John Moses Browning The Father of the Modern Firearm

Text and photo: Jens Ulrik Høgh

Vast tomes seem to have been written about just about every personality in the world of hunting, and most of these books are based on abundant source material – often straight from the horse’s mouth. However, when it comes to one of the most influential figures in our firearms history, everything that has been written is based on secondary sources. This is the incredible story of a true genius of gun design, a man whoabhorred attention and fame. Itis a little unclear whether it was on the 21st or 23rd of January 1855 that John Moses Browning first saw the light of day. He was born in the small town of Ogden in the newly established State ofUtah. His 50-year-old father, Jonathan Browning, had been baptized into the relatively new Church of Mormon 13 years earlier, and had gone to the new territories of the Wild West to search for a sanctuary where the family could practise its faith without persecution. He set up shop as anironmonger and gunsmith in the town of Ogden and took a second wife, as was customary for pious Mormons. John Moses was the first child from this relationship, and 21 years later, when his father produced his last child with his third wife, his siblings numbered 22. Ogden was almost totally isolated from the outside world during John Moses’s childhood. All transport in and out of the town was by horse-drawn wagon over a long and dangerous trail through the wilderness. Bad weather, hostile natives and wild animals all presented hazards to travellers. The town’s school had just one teacher, who taught all the children together in a single, large classroom. Other than this, John Moses never received any formal education. John Moses started to help out in his father’s workshop at the tender age of six, and also worked inthe family’s tannery. Even from this early age, it was working with guns that captured the young boy’s interest. At 10 years old he managed to cobble together a functional gun, which he then used for hunting. As the years went by, he developed his skills by undertaking repairs to customers’ guns that increased in number and complexity. An inventor’s debut In 1878, the 23-year-old John Moses, who was now responsible for running the workshop, came up with an idea for a single-shot rifle. He immediately began working on drawings and models and just 11 months later he had a fully working prototype in his hands. The rifle performed much better than any other rifle on the market, and it was clear to the young inventor that this new rifle should bepatented. He had no idea how to go about patenting his invention however, sohe turned to a supplier of agricultural machinery the Browning family hardware store had business dealings with. This supplier was kind enough to refer John Moses to the correct patent office and by 1879 J. M. Browning received the first of many patents. The Browning brothers immediately started to manufacture this new rifle. When it went on display in the shop, 25 of the guns were sold in a week for the princely $25 each! The success inspired the brothers to open a shop specialising in hunting equipment and guns. During the next few years, things went incredibly well for John Moses, but he lacked the capital to develop all his ideas. The solution came from an unexpected direction. One day in 1883, a travelling salesman for Winchester found a used example of one of Browning’s rifles, which he immediately bought for $15. He presented this rifle to Winchester’s board ofdirectors, and within a week the board had decided to attempt to buy the production rights to the firearm, which had impressed them deeply. It was none other than Winchester’s managing director, T.G. Bennet, who was sent on the journey out West. His mission was to negotiate for the production rights with the totally unknown firm “The Browning Company”.

Bennet arrived unannounced and found the Browning brothers working hard at their machines. Hegot straight to the point, negotiations for the production rights took place over the shop counter, and a contract was signed there and then. Browning gave Winchester the full rights to his single-shot rifle for the staggering sum of $8,000, equivalent to around $750,000 today. This money enabled Browning to really start expressing his creativity.

Browning photos pictures ambiance atmosphere john moses browning

“Like shit from a shovel”

When John Moses was working on one of his inventions, he worked on the whole process from the initial idea to the prototype himself. He sometimes produced technical drawings and small wooden or cardboard models, but usually he quickly started to produce functional prototypes, which would then be subjectedto all kinds of testing and even outright abuse. At times he found it difficult toobtain materials and equipment for his workshop, sohe used whatever he could get hold of. Amongst other things he used a great deal of scrap metal, which he would then harden and heat-treat – skills he had mastered to perfection. He often took part in shooting competitions – and was one of Utah’s best trap shooters – and he took great pleasure in the rich hunting grounds around Ogden. Hunting gave him a welcome opportunity to unwind after long periods of hard work – a “chance to blow away the cobwebs”asheput it. But his trips into the wilderness also provided the ideal opportunity to test and refine hisdesigns. Only when John Moses was completely satisfied with the prototype would the design becommitted to paper and patented. Shortly after his first dealings with Winchester, Browning was ready with his next weapon; a lever-action rifle. He decided to present this rifle to Winchester himself, and at 29 years old, he travelled outside the State of Utah for the first time. Winchester bought the rifle on the spot for an incredible $50,000. The company regarded it as, quite simply, the world’s best rifle design, and it subsequently became known as the Winchester Model 1886. One year later Browning delivered the next gun in the series – a lever-action shotgun – now known as the Winchester Model 1887. In just three years, Browning had produced three unique weapon designs, all of which sold very well for Winchester.

