Compact, slim, accurate, and simple. All mantras for the most modern concealed carry pieces today. They all apply to a design introduced 118 years ago as well – the Colt M1903.

While well-engineered semi-auto pistols abound today, the same statement simply wasn't true in the early 20th Century. Most early autoloaders were downright funky (see the Bergmann 1896), had bad ergonomics (Borchardt C93), were overly complex (C96 Broomhandle, which are notoriously hard to disassemble), and proved to be evolutionary dead ends (the Luger – not a lot of toggle actions in production these days). 

Enter the gun guru of Ogden, Utah, Mr. John Browning, who largely hit it out of the park with his freshman semi-auto handgun, the FN M1900 of 1896, the first pistol with a slide – let that sink in. A simple blowback single-stack chambered in .32ACP – which he also invented – he followed that up in 1897 with his short-recoil operated Colt Model 1900, a larger gun whose action was recycled into the Colt M1902, which we have talked about before, then scaled down to make the Colt M1903. 

Boom. Looks dated? Well, it came out in 1903, but bear with us. (Photo: Chris Eger/
For reference, the author's Colt, an early 3rd Type, has a serial number that falls into the circa 1911 production range, the same year that Colt introduced a slightly better-known Browning-designed handgun. (Photo: Chris Eger/

While often billed as the "Pocket Hammerless" since, A) it was small enough to put into a coat pocket, and B) there was no visible hammer, the M1903 had a 3.75-inch barrel and an overall length of 6.75 inches. Designed for such concealed use, the gun has what today would be called a "carry melt" and has a minimum of snag-prone surfaces. Weight, loaded with eight rounds of .32 ACP, came out to 24 ounces. The asking price, when introduced, was $26, or about $700 today (blame FDR for taking the United States off the gold standard). 

The M1903 compares well in size to the more familiar Glock 43, with the Austrian polymer entering the market in 2015.

The G43 is slightly shorter but has a 6+1 capacity, one shot less than the downright ancient Browning design. Loaded weight, surprisingly, is comparable, with the Glock only running 4 ounces less than the M1903. (Photo: Chris Eger/
The overall width of the G43 is 1.06 inches while the Colt beats that by a bit, having an extremely slim profile that feels great in the hand. (Photo: Chris Eger/
The Colt M1903 used Browning's April 20, 1897 patents on sear arrangement and firing mechanism as well as his Dec. 22, 1903, firing pin safety patent.  (Photo: Chris Eger/
The M1903 was hammer-fired, not striker-fired as you would think by looking at it from the outside as the hammer is not externally visible. (Photo: USPTO)
It fieldstrips in seconds into its basic components and does so without tools, removing screws, or having a takedown lever. In fact, it is easier to disassemble than Browning's earlier FN 1900 and later M1911/Hi-Power. (Photo: Chris Eger/
Note the arrangement of the locked-breech system with interlocking teeth between the frame and barrel. Also note the hammer. (Photo: Chris Eger/
The M1903 uses just 38 parts, even while having both a beavertail grip safety and frame-mounted manual thumb safety. Keep in mind the Glock, a paragon of simplicity famously uses 33 (ish). 
Colt extensively advertised the M1903 as "You can't forget to make a Colt safe," in reference to its grip safety, a feature later repeated on Browning's M1911. 
Speaking of safety, Colt also advertised the feeling of personal protection the M1903 provided, be it in your home or the glove box of your Duesenberg. 

The guns proved extremely popular with Colt. So much that the company introduced what today would be deemed a "magnum version" in the only slightly larger .380 ACP-chambered M1908. Keep in mind that, while many scoff at the .32 and .380 these days, and 1900s-era round-nosed ammo was even more anemic than what was available now, for its era it was still more potent than many black powder cartridges that were marketed for handguns that preceded it. 

Both variants remained in production for a half-century, with Colt reportedly still shipping models assembled from existing parts as late as 1953. Over a half-million guns left the factory, making them common. They were used by the U.S. military in both World Wars, by the cloak-and-dagger OSS behind enemy lines before the invention of the CIA, and by numerous law enforcement agencies. 

There was even a documented factory belt clip option, beating ideas like the Clipdraw and Techna Clip to the market by generations in a case of "everything old is new again."

There are thousands of these cool old guns hidden away in sock drawers, cigar boxes, and attics, resting after a lifetime that may have included riding around in Stutz Bearcats, remaining ready for use in the coat pocket of a bootlegger or detective, or sitting just of out sight under the shop counter. (Photo: Chris Eger/

Further, the slim Colt seems to have been extremely photogenic, having appeared in the hands of movie tough guys and not so tough guys for over a century, ranging from Charlie Chaplin (in 1918's Shoulder Arms) to Bela Lugosi (The Black Cat, 1934), Frank Sinatra (Suddenly, 1954), George C. Scott (Patton, 1980), Gabriel Byrne (Miller's Crossing, 1990), Denzel Washington (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1994), Mads Mikkelsen (Flame and Citron, 2009), Cillian Murphy (Anthropoid, 2016) and Keanu Reeves (Wick 3, 2019). Speaking of swagger, film noir legend Humphrey Bogart used an M1903 on screen in most of his best movies, including Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo. 

Not a bad legacy. This is probably why the M1903 is still manufactured by US Armament Corp, under Colt's license. After all, if it ain't broke, right?

For more on the Colt 1903 and 1908, please seek out Sam Lisker's Colt Autos page as well as Ed Buffaloe's Unblinking Eye entries on the guns, both well-researched labors of love. 

Love cool old guns like these? Be sure to check out our carefully curated Military Classics and Collector's Corner sections where history is just a click away.