It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call John Moses Browning the most influential and prolific firearms designer of the 20th Century despite the fact that he died in 1926. He designed a whole list of immensely popular and long-lived rifles, shotguns, machine guns and even an automatic rifle. However, it is his pistol designs that I want to look at in this series of articles. Browning wasn’t the only gun designer to work on what was known as the self-loading pistol in the late nineteenth century, but his ideas persisted long after those of contemporaries such as Georg Luger and Hugo Borchardt had been forgotten. If you look at virtually any current semi-automatic weapon you will see a method of operation and features that were all originally designed by Browning.
Browning also designed a single revolver, the Colt M1905 New Marine, but it’s his semi-automatic pistols that I’ll be looking at in these articles. Browning’s pistol designs developed incrementally until the Colt 1911 by which time he had introduced all the features which would be used in almost every later semi-automatic pistol. For this reason I will look at Browning’s pistol designs chronologically including highlighting developments and mentioning any currently available replicas. I’ll also provide some brief background on the life and times of this very private man. There’s a lot to cover here, so there will be three separate parts to this article:
Part 1: Up to 1900
Part 2: 1902 – 1908
Part 3: 1910 onwards
John Moses Browning was born in 1855 in Ogden, Utah as one of his Mormon father’s 22 children. At an early age Browning helped out in the family gunshop in Ogden and by the time that he was fourteen he was designing and building his own firearms. When his father died in 1873, Browning and three of his brothers started their own gunshop where they sold many guns designed by John. However, Browning quickly became frustrated that his long hours in the gunshop left little time for what he enjoyed most – designing new firearms.
A young John Moses Browning
Then, in the early 1880s, a salesman for the Winchester Firearms company visited the shop in Ogden and bought a single-shot rifle designed by Browning. He was so impressed by the rifle that he sent it back to the Winchester home office in Connecticut and recommended that they take a close look at it. The engineers at Winchester agreed and in 1883 offered Browning $8,000 (equivalent to around $200,000 today) for the manufacturing rights for the rifle. Browning used the money to set up his own design shop and over the next twenty years he would design a number of very successful rifles and shotguns that were sold by Winchester.
Browning in his twenties
However, the relationship between Browning and Winchester wasn’t all good news. On a couple of occasions, Winchester purchased designs from Browning but did not produce them. This made good commercial sense to Winchester – it stopped potential competitors from getting their hands on Browning’s designs, but it infuriated the designer. This was compounded when Browning began to design semi-automatic weapons (or self-loading guns as they were then known) around 1893.
It is said that Browning became interested in the concept of designing a self-loading mechanism in 1890 when out hunting with friends. He noticed that, when a rifle was fired, the grass in front of the muzzle bent and he began to wonder whether this wasted muzzle energy could be used to load the next round for firing? Browning went on to use these ideas to design a machine gun (the Colt M1895) and in 1896 he sold the designs for four self-loading pistols to Colt. However, by 1897 none of these designs showed any signs of going into production. Colt claimed that there simply wasn’t a ready market in America for this type of pistol, but Browning was concerned that they were trying to suppress his designs in order to protect sales of Colt revolvers.
By this time Browning was also unhappy with the commercial relationship he had with Winchester and other American manufacturers. Browning was generally paid a flat fee for the purchase of manufacturing rights for a particular design, regardless of how many guns were subsequently sold by the manufacturer. And in the case of very successful Browning designed models like the Winchester 1895 lever action rifle, that might amount to a million dollars or more. What Browning wanted was a royalty deal where, in addition to a fee for selling the manufacturing rights, he would also receive a small commission payment for every gun sold.
The FN Story
In 1886, while John Moses Browning was still tinkering with self-loading pistol designs in the US, a group of firearm manufacturing companies in the Liege Region of Belgium formed an association called Les Fabricants d’Armes Reunis (United Arms Manufacturers). The area around the town of Herstal had long been a centre for the production of guns and increasing orders from around Europe made it sensible for local companies to stop working against each other and begin to work together. In 1887 the Belgian Government decided that it wanted to replace 150,000 of its military rifles with more modern equipment. The prospect of winning this huge order attracted other companies to join Les Fabricants d’Armes Reunis and to form a new group, Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (FN).
The FN manufacturing plant at Herstal was truly vast. This re-touched publicity photograph is from around 1910.
FN won the order for new Belgian army rifles and the association built a state-of-the-art production facility in Herstal. The Belgian order was completed by 1891, and for a short time, things looked good for the new factory. But then, in 1894, FN were sued by Mauser who claimed that the rifles supplied by FN to the Belgian Army infringed the patent of the Spanish Mauser rifle. After protracted and expensive legal action, FN lost the suit and as part of the outcome they found themselves under German control. The Germans who ran the FN factory began to re-direct orders to German arms manufacturers and by 1897, very little arms manufacturing was being done at Herstal. In desperation, FN began to look for other products which they could manufacture in the virtually empty factory. One of the first options they considered was the bicycle, then enjoying huge popularity in Europe.
