November 02, 2014
By James Tarr
I still remember as a kid staring at the Colt catalog for hours and hours. I loved the blued steel looks of the classic Government Model, the Combat Commander and the Gold Cup. What seemed really neat to me as well was the brand new Colt .380 Government Model, a little single-action .380 that looked almost identical to its big-bore brothers.
However, by the time I was old enough to actually buy a handgun I couldn't be bothered with something as puny as a .380. I was a man, and men didn't carry .380s; those were girls' guns. Sigh. A couple of decades later I came to the shocking realization that small guns actually did have their uses. I have had such bad luck buying used guns, however, that I never gave a thought to the Colt Mustang, as Colt wasn't making them anymore. Well, they're back.
Before they were discontinued, Colt offered a number of .380s: the original .380 Government, with a seven-round magazine and 3.25-inch barrel, and the smaller Mustang, with a 2.75-inch barrel and a shorter grip allowing for a 6+1 capacity. The company also offered Pocketlite versions of both models, with aluminum frames. While Colt has plans to introduce a whole modern family of .380s, it has started with the smallest and lightest: the Mustang Pocketlite.
The new Colt Mustang Pocketlite is a small gun, the smallest pistol chambered in .380 I've ever shot. It has the original's 6+1 capacity. With the beavertail it is only about 5.5 inches long, four inches tall and empty weighs a mere 13 ounces according to my scale.
The plastic grips are the fattest part of the pistol at 1.075 inches, and the slide runs .757-inch wide according to my calipers. Its size makes me hearken back to the "vest pocket" guns of ye olde days. Just holding it in my hand makes me feel like I should be gambling on a riverboat somewhere, remembering not to count my money when I'm sitting at the table.
This is a single-action-only pistol, much like Colt's famous 1911, with a Commander-style hammer and manual thumb safety. The grip angle is similar to the 1911, but unlike the design of the 1911 the safety of the Mustang does not block the slide's movement.
Due to the size of the gun, the manual safety is, of course, rather small. The action on my safety was a bit stiff, and while I could sweep it off with the side of my thumb from a firing grip with no problem, I couldn't engage it (push it up) unless I turned the pistol sideways in my hand and used the end of my thumb.
The Pocketlite has no grip safety, and it can be fired with the magazine removed. I was glad to see the pistol comes with two stainless magazines. One of my biggest complaints is pistols sold with only one magazine. The main advantage of pistols over revolvers is their ability to be quickly reloaded, but that point is moot if they come with only one magazine.
Most of my memories of the ".380 Government Model" are of polished blue guns, but bluing does not handle sweat very well at all. While I prefer the looks of blued guns, I think the engineers at Colt did a smart thing by choosing to put out this "marine edition" of the Mustang Pocketlite.
It has a stainless steel slide over an aluminum alloy frame with an electroless nickel finish. Both the frame and the slide have a business-like matte texture that actually aids in gripping, and the flats of the slide have been brushed to a high gloss. The Colt medallions in the black plastic grips are silver as well, and I have to admit this is one sharp-looking gun.
When it comes to the frame of the Pocketlite, yes, it is small. I can get only two fingers on it, and I have skinny fingers. But the grip is the right width for its length, and it just feels right in my hand. The unpolished texture of the aluminum alloy frame actually provides a nice gripping surface front and back. It's obviously not nearly as secure as checkering, but much better than a polished surface.
The rear sight is a simple blued notch dovetailed into the slide, and the front sight is one piece with the slide. It is a simple, non-serrated ramp, and the two together are similar to the "hump and a bump" sights seen on the original 1911.
I wish the front sight was bigger or serrated, or both, but I do realize this is a small gun designed to be used at spitting distances and will most likely be pointed rather than aimed. That said, with these sights it still can be aimed, and a single-action trigger always increases your hit probability.
The original Colt .380s had a big fan base, but they were not without their problems. Durability was the main complaint, and the engineers at Colt wanted to address that. The cast frame and slide of the original design were replaced in this new iteration with slides and frames CNC machined from solid bar stock. The barrel is CNC machined as well. The plastic trigger of the 1980s version has been replaced with a solid aluminum trigger, which is serrated and anodized.
A feature I was surprised to see on the Colt was the small C clip on the right side of the frame locking the thumb safety in place. A quick check of my history revealed that the original Pocketlites had this clip as well, but I figured that with modern manufacturing Colt should have been able to do away with this oddity, so I called Colt for clarification.
I spoke with Greg Rozum, the director of product engineering. He explained that they deliberately did not change this aspect of the design. Not only did they want the new Mustang Pocketlite to have the same appearance as the retired model, they wanted the new parts to fit on all the legacy (existing) guns. Their plan is to eliminate the C clip from the design in the future and offer a whole family of .380 guns.
While the external appearance of the pistol is the same as the original Mustang Pocketlite, Rozum was quick to point out the improvements to me, such as the slide and trigger changes mentioned above. But that wasn't all.
