The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 2: 1902 – 1908

Colt Model 1902

The original Colt Automatic Pistol achieved some sales but nothing to equal the success of the FN M1900 in Europe and Colt continued to refine and improve the basic design. This resulted in the Colt Model 1902. Now, this wasn’t really a new pistol, it was just a development of the original Colt Automatic Pistol but it did introduce new features which make it worth looking at in detail. The Model 1900 was produced in two versions; The Sporting and the Military Models which I’ll discuss separately.

Colt M1902 Sporting Model

The Colt 1902 Sporting Model was overall very similar to the original Colt Automatic Pistol (many of the same jigs and dies were used in manufacturing). It was chambered for the same .38” ACP round but the 1902 did introduce a number of small improvements and refinements. The sight safety was removed though it wasn’t replaced – neither version of the Model 1902 had any form of manual safety. The only way to safely carry a 1902 when a round had been chambered was to manually lower the hammer to a half-cock position, something that led to all too many accidental discharges. Slide serrations were now deeper and at the front of the slide and many 1902s had a smaller, rounded hammer following criticism that the hammer on the Colt Automatic Pistol was so large that it obscured the sights. All Sporting Models were finished using Colt’s charcoal blueing process which involved placing the parts to be blued in a large coal-fired oven and both wood and black hard rubber grips were used.

Colt Model 1902 Sporting

However, the single most significant change was the introduction of a spring-loaded plug in the end of the recoil-spring housing to allow for field stripping without tools. We now take it for granted that the slide on any semi-auto pistol can be removed without using tools, but this was the first John Moses Browning design (and one of the first semi-auto pistol designs) where this was possible. Almost 7,000 1902 Sporting Models were produced up to July 1907.

Colt M1902 Military Model

The Colt 1902 Sporting Model was very similar to the Sporting Model but it did incorporate additional changes suggested following US Army trials of the Colt Automatic Pistol. These included a longer grip incorporating a lanyard ring (the longer grip also allowed a larger eight round .38” ACP magazine). However, the most important change was in response to a military request that the slide should remain back when the magazine was empty to make reloading simpler. Browning designed a simple mechanism that would hold the slide back after the last shot was fired and added a small slide release catch to the left side of the frame. This is another of the features that we now take from granted in a semi-automatic pistol. It seem so self-evidently a good idea that it’s difficult to imagine that this wasn’t included in all these early pistols, but the M1902 Military Model was the first time that this was seen in a Browning design.

Colt Model 1902 Military

Colt were very confident that the US Army would be impressed by the new pistol and two hundred examples of the Model 1902 Military were supplied for testing in 1902. These were distributed to a number of cavalry and other units for evaluation. It took almost a year for the army to say what it thought of this pistol and the results were a crushing disappointment to Colt. The army considered the 1902 to be insufficiently powerful, liable to accidental discharge, hard to use one-handed, unbalanced, heavy, clumsy, unsafe and possibly even dangerous. The conclusion was that the M1902 was fundamentally unsuited for military issue. Colt were stunned and for the next few years their semi-automatic handgun production would focus on “pocket pistols” for the civilian market.

Mexican revolutionaries around 1912. The woman on the left is packing a Colt 1902 Military Model.

Remarkably, given the US military lack of enthusiasm, Colt sold around 18,000 Model 1902 Military versions until production ended in 1928. Although this pistol was never officially adopted by any military unit, it became widely used in both the Mexican and Chilean revolutionary and armed forces in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Further development of this pistol led to the Colt Model 1905 (the first Colt semi-auto to be designed for the new, more powerful .45” ACP round) but this was simply a further refinement of the M1902 and had little involvement from Browning so it won’t be covered in this article.

Replicas

Nope, nothing at all. Sigh!

Colt 1903/1908 Pocket Hammerless Pistol

Following the rejection of the Model 1902 by the US Army, Colt decided that it might be best to focus on the civilian market for semi-auto pistols. The Models 1900 and 1902 both sold reasonably well to the civilian market, but what was wanted was a small, light semi-automatic pocket pistol which could be carried in a pocket, handbag or concealed holster and drawn quickly without fear of snagging. Sometime in 1901, Browning offered Colt the design for a new design based around the .32 ACP round which FN had used in the M1899/M1900. Colt readily accepted and in August 1902 released the new gun as the Model 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol.

