Is the .32 ACP Pistol still “Mission Feasible”?

September 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles, Trail Boss News

I was first introduced to the M1903 Colt Pocket Hammer-less in 1974 by the late Harry Archer of the CIA. In the  1970s Harry Archer and I tested almost  every .32 ACP pistol made, to isolate which pocket guns were the most reliable, accurate, and natural instinctive pointers in the Applegate style. We fired lab specimens borrowed from the NRA museum, FBI and BATF labs as well as some unusual guns borrowed from various military collections. There were no hollow-point factory loads available back then, so we shot “hot” European hardball and hand loads assembled with various cast bullets and Winchester factory “gumball soft” lead, 100-grain flat-nosed .32-20 slugs similar to Ideal #3118 which became Harry’s choice for carry ammo in his overseas go-bag.

Of all the .32 pocket guns Harry liked the Colt the best. It shot to its sights and fed reliably those flat-nosed .32-20 Winchester component lead bullets. Use of the M-series Colt Pocket Hammerless during WWII by the OSS and Britain’s SOE is well documented. Colt Pocket Models were issued to U.S. general officers well into the 1970s. A Type III Colt Pocket Model with grip safety, but no magazine safety was Harry’s choice for discreet carry when a larger, more adequate firearm was not “mission feasible.”

I was very impressed with the Colt Pocket Model’s natural pointing, reliable function and practical accuracy “for what it was.” I understood why people who have these don’t get rid of them. I looked for years, but never found a Colt auto in shoot-able   condition, that was affordable at the time. I didn’t want to butcher a collectible, because I would put larger sights (that I could see!) on it and carry it on occasions when I needed something more discreet than my usual six-shot .38 snubbie.

All I wanted was a representative Colt with good bore that functioned reliably and shot accurately. Considering that Colt made over a half million of these, you seldom see one in a shop, because they hide in dresser drawers until the estates of their owners sell them off.

The Berettas M1934/35 and M70, the VZ/CZ27, Mauser M1910 and HSc, the Browning M1910 and M1922 also “made the cut” but in Harry’s eyes were mere substitutes, being “acceptable, but not first choice,” if you could get a Colt.   So, over the years, I acquired most of the .32 autos on what the insiders down “at the farm” once called “Harry’s Good List.” Then a friend found a much-used, but serviceable Colt, which belonged to an old lawman, which could be shipped to my dealer for transfer. Had found this gun 25 years ago I would have no need for the others I’ve accumulated in the last 30 years. But, I have them with no regrets. They are fun-to-shoot pocket guns of another era.

In my testing of auto pistols I shot 8-shot groups, because I wanted to test their reliability of function, as well as accuracy and zero to point of aim, and that’s also what the magazines held. I shot at 25 yards off sandbags to allow a realistic comparison with other service and sporting handguns.CZ27_Saeco#325_1

Twenty five yards exceeds the usual range at which a pocket pistol is normally used. German police standards allowed 5 mils or 75mm of dispersion (about 3″) at 15 meters (approximately 49 ft.). My Beretta Model 3031 Tomcat barely does this with good ammo when I do everything right. Typical 25-yard eight-shot groups are more like six inches. WWII-era “full-sized” .32 pocket pistols do much better, closer to 4 inches at 25 yards and are useful as field guns for shooting small game within 50 feet or so, which are much more effective than a .22 LR.

Any pocket pistol which groups better than 4 mils, or 60mm (2.36″) at 15 meters is said by the Europeans to be quite good. I agree. My experience with over a dozen .32 ACP pistols tested over the years suggests the most accurate pocket pistols are the Walther PP (not the PPK – its very little better than the mouseguns), FN M1922, Mauser HSc, Beretta M70, Colt Pocket and CZ27. Any of these reliably group about 2” at 50 feet, with good ammo. Any pocket pistol which does so should be considered a “keeper.”

For practical utility in field shooting for camp meat, ten to fifteen yards is a practical limit for obtaining two-inch groups from a field position needed to bring meat into the cook pot. The Speer No. 13 Manual stated of .32 ACP pocket pistols, that “groups less than six inches at 25 yards are considered good.” In my experience the best .32 autos average 4 inches or so over a series of five consecutive 8-shot groups, counting fliers and all. Six-shot groups fired from .32 or .38 revolvers with 3-inch and shorter barrels are no different.

