By Mike “Duke” Venturino, GUNS Magazine
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
All the hoopla about the new, concealed carry type autoloaders is incomprehensible to me. Regardless of what sort of space-age “ium” material they are constructed of, they all are thick, square and black. And to my mind they are unnecessary although I admit up front my opinions on concealed carry are meaningless in regards to my actual time spent carrying concealed.
However, I do know something about firearms and shooting, which gives me the following opinion. I think the best small autoloading pistols ever made were designed over a century ago by none other than John M. Browning (with manufacture and marketing done by Colt).
These are Colt’s Model 1903 and Model 1908. Although introduced five years apart, a knowledgeable person is needed to tell them apart at a glance. I can’t do it if farther than about 5 feet away. The ’03 was introduced for the .32 Automatic Colt Pistol with a 71-grain FMJ roundnose bullet at about 905 fps. It is considered puny to the point of being laughable nowadays, but evidently no one smirked much about it back then. The ’08 version came out in .380 ACP, a noticeably more powerful round with 95-grain FMJ roundnose moving at about 955 fps. In Europe these rounds are known as the 7.65mm and 9mm Kurz—which means “short” in German.
With our modern mindset it might be likely to think the birth of the more powerful ’08 .380 killed the weaker ’03 .32. It did not. Both pistols continued in production until 1945, with the .32’s outnumbering the .380’s by a factor of over 4-to-1 in civilian sales.
Saying “civilian sales” indicates there also were military sales. There were. The US Government bought over 200,000 of the .32’s and an unknown number of .380’s. When an officer attained general rank, he was issued a special pistol. His choices were one or another of the Colt .32 or .380’s or a US Model 1911. Without a shred of proof to back me up, it seems by my reading, most generals chose one of the little Colts instead of the big .45. I judge that by the numbers of military marked .32 and .380 Colts offered for sale nowadays to collectors whereas, I’ve never seen a .45 traceable to a general.
Duke’s inspiration to own Colt Models 1903 and 1908 came when a friend loaned him his father’s general officers .32 for some cursory shooting.
Duke’s Model 1903 Colt .32 ACP was built prior to 1924. The .32 ACP’s were made in numbers of 4-to-1 compared with the .380 ACP’s.
Finishes of commercial Models 1903 and 1908 were either bright blue or full nickel. Quite often with the shiny ones, mother of pearl grips were also purchased. From inception until about 1924, standard grips were checkered hard rubber and after that year they were checkered walnut with Colt medallions inletted into the wood. Military versions were Parkerized with walnut grips and marked “US Property.”
Ironically, it was one of the rare general officers’ Model 1903’s by which I was introduced to these pistols. A friend loaned me his father’s military-marked Model 1903 for some cursory shooting. (His father had retired as a US Air Force 4-star General.) I liked the little pistol enough to get one, albeit certainly not as rare, valuable and collectible as my friend’s. A natural follow up was a Model 1908.
Neither Model 1903 nor Model 1908 was hard to find and their cost was considerably less than the new breed of small pistols. Being a shooter more than a collector, I searched out ones with perfect mechanical functioning, ignoring finish wear. With hard rubber grips my Model 1903 is pre-1924 and my Model 1908 is actually first-year production according to its serial number.
There is nary a sharp edge or angle to either of these little pistols. They are rounded (modern word: melted) everywhere for comfortable handling and carrying inside clothing. Both have 8-shot magazines plus a feature that sounds good to me for a concealed carry handgun—that being a grip safety such as found on the big 1911’s. Barrel lengths are 3-3/4 inches (very early Model 1903s had 4-inch barrels). Sights are a tiny blade front with a rounded, notched rear dovetailed into the slide. It can be drifted for windage zeroing. Neither of mine needed messing with when fired with run of the mill factory loads at about 10 yards.
Duke’s Model 1908 .380 ACP is from the first year of production.
Naturally, considering their era of manufacture, they are all steel. Mine both weigh 24 ounces. Colt billed these models as “hammerless.” Actually by today’s standards they are not truly hammerless but have concealed hammers. The only design point I would change is to have a magazine release button instead of the little sliding button at the bottom rear of the magazine well.
This final fact is perhaps the most amazing one of all regarding Colt’s little ’03’s and ’08’s. The ultra-famous Colt Single Action Army (aka Peacemaker) was made to the tune of 357,000 between 1873 and 1941 (1st Generation). The 2nd Generation amounted to about 74,000 (1955-1974) and 3rd Generation is well over 150,000 and counting (1976 to present). Starting in 1903 Colt made over 572,000 civilian Model 1903’s, another 200,000 for the US Government and at least 138,000 Model 1908’s. That’s closing in on a million of the little guns. Production ceased in 1945.
If modern pistol manufacturers want to hit a home run, why not copy Colt’s ’03 and ’08 form, perhaps lightening things with some space-age materials?