Handguns > Historical

The FN Browning Model 1903

The Model 1903 is the rarest of the military pistols designed by John Browning and produced by Fabrique Nationale.

7/21/2011

Fabrique Nationale (FN) started producing its first handgun in January 1899. The compact 7.65x17 mm FN Browning Model 1899 was extremely reliable and became an instant success. Within a few months, the Model 1899 was entered in Belgian military trials, and, less than a year later, the Belgian military adopted a modified version commonly known as the FN Browning Model 1900. The Herstal company found itself producing two similar pistol models. As this was inefficient, FN stopped production the Model 1899 within 18 months of introducing the Model 1900.

The Model 1900 was entered in various foreign military trials. Although there were few objections to its functioning, most review boards cited the relatively anemic 7.65 mm cartridge. 

In 1901, despite tremendous sales of the Model 1900 pistol, FN asked John Browning to design a large-frame military pistol capable of firing a more potent cartridge.

At the same time, Colt representatives were reporting large numbers of FN Model 1900 sales to their home office in Hartford. Colt, which was experiencing comparatively modest success with its large-frame Colt Browning Model 1900 pistol, wanted to introduce a compact pistol to improve sales in the United States.

Due to these parallel demands, John Browning found himself with requests for two pistols intended for two different markets. The result was two Browning prototypes, which were both shown to FN and Colt as per the inventor’s agreements with the companies. Both manufacturers reviewed the prototypes and selected specific features from each prototype, which were later included in their respective production models. It should be noted that the FN Browning 1903 was never a copy of the Colt Model 1903, as is so often reported. Both handguns evolved from separate prototypes in response to specific demands of the North American and European markets.

Colt immediately began production of its Model 1903 for the American commercial market, and its 7.65 mm cartridge became known in the United States as the .32 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol). 

Fabrique Nationale, aware that large-frame military pistols had few commercial prospects in Europe, was reluctant to invest in the production of a large inventory of pistols in the absence of a funded military contract. As a result, production of the FN Model 1903 was initially limited to a relatively small number of sample and test pieces. 

The sample pistols were shipped between FN and its representatives worldwide. Sweden and Norway showed an interest, but the Norwegians requested 500 guns for field trials. Aware of the risks involved with large-scale sample production, FN initially refused to build the 500 guns for Norway, but Sweden agreed to conduct its trials with samples of the pilot series. In the trials, the FN Model 1903—while less accurate than the Luger—proved to be significantly more reliable than the other entries in Sweden’s arctic conditions. 

At long last FN received an order from Sweden for 10,000 pistols, and production began in 1907. As expected, Sweden requested some minor changes that were incorporated into production. These included a redesigned slide release lever and sights. The pistol was adopted as Sweden’s official sidearm and received the military designation “m/07.” As soon as production started other orders materialized: The Ottoman Empire purchased 8,000 pistols for law enforcement; similarly, the Imperial Russian government placed multiple orders for various law enforcement agencies. Commercial sales were better than expected, especially in the British Empire where larger and more powerful handguns were favored. 

The Model 1903 was known by a number of names. These included: Modèle de Guerre (War Model), Grand Modèle (Large Model, compared to the Model 1900) and Modèle 1903. Internally the pistol was often referred to as Modèle Suedois or Swedish Model, referring to the first order.   

The Model 1903 is a high-quality, large-frame blowback-operated pistol firing the 9 mm Browning Long (9x20 mm) cartridge and fed by a seven-round magazine. The pistol was offered by FN with an optional shoulder-stock and an extended, 10-round magazine in an attempt to compete with Mauser and Luger. Customers could also order tangent sights, so long as the order exceeded 500 pistols. None of the military tangent sights were ordered, but a number of customers did opt for the shoulder stock. Fabrique Nationale numbered all the parts, including the magazine. Government orders for stocked pistols were supplied with numbered shoulder stocks, while commercial stocks were left unnumbered.

Fabrique Nationale actively marketed the pistol as the official sidearm of the Swedish military. Despite this, it did not sell as well as expected. In the years preceding World War I, FN sold a mere 38,000 Model 1903 pistols. In contrast, FN sold that many Model 1900s in less than two years.

There has been a good deal of speculation as to why the Model 1903 did not achieve higher sales figures. Most often it has been incorrectly attributed to the blowback design or the non-standardized cartridge, but none of the trials reports make negative mention of the blowback design. Also, at the time there were no standardized military cartridges. Pistol designs, as well as ballistics, were individually tested without much prejudice, with the emphasis being on their individual performance.

The low sales figures resulted from a combination of factors, including: the delay in production; the loss of a potential Norwegian contract; and the fact that most modernizing armies had already selected a pistol by the time the model became available.  

