Colt 1903: From Portland to Pascagoula in 111 Years
You often hear, when talking about old firearms, "if only they could talk." Well, they can't, but sometimes their hidden history tells a story.
To go ahead and clear the air, I am an unreformed gun guy. An old fart, even, when it comes to collectible guns. The kinda guy who agrees to go antiquing with my wife on the slim hope that I might find a rusting can of Hoppe's on a forgotten shelf boasting a handwritten $5 sticker. "Yes, honey, Vaseline glass is neat, but did you see that old craft paper Colt box over there?"
This brings me to a vintage Colt I recently came across.
Meet My Colt
Besides antique store browsing, I haunt gun stores, estate sales, and the used gun listings online, pulling the metaphorical trigger when I can. One neat little pistol I recently came across on our site (yes, we can buy a limited amount of guns from Guns.com each year, no, employees don't get "first crack" at them as they all have to be listed on the site first, and, yes, Guns.com still makes sure they make a profit on employee purchases) fell into my basket and arrived at my local FFL in Pascagoula on the Gulf Coast.
An orphaned hog leg put into the Guns.com pipeline via the We Buy Guns service had a new home.
An iconic .32 ACP single stack made to a design of Mr. John Browning, the 1903 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.
The asking price of the Colt 1903, when introduced, was $26, or about $700 today.
Doing Some Digging
A neat thing about Colt is that the company maintains a fairly accurate online search tool for serial numbers. A simple query with my new 1903's serial (116902) finds that Colt has used that number no less than 17 times between 1856 – first on a Model 1849 Pocket – and 1954, with the last being a Super 38. Just one M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 Automatic was on the list, made approximately in 1911. A momentous year for Colts!
Besides being during the administration of William Howard Taft – a leviathan Republican who was Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of War and later became the only president to become a Supreme Court justice – 1911 was also of course the year that the Army selected Browning's .45 ACP Colt design as its standard sidearm, a call that would endure for the next 75 years.
My interest piqued, I hemmed and hawed about emailing the Colt Archives for a letter but eventually fired and took the plunge.
Lots of longstanding companies offer such letters, but Colt kind of sets the bar. For about $75 (the price varies, and you save if you do several requests at once) the fine folks over there will burn lean muscle and wade through the papercuts and mothballs to pull an individual gun's original shipping details, including information on its original configuration, shipping date, and the original destination. They then put what they found in an archive letter.
Mine, sent out a few weeks after I put the request in, seemed to confirm the "born on" date, with the pistol logged as shipped on July 6, 1911, along with 24 others of the same type, to the Honeyman Hardware Company of Portland, Oregon.
Of note, Honeyman was huge in the first half of the 20th century. Giving Sears, L.L.Bean, and Montgomery Ward a run for their money, Honeyman wasn't just the largest hardware and sporting goods store in Portland, or Oregon, but one of the largest in the world. A 1939 ad claimed they were the largest store of its kind in the world and was operating from a block-long eight-story headquarters and warehouse. Through their catalogs – which were as thick as 1,800 pages –Honeyman shipped and sold practical items nationwide, back when you could have guns delivered to your home. Hence, the fact that they ordered 25 Colts of the same type all at once isn't strange.
Several rare and collectible Colts passed through the company's inventory around that time.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. While highly successful in its era – over a half-million Colt Pocket Hammerless pistols were produced between 1903 and 1945 – the model was dropped from Colt's catalog soon after World War II.
Speaking of WWII, Honeyman fell into bankruptcy during the war, and its vacated warehouses were converted for use by the Coast Guard. Today, on the National Register of Historic Places, the company's now-iconic building has been converted to "luxury lofts," because of course it has.
Regardless, I feel good about housing my own little refugee from Portland and stand ready to do it again.