Shanghai Municipal Police Colt 1908 at RIA

The Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless was a very popular pistol for civilians – it was compact, comfortable, reliable, and exceptionally modern for its day. The initial production was all in .32ACP, but 5 years after it was introduced a variant in .380 caliber was introduced – the model 1908 Pocket Hammerless. By the end of World War II, more than 570,000 1903s and 138,000 1908s had been manufactured.

More than a few corporate and government organizations adopted the Colt Pocket Hammerless, among them the Shanghai Municipal Police. This department was led at the time by an Englishman named William Fairbairn, who was an extremely influential developer of combat tactics. His work would prove to be a fundamental foundation for modern police organizations and military Special Forces (he was one of the men primarily responsibly for training WWII Allied special units, including the OSS). He had some particular ideas about how best to employ handguns in combat, and these are reflected in the modifications he had made to the Colt 1908 automatics purchased by the Shanghai Municipal Police Department back in the 1920s.

Want to see more about Fairbairn? You can check out his WWII “Get Tough” book on hand-to-hand combat online, or order one of his many books – which form the intellectual foundation for much of the tactical training right up to this day:


  1. I watched this disassembly video on youtube,

    and the barrel isn’t fixed “it doesn’t move in firing” but you rotate it to dissemble it via a series of lugs on the underside of the barrel and corresponding grooves in the frame.

    The additional wee spring which presses on the barrel may impart some pressure on the side of it, for some purpose in relation to the barrels fixture in the frame. Or it might not be a spring as such but rather a catch, he says it can be a bit fiddly to disassemble. Maybe when you are holding it as he is when you rotate it, a lug on the barrel slips behind this catch for some purpose in relation to disassembly.

    Haven’t figured out why yet, if at all…

    • Oh and the barrel bushings,

      Type II: separate barrel bushing, 33⁄4 inch barrel; 1908–1910, SN 72,000 through 105,050.[3]
      Type III: integrated barrel bushing, 33⁄4 inch barrel; 1910–1926, SN

      It seems they had switched designs, so perhaps the wee spring thing was an addition to rectify something that happened as a consequence of this change.

    • Hello and great video! Someone has probably already addressed the issue (I haven’t read them all) but, believe it or not, the holes in the magazine were to prevent theft. Officers would be issued a pistol and magazines upon the beginning of their shift and turn them back in at the end. Again, believe it or not, some officers would steal live rounds before turning in their pistols and would put empty casings (taken from the range) and put them toward the bottom of the mag before turning them back in. It actually got so bad, that after they began getting caught just replacing the casing, they began putting a bullet in the empty casing–hence, the necessity for both holes.

  2. Magazine cut outs done in this manner, would allow you to inspect a primer all the way down and bullet. Maybe it was to prevent folk loading the magazines with empties, apart from at the top.

    For some reason…

  3. I suspect the magazine disconnect was removed not so that the gun could be “fired” per say, but rather so that standard unload procedures could be followed at the end of shift. This could have been 1) “remove magazine”, 2) “pull back slide and check for empty chamber”, 3) “release slide”, and then 4) “pull trigger” while pointing the gun in a safe direction (e.g. in an unload bay).

    If you have a magazine disconnect then you typically need to insert an empty magazine before you can perform step 4. That means of course, that you need to have an empty magazine handy.

    Different people have different opinions on the value of a magazine disconnect. Some say that it prevents a certain type of accident (the magazine was removed and so the pistol was assumed to be “safe”, but a round was still in the chamber). Others say that it creates a different problem, in that personnel may skip step 4 (pull trigger) if they don’t have an empty magazine handy.

    Some of that difference of opinion comes from the different circumstances under which recreational shooter operate versus those faced by the military or police. NDs (negligent discharges) are a major problem for the latter, since they carry their pistols every day but rarely (especially in the case of the police) fire them outside of a range. The SMP operating procedures of the time may be enlightening in this regards if someone wanted to take the time to research them.

    Going with an empty chamber also helps with routine operations, as there is no round in the chamber which has to be removed every single day.

    The greatest firearms danger which most police forces face isn’t from criminals. It’s from the police officer’s own pistols on the range or at the end of shift (we just had a police officer here shoot herself in the leg on the pistol range).

