It’s a good bet that anyone reading this already knows the history of the Browning Auto–5 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 Auto–5 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 Auto–5 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 you’re 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 counting, is the Auto–5 still a viable option for today’s shooters?
The answer is most certainly subjective. So, we’ll leave that to the reader for now.
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 auto–loading 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 semi–auto shotgun to function reliably with the vastly different loads available. Their answer came in the form of the gas–operated 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 mid–to–late 1960s, when a Benelli engineer patented the improved inertia–operated system, doing away with recoiling barrels and gas ports altogether. This gave birth to the two main branches of the family tree of today: gas–operated and inertia–driven systems.
Year after year, these dominate the market, but it’s not puzzling why. Proven performance with years of refinement has, hands–down, produced some outstanding choices for shooters today. So, the question remains: with the wide array of semi–autos gracing the shelves today, does the antiquated long–recoil operation still have a place in the field among the most cutting-edge technology?
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 Auto–5 variant. It’s a well-made, beautifully finished firearm that takes one back to a different time—at least that’s what the double–set screws do for me.
Nonetheless, it’s very pleasing to the eye and has a history of putting many meals on the table. The Auto–5’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 excellent–quality 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 Auto–5 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 double–impulse 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 Auto–5 with great effectiveness, however, 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 3½–inch loads
- A recommendation that the Belgian–made 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.
Worth the Price?
While many reasons exist now of why not to consider the A5 for a hard–use 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 Auto–5 here. With production numbers in the millions and a lifespan of 97 years on the production line, it goes 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 Japanese–made 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 Japanese–made models, which are just as well made and tend to be priced lower than their Belgian brethren—even 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 Auto–5 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 Auto–5 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.
Final Verdict: Browning Auto-5
When comparing today’s cutting-edge auto–loaders to the original Auto–5, on paper it seems hands down to be no contest. How could you compare one of the softest–shooting, most–reliable 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 Auto–5 doesn’t offer one–twist disassembly and pillow–soft recoil, it does offer a different feeling of warmth to its owner.
This stems from it being a beautiful example of yesteryear’s craftsmanship to its shot–after–shot 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 weather–resistant 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 hard–use 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 auto–loading systems available today, you almost can’t go wrong with most choices.
The Auto–5, in my opinion, still holds a slot for a hard–use 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 brilliance—which 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.