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- AMERICAN ENGRAVERS
A Short History Lesson of Some Length
Though less celebrated than the inventor’s other small arms, the little .25 cal. semi-autos were money in the bank for Fabrique Nationale and dozens of copy cats. Mankind may well be the sorriest, weakest and most vulnerable animal to survive relatively unchanged physically since its emergence from obscurity. Man had neither the tough hide of the rhinoceros nor the fleet feet of the gazelle to protect himself from his enemies, nor did he possess the deadly fangs, horns or hooves of the other large animals with which to defeat them. To survive, man has always needed his wits and artifacts to augment the meager power of his hands.
From rocks and clubs to firearms, man has always carried weapons as a vital necessity and inherent right. As he approached a state of civilization, a happy condition he has yet to fully achieve, man became a gregarious creature. But the welcomed proximity of his fellow non-enemies has not completely obviated man’s need for a personal, self defense weapon. From the flint blade, dagger and sheath knife to the pepperbox, derringer and revolver, small concealable but deadly survival weapons have always been and will remain in demand.
The superior reliability, effectiveness and capacity for rapid multiple discharge of a self-loading handgun was recognized long before the first “automatic” pistols were perfected in Europe in the 1880-1890 period. The names Schonberger, Shwarzlose, Bergmann and Mannlicher are associated with the earliest of this new breed of firearms, large, heavy and intended primarily for military use.
It remained for a self-taught, modest and unsophisticated Mormon gunsmith from a small town on the edge of the great American Wild West to bring to the waiting world its first successful small automatic pistol, one of a series which became known as “pocket pistols”. This is a necessarily brief history of John Moses Browning’s earliest pocket pistols.
It is a wry commentary on the much-touted “Yankee Ingenuity” and the burgeoning U.S. arms industry of the 1890’s that three great American inventors of automatic weapons found it necessary to travel to Europe to find a market for their inventions. Hugo Borchardt, Hiram Maxim and John M. Browning, all of whom made major contributions to automatic weapons design and the technology of their mass production, could not at first gain acceptance of their ideas in the United States.
Borchardt was a naturalized American citizen, born in Germany, whose 1893 toggle-action military pistol was first made by Ludwig Loewe & Co. of Berlin. His original design was refined by George Luger and became the renowned Parabellum P08. Relations between Borchardt and the Loewe firm deteriorated to the point that Borchardt finally offered his massive toggle-action pistol to Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre of Belgium, where it was rejected. Borchardt left the offices of FN in a rage, leaving behind a pre-production prototype, Serial No. 27. The unique collector’s item is now in the private collection of Val A. Browning, the American inventor’s son, to whom it was given many years later when he was working with his father in the FN plant.
Hiram Maxim found a market for his machine gun in England, where he also developed an automatic pistol intended for use with the now obsolescent British .455 rimmed cartridge, as well as the 7.65 mm Borchardt and the 8mm Schonberger rounds. Maxim’s pistol was one of the simplest ever invented, but it had a tendency to spray hot gases on the shooter’s hand and was never produced commercially.
John M. Browning (whose name customarily includes the middle initial “M” to distinguish the inventor from his eldest son, John Browning), the most innovative and prolific inventor the world has ever known, was approached by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co., which had purchased his Model 1895 machine gun, with a request to design a military semi-automatic pistol for submission to the U.S. Army. In just two years, from 1894 to 1896, Browning created and patented five different large automatic pistols in .38 caliber and one in the new .32 caliber. Colt bought all of the .38’s but no the .32, believing, rightly, that the Army would not consider such small caliber weapon.
Perhaps because of his own love for shooting, Browning applied the principles used in the military .32 model to a smaller and simpler pistol, the prototype of which was also completed in 1897. The inventor was fond of the little gun and was accustomed to carrying it in his pocket during hikes on spring evenings in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains near Ogden, Utah. The pocket model .32 was also offered to Colt, but it too was rejected. Colt’s pre-occupation with the promise of the lucrative commercial market in conjunction with rich military contracts for the big pistol, and its already popular line of small revolvers, blinded it to the potential sales of Browning’s little .32 caliber pocket-sized automatic.
A representative of Fabrique Nationale (FN), Hart O. Berg, who was visiting Hartford, Connecticut in connection with new developments in the manufacture of bicycles, met Browning and convinced him of the advantages of offering his .32 pistol to FN. Berg took one of the handmade prototypes back to Herstal, on the outskirts of Liege, Belgium, and showed it to FN’s management.
