Sunday, August 23, 2015

You Don't Look a Day Over 1900 - The History of a Browning

From a flaming apron a classic firearm was born.

Christian Friedrich Schonbein (Oct. 18 1799 - Aug 29 1868) was a German/Swiss chemist who is well known for inventing the fuel cell in 1837, but it is another of his discoveries, done  by accident, that impacted firearm design and led, in part, to the invention and production of a seemingly simple little pistol that lives in the gun-safe at the Range.
The story is as follows. Although his wife forbade him to do so, Schonbein liked to experiment in the kitchen (and NOT with flour, sugar and salt).  It is said that on a day back in 1845, he spilled a mixture of nitric acid and sulfuric acid.  Using his wife's cotton apron to clean up the evidence, he hung her apron over the stove to dry, only to find that the cloth spontaneously ignited and burned so quickly it was as if it had vanished. (Honestly honey, I don't know WHAT happened to your apron). What he had done was convert the cellulose of the apron with the nitro groups (from the nitric acid) serving as an internal source of oxygen. When heated the cellulose was completely and suddenly oxidized.
Though it was by accident, the discovery of a method of production of guncotton (nitrocellulose) had occurred.  A crude version of nitrocellulose had been discovered in 1838 by Theophile Pelouze, but he apparently failed to follow up on his initial observations so Schonbein is credited for the discovery. No fool, Schonbein recognized the possibilities here  At the time, the black gunpowder which had been around for hundreds of years, exploded producing thick black smoke. This has disadvantages beyond giving away the gunner's position and obscuring their view of the battlefield. It also produced by-products which essentially "clogged up" the firearm just as it fouled canons.

Nitrocellulose was perceived as a possible "smokeless powder" and a propellant for artillery shells, and apparently, the name "guncotton" stuck.

Schonbein patented his process, giving the manufacturing rights to John Hall & Sons in Faversham. Unfortunately, guncotton  was inherently chemically unstable, burned readily and exploded easily (much like today's modern redhead) so attempts to manufacture it for military use resulted in a number of factory explosions, dozens of deaths. and general mayhem.
It wasn't until after the death of Shonebein that French chemist Paul Vielle found a way to stabilize guncotton into a successful smokeless gunpowder. He called his invention "poudre blanche" or white powder. It burned much faster than black powder and produces comparatively little smoke, hence the "smokeless" moniker.

(Note: in 1891, James Dewar and Frederick Augustus Abel also were able to transform gelatinized guncutton into a relatively safe mixture, called cordite.  The name came about as it could be extruded into long thing cords before being dried.)

How does this little history lesson tie into the Browning 1900?
A number of attempts to create a self-loading (automatic) weapon were made before smokeless powder arrived on the scene.  None of the efforts were truly viable because of the heavy residue of black powder which obviously impacted mechanical function, and not in a good way.

With smokeless powder - that changed and a number of people became working on designs for self-loading firearms, including Mannlicher, Bergmann and Mauser.  The early models had limited sales and were mostly intended for military use.

Along comes John Moses Browning - a man who learned to repair guns in his father's shop before he learned to read and write.  He filed his first firearm patent at an age where most of us were still in college, and through the next decade followed it with another dozen or so patents on various self-loading weapons, both recoil and gas operated.  In 1896 he signed a contract giving Colt's the right to manufacture several of his automatic pistol designs for distribution in the US and Canada.  At the time, it was widely believed that Colt was simply acquiring the right to protect sales of their revolvers, for the established market for self load pistols was not yet established in the United States.
That would soon change.

One of Browning's patents was U.S. patent 621,747, covering the final design for what would be the  single action1899/1900 FN Browning. I believe it is the first production handgun to use a slide.

