John Browning was the most prolific firearms designer in the United States and perhaps the world. He lived in a time when the firearm was coming into the modern age, and his impact on the principles of firearm design helped to shape the growth of the modern firearm industry. In fact many people feel that Browning WAS the basis for the modern age of firearms! Some of his designs would be used for 100 years and many are still in use today.
John Browning was more interested in creating his designs than the manufacturing business, and he sold his designs off to dedicated firearms manufacturing firms. Thus, some of his designs do not bear his name, but they bear his indelible style. A Remington Model 11 is a Browning Auto-5 by any other name; the same shotgun but with a different manufacturer.
John was born in 1855; one of his Mormon father’s 22 children. While working in his father’s gun shop in Ogden, UT he began to create his own designs and show promise in building firearms at the early age of 14. After his father’s death in 1879, he and four other brothers formed a new gun shop and quickly had so much work that they could not keep up with demand due to lack of capital for equipment. John was frustrated because the hard work at the shop gave him no time to develop new designs.
One day, a salesman from Winchester firearms bought one of John’s single-shot rifles and sent it to the home office. The general manager quickly negotiated for the manufacturing rights which Browning quickly sold for $8,000, using the capital set up his own shop for design work rather than a factory. This began a long term association between Browning and Winchester which lasted until he had a licensing disagreement with them and left for Belgium. From 1883 until 1902, John designed many firearms for the Winchester Company. Five of these designs became best sellers.
Unfortunately for Winchester, they made a poor decision in refusing to go along with Browning’s manufacturing license-royalty stipulations for one of the all time great shotgun designs, the Auto 5. Browning simply packed up his goods and went to Belgium where he designed for Fabrique Nationale Herstal located in Liege, Belguim, thus ending his long and productive partnership with Winchester.
Probably the most widely known and recognized of Browning’s firearms is the Model 1911 Colt. The 1911 is undoubtedly the most copied firearm design ever. It is interesting to note that is not called the 1911 Browning. He was working for Colt at the time and they bought the rights to his new design. The name 1911 was for the year it was introduced for manufacturing. Browning had some prototypes named the 1903 and 1908 that were the basis of the 1911. Of course, he had designed other successful pistols for Colt while he was there such as the famous Colt 1903 .380 Pocket Model and Colt Woodsman .22 Long Rifle automatic pistols.
Virtually every firearms manufacturer today has at least one version of the 1911 in their lineup, and most have quite a number of varieties. This historic pistol has fought in just about every war since it was introduced in 1911 and is still in use with the US military in some specialty areas. It is carried by police, bodyguards, and private citizens for both offensive and defensive use and can be found in a variety of calibers apart from the original .45 ACP.
The most amazing thing about the 1911 is how perfect it was from the beginning of production. Nothing really required a change, but it got a few comments for improvement after WWI and by 1926 they were incorporated as mentioned later. These changes were hardly worth making for the most part. In fact, some still prefer the flat mainspring housing and the original design in general.
However perfect the design was, it still underwent some changes in between the drawing board that resulted in the 1911 design we have all come to love.
In 1906, the US Army announced it was looking for a new handgun and caliber to replace the .38 revolver that had been in use for years. John Browning, working for Colt at that time, already had a semiautomatic model in development that he entered in the trials. It fired a new caliber round he had developed that was similar to the .38 Super Automatic, but changed it to accommodate the cartridge the Army wanted, the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP). During the initial selection process, eight models were assessed.
By 1907, the Browning-Colt entry was selected along with the Savage entry for further evaluation. Colt engineers worked with Browning to perfect his entry in the testing, making sure every part was made in the best possible manner. In the trials, Browning’s pistol was fired 6000 rounds with cleanings and cooling periods every 100 rounds in that test phase, then fired with various deformed rounds, rusted in acid, dipped in mud and sand, and went through even more torture tests. It came through with flying colors as it never misfired or broke a part. In fact, the competitor’s entry was practically destroyed in the same process. The final analysis of Browning’s entry is as follows:
“Of the two pistols, the board was of the opinion that the Colt is superior, because it is more reliable, more enduring, more easily disassembled when there are broken parts to be replaced, and more accurate.”
During the trial process, several changes were made to the initial design including changing to a single swinging link, an improved manual safety, adding a grip safety, and a slide stop. The other significant change was to the grip area of the frame, which was angled more acutely and slightly longer than Browning’s first design. These improvements totally changed the appearance of the original design from one resembling the Colt Pocket Model on steroids to the venerable 1911 we know today. On March 29, 1911, the Colt pistol was selected as the official sidearm of the US Armed Forces. Thus, the name of the pistol became the “Model of 1911 US Army.”