Fabrique Nationale had been formed in 1889 as a syndicate of some 13 Liege gun makers to undertake the production of the 7.65 mm Model 1889 Mauser rifle for the Belgium Army. Production rights and the machinery needed to make the rifle were obtained from Ludwig Loewe & Co. of Berlin. In 1896, Loewe purchased more than half of FN’s stock, and in the following year consigned its controlling interest in FN to Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM). By 1894, the Belgian Army’s rifle orders had been filled and FN began work on a small number of Mauser rifles as authorized by DWM for the German Army. Limited production of sporting arms was also begun, but the capacity of the large FN plant was not being fully utilized; therefore, FN turned to the manufacture of automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles and ammunition.
The opportunity to resume increased arms production in an almost new factory equipped for that purpose, and the obvious superiority of Browning’s .32 caliber handgun over any other then in existence, delighted FN’s management.
After exhaustive trials proved the worth of Browning’s designs, FN’s general manager, Henri Frenay, recommended their purchase. On July 17, 1897, the president of FN, Baron Charles De Marmol, and John M. Browning signed a contract giving FN exclusive rights to make and sell the .32 (7.65mm) pistols outside the United States, Canada, Ireland and Great Britain. By 1912, this agreement had been revised to include provisions for giving Colt exclusive rights to sell FN’s Browning-patent pistols in Greenland, Newfoundland, St. Pierre, Miquelon, Mexico, Central America (including the Panama Canal Zone) and the Antilles in the West Indies. These rights included all sales to governments, institutions, dealers and individuals. Colt and FN were allowed to compete for sales in England and Ireland, with FN to pay a license fee of 1.5 Belgian francs to Colt for every pistol sold there during the life of the applicable patent.
Browning’s original Model 1896 military .32 caliber model was modified slightly by FN technicians to facilitate production and was designated the “Modele 1899 Browning.” Several thousands of the 1899 and the smaller version, which came to be called the Model 1900, were produced for Belgian Army trials in 1900. The Belgian War Department rejected the Model 1899 pistol but approved the purchase of an initial order for 20,000 of the Model 1900 for issue to Belgian Army commissioned and non-commissioned officers.
Although the two .32 caliber Browning pistols look somewhat alike, the Model 1899 is easily identified by its larger size and greater weight (see table).
The Model 1899 was never produced for commercial sale and quietly disappeared into the hands of museums and collectors. The inventor’s model is displayed in the Browning Firearms Museum in Ogden with the five .38 caliber prototypes purchased by Colt. The florid letterhead used by the Browning Brothers Co. in 1899 showed an illustration of the big .32 prototype, an indication of John M. Browning’s confidence in its design even before it had been put into production.
The Model 1900, identical to the small prototype carried to Belgium by Berg, became the first of Browning’s small automatic pistols made for commercial sale and the first commercially successful automatic pistol of its kind in the world. The handmade prototype remained in Belgium until April 1978, when it was returned to Utah by Dr. Claude Gaier, FN’s public relations manager, who accompanied the exhibition of Belgian arms, “Belgian Gun Making and American History, “shown in Salt Lake City that year.
|Model 1899||Model 1900|
|Length||183 mm (7.2 inches)||162 mm (6.4 inches)|
|Barrel||122 mm (4.8 inches)||102 mm (4.0 inches)|
|Weight||765 grams (27 ounces)||625 grams (22 ounces)|
One of the attributes of genius which characterized John M. Browning was his ability to create many separate and distinctly different firearms designs almost simultaneously. In the peak years of his incredible productivity, from about 1890 to 1910, he worked on new mechanisms for application to machine guns, semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, as well as semi-automatic pistols in both large calibers for military and police use and small calibers for sporting and self-defense handguns. The firearms he designed in his small shop in Ogden included lever-action repeating rifles and shotguns, slide-action repeaters (called trombones), and both full automatic and semi-automatic types.
Although the first Browning pistol was gas operated, all the rest of his nine successful semi-automatic pistols (five sold to Colt, four to FN) were recoil operated, either blowback or locked-breech designs.
Many of Browning’s guns were conceived before suitable cartridges were available: therefore he designed his own. Colt’s request for a larger caliber pistol in 1905 led to Browning’s development, with Winchester’s help, of the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. Similarly, Browning and Winchester brought forth the .32 ACP (7.65mm) cartridge for the Model 1900 pistol. Both the .45 and .32 cartridges proved their worth and are still widely used eight decades after their birth.
The Model 1900 FN/Browning was an instant success. Hundreds of thousands were sold commercially, and it was also adopted for military and police use throughout Europe. Belatedly, Browning was asked by Colt to design a similar pocket pistol. With customary aplomb, Browning invented the Model 1903 .32 ACP (7.65mm) Pocket model, later also made in caliber .380 ACP (9mm short). The Model 1903 Colt closely resembles the Model 1903 9 mm Browning Long Grande Modele which Browning had designed at the request of FN for military sales in Europe. It appears that Browning satisfied both Colt and FN by submitting to them at about the same time in 1901, two automatic pistols that were basically of the same design but intended for entirely different use.