This level of accuracy is practical and realistic, given their intended short range use. Sitting rabbits or grouse in the brush, sure! But no head-shots at squirrels up in tall trees. Mr. Wabbitt won’t let you choose the best 5 shots out of 6 or 8 you shoot or to disregard ”called fliers” you read about in gun magazines. But Mr. Wabbit best be wary, because these little guns are adequate for the close ranges they are intended for

The popular 60 to 65-grain jacketed HP bullets do not have sufficient recoil impulse to function older WWII-era European pistols and are a sure receipe for a “Jam-O-Matic.” [/B] Also, penetration of .32 ACP loads which do expand is inadequate for self defense, and destroys edible meat on small game.

While the .32 ACP is not first choice as a defense gun, it is better to have any gun than none, if life goes sour~!. A pocket .32 is easily carried when you might be tempted to leave a larger gun at home and take your chances. If using a marginal caliber, shot placement, reliability and penetration are most important. Stick to European hardball, such as RWS, Sellier & Bellot, Privi Partisan or Fiocchi, which actually does give 900+ f.p.s. in my chronograph tests. US makes tested seldom go 850 and use a 71-gr. vs. 73 grain bullet.

Flat-nosed cast bullets are more effective than LRN or FMJ hardball. They are cheaper than jacketed hollow-points, feed more reliably and are more accurate! In my .32 Auto pistols I use the Saeco #325 semi-wadcutter, which weighs 98 grains in wheelweights and feeds in all the guns. I tumble the bullets in Lee Liquid Alox and load them as-cast and unsized with 1.8 grains of Bullseye. I seat to the crimping cannelure on the bullet and use a custom Lee Factory Crimp die to profile the loaded rounds for easy chambering, and to size the bullet by compression inside the case. If you want to buy bullets rather than cast your own, use the Meister 94-grain flatnose .312 for the .32 S&W Long and .32 H&R Magnum. Seat the bullet no shorter than 0.95″ overall length and no longer than 0.975″. It will feed like the proverbial pony trotting. Velocity from typical .32 Auto pistols approximates the .32 S&W Long fired from a 4 inch revolver, about 720-750 f.p.s.

This is an old concept which dates back to J.V.K. Wagar’s article in the August, 1931 issue of The American Rifleman on pgs. 14-15, entitled “Almost, the Best Small Pistol.” He says:

“This is not a deep wilderness side arm…, but as a light pistol to accompany the big rifle it has many advantages… one is never hampered by its weight and bulk and it need not be left behind because the way is hard and steep or the trail long…“The .32 Colt Automatic… is the biggest pistol that fits comfortably into ones pockets… and its owner isn’t often asked by some romance filled tourist if you are a real live cowboy, so the hills are full of these pistols.”

“Practical accuracy is not of the spectacular kind… I can obtain quite good accuracy holding the pistol in both hands and resting them upon my knees I can hit a 50-cent piece practically with every shot at 20 yards. … is almost ideal for strictly small game shooting, we have shot many cottontails, grouse, squirrels… over 200 pieces of game in all— and have found it unexcelled. It is just enough larger than a .22 Long Rifle to make it a more certain killer, yet destroys little more flesh and makes little more noise in the woods…cast bullets will give more killing power than the jacketed factory bullets. They do not expand upon flesh, but roughen when they strike bone and tear flesh rather than parting it.”

“If one has access to an Ideal No. 4 tool and mould for the .32 S&W he is well equipped… The .32 S&W bullet weighs 88 grains and its diameter of .313 inch is well adapted… I have loaded many hundreds of .32 A.C. cartridges with .32 S&W tools…If one shoots a high-powered .30 caliber rifle Marbles adapters using the .32 A.C. cartridge can be used for small game shooting or one can use the .32 A.C. cartridge in the Winchester adapters made for firing .32 S&W cartridges in the .30-30, .30-40 and .30-‘06 rifles.

“In closing, permit me to summarize: This is not a target arm, nor is it powerful enough for defense purposes against great beasts or armed men of great virility; but considering its short length, light weight, light report and recoil, and cheapness of ammunition, one will have difficulty in finding a more accurate, more reliable and more powerful pistol just to take along.”

C.E. “Ed” Harris is well known to readers of American Rifleman, the Gun Digest and the Cast Bullet Association’s Fouling Shot magazine. During 12 years on the Technical Staff of the National Rifle Association he was a consultant to numerous military, law enforcement and firearms industry organizations and was officially commended by the U.S. Marine Corps Development Center, Quantico, Virginia for  expert technical assistance provided during the Development and Operational Testing of the M16A2 rifle. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, holds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Professional Development Certification in Emergency Management and for 22 years he has worked for local government in Northern Virginia.

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14 Comments on "Is the .32 ACP Pistol still “Mission Feasible”?"