Inside the FN factory complex, around 1908
To research the possibilities for bicycle manufacture, FN sent their Director of External Affairs, the American-born Hart O. Berg, to America to study bicycle manufacturing techniques. On arriving in the US Berg went first to his home town of Hartford in Connecticut. Now, it happens that Hartford is also the location of the Colt factory and, seemingly entirely by chance, Berg met John Moses Browning who was on one of his frequent visits to Colt. The meeting couldn’t have been more fortuitous for both. Browning was frustrated in his dealings with US manufacturers and FN was desperate for something they could manufacture in their idle Herstal plant. ‘Think of it!’, Browning later told his brother Matthew, ‘a new gun factory with nothing to make! I’ll give them something that will set their wheels in motion.’
FN Pistolete Browning/Model 1899
Drawing from the patent application for Le Pistolete Browning
What Browning gave to Berg in June 1897 was the prototype of a small, .32” ACP calibre self-loading pistol. FN tested the prototype and were delighted to find that it was not only relatively simple, it was also extremely reliable in contrast to most other self-loading pistols of the period. In initial tests, 500 rounds were fired without any failure to feed or eject. Despite the fact that they had never manufactured a pistol before, FN were so keen to get their hands on the new design that they agreed to pay Browning not just $2,000 for the manufacturing rights but also a royalty equivalent to around 7% of the cost of every pistol sold. Browning was delighted – this was just what he had been refused by US manufacturers. However, the terms of the contract forbade FN from selling these guns in the US or Canada because of Browning’s previous sale of pistol designs to Colt.
The first version of the new pistol went on sale in Europe in January 1899 as Le Pistolete Browning (The Browning Pistol). Looking back at it from the twenty-first Century, Le Pistolete Browning looks pretty basic. It’s a single action, striker-fired design where the barrel is fixed to the frame and the slide moves under blowback to eject the spent cartridge via an ejection port on the right side of the frame above the grip. Up to seven .32” ACP rounds were held in a drop-out magazine and the not particularly easy to use magazine release catch was a small lever located in the heel of the grip. A manual safety on the left side of the frame blocked the sear and locked the trigger. There was no provision for locking the slide back either for cleaning or when the magazine was empty. Finish was blued steel with black rubber grips though a nickel-plated option was also offered and reinforcing plates were added to either side of the frame, just above the trigger. This pistol was fairly small, with an overall length of just over six inches and a four-inch barrel.
All this sounds pretty conventional now but you have to put it in context and remember that this was not only the first John Moses Browning pistol to make it into production, it was also the first production handgun to feature a moving slide rather than a moving bolt or breech block. If you were so inclined, you could probably make a good argument that modern semi-automatic handgun design started with Le Pistolete Browning.
This pistol was in production for less than three years as it was quickly superceded by the FN Model 1900. However, the heavy slide on Le Pistolete Browning meant that felt recoil was minimal and accuracy was very good and as a result it became immediately popular and more than 15,000 were sold before production ended in 1901. After the release of the FN Model 1900, this pistol became commonly known as the FN Model 1899, though this name wasn’t officially used while it was in production.
As far as I am aware, there are no shooting replicas of the Le Pistolete Browning/FN 1899 of any type in any calibre. Which is probably understandable because this is an odd looking, dumpy and (compared to later Browning designs) ugly little pistol, but it’s a pity because the Le Pistolete Browning is historically very important.
FN Model 1900
In 1899 the Belgian Army were looking for a self-loading pistol to replace existing service revolvers. One of the options they considered was Le Pistolete Browning. They reviewed this pistol in 1899 and delivered their verdict to FN – with a number of fairly minor modifications, Le Pistolete Browning would be suitable for adoption by the Belgian Army. The changes required were that the manual safety was modified so that pushing it up would lock the slide to the rear (though the slide still didn’t lock back automatically when the magazine was empty). A cocking indicator was added in the form of a bar which projected from the top of the slide and blocked the sight view when the pistol was not cocked. Grip plates were thicker, a lanyard ring was added at the base of the grip, ‘Sur’ and ‘Feu’ (On and Fire) markings were added to the manual safety and the frame sideplates were enlarged.
The resulting pistol was adopted by the Belgian Army in 1900 and sold commercially by FN as the FN Model 1900. Originally, FN planned to retain Le Pistolete Browning in their range as a civilian model and sell the Model 1900 as the military model, but the differences between the two were so minimal that they decided that a single version would be sufficient. Le Pistolete Browning was phased out in 1901 and subsequent production concentrated on the Model 1900. The new model proved to be hugely popular and almost three-quarters of a million Model 1900s were sold between 1900 and 1914 when production ended. Despite its official designation, this pistol was also widely referred to as Le Pistolete Browning (The Browning Pistol).