Sales of the FN/Browning Model 1900 were booming in 1905 when Browning patented in Belgium another pocket pistol. It is not known whether FN suggested that a still smaller pistol would sell well or whether Browning originated the idea himself. At any rate, in 1905, the same year in which Colt introduced in the United states the first .45 ACP pistol (a Browning design) the .25 ACP (6.35mm) “Vest Pocket” pistol was sold to FN, which designated it the Browning Automatic Pistol caliber 6.35mm (.25 caliber).
While the little gun is referred to on FN ledgers as the Model 1905, its patent year, as well as the “VP .25”, many collectors and authors came to identify it as the Model 1906. Offering still more confusion was the European practice, at least in Germany and Czechoslovakia, for example, of identifying the Vest Pocket as the “Baby” or “Le Bebe”, a name more firmly attached to its .25 ACP successor and the topic of the second planned installment of this story.
By whatever name it is called, production of the 6.35 mm Vest Pocket (VP) model commenced at FN in 1905, and like the Model 1900, it was an immediate hit in Europe. Its popularity, in fact, spawned literally dozens of copies by other European makers.
Once again Colt saw the glint of gold in the FN/Browning Vest Pocket pistol and purchased from Browning the rights to make and sell the gun in the U.S. The Colt version had a small but useful modification, a safety lever that also served as a slide holdback to facilitate disassembly. Officially the Pocket Model, Caliber .25, Hammerless, but better known as the Model 1908 Vest Pocket Pistol, the Colt was further modified with a magazine safety in 1916 after about 141,000 had been made. The slide hold-back safety lever was covered by an earlier Browning patent; the magazine safety was designed and patented by G.H. Tansley, a Clot employee. Shortly after the appearance of the Colt version, FN also modified its Vest Pocket model to provide for a safety lever and slide hold-back notch, but Tansley’s magazine safety was not adopted.
Like the Model 1900, the first FN VP pistols were made in standard blued finish with black hard rubber grip panels. Nickel plated models were also offered from the first. In keeping with the traditional use of engraving on arms made in the Liege area, many ornately embellished, nickel plated VP’s were made for normal sales, in addition to those even more elaborate pieces specially ordered. The 1927 FN catalog illustrates available engraving patterns designated as Type I (deep-cut engraving, blued or nickel finish, grips of black rubber, ivory or pearl); Type II (delicate gold inlays, special blue finish, optional grips); Type III (fine English pattern, special blue or nickel finish, optional grips); Type IV (deep-cut Renaissance pattern, blued or nickeled, optional grips); Type V (ribbon pattern, blued or nickeled, optional grips); and type VI (modern style, heavy gold inlaid, special blue finish, optional grips).
The tiny 6.35 mm pistol was a natural candidate for presentation to important visitors or as a gift for friends and relatives. One such specially engraved piece was made for Val A. Browning, the only surviving son of the inventor. It was set in a satin and velvet-lined case bearing the Fabrique Nationale label, Serial No. 778226, made in 1926 (the year Val cared for his father on his deathbed in the FN plant). The piece is embellished with a heavily gold-inlaid floral pattern executed by famous Belgian engraver Felix Funken, has the initials “V.A.B.” on the slide and carries ivory grips.
Another VP pistol, also with brown-veined ivory grips, was given to George Emmett Browning, one of the three half-brothers who assisted John M. and his brother, Mathew Sandifur Browning, in the operation of the Browning Brothers store in Ogden. This presentation piece, Serial No. 10587 (circa 1907) in blue finish is covered with delicate engraving in the FN Type III English style and is accompanied by a suede leather purse with snap-top closure (a standard case of the time) resembling a coin purse.
Among the most significant of the special order breed of Vest Pocket pistols is a quartet of standard blue pieces: Serial Nos. 456188, 456354, 456XXX, and 456602, with the gold-inlaid inscription on the left side of the slides: “Un million”, surrounded by a simple curving gold line. These pieces were made up at the order of the FN management to be used for presentation during the celebration of the production of the one millionth FN/Browning pistol in 1912. The actual one millionth piece to come off of the line cannot be identified. It could well have been Model 1900 7.65 mm; 1903 Grande Modele; Model 1910 7.65 mm (the successor to the Model 1900); or a VP 6.35 mm. All of these pieces were being manufactured in 1912 when the one millionth mark was reached.
