The rise and fall and rise of the .25 Browning

This is an early (first variation) Browning 1906 VP. Image: Tombstone Grips.

This is an early (first variation) Browning 1906 VP. Image: Tombstone Grips.

At the turn of the last century, cartridges with smokeless powder and automatic pistols were emerging technologies. But people used handguns in 1900 for the same reason they do a century on: for defense of self, people and property, and for sport. Sure, the sports have changed, along with the pistols used for them, but there are still two basic kinds of defensive pistol: service pistols that give up some portability or concealability for performance, and carry guns that give up some performance for portability and concealability.

The typical service pistol of 1900 was a double-action revolver of from .35 to .45 caliber, with a barrel of four to six inches. The carry gun was a compact version of the same revolver at the high end, and a small rimfire revolver or derringer at the low end. You couldn’t win a gunfight with multiple hostiles using a Remington .41RF derringer, but you couldn’t toss a S&W Triple Lock in your vest pocket and forget about it as you went about your daily business, either. Horses for courses.

The emerging auto pistols addressed both problems. A new Colt auto pistol chambered for a new .45 cartridge would replace the .45 Long Colt revolvers hastily procured in 1902 (and 1909) when bumptious Moros showed an unanticipated ability to absorb .38 rounds. It would replace, as well, the unloved .38 revolvers in military service. Police, less prone to getting in major battles than the Army in those days, would stick with .38 revolvers (around the turn of the century, some of them, including NYPD, even used .32s and seemed to get by). But the market for small pocket pistols needed an auto pistol, and who better to design the gun — and the cartridge — than John M Browning Himself. Indeed, he designed two of them, and then his greatest Belgian collaborator raised the design still further.

Browning’s First .25, the Vest Pocket 1905/6

Browning had made some small .32 and .380 pistols, including his Model 1900 and several small Colts, but the market in Europe and in USA — where Browning supplied designs to two different producers, each of which licensed his designs for a region of the world — demanded a real vest pocket pistol. Browning made it happen. In 1905, Fabrique National d’Armes de Guerre in Herstal, Belgium — today known more telegraphically as FNH — began producing Browning’s first .25 design. It’s called the FN Model 1905 or FNVP (“Vest Pocket”) in FN documents, but as it was first produced in 1906, the FN Model 1906. Initially it came without a mechanical safety, only a grip safety, but several mechanical safeties were added over the course of production.

Colt 1908. The kinship to the FN 1906 is obvious. Image: Adams Guns via wikipedia.

Colt 1908. The kinship to the FN 1906 is obvious. Image: Adams Guns via wikipedia.

A parallel Browning design that closely resembled the FN 1906 was the Colt Model 1908. It also fired the 6.35mm x 15SR cartridge Browning had developed for the FN gun, and later production included a magazine safety as well. (The patents listed on the slide changed at this point, to include a Colt engineer’s magazine safety patent).

The second “Browning” .25

Baby Browning. This is a 1965 example, but the weapon was unchanged throughout production.

Baby Browning. This is a 1965 example, but the weapon was unchanged throughout production.

In 1931, the weapon was completely redesigned. By this point, le Maître had passed away and the gun was designed by FN’s Dieudonné Saive. Saive lost the grip safety and made the tiny gun even smaller, making what’s now the definitive Baby Browning. This 4 x 2 3/4″ pistol weighed a nominal 9.7 ounces empty, and fired a round known in its native Europe as the 6.35mm Browning and in North America as the .25 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge.

The gun is a jewel, with only 32 parts and is easily stripped for cleaning without tools. It’s operated by unlocked simple blowback, and fired by a spring-loaded striker. There is an external extractor, of the type Browning would abandon with the 1911. The barrel has three locking lugs that hold it in place in the frame of the weapon, but let go when the barrel is turned to allow disassembly. The recoil spring assembly comprises a recoil spring rod, two different diameter springs (one rides inside the other), and two end pieces; disassembly is an armorer task, not part of normal handling. The magazine is conceptually identical to Browning’s other early auto pistol ideas, and holds the usual six rounds.

