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The Robar & de Kerckhove
Melior and Jieffeco Pistols,
Model 1907 & 1911

by Vaclav Vriesen and Ed Buffaloe

Louis Robar was born into a family of rentiers in Liège. His parents were Jean-Louis Robar and Catherine Salmon. Jean-Louis had an office at 30 rue Jonfosse in Liège. Louis Robar’s wife (née Bovy) was probably from the Bovy family of prominent gunsmiths in Liège. They had three sons: Joseph, Eugène, and Alfred.

In 1906 Louis Robar and his sons registered a company in Liège under the name Robar Fils et Cie. By this time Louis Robar was already a grandpa. We know little about Robar Fils et Cie except that they produced revolvers under the Lincoln brand. At some point, probably around 1907, Robar Fils et Cie merged with L. de Kerckhove, or made him a partner. All we find regarding Kerckhove is that there was a gunsmith and knifemaker by that name in Bourbourg, France in 1895.

The name of the new company was L. Robar Fils & L. de Kerckhove, which we will henceforth refer to as Robar & de Kerckhove. The full company name, L. Robar Fils & L. de Kerckhove, appears in a trademark certificate dated 14 January 1914 representing the trade name ‘Melior’ over the initials ‘R.K.’ ‘Melior’ is Latin for ‘better’ and might also be translated as ‘superior.’

We believe the new company was formed to manufacture automatic pistols under the patents of Henri Rosier. At this time many inventors had great admiration for the firearms patents of John M. Browning, who had become a trend setter in pistol design beginning in 1899 with the advent of the FN Browning automatic pistol. Henri Rosier, a young and talented engineer, was among the many inventors working on automatic pistol designs.

Patent Drawing - Belgian Patent No. 199499 Patent Drawing - Belgian Patent No. 199499

Henri Rosier’s First Belgian Patent, Number 199499 - April 1907


In April 1907 Rosier obtained Belgian patent № 199499 for an automatic pistol, one which was presumably presented to Louis Robar. On 21 November 1907 Henri Rosier applied for a patent for an improved automatic pistol design, and on 30 November 1907 he was granted Belgian patent № 204029. Virtually identical patents were applied for in Switzerland on 25 July 1908, in the USA on 18 November 1908, and in France and the Great Britain on 19 November 1908. The British patent was granted in 1909, while patents in the USA and Switzerland were not granted until 1910. Here it is important to note that the U.S. patent 970645 was signed on 20 September 1910 by the engineer Victor Hamal and the factory owner Louis Robar as witnesses.

The first lot of Melior pistols was produced in 1908, though these pistols could only have been marketed in Belgium until such time as Henri Rosier’s foreign patents were granted. Hence the first lot had no patent number or export markings. These pistols had « MELIOR » engraved on the left side of the recoil spring housing and an “R&K” (Robar & de Kerckhove) monogram on the grip plates. We observe the R&K monogram on grip plates of Melior pistols prior to serial number 9534.

Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - Serial Number 1314 Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - Serial Number 1314

Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - Serial Number 1314


When Henri Rosier’s invention became protected by the British patent in 1909, the British patent number was added to the “MELIOR” slide inscription, including the patent application date of 1908.

Melior Inscription w/ British Patent Number

Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - with British Patent Number


Moritz Magnus Jr. became the first major distributor of Robar’s Melior pistol, and he had his own MM-jr monogram placed on the grip plates.

Moritz Magnus Jr. Monogram

Moritz Magnus Jr. Grip Monogram


The manual for Melior pistols sold by Moritz Magnus Jr. was available in three languages: German, English, and Spanish. Logically then, Moritz Magnus Jr. must have sold these pistols in Great Britain, Germany, Spain and other countries that spoke these languages. The lot of Melior pistols distributed by Moritz Magnus Jr. had an additional mark in English on the left side of the recoil spring housing that defined their origin: “BELGIUM.”  Moritz Magnus Jr. purchased a lot of approximately 1,000 pistols which were sold wholesale to small merchants at a reduced price, depending on the quantity they bought. At this time the Moritz Magnus Jr. brand was little-known and apparently the company was dissatisfied with the sales. Having sold this lot of pistols, no further contracts were made with Robar & de Kerckhove.

Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - w/ Moritz Magnus Jr. grip plates - Serial Number 4122 Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - w/ Moritz Magnus Jr. grip plates - Serial Number 4122

Melior Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - w/ Moritz Magnus Jr. grip plates - Serial Number 4122


After working with Moritz Magnus Jr. as a distributor,  Janssen Fils et Cie became the main seller and agent of Robar & de Kerckhove in the foreign market and later held the monopoly on Melior pistol sales in Belgium.

Janssen Fils & Cie Advertisement

Janssen Fils & Cie Advertisement


Jansen Fils et Cie was founded by Joseph Janssen and sons in 1867.  Joseph Janssen was a shareholder of Fabrique Nationale in Herstal and a chairman of the factory board of directors from 1892 to 1896. Janssen Fils et Cie was a sustainable company that produced hunting guns and revolvers and was engaged in the export of luxury weapons, though it had not produced automatic pistols. Therefore, the distribution contract was beneficial to both companies. Robar gained the freedom to concentrate on production and not bother about sales, while Janssen was able to complete their offerings with an automatic pistol. This long-term contract appears to have been signed in the summer of 1909.

To enhance sales in the foreign market, Janssen put its own name and trademark on the pistol. On 12 October 1903 they had trademarked the JF&C abbreviation. They also trademarked the name “Jieffeco.” “Jieffeco” is a French phonetic conversion of the letters ‘J’ and ‘F’, plus ‘Co’ (‘jie’ plus ‘effe’ plus ‘co’ = ‘Jieffeco’.) On 8 July 1909 the company trademarked the JF&Co monogram in a circle for use on the grip plates of their new “Jieffeco” pistol. Later, they used this same monogram on the buttplates of their long guns.

Janssen Fils & Co Trade Mark Janssen Fils & Co Monogram

Janssen Fils & Cie Trademarks


Janssen Fils et Cie planned to sell the first lot of their automatic pistols on the British market. So they introduced a special inscription "AUTOMATIC PISTOL JIEFFECO DEPOSE" on the recoil spring housing. The Jieffeco lot for the British market consisted of about 2,000 guns in the range of serial numbers from 4645 to 6628. Two pistols from this lot for the British market with the serial numbers 5842 and 6479 have been documented with an additional export mark of “BELGIUM” on the left side on the the recoil spring housing.

Jieffeco Inscription in English

Jieffeco Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - with Slide Inscription for the English Market


A similar slide inscription was created in the French language for the French market. The lot that Janssen Fils et Cie ordered for the French market began at about serial number 6675.

Jieffeco Inscription in French

Jieffeco Model 1907 Pistol - 6.35mm - with Slide Inscription for the French Market


In the range between serial number 5042 and 5460 there was a change in the design of the extractor. Evidently, at the time of this change Robar & de Kerckhove began production of the Model 1907 in 7.65mm, because all pistols of this caliber are equipped with an extractor of the second type. Apparently the introduction of the 7.65mm pistol was connected with preparations for the International Exposition of Brussels in 1910 where Robar & de Kerckhove wanted to demonstrate pistols in both calibers. At this exposition Robar & de Kerckhove received a silver medal. The exposition took place in Brussels from 23 April to 1 November of 1910.

Silver-Medal

Robar & de Kerckhove received a silver medal at the 1910 Brussels International Exposition


On 31 October 1910 (in the midst of the exposition) Henry Rosier applied for a patent that allowed the barrel to be pulled forward and twisted to one side so it could be cleaned without disassembling the pistol, and on 21 November 1910 he was granted Belgian patent № 230218.

During the International Exposition producers expanded their working contacts and made lucrative new deals. In this time period, Robar & de Kerckhove concluded a contract with the Austro -Hungarian company, “Bial & Freund,” with offices in Budapest, Breslau, and Wein. The Bial & Freund company sold phonographs, musical instruments, photographic equipment, and weapons in the territory of the Weimar Republic and in Africa.

Bial & Freund Letterhead - Click to See More B&F Ads

Bial & Freund Letterhead


As with many companies, Bial & Freund opted to sell phonographs and photographic equipment under their own brand, and they asked pistol manufacturers to use the German-language inscription “Selbstlade Pistole” on their guns. This marketing phrase, meaning “self-loading pistol,” was used to sell Melior, Walther, and Clement pistols in German-speaking countries. Bial & Freund listed the Robar & de Kerckhove Model 1907 pistol as “Patent-Selbstlade-Pistole.”

