The following information on the automatic pistol comes from The Book of the Pistol and Revolver by Hugh B. C. Pollard. The Book of the Pistol and Revolver is also available to purchase in print.
The greatest modern development in the design of firearms is undoubtedly that of the automatic principle.
In this, the recoil of the weapon is utilized to function the operations of ejecting the empty shell, cocking the arm for the next shot, and reloading the chamber from the magazine. Two distinct systems of automaticity have been used. The first is the operation of the arm by means of gas pressure tapped from the barrel near the muzzle. The second—and up to date the only one practically applied to pistols—the utilization of recoil.
The automatic principle was first applied in machine guns, all of which were gas operated, and later the recoil principle was applied to firearms for hand use and especially to pistols.
For a long time development was delayed by the existence of master-patents that prevented the utilization of various basic ideas and their adaption to the modern cartridge; but upon the expiry of the master-patents many small inventors and several great arms firms set to work to develop the automatic principle as applied to firearms in general, and pistols in particular.
The first automatic pistol to appear in the market was the Borchardt (1893), the predecessor of the present Luger-Parabellum and employing the same base idea of a toggle-joint breech. The magazine was concealed in the handle and the pistol was usually equipped with a skeleton stock for use in converting it to a short carbine. The action was unsatisfactory and usually jammed. This was in turn succeeded a year later by the Bergmann, a weapon that can claim to be the ancestor of all flat pocket-sized automatics. In this pistol cartridges were loaded by means of a clip into a magazine placed forward of the trigger-guard, whence they were forced by a spring-actuated under-lever into line with the breech-bolt. The arm was well designed, but the long travel of the breech-bolt and the weakness of the spiral spring that returned it to position frequently caused it to jam. This weapon and its imitators, such as the “Simplex,” suffered from the uneven quality of the ammunition then made for them, as smokeless small-calibre revolver cartridges were at the time a novelty and by no means so reliable or evenly loaded as at the present time.
The next weapon to appear was the Mauser of 7.65 calibre, the 1898 model combination automatic pistol or carbine, the wooden holster serving as a stock attachment. This was the first really satisfactory automatic pistol to be marketed, and the large-bore model of 9 mm. that is in use to the present day is practically the same weapon. In this piece the barrel and breech-block recoiled together for a short distance, after which the automatic check released the bolt and allowed it to continue its travel, ejecting, cocking, and, reloading. The magazine was of the box type, set forward of the trigger-guard, and held eight cartridges loaded into it from above by means of a clip, which was held in a notch in the frame. On withdrawing the empty clip the bolt closed, automatically reloading the chamber. The lock work was remarkable, for the whole weapon could be dismounted without the use of tools other than the point of a cartridge, and did not contain a single screw, all pieces being milled and interchangeable.
The powerful bottle-necked cartridge and nickel-covered bullet were capable of good work up to 600 yards, and the weapon was sent out with a military standard sight graduated to 1,000 metres. This was for use as a carbine, the wooden holster-case serving as a stock. Viewed as a pistol simply, the weight, bad balance, and powerful recoil did not make it a valuable weapon as a pistol; but as a high-speed weapon for self-defence it was an advance on all its predecessors, and a number were used by the Boers during the Boer War.
It is interesting to note that it was with these weapons that two Russian anarchists were able to defy the police of London and initiate the memorable “siege of Sidney Street”—an affair which necessitated the calling out of the troops and raised such a popular outcry over the inefficient armament of the London police that they, too, were shortly armed with an automatic pistol of approved type.
Close upon the heels of the 1898 Mauser came, their rivals the Mannlicher firm, with the Mannlicher automatic, a weapon very similar to the Mauser, but with the magazine inside the handle, a type first started by the Borchardt, and popular ever since.
There were also many experimental weapons of lesser importance, few of which reached the outside world; the “Mars,” a weapon made by a British firm, is an instance of this type.
By 1898 the name of the Browning automatic system began to be heard, and soon the Browning automatic pistol of .32 calibre made its appearance, and owing to its excellence sprung into universal popularity as the latest thing in pocket pistols. The .32 or 7.65 mm. Browning cartridge is now standard all over the world, and was further popularized by the adoption of the Browning patents by the Colt Firearms Co. whose excellent plant and material produced, in 1903, the .32 Colt hammerless automatic, a weapon then much superior to the Continental-made Browning. The Browning pistol was soon produced in 9 mm. or .380 calibre, and in 6.35 mm. or .25, for waistcoat pocket use.
The Colt .38 military model automatic had the barrel fixed to a hinged slide, so that breech and barrel were locked at the moment of firing, and was the first automatic pistol to be adopted as a military arm, and was soon made in various barrel lengths to suit varying requirements. The little .25 calibre waistcoat pocket Colt automatic is practically a miniature of the .32, but has a different firing mechanism, the hammer and firing-pin of the .32 being replaced by a spring striker similar to that in use in military bolt-action rifles.
