The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 3: 1910 – 1926

FN Model 1910

When Browning offered Colt the design for what would become the FN 1910, they turned it down, presumably because it was felt to be too similar to the existing Colt 1903/1908 Hammerless Pocket Pistol. Browning then offered the same design to FN who readily accepted it. Unlike the Colt Model 1903 which it resembled, the 1910 incorporated an internal striker, similar to that used in the FN 1906/Colt 1908 Vest Pocket Pistol. Like those earlier pistols, it also had a manual safety on the left side of the frame (which could also be used to prop the slide back), a grip safety and a magazine release in the heel of the grip. The slide did not lock back when the last round was fired and no slide release was provided.

When it was first offered for sale, this model was simply described as the New Model Browning Automatic Pistol (to distinguish it from the existing FN 1900 which became known as the Old Model), and the designation Model 1910 wasn’t introduced until the 1920s. The 1910 was initially offered in .32ACP (7.65mm) calibre though a .380ACP (9mm Short) version was added soon after. Both versions were externally identical. Several versions of the 1910 were produced. Most lacked conventional sights, being provided only with a wide groove milled in to the top of the slide, though some models produced after 1922 had small, fixed sights similar to the sights on the Colt 1903.

Spanish Danton Pistol, very similar to the FN1910

Its small size and the lack of a hammer or sharp edges made the FN 1910 a popular concealed carry weapon and it was used by a number of European police forces in the period up to the beginning of World War Two. This pistol was also scaled up to produce the otherwise identical FN Model 1922. During the war, the FN factory was occupied by Germany and large numbers of FN 1910/Model 1922s were produced and used to equip German armed forces. Production of these models continued after the war up to 1975 and around 750,000 were produced in total. The popularity of the 1910 led to the production of a number of copies, including the Bufalo and Danton pistols in Spain, the German DWM, the Bayard and Melior in Belgium and the Praga in Czechoslovakia.

FN Model 1922, basically a scaled-up FN Model 1910

This pistol became famous (or perhaps infamous is a better word) when a young Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip, used a .380ACP FN 1910 to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro Hungarian Empire and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. One month later, this event led directly to the outbreak of World War One. The FN 1910 was also used in the fatal shooting of French President Paul Doumer in 1932 and was said to have been involved in the killing of US Presidential hopeful and Governor of Louisiana Huey Long in 1935.


There is, as far as I am aware, only one shooting replica of the FN1910 and that’s the spring powered, 6mm Smart K-17. Not a great replica, but not terrible either despite having a conventional sights and a pivoted rather than a sliding trigger.

Colt Model 1911

Classic. Seminal. Iconic. Choose your superlative – you won’t be wrong. Browning’s Colt Model 1911 was so clearly right in every way that it had a huge influence on subsequent semi-automatic handgun design and virtually every semi-auto that followed was no more than a variation on this original theme. But, here’s the thing: If you have been following this series of articles, you’ll realise that this design wasn’t the result a single flash of inspirational genius, it was a logical progression from Browning’s earlier designs and a direct response to the rejection by the US Military of the Colt Models 1900 and 1902.

This World War Two poster features a GI with a Colt 1911

The purpose of the new design was to win trials at which the US Army would be choosing a new sidearm, so it was targeted very specifically at meeting army requirements. The army had felt that the Models 1900 and 1902 were underpowered, so the new pistol would be chambered for the more powerful .45” ACP round. The army had felt that the 1900 and 1902 were clumsy, heavy and unbalanced, so the new pistol would be smaller and better balanced. The army had felt that both earlier models were too prone to accidental discharge, so the new pistol would be provided with both a manual and a grip safety. The army had insisted on the Model 1902 Military having a mechanism that locked slide back on empty and a slide release, so the new pistol would have both of these features. The army approved of pistols that could be stripped without tools, so the new pistol would have the removable barrel bushing from the Model 1902 Sporting Model.

An early M1911

The US Army also had a significant number of cavalry units (as did virtually every other contemporary army) and this raised further requirements. A cavalry trooper must be able to use a pistol with one hand, so all the controls on the new pistol had to be operable while holding the pistol in the right hand. A manual safety high on the left side of the frame had been used on several previous Browning pistols and this can readily be operated by the thumb of the right hand, so that would be used on the new pistol. Cavalry pistols also needed to be drop-safe, even with the safety disengaged, so the new pistol would incorporate the grip safety first seen on the Model 1903 Hammerless.

A later M1911A1

The requirement for one-handed use also led to the only really new feature of the Colt 1911, the button style magazine release on the left side of the frame. All previous Browning designs had used a magazine release in the heel of the grip which required the use of two hands but the new style of release could be operated with just the thumb of the right hand. This wasn’t something completely new – the Parabellum P08 (Luger) pistol already had a similar arrangement, but it was a first on a Browning pistol. So, you can see that the Colt Model 1911 wasn’t so much something entirely new as a synthesis of the best features of previous Browning designs. However, it was the first time all these things had come together in a single pistol and the result revolutionised semi-automatic handgun design.