Despite the name, the Model 1903 wasn’t hammerless at all – the hammer was concealed inside the rear of the slide.  Mechanically, it was a relatively simple and reliable straight blowback design with a single action trigger and a fixed barrel.  A manual safety was included on the left side of the frame (the safety could also be used to prop the slide open) and it incorporated a grip safety in the rear of the grip – the first time that this feature was seen on a Browning designed pistol. Unlike the Model 1902 Military, the slide on the 1903 did not lock back after the last shot was fired. The release for the magazine was a serrated catch on the heel of the grip, a great improvement over the fiddly catch on previous Browning pistols.  Weighing just 1.5 pounds and seven inches long overall, the 1903 Hammerless was a compact, easily concealed weapon which stood out from the bulky handguns generally available when it was released.

General Officers Pocket Pistol, a version of the Colt Model 1903 Hammerless issued to senior officers in the US Army up to the 1970s

In contrast to the Models 1900 and 1902, the Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless was an immediate and spectacular commercial success for Colt.  More than half a million were made between 1903 and the end of production in 1946.  In 1908, Colt added the Model 1908 Hammerless Pocket Pistol to their range, which was essentially the same pistol chambered for the larger .380 ACP round (a slightly less powerful cartridge than the .38 ACP round used in the Model 1902).  In addition to being popular with private owners, the Colt Models 1903 and 1908 were adopted by a number of Police departments in the USA (Including New York City Police) and were issued as a sidearm to General Officers in the US Army until the 1970s (Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Marshall and Patton all carried this model during World War Two).  It was also issued as an officer’s sidearm to Republican Chinese forces in the 1920s and 1930s and was adopted by Shanghai Municipal Police at the same time.  Interest in the 1903 remains so high that, in early 2015, Colt announced that they would resume limited production of this pistol.

Replicas

Finally, we have a replica to discuss! Given how popular the cartridge firing version was, it’s actually surprising that there only seems to be one current replica of the Colt 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol, and that’s a Chinese made, 6mm, spring powered all-metal version. I have seen this sold as both the Smart K-28 and the XueLang Smite 32. Overall, it’s not a bad visual replica given its limitations, but wouldn’t you love a blowback version of the Colt 1903 Hammerless? I know I would!

Smart K-28. Stupid grips, but otherwise not actually a bad visual replica of the Colt 1903 Hammerless.

FN Model 1903

FN also purchased Browning’s design for the same pistol, but FN enlarged it in size by around 15% to produce the very first semi-automatic pistol chambered for a 9mm round (the 9x20mm SR Browning long cartridge) – the Parabellum P08 (Luger) and the Mauser C96 pistols were still chambered for the 7.65mm round at this time. The FN Model 1903 was mechanically very similar to the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless, but it was notably bigger (the overall length increased from seven to eight inches and the barrel on the FN version was 5” long compared to 4” on the Colt). FN sold this pistol in Europe and elsewhere as the Browning Modèle de Guerre (Browning War Model) and Browning Grand Modèle (Browning Large Model) though it is now generally known as the FN Model 1903. Customers could specify whether they wanted the standard seven round magazine or an extended ten round version which also allowed the fitting of a shoulder stock.

The FN M1903 became a popular military sidearm and was adopted by several armies including those of Belgium, Holland, Germany, Turkey and Estonia as well as being used by the Imperial Russian police. A version of this model was also manufactured under license by Husqvarna Vapenfabriks from 1917 until 1942 as the M/1907 which was used by the Swedish Armed Forces. FN sold around 60,000 examples of the Model 1903 and Husqvarna manufactured over 94,000 examples of the M/1907.

FN Model 1903 with extended ten round magazine and shoulder stock

Replicas

As far as I am aware, there are no shooting replicas of this, the very first 9mm semi auto pistol. And, just like the lack of replicas of the Colt 1903 Hammerless, that’s a great pity.

Colt 1903 Pocket Hammer

In keeping with their decision to focus on civilian pistols, in late 1903 Colt released a compact version of the Model 1902 Sporting, the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer. This was designed by Browning and in almost all respects was simply a cut-down version of the earlier pistol. Like the Model 1902, it was chambered for the .38” ACP round and the magazine held seven rounds. The barrel was reduced to 4½” inches in length and the overall length to just over 7½”. Again like the Model 1902, no manual safety was fitted, though the hammer could be dropped to a half-cock position. The slide did not lock back on empty, there was no manual means of locking it back and the magazine release was a small catch in the heel of the grip.