A man of faith

In the light of the incredible success it may seem strange that in 1887 – just as his career asaninventor was really taking off –he agreed to accept the position as a full-time missionary for the Church of Mormon. Nevertheless, he packed his bags and moved to Georgia for two years to spread the word. That the inventor’s brain was working on more than the Word of God during his time as a missionary is suggested by the fact that when John Moses returned to his workshop in Utah he was more productive than ever. One design after another was produced at a frantic pace. On one occasion, Winchester asked him to design a new lever-action rifle specifically of the calibre .44-40, and promised him a bonus of $10,000 if he could deliver a completed design and a working prototype within three months. Just one month later, the prototype of Model 1892 was finished –and this included the time it took to deliver the new rifle to Winchester and return to Ogden. Inother words he conceived, manufactured, tested and refined his new designin just 20 days! Winchester gave him $20,000 for his troubles. The co-operation with Winchester worked astoundingly well for both parties. Between 1883 and 1900, Winchester bought the rights to a total of 44 different gun designs. Far from all of them were put into production, but those that were proved incredibly popular. In 1900, Browning received a patent for a long recoil-operated, semi-automatic shotgun, a design that had taken more hard work to develop than any of his previous inventions. To get an automatic weapon to work with widely differing loads was by no means a simple task, but nonetheless Browning’s solution worked very well, and he believed that this design would be a great success. Bennet was not of the same opinion and believed that conservative American hunters would not accept a complicated automatic weapon. He was not willing to put it into production. Browning mulled over this for a couple of years, after which he went to Bennet’s office and demanded that Bennet start production on the semi-automatic, and said he should receive royalties for every gun produced. This was met with a blank refusal, and after a brief altercation, John Moses picked up his prototype and left. It marked the end of the fruitful partnership between him and Winchester.

New pastures

More than anything else in the world, Browning wanted his new shotgun put into production. Thus he arranged a meeting with the managing director of Remington, Marcellus Hartley, who must have regarded the chance to work with the world’s leading gun designer as a great opportunity. But fate intervened. When Browning arrived at Hartley’s office, he was greeted by a shocked secretary: Hartley had died just a few minutes earlier from a heart attack. The Remington Arms Company now had a lot to think about, and J.M. Browning was not known for his patience. He took his designs and the prototype and left shortly afterwards on a steamer bound for Belgium. He wanted production of his new weapon to start as quickly as possible! A few years earlier, he had sold the rights to a small automatic pistol to the large Belgian weapons manufacturer Fabrique Nationale (FN). This pistol had been a great success in Europe, and the factory had repeatedly expressed its desire for greater co-operation. FN now had that chance with the new shotgun. The Belgians embraced this opportunity with open arms. The factory, which had been built toproduce weapons for Belgium’s armed forces, was experiencing difficulties – a revolutionary new product might save them. Browning underlined his faith in his new design by placing an advance order for 10,000 shotguns for the American market. The contract was signed and production started in under a year. The model was given the designation Auto-5 and it was the first fully working semi-automatic shotgun. It became an enormous success for FN and marked the start of a collaboration that lasted until Browning’s death. It was also the start of Browning asan independent brand, which now based its business model on purchasing weapons from various subcontractors. That first order of 10,000 shotguns for the United States was sold in less than a year.

Description – John Moses Browning poses seated on the ground behind an M1917 Browning heavy machine gun.
Notes –
Creator –
Date Created – undated
Object Type – Gelatin silver prints
Source Original – 1 gelatin silver print : b&w ; 8 x 10 in.
Source Location -Connecticut State Library, State Archives, PG 460, Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, Box 7, Folder 7, Item 4

A modest national hero

Browning worked on his designs unabated and there was no type of gun that escaped his attention. During the first 20 years of his career, he mainly focused on hunting arms and revolutionised the single-shot rifle, lever- and pump-action guns as well as the semi-automatic shotgun and rifle. Around the turn of the century, his attention was drawn towards fully automatic rifles and automatic pistols. His designs were, to put it mildly, revolutionary. He single-handedly defined the machine gun and the automatic pistol aswe know them today, though the US military was a little slow towake up to these new developments. Only in 1917, when it became clear that the US would send troops to the battlefields of Europe, did the military decide to update its armoury. To this end, itaddressed J.M. Browning directly. They wanted the rights to produce the Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.), a heavy machine gun, and the .45 ACP calibre automatic pistol. The military also wanted Browning to organise its production. Inreturn, Browning was offered a purely symbolic sum of money. There can beno doubt about his patriotism; he accepted immediately with the words: “If that suits Uncle Sam, it’s all right with me”. Browning was offered the rank of colonel, which he graciously, but firmly, turned down. Browning’s weapons were crucial to the American involvement in both World Wars I and II–infact some of the designs are still in service with the world’s strongest military power more than a century after their introduction.