FN management decided to commemorate this landmark with a lavish banquet to which, according to a local newspaper account at the time were invited many public officials including King Albert and members of his cabinet. The engravers finished the four VP pistols on January 31, 1914, just in time for the ceremony held that evening. Two of them were to be given to the two most important attendees, the King and John M. Browning. The King sent his regrets, but after the speeches were finished, M. Andri, FN’s Director General, presented one of the little pistols to M. Berryer, the Belgian Minister of War, who accepted it on the King’s behalf. A second commemorative pistol was presented by Andri to John M. Browning in recognition of the tremendous impact his inventions had on the fortunes of the Company.
Val A. Browning, the inventor’s son, remembers the evening very well. “I was a bit nervous because I was wearing my first tuxedo,” he told the author. At 18 years, he was probably the youngest guest at the table.
The next evening, at a private dinner given by Andri, Val Browning was presented with the third commemorative VP Pistol, No. 456354, in a presentation case lined with green velvet and gold satin. This piece was donated to the City of Ogden by Val Browning many years later with the rest of the Browning collection, and it now may be seen in the Browning Firearms Museum in Ogden, Utah.
The fourth gold-inscribed pistol, No. 456188, was retained by FN for its Salle d’Exposition at the plant in Herstal, where it may be seen today. Records of the serial numbers of the pistols given to the King and John M. Browning have been swallowed up in FN’s cavernous archives.
At this point, the story of the four gold-inscribed Vest Pocket pistols begins to read like a mystery novel. Early in 1982, the author learned that an arms dealer in New Jersey had for sale a gold-inlaid Browning .25 caliber pistol NO. 456602. He stated that he had bought it in England from the well known firm Parker-Hale of Birmingham in the 1950’s. He had been told that the pistol had been obtained from an English officer who admitted having taken it from the FN plant in Herstal while on duty with the Allied Forces during World War II. According to the U.S. dealer, Parker-Hale had contacted FN regarding ownership of the piece and had been told that it was one of the commemorative pistols made in 1914, and that FN would take no action to recover it. Attempts to document these statements with Parker-Hale have been unsuccessful; after all, it would be most unusual to find details of the sale of one small pocket pistol in a firm of that size after some 40 years.
Dr. Claude Gaier of the FN staff confirms that four specially prepared Vest Pocket pistols came off the production line January 31, 1914, with the serial numbers mentioned above. Dr Gaier suggests that one of the four pistols may still be in the Royal Belgium Arms Collection, but he did not recommend that we call the King’s armorer for confirmation!
The whereabouts of the pistol given to John M. Browning that night in 1914 has been a mystery for many years. It has been the belief of members of the Browning family that it had been lost or stolen after the inventor’s death in the FN plant November 26, 1926. The author discussed the discovery of pistol No. 456602 with Val Browning who said that he could not prove its identity. “My father was not very much interested in guns per se,” he said. “If he wanted a gun, he’d make one.” Browning agreed with the hypothesis that his father may have tucked the presentation case and its pistol in a desk drawer in his office at the FN plant after the banquet, where it may have remained forgotten for many years until WWII.
Dr. Gaier wrote about the “lost or stolen” pistol: “…Unit S/N 456602 will remain a riddle. All that can be said is that the chances are that it was the one given to John M. Browning.” Whatever may be learned by further research into the history of this mysterious VP, it now rests in the Browning Firearms Museum besides its sibling, the piece given to Val A. Browning on February 1, 1914.
The inventor’s hand-made prototype Vest Pocket pistol has disappeared. It may have been swallowed up in the clutter of some workbench in the FN plant, its parts used to dimension new tooling and never reassembled. An unmarked but clearly machine-made factory reproduction prototype may be seen in the Browning Firearms Museum in Ogden.
Fabrique Nationale’s early production records have been lost, but by July 1913 a hand-scribed account shows that 451,310 Vest Pocket 6.35 mm pistols had been made. When WWI halted the wheels in the FN plant, the total production had climbed to 503,434 units. Production resumed in 1918, but only 200 were made that year. Production increased steadily to number more than one million by mid 1940. Commercial production was again stopped in May 1940, but during WWII, from May 1940 until June 1944, the records show that 2,633 VPs were requisitioned by the armed forces of the Third Reich.
Most references on the subject state that FN ceased making the VP after 1940, but actually a few more were made, probably on special order or for presentation purposes. The hand-scribed account mentioned above shows the following data: 1944: 45 pieces; 1945: 46 pieces; 1946: 13 pieces; 1947: 1 piece; 1948-1949: none; 1950: three pieces; 1951-56: none; 1957: 14 pieces; 1958: none; 1959: 22 pieces; Total production from 1905 to the end of 1959 is recorded as 1,080,439 units. These data do not however reflect serial numbers accurately. A member of the U.S. Browning Collectors Association in California owns a FN Vest Pocket pistol bearing Serial No. 1086133, possibly one of those reportedly made in 1959.