For WWI, production of the Colt 1911 ran as high as 1,000 units in May, 1918, to 2,200 units PER DAY in the summer of 1918! This is the total of both Colt and Springfield Armory which helped ease the wartime production crunch.
Total 1911’s made by the end of 1918 was 602,153 complete units.
A short list of improvements were made after WWI starting in June, 1926. At that time, the 1911 was designated the 1911A1. Changes were as follows:
- Arched and checkered mainspring housing
- Longer grip-safety spur
- Relief cuts around the trigger housing
- Shorter trigger with knurled face
- Wider front and rear sights
By WWII, John Browning had already passed on. However, his design would grow to even greater fame in that conflict. A number of manufacturing contracts were let to support the wartime demand. These contractors were Singer Sewing Machine, Remington Rand, Union Switch and Signal, Ithaca, and of course Colt firearms. WWII production of the 1911A1 was about 2.5 million units.
The 1911 was made under contract outside the country in places like Norway and Argentina, and as knock-offs in countries all around the world. Many different variations on the basic government model were released, such as the National Match (later the Gold Cup), Combat Commander, and too many others to list. Since the patents have expired on the design, just about any manufacturer can produce their version of the 1911 pistol.
John Browning would be very pleased and proud of his design, as the Model 1911 has been in use almost 100 years. It is virtually a tour-de-force in the handgun world and will never be matched by any other pistol in its history making achievements. This is not the obituary for the 1911 either. For many years to come tt will continue on in the civilian world as one of the most popular models to buy for sport, competition, and self-defense use.
Browning Auto 5 Shotgun
Another of John Browning’s great designs is the Auto 5 auto-loading shotgun. It is perhaps one of the strongest, most durable semi-automatic shotgun designs ever made. Produced for almost 100 years, it was the first mass-produced semi-automatic shotgun and the second best selling semi-automatic shotgun in the US after the Remington 1100. John Browning considered it his best achievement. First designed in 1888 and patented in 1900, it revolutionized the shotgun world. It is estimated that over three million copies of the Auto 5 have been made worldwide. Noted nickname of the Auto 5 is “Humpback” due to the squared-off rear end of the receiver.
This is the firearm that caused the split between long-time partners (19 years) Winchester and Browning. Winchester refused his terms for licensed production and royalties and he took his design elsewhere. Browning went to Remington next, but while he was waiting in the office for his appointment, Remington’s president had a heart attack. (Remington would later produce the Auto 5 under another designation, the Model 11, when tariffs made it unfeasible to import from FN). One month later, he then took it to Fabrique Nationale Herstal in Liege, Belgium where they gladly accepted the offer. This put the struggling FN Company on the map and the rest is history, as the saying goes. Except for a break during the WWII Nazi invasion, FN produced the Auto 5 for Browning continuously until 1977.
In 1977, The Browning Company chose to move production of the Auto 5 to Miroku, Japan where production continued until the model was discontinued in 1999. High cost of production is generally given as the reason for dropping the Auto 5.
The interesting feature of this design is that the barrel recoils back with each round fired, thus cycling the bolt to recock, eject, and load shells on each stroke. This is referred to as a long-recoil action and was the first of its type. The receiver also features a magazine cut-off lever to permit single shot operation, if desired, even with a fully loaded magazine tube. The amount of recoil is controlled by a set of friction rings that can be situated to provide more or less recoil, depending on the shooter’s needs and desires. The friction ring concept was one of the small, but important details that led to the initial success of the Auto 5 since it served to smooth-out the rather unreliable charge level of early smokeless powder shot-shells.
Over the years, 12, 16, and 20 gauge and many special versions have been produced. Browning introduced the “Final Tribute” version in 1999 as the last model under regular production. The 20 gauge Auto 5 is still available from the Browning Custom Shop.
It is interesting to note that Browning himself bought the first 10,000 Auto 5’s off the FN line to sell in the US market. He sold all of them within only 12 months.
Winchester 1894 Lever-Action Rifle
This is another all time classic rifle in use for over 100 years and probably has been used to bag and tag more deer in the US than any other firearm. The Winchester 1894 lever-action rifle was designed by Browning when he was on good terms with Winchester. Winchester sold this model until they stopped producing firearms in 2006. It is most famous in the original caliber of .30 WCF (Winchester Center Fire). Oddly enough, Marlin renamed the round the .30-30 to avoid putting the Winchester name on a Marlin product. To their credit, the name caught on and .30-30 Winchester is how the round is referred to these days.
