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Pocket Pistols Past and Present

Contemporary gun literature, and frankly there’s not a whole lot, mentions pocket pistols only sporadically. Mostly, the debate from the birth of the semi-automatic pocket pistol around 1900 to the start of World War II was between short-barreled revolvers or pocket automatics for personal protection. This debate continues to some extent to this very day, though the pocket pistol has far outstripped the snub-nose wheelgun in terms of popularity.

Captain Hugh B.C. Pollard wrote in The Book of the Pistol & Revolver in 1917: “The advantages of the pocket automatic are—rapidity of fire, and the flatness and compactness in the pocket.” It was understood that such guns were commonly used to defend one’s life at close quarters from bandits and blackguards. “The pocket model automatics, .25, .32, and .380 are extensively used for home protection and pocket use,” wrote J.H. FitzGerald in Shooting (1930).

“The average Englishman has little idea how widespread is the habit of carrying a pocket pistol; it is certainly unusual in England but almost customary in the U.S.A. and Continental countries … ,” wrote Capt. Pollard, “After all, it is better to be efficiently armed than not; and ever since the first prehistoric man invented the sling or the bow, weapons that keep the enemy at a distance and disqualified mere personal strength have been popular.” As to carrying a pocket pistol, Capt. Pollard added, “[A] pistol is a wise precaution, as it insures, that, if you are molested, you hold equal or superior cards to your adversaries.”

But just as legislation affects gun design today, too, that turbulent era of the 1910s and 1920s had an influence on guns, especially pocket guns. The Sullivan Act was passed in New York in 1911, essentially to try and keep guns out of the hands of the have-nots, such as the poor or the wrong sort of immigrants. Even at the beginning of handgun permitting laws, they favored the wealthy and politically connected. A century later, some things in the Big Apple haven’t changed.

But there was a far more sinister and racist rationale for some early laws prohibiting concealed carry or requiring a permit, as exposed in Watson v. Stone, a 1941 Florida Supreme Court case in which a concurring justice wrote: “The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population … [T]here has never been, within my knowledge, any effort to enforce the provisions of this statute as to white people, because it has been generally conceded to be in contravention of the Constitution and non-enforceable if contested.”

That era of the 1910s and 1920s saw the introduction of American guns such as the Savage Model 1910, Smith & Wesson .35 cal., the Remington Model 51 (designed by John D. Pedersen), and there was even a version of the Webley autoloader offered by, of all companies, Harrington & Richardson. Continental makers offered little guns such as the Bergmann, Mauser, Walther, Ortgies and Sauer from Germany (quite a few of these designs were striker-fired—Gaston Glock didn’t invent the concept, he just rendered it large and in polymer), the LeFrancais from France, plus other blowback-operated .32s from non-FN factories in Belgium. The rise of Spanish gunmaking was based upon mostly French demand for Eibar- or Ruby-pattern pistols during the Great War, which were plagiarized from Browning. All over Europe, dozens of makers were turning out pocket pistols. There was even a class of fixed-breech four-barrel guns called “Pocket Pistols.”

With the threat of anarchy and Bolshevism in Europe, two things happened after the cataclysm of the Great War; people wanted pocket pistols to defend themselves, while their governments passed laws prohibiting pocket carry—especially among political, ethnic or religious “undesirables.” Gun control laws in Europe eventually stifled much demand for such guns, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. In the United States, most states had existing laws against an average citizen carrying a pocket pistol concealed without a permit.

While the widespread pocketing of pistols may not have been talked about much, there were some classes of people, in particular store owners and shopkeepers, who continued to keep pocket pistols where they belong, in the pocket. Those who carried cash and those who carried badges were the primary consumers interested in pocket handguns. And there were plenty of them considering the size of that market. The true FN Baby Brownings appeared in 1931, and Colt continued to offer the 1903 and the 1908 until 1946. Then other guns began to emerge as Europe recovered from the devastation of World War II. Walthers started to be imported back into the United States, some of them being made by Manhurin in France, there were some small French designs such as the Unique, and then Beretta began importation into the United States. During that period the Spanish makers were emerging as leaders in pocket pistol design and production.

The Walther PPK (top left) didn’t meet the import criteria under the Gun Control Act of 1968 due to its size—certainly not its quality. After 1968, pocket pistols offered for sale had to be U.S.-made. (r.) FN Browning Model 1905

The Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968 pretty much put an end to European pocket pistol importation through its requirements that a pistol’s combined height and length must not be less than 10″ and the gun had to score 45 points under BATF’s “point system” that deliberately penalized pocket pistols. What the GCA’s proponents were after was stopping the import of shoddy, affordable pocket pistols and revolvers, but the venerable Walther PPK—a gun whose quality was never in question—was swept up in the law and prohibited from importation, as was the extremely well-made Belgian Baby Browning. So, after 1968, the newly manufactured pocket pistol became an American-made endeavor. Little Walthers and Berettas would be stamped “Made in the U.S.A.”