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...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Early American .32 Pocket Pistols: Colt's, Savage, and H&R

ABOVE: Early American .32 pocket automatics from Harrington & Richardson, Colt's, and Savage.

In the early 20th Century, American consumers were offered an alternative to the small revolvers and derringers that had been the standard in pocketable firearms for some fifty years: smaller versions of the new "self-loading" semiautomatic pistols.

In 1903, Colt's offered their .32 Automatic Pistol, known as the "Model M" or "Pocket Hammerless". Equipped with both thumb and grip safeties, it was not truly "hammerless"; rather, like Smith & Wesson's Safety Hammerless revolvers, it contained an internal hammer enclosed by the frame and slide which prevented snagging on clothing and allowed for a smoother draw. The pistol was in many ways an improvement over John Browning's first .32 pistol, the FN Model 1900, and it sold well, continuing in manufacture through numerous updates until 1945.

Wanting a piece of the lucrative new market and needing funding for their military trials effort, the Savage Arms Company of Utica, New York brought out their own .32 pocket pistol in 1908. Dubbed the Model 1907 from its patent date, the new design sold well and contained several novel features, including an external hammer-like protuberance that could be used to cock its internal striker, and a 10-shot staggered box magazine. Its advertising featured the slogan "10 Shots Quick" and made much of the pistol's ergonomics, claiming it pointed like "pointing your finger". However, despite celebrity spokesmen like "Bat" Masterson and "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and revised versions offered as the Model 1915 and 1917, production ended in 1928, and the pistol never attained the cult-like following of the prancing horses of Hartford.

Finding themselves late off the starting block, Harrington & Richardson took the sensible step of licensing a design from Webley & Scott, the famous English handgun manufacturer, although they redesigned it to use a striker-type ignition setup, which made for a more pocketable piece. Released in 1914, the H&R had a plethora of safety features, including both manual & grip safeties, a loaded chamber indicator, and the early production pieces even had a magazine safety. Far more complex than its competitors from Savage and Colt's, it was never a brisk seller, a fact that couldn't have been helped by its eccentric appearance. Manufacture ceased after 10 years and 40,000 units (as compared to over half a million for the Model M), although stock backlogs kept it in the catalog until the end of the 1930s.

(The definitive book on the Savage is Savage Pistols, by Bailey Brower Jr.; I spent a good couple hours nose down in my roommate's copy.)