(This is another of the ‘lost posts,’ and is reprinted from 11 July 2021)
I have long thought that the Remington model 51 was among the most elegant of all automatic pistols. In the early decades of the 20th C. people were turning to automatic pistols for self-defense, and Remington wanted in. They enlisted the talented and innovative John Pederson to design one for them, and he applied his genius to good effect. The new gun was offered in both .32 and .380 ACP.
John Browning himself considered Pederson to be one of the best firearms designers of their era. During WW1 he designed the never-issued Pederson Device, which allowed a Springfield 1903 rifle to be converted on-demand to the world’s longest, heaviest submachinegun, firing a .30-caliber pistol cartridge from a stick-magazine that protruded from the ejection port at an angle.
The model 51 was a slim, sleek pistol, and was relatively light compared to it’s main competitors, the Colt 1903/08 and the FN 1910. This was owing to the fact that Colt and FN were straight-blowback guns, requiring heavier slides to contain their modest power. The Model 51 had a system that Remington referred to as a locked-breech, but in reality was a delayed-blowback. Simply put a hollow breech-piece, separate from the slide, tilted to engage a recess in the frame to slow the slides rearward travel.
This produced a gun that was not merely lighter, but much softer shooting than it’s contemporaries. Great attention was paid to the ergonomics; dozens of mock-ups of the grip were tried to get just the right angle and proportions. Remington wanted the gun to point naturally and actually referred to it as self-aiming, which was a bit optimistic. It does explain the sights; they are tiny.
Smooth Operator, Strange Operatior
The gun is a single-action auto with a concealed hammer, and superficially it is simple to use. Insert a loaded magazine, rack the slide and you’re ready to go. The grip safety is the primary safety; the lever at the left-rear of the slide simply prevents the grip safety from being depressed when rotated upwards.
It’s unlike any other grip safety I’ve used. When pressed in the safety disengages with a distinct, mechanical click. It’s more like you have thrown a switch than more familiar grip safeties. There is also a magazine safety; a magazine must be inserted before the trigger can be pulled. Another peculiarity is that you cannot rack the slide unless the grip safety is depressed.
The slide does not lock back on an empty magazine, but it is possible to lock the slide to the rear. Weird, but possible. First depress the grip safety and start the slide to the rear, then release the grip safety and pull the slide back until it locks. Depressing the grip safety will drop the slide, and if you have inserted a magazine it will chamber a round. It’s awkward and not all that useful.
The manual safety seems to just lock the grip safety from being depressed. It is neither very difficult to manipulate nor particularly handy. It’s useable, but not great. There’s a bit of slack to take up on the trigger, and it’s not light but it breaks well and the reset is short. An the sights… you almost wonder why they bothered. The gun does shoot to point of aim if you happen to spot the front sight but that’s more a matter of chance than design, at least with my eyes.
Among it’s quirks you can banish any thoughts of replacing the unexceptional plastic grips with something more attractive; they are permanently fixed to the frame by rivets.
The Model 51 was produced from 1918 to 1926, with some 65,000 made, the majority of those chambered in .380 ACP. Rumor has it that some guns were assembled from leftover parts in the 1930’s, but I have been unable to confirm this.
Disassembly is not particularly difficult, but it can be a bit perilous and requires attention. It’s easier to show than describe, and this video from Brownell’s walks you through it nicely.
The Model 51 was reliable and accurate, but it was also complicated to produce and expensive, retailing for between half-again and twice what it’s competitors sold for. In the end, despite the guns modest success, Remington decided to focus their energies elsewhere and ceased production.
OK, someone’s going to mention it- General Patton was apparently a fan and often carried one in his pocket.
Sights?! We Don’t Need no Stinking Sights!
The rumors are true- this is a soft-shooting gun for it’s size and caliber; not at all snappy like guns such as the PPK. I took a couple boxes of handloads to the range, using 100gr. TMC/round-nose bullets over 4.0gr. of Power Pistol with CCI 500 primers.
Long story short the gun is very nice to shoot. Between the sights and my eyes precision was just not going to be a thing, so I didn’t try all that hard. Still, the results were not at all bad.
I started out at seven yards doing my best, then repeated the process rapid-fire. The targets looked more or less the same. I fired about 100 rounds all told without any issues… except for the fact that I have fairly large hands. The gun likes that. Hungers for them in fact. It chewed a hole in my hand in short order. Investigation showed the bottom corner of the slide was knife-sharp. The things I do for you folks…
I ended my session by running a target out to five yards and, with the gun lowered in a two-handed grip, raised it and pointed it at the target without aiming and double-tapped it. I repeated this four times, and the results were not bad. Likely it would have been effective enough.
This gun likes to double-tap. The crisp trigger and short reset makes it sound like a two-round burst from a submachinegun. I have no doubt that with practice I could make smaller groups. If called upon to defend myself with this centenarian I would not feel abused or lack confidence.
The Ill-Starred Model 53
Alongside this pistol Remington also developed a larger-caliber model, the Model 53. This was apparently simply a model 51 scaled up to use .45 ACP! It found great favor in trials with the Navy, who found it more reliable, accurate (presumably it had better sights) and softer shooting than the 1911. They were keen to adopt it, but before a deal could be struck we entered WW1. Damn those pesky Germans! You don’t change horses midstream so the deal was dropped in favor of 1911 production. After the war the Colt was firmly, uh, entrenched and in the end nothing came of it. Very few were produced, and I don’t know if any still exist. I imagine if you happened across one it would be worth a King’s ransom.
A Sad Postscript
In 2014 Remington jumped back into the pistol market with the R51, a modified and updated version of the Model 51 chambered in 9mm. A very few people reported getting one that functioned well, but they were a tiny minority. A second version was developed to correct the issues, but it had limited success in doing so.
It looked the business and was well-priced, but it was plagued with reliability and quality control problems and dropped out of production when Remington went bankrupt in 2018. With the well poisoned by negative reports it seems unlikely that production will resume.
Despite it’s hunger for my flesh I really like this gun. It ticks all the buttons; compact, reliable and quite usable despite the sights. Though many will feel it sacrilegious to modify a classic such as this, I discretely blunted the edges on the bottom corner of the slide and inside corner of the bottom of the slide rails so it will hopefully stop goring me quite so much. I’m also going to paint the front sight bright orange in the hope that it will increase it’s usability.
Stay safe and take care.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 11 July 2021