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Pocket Pistols Past and Present

Currently, it is estimated there are around 14 million Americans with Right-to-Carry or carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) permits. And the number of peaceable gun carriers is even higher, as there are 10 states where no permit is required for a law-abiding citizen—who is not a prohibited person—to have a firearm discreetly tucked away. And the kind of guns carried by those who exercise their Right-to-Carry are typically small pistols easily concealed on the person. While some carry full-size Government Models and others still prefer short-barreled revolvers, today it is the pocket pistol that is grabbing headlines in gun magazines. And even as the economy ebbs and flows—mostly ebbs—it is the pocket pistol that dealers have a hard time keeping in inventory.

Just to set the record straight, when I say pocket pistol, I am referring to semi-automatics that can be carried handily in the pocket, not necessarily shot while in the pocket. While possible in an emergency, this practice is rough on one’s trousers. Too, if you are carrying a pistol in a pocket, it really should be in a pocket holster. My old boss, American Rifleman Technical Editor Pete Dickey, used to carry an Astra Cub in .25 ACP in his front shirt pocket behind his cigarettes and Zippo, although neither smoking nor Doral carry are highly recommended these days.

When it comes to pocket pistols, you need to determine just what sort of pocket you are talking about. Back when gentlemen wore waistcoats, or vests, the little Browning designs were pocket pistols. Whereas .25s were most commonly called “Vest Pocket” pistols, the subject of this article is how we got to the current crop of .380 ACP pistols suitable for daily discreet carry in the pants pocket—even though pocket 9 mm Luger and even .45 ACP pistols not appreciably bigger than .380s are on the rise.

Pocket pistols can be blowback-operated or recoil-operated, double-action-only, trigger-cocking or even single-action, rendered in polymer, aluminum or steel. They can have mechanical safeties, trigger-blade safeties or nothing but a drop safety. In short, they are diverse yet ubiquitous. And they are made by Beretta, Bersa, Boberg (Bond Arms), Colt, Diamondback, Glock, Kel-Tec, Kimber, North American Arms, Remington, Rohrbaugh (Remington), Ruger, SCCY, Seecamp, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Springfield, Taurus, Walther and others.

Demand for pocket pistols is not new. But the kinds of pistols being mass produced today, and bearing extremely reasonable price tags, are the result of a progression, with no small influence by legislation over the intervening century or so, and engineering that has resulted in rapid, affordable production. It is estimated that Ruger has made more than 1.5 million Lightweight Compact Pistols at its Prescott, Ariz., facility since 2008. More on the LCP, as well as the LCP II, later.

In previous centuries, gentlemen carried flintlock single-shot pocket pistols, sometimes even with a little folding bayonet on them, in their tailcoat pockets. That gave way to the percussion single-shot that even today still bears a version of Henry Deringer of Philadelphia’s name. William Elliott’s Double Derringer, as made by Remington, was the leading pocket pistol for half a century, and versions of it are still produced, including by Bond Arms in Texas. Too, Remington made a rimfire single-shot actually called “Vest Pocket.” Before there could be semi-automatic pocket pistols, though, there first needed to be smokeless propellant and self-loading firearms.

At the turn of the 20th century, the semi-automatic pistol was in its infancy. In its first decade, three cartridges were introduced that would come to define the guns that fired them. Those cartridges are the .25 ACP (6.35×16 mm), the .32 ACP (7.65×17 mm) and the .380 ACP (9×17 mm). All three were developed concurrently with John Moses Browning-designed pistols and made by Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale and Hartford’s Colt. The elegant Colt Model 1903, or Model M, in .32 ACP and then, of course, the Colt Model 1908 in .380 ACP and the .25 ACP Model 1908 or “Vest Pocket” remain the most poignant examples of the American pocket pistol. They were even more widespread throughout Europe. How popular were such guns? Fabrique Nationale presented John Browning with a .25 ACP Model 1905 (its Vest Pocket) marked “Un Million” to commemorate the production of the first million FN Browning pistols in 1914. Mind you, FN’s first Browning-designed pistol, a .32 ACP, was the Model 1899. A million guns in a mere 15 years—and that was only one factory. On top of that, the little Brownings were widely copied the world over, much to the great man’s chagrin.

The semi-rimmed cartridge fed from a detachable magazine allowed for small guns that could carry up to six or eight rounds. The guns of that era reflected the height of style and practicality rendered in steel, with some of them having the nicest Art Deco lines of any guns before or since—others looked as if they came out of a not-well-funded science-fiction magazine.

(l.) The Ruger LCP compares favorably to a .25 ACP Colt Model 1908 in size. (r.) The Colt Model M in .32 or .380 ACP, although heavy, defined the larger end of the pocket pistol spectrum for decades.