  1. Mike on Thu, 24th Sep 2009 7:21 AM 

    Mr. Harris makes a lot of sense. Certainly, there are tasks the .32s might not be up to, but they’re always better than large caliber/full-size handguns left elsewhere. I’ve had recent occasion to do a considerable amount of shooting of a Soviet Nagant in 7.62 x 38, as well as a Colt Pocket Positive in .32 S&W Long. I’ve found both to be very accurate and enjoyable to shoot. The .32s have a great deal to offer.

  2. Mark on Thu, 24th Sep 2009 11:09 AM 

    I like this the .32 would be a great little piece for the wood I wonder if .32 in a revolver would be better?

  3. Jmmy Joe on Thu, 24th Sep 2009 11:10 AM 

    I have had a .32 in the drawer for some time and never gave it much thought, I think it will go with me on my walks and when kicking around in the woods

  4. Art on Thu, 24th Sep 2009 11:10 AM 

    Good Read

  5. Mike Stamm on Fri, 25th Sep 2009 6:46 AM 

    Mark,
    I’m real fond of the revolvers, and if you go with a .32 mag (or the new .327 mag) you can also down-load them with .32 S&W or S&W Longs. I’ve tried the .327, and prefer the more sedate stuff, personally.
    The autos are a lot thinner and easier for pocket carry than are the revolvers. I used to have a “Titanic” pocket auto made by Ruby in Spain during the ’20s, and it was a surprisingly nice little gun. The old Euro autos are often inexpensive. I believe I paid 20 or 25 bucks for mine, and gave it to a friend who admired it. They’re out there.

  6. Ed Harris on Fri, 25th Sep 2009 6:59 AM 

    The reader poises an extremely valid question, would a .32 revolver be better? I’ve explored this too.

    I had always believed that “trail guns” required a 4-inch or longer barrel to be accurate enough to take the head off a grouse at 25 yards with rifle-like accuracy. Then in 1974 I accompanied Arizona Game and Fish biologist Harley Shaw on a horseback trip in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, where they were monitoring telemetry from collared mountain lions. Harley usually carried either a 2-3/4-inch Ruger .357 Speed Six or a 2-inch S&W Model 34 .22 Kit Gun, depending upon the season and mission.

    His reasoning was that a “camp gun” was used more for personal protection up close than for shooting camp meat at any distance. A trail a gun is “carried a lot, but seldom shot.” A holstered gun on the hip snags brush and may poke you inconveniently when sitting for long periods. When the task at hand doesn’t require a firearm, carrying one anyway can be a nuisance. Harley’s ideal trail handgun was a compact, reliable snubby revolver, tucked into a chaps pocket with no more thought than pulling on your pants in the morning. Snake and furry varmint ranges in the scrub are short. There is no need to shoot beyond 50 feet. Simplicity, comfort, constant availability and compact convenience are the name of the game.

    Over the years I’ve had fun comparing small revolvers with pocket auto pistols. Revolvers enable greater versatility in ammo, while auto pistols are flatter to carry and carry more rounds. Both types of handguns have their advantages.

    Utility with shot loads is important in snake country. The choice of a pocket gun for such use favors a .38 Special revolver or perhaps a compact .45 Automatic and Speer loads. The utility of .22 shot loads is extremely limited. They require that you get within 5 to 6 ft. of the snake, which may be interesting if it’s a really “big” one. Most .22 auto pistols don’t extract or eject shot-loads reliably, so follow-ups are slow and you will need to carry a knock-out rod along.

    As for practical field shooting accuracy, Harry Archer defined “small game range” as the longest distance at which YOU can shoot a 2-inch group from an improvised field rest using your handgun of choice to put meat in the cook pot. Most pocket pistols or snubby revolvers do so at ten yards. Better ones do so at fifteen, and a few will at twenty. But very few do so reliably at 25 yards. Even with my best handloads loads, none of my stock .32 Autos or my .22, .32 or .38 revolvers with fixed sights, having barrels of less than four inches reliably average 2 inches at 25 yards.

    This should come as no surprise. Firing service-grade pistols or revolvers (not intended for formal target work) a grouping of “one inch per ten” (yards) has always been felt satisfactory. The best pocket pistols and compact revolvers group two inches out to only 50 feet or so. For most ordinary handgun use this is “good enough.” Outdoorsmen years ago did fine in shooting camp meat and varmints with handguns no more accurate than this.

    If you don’t believe this, just try fire your own tests with any generic 4-inch barrel fixed sight .38 Special “cop gun” or single-action cowboy revolver sometime and be honest. If you really need grouping better than 2 inches at 25 yards, anytime, on demand, you must endure carrying a very much less-handy 6-inch gun.

