How Do You Get Around a Patented Design?

Over the years, this and that has been patented, in the world of guns. Given that patent law is the province of lawyers and therefore glacially slow and mired in massive transaction costs, patents don’t often benefit the poor throg filing the patent: by the time he has approval, his competitors have walked all over him and any advantage the patent might have conferred is long gone.

Original FN Browning 1900, right side, showing the ejection port. On this pistol, the barrel is below the recoil spring.

One illustration from US Patent 621747.

One illustration from US Patent 621747.

John Browning’s automatic pistol patents, for the pistol known as the FN Browning Model 1900, were filed in 1896 and 1897 (US Patents Nos.  and ) and secured, among other things, a solid patent on the idea of combining a breech bolt and other features into a “slide,” something lacking in other period auto-pistol designs (compare Borchardt, Mannlicher, Schwarzlose, and many others). The wording on these claims was a variant of this, the first specific claim of the 1896 patent:

In a firearm, the combination with a frame and a barrel carried by said frame, of a sliding breech-bolt and and a forward extension or arm attached to said breech-bolt, and extending forward alongside the frame and barrel, said extension or arm having a sleeve surrounding the barrel, whereby the movement of said extension and breech-bolt is guided by the barrel, and is limited rearwardly by contact of the rear end of said sleeve with the front of the frame.

The other illustration from 621747, showing the slide.

The other illustration from 621747, showing the slide.

Now, that claim alone might not have been a bulletproof securing of the monopoly on a pistol slide, but taken with the other Browning claims in these two patents, which were granted by 1899, meant that nobody was going to make a slide-bearing pistol without recognizing Browning’s patent, probably by giving Browning money. But his patents were part of why FN and Colt paid Browning for pistol designs, so would be copiers of the pistol were locked out until approximately 1913 — time that Browning did not spend idle.

And Browning’s Model 1900 was revolutionary, so revolutionary that “a Browning” became a European synonym for an automatic pistol.

So, if you were a would-be competitor, you could take a number of approaches, much as other pistol makers did to the similarly disruptive rise of Glock in the late 1970s and 1980s. You could, as a former Smith & Wesson CEO commanded, “just copy the mother[is only hald a word]!” which produced both the Sigma pistol line and, unsurprisingly, a lawsuit from Glock (which Glock essentially won, slaying the Sigma and sending Smith back to the drawing board). That’s the hazard of the “copy the mother!” approach, but you could use it if you were based somewhere beyond the reach of intellectual property law. In 2016 as well as a century ago, one of those lawless places is, and was, China. Not surprisingly, Chinese craftsmen didn’t feel constrained by patent law, and copied the living daylights out of the M1900. Some of them were quite close:

Browning 1900 Chinese Copy FW Browning 1900 Chinese Copy FW L

This one’s a little less close a copy:

Browning 1900 Chinese Copy

Some of the departures in the Chinese copy above include the palm-swell shape of the grip, the crudely hand-cut ejection port, the thyroid-case magazine catch, and the classically Chinese-copy sights, which often manage to have more parts than the original, but nothing that can actually be used to aim the firearm. The magazine also lacks the witness holes which were, by 1900, standard on auto-pistols worldwide.

But the slide does work like JMB’s, and if it was made before 1913 or so, it violates his patents. In China you could get away with that. In the Kingdom of Belgium, home of the factory making the authorized Browning 1900, and a nation that prides itself on rule of law, you couldn’t. So what’s a Belgian copycat to do?

“Copy the mother!”, but, cosmetically only. Meet the Mélior, whose name means “better,” and which is a shameless knock-off of the 1900 — cleverly arranged so as not to bust Browning’s patents. At a glance, it looks like another copy.

melior_browning_1900_copy_-_4

melior_browning_1900_copy_-_3

In fact, the pistol, a pre-WWI Mélior (also seen as a “Jieffeco”) incorporates some ingenious ideas of its own, and it has its own patent (that’s a British patent number, even though it is a Belgian gun). It was designed about 1906=07 by one H. Rosier, of whom little else is known.

