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Savage: the Art Deco pistol.


Very few of you reading this are aware that the Savage Arms Corporation ever made a pistol or that it came close to being the official sidearm of the U.S. military. Just imagine the gun world without the Colt M1911!

It's a fascinating story. Savage made almost a quarter-million pistols between 1907 and 1929, although no more than 300 were .45 cal. military test pistols. It remains a neglected area of collecting and these wonderful little pocket pistols are still available at often quite reasonable prices.

To me they are "Art Deco," a popular international design movement from 1925 until 1939. An amalgam of many different styles that peaked during the "Roaring Twenties," its structure was based on mathematical geometric shapes and examples during that time frame were to be found in architecture, interior and industrial design, as well as the visual arts such as fashion, painting, graphics, and in my opinion, the Savage pistols, which looked like no others of their time.

Like Colt and Remington, Savage Arms is one of the storied names of the American firearms industry. Arthur Savage was a talented inventor whose projects ranged from a fiber-cleaning machine to a repeating rifle based upon the Martini single-shot action.

His first firearms patent, dated 12 July 1887, was for a .45-70 military rifle with a pivoting breechblock in which rounds were fed from a tubular magazine in the buttstock like that of a Spencer rifle. He eventually sold his patents for this rifle and it was never manufactured.

In 1891 he moved to Utica, New York where he was managing the Belt Line Railroad. During his free time, he continued to design rifles, including a lever-action with a tilting breechblock that eventually evolved into the famous Model 99.

During the opening years of the 20th century, while the Utica facility was busy manufacturing lever-action rifles, three men in Philadelphia were at work on several firearms designs, including a semiautomatic pistol that would eventually interest Savage Arms and change the company's history.

They were William D. Condit, who financed the original design, Morris F. Smith, and Elbert H. Searle. Searle was principally responsible for designing what was to become the Savage automatic pistol. Searle's first patent went nowhere, but the patent he received on 21 November 1905 (this date appears on every pistol manufactured by Savage) has all the features, external and internal, that were to eventually become the Model 1907 Savage pistol: In 1905, Savage purchased the right to manufacture the pistol on a royalty basis.

Searle and Condit had two emerging markets in mind when they developed their pistol in Philadelphia--military and civilian. Searle's pistol operated by means of delayed blowback. A lug on the chamber end of the barrel serves as a positive locking mechanism, preventing the slide from opening prematurely.

Upon firing, the barrel rotates about 5[degrees], moving the lug to a point that allows the slide to open. What prevents this rotation from occurring immediately is the counter-rotational force of a fired bullet traveling through the barrel. Supposedly, in interacting with the rifling, the projectile momentarily counteracts the barrel rotation, which in turn was supposed to delay the slide's opening until after the bullet left the muzzle.

Actually, the slide opens just prior to the bullet's departure from the barrel. In any event, the method of operation is effective in preventing the breech from opening prematurely.

Furthermore, for its time, the Searle pistol had a number of other intriguing features. A single-action-type, the external, knurled (and eventually also a spur-type) "cocking lever" (no, although it looks like it is, it's not a "hammer") is connected directly to the firing pin. Both the cocking lever and the firing pin are part of the breechblock, which also holds the spring-loaded extractor.

A spring-loaded lever at the base of the frame's front strap retains the magazine. This is an awkward location by today's standards. The detachable, single-position-feed, box magazine is a staggered-column type, which was quite novel for the time. This permitted the magazine of the .45 caliber trials pistol to hold eight rounds, greater than either the eventually competing Colt or Luger designs.

There are no flat springs anywhere in the pistol; all springs are of the coil-type, including a recoil spring surrounding the barrel. Finally, the number of parts was held to a minimum.

In February of 1906, the US Army posted a notice that it was seeking .45 caliber semiautomatic handguns for a test in September. When the trials were postponed until 15 January 1907, Searle was able to complete his first prototype at the Utica plant.

The modifications to the original design included a new slide lock, ejector and action, as well as a novel folding lanyard loop. It was this exact design, without the lanyard loop, and scaled down that eventually became the caliber .32 ACP Model 1907.


In addition to the Savage pistol, entries included a revolver and John Browning designed pistol from Colt, a revolver from Smith & Wesson, a .45 cal. Luger from DWM (Deutsche Waffen- und Munitionsfabriken), a Bergmann pistol and the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver.

A pistol designed by Grant Hammond was rejected and never made it to the firing tests because it didn't have a magazine that could be automatically ejected (it subsequently became the basis for the High Standard .22 LR pistol series).

Only Colt and Savage Survived the first round of tests. The Savage entry was lauded for its human engineering, 8-round magazine capacity and its use of coil springs and nine fewer parts than the Colt. Further it won both the velocity and dust tests.

Nevertheless, the test board wanted a number of changes, to include wood grip panels instead of metal, moving the front sight back away from the muzzle, relocation of the ejection port to the side of the slide, addition of a grip safety and reduction of perceived recoil.