  7. Wic on Sat, 10th Oct 2009 9:31 AM 

    Thank you for good job!,

  8. Steve on Tue, 3rd Nov 2009 7:36 PM 

    Ed,

    Would my Ideal #31357 (made for the .32 NP with an as cast 105 grain FN) be too heavy for the .32 ACP? What I am really getting at, would the extra 7 grains (over the Saeco #325) make that much of a difference? Would I have to reduce that 1.8 grs. of Bullseye? BTW, as all .32 brass is none too plentiful at present, I have been loading/shooting ACP’s in my Ruger Bisley SS. Seems the semi-rim is enough to hold the round in the cylinder. Normally I load 3.0 grs. of Unique in S&W long brass for this bullet. Not a thumper in the Bisley by any stretch, but seems to meet my minimum daily requirements.

  9. Jim Monty on Thu, 5th Nov 2009 8:11 AM 

    Good read-

    my main CCW (when carrying small) is the Beretta Tomcat 32- – great shooter- very accurate at 7 yards- the most I take away from these articles – is #1 carry the weapon 2# practice so you have good shot placement just in case

    I have a bunch of buddies who say that the 32 is crappy round- meanwhile I am at the range once a month, with my tomcat in my pocket- there 45,40 etc is at home with little or no use- Hmmmmm-

    cheers

    Jim

  10. Ed Harris on Thu, 5th Nov 2009 9:04 AM 

    The key to loading .32 ACP is to pay close attention to overall cartrodge length and bullet seating depth. Longer-shanked bullets intrude into the powder space and reduce case capacity. As little as 1/16 inch reduction in overall cartridge length when loading a heavy cast bullet can result in a dangerous pressure spike.

    Back when I loaded the 100-gr. Winchester flat-nosed lead .32-20 copmponent bullets for Harry’s M1903 Colt I used 2.4 grains of then-Hercules Unique, seating bullets to 0.95-0.97 OAL. This load functioned a variety of guns well, including the full-auto Scorpion pistol.

    Seat bullets out as long as possible so that the noses don’t drag against the front of the magazine body. Normal FMJ roundnose ammo can be 0.98 long and all eight rounds will fit into the magazines of European pistols. With flatnosed bullets you may need to go shorter, depending upon their profile. With a 105-grain bullet I would reduce the charge to 1.7 grains of Alliant Bullseye, loading in RWS, Geco or Fiocchi brass which has an empty primed weight of about 40 grains. Remington brass runs lighter, about 38 grains, and you don’t need to worry about it. Winchester brass runs heavier, about 43 grains, so you may need to reduce the powder charge another 0.1. If you have a chronograph you are looking for 720-750 f.p.s. from a 3.5 inch barrel. Over 800 f.p.s. with a bullet this heavy cases will start to bulge and you will notice heavier recoil which will actually start to deform magazine boxes of some after-market magazines.

    If you have the heavy slide INOX Model 3032 Beretta it will handle these loads OK. The blued models having the slim profile slide don’t stand up well to continued use with heavy bullet loads and you may crack the frame.

  11. Ed Harris on Thu, 5th Nov 2009 2:06 PM 

    Since people may ask, here are tips on loading the .32 ACP

    My favorite cast bullet handloads in .32 ACP use the 88-grain NEI #82, the 98-grain Saeco #325 semi-wadcutter or a 93-grain hollowpoint version of the Saeco #325 as modified by http://www.hollowpointmold.com/.

    If you don’t cast your own you can buy 94-gr. .312 flatnose cowboy bullets from Meister and they work fine. I cast my bullets from wheelweights, tumble-lubricate them in Lee Liquid Alox, and load them as-cast and unsized with 1.7 to 1.8 grains of Bullseye. The Saeco #325 is crimped in its normal revolver crimp groove. Do not load the Meister or NEI bullets shorter than 0.95 inch overall cartridge length, because their longer shanks protrude into the powder space and raise pressure at higher loading density. With flat nosed bullets do not exceed 0.975 inch overall cartridge length to prevent bullet noses from dragging against the front of the magazine box.

    I use a custom-made Lee Factory Crimp Die for .32 ACP. This removes any bulges caused by mis-match of the bullet diameter with the internal case wall taper, ensuring easy chambering and sizing the bullet, if needed by compression inside the case. It costs about $30. I highly recommend one for anyone who is serious about reloading for the .32 ACP.

    People are confused by advice in old Lyman manuals which recommends sizing cast bullets to the groove diameter of the barrel. This results in undersized bullets being gas-cut, causing leading and poor accuracy. Load your bullets as-cast and unsized and let the Lee FCD make the rounds fit your gun.

