Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Classic Colt #1: Model 1902 Military

This past weekend, I shot a bowling pin match with a high-speed, low-drag semiautomatic pistol of the type favored by our nation's elite antiterrorist units. The next day at the gun show, I picked up a pistol that was first made one hundred and six years ago. Except for a couple of small design differences, they are largely the same gun.

In the late 19th Century, gun designer John Moses Browning pursued two paths of automatic pistol operation. The first to go into production was what we now term “blowback”, in which the force of the fired case pressing against the breech face would overcome the inertia of the “slide”, which was the upper part of the pistol, and the recoil spring that held it shut and drive the whole assembly to the rear, the spent cartridge case being kicked clear of the gun in the process.

The problem was that this method was not suitable to more potent cartridges, as the only way to keep the slide closed until pressures within the chamber had dropped to a safe level was to make it too massive to carry conveniently or to hold it shut with a spring so strong that the average person would find it difficult to actuate the slide manually. Something obviously needed to be done to slow the rearward progress or the slide.

Mr. Browning's idea was to make the barrel free to move somewhat, unlike in the straight blowback design, and anchor it to the frame by means of a pair of swinging links, one at the rear of the barrel and one at the front. On firing, the whole assemblage of barrel and slide would move rearward locked together by means of lugs machined atop the barrel that fitted into mortises in the underside of the slide. This would only be for a short distance, as the links would naturally pivot about their pins, causing the barrel to drop down and unlock from the slide.

The slide would continue rearward, extracting the spent case from a chamber whose pressures had safely dropped, since the bullet had long since exited the barrel. Thus did Browning find a solution to the problem of higher-powered cartridges in the newfangled automatic pistols, and he managed to sell the idea to Colt, heretofore known mostly for revolvers. In 1900, Colt released a pistol chambered in a .38-caliber rimless round loaded with the new smokeless powder. It was not a resounding success, having one or two issues that needed addressing.

One of those issues was that the hammer could not safely be carried in the lowered position with a round in the chamber. Mr. Browning refined his original design somewhat, including a new inertial firing pin that allowed hammer-down carry on a live round, and Colt released the refinement as the Model of 1902, notable for its complete absence of external safety levers, made possible by the fact that liability attorneys had not evolved from sharks yet and everyone knew whose fault it was if you put a bullet through your own foot.

A large pistol with a 6” barrel completely enclosed by its slab-like breech slide, it was very plain in appearance compared to its contemporaries. There were no outside controls or levers, except for a semi-recessed slide catch that held the slide to the rear after the last round had been fired. The muzzle was located within the slide by means of the forward link, as well as a distinctly coned shape that would return it to the center of the slide as the latter moved forward.

The pistol was offered in two variants, a “Sporting” model with a somewhat rounded butt, and the “Military” model with a squared butt holding one more round of ammunition as well as a lanyard ring. The “Military” model actually did manage to score some sales to various governments, with the U.S. buying a number for testing & evaluation, as well as shipments to users as diverse as Mexico and Chile.

The pistol was manufactured until 1929, long after it had been superseded by newer designs from Browning. Its main weakness had been that, should the slide lock fail, the slide would exit the frame to the rear, catching the shooter square in the face. On later designs, Browning added a recoil lug under the front of the slide to retain it on the frame in the event of slide lock failure. This meant that the slide would have to be drawn off the front of the frame when taking the pistol down for cleaning, and necessitated abandonment of the forward swinging link. Browning made up for it by supporting the end of the barrel in a hardened removable bushing installed in the front of the slide.

A glance at a cutaway of the pistol shows how little has changed of the basic mechanism between a 1902 Colt and the latest polymer STI 2011 race gun. There is the sliding trigger which acts on the disconnector, which passes through and transmits forces to the sear, the whole assembly held in place by a three-fingered leaf spring behind the magazine. When it is done right the first time, there's not much need for improvement.

The example above was manufactured in 1912. It was purchased at a gun show in late 2008 for $675, mostly due to its lack of original grips and the fact that the original finish has gone to patina and there is some pitting on the front starboard side of the slide. With even a modicum of original bluing left, these guns will bring well north of $1,000, with a very nice example of an early model (which has the cocking serrations on the forward end of the slide) worth as much as $8k. With U.S. military markings, you could buy a new car for what one will bring at auction. Any Colt auto of this vintage is a solid investment and worth a closer look.