There are a lot of features in modern guns that we take for granted. At a basic level, the design of most pistols today seems very similar. Almost every one will make use of a magazine feeding device. This magazine is almost always loaded into the grip of the gun. The similarities also extend to the operation of the gun. Virtually every semi-automatic handgun that fires a round more powerful than .380ACP will make use of a locked breech system. But where did these innovations come from? Did different manufacturers invent them on their own? If we trace back the history of pistols, we’ll find that one gun was the “father” of all modern semi-automatic pistols – The Borchardt C93, introduced in 1893 . . .
To understand what a leap forward this was you need to look at the environment that enabled the development of a new type of pistol in a time where revolvers ruled the handgun world. Up until the mid-late 1800s black powder was the primary propellant used on the battlefield. The problem with black powder is that it produced huge amounts of dirty soot and smoke. After just a few shots an entire battlefield might be covered in smoke. Sniping was also problematic because the smoke would give a position away. This picture is a modern re-enactment, but you can get an idea of the amount of smoke generated from firing black powder.
From an operational point of view, black powder is poorly suited for mechanical devices. It doesn’t burn very cleanly, generating not only smoke but also leaving behind lots of sticky residue. After just a few shots the delicate mechanisms of early guns would quickly become fouled, forcing the soldier to clean their gun before firing again. In addition, the residue itself is corrosive, making it necessary to clean after every use or parts would quickly rust.
Even though black powder was invented in China in the 9th century and adopted for use by western civilizations in the 13th century, it took until the mid-1800s before a better formula was devised. After several intermediate steps, Paul Vielle invented a “smokeless” powder which he called “Poudre B” — short for Poudre Blanche, or “white powder” as a play on “black powder”. Vielle’s powder was revolutionary because it was three times more powerful than black powder and gave off relatively little smoke. Additionally, it was not corrosive.
Several inventors created variants of Vielle’s powder including Alfred Nobel and Hiram Maxim. They went by names such as Ballistite and Cordite. (Note they were not exactly the same as Vielle’s powder, but his powder opened the door to other formations).
So by the mid-late 1880s, the powder had advanced far enough that an “automatic” pistol could be made, at least in theory. Automatic, meaning that it could fire the bullet, extract the spent shell and load the next round. Previously all attempts at an automatic pistol ended in failure due to the fouling properties of black powder.
It’s against this backdrop that we introduce the main character of this story — Hugo Borchardt.
Borchardt was born in Germany but immigrated to the United States with his parents. He became a naturalized citizen of the US in 1875. His early history is relatively unknown, but it is assumed that he trained as an engineer. We do know that for some time he served as a foreman at the Singer Sewing Machine company.
Somewhere along the way Borchardt became interested in firearms, and was later hired by the Sharps rifle company. While at Sharps he designed a single shot rifle using the falling block principle.
I’m going to divert my narrative here for a second to explain some basic firearms principles which will be useful throughout the rest of this post. The technically savvy here will probably cringe, but I’m keeping it basic. The difference between a gun and a grenade is pretty straightforward. In a grenade the entire explosive charge in enclosed, which when detonated causes the explosion to go in every direction. In a gun, everything is enclosed except for the barrel end. Thus when a charge is detonated, the explosion takes the path of least resistance and pushes out the barrel end. If you put a bullet in front of this explosion, the exploding gases will accelerate the bullet out of the barrel with a lot of force and speed.
Early rifles (and indeed cannons) were nothing more than a tube that was sealed at one end. However loading from the open end is inconvenient and exposed you to enemy fire. Ideally you want to load from the back. However to force the explosion forward, you need to completely seal the back of the “tube” after the bullet is loaded.
Now back to the story. Borchardt invented a rifle using a falling block action. Basically at the back of the barrel was a metal plate that fit inside of a groove. When a lever was lifted, the metal plate was lifted up opening up the back side of the barrel. A bullet could then be inserted. Lowering the lever would cause the plate to slide back down, now sealing the back of the barrel. Thus everything was sealed except for the front of the barrel, so when the charge was detonated the bullet would be forced forward.
The 1878 Sharps Borchardt Rifle:
Unfortunately the rifle was not a commercial success. The problem wasn’t with the design, but with the timing. The Sharps Borchardt is widely acknowledged to have one of the strongest actions prior to the 20th century (in other words, it was able to contain very strong explosions from large caliber ammunition). However by 1878 the “Great Bison Hunt” was nearly over — there was little need for a big caliber single shot rifle. The Sharps company closed up in 1880.
From there, Borchardt found work with the Winchester Repeating Rifle company. Winchester asked Borchardt to work on a revolver to compete against Colt. At the time Winchester was the leader in rifles, but Colt had most of the pistol market. Borchardt got a couple of prototypes built, but eventually Winchester and Colt came to a gentlemen’s agreement not to invade each other’s turf. Winchester would stick to rifles, and Colt to pistols.
Borchardt became disillusioned from the American firearms industry and moved back to Europe. He was employed with a number of small firearms companies where he most likely came across the Maxim machine gun. The major breakthrough of the Maxim machine gun was its use of a toggle bolt.
Maxim was searching for a way to accomplish the basic operation of a gun — how can you automate opening up the chamber to load a round in, and then lock it up so that the explosion would force the bullet toward the barrel opening. He drew his inspiration from the human knee.
