Consumer Information

Browning Auto-5: Then and Now 

Browning Auto-5

It’s a good bet that anyone reading this already knows the history of the Browning Auto5 and its variants. That being said, here are some highlights from its rich and intriguing history: 

  • Designed in 1898 by John M. Browning, it was the first semi-auto shotgun ever. 
  • Winchester missed an opportunity to manufacture it by refusing Browning’s terms. 
  • Remington’s president died of a heart attack as Browning waited to offer them the gun. 
  • It became the most practically designed auto-loading shotgun on the market for half a century. 

The Browning Auto5 story is well-known for a reason. It’s a beloved firearm with an even more respected designer. And as fascinating as its history is, many tend to relegate the original Auto5 and its variants to just that: a usable piece of history and not a hard use option for today’s shooters.   

To that, I say that just because youre old doesn’t mean you’re still not a viable option. The Auto-5 and its variants are still every bit of a workhorse they’ve always been. So, after 119 years and countingis the Auto5 still a viable option for today’s shooters? 

The answer is most certainly subjective. So, we’ll leave that to the reader for now. 

Browning Auto-5

Early Competition 

Even though competition today is quite fierce, it wasn’t always that way. The A5 enjoyed unrivaled dominance over the autoloading shotgun market for 50-plus years. Initial competition was slow coming. When competitors did finally bring their ideas to market, they brought their A-game with them, however.  

Competition for the A5 heated up after the Second World War. More sportsmen were interested in autoloading firearms than ever before, and manufacturers began to take note of this. In 1956, both Remington (with the Model 58) and Sears (with the J.C. Higgins Model 60) were the first to enter the market with new groundbreaking designs. Both company’s engineers took a similar approach to the issue that had faced Browning 54 years before: how to get a semiauto shotgun to function reliably with the vastly different loads available. Their answer came in the form of the gasoperated system. 

Changing the System 

Though gas operation had been around for decades, its application to scatterguns was revolutionary. This split the lineage of the auto-loading shotgun’s family tree, one of which spawned the beloved gas-operated systems we cherish today. The family tree would split again in the midtolate 1960s, when a Benelli engineer patented the improved inertiaoperated systemdoing away with recoiling barrels and gas ports altogether. This gave birth to the two main branches of the family tree of todaygasoperated and inertiadriven systems.  

Year after year, these dominate the market, but it’s not puzzling why. Proven performance with years of refinement has, handsdown, produced some outstanding choices for shooters today. So, the question remains: with the wide array of semiautos gracing the shelves today, does the antiquated longrecoil operation still have a place in the field among the most cutting-edge technology?  

Browning Auto-5

Standing Out 

While it is not the lightest or fastest (and not even close to the softest shooting), my answer to the above question is still yes. And here’s why. While better shotguns have been (and will be) produced, this one never stopped being a great one. No other shotgun can bring such class to a dove field than an Auto5 variant. It’s a well-made, beautifully finished firearm that takes one back to a different timeat least that’s what the doubleset screws do for me.  

Nonetheless, it’s very pleasing to the eye and has a history of putting many meals on the table. The Auto5’s level of reliability is quite surprising for the time period in which it was conceived. (This is especially true considering Remington didn’t release the plastic shot shell until 1960, and we all know what excellentquality ammunition can do for reliability in any auto-loading system. But back in 1900, it was a different story and they were willing to accept reliability standards with ammunition that would certainly not be acceptable today.  

Main Pros and Cons 

Despite this, however, being unreliable isn’t much of a real concern with the Auto5 and its variants. What seems to turn most new shooters off to the Auto-5 is the slightly harsher recoil the system produces and the sort of awkward doubleimpulse created by the initial recoil from the shot. Then the mass of internals and barrel meeting the back of the receiver. Finally, everything returns to its place while ejecting and picking up a new shell.  

This process creates a notably different feeling recoil when compared to other shotguns. Surely with some practice and patience, one can wield the Auto5 with great effectivenesshowever, for some it’s just not something they like. Some other issues: 

  • The complexity of disassembly 
  • A slightly confusing friction ring under the handguard 
  • A unique hump being too high for some to get a clear site picture quickly  
  • No chambering for the 3½inch loads 
  • A recommendation that the Belgianmade barrels not fire steel shot 
  • The inability to adjust patterns with the fixed choke models 

While most of these issues can be solved, they still pose real concerns for the sportsman looking to bag multiple species of game with the same gun. 

