The first successful repeating firearms, Colt’s, were five-shot (Paterson) and six-shot (Hartford) revolvers. Before that, double barrels and cartridge loading were the best that designers could offer in terms of firepower. Many improvements were made in the succeeding half century, from the sensible (auto pistols holding seven or eight shots, and lever and bolt repeating rifles) to the fanciful (behemoth 20-round pinfire revolvers). But state of the art in the first decade of the 20th Century was a six-shot revolver, or a pistol with, usually, a seven-shot magazine. And then, there’s this.
Naturally people wanted more than seven shots, even then, and this oddity is one of the attempts to meet that demand. Of course, as a semi-automatic pistol with more than 10 rounds capacity, it’s now banned in Boston (and everywhere else in Massachusetts), even though it’s about a century old — and something a wise man would be slow to start a fight with.
It’s an Astra Model 100, an early product by the Basque gunmaker that produced a wide range of guns for nearly a century, surviving a monarchy, communists, fascists, and a constitutional restoration, before finally succumbing to a combination of regulatory burden and market failure in the 1990s. The company was originally called Esperanza y Unceta after its founders, Juan Esperanza Salvador and Pedro Unceta, and used the “Astra” name as a brand. It operated in Eibar and in Guernica. Later the company would be renamed Astra, Unceta et. Cie. The last of the Unceta family managers would be murdered by Basque terrorists in 1977 and the company would decline thereafter, and fail permanently in 1998.
Here’s the other side of the same pistol.
The pistol is marked Automatic Pistol – Astra Patent – Cal. 7.65 and chambers the .32 ACP round (7.65 mm x 17SR). The magazine holds 12 of them. Yes, the long grip is awkward. Here is the pistol compared to some more normally-sized Euro .32s we happened to have out, a Czechoslovak Praga (roughly the same size and shape as the Browning 1910) and the Mélior featured the other day (same size and shape as the Browning 1900).
And here are the magazines. The Praga and Mélior magazines slide into each other’s mag well, but they have different modes of attachment. We’ll be covering the Praga later. As you can see, all three exactly copy the magazine angle of the 1900 Browning. The spirit of Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky (the Tom Lehrer version, not the actual mathematician) was hard at work in the European arms industry!
The Astra is in rough cosmetic shape, but it is well endowed with more or less readable markings. Spanish pistols of the prewar era (at least) bear a “triad” of proof marks, and the ones on this pistol suggest manufacture likely before 1927, probably before 1929 and certainly before 1931 (the central proof mark bears the crown of King Alfonso, deposed in 1931). The marks can be seen on the tang below: the Spanish shield with cross and crown, the “PV” stamp (possibly a smokeless proof), and the Eibar rampant lion indicating the proof house.
The thing hanging down behind the trigger is the safety. Here, it is in the FIRE position. Up, rotated through about 100º, it is in SAFE, and there it can lock the slide back to facilitate disassembly.
In typical Browning fashion, the barrel rotates 90º to disconnect from the retaining lugs machined into the frame. However, we found that the slide did not come off in the usual Browning fashion, although it was possible to winkle the barrel out. (If you look very closely or blow up the picture below, you can see the lugs on the bottom near the breech end – right. Meanwhile, the muzzle end, left, has flutes, apparently to assist in rotating the barrel).
But the most interesting marking, by far, is the Asian ideograph markings flanking the digits “84” in that last image. Chinese, probably, but what do they say?
In the end, it’s an interesting pistol, that came to us via an auction’s bycatch. If only we could interrogate it, and learn its history! What did it do in the Civil War? How did it get to China, and what did a Chinese owner do with it?
But it will not talk. We have to be content to note that this was a credible attempt at a modern magazine capacity years before Browning and Saive did it with the Browning P35 High Power. It would hold the .32 ACP capacity crown until the brief era of the low production CZ-83 in 7.65. Untouched by greatness, the Astra 100 rests forever in the realm of firearms curiosities.