In May of 1907, the U.S. Army placed an order for 200 redesigned pistols from both Colt and Savage. Colt responded favorably, but financial problems at Savage caused them to decline the offer, It looked like the competition was over. DWM, which came in third, jumped in and at first offered to replace Savage.

However, Georg Luger reconsidered and withdrew his offer, providing Savage with an opportunity to locate the financing it needed to proceed. In August 1907, Savage offered to provide the 200 test pistols for $65 each. At this time Savage was apparently concurrently developing a line of scaled-down .32 ACP pistols for commercial sales.

Work on the Savage .45 cal. Model 1907 Military Contract proceeded slowly. Only 195 pistols were finally delivered to Springfield Armory in November of 1908. After some mysterious disappearances and the return of the remaining pistols to have "fire" and "safe" markings rollmarked on the frames, a full complement of 200 Savage .45 caliber pistols were delivered on 16 March 1909 and were assigned to unenthused cavalry units for field testing.

Despite unfavorable results, Savage remained committed to the project and submitted improved Model 1910. The subsequent tests were still inconclusive and a final "shoot off" was scheduled for March of 191t. On 15 March an endurance test of 6,000 was held. While both pistols did well during the first thousand rounds, the pounding of its heavy recoil began to take a toll on the Savage and by the end the test, the Savage had 31 malfunctions and five broken components, while the Colt had none.

The rest is history, and today the few remaining Savage .45 call pistols, out of the estimated 300 produced, sell for $12,000 up to $17,000 apiece, depending upon the variation (original military test specimen . or refinished and sold by Tryon Co. of Philadelphia), condition and a number of other factors.

However, for those of us of more modest means, the Savage pocket pistols, with a few exceptions, represent a more affordable opportunity to collect and shoot a truly interesting segment of American firearms history, which has been largely neglected.

There are three basic models, each in both .32 ACP (7.65mm) and .380 ACP (9mm Kurz): the Model 1907, the Model 1915 "hammerless," and the Model .1917. Theoretically then, six pistols would represent the nucleus of a Savage pistol collection. Within each model, caliber .32 ACP specimens are far more common than those chambered for the .380 ACP cartridge.

It may actually be that Savage was even more committed to entering the commercial market With the Searle design that it was to provide military pistols to the U.S. military. The first Model 1907 pistols were not offered for sale until October of 1908. The model designation was in deference to Searle's 25 April 1907 patent filing. Like its .45 cal. counterpart, to which it was internally almost identical, the Model 1907 has only 34 parts and uses no screws as even the grip panels slide into integral slots in the frame.

Counting both calibers, there are 20 different minor variations of the Model 1907, 14 in .32 ACP and six in .380 ACE

The .32 cal. Model 1907 is a true compact, weighing only 19 ounces, empty. The overall length is just 6V2 inches with a barrel length of 3 3/4 inches. The price at the time of its introduction was $15 (the .380 ACP version was $1 more) and extra magazines cost only 50 cents each. The 10-round capacity of its staggered-column magazine was greater than any of its U.S. contemporaries.

Hardly qualifying as a Savage pistol collector, I have only five Savage pocket pistols, two of which are Model 1907 types, and both of which are in .32 ACE The first pistol, serial number 2575, has all the features found on the first 3,000 manufactured in 1908: steel grip panels, no "Fire" or "Safe" markings, and a "rust" or "flame" blue finish.


The slide markings read, "MANUFACTURED BY SAVAGE ARMS CO. UTICA N.Y.U.S.A. PAT. NOV. 21. 1905. CAL 32". The serial number appears on the frame just in front of the trigger guard.

By the mere coincidence of acquisition my other Model 1907, serial number 215163, represents the final Model 1907 variation and the fourth most numerous as 26,400 were manufactured from 1919 to 1920. It has one significant difference from earlier versions of the Model 1907, a spur-type cocking lever, which had been a no-extra-cost option from May of 1914.

The grips on this last Model 1907 variant are hard rubber and the finish a matte blue-black. The slide markings were changed to "SAVAGE ARMS CORE UTICA. N.Y.U.S.A. CAL. 32 PATENTED NOVEMBER 21, 1905.--7.65. M-M."

Throughout its production run, the Model 1907 sights (and those of the subsequent Models 1915 and 1917) remained a half-moon, blade-type front sight and an open U-notch rear sight machined into the slide.

The rear sight is quite small and difficult to acquire even under the most ideal circumstances. A total of 209,801 Model 1907 pistols were manufactured in .32 ACP and only 9,849 in .380 ACE The latter are very difficult to locate. Late Model 1907 .32 ACP specimens in collector-grade condition can sometimes be found for only $400, but Model 1907 variants from the first year of production in excellent or better condition will now fetch up to $1,300 and more.

