November 15, 2022
Every time I take my old Browning Challenger to the range and pop a few plates, I wonder why I own any other handgun. It devours any ammunition I feed it, it has a great trigger pull, and the grip is so natural you feel like you’re holding hands with your girlfriend.
What’s more, the original Challenger was made to standards of fit and finish that are now but a distant memory—they’re as smooth as FN’s Belgian master gunmakers could produce.
The name Challenger has been used repeatedly—not just by Browning—so it’s important to know what we’re talking about. It’s essentially an evolution of the Colt Woodsman, which was designed by John M. Browning. The later Browning Arms Company began having it made at FN in 1962. It was offered in two barrel lengths—4.5 and 6.75 inches—and they could be switched easily.
Other iterations included the heavy-barreled, target-model Medallist and the economy-priced Nomad. As with most Brownings of that era—the Nomad was an exception—it could be had in several higher grades with engraving and gold inlay, but the basic gun with one-piece walnut grip and deep, polished, lustrous bluing is my favorite. As was also the fashion of the time, it had a gold-plated trigger, which now seems like an inoffensive eccentricity rather than a hopelessly dated fad. And the rest of the gun is in impeccably good taste.
My one objection to the factory model is the grip. When I stated that it was like holding hands with your girlfriend, that is only after I had the factory walnut grip modified—at great trouble, expense, and anguished howling from a stockmaker who, after he was finished, swore it cost twice as much in hours as he’d charged me (I paid him $500) and that he would never do another.
Browning of the 1960s was subject to fads and fashions, such as white-line spacers, gold-plated triggers, high-gloss stock finishes, and skip-line checkering, although it was always done so well you could marvel at the workmanship if not the taste. At one point, the company embraced the idea that a pistol’s grip should be as bulky as a 2x4. Since the Challenger’s grip was one-piece wraparound walnut with a single screw going in one side and connecting to a counter-bored nut on the other, paring it down is not easy.
Browning also fitted plastic grips in later variations, and the first Challenger I bought had a plastic grip to which someone had taken a rasp, slimming down the obtrusive bulge at the base. It was not pretty, but it fits my hand beautifully, and it was this grip that I showed Brian Board as I persuaded him to match the dimensions in proper walnut.
Brian began with a new Browning grip I bought 20 years ago for $50. In the course of slimming it down, he had to shorten the screw and reset the nut, which required making a custom tool to counterbore one side because nothing he had was the right size. Even 250 miles away, I could hear the gnashing of teeth.
In the end, however, the result was most gratifying to me, if not to Brian. I switched the disfigured plastic grip to my second Challenger. It may not look as nice, but it works just as well as the spiffy walnut grip.
An interesting point: I asked Brian if, while he was at it, he could clean up the plastic grip and make it presentable. Like most plastic, fiberglass, composite, Kevlar, what have you, grips, stocks, or handles, any possible modification was minimal. They’re molded, and what you get is what you have, unlike wonderful, malleable, alterable, restorable, beautiful walnut.
When the day comes that there are no more craftsmen to work with walnut as Brian did (albeit protesting all the way), we will have lost something priceless.
Incidentally, until quite recently, you could buy a Challenger in almost unmarred condition for about $500. They were undoubtedly the bargain of the century.