The Great and Mysterious 32 ACP and the 1903 Colt
Dr. John Woods 05.07.18
If you are a student of firearm cartridges or even remotely curious about them, you could have the hobby of a lifetime. Many shooters are full-time collectors of cartridges of all kinds. There are just too many to ever cover the entire theater of study, but that does not make the attempt any less interesting.
By sheer accident, I came across an interest in the 32 ACP, mainly because of a long (and not-yet-satisfied) search for a minty 1903 Colt Automatic Pistol. I have searched gun show tables for more than two decades to find a really pristine model of this pistol. I have seen many, but usually in pretty sad shape. And prices on such collectibles continue to increase all the time. Collecting is an expensive hobby.
Anyway, a couple of years ago it was announced that Colt had licensed another manufacturer to produce a limited number of brand-new Colt Automatic Pistols in 32 ACP. The designated maker is U.S. Armament Corporation. Incidentally, the former head of the Colt Custom Gun Shop is overseeing this production, so these new models ought to be faithful reproductions. I hope so. With luck, maybe I can locate one.
It is nearly impossible to discuss the 32 ACP without also talking about the Colt 1903. The pistol was created to provide a thin, lightweight, easy-to-carry sidearm for military officers. Apparently, the Generals just loved to carry a personal sidearm. It was perfect in this regard and sought after, even by foreign military officers.
Of curious interest, the M1903 Colt became a preferred weapon carried by Hollywood greats including actors Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart. The defined the quintessential pocket pistol. Again, the platform and frame was thin, lightweight, and easy to hide in the overly large trousers pockets of popular outfits of the time.
Those on the other side of the law found great use for these pistols as well. Apparently a large number of noted gangsters of the day carried the 1903 in heavy wool coat pockets, too.
Even though the M1903 was exceedingly popular in so many sectors and applications, what made it so special? Good question. In today’s world, saturated with compact 380s and 9mms, the 32 ACP is pretty well considered underpowered, weak, and overall useless for self-protection, or much else. They would be wrong.
The 32 ACP was designed by the perennial gun and cartridge creator, John M. Browning in 1899. He created the cartridge design for his first semi-automatic pistol. The ammunition was initially manufactured in Belgium by FN, or Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal. It came to America when Colt manufactured the M1903 using this chambering. Thus the 32 ACP came ashore to start its long history here… one that is sustained even now.
Turns out, the little 32 ACP was one of the most popular pistol cartridges ever developed. Even today, it maintains a large following, and continues to be very popular in Europe where the proper cartridge designation there is the 7.65mm Browning.
As to the cartridge itself and its utility, for years the standard load featured a 71 grain FMJ (full metal jacket) bullet, which exited the muzzle at roughly 905 feet per second with a muzzle energy of about 129 foot pounds. One would think that hardly enough to be very effective, but it has proven otherwise, when applied with reason and respect.
Later Winchester loaded a 60 grain JHP with a muzzle velocity (MV) of 970 feet per second, creating 125 foot pounds of muzzle energy. Though this too appears as a relatively low powered round, the 32 ACP is useful for small game hunting. With proper compensation for range and careful bullet placement, the 32 ACP has proven its worth for self-defense and personal protection.
Currently there are numerous factory ammunition loads for the 32 ACP. Besides Winchester, 32 ACP can be obtained from Cor-Bon, Hornady, MagTech, Prvi Partizan, PMC, Remington, and Sellier & Bellot. These loads are offered in bullet weights including 60, 65, 71, and 73 grains. Bullet types include full metal jacket, jacketed hollow points, lead, hollow point, and the Hornady Custom XTP hollow point.
Curiously enough, back in the early days of the 1903 and the 32 ACP, anecdotal reports indicated the 32 had an uncanny ability to penetrate car bodies. It proved plenty adequate to stop a fight. In fact, even past World War II, many military men coming home and duty law enforcement officers carried the 1903 in 32 for years. They had confidence in the round as it had proven itself in real-life action. Alas, bigger and more powerful cartridges eventually overshadowed it. This never negated the effectiveness of the 32 ACP.
So, a diminutive load? Well, probably by today’s standards. For sure there are more effective loads available. However, in the format of a super-lightweight pocket gun even such as the Beretta Tomcat and others, the 32 ACP can still find a useful place with discretion.