In addition to the shorter barrel and slide, the main differences between this and the larger pistol are that the slide serrations were moved to the rear of the slide and that two links were used to retain the barrel (rather than the single link on the Model 1902). The drawback to this design was the need to use a cross-wedge in the slide near the muzzle to retain the slide. If the slide cracked or the wedge became loose, the slide could be shot to the rear when the pistol was fired, potentially injuring the shooter. This design also limited the power of the cartridge which could safely be used in this pistol and all subsequent Browning pistols reverted to using a single barrel link.

Although it was initially popular, sales of the Model 1903 Pocket Hammer fell dramatically when newer models such as the Colt 1911 were introduced. Around 30,000 of this model were produced by Colt between 1903 and 1920 when production ended. Just like the Model 1902, many 1903 Pocket Hammers ended up in Mexico during the period of the revolution there and a small number were purchased for use by the Philippine Constabulary.

Replicas

As far as I’m aware, there are no shooting replicas of the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer.

FN 1906/Colt 1908

In 1902, Browning had completely ended his association with Winchester and had begun to work increasingly with FN. This came about after Winchester proved difficult when Browning offered to sell them the design for one of his most ambitious designs to date, the Auto-5 shotgun, in 1900. To his growing irritation, Winchester refused to say yes or no to the new design, and by 1902, Browning had had enough. In a stormy meeting with Winchester chief T.G. Bennett he gave an ultimatum – either buy the new design or release it so that another manufacturer could. Bennett refused to give a clear answer and Browning simply picked up the design for the Auto-5 and got on a ship for Europe. Although his visit was completely unannounced, he (and his new shotgun design) was welcomed with open arms in Herstal.

Browning with an Auto-5 Shotgun

By 1905 Browning had become known as “Le Maître” (the Master) in Herstal and was making frequent trips to Belgium. He had both a permanent design office at the Herstal plant and a very able young assistant called Dieudonné Saive. Working at Herstal, Browning began refining the design for a true pocket pistol. The story goes that Browning, who certainly looks very dapper in most photographs, wanted a pistol for personal protection which was small enough to be carried in a pocket without spoiling the cut of a jacket.  The design began with a new cartridge: Browning had asked William Morgan Thomas of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (U.M.C.) to develop a small caliber cartridge suitable for a blowback operated pocket pistol.  In June 1904, the first batch of the new ammunition was delivered to Browning for use in his new prototype.  He demonstrated the new pistol to Colt who decided that they weren’t interested.  He then took it to Belgium and showed it to FN who immediately decided to go ahead with manufacture of the new round (the “6.35mm Browning”) and the new pistol, the FN Browning Model 1906, also known as the Modèle de Poche (Pocket Model) or Baby Browning.

The new FN pistol was an immediate commercial success.  It was a hammerless, striker fired design which had no conventional manual safety (though this was added on later models).  Instead, it had a grip safety similar to that used on the Colt Model 1903/FN Model 1903.  The tiny magazine held just six, 6.35mm rounds and rudimentary sights were cast into a groove on top of the slide.  At under 4.5” in length and weighing just 13 ounces, the Modèle de Poche was small, compact and easy to conceal while also being comfortable to hold and shoot. To further cement his relationship with FN, browning gave the company exclusive rights to use his name as a trademark. That meant that only FN produced guns could use the revered Browning name. In much of Europe (and beyond), the term “Browning Pistol” became a synonym for any semi-automatic pistol.

Noting the success of the FN pistol, Colt quickly realized their mistake and took out an option to sell the same gun in 1906.  In 1909 they launched the Colt Model 1908 Hammerless (also known as the Vest Pocket Pistol) which was similar, but not identical to the FN version.  The most notable difference was that the Colt 1908 included a manual safety lever on the left side of the frame which could also be used to hold the slide open (there was no way to hold the slide open on the original FN version).  The 6.35mm cartridge was re-branded as the Colt .25 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round.  A few years later a third safety was added to the Colt Model 1908 in the form of a magazine disconnect which led Colt to proudly claim that “Accidental Discharge is Absolutely Impossible with the Colt Automatic Pistol.” The Model 1908 certainly proved to be popular: it remained in production for over forty years and Colt sold more than 400,000 of these tiny but effective and reliable pistols.

