FUSIL AUTOMATIQUE: The F.N. Modèle 1900
BY: CAMERON WOODALL
In Belgium it was known as “La Carabine Automatique Browning”, in Germany it was the “Selbstladebüchse Browning Kaliber 9mm”, but in the United States we know it simply as the F.N. 1900. If the Remington Model 8 is the grandfather of American semi-automatic sporting rifles, the F.N. 1900 is its European twin. Produced by the legendary Fabrique Nationale d’ Armes de Guerre (FN) in Belgium, this rifle officially labeled as the “Browning Patent Modèle 1900” was a near identical copy of the American made Autoloading Rifle. In Europe during the early 20th century, the autoloading platform was seen more as a novelty than something of actual usefulness. This worked to the Modèle 1900’s advantage and disadvantage respectively. On one hand the FN encountered very little genuine competition but on the other hand its high price and yet-proven mechanics paved the way for poor sales right from the beginning. Even still, compared to other European firearms of the day, this rifle was fast shooting and elegantly built. So distinct and intriguing were these rifles that around 100 saw front-line service in aircraft with the French Aéronautique Militaire in the early days of WWI. The story begins with John Browning who filed several long-recoil patents not just those in the United States. German Patentschrift 9996 dated Nov. 25th 1902 is the equivalent of U.S. patent No. 659,786 filed June 6th, 1900 for a “Recoil Operated Firearm”. The year of this patent is where the Modèle 1900 got its name even though FN didn’t manufacture the rifle until a decade later. Browning established a friendly relationship with FN in 1902 selling the exclusive rights to his long-recoil rifle (and shotgun) to FN on March 24 of the same year. FN quickly began producing Auto-5 shotguns, but by 1904 such restrictive importation tariffs had been imposed that FN negotiated with Browning to allow manufacture of his shotgun within the United States. The Remington Arms Co. was eager to work with John Browning and acquire the rights to manufacture both his autoloading shotgun and his autoloading rifle. FN was first to introduce the long-recoil shotgun, but it was Remington that first produced John Browning’s long-recoil rifle in 1906 dubbed the “Autoloading Rifle” or more known today as the Model 8. The arrangement between FN and Remington was that the Model 8 was for sales by and large inside theUnited Statesand the Modèle 1900 would essentially pursue sales to the rest of the world. Despite the large market, the FN 1900 found its home predominately with hunters in and around Western Europe and Canada. A page from an undated FN catalog lists the country restrictions imposed on the FN 1900,
“The Browning automatic sporting rifle nr243, cal. 35, cannot, neither directly nor indirectly, be sold in France, Morocco, United States of North America, Poland, Danzig included, Ceylon Isle, Princedom of Bombay, Queensland” (p.8).Unfortunately however, the FN 1900 didn’t experience the level of sales as the Remington Model 8. If convincing American hunters to spend their hard earned dollars on a revolutionary (and expensive!) autoloading rifle was difficult enough, doing the same for the European hunter was almost ludicrous. The autoloading rifle was just too different. A translation of the original manual reveals that the key selling points used by FN were the distinct advantages of the autoloading platform over contemporary big game rifles. One excerpt from the manual,
“In addition the gas pressure is partially employed to operate the automatic mechanism, there is a substantial reduction in recoil and therefore much less fatigue to the hunter who is able to keep his gun at ready for immediate follow- up shots.” (p. 5).Continuing on FN hyped the Modèle 1900’s superiority to bolt-action rifles in its rate of fire and perceived recoil, and superiority to double rifles in its consistent shot placement with repeated firing and moderate cost. Regardless of any advantages the FN 1900 may have had over other rifles, its sales did not reflect this and limited production makes this rifle quite uncommon today.
Only 4,913 Modèle 1900’s were ever manufactured. Compared to the Model 8’s production run of nearly 70,000, that’s more than 14 Model 8’s for every 1 FN 1900. According to FN catalogs, the Modèle 1900 was introduced in 1910 and officially dropped from the product line in 1929. Other sources reveal 32 rifles were sold between 1930-1936, probably clean up rifles from leftover parts.
In 1911 the U.S. equivalent price of the FN 1900 was $57, nearly double the cost of a standard “A” grade Model 8. To put it more into perspective, for $3 more than the cost of an FN 1900, the American hunter could have had an engraved Model 8D “Peerless”. Examination of existing rifles verifies that production began with serial number 1 up to 4913. Case in point is FN serial number 5, with a gorgeous, high grade European walnut stock! This rifle may be from the first day of manufacture and is indicative that production began with #1 and continued on.
