Art Deco Pistols – The Early Days of Semi-Auto Pistols

I want you to take a look at some of the early semi-auto pistols produced. We’ll focus on guns made from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Those early semi-auto pistols have a unique look and feel to them. This is just something about them. They are very art deco. Not all, but a lot of them look unlike anything we would ever see today. I didn’t know how else to group these unique pistols, so I gathered what I think are the most art deco pistols ever created.

The Bergmann is the pistol used by the titular character in The Mandalorian
Plus, besides looks, we’ll talk about what’s on the inside and what makes these pistols so unique.

Salvator Dormus — the First Semi-Auto Pistol

The Salvator Dormus sounds like it should be a piece of art. It’s widely considered to be the first semi-auto pistol. The design is a delayed blowback design where the user pulling the trigger activates the delay. Not very safe or efficient, but it’s the first of the first. Look at this gorgeous beast.

Salvator Dormus, first semi-automatic pistol
The Salvator Dormus was a classy broad, but a weird one.

It is an 8mm pistol that loads through a door at the top of the pistol. The design used a charging handle positioned under the barrel to initially load a cartridge. Roughly 20 prototypes were developed, and 30 working models were sent to Austrian military trials. After rejection at the trials, the pistol was abandoned, and only a few exist to this day. Even so, it started that art deco look associated with early semi-auto pistols.

Astra 400

The Spaniards initially developed the Astra 400 in 1921, making it one of the older early semi-auto pistols. It’s simple but effective and uses a straight blowback system. The Astra 400 chambered the powerful 9mm Largo round. Direct blowback means plenty of recoil, and the 9mm Largo is on par with 38 Super loads, so it’s a rough hand hitting round.

 Astra 400
It’s a beastly gun that looks like a blaster pistol

The Astra 400 looks like the pistol I would have drawn as a child. It’s bizarrely tubular and looks like a space pistol from a 1950 pulp sci-fi movie. The Astra 400 actually served for almost 30 years with the Spaniards. It’s an odd pistol but very robust, accurate, and reliable, even if it was a hand killer.

Savage Model 1907

The Savage M1907 was a very early semi-automatic carry gun that was quite innovative for its time. They fit ten rounds into the gun, which was quite a few in a time when five to six rounds were the standard. Those ten rounds might have been 32 ACP, but still, ten rounds were quite a few, especially for such a small, easily carried gun. This is one of the earliest double stack magazines.

Model 1907
The Model 1907 was an innovative design

Plus, look at that design! It’s quite unique and well made. The Model 1907 is actually a striker-fired gun, making it somewhat unique for its day and age. The hammer-looking thing on the outside is actually a means to cock the striker. The Savage was insanely successful and one of the most popular semi-auto pistols of the day and age. It’s probably the most successful of these art deco designs.

Glisenti Model 1910

The 9mm Luger came to life in 1902, and by 1910 the Italians thought they could produce a better 9mm round. Did they? No, but the 9mm Glisenti round became the caliber of the Glisenti Model 1910. The pistol did use a short recoil, blowback-operated system that was reliable but fairly weak. Italy used the pistol for both World Wars, but it wasn’t an impressive design.

Glisenti Model 1910
It’s quite art deco, but very underpowered.

It certainly captures the art deco look and feel of early semi-auto pistols. It’s like an uglier, less efficient Luger look alike. It would actually shake itself apart when fired too much. Well, kind of. The design had a removable plate to access the pistol’s internals. However, that plate would shake loose over time.

Bergmann 1894

The Bergmann 1894 occupies the most famous of the early semi-auto and art deco-style pistols. Although if I said Bergmann 1894, most people wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about. The Bergmann is the pistol used by the titular character in The Mandalorian, one of the few good things to come out of Star Wars in the last decade.

Bermann 1894 semi-auto pistol
This might be my favorite.

The Bergmann 1894 occupies a very early stage of semi-auto pistol design. The magazine sits forward of the pistol grip and is a fixed design. The pistol grip is very revolver-like. The pistol used a direct blowback design and fired a somewhat anemic cartridge. With five round fixed magazine, it didn’t offer many advantages over modern revolvers of the time. Although it sure looks cool.

Roth-Steyr M1907

The Roth-Steyr M1907 might be one of the more interesting and robust designs in this world of art deco pistols. The M1907 holds the honor of being the first semi-auto pistol adopted by a major armed force and saw combat in WW1 with Austro-Hungarian Cavalry units. The guns use a weird locked-breech design that’s recoil-operated. The weapon held ten rounds of 8mm Roth-Steyr in a fixed magazine that was loaded via stripper clips.

Roth Steyr M1907 semi-auto pistol
It looks like it should shoot gyrojets.

The 8mm Roth-Steyr wasn’t superbly powerful and matched the 380 ACP in energy. The Roth-Steyr pistol was tested by both the United States and the United Kingdom but found to be lacking. The weapon would easily fit into the art deco world or in the hands of a Stormtrooper from Star Wars.

Mannlicher 1894

Do you want a blowback-operated handgun? Well, anyone can do that. How about a blow-forward-operated handgun? Oh, and let’s make it look damn sexy and very art deco. If that tickles your fancy, the Mannlicher 1894 is for you. The blow forward design means the barrel moves forward as the bullet passes through the barrel and inertia after the projectile leaves the barrel. This works the action and ejects the empty casing while loading the next round.

Manlicher 1894 blowback operated handgun
Blow forward? I hardly know her!

The Army tested this pistol in 1900 but found it severely lacking in the reliability department. The odd calibers were rather weak and recoiled excessively. Still, it’s a neat design and the early days of semi-auto pistols were the wild west of gun design.

Mars Automatic Pistol

If you don’t mind your pistols, big and boss like you won’t mind the Mars Automatic Pistol. This pistol was first produced in 1897 and came in a variety of calibers, including 8.5mm Mars, 9mm Mars, and two .45 Mars loads. It’s one of the few pistols to use a long recoil system and even used an odd rotating bolt.

Mars Automatic Pistol
This thing was at one point the world’s most powerful pistol.

Most early semi-auto pistols were rather weak, but the Mars was a beast. For a short period of time, the .45 Mars Long Case was the most powerful handgun cartridge ever created. It was apparently loud, recoiled heavily, and had some concussive muzzle blast. One weird feature is the way it feeds new cartridges. It pulls them backwards from the magazine then lifts them onto the breech face.

Webley Self-Loading Pistol

The Webley Self-Loading Pistol came to life in 1910 with a very British appearance. Webley made fine handguns, but boy, oh boy, were they ugly. The Webley was fairly modern for its time. The gun utilized a short recoil system, fired from a detachable magazine, and chambered a few different cartridges. The London police adopted the pistol in 32 ACP, and the Royal Navy adopted it in .455 Webley Auto as the first automatic pistol in British service.

Webley self-loading pistol
It’s kind of charming.

The Webley pistols were robust and reliable but hampered by their favorite weak cartridge choice. It would stop a man but left a lot to be desired for a warfighting weapon. The British Army continued to use revolvers for a reason. Even so, this pistol certainly occupies that art deco look we are going for and are a successful early semi-auto pistol.

The Art Deco Pistols

That’s it, folks. Those are the nine oddest looking, most art deco pistols on the market. They are fascinating in both appearance and design. They laid the groundwork for the handguns we use and trust our lives to. What was your favorite? Let us know below!

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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