    As for why the magazine holes were specified to be in a different location, that may possibly have something to do with where the magazine pouches were carried.

    • By disabling the movement of the safety you don’t have a slide hold open lever…

      On the disassembly video, the slide hold open happens without the slide being retracted as far as required for disassembly. I wonder which distance is attained in firing, is the spring thing in the side some sort of hold open device I wonder.

      It might be a wear and tear, bandage, but it might not be.

      The magazine disconnect thing also hmmm…

      • What if you cock it without griping the grip safety, maybe the “spring” thing holds the slide back, untill it is depressed.

        • Colt 1908 which a direct copy of FN 1903 embodied by FN engineers using Browning’s patents, is one of a few pistols with no need of grip safety actuation on an uncocked gun since a hook at upperside of that part engaged with sear, retaining itself at pressed in position when uncocked. Backwardly rolling hammer can freely makes its rotatement being free from grip safety obstruction as causing that piece to pop out at the same time.

  4. One (admittedly uneducated) guess I have for the spring is to hold the slide at a specific point laterally while in battery to improve the consistency of the sights – so that it always comes to rest at the same point both forwards and sideways.

      • He says the ejector actually, I was just looking at the extractor….

        The extractor would seem more logical perhaps, in regards the position of the barrel.

        He says the magazine, his is slightly different, anyway says what I thought, but gives a reason of stealing rounds.

    • Actually, looking at it again it would probably be inline with the sideways lugs under the chamber when the moves back, so as being in a position to nudge the barrel horizontally.

  5. According to an article in Soldier of Fortune magazine back in the early Seventies, titled “Quick or Dead in Shanghai”, IIRC written by Peter Kokalis, the facts are these.

    Fairbairn actually standardized the Colt M1911 .45 for the SMP. The M1908 was issued to smaller-statured officers whose hands were too small to cope with the big Colt’s grip. (Remember, this was the M1911, which did not have the relief cuts either side of the trigger as on the M1911A1 introduced in 1926.)

    Fairbairm emphasized and taught what is today called “point shooting”, from a half-crouch. Others call it the “FBI” or “Usher” technique, I still call it the “Fairbairn method”.

    If you have the “Secrets of War” DVD set from Mill Creek, check out the episode on Disc Two about the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services). It shows a training film of OSS recruits being taught this technique. Everyone is wearing a cardboard “opera mask” to avoid identification. The man in the overseas cap instructing everyone else is Fairbairn.

    At one point he fires a 1911 past the students on both sides, and goes on to explain to them that what they just experienced is what it’s really like to have an enemy’s bullet winging past your ear- something that can make you freeze if you’ve never experienced it. Freezing, of course, gets you killed. Fairbairn was determined that none of them would make that mistake under fire.

    Fairbairn also taught his “Condition Three” draw and fire technique to the OSS, as well as “Condition One” aka “cocked and locked”. “One” was his preferred method, but as stated, the M1908’s safety was debatable, as was the rather small safety lever on most military-issue 1911s. (P-35s, too, for that matter.)

    The same technique was later used by the Israeli Defense Force, school guards, and really most Israelis who carry automatics for anti-terrorist defense. Their reason was that due to the multiplicity of types they had “in inventory”, it made more sense to use an IA drill that ignored all safeties, hammer-drops, DA/SA triggers, etc., and just relied on a single action drill that would work on any autopistol, regardless of its individual peculiarities.

    The spring on the left side of the M1908 was intended to ensure reliable ejection. .380 ACP rounds (9x17SR) made by Kynoch (who supplied most of SMP’s ammunition under contract) sometimes had smaller rims than American made .380, and the Colt extractor might not always engage them, resulting in a Failure To Extract (FTE) stoppage, one of the most difficult to clear in adverse conditions. The spring pushed the breech end of the barrel to the right slightly in its mounting, thereby ensuring that the rim was firmly pushed under the extractor’s hook.