Strangely, the FN M1900 is often claimed to be Browning’s first design for a self-loading pistol, which clearly it isn’t. This is simply a development of the earlier Le Pistolete Browning, and his earliest designs for pistols of this type were those which he sold to Colt in 1896. Incidentally, it was also claimed for many years that an FN Model 1900 was used in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, an event which precipitated World War One. This is incorrect – the pistol used in the assassination was an FN Model 1910, another John Moses Browning design which we’ll look at later.
Zip. Nada. Nothing. Just like Le Pistolete Browning, the FN Model 1900 has been comprehensively ignored by replica manufacturers. Which is a great pity. I would certainly be delighted to see a replica of either of these pistols and I believe anyone with an interest in the development of the modern handgun would probably feel the same way.
The Colt Automatic Pistol
Back in the US, Colt watched FN’s commercial success with the Model 1899 and began to wonder whether perhaps there was a potential American market for a self-loading pistol? They had been tinkering with the designs they purchased from Browning in 1896 (including producing a full auto version of one of his pistols which proved impossible to control). In November 1898 a prototype of one of these pistols was submitted to the United States Army Ordnance Department where it was examined and tested along with four other automatic pistols. However, the testers weren’t impressed, reporting that; “The Board is of the opinion, based upon a careful examination of the Borchardt, the Mannlicher, the Mauser, the Colt, and the Bergmann repeating weapons, that the development of this type of pistol has not yet reached such a stage as to justify its adoption in the place of the revolver for service use…”
Undeterred by this report and encouraged by FN’s European success, Colt continued to refine the new pistol and Browning worked on a new rimless cartridge, the .38” ACP, which it would use. In 1900 the US Army Ordnance Department purchased 100 examples of the new version for additional testing (though Colt were unhappy to discover that at the same time, an order was placed for 1000, 7.65mm Luger pistols). Colt were also interested in pursuing the possibilities of commercial sales and in early 1900 one of the new pistols was sent to the very popular Shooting and Fishing magazine. The resulting review was generally positive but the author did note that; “…the term automatic pistol does not seem to be the proper term to use in connection with the arm; semi-automatic seems to be correct.” Which, as far as I can tell, is the first use in print of the modern term “semi-automatic” to describe what had previously been known as self-loading pistols. From this point on, any pistol which used a reciprocating slide became generally known as a semi-automatic.
The Colt Automatic Pistol shared many of the design features of the FN 1899/1900, but it did provide some entirely new ideas. This was a much larger pistol at over nine inches in length and it had a six-inch barrel. Unlike the FN it had a conventional hammer rather than an internal striker though it was still single action only. In another change to the FN design the barrel on the Colt was not fixed to the frame – it was mounted in slots in the frame and moved a short distance to the rear as the slide retracted and the ejection port was in the top right of the slide, not the frame. The manual safety was also interesting – engaging the safety involved depressing the rear section of the slide, including the rear sight. This meant that it was immediately apparent that the safety was engaged (because the rear sight wasn’t visible) but it was found to be very difficult to disengage the safety while gripping the pistol with one hand. Initial versions had serrations on the rear of the slide, but it was just too easy to inadvertently disengage the sight safety while gripping the slide at the rear and the serrations were quickly moved to the front. The sight safety was discontinued about three-quarters of the way through production of this pistol. There was no way of locking back the slide on this pistol and despite its large size, the drop-out magazine held just seven .38” ACP rounds and the release catch was still a small, awkward to use lever in the base of the grip.
On early versions of the Model 1900 the rear sight had to be pressed down to engage the manual safety
A little over four thousand of these pistols were produced between February 1900 and May 1902 when production ended. Two hundred were sold to the US Army and 250 to the US Navy. The remainder were civilian sales. This pistol has come to be known as the Colt Model 1900 but it was simply known as the Colt Automatic Pistol while it was in production.
Guess what? That’s right, there aren’t any shooting replicas of the Model 1900 of any type in any caliber. And again, that’s a great pity. The Colt Automatic Pistol was the first semi-automatic pistol to be widely used in the US and that alone makes it interesting. Writing about this pistol in 1920, noted firearms commentator Captain H.B. Pollard said: “The adoption of the automatic pistol by a firm of the eminence of the Colt Company practically established the principle. People no longer looked upon automatics as dangerous experimental toys, but recognized that the principle was a success…” IMHO, and in addition to its historic significance, this is a great looking pistol, the hefty slide would provide strong blowback, the quirky sight safety would be an interesting feature to see on a replica and the six inch barrel should provide plenty of power and accuracy. So please, someone give us a replica of this pistol. Pretty please?
I hope you enjoyed this article. In the next instalment we’ll be looking at more John Moses Browning pistols, this time from the period 1902 – 1908. And don’t worry, in that article there will actually be some replicas to discuss!