World War I And Husqvarna Production
All production came to a halt at FN with the German invasion in August 1914. Many completed pistols were carried out of warehouse by FN employees and hidden to deny them to the invaders. No Model 1903 pistols were assembled during the war at FN; parts remained in the factory for the duration of the war. 

Sweden, which had relied on FN to produce the Model 1903 prior to the war, found itself without a source for new pistols. Not knowing how long the war would last, Sweden decided to produce the pistol domestically. The first Husqvarna pistols were produced in 1917. The first Husqvarna pistols were marked “Browning’s Patent.” FN protested in 1918, as it had been the sole authorized user of the Browning name since 1907. The Swedes reacted and changed the slide legend to “System Browning.” This did not satisfy FN either, so the Browning name was entirely removed. 

The Swedes were limited to producing the pistol solely for domestic use under their licensing agreement with FN. Although the pistol was manufactured in Sweden for both military as well as commercial sales, many Swedish officers preferred the FN-made pistols. FN continued to sell pistols on the Swedish market. The Swedish military made no distinction between the FN- and Husqvarna-made pistols; both models were referred to as “m/07.” The designation refers to the adoption year, not the manufacturer. 

The Interbellum
Demand for military pistols after the First World War was almost non-existent due to a large surplus market. Despite this, the newly formed nation of Estonia chose to make the Model 1903 its official military sidearm. The smaller FN Browning Model 1910 was adopted for law-enforcement use. Estonia updated its equipment in the mid-1930s and the pistols were sold as surplus to Spain, where they were used in the Spanish Civil War. Additionally, FN sold the Model 1903 to both Paraguay and El Salvador.

Production of the Model 1903 ended in 1927 with plans to introduce the High Efficiency pistol—the forerunner of the Hi-Power. Some small quantities of pistols remained in the warehouse until the mid-1930s.

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5 Responses to The FN Browning Model 1903

Onur wrote:
January 28, 2014

Dear Mark, I have one and using 9x19 amp. It works well...

Mark Cartwright wrote:
May 27, 2013

I have a 1903 FN my father took off a german during WWII it is in fine + condition having only 1 1/2 boxes of amo Would anyone know where I could get more 9x20 amo ? PS no its not for sale !

Ian Morrison wrote:
April 19, 2013

Well this certainly explains the similarity between the FN rifles and Husqvarna rifles as well! I grew up with my Grandfather's Husqvarna Hi-Power .270 Win bolt-action rifle that He bought while stationed in the Swiss Alps in WW2.I loved that gun which was sadly lost in a fire. I still not to this day found a more reliable bolt-action rifle than that gun but also it might have to do with the many years of shooting it, cleaning it, and loving almost reverent care it was given! IT being the only thing besides a standard issue WW2 Compass and the Military Issue Platoon binder with Him and his fellow Soldiers pictures names ranks and so on and so forth which was also lost in the fire while I thankfully still have the compass. I still carry and use the compass hunting. It might just be superstition but He was a phenomenal hunter and trapper and a know extremely accurate hole puncher with every rifle open sights or scoped that He ever touched. I seem to have picked up his uncanny ability to use any gun be it the open sights or scoped and make the rifle owner or even pistol owner want to jump up and down on it. I have made a Military Recruiter jump up and down on his McMillian .308 with bi-pod and Nightforce 8-32x56 scope in frustration. I still would trade any modern gun for that rifle back and have kept searching online for a decent used one it seems the .270 Win Husqvarna Hi-Power is rare but the .30-06 Springfield is rather common. Husqvarna certainly did something right for a gun 60 years later to have fired like the day it was new. I know it has little relevance to do with the firearm mentioned other than Sweden having Husqvarna making the rifle. But if you own 1 treasure it, treat it right, and hope that you don't end up in my situation of an aching heart as to sadly missing your beloved rifle! I will always have the treasured memories of my first 6 point 236 lb Buck. I dropped with it getting me into the Big Bucks Club at 15 years old while most people will never!

Joe Cortina wrote:
July 01, 2012

Nice article - as so little has been written about this fine Browning design. Thanks - I am also a writer for Gun Journal and several Winchester collectors publications I own an original unaltered 1903 military marked,& with the apparantly original pigskin holster all in fine+ condition. What is interesting is that the original FN monogram grips are carved horn - not rubber - a virtual work of art.

New River Valley Outdoorsman wrote:
July 29, 2011

I find this remark interesting: By the end of 1927, FN had produced 58,442 Model 1903 pistols, making it the smallest production run of any FN Browning pistol in history. I suspect that the lovely plinker and target .22's made by FN (the Nomad, Challenger, and medalist) were all made in smaller numbers than that. Perhaps this statement only applies to military pistols?