The empire grows

When the smoke cleared after World War I,FN again started to work at full speed and the Browning Arms Company grew ever stronger. John Moses crossed the Atlantic at regular intervals, skillfully handling his role at the front of the expanding business. He was a beloved figure atFNand everybody, from the highest to the lowest, had great respect for the inventor, gunmaker and business man. The workers never referred to him as anything other than “LeMaître” (The Master). His design work continued undeterred, and though the rate of development might have slowed somewhat, the quality remained as high as ever. Some of his designs were produced on both sides of the Pond –in the US by both Remington and Colt, and in Europe by FN. John Moses’s technically gifted son Val had been assisting his farther for some years and had moved toLiège in Belgium permanently toco-ordinate FN’s production work. In November 1926, work was due to start onJ.M. Browning’s latest design: an over-and-under shotgun named the B25 or Browning Superposed. For the 61st time, John Moses travelled to Belgium, this time in the company of his wife of nearly half-a-century, Rachel. They were travelling to follow the production of the new design and to visit their son Val. On the 26th November 1926, John Moses was at work at the factory. Suddenly he felt a pain in his chest and collapsed. He died shortly after. “LeMaître” had passed away while carrying out his beloved work – a sudden but worthy end to nearly 50 years of revolutionary designs. John Moses Browning left behind a legacy that included 128 patents and more than 70 different gun designs. Many of his designs are still in production today – and many believe that his designs have never been surpassed. A truly remarkable achievement, and unparalleled in industrial history.

Browning photos pictures ambiance atmosphere john moses browning

Browning Automatic While at the firing range one day in 1889, Browning happened to notice that the grass in front of a rifle’s muzzle was pushed over by the pressure of escaping propellant gases. This gave him the idea of harnessing the energy of these gasses to power a mechanism that could eject the empty cartridge and load a new cartridge into the firing chamber. In 1890, he received his first patent for a gas-operated automatic weapon, and over the next two yearshe received four additional patents for various automatic mechanisms. By 1895, the first machine gun was ready, and it was followed by increasingly refined designs around the time of World War I. All gas-operated automatic weapons – old and new – are, at least to some extent, based on Browning’s original patents.

Browning Auto-5

Browning considered this design to be his greatest achievement. The shotgun, which was recoil operated, was the first successful semi-automatic shotgun ever produced. The first one left FNinSeptember 1903. The model was in production until 1983, a production run of 80 years. The last to leave the FNfactory had the serial number 3,006,250. Remington also produced this weapon under the designation Model 11. Today the Auto-5 has a solid reputation for reliability. Examples of the gun that have shot more than 1,000,000 rounds are known to exist!

Winchester 1894

The Model 1894 was a further development of Browning’s earlier Model 1892 design. The 1894 was introduced at the same time as smokeless gunpowder and has since been inextricably linked with the calibre that was developed from that, the .30-30 Winchester. The Model 1894 is without doubt the most popular civilian rifle design ever. It wasin continuous production for more than 110 years, and more than 7,000,000 units were produced. The reason for the 94’s success is partly due toits simple, reliable design, as well as its perfectly timed introduction onto the market. Most of all, though,itis because itis one of the handiest rifle designs ever. Itis short and canbe effortlessly carried in one hand. A classic which – rather undeservedly –has always had a slightly dubious reputation in Europe, where the design has been looked down upon by the more snobbish element as“too American”, and has brought to mind bad Westerns.

Browning B25

John Moses Browning’s final design and the first over-and-under tobe a true commercial success, production started in 1927. The simple, dependable design has always had a great reputation amongst shotgun shooters. Today the design is still alive and kicking, and remains very much sought after, which is reflected in the high prices it commands. Originally the B25 had a double trigger, but Val Browning quickly designed the single trigger that is associated with this design. Itis quite possible that since its introduction, other over-and-unders have been designed that work just as well as this shotgun, but it has never been improved on! To date the B25 has been inproduction for 84 years. Nothing suggests it will be phased out in the foreseeable future.

Winchester 1893

This model marked the birth of the gun beloved by American: the pump action shotgun –or “trombone-gun” as guns of this type were poetically referred to by hunting journalists in Scandinavia for many years. John Moses Browning refined the design several times, he loved the principles behind this design, and used it himself when hunting and clay pigeon shooting. Millions of others followed his example, and pump-actions have been the most popular type of shotgun in America for more than a century. The Model 1893 was replaced by the nearly identical take-down Model 1897, which was in production until 1951 – a production run of 58 years.

Colt Model 1911

Granted, the Colt M1911 has little relevance for hunting, but it still deserves mention here. This pistol was patented in 1911 and production began the following year. Originally .45 ACP calibre, this pistol was adopted by the US military as a service pistol from the time ofits introduction. During the two World Wars, millions of these popular pistols were produced and they were only replaced (by a Beretta) in 1985 after 74 years in the service of the world’s strongest military power. The change to a new handgun was never going tobe popular, and since 1985, most of the elite corps have changed pistols again – back to the Colt M1911! Old soldiers never die. This model isstill produced to this day by a wide range of manufacturers.