    Cast bullet alloy hardness should be matched to working chamber pressure. Maximum suitable chamber pressure for a given lead alloy hardness is estimated by multiplying its Brinell Hardness Number times the constant 1440. Wheelweight alloy slowly air cooled after casting has an average BHN of 12, so to estimate a useable working chamber pressure 12x(1440) = 17,280 psi. This is a good match for .32 ACP ammunition.

    Typical wartime European pistols vary with respect to barrel bore and groove dimensions, twist rate and chamber dimensions. Colts, Berettas and Walthers have 16 inch twist, FNs, CZs and Mausers have 10 inch twists. FN, Mauser and Walther pistols in my collection have groove diameters from .307-.309, Berettas, CZs and Colts run from .310-.312. I have not seen chamber throats in any .32 ACP pistol smaller than .311, but I have seen WWI and WWII era Spanish, French and and Italian pistols as with chamber throats as large as .316. Wide variation in bore sizes coupled with different diameters of factory jacketed bullets between US and European ammo from .309 to .312 explains most accuracy problems people experience with the .32 ACP. Cast bullets perform better in most guns.

    In my experience Sellier & Bellot, Sako, Lapua, Sintox and RWS ammo having the smaller bullet diameter works best in Walthers, Mausers, MABs and FNs, while larger Privi-Partisan, Fiocchi, FN and handloads using .311-.312 Magtech, Remington Hornady or Speer jacketed bullets are more accurate in Kel Tec, Beretta, Colt, Astra, Unique, Star, Llama and CZ.

    Do not shoot thousands of cast bullet loads with bullets heavier than 90 grains in the “mouse guns” having light alloy frames, because their increased recoil impulse is harder on the gun. The Beretta 3032 INOX pistol has a heavier slide than the original Tomcat which reduces its slide velocity to mitigate against this problem. My INOX has proven more rugged than the original Tomcat it replaced and has digested over 2000 of cast loads and 73-grain RWS hardball with no issues.

    In my testing Remington, Winchester, Federal and Magtech 71-gr. FMJ ammo averaged only about 850 f.p.s. when fired from a Walther PP with 3.9 inch barrel. European CIP 73-gr. FMJ ammo such as RWS, Geco, Fiocchi or Sellier & Bellot does over 900 in the 2.4 inch Beretta Tomcat and over 950 in the Walther.
    Typical US 60-gr. JHPs typically run about 900 f.p.s. but because of their lighter bullets, don’t provide enough recoil impulse to reliably cycle the older European pistols.

    My cast bullet ACP loads discussed here approximate the velocity of .32 S&W Long ammo fired from a 4-inch revolver, about 720-750 f.p.s. Recoil impulse approximates European 73-grain hardball. These cast bullet loads are accurate, fun for for recreational shooting or small game and they run the wartime guns like a pony trotting.

  12. Ed Harris on Tue, 10th Nov 2009 8:43 AM 

    Welrod Silenced Pistol

    http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/080605-F-1234P-006.jpg

    First brought into service during World War 2, this British-designed bolt-action weapon is still in the SAS Regiment’s armoury and has been taken to war at least as recently as the 1991 Gulf War.

    The Welrod is a single-shot weapon which requires the operator to manually cycle the rounds via bolt action. Magazine capacity is 5 9mm (in the Mk1) or .32 ACP (Mk2) rounds. Due to its mechanical simplicity and integrated suppressor, the Welrod is extremely quiet when fired – perhaps the quietest pistol ever produced. Effective range is short, however.

    The Welrod was designed for British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents for use at extreme close quarters e.g. assassinations. It most likely has a similar role within the Regiment as well as more traditional military uses such as neutralising sentries. At least one Welrod was taken by SAS Land Rover columns into Iraq during Desert Storm with such a use in mind.

  13. John1542 on Tue, 22nd Dec 2009 1:57 AM 

    Very nice site!

  14. Buck Hollow Collar 1922 on Sun, 8th May 2011 5:45 PM 

    [...] Is the .32 ACP Pistol still “Mission Feasible”? | ShilohTV My experience with over a dozen .32 ACP pistols tested over the years suggests the most accurate pocket pistols are the Walther PP (not the PPK – its very little better than the mouseguns), FN M1922 Mauser HSc, Beretta M70, Colt Pocket and CZ27. They are cheaper than jacketed hollow-points, feed more reliably and are more accurate! In my .32 Auto pistols I use the Saeco #325 semi-wadcutter, which weighs 98 grains in wheelweights and feeds in all the guns. [...]

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