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