Vic Harker describes the life and legacy of history’s greatest gun inventor
For better or worse, guns are central to the American story, and John Browning is a major character in it. At the time of his death he owned 128 patents for 80 different firearms and had sold many other designs to the major manufacturers, including Winchester, Remington, Colt and Savage, not to mention Fabrique Nationale in Belgium.
His father, also christened John Moses, was a gunmaker who had converted to the Mormon faith in 1840. It was for that reason, and the persecution the Mormons were subjected to, that obliged John Browning and his wife to move to new homes on several occasions. This was always westward until finally in 1852 they settled in the town of Ogden in Utah territory. In 1855, their first child was born – and he would eventually become the greatest inventor in the history of firearm design.
The Browning’s family business comprised a gun and repairs shop that flourished in Ogden. People were moving into the Utah territory in increasing numbers, but the West was still wild and reliable firearms were essential to the migrant’s survival.
A major contribution to the prosperity of the region’s burgeoning population was the coming of the railroad. It was the State’s good fortune that seven years after the project to build America’s first transcontinental railway had begun, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific’s tracks were joined at Promontory Point, 26 miles from Ogden, in May 1869. The railroad changed the American west forever, bringing people and civilisation to a wilderness within little more than a generation. Most importantly, for the Brownings, it provided access to the markets of the east with an ever-growing population that was open to all things new and improved – and that included guns.
In 1878, John Browning was 23 years old and the family gunsmithing business was growing fast. In that year, the JM Browning company was formed and established in Ogden. At the same time, John Browning was working on his first design, and though repeating rifles, from Winchester in particular, were very popular, his first gun was a single-shot.
Winchester’s Model 73 lever-action repeater may have won the west, but it was not sufficiently robust to digest large calibre ammunition for American big game such as deer and elk. John Browning’s falling block rifle design in 45.70 calibre in 1879, which was immensely strong and supremely accurate at long range, was the answer.
In 1882, Andrew McAusland, a Winchester salesman, brought Browning’s gun to the attention of the management in New Haven. Oliver Winchester’s son-in-law TG Bennett wasted no time and took the long train journey to Ogden. Directed to the Browning shop, Bennett was told the proprietor was working upstairs. But after inspecting for himself, Bennett returned to the ground floor immediately and stated there was no one upstairs except for two workmen. Reassured that these two workmen were John Browning and his brother Ed, Bennett made himself known and on behalf of Winchester he purchased the patent for Browning’s single-shot rifle and a number of finished guns for $8,000.
This was only the beginning of John Browning’s collaboration with Winchester, which included development work on their existing models and creating new designs for them to manufacture under the Winchester brand. In 1884, Browning was granted a patent for a new stronger lever action that incorporated into the Winchester Model 1886, providing it with the capacity to chamber more powerful loads, including the 45.70 government round.
The Browning-Winchester partnership continued with the Model 92, the slickest lever action rifle ever made, and for that reason has featured in thousands of Western films. This was followed by the Model 94, which remains in the Winchester line to this day. The Model 1895, with a box magazine, was perhaps the ultimate lever action rifle chambered for military and big game rounds. A favourite of Theodore Roosevelt who was to become America’s president, he took the Model 95 to Africa and used it with great success on various big game.
Repeating arms of all kinds were of special interest to John Browning and his contribution to the development of the pump-action shotgun and the semi-automatic was profound. The Model 93, with its exposed hammer and side ejection, was an example but a revised version in the form of Model 97 was even better, as it incorporated modifications to improve its function with the recently introduced smokeless ammunition.
It was, however, Browning’s design for his Auto 5 shotgun that represented a major milestone in his inventive career. Based on a long recoil action it was the first of its kind and patented by John Browning in 1900. The cartridges are loaded into a tubular magazine under the barrel. When a chambered round fires, the barrel and the bolt recoil simultaneously for a fraction longer than the spent case and the hammer is recocked. As the barrel returns forward the bolt remains behind sufficiently long enough to eject the fired cartridge. The bolt then returns forward and feeds another cartridge from the magazine into the action.
Browning considered the A5 his masterpiece, but as usual offered the design to Winchester who, until then, had purchased most of his work. In this instance, however, Browning insisted on royalties from sales of the Auto 5 as it became known, instead of a one-off payment for the design, but Winchester’s boss TG Bennett rejected this arrangement. Browning then offered the A5 to Remington, but the company’s president died suddenly before the scheduled meeting could take place.
