The guns of John Browning

The father of modern firearms

John Moses Browning posing with his M1895 “potato digger,” the revolutionary gas-operated machine gun
(Photo: unknown photographer)

One name we don't mention nearly often enough when discussing World War II is that of a man who died over a decade before it began: John Moses Browning (1855-1926). And yet, Browning deserves recognition for his contribution to far more than just World War II. Often called "the father of modern firearms," Browning pioneered numerous developments in gun design – from pistols through shotguns and rifles to machine guns, from single shot to lever-, pump- and gas-operated weapons, semi- and fully automatic guns – which are still in use today. In fact, it's sometimes claimed that the small arms industry did not have a single disruptive, revolutionary innovation since Browning's work. Today's article is about John Moses Browning and the guns he developed for hunting, defense and war.

John Browning hunting in the 1920s
(Photo: unknown photographer)

It's quite likely that John Browning would never have become a world-famous gunsmith without his father, Jonathan Browning. Jonathan, also a gunsmith, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), and was known as the main gunsmith in the Nauvoo area. While living near Quincy, Illinois, he met a young lawyer called Abraham Lincoln, who reportedly stayed with Jonathan as an overnight guest on at least two occasions. Jonathan invented a sliding breech repeating rifle, also called a "harmonica gun" – while not the first repeating rifle, it demonstrated the concept which later became the modern magazine.

A ”harmonica rifle”
(Photo: topwar.ru)

The Mormons had to flee Illinois in the mid-1840s, starting the great migration to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. Jonathan stayed behind in Iowa and helped outfit Mormon wagon trains with guns and other equipment until 1852, when he moved to Ogden, Utah. As a Mormon polygamist, he fathered 22 children to three wives (and raised two stepdaughters); the most famous of them was John Moses Browning.

John Moses Browning’s father Jonathan. The woman on the right was long believed to be John’s mother Elizabeth Caroline Clark Browning, but more recent research suggests she’s probably his daughter Asenath.
(Photo: browning.com)

John helped out at his father's gun shop from the age of seven. He once recalled: "We ridiculed some of the guns we fixed, and I damned some of them when Pappy wasn't near, but it never occurred to us to make better ones. He was too old, and I was too young." It didn't take long, however, for John to find his passion for gun invention and development. He made his first gun from castaway pieces at the age of 13 (some sources claim 11), and shot three prairie chickens with it for dinner.

His first patent was a self-cocking single-shot rifle designed in 1878 and patented in 1879, the same year his father died. Also in 1878, John co-founded his own company, the John Moses and Matthew Sandefur Browning Company, with one of his brothers. The company, known today as the Browning Arms Company, soon took on several of John's other brothers as employees.

Browning’s shop. John Moses Browning is third from left, the others are some of his brothers except for the person on the right.
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Browning's single-shot rifle caught the attention of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which bought the design for 8,000 dollars. Over the next 20 years, Browning sold numerous shotguns and rifles to Winchester. The most famous of these are the lever-action Model 1894, one of the most popular hunting rifles of all time with over seven and a half million built; and the pump-action Model 1897, also called the Riot Gun or the Trench Gun, which saw service with law enforcement agencies as well as the U.S. military in both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. The M1897 was notable for its ability to be slamfired: the soldier using it could keep pulling on the trigger continuously while working the pump, allowing for a very high rate of fire.

American soldiers shooting at clay pigeons with their M1897 trench guns in France, 1918
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The cooperation between Browning and the Winchester Company ended in 1898. Up to that point, Browning sold his designs for a single fee payment, which got Winchester exclusive rights to produce the gun. In 1898, Browning built a prototype for a semiautomatic shotgun using a new kind of "long recoil" mechanism. He figured that his new invention would prove very popular, and sought to get royalties for the design, rather than a single payment. Winchester did agree to a royalty-based agreement on a previous Browning design which ended up never being produced, but refused to make the same offer this time, ending the long cooperation between Browning and the company. Browning also approached Remington Arms, but the president of the company died of a heart attack while the negotiations were going on, and the plan fell through. (It should be noted that this was not quite the end of Browning’s cooperation with Winchester – the company made many of the Browning Automatic Rifles used during and after World War I.)