US soldiers in World War One proudly display their Colt 1911s

A great deal has been written about the success of the 1911, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. It was adopted by the US Army and remained the principal sidearm of that organisation for seventy-five years. It became very popular in civilian hands too (at least in the US) it it’s still possible to buy something very like the original 1911 now. The reasons for its success are easy to understand: the 1911 was easy to use, simple, rugged, powerful, its slim grip suited a range of hand sizes and it was relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Was it perfect? Of course not. The magazine held just seven of the fat .45” ACP rounds, some people found the stretch to the trigger to be too long, the sights were rather small and hammer bite was an occasional issue for unwary shooters. However, all of these things (with the exception of limited magazine capacity) were addressed in the refinements seen in the M1911A1 introduced in 1927.

Something a little different – one of the few photographs of the planned FN Grand Browning, a scaled-down version of the Colt 1911

The Model 1911 didn’t make John Moses Browning famous. He was already famous when this pistol was released. But it did assure him of a place in the pantheon of truly great designers. And it made Colt a very great deal of money. Oddly, the 1911 didn’t sell particularly well outside America, probably because the .45” ACP round just wasn’t so popular elsewhere. FN had plans to introduce a pistol called the FN Grand Browning, basically a 7/8th size copy of the 1911 chambered for a new 9.65mm round. However, production was limited to a few prototypes and plans to introduce this pistol were abandoned completely during World War One.


Umarex Colt Government 1911A1

Unlike all the other pistols discussed in this series of articles, there are simply so many versions of the Colt 1911 available as replicas that it’s impossible to list them all here. You can have a vintage replica air pistol based on the 1911 or if you’re looking for something more current you can have a CO2 powered pellet shooting version (The Umarex Colt Government 1911A1), many, many gas and CO2 versions in 6 and 4.5mm, with and without blowback and even spring powered versions. Virtually every model of the 1911 from the original M1911 to modern Hi-Cap and railed versions are available as replicas. You’ll find links below to some 1911 replica reviews on this site.

Tokyo Marui Colt M1911A1 review

Umarex Colt Government 1911 A1 review

Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness review

 Colt Woodsman

The Colt 1911 was the final semi-auto pistol designed wholly by John Moses Browning. However, before he died he was responsible for the initial design work on two more pistols which would achieve lasting fame.

Colt advertising from early 1915 drawing attention to the release of a new model.

Even as the Colt 1911 was being accepted by the US Army, Browning was working on a quite different design, this time for a .22” semi-auto target pistol using rimfire LR cartridges. Up to this time, no-one had been able to make a semi-auto which reliably fed the tiny .22 rounds. The problem was that these rounds had a pronounced rim and, when they were stacked in a magazine, the rims tended to interleave, catching on one another as the top round was fed to the breech. Like all the really great ideas, Browning’s solution to this problem was so simple and obviously right that it seems incredible that no-one else had thought of it before. All Browning did was to design a magazine that was slanted at an angle of around 25°. This meant that the rim of each round was slightly in front of the rim of the round stacked below, allowing reliable feeding.

An early Sport Model

Browning sold the design for this pistol to Colt in 1911. His initial design was then refined by two Colt Engineers, F.C. Chadwick and G.H. Tansley, and the new pistol went into production in 1915 as the Colt Automatic Pistol Caliber .22 Target Model (the name Woodsman wasn’t applied to this model until 1927). The pistol was single action only, had a grip slanted to match the ten round magazine, a short slide which ended above the trigger, a manual safety on the left side of the frame and a magazine catch in the heel of the grip. Both front and rear sights were adjustable. This wasn’t a hammerless design – like the Colt Model 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol, a hammer was hidden inside the rear of the slide. The new pistol was sold in three variants: the Sport Model had a 4½” barrel, the Target Model had a 6” or 6½” barrel and the top-of-the-line Match Target Model had a much heavier, flat-sided 6” or 6½” barrel.

Series 2 Target Model

The new pistol was an immediate commercial success for Colt who went on to produce three distinct series, each incorporating minor improvements (the second series, for example, made from 1947 – 1955, had a slide release and a button style magazine release on the left of the frame) until production finally ended in 1977. Around 700,000 examples of the Colt Woodsman were produced in total. The majority were civilian sales though during World War Two examples were used by the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) who were to experimenting with the use of sound suppressors.