When the human knee is bent, you can move your lower leg in and out quite easily. However when you fully extend your leg straight, it is “locked up” and very strong. So Maxim’s idea was to use this basic principle to “lock” and “unlock” the chamber. The design and the machine gun was a success, with tremendous sales in Europe.
Borchardt was inspired by Maxim’s use of the toggle link (as this “knee-like” action became known). He set to design an automatic pistol using the same toggle link action; this time operating upwards instead of downwards as on the Maxim.
The Ludwig Loewe factory in Germany took notice of Borchardt’s work and eventually hired him to put his design into production. This design became known as the Borchardt Construktion 1893, or C93. Here you can see the “knee action” or toggle link. In this case it is now bent, allowing the cover on top to slide back toward the rear of the gun.
Above, when the toggle link is up, the cover (plate with two small holes in it) slides backwards, opening up the chamber so that the empty shell can be extracted. When the toggle link is down (as in the following photo), the cover slides forward sealing up the chamber.
In addition to the toggle link, Borchardt also devised a new way to load this pistol – the spring loaded magazine located in the handle of the gun. Over the past 120 years magazines have not evolved much from Borchardt’s early design!
To go with this new handgun loading system, Hugo Borchardt also invented a new type of ammunition. Previously handgun ammunition was “rimmed.” In other words, the base was dramatically larger than the rest of the round. The large diameter base is needed for revolvers where the ammunition must catch against the base of cylinder. If the entire round was the same diameter it would just fall through the cylinder.
Borchardt invented the 7.65X25mm Borchardt round. From the picture below you can see that the base size is exactly the same as the rest of the shell. This round would eventually morph into the 7.65 Parabellum, 7.63 Mauser, 7.62 Tokarev, and finally into the 9X19 Luger.
The company was interested in selling the gun to foreign nations and armies. In fact, even the United States tested it. Lieutenant Robert Evans, 12th US Infantry, said, “a very accurate, close shooting weapon. The grip being in the center of gravity makes the balance when held in the hand much better than with the ordinary revolver. It seems to possess great endurance. All its parts fitted as closely and worked as accurately as when first fired. It exhibits very little recoil.”
The Borchardt also has the distinction of being the first automatic pistol to be described by the American press. The New York Times reported,
The Borchardt weapon belongs to a new class of firearms in which the opening of the mechanism, the ejection of the empty shells, the cocking, the reloading, and closing are all performed automatically in the recoil of the barrel and breech mechanism. The reporter was impressed by “the fact that it secretes [hides] in a magazine formed by the grip eight cartridges that can be fired as rapidly as the pistol is discharged.
During that time Ludwig Loewe reorganized into a new company now called DWM (Deustche Waffenund Munitionsfabriken). DWM asked its top salesman, Georg Luger, to take the Borchardt to the Swiss military for testing.
The Swiss were impressed by the gun. While the gun itself performed well, it sold the Swiss on the idea that an automatic pistol could be just as reliable as a revolver. While the test was mostly positive, the Swiss did provide feedback that the gun was unwieldy and too large for service use. They asked DWM to redesign the gun into a smaller package. The gun is indeed difficult to hold:
DWM asked Borchardt to incorporate the feedback of the Swiss into a new design. Borchardt refused, saying that his design was as refined as it needed to be. “dass die Pistole, so wie sie ist, bleiben musse, weil eine zweckdienliche Aenderung ganz unmoglich sei” (that the pistol, as it is, must remain, because a useful change is quite impossible).
With that statement Borchardt essentially removed himself from all future pistol design from DWM. DWM instead turned to Georg Luger for the redesign, and we all know what came from that — the famous Luger pistol.
The biggest change that Luger made was to replace the leaf springs (located in the “blob” on the back of the Borchardt) with a coil spring now relocated in the handle of the Luger. In fact the leaf recoil spring was the biggest weakness of the Borchardt. The factory had a hard time tuning the right tension on the spring. Too much and the gun would fail to extract and load a new round. Too little and the gun might unlock too early. Most of the other parts and the theory of operation between the Borchardt and Luger remained the same. Besides the removal of the leaf recoil spring blob, the other big change Georg Luger made was altering the grip angle from the “T” grip of the Borchardt to something more ergonomic.
The Luger went on to be a tremendous hit, selling millions worldwide. The Swiss were the first to adopt, followed closely by Germany who used it in both world wars.
The success of the Luger pistol caused Hugo Borchardt and Georg Luger to become bitter enemies. Hugo felt he deserved more credit in the creation of the highly successful Luger. He was also upset that DWM had released his bullet design to Mauser and others. On the other hand, Georg felt that it was his hard work which made the new Luger pistol successful.
Regardless of who deserves the credit, there’s no denying that the Borchardt C93 is the first modern “automatic” pistol, incorporating designs that we take for granted in a modern semi-automatic handgun: locked breech design, a magazine in the grip and rimless ammunition.
About the author: beetle is an amateur collector, writer, and photographer. His favorite FFL had this to say to him: “you like all the weird stuff.” Beetle can be contacted through the following web forum which he is trying to help a friend get launched http://www.vintage1911s.com/forum