Monday, July 12, 2010

The Thirty-Two and I.

At first glance, "early .32 Auto pocket pistols" seems to be a strange collecting niche. I mean, why? What's the fascination? How did I wind up here? Well, there are several reasons, many of which I didn't understand until I was halfway down the rabbit hole, so to speak: It wasn't until I'd already accumulated a few that I really began to grasp why I found them so interesting.

For starters, the .32ACP, or 7.65 Browning as it's termed across the pond, is a strong candidate for the oldest autopistol cartridge still in common use. John Moses Browning developed the round for his first commercially successful self-loading pistol, which went into production at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium at the close of the 19th Century, and it's been in constant usage ever since.

Further, it was one of the first “standard” pistol chamberings. It was common practice with early autos to design a new cartridge to go with a new pistol. With the strong sales success of the FN M1900 and its associated round, later manufacturers of small autos found it convenient to design their offerings around this already extant cartridge, assuring their customers of widely available ammunition.

Thirdly, the guns themselves are often very interesting from a mechanical standpoint. The early 20th Century was a time of rapid change and broad experimentation. Unlike today, when the self-loading pistol is a decidedly mature technology and most advances are incremental and usually revolve around new materials, the early 1900s were a time when the best ways to build a working pistol were still being felt out by trial and error and dozens of designs, ranging from the familiar to the baroque, were tried. Blowback, blow-forward, short recoil, long recoil, striker ignition, exposed hammers, enclosed hammers... all were represented somewhere.

Additionally, the very construction of the pistols approached the status of metalworking art. Casting, stamping, injection-molded plastic... none of these techniques had been applied to firearms production yet, and so everything is intricately machined from forged steel and often fitted to a level of precision that would satisfy a watchmaker. These are not characteristics associated with mass-produced items in our day and age.

Also, these pistols are tangible artifacts of a very different era. They are from a time when, through most of the Western world, there was nothing terrifically unusual about a gentleman owning a small pistol which he could slip into a coat pocket, should he feel the need for a little insurance. They are also from a time when a small, .32 caliber pistol was considered adequate for police, gendarmes, or even the military: The original .32 M1900 from FN was adopted as the official service pistol of the Belgian army.

Lastly, they are very accessible. Some of the rarer models, or guns in outstanding condition, may bring moderately high prices, but working examples of many of the most interesting ones can be had for $300 or less. Thanks to their durable steel construction, they are generally still quite functional. And thanks to the ubiquity of the .32 ACP cartridge itself, spending a pleasant afternoon at the range with one of these living fossils is well within the reach of most collectors.