Other side of the same 1965 Baby. Images from Bob Adams.

Other side of the same 1965 Baby. Images from Bob Adams. This was part of his inventory seized by the ATF in January, ostensibly because he deals in weapons without import marks. No charges have been filed; ATF’s objective appears  to have been simple vandalism: destroy the guns and shutter the business.

It has a prominent thumb safety along the left leading edge of the grip; it’s easily swept down to fire. The safety can also be swept up above its normal “safe” to lock the slide in position for disassembly (this is not necessary to take the weapon down, but makes it easier). The gun also contains something beloved of Europeans and, for some reason, the ATF, a magazine safety (and a different mechanical design from the one in the Colt 1908). One last quasi-safety feature was the cocking indicator, which protrudes from the back of the pistol when the striker is cocked — but doesn’t give you any clue whether there’s a round in the chamber. The magazine holds six rounds, the same as the capacity of the tiny revolvers the gun was originally designed to replace. In its heyday, it was absolutely not customary for users to carry a seventh round in the chamber; instead, the weapon would usually be loaded by inserting a full mag, charging the weapon, and applying the safety.

Unlike many .25s, the Baby Browning and its VP predecessor are reliable with the full-metal-jacketed round-nose rounds that were all that was available in 1905. The Baby Browning sold around the world, but not in the USA until long after his death, when Browning Arms, an importer controlled by his sons, cut a deal with FN. Some Babies were brought back from Europe, especially by GIs, but official importation of the Baby Browning began in 1954 and ended in 1969 when the terms of the Gun Control Act of 1968 took effect, one part of which was a ban on the importation of small handguns (a ban that remains in force today). The vast majority of these guns were the Standard model, blued steel with plastic grips, but some were the Renaissance version with a gold plated trigger and optional engraving and plating, and a few were an alloy-framed Lightweight version.

The lightweight is interesting in that its frame is not an SAE or DIN aluminum alloy, but “Hiduminium,” a proprietary alloy made by High Duty Alloys, a spinoff of Rolls-Royce Aero Engines from around the time those engines were winning the Schneider Cup air races.

Browning (which the Browning family sold… to FN) maintains a .pdf “manual” on their website, which comprises the official one-sheet-of-paper instructions that were the “user manual” originally shipped with a Baby Browning, and the official one-sheet-of-paper exploded view that was the “armorer’s manual” at the time, and a bunch of added safety boilerplate.

With the US market closed off in 1969, FN reduced production of the Baby, and transferred it to the Manufacture d’Armes de Bayonne in France in 1979. Post-1969 and Bayonne-made Babies (which are marked FN, as FN owned that firm) are occasionally encountered in this country; they either slipped past the ATF on a Form 6, were illegally imported, or were brought in for government use (which is exempt from GCA 68). It is legal for a civilian to possess a disposed police-import post-68 gun, and that may be where the few Bayonne guns in collector hands here originate.

This internet-sourced photo gives you an idea of the scale of these guns. Most Bauers had these fake pearl grips. Some had checkered walnut.

This internet-sourced photo gives you an idea of the scale of these guns. Most Bauers had these fake pearl grips. Some had checkered walnut.

The Baby did come back, twice: a reverse-engineered modified copy of the Baby Browning was made by Bauer Firearms Company in the Detroit suburb of Fraser, Michigan beginning in the 1970s. Before beginning pistol production, Bauer imported Mauser banner guns including shotguns and the interchangeable-barrel Model 660 bolt-action; they also made .22 rifles. Production ceased in 1984 and the Bauer company vanished with very little trace. The Bauer .25 was made of 416 Stainless castings, and was one of the first, if not the first, successful stainless-steel guns. It is a good, reliable gun which owes that fact to the original Browning/Saive design, and the fact that, given the fact that investment castings only get near net shape, every gun was hand-fitted. While some small parts may interchange, slide, barrel and frame interchange probably shouldn’t be attempted.