In a fascinating commentary on the changing common meaning of words, in early marketing the Colt Model 1908 was often described as an ideal “muff pistol”, in other words a pistol which could be easily concealed within a lady’s muff. Just in case you’re not certain, a muff was a common item of ladies’ apparel in the early 1900s in which both hands could be placed to keep them warm. As the word “muff’ began to be commonly used to mean something quite different, the advertising provoked a degree of sniggering and was hastily amended to note instead that the tiny Model 1908 was ideally suited to concealment within a lady’s handbag.

1909 advertising for the Vest Pocket Pistol notes that it “Just fits in a man’s vest, or can be carried in a lady’s muff…” Hmm…

Replicas

Smart K-18

The only replica of the FN 1906 that I’m aware of is the Smart K-18. It’s a Chinese made springer, but it’s actually a pretty decent visual replica – it’s accurately sized and has sights within a groove on the top of the frame. Unfortunately, the Smart K-18 does not seem to be widely available in many parts of the world.

There are two different spring-powered, metal 6mm replicas of the Colt Model 1908 available. One is the Chinese C.1 airgun (also branded as the Galaxy G.1 in some markets). It’s a reasonable visual replica, but it’s about 20% larger than the original and it has notch and post sights, which is wrong.

C.1 Airgun

The other spring powered 1908 replica comes from Cybergun. In some ways this is better than the C1 in that it is accurately sized, has a working manual safety and magazine release and accurate markings on the slide and grips. However, while early versions were metal, the current iteration is manufactured in the Philippines out of chocolate brown and black plastic and looks more like a novelty pencil sharpener than a replica pistol. There used to be a Taiwanese gas powered (non-blowback) version of the Model 1908 too, but it no longer seems to be available. A blow-back gas-powered version of the tiny Model 1908 would certainly be a very wonderful thing, but I guess that the pistol and magazine are just so tiny that this would be technically very difficult, though WE recently introduced a blowback, green-gas version of the tiny Colt Junior, so I guess it isn’t completely impossible. For the moment we’re stuck with these spring powered replicas.

Cybergun Model 1908

Next up in the Pistol Place…

I hope you enjoyed this article. In the final part of this series we’ll be looking at some more classic John Moses Browning pistols, this time from the period 1910 onwards including the Colt 1911, the Browning Hi Power and the Colt Woodsman. And there will be more replicas than you can shake a stick at!

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The semi-automatic Handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 1: Up to 1900


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The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 1: Up to 1900

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

Early life

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.

Replicas

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.

Replicas

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.

Replicas

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!

Related Posts

The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 2: 1902 – 1908

Classic Handguns; The Colt Single Action Army Revolver

The Colt Single Action Army is indelibly associated with the romance and adventure of the Wild West.  Sitting through countless cowboy themed television shows and Saturday afternoon matinees in the 1950s and 60s meant that every small boy (and even some discerning small girls) became familiar with the SAA, even if most of us didn’t know what it actually was.  Whether we called it a “Peacemaker”, “Colt 45” or just a “six-shooter”, for a whole generation, the SAA was simply the “cowboy gun”.  It somehow looked right and the evocative and distinctive click, clack, click, clack of the hammer being cocked became a kind of aural shorthand for manliness, excitement and danger.  Sadly, the idea that every cowboy carried a Colt SAA is not historically accurate – S&W top-break revolvers for example, were more numerous on the frontiers of America in the late 1800s.  However, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when many cowboy movies and television programmes were being made, Colt SAAs were more readily and cheaply available than most other guns of the frontier period and so were most often used as props. For this reason the Colt SAA will always be the pistol most people associate with the Wild West.

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The cast of the Maverick television show demonstrate their Colt SAAs, circa 1957

However, in addition to fuelling adolescent cowboy fantasies, the Colt SAA was also an important handgun.  It may not have been the first revolver or even the first handgun to use a self-contained cartridge but it combined these things in a simple, rugged and enduring design which provided reliable firepower to very large numbers of people.  Few would argue that this handgun, which has remained in production almost continuously for over 140 years, is worthy of the title “classic“.

