The military breakthrough for Bergmann finally came in 1903 with a new locking system for the pistol, designed by Louis Schmeisser (who had also designed the previous Bergmann handguns). In 1901, Schmeisser developed the new lock, and it was patented by Bergmann (his employer) primarily for use on heavy machine guns. It was used in these (and Bergmann HMGs saw some use in WWI), but it was also scaled down for use in the 1903 pistol. The new system used a square block that encircled the bolt and could travel a few millimeters up and down. This system externally looks very similar to the C96 Broomhandle Mauser, but is mechanically reasonably different.
This new locking system was more cost effective to manufacture and more reliable than the side-tilting bolt of the 1897 Bergmann, and it was also quite strong. Bergmann exploited this strength by introducing a new cartridge for the 1903 model – the 9mm Bergmann (clever name, eh?). Thanks to the Spanish, we know this round today as the 9mm Largo. It was a 9x23mm case, firing a 135 grain FMJ bullet at 1060-1115 fps (325-340 m/s) depending on the loading. This was the most powerful production pistol cartridge designed in continental Europe at the time, and had performance very similar to Browning’s .38 ACP.
Bergmann’s first major break came in 1905 when a Spanish testing board officially recommended the 1903 for military purchase and use. On September 5th of that year Spain placed and order for 3,000 Model 1903 pistols, chambered for the 9x23mm cartridge. This brought along a new problem for Bergmann – how to actually make them. Since 1896, Bergmann pistol production had been subcontracted out to V.C Schilling in Suhl, and Bergmann’s own industrial works were not tooled up for pistol production. In 1904 Schilling was taken over by the Krieghoff company, which decided to end the factory’s relationship with Bergmann.
The cost of setting up a pistol production line is quite significant, and Bergmann knew that his previous pistols had never managed to bring really significant sales numbers. Being the intelligent businessman, he was hesitant to make the investment in tooling and jigs for the 1903 without having more than the relatively small Spanish order. His solution was to use the facilities he had already set up for making the various prototype 1903 pistols. This allowed some production, but not at a very fast pace. In addition to the Spanish order, this production had to include commercial sale guns and samples for other testing (like the US trials). Bergmann’s own plant produced less than a thousand model 1903 pistols in total, and only a small number of these were sent to Spain by 1908.