    The double row of witness holes in the magazine was for three reasons. One, it allowed a visual inspection of every pistol’s three magazines (one in the butt plus two on the belt) by the sergeant at roll call, to ensure that the ammunition in each one was fresh and not too old. The damp climate in Shanghai attacked the priming of ammunition with alacrity, and some officers didn’t always check their weapons and ammunition every day as regs stated. The holes in back allowed the immediate visual detection of verdigris around the primer.

    Similarly, the front holes allowed inspection to ensue that every round was live. Some officers would put empties in the bottom of the mag. As to why, Fairbairn never stated, but I suspect some who indulged in “pipe of poppy” thought it would be a good place to hide a couple of on-duty tokes. Those front holes prevented that.

    Finally, if the gun or officer got wet, or even dunked in the harbor (and it wasn’t an unusual occurrence), the holes in front and back allowed the rapid draining of water from the magazine by simply holding it upside down or at arm’s length, top away from your hand, and giving it a few vigorous full-arm shakes or swings.

    Fairbairn had a tremendous influence on the modern techniques of handgun combat and close-quarters battle in general. Most of those involved in same today remain unaware of just how much of the “New Technique” he was responsible for.



    • Ha ha, a sly toot eh… Sounds a right place.

      Might have been infiltration also, in various forms… Officer in Brothel, a kid sneaks under the bed and switches the magazine of the pistol hanging on the bedstead to a one shot model while the Officer is otherwise engaged.

      Switch that mornings patrols ammo to duff magazines etc, on behalf of the Triad king pin etc.

    • Under light of these explanations, modification causes find their locations, but some may not stop thinking about their full correctness. Regarding to barrel tension spring, it should be stated that, especially on simple blowback pistol sized firearms, most of the extraction is carried out by remaining gas pressure in the barrel and gained momentum of slide works only in case of heavy fouling and irregular chamber wall occurances. Besides, making an extractor with deeper hook, should be easier to make a spring with retaining screw with their recesses to be cut in the slide, furthermore, screws will loosen within very limited use but extractor tension will not. As regarding to the blocking screw for manual safety, sear stopping grip safety may be accepted sufficient for all cases, but, especially at muzzle down drops its function goes out of order. However, magazine witness holes seem best fit on their purposes.

    • “Similarly, the front holes allowed inspection to ensue that every round was live. Some officers would put empties in the bottom of the mag. As to why, Fairbairn never stated, but I suspect some who indulged in “pipe of poppy” thought it would be a good place to hide a couple of on-duty tokes. Those front holes prevented that.”

      I wonder if it involved officers using their issue pistol and ammo for illegal purposes (ie settling personal scores), and then picking up the spent brass and putting it back at the bottom of the mag so that it would appear to be fully loaded.

    • Shanghai Municipal Police had jurisdiction over the entire city, notably the waterfront area. The British enclave area was under jurisdiction of the Shanghai Constabulary. Both answered to the Governor-General, but SMP was also under the purview of the local city government.

      To understand the relationship, think of SMP as equivalent to the London Metropolitan Police, and the Constabulary as equivalent to the City of London Police. An even closer parallel would be Rome’s municipal police and Vatican City’s constabulary.

      British officers like Fairbairn were “TDY” with SMP as much to keep an eye on the doings of the “native police” as anything else.



  6. I have heard a lot of good dialogue on this pistol, especially with the purposes behind the magazine relief holes. I think some of the theories are quite intriguing (storing opium in spent casings in the magazine or saboteurs exchanging live mags with empty casing mags, etc.), but I have another candidate to add to the pool of possibilities; from what I’ve read on the subject (internet reading, so take with a grain of salt), the holes were indeed inspection holes for the chief or boss to look through during pistol inspection, but this was as a preventative measure against an apparently popular act among officers. It seems that Shanghai officers had a habit of selling their ammo and loading their magazines (except the topmost round) with spent casings…hence the holes in the back of the mag to inspect primers. Next, officers would try to sell their bullets and powder, leaving unfired casings in the mags…hence the holes near the front of the pistol to check for bullets. It’s funny to think that officers would sell such things, but perhaps the economic times of Shanghai were not so kind on officers and their families.

  7. One thing i got to say is the piece from bad-ass of the week is a terrible read like a 12 year old “cowadooty” fan wrote it.

