One of the odd and interesting historic firearms that pops up from time to time at Michigan gunshops are the various incarnations of the French WWI “Ruby” pistol.
The Ruby is the result of France’s desperate need for arms in the early days of the “Great War.” By 1915 much of the French industrial heartland was under German control, and what remained was producing critically needed material such as rifles, machine guns, and artillery.
To meet the demand for pistols for the trenches the French contracted with the Spanish firm of Gabilondo y Urresti-Eibar for their Ruby semi-auto pistol.
The Ruby is a pre-war design largely copied (without license) from the Browning Model 1903. Among the changes are the deletion of the grip safety and a relocation of the manual safety closer to the trigger guard. The resulting Ruby is a direct blowback pistol chambered in 7.65 (.32 ACP). The pistol features an internal hammer and a frame mounted safety that goes down for “FIRE.” The original magazine capacity was nine rounds.
The original contract called for the firm to produce 10,000 pistols a month, but the insatiable French demand for handguns saw the production numbers increased in stages until the incredible target of 50,000 pistols a month was set.
This is where the story of the Ruby gets messy. Since Gabilondo y Urresti-Eibar could not hope to meet that production quota they licensed out manufacture of the pistol to other companies. Although only four other manufacturers were originally contracted to produce the pistol, the firm eventually partnered with seven companies to meet French demand.
At the same time French purchasing agents were individually contracting with other Spanish gun makers to also produce the guns. 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 parts 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.
All in all the Ruby became a textbook example of what not to do for small arms weapon procurement.
Still, the pistols were desperately needed and almost as fast as they were produced they were sent to the front to be engulfed in the horrors of trench warfare. The French accepted an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 pistols by war’s end.
The large number of pistols produced has made the Ruby available in the U.S. collector’s market for decades. Some came home as souvenirs after WWI or WWII, while others found their way across the ocean in various import lots over time. The modern U.S. collector is unlikely to know the exact origin of his pistol as many were imported before import marks became mandatory in 1968.
The Ruby pistol pictured with this article is owned by one of my relatives and is a family inheritance. The original story of how the pistol was acquired has been lost to time.
The gun in the photo is marked “Model 1915” and “Astra” which indicates manufacture by Esperanza y Unceta. (The company later changed its name to the more well known “Astra”.)
The “Astra” made pistols are considered among the better-made examples of the Ruby pistol and therefore more likely to be safe to fire some many of the other manufacturer’s products. (Of course, it is important to have a qualified gunsmith check out any Ruby type pistol before attempting to fire it. Besides the original manufacturing problems other problems can arise in the decades since the pistol was produced).
Although I was not able to fire this particular pistol, the owner says he has fired it in the past and it functions fine with standard .32 ACP ball ammunition. He says that even with the tiny sights he can hit pop cans and similar targets at typical handgun ranges.
Even without shooting it, it was interesting to examine this artifact from WWI. Although well used and pitted, the gun still functions, and is a tangible connection to the time when the French struggled to survive during “The war to end all wars.”
Special thanks to The High Road.org forum members “Onmilo” and “Gun Shy” for correcting me in that the safety goes DOWN for “Fire.” The text has been corrected.