In the early 1920s, times were tough for Spanish gunmakers. World War I had been over for a number of years, and the market was awash with surplus arms sold for less than the cost of new production. Also, beginning in 1920, the federal police force, or Guardia Civil, had to approve all pistol sales, except single-shot .22s. It was only natural for Spanish firms to look abroad, but it was difficult to compete against such established giants as Colt and Smith & Wesson in the United States. Opportunity came in Asia, a part of the world with a growing demand where trademarks were not as deeply entrenched.
Despite China’s great size, plentiful resources and burgeoning population, the Ch’ing dynasty had never seen fit to establish a modern, centralized military. China was defeated by Japan in 1895, and faced with huge reparations and loss of face, China’s intellectuals clamored for revolution. In 1911, the Ch’ing Dynasty was replaced by a Republican government presided over by Yuan Shih-k’ai, a former general whose personal ambitions invariably superseded those of the state. To ensure his position, he eliminated all serious competition. Following Yuan’s unexpected death in 1916, China found itself leaderless and with a corrupt government. As many potential successors struggled for individual power, China plunged into an era of turmoil punctuated by a relentless series of military conflicts.
The “warlord period,” from 1916 to 1928, was a dark age for modern China, characterized by military instability, greed and social disruption. Resolute in their desire for absolute control, numerous warlords fielded huge armies to battle for regional dominance and personal gain. By any measure, their troop strengths were extraordinary—and everyone needed arms.
As China’s isolationist policy had left its arms industry in technological backwater, virtually all the guns and munitions had to be imported. Cash was not an issue—in some cases the warlords allotted up to 90 percent of their tax revenue on arms—and there was no standardization. New or used, it didn’t matter. The most important issue was to get arms and ammunition to their troops as quickly as possible.
But there were a few obstacles. To limit the warlords’ access to materiel and presumably to promote peace, Britain, France, Russia, Spain and the United States signed the May 5, 1919, Arms Embargo Agreement to “restrain their subjects and citizens from exporting to or importing into China, arms and munitions of war and materiel destined exclusively for their manufacture.” Curiously, handguns—considered a secondary arm of minimal importance—were exempt from the agreement. Not surprisingly, in spite of the public posturing, the Arms Embargo was widely ignored. The reason was economic. The warlords were desperate for guns, and everyone else wanted the warlords’ money. If one country refused to negotiate there were always others. In the end, practicality superseded politics as arms were ultimately shipped from virtually every country that had signed or expressed support for the embargo.
At first, the Spanish makers competed voraciously against each other, supplying small-caliber blowback pistols, largely 7.65 mm “Eibar-type” guns as had been used by the French in World War I. Mauser Werke of Germany found itself in a very different position. In 1896, the firm developed its C96, or “broomhandle,” that could be used as a traditional pistol, stored in the shoulder stock or—when attached to its stock—function as a short-barreled carbine. The cartridge was potent and the guns highly reliable. Any and all versions could be legally sold to the Chinese. Although Mauser’s production was then curtailed by the Treaty of Versailles, there was such an incentive to sell guns that all sorts of loopholes were explored with unbridled enthusiasm. The Chinese were particularly delighted with the C96 and purchased the design with wild abandon. According to author Thomas B. Nelson, more than 300,000 were eventually exported from Germany, either directly or via Japanese traders. For a few years, Mauser couldn’t make the guns fast enough.
That success did not go unnoticed. The first Spanish firm to take up the competitive reins was Beístegui Hermanos, a factory in Eibar. Although the peculiarities of Spanish patent law would have allowed Beístegui to have made an exact copy of the C96, the firm chose to make an externally similar pistol with different mechanics for more expedient production. In some cases, the changes were real improvements. While the C96 had an integral barrel and barrel-extension, Beístegui assembled the unit with separate pieces—a process that required less setup time and allowed the barrel to be replaced as an individual component. Making the bolt with a cylindrical shaft rather than a squared shaft allowed further economy. As Mauser held the upper hand, the Beístegui pistol had to be equally reliable but significantly cheaper.
Beístegui had its first C96-type pistol, designated the Model H, in production by 1926. To more closely emulate the C96’s looks, the firm milled similar panels onto each side of the frame and fitted the gun with a small ring hammer and a Bolo grip. Curiously, though the “Royal” trade name was already recognized in Asia, the markings on the first Model Hs were largely limited to the serial number and Eibar test proofs. By 1927, the Model H had evolved to its most common configuration in which the rear frame panels were eliminated and wherein the grip was enlarged to more closely mimic the standard C96. By that time, Beístegui had also changed to marking most of its guns “‘Royal’ Patent No. 105614,” a reference to the locking block patent.
Meanwhile, in Guernica Astra-Unceta y Cía decided to enter the fray. Export Director Ernesto Borchers went on a several-month trip to Asia. After visiting with a number of Japanese traders and mainland distributors, Borchers wrote back, “There are sought fabulous quantities of 7.63 mm pistols and, according to the indications, Echeverría (Star–another firm in Eibar) must be doing good business. We could do more, since we know the clientele better.” In another letter he mentioned, “Some clients are interested in Astra, but most want to buy ‘Royal,’ and there is no one who can cure them of this mania.” He returned from the voyage with a contract for 72,000 pistols in calibers 7.63 mm Mauser and 7.65 mm through a three-year period.
By December 1927, Astra had completed the first of its M900-series pistols. Like the Model H, the M900 was externally similar to the C96, with a small ring hammer and Bolo grip, but with distinctive mechanical differences. Unquestionably, its hallmark feature was the removable sideplate. Pushing out a single pin allowed the sideplate to slide off the frame, exposing the lockwork and dazzling the first-time observer with its jeweled inner surfaces. Other important changes from the Mauser included the use of a pinned locking block, a screwed-in barrel and a separate barrel return spring.
As the Model H and M900 were designed using the standard C96 as a benchmark, it should not be surprising that the three guns shared a number of features. Initially, they were all semi-automatic with a fixed 10-shot magazine that was loaded with a stripper clip. They also had a tangent rear sight graduated to 1,000 meters and came with a separable shoulder stock that was matched to the pistol. But over time, as in any competitive market, changes ensued.
In late 1927, Beístegui introduced a selective-fire version of the Model H. An advertisement from the period called the implementation a “sensational invention,” in which the pistol with shoulder stock combination was billed as “the most handy, cheapest and completely reliable machine gun.” Of course, practicality was an issue. With a cyclic rate of 900 rounds per minute (r.p.m.), it took less than a second to empty. But that didn’t really matter to the warlords who found the prospect of “wild shooting” irresistible. Rather than train recruits to lightly tap the trigger, they advised them to rotate their guns 90 degrees before commencing fire. Under those conditions, the uncontrolled recoil would spray the bullets in an arc parallel to the ground. The warlords were ecstatic, and Beístegui’s sales boomed. Not to be left behind, Astra developed its Model 901 in 1928. Though it would have been more user-friendly to mount the selector switch on the left side of the frame, this area was already occupied by the sideplate. Rather than undertake a major redesign, Astra mounted the selector switch on the right side, a precedent that continued throughout its series of pistols.