This lever-action rifle, also known by the name “Model 94,” was a gamble for Winchester because it was the first Winchester to chamber the “new-fangled” smokeless powder cartridge. This gamble paid off for the Winchester Company as it was a huge success. This was the first civilian sporting firearm to sell 1 million copies and has sold over seven million copies to date.
Browning M2 .50 Machine Gun
Known as the “Ma Deuce” or simply “Fifty Cal”, the M2 is perhaps the perfect heavy machine gun. It has served not only as a heavy gun on tanks, for infantry on M3 tripods, for defense and offense on boats and ships, but has been installed on countless aircraft from WWII to almost the present day. It is just another of the timeless Browning designs. Not only did John Browning develop the firearm, but the .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG) round as well! It is hard to get a handle on the power of this cartridge, but it can be aimed and accurately delivered to targets at ranges of 0.5 to 1.5 miles. Quite impressive when you stop to let that sink in.
In 1918, 4-star General Pershing requested a heavy machinegun be made to be effective against aircraft, tanks, and armored cars. This request was passed down to Colt and then to John Browning. John basically enlarged the M1917 .30 caliber gun to accept the .50 caliber round. Browning also based the new cartridge on a scaled-up .30-06 round. Both concepts came together well as the .50 M2 machine gun is a potent combination of firearm and cartridge.
The new gun was first tagged the Model 1921 .50 caliber and was water-cooled and belt fed. This was the primary anti-aircraft gun for the Infantry and Navy. This design was modified further to accept air-cooled barrels which were found to be too light for sustained fire. This was designated the M2 Heavy Machine Gun. Later, the lighter barrels were replaced with a very heavy model and the gun retagged the M2HB (Heavy Barrel). In 1938, the barrel changed again, this time in length. The longer barrel M2HB provided increased range and energy and was fitted to just about every US aircraft in WWII, to the tune of just under 2 million copies between 1941 and 1945.
A great compliment was paid to the M2 by none other than Luftwaffe Field Marshal Herman Goring (warmly known to his enemies as “the fat man”), he said, “If the German Air Force had had the Browning .50-caliber, the Battle of Britain would have turned out differently.”
After WWII, the M2 continued to serve not only US forces, but was accepted in militaries around the world. It is still in wide use including in the US armed forces.
After almost 90 years of service, the U.S. Army has moved to replace the M2. Three prototypes of a lightweight .50-caliber machine gun have been produced by General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products and weighs about one-half of the current .50-caliber M2HB. According to General Dynamics, it fires with less recoil and greater accuracy than the M2. Even with this new development, the M2 will still be in service for several more years.
Browning Hi-Power Automatic Pistol
The Browning Hi-Power pistol was initially developed by Browning in 1922, but did not reach production until some years after his death. It is quite an attractive pistol and was perhaps the first pistol to utilize the double-stack magazine for high capacity in a fairly compact space. This was a staple of the FN Company for many years. It seems that Browning’s designs put meat and potatoes on the table for FN like they did for Winchester.
The Hi-Power began as a request by the French military for FN to design them a new pistol with specific requirements; the caliber being 9mm and capacity being at least 10 rounds. FN, in turn, passed the design work to John Browning. John had a design that was successful in the 1911, but that was patented by Colt Firearms. Thus, he had to come up with another pistol design. Carefully working to avoid any 1911 designs, he laid out 2 basic models; one a blowback and the other a locking-breech recoil design. A new concept was the staggered-magazine design which allowed twice the capacity in little more space than a single-stack magazine. The locking breech recoil design was selected for further development. By 1934, the design had been finalized and was ready for production as the Browning P-35. Strangely enough, by this time France had gone with another firearm and backed out of the deal, but Belgium decided to go with the new Browning-FN design for its military in 1935.
While John Browning laid out the basic design and concept in 1922, it was up to FN designer Dieudonne’ Saive to complete the work on the Hi-Power. Saive became FN’s chief designer after Browning’s death and would later design the FN-49 and FAL rifles.
The Hi-Power derives its name from the high capacity magazine that holds 13 rounds. This was double the fire power of contemporary handguns at the time; quite an achievement.
It is interesting to note that the Hi-Power served on both sides of WWII combatants. It was also produced for the Nazi forces after the FN plant was taken captive in 1940. So, it is possible to add one to your collection that has the Nazi acceptance stamps and “dirty birds” if you are an avid collector.