Healthways Plainsman

As far as I know, there are no current gas or CO2 powered replicas of the Colt Woodsman of any kind. A great pity because this is another of those Browning designs which I’d love to see as a fully-functional blowback replica. If you like vintage air pistols, there was the Plainsman, a BB shooting, CO2 powered pistol manufactured from 1969 – 1980 by US Company Healthways which was (sort of) a replica of the Woodsman. In the 1980s a Japanese company called Falcon Toy made a 6mm, metal, spring powered, shell ejecting 6mm replica of the Woodsman Series 3 Match Target Model, but very few of these are still around today.

I have also seen photographs of what I think is a current Chinese, spring powered Woodsman Series 2 or 3 Sport Model replica, but I have never actually handled one of these and I know nothing about this replica at all.

A Chinese, spring powered Colt Woodsman replica. Probably.

However, there is a neglected and, in my opinion, undervalued replica which comes close. This is the Umarex Buck Mark URX, a pellet shooting, single shot, break barrel springer. It’s a replica of the Browning Buck Mark target pistol which is itself a .22” LR development of Browning’s original design for the Woodsman. The Umarex URX isn’t especially powerful (295fps is claimed) but it is very accurate and satisfying to shoot though it does have a very heavy trigger. Until something better comes along, this is as close as replicas shooters can currently get to the Woodsman experience.

The Umarex Buck Mark URX

Umarex Buck Mark URX review

Browning Hi Power

By 1926, seventy-one year old Browning was tired. That was unsurprising. He was travelling regularly from Utah to Liege in Belgium. Nowadays, that might take a day or so, but back in the 1920s the return journey by land and sea could take anything up to twenty days. Browning made this gruelling trip 61 times between 1900 and 1925, spending the equivalent of almost three years of his life travelling between Europe and the US. On November 26th, 1926 Browning was working at his desk in the design office in the Herstal factory. He had been complaining of chest pains for several hours and when he started to feel faint, he went and lay on a couch in a nearby office being used by his son Val. “Son, I wouldn’t be surprised if I am dying”, he said. Tragically he was right and within minutes John Moses Browning was dead.

An early Browning Hi Power

Before he died, Browning had presented FN with two prototypes of a new pistol design he was working on. This was an attempt to produce a military sidearm chambered for the 9mm round which would overcome one of the main drawbacks of the 1911 – its limited magazine capacity. After his death, these designs were worked on by Dieudonné Saive (Browning’s assistant who later went on to become Chief Designer for FN) and developed into the Browning Hi Power in 1935. I won’t go into too much detail here about that pistol because I have already written a separate article on the development of the Hi Power – you’ll find a link below. It’s probably enough to say that the Hi Power was developed over the years to remove some early problems and went on to become a very widely used military sidearm which is still in production today.

Classic Handguns – The Browning Hi Power


Tanaka 6mm Hi Power Mark III

There are a few Hi Power replicas available. Tanaka and WE produce gas powered, blowback 6mm versions and Umarex and Turkish EKOL produce CO2 powered 4.5mm, non-blowback versions. However, none of these are without issues and given the vast range of 1911 replicas, it’s surprising that there aren’t more replicas of the Hi Power.

WE Browning Hi Power review


A reciprocating slide incorporating an ejector and an ejection port and which locks back when the last shot is fired. Field stripping without the need for tools. Double column magazines. These are just some of the things that we now take for granted in the design of semi-automatic pistols but they can all be traced back to the work of John Moses Browning and most were produced during a burst of creative energy that spanned a twelve year period at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth.

John Moses Browning (and Mr Burton of Winchester) examine a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in 1921

Three of Browning’s pistol designs (The Colt 1911, Browning Hi Power and Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless) are still in production and still being used today. Genius is a grossly overused term nowadays, but I don’t think anyone could object if you called Browning both a genius and the person single-handedly responsible for the way that modern semi-auto pistols look and function.

One of the things that writing this series of articles prompted me to think about is the range of currently available replicas. There are certainly far more shooting replicas now than there were, say, ten years ago. But these, and especially blowback replicas, seem to focus on variants of a relatively few models (mainly the Colt 1911, Beretta 92, Sig P226 and Glock) and there are still notable gaps. I think many replica collectors and shooters would welcome new replicas and especially replicas of historic pistols – just look at the popularity of existing replicas of historic pistols such as the Colt SAA, Makarov and Luger for example. Let’s hope that in the future, replica manufacturers start to look beyond the 1911 to give us replicas of some of John Moses Browning’s other classic semi-auto pistol designs. What about a blowback Colt Model 1903 Hammerless? Or a Colt Model 1900? Or an FN Model 1910? Or a blowback Colt Woodsman? Hell yes!

Happy shooting

Related pages

The handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 1

The handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 2

3 thoughts on “The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 3: 1910 – 1926

  1. Pingback: The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 2: 1902 – 1908 | The Pistol Place

  2. Pingback: The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 1: Up to 1900 | The Pistol Place

  3. Pingback: Classic Handguns: The Browning Hi Power | The Pistol Place

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s