At the beginning of the 20th century, Spain had a significant number of small gun manufacturing businesses located throughout its northern Basque area. The area has been known for its metalworking resources for nearly two thousand years, and it is little surprise that firearms manufacture would thrive in such a region. In addition, a loophole in Spanish patent law gave these small shops an international advantage: a Spanish patent was only enforced if the device in question was actually manufactured in Spain within three years of a patent being granted. Since none of the major arms makers had factories in Spain, new firearms developments were not covered under Spanish law and could be copied without legal consequences.
One of the more successful early automatic pistol designs of the turn of the century was John Browning’s Model of 1903. Two firms made pistols using Browning’s design that carry the Model 1903 name. Fabrique National made a Model 1903 chambered for the 9mm Browning Long cartridge, which was originally sold as a military sidearm. Colt also produced the Model 1903 Hammerless pistol in .32 automatic from 1903–1945. The Colt pistol was smaller in size than the FN, since the Colt fired a smaller cartridge.
Birth of the Ruby Handgun
Spanish shops quickly began making their own copies of this very popular pistol, usually lacking the grip safety feature found on Browning’s design. In 1914, the company of Gabilondo y Urresti (later to become known as Llama) built a better-than-average 1903 copy called the Ruby, chambered for 7.65mm with a nine-round magazine. Gabilondo sent a sample to France, whose government was in need of a huge number of pistols for the oncoming First World War. The French found the pistol to be well suited to their needs, and proceeded to place a standing order in May 1915 for 10,000 of them per month. The pistol was officially known as Pistolet Automatique de 7.65 millimetre genre “Ruby”.
One can only imagine the Gabilondo shop receiving news of this staggering order, since at that time they had less than 10 employees. There is no conceivable way they could have produced anywhere near this quantity of firearms, yet they had a contract for them. In order to meet the order, Gabilondo contracted with four other gunmakers in the city of Eibar: Armeria Elgobaressa y Cia, Echealasa y Vincinai y Cia, Hijos de Angel Echeverria y Cia and Iraola Salaverria y Cia (the “y Cia” means “and Company”). Each of these subcontractors was to produce 5,000 pistols per month for Gabilondo, who would control overall quality control and deliver the guns to France. By this time in August 1915, the French contract had increased to 30,000 pistols per months, and would later jump again to 50,000 per month—a manufacturer’s dream…and nightmare.
At the same time French purchasing agents were individually contracting with other Spanish gun makers to produce the guns as well. By the time all the contracts were signed roughly 50 companies were producing the pistol either for Gabilondo y Urresti-Eibar or directly for the French. The result was chaos. The quality of the pistols produced varied widely from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some were good, others substandard, while others yet were simply unsafe to fire. At first the French tested every pistol, but soon went to batch lot testing instead. Even among the pistols deemed acceptable to issue problems would arise after the guns broke in with use. Some references list the expected service life of the Ruby at only 500 rounds.
With all the manufacturers involved, part interchangeability was lost. Parts and magazines from one manufacturer would not work in another manufacturer’s pistol and often parts would not interchange even within pistols made by the same manufacturer. Features such as barrel length and magazine capacity also varied from source to source as different manufacturers put their own spin on the design.