The second comeback of the Baby Browning happened after Bayonne shut down. A US Firm, Precision Small Arms, bought the rights and the parts from FN and began manufacturing them in the USA, including for worldwide export with FN markings. (At first, they couldn’t get liability insurance to produce for the US market. Thank you, all you lawyers). PSA sounds like a big company, but it isn’t; emails are answered by the company president, and each pistol is hand made by one man (although he employs modern manufacturing methods, including CNC).

This is a color case hardened Precision Small Arms gun -- now available on GunBroker.

This is a color case hardened Precision Small Arms gun — now available on GunBroker.

Most of PSA’s production still goes overseas; only a few hundred of these well-built Babies are sold to Americans. PSA has made a version that converts from .25 ACP to .22 short, and they make numerous variations: along with the standard blue, stainless and alloy-framed (in this case, forged 7075-T56) versions, we’ve seen a color case-hardened version and ones with African ivory grips, and the website says they’re looking for someone to sponsor the creation of a Damascus-forged version. Numerous versions (as well as a great deal of information) are at that website.

Unlike the Bauer, where interchange is a crapshoot, the parts of the PSA interchange with each other and original Baby Brownings. (Here’s PSA’s manual online).

The Baby Browning today

Whether an original, a Bauer, one of the knockoffs (at least 39 firms, mostly Spanish, copied the FN 1906, according to Ezell’s Handguns of the World, and an unknown number have copied the Baby), or a hand-made modern PSA from Aspen, Colorado, a small pistol like the Baby Browning exerts a certain pull on people. Many experienced major-caliber shooters are quick to dismiss it, and gunwriters sneer at it, but it’s an appealing gun to everybody, even though its small size is particularly intriguing to women and kids. Would you go armed with a Baby today?

There is a tendency in the gun culture for plush and contented gun writers to demean anything that doesn’t “begin with .4.” One wonders if they go armed quite as often as they would like us to think. What’s in their swimming trunks — uh, never mind. Let’s not go there. But we’ll explain why that specific example is on point.

We bought a Bauer in 1983, when the company was still in business, for a very specific purpose. Armed all the time means, to us, all the time, and in all places; and our then-existing carry guns (CZ-75 and, when a service pistol is impractical, PPK) were not suitable for use all the time. Specifically, we needed something for Buker Pool at Fort Devens, where we did team swimming twice a week, and other watersports venues. The stainless .25 was perfect. It just worked; it could be worn in the key pocket of a swimsuit and fired soaking wet. You needed a pretty baggy set of trunks to keep it from printing. To clean it after a salt-water evolution we just disassembled it, put the pieces in a mesh bag, and put it in the cutlery basket of the dishwasher, then post-cycle confirmed it was dry with the girlfriend’s hair dryer. (You may have to change girlfiends a few times to find one who’s cool with this). A bare dab of Break-Free and we were back in business. (We did not put the rounds in the dishwasher, and once they’d been in salt water, we wiped them off and threw them in a tin to be blown off next range trip. Never had a misfire, but it seemed prudent). Along with its duties as swimming/sailing/scuba self-defense gun, it also served as a secondary or tertiary weapon.

And that’s where the .25 still shines today — as a weapon that will go where no other weapon goes.  The First Rule of Gunfights remains: Bring a Gun. With the Baby Browning (or the Bauer or PSA), you always have a gun, no matter how dressed or where you are going. Some people would advise a .22 like the small Beretta instead. We actually considered that back in 1983. The reasons we didn’t go there are two: first, the Beretta, while chambered for a better defensive round and double-action, is much larger. You bring the gun that fits. Second, by 1983 we had extensive experience with Beretta’s Nitron finish. It wouldn’t have survived the Buker Pool / Cape Cod/ Team Dive off Nahant / Dishwasher duty cycle. The Bauer did.

