An Early Semi-automatic Pistol for Your Edification

Gentle Readers, one of John Moses Browning’s earliest semi-automatic pistol designs. In fact, the only earlier pistol design (actually manufactured) was this pistol’s older prototype, so to speak. That design was manufactured a mere year earlier, in 1899. Due to consumer and buyer feedback, this is the updated version; rather unimaginatively called the model 1900. It is in caliber 7.65mm (Browning) or .32 ACP, if one is from west of the Atlantic Ocean.

The pistol was made by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium. It is only the second pistol in history chambered in .32 ACP; the first pistol being the 1899 version. As the 1900 is more of a refinement of the 1899, one can argue this is – sort of – the first .32 ACP pistol. (One can also argue against it, but as I will probably NOT ever find a 1899 I can afford, I will argue for it.) (That’s my story and I’m sticking with it!)

This pistol was designed as a service sidearm. It was purchased by some European governments for army issue; the Belgian Army is listed as one of those purchasers. As I have mentioned before, the 7.65 mm or .32 ACP cartridge was considered a ‘serious’ caliber in Europe until the Second World War. Historically, the New York City Police Department was issued revolvers in .32 S&W Long at the behest of Teddy Roosevelt in 1896. Times change.

FN1900 pistol, right side

FN1900 pistol, right side

It is an ‘odd’ looking pistol. Not just by current standards and norms, but even at the time. Observe the pictures. It has the side rail guide thingies. No, the effect is not that of of incorrect perspective; the barrel is in fact beneath the recoil spring.
FN 1900, left side with slide open

FN 1900, left side with slide open

There is no slide hold open; neither on last shot fired or manually. If the reader carefully examines the photos, there is a coin (a U. S. penny) carefully place in the ejection port to hold the slide open.

I found this at a local gun show. One finds all sorts of things at gun shows if one looks. The same can be said of pawn shops and garage sales. I do far more looking and seeking than I do finding and buying.

Some of the features are rather expected. The sights are fixed and somewhat hideous. The front sight is what I’ve come to understand as the ‘razor blade’ style; the rear sight is the “V” shape so popular in Europe for far too long. Front sight blade; typical 'razor blade' style.FN 1900 rear sight (pistol cocked).  Front sight out of focus.

Upon intense scrutiny, I note the front sight is ‘bent’ (at the base, not in the middle) to the right a bit. This will addressed later.

The rear sight incorporates a cocking indicator. When the pistol is NOT cocked, a metal bar protruded up in the rear sight fixture and blocks the shooter’s field of vision. It is not a loaded chamber indicator as such. One can cock the firing mechanism without a round in the chamber and the device shows cocked. I have read this device was intended as an indicator of the gun being fired empty. However, the rather disappointing ‘click’ would – to me – be a fairly reliable indicator.

Trigger pull is between 9.5 and 10.5 pounds. Typical of the time. I don’t feel much creep, and as far as I can tell, the trigger breaks cleanly. On the other hand, were the weight something more manageable, I might notice more more detail. It works and does make the gun go bang when desired.

FN 1900 safety in 'safe' position.

FN 1900 safety in ‘safe’ position.

FN 1900 safety in 'fire' position.

FN 1900 safety in ‘fire’ position.

The FN 1900 has a manual safety. It is located on the left side, aft, and is suitable for thumb operation. It operates in the ‘normal’ (meaning what I’ve been taught and shown all my life) manner, up being ‘safe’ and down being ‘fire’. There is an internal spring which keeps the lever in place (where one left it last). It is marked in French; “FEU” meaning ‘fire’ and “SUR” which means ‘on’; possibly an abbreviation for ‘surete’ meaning ‘safety’.

The pistol is blued. (Stainless steel pistols didn’t become routinely offered until 1965; the S&W Model 60.) It is all steel except for the grips. The grips are either some early form of plastic or quite possibly gutta percha.

The grip angle is fairly shallow. It is not as extreme as the Luger pistol of some eight years later. In my opinion, it is even less than the Government Model – designed also by John Browning and adopted for use some eleven years later. The grip angle is radically less than common revolvers of the day. Part of this may be related to the magazine in the grip.

Some things are not functions or features of this pistol one has come to expect.