By agreement between Browning, FN and Colt, the FN made Vest Pocket pistol was never imported for sale in the U.S. but many were brought home from Europe by travelers and members of the U.S. Armed Forces. They are prized by collectors as basic models in the field of automatic pistols.
FN’s Baby .25 ACP, currently being put back in production by Virginia firm, proved a worthy successor to the popular Vest Pocket model. Fabrique Nationale’s production of the John M. Browning designed 6.25 mm Vest Pocket Pistol, which had risen to an annual high of 54,500 in 1928, began dropping off to match declining sales in the 1930’s. By 1939, the last full year of production before World War II, only about 5,500 were made, 10 percent of the 1928 record.
While other factors contributed to this drop in sales, FN’s management realized that the design was obsolete and directed its chief of weapons design and development, Dieudonne Saive (later to become better known for his FN "FAL") to come up with a new 6.35 mm model incorporating many of Browning’s patented features but simpler and lighter (and therefore cheaper to make), in order to compete with the successful German subcompacts. An FN photograph of a prototype of the new pistol is dated April 9, 1927.
The new FN/Browning 6.35 mm pistol was first marketed in Europe in 1931 under the nickname “Baby”. Saive eliminated the VP’s grip safety and slide hold-back features, relocated the safety lever and added a magazine safety, a feature more popular in Europe than in the U.S. The new BABY weighed less and was smaller than its ancestor, but its functional specifications, i.e., barrel length and cartridge capacity, remained unchanged.
|Weight:||340 grams (12 ounces)||275 grams (9.7ounces)|
|Height:||76 mm (3 inches)||72 mm (2.8 inches)|
|Length:||114 mm ( 4.5 inches)||104mm (4.09 inches)|
|Barrel:||53.6 mm (2.1 inches)||53.6 mm (2.1 inches)|
FN made 1,096 BABY pistols in 1931, the first year of production. By 1939, production totaled 50,134. Only 13 units were made in 1940 before Department of War Management (DWM) took over the FN operations at Herstal. During World War II, from May 1940 until June 1944, only 129 BABY pistols were made, probably for important members of the occupying German Army or other officials. The BABY production line was not restarted for commercial sales until 1946, with 6,999 units made that year. By 1950, 49,694 more units had been made for a total of 106,969. 1951-1952 production totaled only 3,296 pieces.
The output of BABY pistols continued at a steady rate after 1953 until 1969, the year the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968 took effect. The 1968 law, passed in the emotion-charged atmosphere resulting from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King made illegal the import of small, personal handguns which could not meet a point system imposed by the Treasury Department. Along with the FN BABY, many other high quality handguns of foreign manufacture were forbidden to enter the U.S. The importance of U.S. sales, where the guns were marketed under the Browning name, is shown by the drop in BABY production from 42,588 units in 1968 to 1,957 units in 1969.
The original FN BABY made for the European market can be recognized by the usual Fabrique Nationale slide markings with the familiar legend: “BROWNING’S PATENT DEPOSE”, and the name “BABY” at the bottom of each grip panel. Very few of these FN-marked pieces are seen in the U.S. as they were never imported under the FN name, no doubt because of the longstanding agreement between Colt and FN.
At some time in 1952, Val A. Browning, who was at work in the FN plant at the time, ordered a BABY Pistol for his personal use. “Just to carry in my pocket,” he told the author. Serial No. 104102 was delivered October 15, 1952. It is delicately engraved with the FN type III English style and has ivory grip panels. The only markings are the hand cut name BROWNING, encircled in an oval wreath on the left side of the slide and the usual “MADE IN BELGIUM” also hand cut, just above the trigger guard, along with the Liege proof marks on the left side. This was probably the first of the BABY pistols to bear the Browning name in lieu of the FN markings.
The full line of FN/Browning pistols had been introduced for sale in the U.S. under the Browning Arms Co. name in 1953, with the first pistol, No. 116251, standard blue, shipped from Belgium on September 9, 1953. The BABY was then called simply “Browning .25 Automatic Pistol.” Browning advertising in 1954 listed the blued .25 Browning, the Lightweight model, with satin finish alloy frame and chromed steel slide, and deluxe Renaissance model with full coverage in an engraving pattern similar to the old FN Type IV. The early Renaissance pieces are finished in high polish chrome plate, called the “coin” finish by collectors. By 1966, the polished finish had been replaced by a satin finish, not as attractive to some eyes, and commanding a price on the collector’s market lower than the “coin” finish pieces.
