This is a very rare U.S. Model 1902 Army Trials Contract Semi-Automatic Pistol in .38 Caliber rimless, smokeless, also known as .38 Automatic Colt Pistol. This pistol is one of the very first of only 200 trials pistols ordered by the Ordnance Department for testing by the U.S. Army. All of these US Model 1902 Army Contract Pistols are in serial number range 15001 to 15200 and all were manufactured in 1902. Only 57 of these US Model 1902 Army Trials Pistols are known to exist today, making them one of the rarest of all US military trials pistols.
Automatic pistols were being designed in Europe as early as the 1880s by such firearms luminaries as Hiram Maxim (an American who was working in Europe), Andreas W. Schwarzlose, Hugo Borchardt (also an American), Ferdinand R. von Mannlicher, Peter Paul Mauser, and George Luger. American designers in the U.S. quickly caught up with their European counterparts and the first United States patents for automatic pistols were issued in 1896 and 1897. The 1897 patents are interesting because automatic pistol patent number 580935 was issued to Carl J. Ehbets, an employee of Colt, and four patents, numbers 580923 through 580926, to John M. Browning, all of which were issued on the same day, April 20, 1897.
John Browning’s designs not only heavily influenced all Colt automatic pistol designs, but Colt was able to manufacture Browning pistol designs under license from the beginning. In addition to Colt, John Browning also worked closely with Remington and Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. One of Browning’s designs became a prototype developed by Colt in 1898, which was submitted to the U.S. Government for military trials. Within two years, the Colt Model 1900, chambered in .38, was in production. The Model 1900 was Colt’s first production of an automatic pistol and only about 3,500 were manufactured from 1900 to 1903. The Model 1900 was purchased and evaluated in limited numbers by both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, and there were some design deficiencies that needed to be addressed. These issues led to the production of the Model 1902 Military, of which this pistol is a very rare, very nice, early example.
Colt developed the first Model 1902 Army Test Pistol and sent it to Springfield Armory for evaluation in December 1901, and it was examined on December 16, 1901 by Major John Greer, Captain John T. Thompson, and Lieutenant Odus C. Horney. After procuring additional magazines, this test pistol was firing tested on December 24, 1901. After firing 6,000 rounds with no apparent problems, the testing board recommended that sufficient numbers of the test model be acquired for field trials. On April 7, 1902, the Chief of Ordnance instructed the Commanding Officer of Springfield Armory to “purchase 200 Colt Automatic Pistols latest pattern with necessary spare parts and accessories,” and that “These pistols should be specially marked to distinguish them readily from models now under trial.” Lieutenant Colonel Frank H. Phipps, commander at Springfield, replied on April 19th acknowledging the instruction and noting, “With reference to the distinguishing mark, I have given instructions that this lot of pistols be stamped ‘Model 1902.’”
The 200 US Model 1902 Army Contract Trials Pistols were manufactured at Colt and were shipped in July 1902. The first one hundred pistols, including this pistol, serial numbers 15001 through 15100, were delivered to Springfield Armory on July 15, 1902. The remaining 200 pistols, serial numbers 15101 through 15200 were received at Springfield Armory on July 25th. Upon arriving at Springfield, the pistols were inspected by Rinaldo A. Carr and accepted by Captain John T. Thompson, after which they stamped their inspection initials on the right side of the receiver. The left trigger bow was also stamped “U.S.” to indicate U.S. Property.
On August 14, 1902, the Army Adjutant General directed that the 200 Trials Pistols should be issued as follows: 60 each to the 2nd, 4th, and 13th US Cavalry Regiments, and 5 each to the following field artillery batteries, 8th, 10th, 11th, and 17th. The 200 Trials Pistols were then issued to the field and received on September 12, 1902. These cavalry and artillery units were located at Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. The units receiving the pistols were instructed to complete their trials and reports on the trials by January 1, 1903. Because of lack of sufficient ammunition for the trials, however, the deadline was extended to June 30, 1903. The reports were all received from the field by August 1903. The results of the tests were not inspiring with several deficiencies noted. The most damning statement concluded, “Opinion, unsuited for issue.” The Army’s trial results were not a complete repudiation of the design as the Model 1902 would go on to become a relatively successful commercial design, but it was the opinion of the soldiers testing the weapon that it was not a suitable cavalry arm. While not dismissing the concept of the semi-automatic pistol generally, the performance of the Model 1902 led Colt to wait several years before Colt would submit another automatic pistol to the US military for test and evaluation.
Upon conclusion of the tests in 1903, the US Model 1902 Trials Pistols were declared surplus and those still deemed serviceable, only 62 pistols, were sold in 1909. According to Edward Scott Meadows’ definitive book “U.S. Military Automatic Pistols, 1894-1920,” only 57 of those original 62 sold are documented as surviving to this day, with this pistol, serial number 15019, noted on page 46 of his book.