There are a few little “tells” that this is not a direct knock-off of the 1900, such as the shape of the bustle or tang above the backstrap. Some more of these tells include:

  1. Serrations machined in, not on a screwed-on part;melior_browning_1900_copy_-_6
  2. The mid-trigger screw that attaches the trigger bar (and, of course, the different monogram, JF&C for Janssen Fils et Compagnie; see here for some Mélior history);melior_browning_1900_copy_-_9
  3. Trigger bar travels in a large, unsightly cut in the right-side grip frame, that has to have a large gap because the bar’s travel is nonlinear (upper right corner of above picture);
  4. The rear sight, completely different from the 1900’s;
  5. The shape of the ejection port: rounded-rectangle front and rear (compare to the 1900, which has a rounded-rectangle corner after and a square one front);
  6. Magazine release (of which, more below); and,
  7. The pistol doesn’t have a slide!

And of course, there are different markings.

The word Mélior, by the way, implies “better” by sound (“meilleur”) and Latin etymology.

Look Ma, no slide!

Instead of a slide, the pistol has a moving breechblock. There is no moving part around the barrel. This is the biggest single difference between this design and its cosmetic cousin, the FN Browning 1900.

melior_browning_1900_copy_-_7

The pistol seemed to have worked well enough, but after the war, the Robar & Cie firm that controlled the Mélior name commissioned a new design, one that looked more like Browning’s own Model 1910.

Pray for Release

Well, you can if you expect God to take the empty magazine out of this pistol, but the rest of us will shift for ourselves and use a rare feature: a push-button, base-of-the-gip magazine release, a lot like some early models of the Beretta 92 had.

melior_browning_1900_copy_-_5

So there you have it. A gun whose design impetus was, essentially:

  1. Copy the FN Browning 1900 as closely as possible; but,
  2. Not so closely that we get sued for patent infringement.

There are no indicators that FN and Robar et cie. ever wound up in court, so apparently this approach worked!

7 thoughts on “How Do You Get Around a Patented Design?

  1. archy

    ***Given that patent law is the province of lawyers and therefore glacially slow and mired in massive transaction costs, patents don’t often benefit the poor throg filing the patent: by the time he has approval, his competitors have walked all over him and any advantage the patent might have conferred is long gone.***

    It has been said by more than one observer of actions in the courts in which patent infringements were an issue that a patent is just a license to sue an overly imitative competitor.

  2. Tierlieb

    > So there you have it
    >
    Thanks. I kinda sorta asked for that in the bullet button thread and its very cool to read.

    > There are no indicators that FN and Robar et cie. ever wound up in court, so apparently this approach worked!
    >
    Maybe someone at Browning was of the opinion that just staying one step ahead was worth more than suing? This patent seems to belong to great Moses himself, who was probably very busy creating the 1911 at that time; and unlike modern companies which tend to have a lawyer on retainer, JMB probably didn’t.

    Also: People busy copying your last good thing while your are working the next big thing? Good. Those won’t be competition (isn’t that how we justify allowing China to continue what they do?).

    That said, I have no idea how patents were owned that time – did they belong to the company, the inventor, could they be traded?

  3. SiGraybeard

    As an aside (sorta) in the hi-tech industry, patents aren’t always applied for. Anything that would delay being first to market is avoided. The first to market with the cool toy gets all the market share there is. They charge some large X for it. The first copycat sells it for X/3 or X/2 and starts to steal market, but the first to market drops his price to undercut the second and still wins.
    Guns are different because guns last forever compared to the hot app or tech toy. What’s that 30 Megabyte hard drive with innovative RLL encoding worth today? A gun from the same period (mid 80s) hasn’t lost much value at all, by comparison.

  4. TBoone

    “… and the classically Chinese-copy sights, which often manage to have more parts than the original, but nothing that can actually be used to aim the firearm. ”

    Yet another awe-inspiring turn-of-phrase in the midst of a well written technical article/history of weapons heretofore unknown to me. always a pleasure to read, learn something new and smile at how enjoyable the writing is crafted.

    Well done sir.

  5. Docduracoat

    It is amazing that a pistol from 1911 is still an excellent design and is still relevant in the year 2016!
    Rifles, airplanes, cars and boats from that era are curios and relics
    A 1911 style pistol is still regarded as an effective target and personal defense gun
    Many people carry a concealed full size 1911
    Many more carry updated, compact versions of the same design.
    All hail the genius of John Moses Browning!

  6. Tam

    “Why did Remington and Savage autos have such fiendishly complex slides with separate breechblocks? Why did H&R license an English design whose slide did not “surround the barrel”?

    This right here. :)

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