Browning had little interest in the actual manufacturing of guns and had to seek another partner after he parted ways with Winchester. That new partner turned out to be Fabrique Nationale de Herstal ("FN"), a major Belgian arms manufacturer, which accepted Browning's terms and named the new shotgun the Browning Automatic 5, better known as Auto-5 or A-5.

John M. Browning with his Auto-5, that gun that caused a rift between him and the Winchester Company
(Photo: unknown photographer)

One of Browning's greatest contributions to gun design was the creation of a successful, viable gas-operated reloading system. When using a lever- or pump-operated gun, the user must manipulate the moving component to eject the spent case and move the next cartridge into the chamber. Recoil-operated guns replaced this with an automatic process powered by the force of the weapon's recoil upon firing. Browning's gas-operated recoil was a further step up, and became the standard for most high-power self-loading firearms. He reportedly came up with the idea during a local shooting competition, where he noticed that the reeds growing between the shooter and the target were pushed back by the blast every shot. Browning set about designing a machine gun where some of the power of the expanding gas was used to load the next cartridge. The result was the tripod-mounted M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun. A later, 1914 version of the gun came with a lower tripod to allow it to be fired from a prone position – this earned the gun the nickname "potato digger," as the gun tended to dig itself into the ground while fired from the low tripod on soft ground.

The later, low-tripod version of the potato digger
(Photo: U.S: Army)

The First World War gave new impetus to weapons development, and many Browning designs ended up on the battlefield. The Browning Automatic Rifle, (Read our earlier article) or simply "BAR," was designed as a lighter, more mobile alternative to the heavy machine guns at the time, intended to give infantry heavy firepower on the move. It came too late to make a difference in the war, but saw much post-war use by the FBI (which used a lighter, commercial version) as well as the criminal underworld. The BAR went on to serve in World War II as a squad-level light machine gun, but it was showing its age by then and failed to keep up with similar weapons of other nations.

Browning (left) discussing the BAR with Mr. Burton, Winchester’s rifle expert
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The water cooled M1917 machine gun saw action in the late days of the war, and, despite their cumbersome weight, some were also used in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It also stayed in service for a while at Fort Benning, Georgia: its ability to shoot for a long time without jamming made it useful for infantry training exercises where M1917s were fired over the heads of crawling trainees.

John Browning’s son, Lieutenant Val A. Browning, demonstrating the use of the M1917 in Europe
(Photo: Army Heritage and Education Center)

The M1919 was a lighter, air-cooled development of the M1917, and became one of World War II's ubiquitous and iconic weapons commonly called the ".30 cal." (Read our earlier article) The .30 cal saw widespread use by infantry forces in World War II, but it truly came into its own as a vehicle-mounted weapon liberally placed on anything from jeeps through tanks to aircraft. Browning also began developing a new, heavier machine gun using .50 caliber rounds. This was originally the M1921 machine gun; Browning died in 1926, but the design was further refined into another World War II icon, the M2 machine gun, also known as the ".50 cal." (Read our earlier article)

A Mk 21 Browning .30 cal used in the Vietnam War
(Photo: Lorenyo / Wikipedia)

Browning also designed development of an even heavier weapon, a 37 mm autocannon. This gun, too, only saw service after his death. The 37 mm Automatic Gun, M4 proved unpopular on airplanes due to the low muzzle velocity and consequently pronounced drop, and was mainly mounted on the Airacobra and Kingcobra fighters. It did find additional use on many patrol torpedo boats (Read our earlier article) that used the gun against Japanese landing barges, and was also recorded as being effective in an air-to-air role when used by the Soviet Union on Lend-Lease aircraft.

The 37 mm autocannon with its distinctive arched magazine on the bow of a PT boat (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Colt M1911 is a smaller but even better-known Browning classic. The powerful and reliable pistol (and its later versions) served as the U.S. military's main sidearm all the way until the mid-1980s.

John Browning continued to work on new guns literally until his death. He died of heart failure on November 26, 1926, while working on a new pistol for FN in the design shop of his son, Val A. Browning. The 9mm semi-automatic gun was eventually finished in 1935, almost a decade after Browning's death, by Belgian arms designer Dieudonné Saive. The gun, popularly known as the Browning Hi-Power, is popular with both sport shooters and military and law enforcement agencies to this day.

A member of an American balloon company holding an M1911 while guarding a downed German pilot in World War I
(Photo: American Rifleman)

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American soldiers in a foxhole in January 1945
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