May 16, 2023
I’ve owned my Remington Model 51 for a half-century and still consider it one of the most interesting pocket pistols I’ve ever examined. It is classic Art Nouveau in look and functional in design. I have to admit, the provenance of my Model 51 lends it some appeal as well. I bought it from a STLPD undercover vice officer who had carried it as his “noncop” gun when working Gas Light Square and the DeBaliviere Strip. He had shot a pimp with it who was menacing one of his employees with a razor, though not fatally. He was a colorful acquaintance so that lends a bit of nostalgia to the pistol. But, most of all, I like because I like it!
I was so fond of my Remington Model 51 that about 30 years ago, when the Belgian gun magazine FIRE assigned me to do a series of articles on pre-World War II classic American combat handguns, one of those I chose was the Model 51. As part of the article, the magazine commissioned artist Ken MacSwan to paint a picture showing me in period attire using the handgun. For the Model 51, I chose a scene aboard the Orient Express. As I was confronted by a Luger-wielding Gestapo agent in the dining car, my female companion threw her champagne in his face while I drew my Remington Model 51 from beneath my tuxedo and fired multiple times across a table to maximize the effect of the 95-grain FMJ bullet. Of course, the flatness of the Model 51 let it ride unobtrusively and comfortably in a shoulder holster without affecting the lines of my attire!
Arguably, the Remington Model 51 is one of the most innovative pocket autos made prior to World War II. However, it was only manufactured from 1918 to 1926. Still, an indication of its quality is that 65,000 of them were sold during that time. Some sources say that some additional pistols were assembled from left over parts and sold during the 1930s. In fact, Gen. George Patton, who was a fan of the pistol, wanted a Model 51 late in WWII but had to have family in the US find one and have it re-conditioned before sending it to him. Given the excellence of the Model 51’s design, it should come as no surprise that its designer was John Pederson, known for the WWI Pederson Device as well as various pump action shotguns including the Ithaca Model 37. Model 51 pistols were produced in .32 ACP and .380 ACP. Most I have seen were in .380, which makes sense, as the pistol was the same size for either so most buyers opted for the more powerful cartridge.
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The Model 51 is sometimes designated as a locked-breech design, though many experts consider it to actually be a delayed blowback design, as the barrel is fixed, but the two parts of the breech block, which is not part of the slide, recoil together for a short distance. Another noteworthy feature of the Model 51 is its grip safety. As with many European pocket pistols, the Model 51’s recoil spring surrounds the barrel. Reportedly, Pederson’s design was intended to avoid infringement on John Browning’s patents. The combination of the breech block design, recoil spring placement, and slanted grip was normally cited by shooters during the 20s and 30s as making it an easy gun to keep on target for fast repeat shots. That has been my experience as well. The top of the slide is crosshatched to cut glare, but the sights are so rudimentary that accurate shooting past 15 yards is problematical. On the other hand, due to its grip design it is a fast, easy pistol to point shoot at close range. I will note that the Model 51 is one of the more difficult pistols to disassemble I have encountered, and I avoid doing it if I can.
Among other features that are useful on the Model 51 is its magazine release button, which is flat enough and small enough that inadvertently releasing the magazine in the pocket is unlikely, especially as there is a small shield protecting the release button. The grip safety is the full length of the back strap and is easy to fully depress to fire the pistol. It also acts as a cocking indicator, as it stays flush with the back strap if the pistol is not cocked. The thumb safety, however, is small but easily reachable with the thumb of the shooting hand. The thumb safety also acts as a cocking indicator, as it cannot be applied if the pistol is not cocked. In addition to the thumb and grip safeties, the Model 51 also has a magazine safety. One of the especially noteworthy features of the Model 51 is its slimness. I’ve carried mine in a hip pocket numerous times and it conceals well and was not uncomfortable even if I sat on it. Somewhere, I have a hip pocket holster from S. D. Myers for mine that was made pre-WWII, but I could not locate it to photograph for this article. I also have a period shoulder rig for it.
A scaled-up version of the Model 51 with an exposed hammer, designated the Model 53, was made for government small arms tests in 1919. It seems to have attracted positive attention from the Navy, but only the prototypes for the trials were ever made. The principal US competitors for the Model 51 were the Colt 1903 and 1908, the Savage 1907, and the Harrington & Richardson Self-Loading Pistol introduced in 1909. The H&R was actually a copy of the Webley design. The major selling point of the Savage was that in .32 ACP chambering it had a 10-round magazine capacity. Savage also got a boost when the French government purchased 27,000 (other sources state 40,000) of them during World War I. Remington viewed the Colt 1903/1908 as its principal competitor in the pocket pistol market; hence, Remington priced the Model 51 at $15.75 to undercut Colt’s price tag of $20.50 for its pocket models. It proved a bad marketing decision, as Colt still outsold the Model 51, which was more expensive to produce than the Colt, thus leading to unprofitability for the Model 51. In fact, around 570,000 Colt 1903 (.32 ACP) and 1,908 (.380 ACP) pistols were sold. Savage did produce 272,500 pistols, around four times more than Remington.
I shot my Model 51, which I’ve had for around a half century and found it still to be reliable with good ergonomics. The sights are still rudimentary but usable at pocket pistol ranges and a little beyond. My friend Tim who was shooting with me shot a very respectable group at 25 yards from a rest. I emptied a seven-round magazine in two, two-shot “bursts,” and one three shot “burst” at a silhouette target at 15-yards and kept six in the “chest” and one in the “shoulder.” Reliability was 100% with 50 rounds of 100-grain FMJ ammo fired. There was not a problem with the grip safety using a normal shooting grip, but as usual, the small thumb safety was a little slow. In 2014, Remington introduced the R51 chambered for the 9x19mm cartridge. As with the Model 51, it employs a recoil spring that surrounds the barrel, a hesitation lock, internal hammer, and a grip safety. Production ceased in 2018.
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