We’re all eyes when it comes to Belgian-made firearms with a track record of reliability, accuracy, and good looks. In this case, it’s rimfire pistols – all day, every day. Sure, you know all about Browning’s modern production semi-automatic Buck Mark, but are you familiar with the company’s trio of classic repeating handguns? Here’s what you need to know about the Nomad, Challenger, and Medalist – and why they’re on the radar of savvy collectors.
Browning’s history in repeating pistols is a deep one rooted in fine firearms design. The basis reaches back to a John Browning design from around 1914, which became not only the Colt Woodsman but also a whole host of other similar rimfire handguns.
By 1960, Bruce Browning found ways to modify the design for a then-modern market while simultaneously saving on production costs. Those changes gave birth to a trio of still-beloved Browning and FN pistols – the Nomad, Challenger, and Medalist.
The three handguns we’re focusing on today are all recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistols chambered for .22 Long Rifle. They feed from 10-round, single-stack magazines. Overall production spanned 1962 to 1976, though not all guns were produced for that entire stretch and later variants stretched into the early 1980s.
The pistols fall into a hierarchy based on manufacturing and end-user cost. In simplest terms, the Nomad was the budget-friendly choice, the Challenger was a step above with a few added features, and the Medalist was the high-end, target-shooter’s selection. Of course, numerous changes and variants exist among the group. Regardless, every single model carried a reputation for accuracy.
All were based on the same design, but each shows unique features and changes. These fine pieces of craftsmanship were built by FN in Europe for Browning, save some of the latest production guns that were moved to the states. Each had models built for both the American and European markets, seeing strong sales on both sides of the big pond.
Generally speaking – since there seem to be exceptions to everything in the firearms design world – U.S. market versions were marked “Browning Arms Company” and “Made in Belgium.” Meanwhile, European versions were stamped “Fabrique Nationale” and “Herstal Belgique.”
Knowing the similarities, let’s delve into what defines each model.
Though the Nomad was marketed as an entry-level rimfire repeating pistol, and has been overshadowed by the Challenger and Medalist, it remains an underrated gem. The Belgian-production Nomad saw barrel lengths of either 4.5 or 6.75 inches.
It was introduced in 1962 and saw a 12-year run, with the final pistols coming off the line in 1975. Oddly, it seems several still snuck off the line as late as 1976. All Nomad pistols included the letter “P” in the serial number. The majority wore black polymer grips, though the brown-tone Novadur variants are even more desirable. Metalwork was a basic but well-done bluing.
To say the Nomad pistols were more budget-friendly at the time does not mean they were cheaply built. In fact, the cost to manufacture the Nomad was likely a good part of its demise. Early versions used an alloy frame, though the majority of the run were built of steel. All models we’ve seen show a surprisingly tight fit and finish.
Sights are more basic with a tall, angular fixed front against a fully adjustable rear. There’s neither a slide stop/release nor bolt hold open/magazine disconnect. Don’t let the lack of features fool you, however. The Nomad continues to prove itself today not only as a pistol with classic styling but one with reliability and accuracy that has lasted all these years.
The Challenger is a semi-automatic rimfire pistol recognized as the mid-grade option between the Nomad and Medalist. It was introduced to the American market in 1962, seeing a 23-year run with the final specimens coming off the production line in 1985. The Challenger did not remain static.
In fact, it saw several major evolutions over the years with the Challenger II and then the III. The original guns used a “U” as part of the serial number. The second iteration started in 1976 and ran through 1982. The final Challenger III picked up in 1983 and carried through to the end of production.
The Challenger offered two barrel lengths, 4.5 and 6.75 inches, with heavier options than the Nomad. Most wore wood grips, which were sometimes plain and sometimes checkered. We have seen others with Novadur grips similar to those found on the Nomad.
There was a slide-stop latch, final-shot hold-open, as well as a manual thumb safety. The Challenger made the move to a gold-plated trigger. Speaking of triggers, the Challenger allowed users to adjustment both the trigger pull and trigger backlash, all features that carried over to the Medalist.
Though we’ve yet to see one in person, there was a deeply engraved version of the Challenger known as the Renaissance due to its decorative style. With a satin-silver finish throughout and stunning grips that were scroll and hand engraved, the Renaissance is a real collector’s gem. It is believed fewer than 500 of these were produced. In addition, there was a special variant with lines and scrolls of gold inlay, which was recognized as the Gold Line. Both, naturally, command a serious premium over the base model.
While the Belgian-made original Challenger is generally regarded as the most collectible, the move to the Challenger II and III also marked Browning’s physical relocation. Under new leadership and designers, it began manufacturing later iterations in Utah. Those later Challenger iterations eventually led into the production of the Browning Buck Marks we know today.
Perhaps the most desirable of the three guns today, and also originally the most expensive, is the Medalist. These handguns were produced from 1962 to 1974. Because they were pricier to build and buy, it is more common to find Medalist pistols in higher condition ratings. Buyers investing more dollars were generally apt to take better care of a Medalist than a Nomad.
Medalist rimfires used a “T” as part of the serial number. The barrel length was 6.75 inches, and the steel-framed pistols wore walnut grips of several styles. Medalist stocks are something to behold when you compare them to the competition at the time. There’s lovely hand checkering set against deep bluing on the metalwork.
Some of the most desirable models showed a ventilated-rib-style barrel and what amounts to a forend in addition to exaggerated target-style hardwood grips. A gold-plated trigger adds to the classiness, and that upgrade remains on many Browning firearms to this day.
The Medalist uses both a positive manual safety and a dry-fire mechanism integral to the thumb safety. In a nod to its target-shooting features, the Medalist made use of both an adjustable trigger and a set of under-barrel counterweights.
Like the Challenger, the Medalist also saw a pair of special runs. In addition to the desirable International Medalist, the Gold Line Medalist saw a production believed to be just over 400 units. That’s roughly the same count as the Renaissance Medalist that had a chrome-plated satin finish and hand-fit build.
No matter the variant or version, the Medalist is a piece of practical artwork to behold. Finding one in its original hard case with all the accessories is a crown jewel for collectors. Kudos if there’s already one in your gun safe. There’s little doubt the Browning Medalist is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and capable semi-automatic rimfire pistols ever produced.