The Long Legacy of Browning Automatic Pistols

Leon Jones shows pattern pistol for early Browning pistols.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the pistol that started World War I was not stamped “Made in Japan.”

It was a Belgian made FN 1910 Browning Automatic pistol that killed Archduke Ferdinand, but not the one that Union Station Foundation President Leon Jones was waving around Tuesday morning.

The FN 1910 (Fabrique Nationale is the Belgian company that still makes Browning guns today) that  Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old revolutionary wielded was one of five .32 calibre pistols that were made by the Belgian company and sent to Serbia as samples for the company agents to show around. One of the five apparently got into Princip’s hands, the pistol performed with the legendary Browning efficiency, and the rest is history.

Jones was talking about that history Tuesday morning with the monthly meeting of the Browning Firearms Museum Gun Club. The club is an informal affair, meeting monthly (2nd Tuesday, 9 a.m.) at Union Station to talk about Browning funs.

Early pattern for the long line of Browning automatic

pistols, recently acquired by Union Station

Jones is a member of the Browning family (he married John Browning’s granddaughter)  and an avid collector and student of the entire Browning production. It is because of Leon, and the Browning family, that Union Station has the premier collection of Browning firearms. Nobody else in the world has anything close.

Leon was discussing the history of Browning’s long line of automatic pistols made and sold in Europe. He started off talking about a pistol brought to him by a collector in Provo 10 months ago. It looked like an FN 1910 pistol, but was crude, with no markings. Leon showed it to Bruce Browning, another descendent of John Browning, and they identified it as an early workup, of what eventually became a long line of successful automatic pistols. It would be safe to say that Browning is most identified with its automatic pistols.

This particular piece doesn’t work, isn’t even finished and was never meant to be. There’s holes and filings that were filled in again. Essentially it was John Browning messing around in his shop, trying this and that to see what worked, so it provides a valuable insight into Browning’s creative process.

Browning used the pattern to make a real gun, samples of which he took to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1987 to show the Colt people. There he met an agent for Fabrique Nationale who was in the US looking at the possibilities of his company making bicycles because the company’s line of rifles wasn’t selling. (This wasn’t as desperate as it sounds today. In 1897 bicycles were a hot item, the iPod of their day).

Browning model FN 1900

The agent took Browning’s sample pistol to Belgium, the company jumped on it, and the result was the FN 1899, a .32 calibre pistol that the Belgian Army liked, but suggested a couple changes, and then bought as the FN 1900.

That made Browning’s fortune. “This pistol, there were at least one million of them made,” Jones said. “This is the gun that made Browning a household name in Europe.”

His example has a serial number in the 700,000 range. 

The next design Browning came up with, still using a blowback design, used what Leon said was the Browning 9mm long shell, or .38 cal. “This is the least successful as far as number made,” he said. It just never caught on, although models of it were made in Sweden and labeled Husqvarna. It was the same as the FN but made in Sweden, shipped to the US and then changed from 9mm Browning Long to 9mm Browning Short, or .380 cal. 

Leon Jones shows an FN 1910

In 1910 Browning and FN finally produced the Model FN 1910, a compact .32 cal. pistol that sits neatly in your hand.

“One of the primary recollections of this gun is FN sent five of these out to Serbia, to their agents there, and one of them fell into the hands of Gravilo Princip,” the revolutionary who used it to start World War I. 

Leon’s own sample of the pistol was apparently made later, since the barrel says “Japan,” on the side. Waving it around, Leon said “this is junk,” noting they made the barrel out of pot metal.

In 1922 the folks living in Serbia. Croatia and Slovenia, the area later to be Jugoslavia, went to FN and asked it for a modified FN 1910. The result was the FN 1922 with a longer barrel, locking lug and internal differences. It was made specifically for police and military.

The FN1910. One like this started WWI

This gun is probably the most common FN pistol in the US because it was brought home by so many World War II GIs who captured them from enemy soldiers. During the war the Germans  occupied Belgium, took over the FN factory, and cranked out their own versions of the pistol after assembling as many as they could from existing parts. 

Interestingly, Leon’s sample of this pistol was brought home by a GI who took it off an enemy in Vietnam. It’s interesting to ponder the journey that pistol might have made, he said: Built in Belgium, taken to war by a German, captured by a Russian, transported to Vietnam and finally captured again and brought back to Ogden, where its designer originated.

The last gun Leon showed was the 9mm Parabellum, built specifically for the military. It uses a .38 cal round designed to have extra punch and was sold both by FN and under the Browning name.

Jones with the Browning Parabellum