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Who was that masked stranger?  It was Clayton Moore actually, wearing unfeasibly tight trousers and dual-wielding a pair of 7½” Colt SAAs in the 1955 Lone Ranger television show.

Development

Up to the late 1700s and early 1800s, most handguns were single-shot, muzzle loading designs which used sparks from a piece of flint to ignite black powder.  There were multi-barrel pistols, but on most, pulling the trigger fired all the barrels simultaneously.  Reloading was slow and cumbersome and even a light shower of rain could render a pistol incapable of firing.  However, in 1807 a patent was accepted for the percussion cap.  This was a small copper cap filled with percussion sensitive material such as mercury fulminate or potassium chlorate.  If the percussion cap was struck by the hammer of a pistol, it produced a small explosion which was then used to fire the main charge.  Percussion caps were reliable and less prone to failure due to damp than the flint/black powder system.  A number of muzzle loading pistols were produced which used percussion caps, but most were still single-shot designs.

In 1830, a young American, Samuel Colt, was sent to spend some time as begin a seafarer.  The 16-year-old lad was interested in firearms and pyrotechnics (one of his most prized possessions was his Grandfather’s flintlock pistol).  His ability to produce spectacular explosions and fireworks had made him very popular with his friends at school, until one of his experiments led to a fire which resulted in his expulsion.  Looking for a suitable career for his son (and presumably one which would keep him as far as possible for explosives), Samuel’s father decided that seafaring might provide a safe outlet for his son’s interests and enthusiasm.  Samuel joined the small brig Corvo, sailing between the US and Calcutta.  Legend has it that Colt spent time during the voyage examining the ratchet and pawl mechanism used to control the ship’s steering gear and pondering whether a similar mechanism could be used to index multiple barrels in a handgun?  He later claimed that he whittled a prototype pistol with revolving barrels from wood while on the ship to confirm that this was possible.

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Colt Paterson revolver

Colt returned to the US in 1832 and began refining his design.  In 1836 he registered a patent for a “revolving gun”.  This incorporated a revolving cylinder (rather than the rotating barrels of his first prototype) and used percussion caps to ignite the powder charge in each chamber of the cylinder.  In 1836 Colt formed the Patent Arms Manufacturing company in Paterson, New Jersey and began manufacture and sale of the five-shot Colt Paterson pistol, which is claimed to be the first practical revolver.  Initially the Colt Paterson was offered in .28″ calibre though it was later upgraded to .36″.  Sadly, it didn’t prove very popular in any calibre.  Each pistol was hand-made, which meant it was expensive compared to other contemporary handguns and it proved to be fragile and unreliable in use.  Colt was forced to sell the company and abandon manufacture of this revolver in 1842.

However, some people saw the possibilities inherent in the concept of a revolver.  Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers was one of these.  He contacted Colt to discuss ways of improving the Colt Paterson design (one of his suggestions was that a larger projectile would make the pistol capable of killing not just people, but horses too, an important consideration for the Rangers who often found themselves fighting mounted opponents).  In 1846, the Walker Colt appeared.  This massive (it weighed four and a half pounds) six-shot pistol was a clear improvement on the first revolver.  The design of the internal mechanism was simplified to make it more reliable and the new pistol was chambered for a .454″ (11.5mm) bullet. This was still a percussion cap design where black powder, a percussion cap and a bullet had to be separately loaded into each cylinder. When it appeared, the Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun available, and it would remain so until the introduction of the .357 round in the 1930s.  The Walker Colt also used a number of machine-made parts (an innovation in 1846) which meant that parts were more uniform and could safely be interchanged between pistols.  The Walker Colt proved to be much more reliable and its use by the Texas Rangers provided positive publicity.  Commercial success followed and Colt was able to build his own firearms manufacturing plant.

