961. Mine is a 103, and while it is an unapologetic target pistol, it retains the hallmarks of dueling-pistol craftsmanship: a lovely walnut stock with graceful Schnäbel, an 11-inch octagonal barrel, and the classic trigger bow that graces a London gun.

The Hammerli 103 was the only pistol included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Design in Sport” exhibition, held in the early 1960s. The later Model 107, the deluxe member of the 104 family, was in the “Tools of Man” exhibit at Expo ’67, the Montreal World’s Fair.

Hammerli built these pistols using a scaled-down Martini-Henry action. The breechblock is operated by a lever inside the grip, and cocking is a separate action with a lever on the side. The trigger can be adjusted down to a fraction of an ounce. A lockable screw protrudes from the trigger face, and this is adjusted to suit finger length—vastly easier than moving the trigger itself.

The trend in competition pistols today is to purely high-tech functionalism. Who cares what it looks like? The score is what matters. The Hammerli 103, however, is a throwback to the original principles that guided the crafting of dueling pistols, and like an English shotgun, you can just sit back and admire it. When the time comes to burn powder, however, it is a tightly crafted machine. Not only can you win matches, but also you’ll look like a gentleman doing it.

Recommended for You

Ammo

Introducing the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield

Joseph von Benedikt - April 12, 2012

  Smith & Wesson has just announced its new Shield handgun. It's an addition to the

Gunsmithing

Harvey Donaldson: Pioneer Benchrester

Joel J. Hutchcroft - May 07, 2019

Harvey A. Donaldson may be best known for his .219 Donaldson Wasp wildcat cartridge, but...

Ammo

Get the Most Out of the .30-06

Joseph von Benedikt - April 01, 2019

Cutting-edge projectiles provide unprecedented performance in the venerable old workhorse, the...

See More Recommendations

Trending Stories

Reloading

Share the Handloading Experience

Lane Pearce - May 19, 2019

The joys of handloading are many, and one of them is sharing the experience with a novice.

Ammo

Five Great .270 Cartridges

Layne Simpson - May 28, 2019

Considering how popular the .270 Winchester has become, it's a great mystery why more...

Ammo

Get the Most Out of the .30-06

Joseph von Benedikt - April 01, 2019

Cutting-edge projectiles provide unprecedented performance in the venerable old workhorse, the...

See More Stories

More Handguns

Handguns

A Not-So-Good Shooting Starr

Joel J. Hutchcroft - June 11, 2019

Henry Starr was the first to use a car to rob a bank. Unfortunately for him, he didn't make a...

Handguns

The British Webley Double-Action Revolver

Terry Wieland - March 13, 2019

The iconic British Webley Double-Action revolver was the official British military sidearm for...

Handguns

Review: Nighthawk Custom Falcon Double Stack 9mm

Joel J. Hutchcroft - April 25, 2019

The 9mm Falcon Double Stack has a 7075 aluminum frame, a steel slide with a 5.0-inch...

See More Handguns

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×