A European Ruby – WWI French Handgun

Although the Ruby pistol became a procurement nightmare, it nevertheless armed French troops and scores of others throughout World War I and beyond. 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY ROB REED

The “Ruby” pistol 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 under allied control was producing critically needed material such as rifles, machine guns, and artillery. As the conflict grew beyond even the most pessimistic expectations, the sheer volume of troops sent into battle literally exhausted the meager stores of small arms. To meet this rising demand for pistols for the trenches, the French contracted with the Spanish firm of Gabilondo y Urresti-Eibar for their Ruby semiauto pistol.

A right-side view of this Ruby pistol variant shows the ejection port and an extended grip housing a single-stack detachable magazine holding nine cartridges. The Ruby is a direct blowback pistol chambered in 7.65 (.32 ACP).

The Ruby made use of a prewar 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 firearms 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. Soon, multiple companies (both legally and otherwise) were producing the pistol across the continent, making it a truly European weapon.

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 batchlot 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.

A left-side view reveals the manufacturer’s barrel markings (including the “GU” for “Gabilondo y UrrestiEibar” beside the grip) and the occasionally problematic safety lever.

As you can imagine, parts interchangeability – so vital for a service weapon – was lost as the number of manufacturers involved grew. 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. Records show that the French military had 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 prior to import marks became mandatory in 1968.

ALTHOUGH I’VE NEVER OWNED a Ruby pistol, I’ve had several opportunities to fire them. Their best attribute is their simplicity. Unlike other pistols from the same time frame they are a “modern” design with a one-piece slide and breechblock and what we would consider conventional controls. The safety lever is relatively easy to use, as is the European-style heel mag release. The pistol does not have a slide stop/slide release. On some examples I have seen, a rivet was installed to keep the safety from moving to the “safe” position. My understanding is that this is a postWWI French military modification.

The gun in the accompanying photos is an actual Gabilondo y Urresti-Eibar-produced pistol and owned by a friend. Recently, I was able to fire several magazines of modern-production .32 ACP FMJ through this particular pistol. Surprisingly (based on reputation alone), the pistol fired 100 percent of the time, with no misfires, failures to feed, or failures to eject. This is not always the case with these little pistols as, in addition to their hurried manufacture, they have by now seen an additional 100 years of often hard use. Obviously, it is important to have a qualified gunsmith check out any Ruby-type pistol before attempting to fire it. Besides the original manufacturing issues listed above, other problems may have arisen in the decades since these pistols were produced.

The condition of the original magazine is especially important, as a bad feed lip or worn-out springs will cause problems. Since most pistols only come with one mag, and magazine interchangeability is spotty at best, a bad mag can deadline an otherwise functional pistol.

The tiny sights make the pistols better suited for point shooting than precise aimed fire. The combination of the steel frame and low-powered .32 ACP cartridge reduces the felt recoil considerably. I was not able to bench test this particular pistol, but we were able to keep a full magazine inside a paper plate out to 10 yards. Accuracy began to drop considerably at 25 yards, and the best either of us could do was to keep about half the shots on a plate at that distance. The tiny sights and gritty trigger on this particular pistol made us work for even those results.

Although not rare by any means, except in certain variants, the Ruby pistol remains an interesting historical artifact. And even though it was hurried into production to meet insatiable wartime needs, the gun I tested still functioned as intended a century after it was produced. If nothing else, shooting a Ruby pistol is a way to make a tangible connection to the time when the French struggled to survive during “the war to end all wars.” ASJ

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May 8th, 2017 by