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.
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.
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:
This one’s a little less close a 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.
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:
- Serrations machined in, not on a screwed-on part;
- 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);
- 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);
- The rear sight, completely different from the 1900’s;
- 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);
- Magazine release (of which, more below); and,
- 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.
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.
So there you have it. A gun whose design impetus was, essentially:
- Copy the FN Browning 1900 as closely as possible; but,
- 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!