Hi-Powers were also made in Canada by John Inglis and Company for Allied forces during WWII. It is still in service in a number of standard and covert or special ops military forces as well as police departments worldwide.
We can only assume that John Browning had too many other irons in the fire at the time to flesh-out this great pistol before he passed on.
Browning 1919 .30 Machine Gun
The Model 1919 medium machine gun is still in use by some countries around the world. It was originally designed for the venerable .30-06 Springfield cartridge but over the years has been updated to the 7.62 NATO cartridge. It saw use for the US military in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Like its bigger brother, the .50 M2, it has been used in just about every configuration imaginable for infantry, fixed wing aircraft and choppers, tanks, boats, and more.
The 1919 is the air-cooled derivative of the Model 1917 water-cooled machine gun of WWI, also designed by Browning. The 1919M2 (not to be confused with the .50 M2) was the aircraft version and was considerably lighter and had a much faster rate of fire. Model 1919A4 was the most widespread version and saw use by infantry as well as it was mounted on Jeeps, tanks, and ships.
The 1919 served well, but was ultimately replaced in the late 50’s and early 60’s by the M60 machine gun, which was designed around the 7.62 NATO round.
Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
One of the longest used light machine guns for the Army is the BAR. It served from the end of WWI to the Vietnam War era and at least one Depression Era gangster chose it as his favorite sidearm. Clyde Barrow stole one from a National Guard Armory, cut it down for his special purposes and was always considered extremely dangerous to lawmen with this weapon in his hands. One of the lawmen that ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in Louisiana used a Colt Monitor to cut them down. The Monitor is a police version of the BAR.
The final version of the BAR came in 1939 and saw its greatest success from that time forward. It was somewhere in the middle zone for a light machine gun since it was a bit hard to hold down under full auto fire and had too small a magazine to keep intense fire on the enemy. However, like all Browning’s designs, it was always fully functional and reliable. Every Army squad in WWII had a BAR carrier. Due to its bulk and heft, (19 pounds), it was usually assigned to the largest man in the squad.
The BAR fired the .30-06 cartridge which was the basis for the US Military small arms for the first half of the 20th Century and carried over for another 25 years. The BAR was a real threat to German as well as Japanese troops as it could be quickly brought into play on any enemy position with its devastating high rate of fire.
The BAR served as the inspiration to create improved versions or perhaps “knock-off” light machine guns in several European countries after WWII.
Undoubtedly playing on the success of the military BAR, Browning Firearms Company used that name for a highly successful sporting rifle, the BAR. It is offered in several calibers and has enjoyed the same great reputation of its military namesake. Gas operation and fair heft serve to make the sporting BAR a nice mount for larger magnum calibers because it takes the “sting” out of the .300 and .338 Winchester Magnums.
Browning Superposed Shotgun
This is the last design John M Browning was working on when he died at the FN factory in Liege, Belgium. He was in Val Browning’s office, probably discussing the still-undecided single-trigger system for the Superposed, when he died of a heart attack at age 71. Val Browning worked to finalize his father’s design and the Superposed went into production in 1931 with a double trigger. Val continued to work on a single trigger and selector which his father wanted to see in the shotgun. In 1939, these improvements were introduced. Production was stopped during the Nazi invasion of WWII in 1940 and resumed postwar in 1948. The Superposed continued to be produced through the years and underwent various changes and improvements. 1976 was the last year for the Superposed to be produced for Browning Firearms due to very high production costs, but FN continued to produce it for the European market.
A very similar over-under design, the Citori, was introduced by Browning and produced by Miroku Firearms, Japan, in 1973 and continues in the Browning line today. The Citori is a lighter, scaled-down, less-expensive-to-produce model of the Superposed.
For the very deep pockets out there, Browning still offers the Superposed through the Custom Shop under the model name B25.
The Superposed shotgun, also known as the over-under shotgun, was an innovation in the shotgun world and it was Browning’s aim to make it cheap enough for the common man to own. His design is still a favorite today. Previously, only the landowning gentry could afford such a grand design. John Browning’s design was something of a boat-anchor, but it certainly took any punishment handed out in the field. Superposed guns will probably last many life times and are true family treasures to be passed down for generations.
Many firearm historians will argue that John Moses Browning was, and still is to this day, the world’s greatest firearms designer. The firearms described here are just a few of his works of genius. Much more can be learned about Browning and his other designs both in the many publications available and countless online sites. Take the time to study Browning, as it is likely that you own, have owned, or will own a firearm based off of his timeless designs.