The principal downside of the .25 is that it’s just barely a gun. Most DGUs involve merely displaying the weapon, and it’s true that a Desert Eagle brandishes with a lot more authority than something that looks like Barbie’s First CC Pistol. And if you have to actually shoot somebody with it, as the saying goes, “you risk making him mad, and then he’s gonna want to fight.” The .25 has truly anemic performance, with most factory loads coming in at around 700 feet per second and around 65 foot/pounds of energy. Some rounds are better; tiny 35-grain Glaser Safety Slugs deliver half again as much energy, as do hot-loaded Sellier & Bellot rounds from the Czech Republic. (Many US .25 loadings are extra-weak, perhaps because many die-cast zinc crap pistols — Jennings, Bryco, Jimenez, the usual suspects — have been chambered in this caliber).

It can be unpleasant to shoot. As little muzzle energy as the gun generates, you could be excused for thinking that it’s all going into the flash and bang. That’s one reason it takes practice to hit with the gun consistently, something almost no .25 owner does.

A secondary downside (and another reason you need to practice) is the sights. This is a gun you want to practice point shooting with, because in a defensive situation time spent trying to find the nearly-worthless, tiny sights could well get you killed. (This is characteristic of all pocket pistols of the period, and a shocking number of vintage service pistols). The critics are right that this is a gun best suited to contact ranges.

A tertiary and final downside is that the ammunition is such a pain to reload that hardly anyone bothers. For example, the standard reloading press that hard-core shooters use to deal with their secondary and oddball calibers, the Dillon 550B, just can’t be configured to load .25; other loaders can but the small cases and bullets make for hard and slow going. With reloading rare, the typical gun limited by a six-shot magazine, and spare magazines seldom found with .25s, even carry-worn .25s have seldom had more than a couple of boxes of ammunition through them.

Since the 1906/08/31 introduction of the Browning .25s, the caliber has been battered by trends towards more powerful rounds, and by smaller guns made for these powerful rounds (an advance not possible with 1931 metallurgy). The final question, then, is, are you armed and safe with this kind of gun? The final answer: if your alternative is a larger, more powerful pistol, then no. If your alternative is no gun at all, then yes. John Browning and Dieudonne Saive, who designed two of the greatest service pistols of the 20th Century, understood the First Rule of Gunfights, and that’s why they also designed .25s.

One thought on “The rise and fall and rise of the .25 Browning

  1. William Turner

    I had a .25 Titan once. It was a “reach out and touch him” weapon. If you could not reach out and touch him you would probably miss him. it had about a 25 lb trigger pull which didn’t do anything positive for accuracy. I used it in the same way as the article described. Like one gun writer said, (can’t remember who) “I take it with me when I’m going unarmed”. It is far superior to a knife or fist. It was very concealable. Once in the ’60s I was at a bar when a fight broke out (I avoided it), the cops came, patted everyone down looking for weapons. I laid it on the bar and covered it with my hand, passed the pat down and slipped it back into my pocket then got the heck out of there ASAP without drawing attention.

    Today I carry a North American Arms stainless steel 1″ .22 Win. Magnum HP. It is a single action, 5 shot revolver and has much better terminal ballistics than a .25 solid point. It too is a “reach out and touch him” firearm. The only places I can’t carry it is where there is a metal detector in the entrance. I have not tested it because of the problems that would ensue if I tried and failed. Most of my suit pants have a small internal pocket inside the right side pocket that just fits and keeps it in the same place all the time, no real need for a holster. It can be carried with the chamber under the hammer empty or the hammer down in a notch between chambers on the cylinder. I’m 70 so I don’t have extreme physical movement so I opt for the between the cylinder notch and 5 rounds.
    I have not tried it in water, salt or fresh.

    I really do like it for what it is used for and as limited as it is.

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