Pondering Pocket Power
The past decade has seen an interesting handgun trend — the resurgence of the American-made pocket automatic (P/A henceforth). Through the 1880s and early 1900s, small revolvers were extremely popular. Quality varied from very good (S&W top-break models, for example) to borderline unsafe-to-shoot, such as imports selling for three or four dollars.
The first commercially successful P/As resulted from the genius of John Browning. When he designed the 1900 and even more successful 1910 pistols, FN would make them by the tens of thousands. Under an agreement with FN, Colt made and marketed its very similar series of compact autopistols. To function with the blowback operation of Browning’s pistols a series of cartridges were designed, the .25, .32 and .380 ACP.
Colt P/As were very popular. Other American gunmakers naturally wanted a piece of the market. The problem was making them without infringing on Browning’s patents. Remington, Savage and S&W came up with successful designs, and although they sold reasonably well, none approached the success of Colt’s pistols.
Europe would prove to be the real home of P/As. The tremendous popularity of the Browning-designed FNs naturally attracted the interest of other gunmakers. Most successful, or at least most influential of the designs, were the DA Walther PP series. Among other popular European makers were Sauer, Mauser, Star, Llama, Beretta and CZ.
After WWII American-made P/As virtually disappeared. Remington, Savage and S&W dropped their pocket pistols in the ’20s and ’30s, Colt in 1946. What happened? The answer can be given in one word — Fitz. For much of the pre-WWII era, J.H. Fitzgerald was a renowned handgun expert, target and exhibition shooter and police firearms instructor. Fitz took Colt revolvers in various calibers, shortened the barrels to around 2″, rounded the grip frames, cut off hammer spurs and the front of the triggerguard, and carried them in pairs stuffed in his pant’s pockets.
But the breakthrough came when Colt took the small-frame, .38 Special Police Positive model, fitted a 2″ barrel and named it the Detective Special. Once the war was over, S&W designed a similar model called the Chief’s Special. Both S&W and Colt introduced light alloy-framed versions of their small revolvers.
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