Below is a breakdown of FN production published by Fire! Magazine (1996).
It’s often wondered how did so many surviving FN’s wind up in theUnited States. The F.N.’s here today did not come from any one place. It is known that some were vet bring-backs from two World Wars and at least a few were imported by Val Browning into theU.S. Since the FN was exported toCanadamany have made their way south of the border.
Describing the F.N. 1900Produced with the same old-world craftsmanship as the Remington, these rifles are a testament to Fabrique Nationale’s wordwide reputation for manufacturing high quality firearms. It doesn’t take a scrupulous eye to notice there were probably more hours of labor involved in producing the FN over the Remington. A close inspection and disassembly of both the FN and Remington rifles will reveal a significantly superior fit and finish with the version made in Belgium, even over 1st year production Model 8’s. The FN came in two versions, neither of which were a higher “grade” than the other. One version had a standard barrel jacket like the Model 8, the other a solid barrel rib running the length of the jacket. Below is a list of features unique to the FN Browning Patent 1900, - Stocks and forearms were made of European walnut hand cut checkered to 20 lines per inch - Buttstocks were round knob semi-pistol grip style. - Buttplates were made of horn, identical to the A5 shotgun. 2 versions were used throughout production. - Forearms are similar to the Model 8 with a less pronounced schnabel tip. - Observed firing pins are of the early Model 8 style with no firing pin spring or firing pin buffer spring. - Offered in only 1 chambering, “calibre 9mm” equivalent to the 35 Remington. - Front and rear sling swivels came standard. Barrel Rib Version The very earliest and the very latest FN’s have ribbed barrel jackets. This version is undoubtedly the most unique, although it’s also the most common. The solid rib is 8.75mm in width and runs from the jacket head all the way to the end of the barrel jacket. It was soldered on which means disassembly of the jacket head from the jacket is not possible, but this also means there’s no potential for loosening of the jacket from the head, a problem common with Model 8’s & 81’s. The purpose of this rib, as with shotguns, is quick acquisition of moving targets. It was common in the early 1900’s for European hunters to flush game from cover and make shots on the running animal. Hence the reason these versions have a two position flip rear sight dovetailed into the barrel rib. One position, 1.5mm in width, is for precise shots like on typical sights, the other is a wider notch at 4.25mm intended for swinging on moving targets. According to the FN manual, the position for standard shooting is set for 100 meters. This whole concept wasn’t something that appealed much to the American hunter of the day, but seeing as these rifles were sold primarily inEuropeit was a great marketing tool.
Plain Barrel Jacket VersionThis version though less unique in appearance is considerably scarce, thus according to the 2011 Blue Book a 15% increase in value should be added over the barrel rib version. Still auction prices for the two versions are about the same and many collectors prefer the ribbed version over this one because it’s more distinctive from a Model 8. The earliest recorded plain jacket FN during this study was #11XX, and no plain jacket FN’s were observed beyond the 2900 serial number range suggesting that it was only available for a limited time during the first 10 years of production. It’s estimated from studying serial numbers that this version accounts for 15% or less of all FN’s produced. The tangent rear sight on this version is marked with adjustable gradients from 100-500 meters. Front sights are different than the version with the barrel rib.
Subtle DifferencesSpending some time comparing the Remington Model 8 and the FN 1900 will reveal just as many differences and similarities. While many parts are interchangeable between the two rifles, many are not and a select few of the ones unique to the FN are pictured below. OPERATING HANDLE – The operating handle is unique to the FN and one of the more noticeable differences. Operating handles of both the Remington and FN consist of 4 parts, the operating handle body, the operating handle bushing, the operating handle plunger, and the plunger spring. The FN differs in that its operating handle body has fine knurling for better grip and its bushing does not require a special tool for disassembly like the Model 8. Both operating handles are removed from the bolt carrier assembly in the same fashion.
It was once thought that the FN was manufactured with more than one operating handle since some variations have been noticed. The peculiar consistency is that all are modifications done as a result of a missing operating handle bushing. As previously stated, this part did not require a special tool to disassemble like the Model 8. Furthermore the FN’s bushing is not recessed into the bushing body like the Model 8, thus it is exposed and more likely to back out of its threads under normal use. Being such a small part, logic would assume it was easily lost and thus modifications to the handle would have to be made to keep the plunger in place. During this study both the lowest serial number rifle and the highest had the same operating handle. All period advertisement and manuals depict this operating handle and bushing.
SAFETY LEVER – While the Model 8 was manufactured with 3 different safety levers throughout production, the FN had only one and it is unique to this rifle. The two are not directly interchangeable without modification. The FN lever is .10” longer across the top.
