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100 years ago today one man with a pistol set off World War I

The FN Model 1910 pistol used to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914.
The FN Model 1910 pistol used to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914.
Military History Museum, Austria

One hundred years ago today one man and his pistol changed the world when an assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, on June 28 1914, and ignited the spark that led to World War I.

The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, was one of six potential assassins stationed along the route hoping to ambush Ferdinand’s motorcade as he toured the city.

The men of the cell were trained and armed by officers of the Serbian military, likely working with the terrorist Serbian “Black Hand Society”, who hoped the Archduke’s death would help destabilize Austria-Hungary. The assassins were supplied with bombs and four FN Model 1910 pistols.

As Ferdinand’s open touring car passed by one of the assassins threw a bomb at the car. The bomb bounced off and exploded underneath the following car, injuring between 15 to 20 people. After the bombing the motorcade route was changed so Ferdinand could visit the wounded at the hospital. Unfortunately, his driver made a wrong turn and went back to the original route where Gavrilo Princip was waiting with his pistol.

Princip approached the car and fired two shots at essentially point blank range. One hit Ferdinand in the throat and the second wounded his wife, Duchess Sophia, in the abdomen. They both died of their wounds the same day.

Princip and the other conspirators were arrested and their pistols confiscated. When their connections to Serbia were revealed a diplomatic crisis broke out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The crisis grew until Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. The remaining great powers were then drawn into the war as they honored various treaty commitments. The resulting “Great War,” as it was then called, would rage until November 11, 1918, and claim an estimated 17 million lives (10 million military and seven million civilian).

The conspirators and accomplices were tried with several executed. Princip, at 19 judged too young to execute, remained imprisoned until he died of Tuberculosis in 1918.

Today, the relics of that day reside peacefully at the Museum of Military History in Vienna, Austria. Among the exhibits are Ferdinand’s car, still showing a bullet hole, his blood soaked clothes, and the four pistols supplied by Serbian officers to the assassins.

The pistols, all FN Model 1910’s, show the wear of years now, even though they would have been near new at the time of the killings.

The FN Model 1910 was created by legendary American firearms designer John Browning for the Fabrique Nationale Company of Belgium. The Model 1910 was a follow up to his earlier Model 1900 design. For the Model 1910 Browning ditched the separate tube for the recoil spring above the barrel, as found on the Model 1900, and instead wrapped the recoil spring around the barrel.

The Model 1910 is a blowback operated, striker-fired, pistol with a single-action trigger. It has a thumb safety on the left side of the frame, a grip safety and a magazine disconnect safety. The magazine release is located on the butt in the European fashion. The pistols’s sleek ergonomic styling remains attractive even today. The design was chambered for two different cartridges, both also designed by Browning. The 7.65mm (.32 ACP) version had a seven-round magazine capacity while the 9x17mm (.380 ACP) version held six rounds in the magazine. The pistol was first available commercially in 1912 and variations were sold until 1983.

Princip’s pistol is known to be serial number 19074. The other pistols supplied to the assassins are serial numbers 19075, 19120, 19126. There is some dispute as to whether these pistols are chambered for 7.65mm or 9x17mm. Some sources say Princip’s pistol is one caliber, other sources say it is the other caliber.

After the trial of the conspirators Princip’s pistol was lost to time until about 10 years ago. It turns out the pistol, along with some of Ferdinand’s blood soaked clothing and other items, were given to a Jesuit Priest with connections to the family. Father Anton Puntigam ran a Children’s home funded by the Archduke and was therefore included in the official motorcade. When the pair were mortally wounded the Priest performed the Sacrament of Last Rites for them both.

Father Puntigam intended to exhibit the items in a museum dedicated to the Archduke, but died in the 1920’s before he could accomplish that goal. His possessions remained in storage at his monastery where they were rediscovered in 2003 or 2004. The monastery donated the items, including FN Model 1910, serial number 19074, to the Military History Museum in Vienna, Austria at that time.

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