The BABY pistols imported by Browning are marked on the left side of the slide either BROWNING ARMS COMPANY, ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI and MADE IN BELGIUM into two lines, or with the shorter legend BROWNING ARMS COMPANY and MADE IN BELGIUM. The change was approved December 8, 1958, and was put into effect early in 1959. The slide marking used on other, larger-caliber FN/Browning pistols which includes instead of ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, the address MORGAN UTAH AND MONTREAL P.Q. was never placed on the .25 Browning.
To illustrate the difficulties attendant upon the research of FN/Browning arms in general, take the case of the first .25 Browning Renaissance model shipped to the U.S., No. 122021. It left Herstal, Belgium, on February 17, 1954, but bears the short slide markings approved in 1958, according to FN’s records. Another early piece, No. 140650, shipped on August 29, 1955, has the long markings including the ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI address. This is not an uncommon anomaly in the identification of FN/Browning arms, which arises not from any intent to obscure production data, but more probably because of assembly inconsistencies in the gargantuan FN plant. It is quite conceivable that already numbered frames in a stock bin from which workers gathered parts on the assembly line could have been made in more than one year. It is reasonable to assume that a frame with serial number belonging in any one year could be assembled and shipped in a later year. But the opposite, a unit shipped in 1954 with slide markings not approved until four years later is a stickier wicket.
This particular early renaissance piece was traded to Guns Unlimited Co., in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1969 by Clayton Moore, for many years famous as a TV personality, the Lone Ranger. The Long Ranger’s .25 in its black leatherette case now rests in a private collection in Toledo, Ohio, where its present owner resists all efforts to dislodge it!
Both the Lightweight and Renaissance models were adopted by Browning Arms Co. as standard catalog items. A prototype Lightweight model, No. 124402, was made up by FN and submitted to Browning for sales uation in 1953. This piece has the satin-silver-colored frame made of Hiduminium (an alloy developed by Rolls-Royce of England for aircraft application). The steel slide and other exterior steel components are blued. According to John V. Browning, (Val A. Browning’s eldest son who was the company’s president at the time), the sample was not approved for production, and the example in the author’s collection is unique. A skeptic, especially if he were interested in acquiring this delectable collectible might say, “Anyone can put a blue slide on an alloy frame!” true, but this piece is authenticated by the factory marked serial number on both frame and slide.
On October 9, 1953, FN shipped another sample .25 Browning to the company’s Morgan, Utah, offices for uation. This pistol, No. 329251, is all steel in a bright satin finish that looks like stainless steel, but it is not. It has the “nacrolac” imitation mother-of-pearl grip panels like those on the Renaissance model. Slide markings are of the type used since 1959, BROWNING ARMS COMPANY and MADE IN BELGIUM, in two lines. This proposed variation was also rejected by Browning’s board of directors and now resides contentedly among the other 6.35 mm/.25 ACP FN/Colt/Browning automatic pistols in the author’s collection. This model, with FN slide markings and black plastic grips, was adopted by FN for sale outside the U.S.
The FN/Browning BABY .25 Automatic has been produced in several deluxe variations in addition to special order pieces. Several engraving patterns were available at extra cost, and a very few super deluxe gold-plated pieces were made for personages of high rank. An example of a deluxe piece embellished with the Type I engraving pattern of grape leaves. No. 64142 was made for a Col. Armstrong, an acquaintance of John V. Browning, and was delivered in nickel plate with genuine mother-of-pearl grip panels on May 8, 1950.
The earlier deluxe models of the Models 1900, 1905, 1906, 1910, 1922 and 1935 FN/Browning pistols were nickel plated. In 1953, FN discontinued the use of nickel in favor of the more durable and attractive chrome plating, both in the highly polished and brushed “satin” finishes.
The advanced gun collector, like those in other collecting fields, has one of his primary objectives, the acquisition of at least one example of every variation of the model he has chosen as his specialty. By this definition, variations include changes in factory model design designations, mechanical features and dimensions, finishes, engraving patterns, grip designs, proof marks and other factory markings, extending even to the precise location and type of lettering used in the roll marks usually appearing on the slides of automatic pistols. One such collector of FN/Browning 6.35 mm/.25 ACP pistols in the U.S. claims to have 31 “variations” of the BABY model. It is patently impossible to find and obtain every variation of an FN/Browning in any caliber because of the great number of “special order” pieces involving countless styles of engraving and finish.
Another goal established by serious gun collectors is to date exactly the start and finish of production runs of the varieties of his chosen specialty. This, too, is most difficult to accomplish with FN/Browning pistols. Apparently neither FN nor Browning Arms. Co. ever had any need to record such data in detail. Moreover, many changes in such areas as grip materials and patterns, engraving, designs, etc., as well as a few mechanical changes, may have been phased in over a period of time. We have previously mentioned one such example in the case of the Renaissance BABY model marked with the Browning Arms. Co. name but produced before Browning introduced the BABY line in the U.S.