MAGAZINES – The magazine box of the FN is of the early pattern Model 8 magazine with no side springs. As pointed out by Ed Furler Jr. in the 2nd Qtr 1994 RSA Journal, the magazine guide ribs (vertical slots) are ¼” of an inch shorter in the FN compared to Model 8’s.
RECEIVERS – The front face of the FN receiver is less recessed where the barrel takedown screw engages. This is not obvious until a Model 8 and an FN are placed side by side.
Variations in Forearm CheckeringAfter observing FN’s across a broad range of serial numbers, it appears they came with 3 variations of forearm patterns. The majority of period catalogs and advertisements portray the first pattern pictured below. This pattern is found on the earliest rifles and as late as the 3800 serial number range. Checking can be single or double bordered. 1ST STYLE PATTERN 2ND STYLE PATTERN This slight variation is transitional and found on some rifles between the 2900 and 3300 serial number range. 3RD STYLE PATTERN Somewhere between the 3300-3800 serial range, Fabrique Nationale changed forearm checkering to the pattern below. This pattern continued to the end of production and was found on the very latest rifles in this study, #488X and #489X.
A Glance at F.N. MarkingsAs customary for European firearms, the FN rifles came with a series of markings from theLiegeproof house. Some of these markings are visible, some are hidden, but a close look will turn up markings all over the rifle. The test rifle for this inspection was a late production FN with barrel rib, #4319. Disassembly of the barrel and receiver was conducted. As is consistent with many other FN produced firearms, the serial number on this rifle was found stamped in numerous places to name a few: the receiver, trigger plate (lower tang), forearm, stock, bolt, bolt carrier (3 locations), operating handle, barrel jacket, barrel and even the tang screw. The following is a description of some of these markings and their meaning found on our test rifle.
Special Grade F.N. 1900's
Since FN did not have its own engraving department setup until 1926, engraved Modele 1900’s are exceedingly rare. One indication that the factory consigned the job is that the exterior proofs were relocated to accommodate the artisan’s work, something only FN could have done. Three engraved FN 1900’s were observed during this study, all in a private collection in the United States.
The first rifle has almost 100% scroll coverage on the receiver, safety lever, trigger plate, magazine, buttplate, and barrel jacket. This rifle is also featured in John Henwood’s book, “The Great Model 8 & 81”. Notice the proof and inspector stamps were left off the receiver profiles as to not deter from the gorgeous engraving! The author knows of no other FN, Model 8, or Model 81 as highly embellished as this rifle.
Another example features extensive engraving and game scenes on both sides of the receiver (pictured below). Note the proof and inspector stamps are moved from the front shoulder of the receiver to beside the factory roll marks.This FN features gold line engraving and is thought to be made by FN for a World's Fair exhibition. It's stock was made with "cheeks" not unlike Pre-WWI Model 8's.
The elusive Straight Grip F.N. 1900Perhaps the most uncommon version of the FN 1900 is the straight grip stock. FN manuals depict a straight grip version in both the parts breakdown and the rifle function illustration. It’s not known how many straight grip rifles were manufactured, but only one is known in a private collection in the United States. This featured rifle (# 48XX) was originally from Val. A. Browning’s personal collection and interestingly enough was special ordered with set screws for the barrel lock screw, bolt carrier latch screw, and the trigger plate screw on the left side of the receiver! The trigger plate on this rifle is not a Model 8 part, it is Belgian made with a set screw retaining the tang screw. Its receiver markings are in a different font than standard production FN’s.
F.N. Accessories: Disassembly Tool and Cartridge Clips
One of the more ingenious features of the FN 1900 was its barrel jacket disassembly tool. In FN manuals this tool is pictured demonstrating proper barrel assembly takedown. Instead of a thin, fragile spanner wrench as used with the Model 8, this tool uses a set screw to engage the barrel nut and also notches to engage the jacket bushing simultaneously. Both parts can be removed with clockwise rotation of the T handles without fear of the components flying across the room under spring tension! The manual instructs the user to employ the tool first by loosening the barrel jacket bushing then use the set screw to engage and remove the barrel nut and jacket bushing together. Only one example of this special tool is known in a private collection in Germany. It is pictured below along with an image from the FN manual.
FN cartridge clips are extremely rare. Demonstration of the clip is pictured in the FN manual and is of similar construction to the early brass Remington Model 8 clips with a single pair of stop ears. The author was able to locate only one FN cartridge clip in a private collection in the USA.