The Bristol fighter's basic design stemmed from design studies by Frank Barnwell in March 1916 for an aircraft intended, like the R.E.8 and the F.K.8, as possible replacements for the B.E.2c – the Type 9 R.2A with the 160 hp Beardmore engine and the R.2B, powered by the 150 hp Hispano Suiza. Neither type was built, as the new 190 hp (142 kW) Rolls-Royce Falcon inline engine became available, and Barnwell designed a new aircraft around the Rolls-Royce engine. This, the Type 12 F.2A was a more compact design, intended from the outset as a replacement for the F.E.2d and Sopwith 1½ Strutter two-seat fighters: it first flew on 9 September 1916. The F.2A was armed in what had by then become the standard manner for a British two-seater: one synchronised fixed, forward-firing .303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers machine gun, and one flexible .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis Gun mounted on a Scarff ring in the observer's rear cockpit. This remained the standard armament.
Only 52 F.2As were produced before production switched to what became the definitive Bristol Fighter, the Bristol Type 14 F.2B which had first flown on 25 October 1916. The first 150 or so were powered by the Falcon I or Falcon II engine but the remainder were equipped with the 275 hp (205 kW) Falcon III engine and could reach a maximum speed of 123 mph (198 km/h). The F.2B was over 10 mph (16 km/h) faster than the F.2A and was three minutes faster at reaching 10,000 ft (3,000 m).
F.2Bs often carried a second Lewis gun on the rear cockpit mounting, although observers found the weight of the twin Lewis gun mounting difficult to handle in the high altitudes at which combat increasingly took place in the last year of the war. A number of attempts were made to add forward firing Lewis guns on a Foster mounting or similar on the upper wing - either instead of, or in addition to the Vickers gun. Unfortunately this caused interference with the pilot's compass, which was mounted on the trailing edge of the upper wing. Some F.2Bs were fitted with a Lewis gun offset to starboard to minimise this effect.
The Bristol M.R.1 is often described as an "all-metal version of the F.2b". In fact it was a totally new design – although it shared the characteristic of having the fuselage positioned between the upper and lower wing. Two prototypes were built, the first flying on 23 October 1917, but the M.R.1 never entered mass production.
Rolls-Royce aero engines of all types were in chronic short supply in this period, and the Falcon was no exception. Plans to make the Bristol Fighter the standard British two-seater, replacing the R.E.8 and F.K.8, stalled against this barrier; there simply were not enough Falcons available. Efforts to find an available powerplant that was sufficiently powerful and reliable ultimately failed.
The Type 15 was fitted with a 200 hp (150 kW) Sunbeam Arab piston engine. This motor suffered from chronic vibration and the "Arab Bristol" was never a viable combination, in spite of prolonged development. A few Arab-engined Bristols were at the front very late in the war – but most British reconnaissance squadrons had to soldier on with the R.E.8 and F.K.8 until the end of hostilities.
The Type 16 was fitted with a 200 hp (150 kW) Hispano-Suiza engine. This worked better than the Arab – but the Hispano-Suiza availability was no better than for the Falcon, and the motors that were available were required for the S.E.5a and Sopwith Dolphin. The 300 hp (220 kW) version of the Hispano-Suiza, suggested for the Type 17 was not available in numbers before the end of the war.
Other engines tried or suggested for the F.2B were the 200 hp (150 kW) RAF 4d, the 180 hp (130 kW) Wolseley Viper and the 230 hp (170 kW) Siddeley Puma.
The Type 22 was a proposed version adapted for a radial or rotary engine; either a 200 hp (150 kW) Salmson radial, a 300 hp (220 kW) ABC Dragonfly radial (Type 22A), or a 230 hp (170 kW) Bentley B.R.2 rotary (Type 22B). The type number was eventually used for the Bristol F.2C Badger, a totally new design.
The United States Army Engineering Division had plans to develop and build an American version of the Bristol Fighter. However, efforts to start production in the United States floundered due to the mistaken decision to power the type with the 400 hp (298 kW) Liberty L-12 engine. The Liberty was a totally unsuitable engine for the Bristol, as it was far too heavy and bulky, the resulting aircraft being nose heavy, and only 27 of the planned 2,000 were built. Efforts to change the powerplant of American Bristol Fighters to the more suitable Liberty 8 or the 300 hp (224 kW) Wright-Hisso came up against political as well as technical problems. Only one each of the Hispano-engined Engineering Division USB-1A and the Liberty L-8-engined Engineering Division USB-1B were built.
When fitted with a new plywood monocoque fuselage designed by the Engineering Division of the US Army Air Service and powered by a Wright-Hispano engine, the US-built Bristol Fighter was known as the XB-1A. Three prototypes were built by the Engineering division at McCook Field, with a further 44 aircraft built by the Dayton-Wright Company.
Postwar developments of the F.2B included the Type 14 F.2B Mk II, a two-seat army co-operation biplane, fitted with desert equipment and a tropical cooling system, which first flew in December 1919. 435 were built. The Type 96 Fighter Mk III and Type 96A Fighter Mk VI were structurally strengthened aircraft, of which 50 were built in 1926–1927.
Surplus F.2Bs were modified for civilian use. The Bristol Tourer was an F.2B fitted with a Siddeley Puma engine in place of the Falcon and with the cockpits enclosed by canopies. The Tourer had a maximum speed of 128 mph (206 km/h).