Without further hesitation Browning went to see Fabrique Nationale in Belgium, which was already producing a successful design for one of his automatic pistols of his design and was already a success. The Auto 5 as it came to be known was an even bigger success. Manufactured by FN in Belgium, then also by Remington in the US as the Model 11, and eventually by Miroku in Japan, during the 20th century, more than two million of Browning’s auto shotguns have been produced.
In 1991, I was Browning’s European marketing manager and met the company’s president Yves Ragougneau at the Miroku plant in Japan. The Auto 5 was being manufactured and assembled in a small building separate from the main plant. My boss revered this gun and as he was shortly to retire, Miroku wished to make him a present of a special commemorative shotgun of his choosing – Yves chose a custom engraved Auto 5 from one of the gun’s last production runs.
While John Browning considered the Auto 5 to be his masterpiece, many admirers would argue in favour of the B25. In my view, his over-and-under doesn’t reflect the original thinking the Auto 5 represents, but it does demonstrate John Browning’s far sightedness. While the over-and-under shotgun was being produced in tiny numbers by European makers at a high cost, Browning foresaw its mass market potential by combining a number of well-tried principles and incorporating them into something highly desirable, but above all affordable.
As an American from a nation of riflemen, he would have foreseen the over-and-under, as opposed to the side-by-side, was the way to go. Its combination of an uncluttered view of the target, which the single sighting plane provides, would be familiar to them and outweigh any claims that could be made for the side-by-side. As for the all-important jointing of the barrels to the action, an issue that gave many great gunmakers sleepless nights, Browning simply adapted the form of bolting that had already been devised for the side-by-side gun. The barrels pivot on a full width hinge pin, and jointing is provided by extensions under the barrels’ breech ends, which gunmakers call lumps – they are machined to locate with bearing surfaces through the bottom of the action body.
On closure of the gun a full width tapered locking bolt operated off the top lever moves forward under the breech face and locates in a reciprocating slot machined in the rear lump. The deep action this arrangement created was not a concern to Browning and neither was it to the tens of thousands of shooters who eventually bought his Superposed, as he called it. The B25 ejector work was equally positive and robust, combining excellent primary extraction and powerful ejection that even today no other over-and-under design quite equals. That the trigger mechanism matches the rest of the Browning design in function and reliability, we must thank Val Browning – the great gunmaker’s son who perfected it after his father’s untimely death.
In 1991 I had the opportunity to do just that. At a product development meeting at the Browning offices in Morgan, Utah. I spotted the iconic photograph of a young Lieutenant Val Browning in First World War US Army uniform with the Browning BAR automatic rifle in his hands. “Val Browning” I said, just to acknowledge that I recognised the picture, and one of the Americans told me that he still visited the office. I did not quite fall out of my chair but I was more than surprised having presumed Val Browning had died some years before. “I have to meet him” I blurted out – it was a chance of a lifetime to meet this historic figure.
Later that same day I knocked on Val Browning’s office door. He was seated at his desk, and like his father, his large domed head was bald, the blue eyes were deep set and thoughtful. He spoke quietly in the well-modulated tones of an educated man. He asked me who I’d worked for before I joined Browning. “Winchester”, I replied. “Ah yes, Winchester,” Browning continued. “We had some problems with them but that was long ago.”
To what he was referring I didn’t ask, I had not had time to prepare any questions to ask him and in any case I was not a writer then, my sole purpose was to actually meet the man whose life and work in the firearms industry was a source of great historical significance. He was interested in news of the Browning production at Herstal in Belgium as he had managed it from 1920 to 1935. In that period it would have included the B25, A5, a semi-automatic hunting rifle and a number of pistols as well as military weapons. In later life his commitment to the arts and sciences, most particularly his love of music. which he acquired attending operas and concerts during his stay in Belgium, was demonstrated in the generous donations he made over the years to a number of distinguished institutions.
Of this aspect of his life I knew nothing at that time. What did seem to me later and what has stayed with me ever since, was his kindness and generosity in meeting me at all. What is written of his father by people who worked with him at the Winchester factory describes him as a humble and kindly man who would ask the operatives how to work the various machines, which he would grasp in an instant. I’m inclined to believe his son was very like him. Val Browning died about two years after our meeting, he was then aged 98.