The 1906 FN Browning and the 1908 Colt:
by Ed Buffaloe
On 7 July 1897 John Moses Browning and Fabrique Nationale (FN) signed an agreement giving FN the right to sell Browning-designed weapons in much of Europe, but specifically excluding them from markets in the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland where Colt’s had been licensed to sell Browning’s designs. The agreement was modified on 1 July 1912 to allow FN to sell Browning’s designs in Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada provided they paid a royalty fee to Colt’s for each gun sold. In turn, Colt’s received exclusive rights in North and Central America.
John Browning asked William Morgan Thomas of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (U.M.C.) to develop a new cartridge suitable for a small blowback operated vest pocket pistol. Thomas worked on the cartridge in 1903 and 1904. In June of 1904 Browning asked Thomas to manufacture 500 rounds for him to use in testing his prototype. The cartridge was introduced commercially in 1906 by FN, and has always been referred to in Europe as the 6.35mm Browning. The cartridge was introduced into the U.S. in 1908, where it is known as the .25 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol).
The FN Browning of 1906
Browning’s vest pocket pistol was essentially a miniaturized version of the Model 1903 with a striker to ignite the cartridge (in place of the hammer used in the earlier design) and with no manual safety. Browning offered the diminutive pistol to Colt’s as early as 1904, but they turned him down, so he took the design to FN, who manufactured it as the Pistolet Browning 6.35mm. FN received Browning’s prototype in 1905, and the first production pistols went on sale in July 1906.
The first variant of the FN Browning Model 1906, like Browning’s prototype, had no manual safety and featured only a grip safety. There was no mechanism to hold the slide open, either for reloading or for disassembly. The early trigger was a narrow, flat piece of machined metal, curved in front to fit the finger, with a smooth surface. Approximately 150,000 of the first variant guns were manufactured between 1906 and 1909.
For the second variant a manual safety lever was added. This change took place during 1909, but was not consistent--new slides with safety levers were installed in some guns with earlier serial numbers, while some guns with later serial numbers received older slides with no safety. Some say the safety lever was primarily intended to hold the slide open for field stripping the gun, and only secondarily served as a safety. However, the safety was patented by FN on 10 November 1906, only a few months after the pistol went on sale. In 1911, around serial number 220,000, the trigger was modified to have a larger front surface--it was given little flanges on either side, and was grooved in the center. According to Gangarosa, only about 30,000 of the second variant guns were made, making them relatively scarce.
The third variant gun was known at the time as the “Triple Safety Model,” and is distinguished externally from the second variant by a slightly larger manual safety lever and different style slide detents. But the real internal difference was the addition of a magazine safety. I have not had the opportunity to examine a Model 1906 to determine how its magazine safety differs from the Tansley magazine safety on the Colt (see below).
The Model 1906 was originally referred to by FN as “Pistolet Browning 6.35mm,” and sometimes as the “Modèle de Poche,” or pocket model. The gun was often popularly referred to as the “Baby Browning,” and when FN later created a new version they officially named it the “Baby Browning” and even put the word “Baby” on some of the early grips. Though it is often referred to as the “Model 1905,” after its patent date, “Model 1906” is the preferred designation for the older gun to distinguish it from the later official “Baby” model.
The FN Model 1906 was issued in a standard polished blue finish with checkered animal horn grips with the FN logo in an oval at the top. Special order versions were available in six different levels of increasingly more elaborate engraving and gold inlay, most with either pearl or ivory grips. After 1940 standard grips were made of black plastic.
The slide legend for the first year of production was in sans-serif characters as follows:
FABRIQUE NATIONALE D’ARMES de GUERRE HERSTAL BELGIQUE
From 1907 through much of the 1930’s the slide legend was in serif characters, with the word “Depose” added, to indicate that the patent had been registered:
FABRIQUE NATIONALE D’ARMES de GUERRE HERSTAL BELGIQUE
Vanderlinden indicates that some minor variants of this inscription may exist.
From sometime in the 1930’s through the end of production, the legend was again in sans-serif characters.
FABRIQUE NATIONALE D’ARMES DE GUERRE HERSTAL-BELGIQUE
The Colt Model 1908 Hammerless
Colt’s took up its option on the Browning Vest Pocket in 1906, the same year FN began production, but Colt’s prototype was not completed until late in 1907. Colt was intent on somehow distinguishing their gun from FN’s. Their first prototype was a scaled down version of the Model 1903, complete with internal hammer and a newly designed manual safety lever from John M. Browning. However, the gun was judged to be too complicated for its size (something John M. Browning himself had probably already decided), so a second prototype was made that was mechanically an exact duplicate of the 1906 FN, with the addition of Browning’s new manual safety lever. This gun went into production at the end of 1908. Its first appearance in the Colt’s catalog of 1909 was as the “Colt Automatic Pistol, Pocket Model, Calibre .25, Hammerless,” though within the company, the gun had been known as the Model N. Today it is usually referred to as the Colt Model 1908 Hammerless. The early advertisements for the Model 1908 stated that the gun “...has no equal in its size for Power, Accuracy and Effectiveness.” And also: “Accidental Discharge is Absolutely Impossible with the Colt Automatic Pistol.”
The gun was marked COLT’S PAT. FIRE ARMS MFG. CO. HARTFORD CONN USA. PATENTED AUG. 25, 1896 APR 20. 1987. DEC. 22. 1903 on the left, and COLT AUTOMATIC, CALIBRE 25 on the right. The first patent listed had no real bearing on the gun, but was probably intended by Colt’s to give the impression that the gun had more patent protection than it actually had in the U.S. The manual safety on the Model 1908 differed from that on the Model 1903 (and the FN Model 1906) in that it was rotated clockwise to engage the safety and counterclockwise to hold the slide open. This safety was patented by John Browning in 1910 and the new patent date was added to the Colt’s inscription sometime after serial number 20,000: COLT’S PT. F.A. MFG. CO. HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A, PAT’D AUG. 25. 1896 APR. 20. 1897 DEC. 22. 1903 JAN. 25.1910.
In 1916 or 1917 a magazine safety, designed by George Tansley, was added somewhere near the 141,000 serial number range. Tansley was granted a patent for the magazine safety on 31 July 1917. The slide inscription was changed at approximately serial number 284,000 to read:
COLT’S PT. F.A. MFG. CO. HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A.
There are a number of minor variations in the M1908, including width of the rear sight, size of the trigger, lettering variations, manual safety spring, trigger bar spring, and others. These are carefully detailed in Donald Simmons’ article “The Littlest Colt Automatic Pistol.”
As early as 1920 Pollard wrote that the FN Browning “...lacks the better finish of the colt factory.” W.H.B. Smith states boldly that the Colt is better made than the FN. I wouldn’t hazard an opinion, since FN is well known for very high standards of production and I don’t have a Model 1906 for comparison purposes. However, there is no doubt that the Colt is extremely well made. It features color case hardening on the trigger, grip safety, and manual safety lever, and the overall fit and finish is superb.
At the range, the Colt 1908 functioned flawlessly with both hard nose and hollow point ammunition. I was able to shoot pretty consistent three-inch groups at 25 feet.
Automatic Pistols, by H.B. Pollard. W.E., Greenwich, Connecticut. Reprint
of 1921 edition.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Ed Buffaloe. All rights reserved.