In contrast, known variations in the Vest Pocket model are limited to the versions with and without slide hold-back, and blued and nickel finishes. Few differences have been observed in details such as changes in slide markings. One example in the author’s collection does have in addition to the usual FN markings, the legend, Manufacture Francaise d’Armes et Cycles de Saint-Etienne on the right side of the slide, indicating not that the piece was made in France, but that it was sold by one of FN’s agents of the time. Another Vest Pocket pistol had the hand cut mark “AKAH” on the front grip strap, probably placed there after delivery of the piece to Albrecht kind, GmbH & Co. of Nurnberg in 1930.
Thus there are in existence more collectible variations of the FN and Browning-marked BABY models than Vest Pockets. The basic Saive design has not been changed since 1931, but other differences of significance to the collector are worth noting. In addition to the prototype pieces mentioned above (and without listing either the three cataloged standard variations or special order pieces), the following interesting mutations have been observed:
1. Serial No. 226995 (1961), standard blue finish; marked on the left side of slide BROWNING ARMS COMPANY/MADE IN BELGIUM in two lines; marked on the right side of the slide in small letters FABRIQUE NATIONALE D’ARMES DE GUERRE HERSTAL-BELGIQUE in one line; has standard Belgian proof marks on slide only and is equipped with the old-style black grips with the initials “FN” in an oval at the top and the name BABY at the bottom.
This piece was shipped in a white plastic box with an owner’s manual printed in German. On the front bow of the trigger guard is stamped the name GECO (Geschow, Hamburg).
2. Serial No. 484320 (1976), standard blued finish; marked on left side of the slide FABRIQUE NATIONALE HERSTAL BELGIQUE/BROWNING’S PATENT DEPOSE in two lines, the top line in large letters and the lower line in much smaller letters; the familiar PV Liege proof mark on the front of the slide only with black grips marked with the name BROWNING in an oval at the top. The frame is blue anodized alloy, probably Hiduminium like that used in the pre-1969 Browning .25 Lightweight model.
The piece was sold to the author in a Browning zippered pouch containing an owner’s manual printed in Spanish. Fabrique Nationale records show that this piece was one of a lot of 25 sold to the Dominican Republic on June 25, 1976. This Lightweight model was never listed by Browning for sale in this country, and the author has no authenticated explanation for the presence of Browning-type grips on a piece marked with the FN name in 1976.
3. Serial No. 205 PM4176 (1980), standard blued finish, all steel construction; marked on the left side of the slide FABRIQUE NATIONALE only; has the French St. Etienne crown proof mark on the front of the slide only and has the Browning type grips which have been used on other FN pieces made for sale outside the U.S. after the acquisition by FN of controlling interest in the Browning Corporation.
This piece was contained in a Styrofoam box with a cleaning brush and was imported by a firm in California for re-sale to police or security forces as permitted in an exemption to the import restrictions of the 1968 Gun Control Act. After disassembly, there can be seen the U.S. company’s abbreviated name INTER AMERICAN and the abbreviation SACTO CA (Sacramento, Calif.) on the left side of the frame, and the markings BELGIUM ST. ETIENNE and the French proof mark on the right side.
Another category of “variations” is mentioned only to recognize its existence and as a warning to collectors, to whom the old adage caveat emptor is all too familiar. The author was once offered a .25 Browning tastefully engraved in a pattern much resembling Renaissance. It sported ivory grips, carved in an odd design, and was guaranteed by the seller to be a factory original. The serial number will not be mentioned to protect the innocent owner; upon checking with a representative of FN, it was found not to have been engraved there. Several other larger FN/Browning pistols have been engraved in the U.S. with the well-known Renaissance pattern.
It is a simple matter to strip the blue finish from a standard model pistol without harming the markings or sharp edges. With a pistol “in the white” in the hands of a capable engraver, it is not difficult to produce a very close replication of the Renaissance model. There are a number of engravers at work in the U. S. some of them being former employees of FN, whose works is extremely difficult to tell from the factory product.
To the purist, this sort of piece is a counterfeit and should have no place in an honest collection. But to many other gun buyers, such an embellished piece is simply a beautiful gun worth a lot of money, so in spite of the existence of ways to authenticate the originality of these bad apples, there is a market for them in the U.S. and the practice will probably continue. Examples have been brought to the attention of both the FN and Browning staffs, but no legal action can be taken against the counterfeiters because the products have not been advertised as factory originals, and the name “Renaissance” is a generic term that cannot be copy righted.