The design was said to have been presented to arms manufacturer FN  Herstal (Fabrique Nationale de Herstal) in 1898 with production in their Belgium facility shortly following under the designation Modele 1899. The FN engineers who produced this firearm based on Browning's design were astounded by the reliability of the piece when it fired round after hundreds of rounds without a single failure to feed or eject, remarkable in the day. The contract Browning signed with them was said to forbid the sale of the firearm in North America, where Colt already had the right to sell Browning's design.  It is perhaps for this reason that there are not all that many of these guns in the US today as in other parts of the world. 
In 1900, an improved design with a shorter barrel and wider grips was produced as the M1900. These designations were applied retroactive after FN started to manufacture other Browning pistol designs, so initially the M1900 was marketed simply as the "Pistolet Browning".  The gun was manufactured for over 10 years, with some 720,000 + units produced.

Its owners included President Theodore Roosevelt, who is said to have kept a pearl-handled 1900 in the drawer next to his bed.  It quickly earned a reputation for ruggedness and reliability and was soon adopted by Belgium as its service sidearm.  The Belgium Military had requested that their gun have a frame reinforced more than the model 1899.  Therefore, the reinforced portion of the 1900 frame above the trigger guard extends ALL the way around to the rear of the trigger guard, and all the way to the ejection port on the right side, this area being made several thousands of an inch thicker than the 1899.  If you compare it closely to the 1899 it also has slightly larger, thicker grip plates.

Over the years it saw employment by the military of a number of countries, including Austria-Hungary, Greece, Russia, France and Germany.

In appearance, it lacks the streamlined shape of its follow up, the Model 1910 but it has a number of features that contributed to its popularity.  Reliability was one of them. The recoil spring is enclose in a channel above the barrel and also functions as the firing pin spring.  This design will set off even the most stubborn primer.

It also has a separate breech-lock that attaches to the slide by means of a couple of large headed screws (unlike subsequent semi auto's that hit the market.) The safety is a small lever located on the left side of the frame.  Labeled "FEU" (fire" and "SUR" (safe) it's easy to flick to the preferred position (though you could get markings in German and English by special order for sale in other countries.

Holding 7 rounds of  7.65 mm (.32 ACP)  the magazine is secured by a fairly small heel-type catch. Grips are checkered hard rubber and depending on where the gun was manufactured, may display the initials "FN" below a engraved image of the gun itself or  imply "FN". On the Range firearm, the markings on the barrel and frame are FN inspection and Belgian government Liege proof house marks, required by law on all firearms produced in Belgium.
Gunsights are about as basic as you get with a non-adjustable rear notch and rounded blade front The rear sight is unique in that there is a rounded pin that will rise up to block the notch when the trigger is pulled on an empty chamber letting the shooting know the pistol is unloaded, as unlike many firearms the gun's slide does NOT remain open after the last shot

It's surprisingly easy to field strip and clean, having a minimum of parts.

Assembled, at 6 and 3/8 inches long with a weight of just 22 ounces, the 1900 is easily concealed. The frames are hand ground by machinists and may vary sight in shape or length. Drawing from concealed is aided with  round contours that make it easy to draw from pocket or holster without it catching on anything. It didn't achieve great popularity in the States, perhaps due to the popularity of the 1903 Colt, but it was well regarded elsewhere, with copies even made in the Middle East and China, where the pistol was held in particularly high esteem.
So, the Range Browning 1900 is neither complex, nor rare, but I'm glad it is part of the collection.  It's not going to win me any awards with one inch groupings but it's a reliable and well built little piece of history to hold on to and to pass on to the next generation.


  1. Some things I didn't know, there - thank you.

  2. Thanks for sharing.
    Very informative and entertaining.
    Did the redhead ever fall under any arms agreements?

  3. I vividly recall an older gentleman who brought one of these heirlooms in to my CCW class, and used it to shoot the 10-rd. qualification COF(he passed). When he mentioned that he wanted to take it to a local gun show to trade it in towards a more modern pistol, I desperately wanted to buy his pristine-looking pistol off of him - being a bit cash-poor then, I told him it was a collector's piece, and to not settle for any lowball offers...

  4. Thanks for the history lesson! :-) An apron, who'd a thunk it??? :-)

  5. I really enjoyed reading your historical information and review but aren't redheads know for being perpetually calm and impossible to ruffle? :)


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