The contract for the “Selbstlade Pistole” was of limited duration, since Bial & Freund advertisements show these pistols for only two years from 1910 to 1911. Bial & Freund advertised the Robar & de Kerckhove pistol as the Model 1910. There are Robar & de Kerckhove pistols inscribed “Selbstlade Pistole” with both “RK” grip plates and the JF&Co monogram grip plates. Pistols with the "Selbstlade Pistole” inscription may be found in the serial number range from 6703 to 12166.

As was mentioned before, Janssen Fils et Cie was the main trade agent for Robar & de Kerckhove, and also wholesaled pistols to other companies outside of Belgium. The Adolf Frank company of Hamburg, in its 1911 ALFA catalog, offered the Jieffeco pistol in both calibers, and also a pistol with JF&Co grip plates and a retouched name on the slide under its own brand "Alfa Patent." It is easy to guess that Adolf Frank probably sold guns with the inscription “Selbstlade Pistole.”

Alfa Patent Pistol Advertisement from the 1911 ALFA Catalog

Alfa Patent Pistol Advertisement from the 1911 ALFA Catalog

In early 1911 Rosier improved the design by making it easy to disassemble without tools, and on 17 February applied for a patent, which was granted on 28 February 1911 as Belgian patent № 233222. This was an addendum to his 1910 patent № 230218. Similar patents were applied for in Great Britain and Switzerland on 12 January 1912, and in the USA on 18 of January 1912, all of which were granted during the year 1912. The new design became known as the Model 1911.

Melior Model 1911 First Variation - SN 12634

Melior Model 1911 First Variation - SN 12634


This improved modification of the Melior pistol was demonstrated at the Charleroi Exposition that lasted from 29 April to 1 November 1911, where the best achievements of the art, culture and industry of Wallonia were displayed. At that exposition the improved Robar & de Kerckhove Model 1911 pistols produced under the Rosier patents were honored with a Gold medal.

Gold-Medal

Robar & de Kerckhove received a gold medal at the 1911 Charleroi Exposition.


Production of the Model 1911 under patent № 233222 was introduced into the line even as production of the 1908-year model continued, and so the earliest serial numbers of the new model may be seen in the same serial number range as the Model 1907. There are two known Model 1911 pistols with the early serial numbers 9110 and 9577. Production of the Model 1907 stopped in the range between serial number 12166 of the Model 1907 and serial number 12634 of the Model 1911.


Part 2: The 7.65mm Melior and Jieffeco Pistols


References

  • Brandt, Jakob H. “Magazine der Selbstladepistolen Jieffeco und Melior”. Deutsche Waffen Journal, June 1995.
  • Daubresse, Alain.  Les armuriers Liègeois a travers leurs réalisations.  Alain Daubresse: 2014.
  • Daubresse, Alain.  littlegun.be
  • Gadisseur, Guy and Druart, Michel. Le Qui est Qui: de l’Armurierie liégeoise, 1800-1950, Tome 1, Editions du Pecari: 2005.
  • Hogg, Ian and Walter, John. Pistols of the World, 4th Edition. Krause Publications, Iola, WI: 2004.
  • Hogg, Ian V. and Weeks, John. Pistols of the World. Arms & Armour Press, London: 1978.
  • Matthews, J. Howard, Firearms Identification.  Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois: 1962.
  • Olson, John, Editor. Famous Automatic Pistols and Revolvers, Volume 2. Jolex.
  • Schroeder, Joseph J. Jr., Editor.  Arms of the World 1911: The Fabulous ALFA Catalogue of Arms and the Outdoors. Follett Publishing Company, Chicago: 1972.

Early Melior, Jieffeco, and Phoenix Serial Numbers
Rebirth of the Phoenix

Thanks to Stefan Klein for research assistance and photographs.
Thanks to Michel Druart for providing us with Henri Rosier’s patents.
Thanks also to Guido Grenny, Marco Benecci, Ashley Jason Smith, “Pisto” from the luger.gunboards
forum, Janne Salopuro at
www.fusil.fi, and the online store at www.puskarstvinovotny.cz.
 

Copyright 2020 by Vaclav Vriesen and Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.

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