Browning Auto-5

Worth the Price? 

While many reasons exist now of why not to consider the A5 for a harduse gun. Many reasons still exist why you should. The first being price, especially when compared to the ever-rising numbers on retail tags. The advantage goes to the Auto5 here. With production numbers in the millions and a lifespan of 97 years on the production line, igoes without saying that there are some great deals to be had on these autoloaders compared to other options 

But, keeping price in mind, let’s talk the Belgian barrel swap. Having the ability to replace the barrels on the Belgian models (which are not recommended for steel shot loads) with the Japanesemade invector barrels is a great advantage. However, that option comes at a price and will run you around another $450 dollars new. So, for top performance at the best price out the gate, I would suggest taking a look at the Japanesemade models, which are just as well made and tend to be priced lower than their Belgian brethreneven though the Japanese maintained the same quality while still offering more capability.  

Assembly and Maintenance 

When it comes to the complex disassembly of the Auto-5, there’s no comparing it to the effortless disassembly of today’s best. And this logic makes sense. If it’s easier to get to, you’re more likely to service it more often, thus increasing the life of the system. And while the A5 rarely needs this level of disassembly, enough cannot be said about the need to disassemble, service and check the general health of every part of a weapon you may be depending on.  

While the general maintenance to keep an Auto5 up and running is quite easy, a complete disassembly of one isn’t exactly the simplest task. And, if you are not familiar with the internal workings of this mechanical salsa dance you are holding, I’d suggest leaving it to a professional gunsmith. Thankfully, the Auto5 scores high in reliability because field repairs are virtually nonexistent for the average shooter if the problem is internal.  

More Complex Issues 

The friction ring can pose another slightly confusing element. When used properly, it will increase the life of the system. If used improperly (or not at all) with the wrong load, it will shorten the life. This can scare shooters away before they can fully understand the system—which is quite simple once you understand its uses and functions. This ring is no more than a braking system, basically, that squeezes itself under recoil pressure to create friction and slow down the accelerating bolt and barrel to a reasonable speed before meeting the back of the receiver.  

However, this explanation is just its basic rundown of its functions and there are far better examples of explaining the operation and the proper use for the friction ring with light and heavy loads. So, I would recommend checking out some of those great selections as they go into far greater detail of the friction system than I could ever dream of doing. 

Browning Auto-5

Final Verdict: Browning Auto-5

When comparing today’s cutting-edge autoloaders to the original Auto5on paper it seems hands down to be no contest. How could you compare one of the softestshooting, mostreliable systems man has ever produced to something that turned 80 in the 80s? Well, that’s on paper. The real difference can only be felt. While the original Auto5 doesn’t offer onetwist disassembly and pillowsoft recoil, it does offer a different feeling of warmth to its owner.  

This stems from it being a beautiful example of yesteryears craftsmanship to its shotaftershot reliability and accuracy, while still being able to take on almost any task asked of it. And that’s before you combine a barrel swap with a synthetic stock and forearm, a set of modern highly visible sites and possibly a new scratch and weatherresistant coating. But be it a modernized or traditional, I believe any way you want to run this system it will still offer a worthy competitor to the latest and greatest for the foreseeable future.  


I can only offer the same conclusion as I did in the beginning when it comes to whether the A5 is still a viable harduse option today. It’s subjective. But in my opinion, there are far too many excellent brands and products on the market today to be stuck on just one. It’s a great time to be a shooting enthusiast and with the autoloading systems available today, you almost can’t go wrong with most choices.  

The Auto5, in my opinion, still holds a slot for a harduse field gun any day of the week. I’m certain Browning himself knew how to appreciate improvement and it’s possibly one of the many things that kept driving him forward. If we learn anything from his brilliancewhich is why we’re still talking about him today—it’s that he spent his entire lifetime improving.  Why shouldn’t we?   

What’s your favorite auto-loading shotgun? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (9)

  1. I have three Belgian made Auto 5s two light 12s and a Magnum.

    The biggest problem with the Browning Auto 5 is that the forend wood will eventually crack if you run a lot of shells through them. I don’t care if you have the friction rings set right, it is not a matter of if but WHEN it will crack because there is just not much wood there, especially on the magnum guns. When the forend cracks or splits apart in your hand (yeah I have seen it happen) finding a new or used one that matches the stock will be difficult if not impossible. There is also no way to draw the stock up tight to the receiver on an Auto 5 and eventually if it is shot much the stock will eventually work loose. The Japanese tried to fix the problem of cracking wood forends by putting a bolt through the end of the forend on the later magnum guns but it didn’t work, they still crack.