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Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales with a pair of Walker Colt revolvers

Colt continued to evolve and refine his designs, supervising the production of a number of percussion cap revolvers up to his death in 1862.  However, another important innovation appeared in the early 1860s: the centre-fire cartridge.  This was a self-contained cartridge where a charge of gunpowder and a bullet were mounted in a brass casing which also incorporated a percussion cap in its base.  The centre-fire cartridge allowed much faster reloading and was virtually impervious to rain and damp.  Unfortunately for the Colt company, Smith & Wesson held the patent for the bored-through revolver cylinders required to use this new cartridge, and Colt wasn’t willing to pay royalties to a competitor.  However, the S&W patent expired in 1869 and the Colt company immediately began work on the design of a new revolver using the .45″ centre-fire cartridge which could be offered to the US Army.

Like all previous Colt revolvers, the new design was single action only but it allowed the loading of up to six centre-fire cartridges via a loading gate on the right side of the frame.  It also incorporated an ejector under the 7½” barrel to remove spent cartridge casings (early cartridge cases were prone to distort on firing, often jamming them in the chamber).  For the first time on a Colt revolver, the SAA included a top-strap on the frame to provide additional strength to deal with the power of the .45″ round (the new pistol was originally to be called the “Colt Strap Pistol“).  Colt entered the new design into the US Army trials in 1873 and it was adopted as the M1873 and used as the main US military sidearm until its replacement in 1891 by a Colt double-action revolver.

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7½” Colt SAA from 1875

The Colt Single Action Army revolver also proved massively popular as a civilian weapon.  It was rugged, reliable, easy to repair if it did fail and its machine-made internal parts could be interchanged between weapons.  Best of all, Colt’s hi-tech manufacturing process meant that it was also cheap: the SAA cost just $17 when it was launched on the civilian market.  This compared very favourably to the $40 – $50 asked for the Colt Paterson pistol in 1836, though the US Army paid just $13.50 for each of their first batch of SAAs.

Other versions followed including the Flat-top Target with a decent notch rear sight and the Bisley Target Model with a longer grip, wider hammer and trigger and a rear sight which was adjustable for windage.  However, although these later developments were in many ways more practical, especially as target shooters, none could match the rugged simplicity of the original SAA.

Use

Between 1873 and 1941 (when production of what became known as the “first generation” SAA finally ended) more than 350,000 Colt SAAs were produced in more than thirty different calibres, though .45″ was the most popular.  In addition to the 7½” “Cavalry” version, two other barrel lengths were commonly offered: The 4¾” “Civilian” and the 5½” “Artillery”, though numbers of SAAs with different barrel lengths were also produced including a compact version (known as the Banker, or Storekeeper) with a 4″ barrel and without the under-barrel ejector rod.  A number of finishes were offered including blued and colour case hardened though limited numbers with nickel, gold or silver plating or other unusual finishes were also produced.  Standard grips were either black hard rubber or walnut though other exotic woods, ivory, mother of pearl and staghorn were also used for grips on special models.  The huge interest in the Wild West promoted by movies and television led to Colt re-introducing the SAA in 1956 (the “second generation”).  In 1975 the third generation SAA was introduced, and this version remains in production to the present day.

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All versions of the SAA are single action only and all have a delightfully light (around 3lbs) pull and a crisp and consistent release.  When you compare the profile of the SAA to any modern handgun, it looks kind of odd.  The grip has an elegant if rather unusual curve.  Sit it beside almost any modern semi-auto pistol and it just doesn’t look as if it will fit your hand.  And yet it does.  Perfectly.  The SAA will comfortably fit most hand sizes and it’s a natural pointer with great balance.  Hold an SAA, look at the target and you’ll find that the pistol just naturally follows.  Which is lucky, because the sights (especially on first generation models) are rudimentary.  The tall foresight is lined up with a V shaped groove in the top of the frame.  Windage adjustment is done by bending the foresight in the required direction.  Elevation adjustment is done by either filing down the foresight, or squeezing it in a vice to make it taller.  Not that the lack of accurate sights was a major issue – this isn’t a target pistol, it’s a hard-working, blue-collar gun designed to hurl a large bullet in the approximate direction in which it’s pointed.  The SAA is also lefty-friendly.  Because there is no manual safety or cylinder release on the left side of the pistol, it can be used comfortably in either hand.  And the loading gate on the right is especially easy to use for lefties.

