Pocket Pistol Week — Beretta Tomcat

Original “thin-slide” Beretta 3032 Tomcat from 1997 — second year of production

No discussion of pocket pistols is complete without bringing up Beretta. And no discussion of Beretta pocket pistols is complete without reference to Beretta’s famous tip-barrel designs. Beretta’s most famous pocket pistol was the Model 418, which began life shortly after World War I as the Beretta Model 1920. The Model 418 is a blow-back design chambered in .25 ACP/6.35x16mmSR (SR = Semi-Rimmed cartridge). This pistol was discontinued in the mid-1950s, with production running concurrently for a few years with its successor, the Beretta Model 950 Jetfire introduced in 1952.

The Model 950 offered several improvements and features unavailable in the Model 418. The most obvious of these design changes was the implementation of a tip-barrel. The semiautomatic pistol could still be loaded using the standard method of inserting a loaded magazine, racking the slide to chamber a round, then removing the magazine to top it off before reinserting it back into the magazine well. Or, you could now insert a fully loaded magazine, push forward on the side-mounted thumb lever, which released the barrel and allowed it pivot upward from the muzzle end.  This presented the exposed breech to the shooter. With the breech tipped up, the shooter simply drops in a cartridge, then, pushes down on the rear of the barrel until it locks back into place.

Barrel tipped for breech loading

Why a tipping barrel? It can be a trial to rack the slide of small semiautomatics because of their limited grip surface. Additionally, people with weak hands may not be able to overcome the tension of the recoil and hammer/striker springs to chamber a round from a magazine. The Model 950 addressed these obstacles by borrowing the tip-barrel design from an earlier pistol, the Steyr Pieper Model 1908. With the advent of the Model 950 almost anyone could now operate a semiautomatic pistol, although in a caliber that left much to be desired. As for the 950’s trigger, it’s single-action and the weapon has no safety. That means that the hammer must be manually cocked before the gun can fire. This can be done from a half-cocked safety position.

Alas, because of its small size the Model 950 was banned from importation into the U.S. following passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, and no one in the U.S made anything comparable until Beretta began producing the Beretta Model 20 from 1983 until 1985 at a Maryland-based manufacturing facility. The Model 20 is a refinement of the Model 950. While the Model 20 retained the tip-up barrel, the trigger was now double-action/single-action and the pistol came with a manual safety that allowed the Model 20 to be carried cocked-and-locked. Want to decock the weapon . . . safely? Tilt up the barrel to get the loaded cartridge away from any potential firing pin contact, placed your thumb on the hammer spur, pull the trigger, and gently ride the hammer to the decocked position.

3032 Tomcat cocked-and-locked

3032 Tomcat in double-action, safety off

After only two years of U.S. production the Model 21A Bobcat replaced the Model 20 in 1985. The Model 21A was available in both .25 ACP/6.35x16mmSR and .22 LR/5.6x15mmR (R = Rimmed cartridge). Some differences between the Model 21A and its predecessor:

  • An increase in grip length and girth
  • Increase in weight
  • Improved manual safety
  • Addition of a half-cock position
  • Matte finish replacing the previous high-gloss bluing
  • Stainless “INOX” version

However, if you thought .380 ACP/9mm kurz was a hard self-defense sell in the 1980s at around 200 ft. lbs./270 joules of muzzle energy, just imagine trying to convince buyers that 65 ft. lbs./88 joules is somehow adequate. The .22 LR/5.6mm was great for cheap range enjoyment, but not many people consider .25 ACP/6.35mm much more than an expensive novelty. And while Beretta had once produced a tip-barrel .380 ACP/9mm kurz version of the Cheetah designated the Model 86 (see: Shooting a Pair of Cheetahs — Comparing the Beretta 84FS and 85FS), it was several inches longer and taller, much wider, and over twice as heavy than the diminutive Bobcat.

If .25 ACP doesn’t sell, and a weapon designed for .380 ACP is too large for the intended tip-barrel pocket pistol market, what’s the solution? How about a cartridge that fits nicely between the two — the .32 ACP/7.65x17mmSR Browning at 130 ft. lbs./176 joules. This would place into the Bobcat design the cartridge for which the Walther PP and PPK were originally designed (see: The Perfect Fashion Accessory—Walther PPK in .32 ACP), and in a package much smaller and at almost half the weight of the Walther. The slide mass was increased. The frame was strengthened by making the trigger guard a thicker, molded part of the frame rather than the Bobcat’s separate, thin piece of metal that also acted as a spring to automatically rotate the barrel upward upon release. The total weight from the Bobcat increased approximately 1.5 ounces/43 grams, but the Bobcat’s length, width, and height were retained in a pistol with a new name and model number.