The next model was the .450 Colt automatic, which was shortly succeeded by the .450 new model automatic military model, especially designed for the U.S. Government, and embodied several radical improvements, notably the abandonment of the slide action of the earlier .45 and .38 military models in favour of the improved locking device for breech and barrel, and the embodiment of a new and comfortable sloping handle, and several safety devices.
The Webley automatic pistol of .32 calibre was the first to succeed the hybrid Webley and Fosberry (see chapter on “Military Arms”), and was the first automatic pistol (not revolver) to be made by them. The principle employed is a variation from all other automatic designs, for no spiral recoil-springs are employed, the functioning of the breech-bolt being attained by the absorption of recoil by a flat laterally placed recoil-spring and lever situated in a recess in the right-hand grip at the side of the handle magazine. In this and the pocket models of .25 calibre, as well as in the new Metropolitan Police model of .32 calibre (which has a raised back-sight in place of the plain notch, and remains open when the magazine is exhausted), the breech-block is not locked to the barrel at the instant of explosion, but in the high-power .380, .38, and .455 military models breech and barrel are locked during the instant of firing. The Webley is the only British automatic pistol manufactured. Spiral springs are now used in the latest model hammerless .25 automatic made by them, the recoil-springs running parallel to the axis of the barrel in the recessed breech-bolt.
The Savage Co. make an excellent ten-shot .32 and .380 pocket pistol which is remarkable for lightness, portability, magazine capacity, and excellence of manufacture. Their lock is dismountable without the use of tools, and the whole weapon is a piece of masterly design. The barrel and breech are locked at the instant of firing, and the barrel has to revolve in its seating for one-eighth of a turn before the breech is free to recoil. The magazine is contained in the handle, and the cartridges are “staggered,” allowing a greater capacity than in any other automatic arm.
Numerous Continental makers have invaded the market with cheap automatic pistols of .25 and .33 calibre; among the best of these are the Bayard models, which comprise the smallest large-bore pocket automatics made.
Other makes are those of Pieper, Jeffeco, Victoria, Express, Walman, Roth-Sauer, Clement, and numerous others, but purchasers should remember that cheap pistols are false economy, and that where the weapon of a first-class firm like Colt, Webley and Scott, Smith and Wesson, F.N. (Browning), Mauser, or Mannlicher can be relied upon, the cheaper makes have no such warranty. At its best the functioning of an automatic pistol is less reliable than that of a revolver, and the delay consequent upon a misfire or jam is such as to seriously prejudice them in favour of the revolver, in the point of view if anyone who desired a reliable self- defence weapon. The author has personally tried almost every make and calibre of automatic pistol, whether British, American, or Continental, with the result that so far he has not come across the weapon that will not jam upon occasion. The smaller calibres are much the worst offenders in this respect, and it is usually urged in defence by manufacturers that unsuitable ammunition has been used. Despite this ingenuous disclaimer, a good automatic should, like a good revolver, be capable of use with the standard cartridge issued for it by any ammunition firm of repute. As a matter of fact, most jams in automatics are due to magazine trouble; that is to say, either the feeder end of the magazine has got slightly deformed, or else the cartridge-carrier platform and spring need attention. As a military arm for Government issue, where the user can always get a spare interchangeable part from his regimental armourer, the heavy-calibre automatics may be considered efficient, but the opinion of most private individuals who have occasion to carry a pistol, such as explorers, mining engineers, war correspondents, and the like, is that the large-calibre modern revolver is still the superior and more serviceable weapon, a conclusion with which the author, at pain of being thought ultra-conservative, yet heartily endorses.
At the moment of going to press the long expected .22 Colt Automatic Target model has made its first appearance in England, but so far only a few have been imported, owing to the dislocation of traffic caused by the war. The pistol is a radical departure from previous Colt designs, and seems to be in every way an ideal weapon. The magazine is designed to hold ten shots, and is housed in the stock. The weapon is hammerless, adjustable sighted, and has a removable breech side, allowing the barrel to be cleaned and inspected from the rear. The balance is good, and the length of barrel 6 1/2 inches—ample for accurate shooting. The grip is set at a suitable angle to the hand, and the weapon “comes on” in an excellent line of sight. It is not necessary to use special cartridges; the ordinary long rifle rim-fire with greased bullet (or even the greaseless if the shells are slightly lubricated) function the arm with excellent results.
The weapon should prove enormously popular, as it is a type that has been long awaited by the shooting public, and uses reliable and inexpensive ammunition of limited range.