Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Early American .32 Pocket Pistols: Part II

In writing Saturday's post about pocket autos, I spent some time examining the actual pistols as well as exploded drawings. I also looked at the drawings of the two early American autos of which I don't yet have representative examples on hand, the Remington 51 and the Smith & Wesson .35. Most pocket pistols on the market after World War Two sprang from one of three evolutionary families: The 1903/1908 Colt/Brownings, the Walther PP, or the Beretta. That's what makes a look at the pistols from the Cambrian Explosion of self-loader design so fascinating: All manner of solutions to the problem of constructing a reasonably powerful, pocketable, self-loading pistol were tried before the market was thinned to the few that survive today.

The Colt is easily the most familiar, and not only because Colt's made more than half a million of the things over forty-something years. The basic structure of the John Browning design is elegant in its simplicity and several basic features have been copied down through the years by numerous handgun manufacturers.

The Savage is probably the second best known, and it should be, with a production run of several hundred thousand guns in a little over twenty years. The brainchild of one Elbert Searle, it's another simple and elegant design, if a little odd to our eyes, being somewhat of an evolutionary dead-end. Blowback-operated with a slight mechanical delay, its double-stack magazine was futuristic for the time and it contained even fewer parts than the Colt, but a combination of constant redesigns, overproduction, and a slumping market put paid to Savage's pistol efforts.

The H&R took a fairly simple, if odd-looking, Webley & Scott Police Pistol design and, through conversion to striker-firing and addition of a magazine safety, managed to up the parts count to 49; over a dozen more than the Browning design and almost two-thirds more parts than Searle's little pistol. They can't have been making money on those, and the fact that they disappeared from the market so fast suggests that they weren't.

Smith & Wesson, like H&R a revolver company, shopped for an outside design as well, finally settling on the Belgian Clement. With controls that were counter intuitive (the manual safety was a thumbwheel on the backstrap that pretty much could not be operated with the hand in a firing grip), baroque mechanicals (a parts count that far outstripped even the H&R), and extremely complex construction, S&W hammered the last nail in the coffin by arrogantly designing their own pocket pistol cartridge in 1913, when the rest of the market had already settled on Colt's .32ACP. Smith's .35 cartridge got Betamaxed, and the gun itself sank without a ripple; 8,000 were made in an eight year run at a time when Colt and Savage were selling tens of thousands a year.

Remington was the last player to arrive, showing up in 1917 with a graceful, futuristic-looking pistol designed by the great John D. Pedersen: The Remington 51. But its graceful, futuristic-looking lines concealed a funky, floating breech/indirect blowback mechanism and complex innards; Browning's pocket pistol contained five springs while Pedersen's had seven (S&W's Clement clone had nine!) Despite the greater complexity, Remington attempted to undercut Colt's on price, selling its offering for less than sixteen bucks when Colts catalogued for just over twenty. Late to the market, the Remington autos didn't survive the Depression.

And if you think there were some weird ones on the domestic market, well, that's just the start...


Anonymous said...

So, here's a question: So many of the autoloaders and even the revolvers of the first half of the 20th century, are in calibers now derisively referred to as "mouseguns"; yet they were deemed adequate for many people, including police departments. Today, even .38 Special and 9X19 are sneered at by a large section of gun society.

What changed? Was it the introduction of antibiotics and improvements in medical care? Was it the introduction of illicit "feel no pain" drugs onto the streets? Or was it the mass production and surplus of .45 acp left over from WW2?


B_L said...

I found a .35 Smith pocket-auto yesterday if you want one. Check your TFL PMs for more info.

Anonymous said...

I saw one of the H&Rs last weekend at a gun show. Yup, pretty ugly, and for $1200 it could stay in the case.


Tam said...


That's better than double the Blue Book of the most expensive variant, even if it was unfired in the original box. I paid $250 for mine, which was a pretty good deal.

Kristopher said...

My latest acquisition in .32 pocket pistols ... $350 for the pistol, and $80 for a partially full box of ammo ( apparently made of effing unobtanium ).

Tam said...



(...and .32 RF is actually slightly scarcer than unobtainium. ;) )

Anonymous said...

Here is a source for .32 Short RF:

But you might want to research the gun first, because it might be chambered in .32 Long RF. They are the same except for case length, but it might give you some ammo availability you wouldn't otherwise have.


Kristopher said...


errrmm ... he's selling new Navy Arms Brazil imports for $5 a round, max order of five rounds.

About the price of 20mm Vulcan practice rounds.

( BTW, both .32rf short and long will fit in a Smith Model 1 ).

If I'm going to pay $5 a round, I'll buy ones I can reload myself.