Thus, eleven years after the Bobcat debuted, the beefed up .32 ACP Beretta 3032 Tomcat arrived. Too bad all that engineering didn’t work.

While the mass of the slide was increased to handle a cartridge with twice the power of the .25 ACP, and the frame strengthened with the revised trigger guard, these modifications still weren’t enough for the frame to reliably handle the battering from the slide. Internal cracking of the frame just above the trigger began showing up in many of the original Tomcats. These cracks were in a non-structural portion of the frame, but that did nothing to alleviate concerns from unhappy owners; and if the cracked metal displaced upward even slightly, the damaged frame would rub against the slide preventing proper cycling and causing jams.

Quick and easy disassembly

The solution was to increase the slide mass even more to further reduce slide velocity. The result was the Beretta 3032 “wide slide” Tomcat. But not only was the slide widened, now matching the width of the grips, the side rails of the slide were also raised. The raised rail on the right side of the pistol is lowered forward of the breech face to accommodate ejection of the spent casing. If you happen upon a used Tomcat and want to know if it is an early version or a later wide-slide variant, just look for this area on the right side (see the photos below). On an original 3032 the right-side rail will have a uniform height the entire length. The wide-slide right rail will be lowered forward of the breech face.

Original “thin-slide” and newer “wide-slide”

Slide-by-slide comparison

Thin-slide Tomcat left; wide-slide Tomcat right

Now for some interesting design notes and observations:

  1. The Tomcat is a true blow back design, clear down to case ejection. Look at the tipped-up barrel and you’ll notice something is missing. There’s no extractor. The spent case is blown out of the barrel rather than being pulled out at the end of an extractor hook
  2. The closed barrel is under tension from a leaf spring in the frame, so when the barrel release lever is pushed the barrel pivots upward with enough velocity to toss a loaded cartridge right out of the chamber. Considering that a standard “tap-rack-bang” drill won’t work in a gun that lacks an extractor, this is a rather ingenious solution to quickly removing a dud cartridge.
  3. The Tomcat lacks a decock, but that’s not a problem. If you want to safely decock the loaded weapon, just tilt the barrel, pull the trigger, and gently lower the hammer with your thumb (Beretta recommends against dry fire, so don’t let the hammer just fall). Using this procedure, it’s not even necessary to remove a loaded magazine to safely decock the weapon. Once the Tomcat is decocked, just push the barrel with the chambered round back into place.
  4. One other “missing” piece. Below is an image of the exposed frame and the underside of the slide. Notice that there is no recoil spring? Actually, there are two of them, but they are hidden behind the grips. When the slide travels rearward, two slots on the underneath sides of the slide engage levers on either side of the frame above the grips.  These levers compress the hidden recoil springs downward.

Under side of slide; exposed frame

The Tomcat has quickly become one of my favorite weapons, but it isn’t without at least two glaring drawbacks:

  1. Once again, we get from the manufacturer a pistol with only one magazine. That, in my view, is totally unacceptable. Minimum should be three (thank you, FN and SIG), even though the industry standard appears to be two (just about everyone else, including Colt with their 1911/1991 models and Beretta on most of their other pistols). On the plus side, unlike the Colt Mustang shown Monday (see: Pocket Pistol Week — Colt Mustang), the sole magazine included with the Tomcat actually worked.

    One magazine? Are you kidding me?

  2. As with the Colt Mustang, the sights on the Tomcat are terrible. On the early Tomcat I fired for this article, the black-on-black front/rear sight combination is terrible. The stainless-on-black front/rear combination on the INOX wide-slides are better, but not by much. Like the Colt, the front sights on these Tomcats will at some point receive a higher visibility paint treatment. Too bad Beretta have discontinued the Alley Cat night-sighted version of the Tomcat.

