Photos by Lynne Mccready
Despite the fact that Europe had been expecting some sort of major conflict for almost 20 years, when war finally came in 1914, many countries were unprepared for the event—or at least underestimated its ultimate extent.
Like so many wars of times past, belligerents felt that it would be over in a few weeks or months and resources at hand would be more than adequate to deal with the situation. Subsequent events proved them woefully wrong, as year after year of grueling combat on several continents ground down men and materiel at an unprecedented rate.
At the beginning of World War I, France had one of the largest standing armies in the world, with a total of 777,000 regulars and 46,000 colonial troops. Upon mobilization, by the summer of 1914 another 2.9 million men were added to the forces, creating a strain to equip and arm them properly.
By the war’s end, these numbers had swelled to a total of some 8,317,000 French and 475,000 colonials. Even the high attrition rate (eventually 4.2 million casualties with 1.3 million dead) would not prove that much of a relief on arms supplies, and France was constantly looking for ways to bolster shortfalls.
The primary issue French handgun at the time of the Great War was the Model 1892 Ordnance revolver. This well-made, well-designed double-action six-shot chambered an 8mm cartridge that fired a 121.9-grain bullet at 625 fps for a muzzle energy of some 106 ft-lbs. Not exactly hard-hitting, but not unusual ballistics when compared with some of the other European revolvers of the period.
Though the revolver had been in production since 1892, authorities soon realized that there were not enough on hand, nor would production be adequate to keep up with demand. Also, the maker, Manufacture de Armes de St. Etienne, was ordered to sideline handgun production in favor of rifles and machine guns—a not unreasonable switchover.
As a stopgap, many of the older 11mm Model 1873 revolvers were brought out of retirement. Though basically possessed of mid-19th century technology, they were rugged and robust, and their cartridge was actually slightly more potent than that of the 1892 Ordnance revolver. Still it was not enough.
Spain was neutral during World War I and also was one of the largest suppliers of inexpensive civilian firearms in Europe. Many of the makers copied European and American revolvers and autos—particularly the wares of Smith & Wesson and Colt. In fact, some Spanish copies of the Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolver were eventually made in 8mm for the French.
Another gun that did not go unnoticed by Iberian makers was the excellent Model 1903 Browning Hammerless pocket pistol, manufactured both by Colt in the U.S. and Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. This top-notch little blowback was a popular civilian arm—reliable and relatively unobtrusive. During its lifespan of 42 years, 710,225 1903/08s in .32 and .380 would be sold by Colt, making it one of the firm’s most successful auto pistols.
In no time at all, Spanish variants of the pistol appeared, turned out by a number of manufacturers, and Gabilondo y Urresti of Guernica made one of the best. Brand named Ruby, this little 7.65mm (.32 ACP) auto pistol caught the eyes of French ordnance officials and was soon adopted for use by the forces of the Republique.
Though its silhouette was somewhat different from the 1903 Colt, the basic mechanism was much the same. It was no-nonsense and easy to manufacture. Magazine capacity was nine rounds, giving the guns exceptionally long grips—the feature that was least like the Colt, whose magazine held eight cartridges. The average Ruby had a barrel length of 31⁄4 inches, overall length of six inches and weighed 30 ounces. The French contracted with Gabilondo for 10,000 guns a month—a figure that was upped to 30,000 by the third quarter of 1915.
Such staggering numbers were simply beyond the company’s capacity, and it soon subcontracted with four other Guernica makers to help fill in the shortfall. Gabilondo was to receive all the guns and check them for serviceability, then send them along to France.
It was only a matter of time before some of these firms realized it was more lucrative to deal with the French themselves, and as a result Ruby-style autos were supplied directly to the military by the makers. Unfortunately, not all of these companies were as meticulous as Gabilondo, and without that firm’s oversight, quality on many of them was below par, necessitating them being condemned.
Fortunately for the French, though, enough were pouring into the system that even with the discards, supplies were adequate. Though many different names, such as Demon, Looking Glass, Vesta, Lusitania, Destroyer and Martian, appeared on the guns, Ruby, and later Gaby, a diminutive for Gabilondo, became the generic term for the pistol.
Details on these guns varied but generally followed the Colt styling, with many incorporating a European lanyard ring. Safeties were located on the left side of the frame behind and just above the trigger, like the Colt. Some were plain, others had simple “F” and “S” stamps, while others were marked in French (FEU for Fire and SUR for Safe).
As well as various brand names, the Ruby-style autos have makers’ designations, and many are stamped with letter proofmarks within ovals, such as “EU” for Esperanza y Unceta, “GU” for Gabilondo y Urresti and “I” for Izarra (which is Basque for “star” and marked on the similar product produced by Bonifaccio Echeverria).
These initials will usually be seen on the guns’ frames and magazines, making it easy to match pistol to mag. Most of these autos look almost identical, but due to the wide variances in manufacturing quality and lack of standardization, interchangeability of parts—including magazines—could not be assured.
Many of the magazines were nickel-plated, but not all. A good number of the Rubys have stars stamped on either side of the heel magazine release. It is believed that these were put on pistols made for the French, but no one knows for sure.
Rubys were issued to the same types of troops that would normally carry a handgun in the French service—officers, some noncommissioned officers, machine gunners, support troops and the like. It is normal to see Ruby holsters worn by soldiers in period photos. Based upon such evidence, it almost seems that the little .32 autos were more common than Ordnance revolvers, and when one takes into account that probably close to a million Rubys and similar Star pistols were built for the French between 1914 and 1918, this is not surprising.
By the end of World War I, the French had a huge inventory of Ruby-style autos. After weeding out substandard specimens, numbers were still large enough to ensure that the gun would remain in service—albeit in reserve status—for some time. They saw some use in colonial conflicts in the inter-war years and supplemented the Model 1935 MAS auto in the Second World War.
The guns continued to be sold on the civilian market, too. In fact, the pistol in this article came in an interesting American-made civilian holster that was manufactured specifically for the pistol. This particular example, a Model 1916 Astra made by Esperanza y Unceta, has the two butt stars, which might indicate that those marks, after all, were not necessarily French acceptance designations, although the safety designations are in French.
Also, the condition of the piece is such that it shows little use. I suppose it is possible that the gun could have been demobbed sometime in its history and sold on the civilian market, but the holster has a real 1920s feel about it, and the wear spots on the gun indicate that the two have been together for a long time, so this is unlikely.
Fieldstripping the Ruby is pretty simple. First remove the magazine and ensure it’s unloaded, then pull the slide to the rear and rotate the safety upward until it catches in the notch on the slide. The slide is now held captive. Rotate the barrel to free its notches from those in the frame. Hold the slide to keep it from springing forward. Push down on the safety, free the slide and ease it forward, off the frame. The barrel, recoil spring and guide can now be taken from the slide. Reassembly is in reverse order.
I’ve shot a number of Rubys over the years and have always found them to be accurate and work well. If you have one of these guns and want to fire it, remember, depending upon who made it, quality can range from excellent to execrable. Before you attempt to run some .32s through the pistol, it’s a good idea to take it to a competent gunsmith for a going over.
Fortunately, Rubys are still reasonable, and for a small investment it’s possible to pick up a real piece of firearms history. As the Spanish furnished other guns to the Allies (including offbeat-looking .455 Smith & Wesson copies to the British), it would make a great little mini-collection to try to amass all of the guns produced by Spain for use in World War I.
In fact, Spain (though nominally neutral during WWII) kind of switched sides and made some very interesting guns for the Germans during that struggle. But I guess that’s a story for another time.