Shortly after the elimination of .25 Browning imports by U.S. legislation, much to the confusion of lawmakers and collectors alike, there appeared on the American market an exact “copy” of the FN BABY made by Bauer Firearms of Frazier, Michigan. Nothing in the 1968 law prohibits U.S. manufacture of the same kind of handgun which was prohibited from import. Today, nearly 20 years after the effective date of the ill-conceived law, hosts of small .25 caliber pistols are being made in the U.S., many of them direct copies of the foreign models declared illegal to import in 1968. Some are being assembled in the U.S. with some parts made abroad.
John M. Browning, whose innovative pistol designs have endured in the factories of countless arms makers for almost 100 years and who gave unselfish service to his country in times of military emergency, would be puzzled and hurt if he knew that some of his most popular and successful handguns had been declared illegal by the elected representatives of the American people in the congress.
While the VP .25 auto and the BABY were intended as personal or “last ditch” defense arms, they are only marginally effective in lethality because of their miniscule caliber and light projectiles. Both models are surprisingly accurate in the hands of an experienced shooter, but their chief value lies not in their power but in the sense of security they bring to their owners.
In today’s restricted market, both are considered collectibles, the FN BABY and the .25 Browning version being more sought after than the FN Vest Pocket. The charm of the BABY/.25 Browning lies in its sleek lines, beautiful finish and precision workmanship. It is possible to find in American pawnshops and gun stores some of the early and countless foreign copies of the Browning Vest Pocket, but the original FN guns and the BABY models are rarely seen for sale in any variation.
Production of the BABY 6.35 mm was transferred to the Manufacture d’Armes de Bayonne, France (“MAB”), an FN subsidiary, in November 1979. Units made at Bayonne were proofed by an inspector from the French arms facility at St. Etienne and bear the crown St. Etienne proof on the face (muzzle end) of the slide. The only other marks observed on a 1980 example are the two words FABRIQUE NATIONALE on the left side of the slide and the serial number in the usual place on the left side of the frame just above the trigger guard.
FN catalogs of 1979-1981 illustrate only the standard blued model, although we have been told that some of the satin chrome units were available on special order. In 1982, FN announced a limited edition of 1,000 pieces, chrome plated with Renaissance (Type III) engraving and selected figured walnut grips. These pistols carried the serial number 1/1000, 2/2000, etc., on the underside of the frame ahead of the trigger guard. Serial numbers are in the 1979 (RN) series. This model appeared in the 1983 FN catalog as the BABY DELUXE.
Although the sales of the little pistol were reported as about 16,000 in 1983, the MAB plant was shut down, halting production of the BABY 6.35 mm pistol at 527,482 units. At about the same time FN received an offer from an American company, Precision Small Parts, Inc. of Charlottesville, Virginia, to purchase manufacture and sales rights for a version of the BABY to be made in this country. Agreement was reached for PSP to buy the remaining spare parts, and to make two models of the BABY, a standard, FN-marked model for export and a new variation to be called the “PSP 25/22” for sale in this country. It was advertised in a PSP flyer in 1985 as “…the most advanced and versatile small caliber automatic pistol on the market today.” The new name reflects a major change in design, one that many BABY devotees have advocated for years, that is the capability to change from .25 to .22 short caliber. This can be done with the PSP pistol without tools merely by switching barrels, firing pins and magazines.
According to Bruce D. Norris, PSP’s general manager, some difficulty was encountered in finding a source of barrels. This problem has now been solved. PSP has tooled up to make the barrels itself.
First Article inspection was performed by FN personnel at the PSP plant in September 1987, with the first export expected that month. These pieces, which are being made in 6.35 caliber only, will carry Browning marked grips. Standard FN markings will be rolled on the sides, but the pistols will not be marked to indicate place of manufacture, nor will they carry Belgian proofs.
PSP expected to ship 1,000 pistols to FN by the end of the year, and to accelerate that schedule in 1988. The export units will be numbered in the standard FN system, with the product code “205” followed by the last two digits of the year of manufacture and five digits constituting the sequential number, starting with some such combinations as “00001”, “00010”, “001000”, etc. It is expected that the U.S. version of the PSP 25/22 will be numbered in its own range.
So much for good news, Norris tells us that the company has hit a snag in its preparations for the introduction of the 25/22. The product liability bugaboo in the form of exorbitant insurance rates is delaying introduction of the pistol into the U.S. PSP still expects to make the U.S. model as soon as a solution to the insurance problem can be found.
Collectors of Browning pistols will welcome the opportunity to add the U.S. made BABY to their want list, although it will not be sold in this country through normal distribution channels. In the eyes of both collectors and buyers having a need for a small defense weapon, the convertibility of the PSP to .22 short caliber gives it a decided advantage over other .25 caliber pieces in that sub-compact category.
Reprinted with permission from Colonel W. R. Betz