    Not bad considering the dismal sights

I think I just heard a collective gasp. Many of you are probably under the impression that Beretta quit making the Tomcat. Not true. Refer to the photo below. The matte black original is from the second year of production, 1997. The INOX all-natural finish Tomcat is from 2016. The INOX two-tone variant comes from this year’s batch. Apparently, Beretta U.S. still manufacture these wonderful little packages of unique shooting pleasure in small runs about once or so a year. The same is true of the .22 LR and .25 ACP Bobcat. If you want either, make sure you tell your favorite local gun store to reserve one for you when they come out. All three of the 2017 Tomcats and the single .22 LR Bobcat received by my favorite store (Collector’s Gun Exchange) went in less than a week, and another store I routinely patronize hasn’t been able to obtain any.

Original Tomcat, 1997; Two-tone INOX, 2017; All-natural INOX, 2016

By now you’re asking how the Tomcat shoots. Like a dream. Recoil is incredibly light. Reacquisition of target is quick and easy, despite the rather lacking sights. The heavier Walther PPK in .32 ACP might win in a direct comparison of these two factors, but not by much; and the Walther certainly loses out to the Tomcat in size, weight, and concealability. I’ve yet to test the slightly heavier wide-slides, but even with the 14.38-ounce/408-gram original version Tomcat absolutely no problems staying on paper. And that slide cracking issue on the originals? This 1997 showed no signs of having this problem. Beretta’s manual recommends that ammunition for the Tomcat be restricted to no more than 130 ft. lbs. /176 joules of energy, so that’s what I used with no ill effects on the weapon. On Friday I’ll be comparing the double-action/single-action trigger of the Tomcat to the single-action only trigger of the Colt Mustang.

For someone who lacks the strength or grip to manipulate the slide of a semiautomatic, yet doesn’t want the wide bulk and low capacity of a five-round revolver, the Tomcat offers a perfect solution — the tip-up barrel with breech loading. Capacity is adequate at 7+1, and certainly more than adequate when carrying a spare magazine or two. Some will criticize the .32 ACP for being a “mouse gun” caliber, but that’s simply ignorance speaking. European police and military forces used the .32 ACP with quite satisfactory results for the better part of a century.

A quick word about .32 ACP “rim lock”: The .32 ACP/7.65x17mmSR, as noted above, is a semi-rimmed cartridge. Being semi-rimmed, it is possible to insert cartridges into a magazine in such a manner that an upper cartridge seats behind the cartridge below it. In this case, the rim of the upper cartridge would not smoothly glide over the lower cartridge and into the chamber, but rather “lock” rims and jam the magazine solid. This is known as “rim lock”. Below are two photos of stacked .32 ACP cartridges. The top photo shows the cartridges in proper alignment as they would be if correctly loaded into a magazine. The second photo shows a “rim lock” configuration, in which the top cartridge would be prevented from passing over the lower one on its way to being stripped from the magazine and loaded into the chamber. In my opinion this is not likely to occur in the Tomcat, as the angle of the magazine should be more than enough to prevent this during loading. I suppose given a sufficiently short bullet, as with some hollow-point profiles, that a lower cartridge in the stack could conceivably get ahead of the one above it, but I doubt it. At any rate, care should be taken during loading a magazine designed for any semi-rimmed cartridge, which besides .32 ACP also includes .25 ACP, .38 ACP, and .38 Super.

Proper alignment

Rim lock alignment

Will the Tomcat replace as my primary carry choice the 9mm Walther P99c AS (see: When Fashion Goes Macho—Walther P99c AS in 9mm)? No. Will it replace as my P99c AS alternative, more concealable backups, the .32 ACP Walther PPK and .380 ACP Walther PPK/S? Will the Colt Mustang win out over both Walthers and the Beretta? Tune in Friday for the answer to that question.

Beretta 3032 Tomcat specifications:

  • Trigger: Double-action/single-action; cocked-and-locked capable
  • Caliber: .32 ACP/7.65 mm
  • Capacity: 7+1
  • Steel slide, alloy frame
  • Length: 4.92 inches/125 millimeters
  • Width: 1.1 inches/28 mm
  • Height: 3.7 inches/94 mm
  • Weight with empty 7-round magazine (as measured by the author):
    • Early thin-slide Tomcat 14.38 ounces/408 grams
    • Later wide-slide Tomcat 15.72 ounces/446 grams
  • Barrel length: 2.4 inches/61 mm

Comments Off on Pocket Pistol Week — Beretta Tomcat

Filed under Firearms, R. Doug Wicker

Comments are closed.