The Model 1902 Pistol is a short recoil operated pistol chambered for the .38 rimless, smokeless cartridge (now known as the .38 ACP) and has an 8-shot magazine and a 6” barrel. The weight of the pistol is 2 pounds, 5 ounces.
The Slide is the correct, original with the serrations on the front portion of the slide. The slide retains generous amounts of the original, bright polished blue finish with wear noted on the sharp edges and on the top of the slide. The right side of the slide has the serif “AUTOMATIC COLT/CALIBRE 38 RIMLESS SMOKELESS,” stamping and, forward of the ejection port, the nomenclature “MODEL 1902” stamp. The left side of the slide has the scarce three-line patent and address that reads, “BROWNING’S PATENT,” “PAT’D APRIL 20. 1897,” / SEPTEMBER 9. 1902,” and “COLT’S PATENT FIRE ARMS MFG. CO./ HARTFORD, CONN. U.S.A.” At the rear, left side of the slide is the Rampant Colt logo in a circle. The bottom of the slide on the slide rail is a serif “M” assembly stamp. The bottom, rear of the slide has the serif “R.A.C.” Rinaldo A. Carr inspection stamp and the matching serial number “15019,” stamp. The vast majority of the original blue finish is retained on the slides interior surfaces. The breech face remains very clean and the bronze firing pin and firing pin spring still work perfectly.
The Rear Sight is the original fixed type that is dovetailed into the rear of the slide and has the early, rounded shoulders. The Front Sight is the original half-moon type. Both sights retain considerable original blue finish with wear on the top and sharp edges.
The striking surface of the firing pin at the rear of the slide retains the majority of its original straw finish. The Slide Bar Lock retains 98% of the original polished blue finish.
The Receiver, or Frame, is in very good condition. The full serial number, with serifs, “15019” appears on the left side of the Frame above the trigger guard. On the left side, at the top of the trigger bow, is the serif “U.S.” stamp. This indicates this was the 19th US Model 1902 Pistol manufactured in the early summer of 1902. The Frame retains generous traces of its original bright blue finish throughout with heavy wear and old pitting noted on the front and rear grip straps. The Slide Lock is the correct and early split type, and it retains 95% plus of the original blued finish with wear on the outer edge of the thumb piece. The original sling swivel assembly is missing on the left, bottom side of the frame and the sling swivel hole now has a single-slot screw in its place. The Magazine Release works correctly.
The interior portions of the Frame retain the vast majority of its original blued finish. The Sear Spring retains the majority of its original heat tempered finish. The mainspring and the clip release latch both also retain the majority of their original blue finish. The Trigger Bow retains 70% plus of its original blue finish on the sides with wear noted on the sharp edges and bottom edge, and the trigger itself retains 85% of the original blue finish with minor wear on the sides where the trigger enters the frame. The correct rounded Hammer retains 90% of its original, but slightly faded, case colors with minor wear noted on the impact face. The hammer checkering remains crisp. The Disconnector remains correctly in the white as does the ejector. The Recoil Spring remains in the white. The spring dent button retains 95% of the original blued finish.
The right, front of the frame, in the rail, is a serif “K” Colt inspection stamp. On the right side of the frame, above the trigger guard, is the “J.T.T.” inspection stamp of Major John T. Thompson. Below that, on the trigger bow, is the serif “R.A.C.” Colt inspection stamp of famous inspector Rinaldo A. Carr. Internally, just to the rear of the bullet ramp, is a serif “M” Colt inspection stamp.
The Barrel is in very good condition, and it retains 90% plus of its original blued finish with areas of old bluing loss throughout. The Barrel ramp is correctly polished to the white. The rear face of the barrel retains considerable original blued finish. The Muzzle of the Barrel remains correctly in the white. The bore is in very good condition with a mirror finish and strong rifling and only moderate frosting in the grooves.
Both original Colt hard rubber grips are present. The Rampant Colt medallion and “COLT” script are both sharp with only more wear noted on one of the panels. The checkering on the grips remains in excellent condition with more pronounced wear on the left panel. The left grip has a tight crack along the left edge, but it is stable. The right grip has a small section missing at the top and a crack extending from the top boss through the “COLT” logo. The back of this panel has some glue to stabilize the crack. All four screw bushings are present, and all four screws retain considerable original blued finish.
This pistol comes with the scarce original and early Colt 7-round Magazine that is correctly marked with serif script, “PAT’D SEPT.9.1884.” The Magazine is in good condition and retains considerable original nickel finish, to include the follower. Where the nickel finish has been worn away, there are areas of old corrosion with some pitting noted on the left side. The magazine still functions correctly.
This Colt U.S. Model 1902 Army Contract Trials Automatic Pistol is highly desirable as a direct predecessor of the Model 1911 Pistol. This is an extraordinarily rare example of a field-tested Colt semi-automatic pistol and is one of only 57 known to exist out of the 60 that were sold by the Army in 1909. This pistol still functions perfectly.