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But though it may not have provided pinpoint accuracy, if you did hit something with a Colt SAA you were going to do some serious damage.  Those soft, .45″ bullets travelling at over 900fps caused horrific injuries.  Remember all those movies and television shows where the good guy would get shot in the left arm?  And he would either ignore this or perhaps pause briefly while he or his adoring girlfriend tied a handkerchief round the wound before he continued to battle the bad guys?  Well, I’m afraid you can forget about that.  Getting hit in the arm with a round from a Colt SAA might tear the arm off altogether or at least shatter the bone so comprehensively that you’d be left permanently disabled.  If you got hit in the body or chest, you’d be left with a baseball-sized exit wound and very little time to explain that you’d come for the man who shot your Pa.  This gun had stopping power long before that term was invented.

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Of course the SAA wasn’t perfect.  The sights were basically useless and accuracy (especially with early cartridges) was poor.  Adequate if you were trying to shoot the hombre with aces up his sleeve on the other side of a poker table, less so if you were trying to hit a man-sized target at anything over 20 feet.  One story, apparently true, describes two cowboys, both armed with Colt SAA’s who got into a heated argument while standing on opposite sides of a double bed. Both emptied their revolvers at each other from a range of a few feet. When the smoke cleared, it became clear that both had missed with all their shots so they went for a drink instead.

Distorted cartridge cases were difficult to remove, even using the ejector rod; you might wonder about that given that cowboys in movies and television shows from the 50s and 60s never had any trouble emptying out their used cartridge cases – this was because the reduced charge used in blank shells didn’t tend to distort the cases.  The SAA had no manual safety and no drop safety, but it was provided with a half-cock position for the trigger, which allowed the gun to be carried safely.  Sort of.  After a number of US Cavalry troopers and civilians shot themselves or their horses while galloping with a half-cocked SAA, it was decided that it was safer to load with just five cartridges and keep an empty cylinder under the hammer.

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Jessie James’ Colt SAA

The Colt SAA has become one of the most collectible handguns from the Wild West period.  Very large sums indeed are paid for examples with well-documented provenance.  A Colt SAA with the serial number 1 was sold at auction in 2009 for $862,500 (at the time this was the highest price ever paid for a historic handgun).  Another SAA which belonged to outlaw Jessie James went to auction in 2013 with a starting price of $400,000.  Even first-generation SAAs in only fair condition and with no particular history sell for $3000 – $5000.  So, for many people, replicas are the only way to enjoy the SAA experience without spending a great deal of money.

Colt SAA Replicas

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Marushin removable shell 6mm SAA

There have been a number CO2 and gas-powered replicas of the Colt SAA over the years (there have also been several spring powered versions, but really?  Don’t bother!), but none have been ideal both as replicas and as shooters.  Hahn/Crosman produced a range of CO2 powered SAA replicas from the 1950s to the 1980s.  All shot pretty well, but they looked slightly odd due to the CO2 cartridge being located under the barrel.  Tanaka produced a beautiful gas-powered SAA replica using their Cassiopeia system in the early 2000s where compressed gas was stored in the removable shells. Unfortunately, these proved to be unreliable and shot with all the power and authority of a gnat breaking wind.  They were also discontinued fairly quickly due to concerns in Japan that they could be converted to fire real cartridges.  Tanaka responded with a redesigned SAA using their Pegasus system and Marushin have also produced a removable shell SAA replica. These are beautiful-looking replicas, though neither are particularly satisfactory shooters.

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Umarex Colt SAA

It wasn’t until 2015 that we finally got a decent Colt SAA replica which was also a reasonable shooter. Umarex released a CO2 powered Colt SAA with removable shells and a 5½” barrel. It’s generally a decent visual replica of the original and is now available in 4.5mm, 6mm and .177” pellet shooting versions and in a range of barrel lengths (though not, strangely, the popular 4¾”). If you want an SAA replica that you can also enjoy shooting, this is currently the only option.

Conclusion

For me, the Colt SAA is one of those replicas which no collection should be without.  Whether you are interested in the history of this iconic handgun or you just want to practice your quick-draw technique, the Colt SAA does it all. It’s surprising and perhaps a little disappointing that there is only one current SAA replica that both looks reasonably like the original and shoots well, but at least we do now have the Umarex Colt SAA. It’s not the perfect replica, but at least it does give those of us who are interested in handguns the opportunity to experience a little of that SAA magic.

Related Posts

Umarex Single Action Army revolver review

Links

Colt SAA on the Umarex website