There is no slide lock. Neither an ‘automatic’ hold open of the slide when the last round is fired or a manual ‘lock open’ feature to clean, inspect or otherwise fiddle with the pistol. (Readers will note a penny inserted in the ejection port to keep the slide open.)

There is no magazine safety. I suppose this isn’t so surprising after all. The magazine safety wasn’t popular until the French Army decided such a device was required as their troops were not smart enough to operate a pistol without one. The Luger (of 1908 or so), the U. S. M1911, most of the early Beretta designs (until 1935 or so), and many other of the commercial pistols of the era did not have such a device.

The FN 1900 does NOT have a grip safety. I’m not a big grip safety fan, but the grip safety was rather widespread in the era in question. The 1908 Luger – and most variants – had a grip safety. The M1911 pistol had – still has – a grip safety. Not every pistol had such a device, but grip safeties were not rare in the time period. The FN 1900 does not.

An aside: As a philosophical exercise, does anyone have any information that would tend to justify or negate the existence of either magazine safety or grip safety? In other words, is there any real world reason to include such features, or are they the product of paranoia on the part of ‘administrators’ who have no clue about the realities involved but in no way actually trust rank and file soldiers, officers, operatives or whatever?

End of aside. Back to the pistol in question.

Already mentioned, the 1900 has the barrel installed UNDER the recoil spring. For most of us, that’s backwards – or reversed, if preferred. The principle reason for this was to lower the centerline of the barrel, reducing the tendency to raise the muzzle in recoil. The pistol has little in the way of recoil, being chambered in .32 ACP and steel framed. The lowered barrel cannot hurt the recoil signature.

I do not know of any other pistols built this way until 1970, when Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 61 “Escort”. The Escort was a .22 long rifle pistol, designed as a pocket defense pistol. Which rather nicely designed in the main, it was poorly thought out in terms of how to actually use it. It was discontinued in 1973. Smith & Wesson later introduced the concept again with the 422 (blue)/622 (stainless) .22 long rifle pistols. The 422 ran from 1987 to 1996 more or less and was intended to compete with the Ruger .22 Automatic in whatever variation existed at the time. Other incarnations of this design also by Smith & Wesson include the model 2206 and models 2213/2214.

I only list these so the reader understands the design was not new or ground breaking. The idea dates from 1899.

For disassembly instructions, see the You Tube video by Midway USA on the pistol.

Shooting the pistol.

It shoots rather easily. Recoil is light. It’s enough to disturb sight alignment and sight picture, but not enough to hurt or intimidate the shooter. It is as loud as any pistol, therefore distracting and requires hearing protection.

I fired five (whole) rounds at fifty feet on a standard 25 yard center. Remember I mentioned the bent front sight earlier? The pistol grouped fairly nicely, but at fifty feet registered about six inches to the left (or 9 o’clock); centered in the 8 ring. I have a suspicion the bent front sight might be the problem. The grouping is roughly three inches from side to side and just over two inches top to bottom. Not a bad group, but just far enough off center to give misses. One of the shots is just off the edge of the center and not visible in the picture. You’ll have to take my word for it.
FN 1900 test target



Filed under Firearms and their use, Uncategorized

5 responses to “An Early Semi-automatic Pistol for Your Edification

  1. R M Datus

    Old Man Montgomery again generously shares his expertise and pistolcraft with those of us who in the lower ranks who sincerely wish to learn. Thank you!

  2. Stuart Naulty

    My FN 1900 has a manual slide hold open. Just hold the slide back and apply the safety. Also note that with the slide forward the safety blocks the trigger and locks the slide so you cannot rack the slide.

    • Aha! Thanks for the information. I was thinking of a separate control bar or piece, as on more recent designs. I didn’t find an ‘automatic’ hold open when the last shot is fired. Is my pistol faulty?

      I did know about the safety locking the slide movement. Again, I appreciate the information. (If I can hold myself to only a couple lapses a year…)

      • Stuart Naulty

        You are correct, there is no last round hold open. The manual slide hold open was one of the improvements made to the 1899 model. I believe this was done to make cleaning much easier. I am new here and like your style of writing. I am looking forward to getting caught up with your articles.

  3. Feel free to catch up and comment.

    One of the things that amaze me is the degree of sophistication developed in three or four years – depending on how one counts – between the FN 1899/1900 and the Colt 1903 Pocket Pistol.

    One could think there were two designers.

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