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.


staghounds said...

A few other "different era" things are demonstrated by these little pistols, too.

Capitalism. The west was so full of machine tools and venture capitalists that just about anyone with some decent design or production abilities could play in the pistol business. Entry barriers were low on the production side.

Market success is not predictable. S&W got their pocket pistols very wrong, despite having a great big old gun company. And yet Clement did just fine with the S&W progenitor in Europe.

Competition rewards quality. An utter novice can rank the sales success of pocket .32s by type, if you just put the examples on the table.

"Globalisation" is very old. These pistols were sold all over the earth, and their ammunition was available in many a rathole without a paved road.

Liberty. in the thirty years of your Cambrian explosion, millions of these little guns were made. (And lots more millions of pocket revolvers.) Almost all of them went to civilians. Almost everywhere on earth, all a white person had to do to get a pistol was come up with the money. Buying a pistol was like buying a book or a hairbrush.

Wealth. Again, millions of these guns and their revolving counterparts. An FN, Colt, or other first class .32 auto (or pocket revolver) would have cost you about $10-15 new. That's about $500-800 in today's money. A lot of real money running around loose. As the man said in How Green Was My Valley, with all this progress, will we ever again see a day when a manual laborer keeps his savings in a bowl full of gold sovereigns on the mantel.

(Also, gold as a constant of value. That $10 gold piece will still buy a first class pocket pistol.)

The past was not some bucolic idyll. In the thirty years from about 1880-1910, probably five million pocket pistols and a third that many holster guns were sold to civilians in an America with about seventy million adults. Why did they think they needed a gun in their pockets?

People were comfortable with being armed. Pistols, especially these new automatics, were consistently advertised in general circulation magazines right beside the soap and toothpaste. Cream of Wheat and Colt, right on the same page. And often to women particularly.

"Gun control laws" are nonsense. Although it wasn't some bucolic idyll 1910 was safer than today judging by the homicide stats. When anyone with two dollars who could write could get a .32 by return mail from Sears. The guns in the pockets didn't seem to make things worse.

Anonymous said...

Beside in their later years, Bogart used one to off Eddie G.(Rocko) in Key Largo.

Anonymous said...

Blow forward?? Blow Forward??!?

Obviously I need to do some research...

cap'n chumbucket

Tam said...

Cap'n Chumbucket,

See the "Schwarzlose M1908".


Don't be surprised if some of that, suitably paraphrased, turns up in the book. :)

staghounds said...

Go, Michelle! ;)

Crucis said...

I saw two FN .32s for sale at the last KC gunshow. One for $450 and the other for $400. I manned a table for my gunclub and the pistols were on the table opposite ours. My co-worker bought the better of the two. There were also two FN .25s for sale as well.

All the pistols were private sales. A man cleaning out his collection before moving to a nursing home.

MJM said...

Interesting and different article. The Savage .32 pocket pistols still pop up and shows pretty often for not a lot of money. Unique way they are assembled, using a breach plug assembly and only one exterior pin (the magazine catch). At least that is what mine is like.

Woodsong - Find Gun Sites said...

My 32's tend to be the ones I enjoy shooting the most. Accurate, easy on the hand, yet they make a nice "bang". Not too heavy, either.

Also tend to look nicer, too.

Windy Wilson said...

Interesting, because that thirty year period from 1880 to 1910 is almost congruent with the 30 year period that saw the change of household technology from kerosene lamps and no plumbing and no electricty to all the things we consider necessities today in a house; electricty, gas, water and sewage. 1880 to 1920 was probably, if not the time of the most activity in the industrial revolution, the time when it was most in evidence in the lives of ordinary people, if only in America and Europe.

It also happened to be the time when "progressives" decided there was enough human advancement and instead of looking for more health, cleanliness and conveniences and luxuries, the task that could be arrogated to government was to see to it that everyone had exactly the same things, which is impossible in an active, innovating society.

Windy Wilson said...

I thought Bogart got Robinson with a small revolver from Robinson's gun moll. Further research is in order for me.

Chris said...

Picked up one of thos FN .32 at a police auction. Weird construction; recoil spring on top of the barrel, barrel mounted to the frame.
Tamara, I was captivated by your picture at "People of the Gun."
You are a beautiful lady.

Bill Wayne said...

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Anonymous said...

My wife has a Type IV Colt 1903 that belonged to her grandmother. I'd rate it at about 95% and I am willing to bet it was unfired before my wife acquired it. It is the most beautiful gun in our extensive collection. My wife shoots it occasionally, and it is a blast to shoot (and it cycles flawlessly with every ammo we've tried in it except Parvi Partizan - it runs different ammo types better than any modern .32 I've shot). We've got lots of cool guns, but this one is probably the coolest. It is just a work of art. The slide to frame fit is so tight but so smooth, and the way the feed ramp just perfectly mates with the barrel, it's just mind-blowing how perfect this thing is. There is no modern firearm that approaches this example of perfection.

Anonymous said...

Nice to 'find' you again, Tamara.

I agree, the early .32 autos are fascinating and fairly affordable collectables. Among the qualities they possess is that of appearance. I think of them as Art Deco pistols.

I've posted several reports of these type pistols at my site. They shoot rather well in the main.

J R in WV said...

My Grandma kept a country store starting in 1932 until the mid 1950s, and carried a Colt 1903 .32 automatic in one pocket of her pinafore apron... the money was in the other pocket. Every Sunday she would use the surprisingly big pistol to kill a tin-can in the back yard and reload it. That way everybody knew Gracie carried a gun and knew how to use it. She was never robbed because everyone knew she had the gun, knew she knew how to use it, and believed she would shoot them if they tried to take advantage of her!

My cousin, the son of her only son, inherited her guns, and brings them out to my farm to plink with every few months. He keeps that Colt .32 in his bank safety deposit box. At Grandma's farmhouse it was on the top shelf of her bathroom closet, and all the kids knew to keep your dirty hands off of it. We never touched it, there was a .22 rifle for us to use on the tin-cans.

The first time he brought it out to a shooting range day, neither of us had ammo, so we oiled it a little and worked the action for the first time in probably 40 years. The next time we both had a box, and my cousin brought his son to shoot.

I shoot more than my cousin, he lives in the suburbs, and I can shoot off my front porch as I'm up a holler in the woods. So I loaded up the magazine with 5 rounds so as not to mess up a 110 year old spring, worked the slide, and held the pistol way out with one hand, so it would be farther from my face if anything went bad wrong.

the first shot it stove-piped the empty, so I took the magazine out and worked the slide back and forth, put another shell in the magazine, loaded that new shell into the chamber and went at it again. This time I went through all 5 rounds, then my cousin did too, and then his son.

It's still a very good looking gun, Browning incorporated many features in 1903 that were prominent on the M1911 .45 8 years later.

After we were done shooting that piece, cousin asked if I knew why the checkering on the grip was worn as it was, and I said no. "Because Dad (my Uncle Bill) carried it in his hip pocket when he drove 'shine into town!" So I learned something about my Mom's family back in the depression. And my Grandma, who was a Baptist, but was willing to sell 50 lbs of corn to anyone in her store, as many as they wanted, and to not tell anyone who was buying that corn - like a revenue agent.

Uncle didn't make the shine, he drove it in to the Elks Club, and the Moose, and probably the country club. And split the money with the manufacturer, who lived up Sand Lick on the ridge behind Grandma's Farmhouse. I don't remember his name, and when we went for a Sunday drive and went past his house, Grandma never said a word about his still work, even 25 years later.

So I learned a lesson about privacy there, too.