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

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.


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.


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


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.


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…


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!

Related pages

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

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