"We wanted to re-target all of the nominal dimensions on the design," he explained. "Our goal was to reduce existing tolerances while improving durability, reliability and accuracy." Rozum said their breakage goal—rounds fired before something breaks—for the Mustang Pocketlite was 10,000 rounds, with the only maintenance being replacement of the springs every 2,500 rounds because they tend to take a set.
While the Pocketlite has a single-action trigger, internally it does not have the same design as the 1911, and it pivots very slightly rather than moves straight back. Trigger pull on my sample was a crisp six pounds with a short take-up.
The Mustang Pocketlite has a short barrel, and short barrels tend to bleed velocity badly. That is true whether a pistol is chambered in .22 LR, .25 ACP or .32 ACP, but a .380 ACP has more frontal area and a heavier bullet than any of the other calibers you're likely to see offered in a gun this size. I've heard guns this size referred to as "nostril guns"—i.e. stick it up their nose and pull the trigger—but most "nostril" or "bedroom" guns can't compete with the .380 ACP for power.
Most .380s are straight blowback designs, but the Colt fires from a locked breech. Still, I was expecting it to have a sharp recoil impulse because you can't argue with the laws of physics: A 13-ounce gun plus .380 ACP plus a two-finger grip equals hold on tight and place bets on how big the fireball will be with certain ammo. Holding it in two hands seems almost comical as the gun nearly disappears, but shooting it did bring a surprise.
Maybe I've been brutalized by too many sub-subcompact .40s and .45s, but shooting the Pocketlite .380 was not unpleasant at all. In fact, I won't gauge the experience by how unpleasant it was but by how pleasant.
Quite frequently I take my two sons (ages 14 and 10) to the range with me when I test guns, for several reasons: One, shooting is fun; two it is good bonding/family time; and three, if there is a way to make a gun not work, they'll figure it out. My 10-year-old was especially eager to shoot the little Colt because he thought it looked cool, but I was sure he would limp-wrist the gun and make it jam. Nope.
I was also sure the recoil would be so snappy that even while it was small enough to be cute, neither of them would want to shoot the Mustang much. I was wrong. They put 100 rounds through the pistol just as fast as they could load the magazines.
My 10-year-old was doing full magazine dumps as fast as he could pull the trigger, while shooting pie-plate-size groups at seven yards. Even one-handed rapid fire was no problem. The small front sight on the Colt was easy to pick up outdoors in natural light, which actually surprised me.
Why was it so soft shooting? I have a theory. The barrel is so short that a good amount of the gunpowder that would otherwise be providing recoil was ejected unburned out the muzzle of the gun, providing no oomph. My teenager was worried about the "metal shavings" on his hand after he'd been shooting for a while, and I had to explain to him it was unburned gunpowder. If you look at the accompanying table, you'll see the velocities I obtained were quite below the advertised ones, no doubt due to the short barrel.
We didn't put the Mustang through one of Colt's 10,000-round torture tests, but we did put 200 rounds through it in an hour, and we enjoyed every minute of it. The gun itself did not jam, although we were able to jam the gun up.
What's the difference? Well, when you have a gun this small, even the smallest hands will tend to wrap all the way around it, and both me and my eldest managed to pop out the magazine while shooting one-handed. This happened only once for each of us, and I'm not even sure how we did it as the mag release was not under our fingers when we had a proper shooting grip.
The slide on the Mustang wouldn't lock back for us most of the time because the slide release ended up positioned right under our thumbs. I also deliberately didn't remind my oldest to shoot with a thumb-high hold (thumb over the manual safety, holding it down), and he did manage to accidentally pop up the safety during a shooting string. I don't necessarily consider these negatives to the gun, just things to always take into consideration when dealing with small guns.
The name itself indicates this little auto is designed to fit into a pocket. The single-action trigger makes it the most shootable pocket gun I've fired in a long time, perhaps ever. However, I just don't think single-action guns—especially those without grip safeties—are a good choice when it comes to pocket carry. Thumbs safeties are bound to get knocked off accidentally, and then you'll have a cocked-and-unlocked gun pointed somewhere very sensitive.
Some people might want to carry the Pocketlite in Condition Three (hammer down on a loaded chamber). The Colt is about the size of a derringer, and derringers have to be cocked as well. While it is pretty easy to cock the Colt with one hand when bringing it up to bear, I don't know if I'd want to do that under stress or under fire.
While I liked the Mustang Pocketlite a lot more than I thought I was going to, and it does everything it should and then some, I'm still not sure where I would put this gun on my pocket gun desirability list.
The Pocketlite is a single-action semi-auto with a thumb safety, ala the 1911, but you can operate the slide with the safety engaged.
The front sight is machined out of the stainless steel slide, and the pistol uses a bushing-less design and a full-length polymer recoil spring guide rod.
Despite the light weight and smooth backstrap, the Pocketlite was controllable and even pleasant to shoot.
The polymer trigger of the original has been replaced with an anodized aluminum trigger with a serrated face. The magazine release is just the right height.
The C clip is an artifact of the original design of the alloy-framed .380s. Colt wanted the new Mustang Pocketlite to have the same appearance and parts fits as the original pistol.