  8. Personally I think carrying a pistol with the hammer down on an empty chamber is tantamount to carrying it unloaded. If Fairbairn was unhappy with the low profile safety catch on the 1908, given that he was ordering 3000 of them, I feel sure Colt would have come up with a modification for him. Likewise, adding a spring through the slide because the Colt was not too fond of British ammo would lead me to think it would be easier to have just bought American ammunition. Since the extra spring pushed the barrel over to the right slightly, it must have had some effect on accuracy too, but since Fairbairn did not use the sights, perhaps this was not an issue for him.

    • Fairbairn also had to cope with regs and procedures.

      The British-made ammo was due to SOP that mandated that all ammunition come from the home country. This was mainly to ensure that none of it ended up on the black market. (It did anyway, as one poster alluded to, but that’s not the way the authorities thought.)

      Another reason for the Condition Three was British military SOP, that stated that self-loading pistols be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber. This was one reason the Royal Army preferred revolvers, officially.

      Then again, it may have been concocted by senior officers who considered the revolver the “only proper weapon” and wanted to discourage the adoption or use of self-loaders. The RA was one of the last to move from the revolver to the autopistol, only adopting the P-35 High Power 9mm in the early 1950s.

      Even American police agencies had similarly silly rules. San Francisco PD had a regulation requiring the officer to carry the service revolver with only five rounds in the cylinder, hammer down on an empty chamber.

      The rule wasn’t originally silly. SFPD’s first issue sidearm was the Colt M1873 in .45, and a Peacemaker has to be carried that way because it doesn’t have a rebounding hammer.

      The reg remained in force even when double-action revolvers with rebounding hammers, notably the Colt Official Police and S&W Model 10, were adopted in the 1920s.

      It was finally changed in 1974. By the late Eighties, SFPD officers were issued automatics wit DA or “Safe Action” triggers, which rendered the whole argument moot.

      Only glaciers and tectonic plates change more slowly than bureaucracies.



  9. Eon:

    I am sure that there were various moronic regulations, but my impression was that Fairbairn was brought in to “write the book” as it were. If the Shanghai Police were carrying automatics with an empty chamber, it must have been because he was happy with it. Likewise, if they bought American pistols, just buy American made ammunition for the things. The situation is different in an army, where the sidearm is an auxiliary weapon. I don’t see much a problem in carrying it with an empty chamber in that situation.

    I had not heard about that piece of bureaucratic idiocy from San Francisco, but I have to say that if I were looking for sensible gun regulations, that is one place I would avoid.

    Incidentally, although we have a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force, we do not have a Royal Army in Britain, we have the British Army. After the various revolutions of the 17th Century, Parliament did not want there to be a standing army under the control of the King. Hence there is no one Royal Army, the British Army is the sum of its individual regiments. A soldier joins a regiment, and usually expects to stay with that regiment for the length of his service career. For a long time it was the case (I’m not sure if it still applies) that Parliament had to vote every year for the army to continue to exist. Thus if Parliament were so minded, the army could be disbanded at any time. Nowadays they do the same job more stealthily, through defence cuts!

  10. If ya’ll want some reading on the subject, Leroy Thompson wrote a book on Fairbain and Shanghai, “The World’s First SWAT Team”. It was my understanding that the M1908s went into Chinese officers.

  11. This is why I love Forgotten Weapons, taking a look at a pistol which is pretty mundane looking on the surface and then finding it is really something which is historically significant. The comments made by Eon really helped explain why Fairburn made the mods he did make.

    As to why they didn’t buy American Ammo, I guess it might have been easier to guarantee consistant delivery through British sources than securing US made ammo.

  12. The Shanghai 08’s also were fitted with “tropical” grips, with a much heavier checkering than usual. Also, the Chinese armorers rounded off all corners when they did the barrel clips, so they are similar to a bad reblue. Are there any records of serial numbers with the Shanghai police musuem?

    • I’ll ask , next time I get to Shanghai ; the last time I went I did not see any 1908s nor 1911s marked “Shanghai Municipal Police” . ( Mine is so marked , and , I have the Colt “Letter” to go with it .) .

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