The Dead Man's Gun

Dillinger's Colt M1903 Hammerless That Wasn't

The Colt M1903 Hammerless .32 was an integral part of American gangster lore.
The M1903 is shown on the left alongside a 1918vintage Colt M1911. The submachine
gun is an M1928A1 Thompson.

In 1903 Colt debuted John Moses Browning’s Pocket Hammerless .32ACP pistol. This trim little automatic ran via unlocked blowback and featured a tight single action trigger. The gun actually rocks a conventional hammer, but it’s nestled invisibly inside the rear of the slide to make the gun easier to conceal.

These pistols served until 1972 as issue weapons for General Officers in the U.S. military. The commercial production run spent itself in 1945 at around 570,000 copies. While Generals the likes of Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and Marshall all carried the weapon, it also found its way into more nefarious hands.

The slim, curvy and classy M1903 just seems to go with business attire and an overcoat.

Public Enemy Number 1

John Herbert Dillinger was an unrepentant career criminal whose violent exploits captured the imagination of an American population ground down by the deprivations of the Great Depression. The younger of John Wilson Dillinger and his wife Mollie’s two children, John’s dark nature was apparent from the outset. Dillinger stole his first car at age 19. He enlisted in the Navy and served aboard the battleship USS Utah, but eventually went AWOL.

Prison is where an amateur criminal turns professional and it was in jail Dillinger made the friends who would facilitate his meteoric criminal career. He learned how to rob banks from Herman Lamm’s associates and established professional relationships with gangsters the likes of Pete Pierpont and Homer Van Meter. A month after his parole from the Indiana State Prison he robbed his first bank, making off with a cool $10,000. That would be about $200,000 today.

In a one-year span, Dillinger and his gang robbed an even dozen banks, becoming both infamous and wealthy in the process. However, with notoriety and fame came the relentless attention of Melvin Purvis and the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to today’s FBI. After sundry shootouts, jail breaks and girlfriends wooed and lost, John Dillinger ultimately found himself in Chicago.

Dillinger recovered from a gunshot wound to his calf incurred when he had blasted his way out of a St. Paul, Minn., apartment complex. He subsequently decided he now desperately needed a little anonymity. On May 28, 1934, Dillinger and his buddy Homer Van Meter went under the knife in the living room of a crooked local businessman named James Probasco. After nearly dying from the crude general anesthetic, Dillinger awoke with a new face and obliterated fingerprints thanks to an ex-con physician named Dr. Wilhelm Loeser. The procedure cost Dillinger $5,000 or about $95,000 today.

This customized Novak’s M1903 shows just how far John Browning’s original design is capable of going. Photo: Roy Huntington

The Setting

After Dillinger’s prostitute-turned-girlfriend Billie Frechette got collared by the feds he found himself a replacement named Polly Hamilton. Unfortunately for Dillinger, the madame at Polly’s brothel was an illegal Romanian immigrant named Ana Cumpanas who would do anything to avoid deportation. This included ratting out her pal Polly and her exceptionally dangerous boyfriend with the curiously fresh surgical scars.

At around 8:30 on the evening of July 22, 1934, Ana, Polly and John walked into the Biograph theater on the north side of Chicago to take in Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. While history refers to Ana as the “Lady in Red,” her dress that evening was orange. This was arranged in advance as a signal to Melvin Purvis she was in the company of Public Enemy Number 1, John Dillinger.

As the crowd left the theater, Purvis and Dillinger’s eyes met for a pregnant moment. Purvis then lit his cigar, the prearranged signal for his men to move in. Dillinger reached for the Colt M1903 automatic pistol in his coat pocket and headed down a nearby alley. Unbeknownst to him, agents already had the alley surrounded.

The Colt M1903 was a popular concealable pocket pistol in the first half of the 20th century.

The End Game

Three agents pursued Dillinger into the dark alley, guns drawn. Charles Winstead fired three times, Clarence Hurt fired twice and Ed Hollis got off a single shot. Of the six rounds fired, four of them struck Dillinger. Two bullets grazed him while a third inflicted a superficial wound to his right side. However, one of Winstead’s rounds struck the villain in the base of the neck, severing his spinal cord and passing through his brain before exiting his right eye. John Dillinger was dead where he fell. He hadn’t time to retrieve his trusty Colt.

Two female bystanders were wounded in the crossfire, but both survived. In a macabre display of depraved curiosity, souvenir hunters mopped up the blood with handkerchiefs and skirts. Dillinger’s body was put on display at the Cook County Morgue and some 15,000 people filed by to gaze upon it.

Colt later produced the same pistol chambered in .380ACP as the M1908. Al Capone was a fan. Bonnie Parker taped one of the trim little guns to her thigh and used it to break her beau Clyde Barrow out of prison. These weapons were also popular with French Underground and OSS operators during WWII. Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo attempted suicide with a Model 1903 just before he was arrested for war crimes in 1945. Tojo’s gun is on display at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Va., today.

This M1903 has had the rear bits of the frame and slide milled clear and a
spur welded to the hammer. The end result looks strikingly like a miniaturized M1911.

The Colt M1903 .32ACP pistol is a slim and concealable pocket gun that
found favor with users on both sides of the law.

Trigger Time

The Colt M1903 is the American counterpart to the Walther PP-series of pocket pistols. The gun feeds from a seven-round detachable box magazine held in place via a heel catch after the European fashion. The M1903 has a small thumb safety on the left rear aspect of the frame. The gun has a handy grip safety and later versions incorporated a magazine safety as well.

The entrails of the M1903 are shockingly similar to those of one of John Browning’s other masterpieces, the M1911. My friend and boss Roy Huntington sent me some snaps of an M1903 that has had the hood machined off the back of the slide. The result is an adorably miniaturized .32ACP version of the classic M1911.

The M1903 is slim and easy to conceal, yet remains substantial enough to be both controllable and accurate for its genre. The Browning single action trigger is comfortable and fun. After a little trigger time I can see why the likes of John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow swore by the M1903.

The modernized M1903 by Novak sports sights of the same name. A welcome addition to the svelte auto.

The thumb safety on the M1903 is certainly discreet, but not exactly easy to operate.


John Dillinger was an archetype. A professional criminal in an era of professional criminals, in his short 31 years Dillinger became a national icon. Despite all the chaos and violence that followed him Dillinger was only known to have killed one man, a Chicago patrolman named William Patrick O’Malley. O’Malley, whose name tenders its own generalizations, had the poor fortune to have first shot Dillinger in his bulletproof vest during a robbery.

Federal Agent Ed Hollis died some four months later in a gunfight that also claimed the life of Baby Face Nelson. Charles Winstead, the agent who fired the fatal shot, eventually had a falling out with J. Edgar Hoover and resigned from the Bureau. He was ultimately responsible for security at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the Manhattan Project, the behemoth undertaking that produced America’s first nuclear bomb. Ana Cumpanas, the infamous Lady in Red, was eventually deported back to Romania anyway.

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