Savage introduced the Model 1915 to compete directly with Colt's Model 1903.32 ACP, and the Model 1908 in .380 ACP and .25 ACP, all of which featured concealed hammers and were thus referred to as "hammerless," a feature perceived to be desired by the public and that supposed inhibited snagging the pistol on clothing during the drawstroke from concealment.

The Model 1907 cocking lever was machined down and shrouded with a piece of metal. To this was added a grip safety developed by Savage employee William Swartz. This rather simple device worked together with an existing trigger-locking bar that had previously been added to the sear mechanism.

A spring-loaded lever located on top of the backstrap had a metal arm that was used to hold the trigger-locking bar in place and prevent firing. When the operator pressed inward on the grip and thus depressed this level, pressure was taken off of the trigger-locking bar and the pistol could be fired.


Again, in competition with Colt, the Model 1915 added a hold-open feature that held the slide rearward alter the last shot had been fired. Both the sale of the Savage Arms Company to Driggs-Seabury Ordnance Company and the advent of World War I conspired to seal the doom of the Model 1915.

During the war, Savage expanded its facilities to manufacture thousand of Lewis light machine guns and rifles for Britain. Later, Savage produced the Lewis Gun in .30-'06 for American troops. From 1915 through 1917, only 6;502 Model 1915 pistols were produced in .32 ACP and 3,900 in .380 ACE Model 1915 pistols in either caliber and in any condition are very difficult to locate.

The subsequent and final Model 1917 was somewhat more successful, although it never came close to the Model 1907 in numbers produced. Although it did not hit the marketplace until 1920, apparently the design modifications were made in 1917 and thus that year was chosen for the model designation.

The changes were in fact only cosmetic. The bottom of the grip portion of the frame was widened at the backstrap to better fit the average hand. Accordingly, the grip panels were widened to accommodate the larger grip frame. Almost all of the other features and components are exactly those of the original Model 1907.

The black, hard rubber grip panels are, for the first time, each retained by a single screw. The Savage logo in the center of the grip panels was changed to show an Indian holding a rifle. All of this increased tile weight by 1 ounce.

Production of the Model 1917 went from 1920 until 1929. it has been estimated that a total of 29,072 were manufactured in .32 ACP and 14,225 in .380 ACR Caliber .380 ACP Model 1917 pistols carry a "B'" suffix to the serial number, as do both the Models 1907 and 1915.

All .380 ACP Savage pistols feature barrels 1/2" longer than .32 ACP pistols, together with heavier and longer recoil springs and lengthened slides with a channel on the top running from the machined rear sight to the end of the wide section of the slide. Caliber .380 ACP Savage pist61s weigh 2 ounces more than the .32 ACP versions.


After World War I, the public interest ill pocket pistols of all types faded. Toward the end, pistols were assembled from whatever parts were on hand and one of my Savage Model 1917 pistols chambered for the .32 ACP round has a knurled cocking lever and carries serial number "26860B," supposedly indicating that it's a .380 ACP pistol.

Would the Savage pocket pistol, in either caliber, be a viable concealment handgun today? I don't think so. First of all, there are subcompact pistols now available in 9x19mm Parabellum, and even .45 ACE that match the Savage envelope and in some instances are even Slightly smaller.

Further, the Savage pocket pistols will not reliably feed most hollow-point ammunition, which is the only way to increase the rather pathetic wound ballistics potential of both the .32 ACP and .380 ACP cartridges. The magazine catch/release lever, located at the bottom of the frame's front strap, is quite difficult to access and manipulate.

Finally, the rear sight is difficult to acquire, especially so in a high stress environment, and the trigger pull weights, on the live specimens 1 have run from an acceptable 6.5 pounds to a horrendous 11.5 pounds

Admire their interesting method of operation and their Art Deco look and shoot them for pleasure, but the Savage pocket pistol is truly an artifact of the past and is today the stuff of collectors, not armed professionals.

Reproductions of the original Savage pistol manuals and factory boxes, as well as those of many other historic handguns are available at very reasonable prices from Rediscovered Shooting Treasures at e-mail:


Savage Pistols by Bailey Brower, Jr., Copyright 2008. ISBN-13:978-0-8117-0422-9. Published by Stackpole Books. 5067 Ritter Road. Mechanicsburg, Pa 17055: website: 256 pages with 500 color photos. $49.95--without doubt this magnificent new volume is destined to be the final word on this topic.

Savage Automatic Pistols by James R. Carr. Published privately--long out-of-print. 131 pages with numerous black and white line drawings and photographs--very difficult to locate.

10 Shots Quick--The Fascinating Story of the SAVAGE Pocket Automatics by Daniel K. Stern. Copyright 1967. Published by Globe Printing Company, P.O. Box 5399. San Jose. CA 95150. 155 pages with numerous black and white line drawings and photographs. Out-of-print.
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Title Annotation:Mostly Machine GUNS
Author:Kokalis, Peter G.
Publication:Shotgun News
Date:Feb 10, 2009
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