Colt Model 1903 DA .38 Revolver

By David Tong

Colt Model 1903 DA Revolver.
Colt Model 1903 DA Revolver. Photo by David Tong.

Dear reader, I call your attention to this rather ordinary looking, older Colt double-action revolver. It is historically interesting, because its predecessor’s use in the Philippines caused U.S. Army Ordnance to re-assess the use of medium caliber handguns for most of the 20th Century.

Prior to the 1903, Colt had manufactured the substantially similar Models 1899, 1900 and 1901 revolvers. For military use, they chambered the .38 Long Colt cartridge. Launching a 130 grain RN lead pill at under 800 fps, it was a far cry from our country’s first metallic cartridge sidearm, the Colt Single Action Army chambered for the powerful .45 Colt cartridge.

The push was on to create a trigger cocking (double action) revolver capable of firing with a simple pull of the trigger. Earlier DA revolvers from Colt included the Lightning and some of the early New Service revolvers. These were usually chambered for larger calibers, usually .44 or .45. Both of these early DA revolvers suffered from either the Army meddling with the design, or a grip frame and length of trigger stroke that was too long for the average sized hand, or both. Even worse, the DA trigger pulls on these very early double action revolvers approached twenty pounds weight. The solution was to scale the designs down, thereby taking the caliber size down with it.

The Model 1899 was the Army's current issue revolver when the Spanish American War began. During our invasion of the Philippine Islands, then a Spanish colony, things went awry. It was found that center hits from .38 Long Colt rounds sometimes failed to stop berserk Moro warriors. Even when mortally wounded, they were often able to use their Bolo knives to kill or seriously injure the soldier shooting the pistol. Not a sterling endorsement of technology designed to keep bad guys at a distance! (Of course, there were similar reports of failures to stop Moros fatally shot by .30-40 Krag rifles, which were far more powerful than any handgun. -Editor.)

To restore morale, the Army was forced to ship quantities of Single Action Army .45 revolvers previously stored in reserve and, as the story goes, the rest is history. The troops were far more satisfied by the stopping power of the .45 Colt cartridge. However, the U.S. Army continued to purchase the somewhat fragile, underpowered DA revolvers for three more model cycles, until they were supplanted in March 1911 by the Colt Model 1911 autoloading pistol in .45 ACP.

The Colt Model 1903 revolver I handled had not been shot much over its century of existence. The bore was bright and free of corrosion, as were the cylinder’s chambers. The double action pull weight was still execrable at over 18 pounds, stacking in two stages. To be fair, all the military double-action revolvers of the era, save the British Webley Mark VI, were similar. The front sight was a thin, inverted-V blade. A small notch in the top of the frame served as a rear sight. The smooth walnut grips were skimpy by modern standards.

One interesting thing about this particular revolver is the inspector’s mark on the left top of the frame: “JTT.” This could only mean John Taliaferro Thompson, designer and father of the famous submachine gun that bears his name. He was a U.S. Government arms inspector before becoming famous for his sub-machine gun.

The original US Army model designation and serial was roll marked onto the butt, interrupted only by the lanyard swivel, a feature of most of U.S. martial revolvers. A small “1903,” probably indicating the year of manufacture, was also rolled onto the left frame, just ahead of the grip panel. The revolver retained approximately 80% of its original bone charcoal bluing and sold in the $400 range on one of the firearm auction sites.

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Copyright 2012 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.