    Remington largely fixed both of these problems on the 1148 and Sportsman 48 by using a draw bolt to hold the stock on, and a piece of steel inside the forend wood for the barrel lug to meet, rather than it slamming forward against a very thin piece of wood every time the gun is fired. The Remington 48 Sportsman is a nice gun but it does not have the speed load feature and magazine cutoff that Browning introduced on the Auto 5 circa 1953.

    I have no clue why Val Browning didn’t redesign the Auto-5 to fix these problems because he lived for over four decades after the 1148 came out and it would have been a fairly easy fix. All he needed to do was look at what Remington did.

  2. I started shooting the family A5 when I was 10 years old [1951]. I am serious. The shotgun was almost bigger than I was, but that didn’t slow me down. By the time I was 13 and a whopping 100 lb.s I seldom missed a pheasant, rabbit or crow. Ducks were still a bit of a problem, but I didn’t miss that many. By 15 years, I pretty well had their number. I had been introduced to trap, and doubles was my game. 48 of 50 was an average day. 25 for 25 was expected of me. I wish there had been scholastic shooting teams back then.

    I would still be shooting that A5, I have no doubt. But it was stolen with my other firearms my first year in college. I lost several other treasured firearms as well. One was overlooked. My Remington Mdl. 24. Another John M. Browning design that lives to this day in the ATD. I still shoot it occasionally, but only with standard velocity ammo. I have a Belgium ATD I use for rabbits and squirrels. (;>) rgs

  3. Took my 1971 Browning auto 5 Magnum deer hunting today. I have a Benelli Super Black Eagle 2 that I love, but it doesn’t have the Character of my Browning. It has a beauty you seldom see in modern firearms. The hand engraving, beautiful walnut, and distinguished hump back make it my pride and joy. I love hunting woth a firearm older than I am, and I get far more questions and compliments at deer camp than I do about my Benelli.

  4. I’m 65 years old now and inherited my fathers Browning Sweet 16 when he passed years ago. He bought it new I believe in 1952 or 53. I still have a few dozen lead shot of his which I shoot every few years for fun. It’s a fine piece of craftsmanship to just admire visually and appreciate what good quality meant back years gone by.

    Thanks for your article!

  5. My favorite is my A-5 Browning in 12 gauge. I have found the recoil much more tolerable than any pump shotgun I have fired. Mine is like new and occupies a prominent space in my safe. My Dad actually wore-out a Browning Sweet 16 and when a new replacement was not available, bought a new Light 20. It also is a beautiful shotgun and has taken many quail rabbits and squirrels over the years.

  6. My favorite – and only – autoloader is a Beretta A400 Xtreme Optifade with the Kick-off recoil system. It is thoroughly modern, can handle 3-1/2 inch shells, steel shot, and is simple to disassemble and clean.

    That being said, I have nothing against older firearms. One of my most used shotguns is a 1936 Winchester Model 12. It is 16 ga and limited to 2-3/4 inch shells. It has a fixed modified choke, and it can’t handle steel shot. Nonetheless, it is great on upland game. It is a little fiddly to disassemble and clean, but it shoots well and is reliable. They don’t make all of ’em like they used to.

  7. Inherited Remington Mod 11 in 16 Ga. Variable twist choke. Many quail taken by my dad. Sweet shooting. Still runs great. Recoil more pleasant in16 Ga. and can take 90% of a 12 Ga.

  8. I have owned a Belgian Browning Light-12 since it was given to me by my former father-in-law in the 1970s. Lord knows how old it is.

    The shotgun is well-balanced and a pleasure to shoot, although I haven’t shot it since perhaps over twenty years. It rests in my gun safe and, like a few other firearms that have been put out to pasture, I should probably sell it.

  9. As long as it’s still able to function safely, I’m all for using old shotguns (mine is the Remington Sportsman 48, that belonged to my Grandfather, SN shows a 1950 manufacture). The Sportsmans were noted for the crimpedmagazine tube limiting rounds to 2+1. At some point, Grandpa removed the crimp (or had it done) and the gun will now hold 4+1. He also fitted a dowel plug to keep the gun compliant with changing State laws for hunting capacity. Many a pheasant has fallen to that old gun in the 48 years it’s been in my ownership. I see no need to upgrade to a newer gun.

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