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JM Browning - Gun Designer

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John Moses Browning designed guns. He solved many of the problems associated with the design and production of early self-loading and automatic firearms with an innovative, yet practical, outlook. Whatever the Researcher's thoughts on the morality of the use of firearms, it should not detract from the task of identifying problem areas in design nor the many and ingenious ways he solved them. Browning demonstrated this skill many times, being granted 128 gun-related patents. Being essentially practical, these patents were the basis of some 50 million sports and military weapons manufactured during his lifetime.

Ogden, Utah

John Moses Browning was born on 23 January, 1855, in Ogden, Utah, USA. His father, Jonathon Browning, owned a gun shop which he had opened after arriving there with the Mormon Exodus in 1847. It was here that John learned his trade when he was of an age to do so.

In those days, the gun shop was more than a retail outlet. There were two distinct types of craftsmen who worked there. All were gunsmiths, capable of repairing most types of firearm, but some were also counted as gunmakers: designers and manufacturers of firearms. In the early years of the USA, most of the specialist guns like the Kentucky Rifle1 would have been handmade by gunmakers. Flintlock and Percussion muzzle-loaders were relatively easy to manufacture, particularly smooth-bore pieces. The advent of mass production had little impact on the remote locations, but with the advent of the revolver and breech-loading rifles, their skills and knowledge were not always enough for manufacture.

John Browning was much more interested in designing and building these newer firearms. Patents were in force on many of the new guns and there was a severe financial penalty for unauthorised use. The field was still open for detail changes, but for the innovative designer there was always an opening. As civil law expanded westwards, this became more important.

The year 1879 was significant for John Browning in a number of ways. His father died and the Browning Brothers started their own shop, the 'Browning Gun Factory'. In the same year, John got married and was granted his first patent for a breech-loading single-shot rifle. In the years that followed, there were plenty of orders, but the Brownings had no money to expand to meet demand. John was not very happy here as he found little time to design after making and servicing firearms.


When agents showed him the rifle that John Browning was producing, TG Bennet, the Vice President and General Manager of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was impressed. So impressed that he made his way to Ogden, and persuaded John Moses Browning to sell him the rights to produce the rifle for $8000 and any further repeating designs. This reduced the competition for Winchester and allowed John to concentrate on his design work. It was the start of a 19-year collaboration.

The work for Winchester started in 1883 and, less two years on sabbatical as a Mormon missionary in Georgia, continued until 1902. Browning began by designing lever action rifles and shotguns handling more powerful cartridges than the original Winchester 30-30, which was limited to low power pistol-type ammunition. These included: models 1886, 1894 and 1895 lever action repeating rifles, model 1887 lever action repeating shotgun and model 1897 pump action shotgun. These were all marketed as what would now be classified as 'sporting' firearms, but given the situation in the West of the USA between these dates, self-protection was also a high priority.


All John Browning's designs to this time were manually operated and, being naturally innovative, he began to look into ways of reloading repeating weapons automatically. He was aware of Hiram Maxim's experiments and development of the Maxim machine gun, but went a different route. He observed the muzzle blast of sporting rifles, which raised dust and moved grass as the propellant gases escaped, and started work on harnessing this power. Bear in mind that he was dealing with gases at high pressure and temperature and he was designing a hand-held weapon that would not endanger the user.

He began this work in the Autumn of 1889, and by January 1890 he had started to apply for patents covering gas operation. By 1895, he had developed a reliable, if eccentric, machine gun, which he sold to Colt's. This tapped the propellant gas near the muzzle and forced down the end of a lever. This was pivoted around the centre of the gun moving the breech block and reloading the weapon. This downward swinging arm earned it the title of 'potato digger'. It was adopted by the Army and Navy as the Colt Model 1895 and saw action in the Spanish-American War of 18992.

An offshoot of this work was his development of an automatic pistol. His first pistol was, naturally, gas-operated, but unlike the complicated and unwieldy European pistols, it had the magazine in the pistol grip with the trigger mechanism wrapped around. Although it worked well, Browning thought that recoil operation would be more suitable for the lower power pistol ammunition. He designed a small blowback pistol, then a more powerful recoil-operated pistol. This was improved by stages until it became arguably the most famous automatic pistol in the world, the .45 calibre Colt M1911.


One of his autoloading weapons was a gas-operated shotgun, which he offered to Winchester. They decided that it was not marketable and after much argument, he left Winchester in January 1902. Remington Arms were next in line, but the death of the negotiator resulted in that deal falling through. Browning now set out overseas to Fabrique Nationale (FN) in Herstal and Liege, Belgium, signed with them and the FN/Browning shotgun appeared in 1903. Remington did not lose out, however, as they got the license for US production in 1904. All of Browning's designs from 1902 onwards were mainly for FN, although he gave the designs of his gas-operated Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and a recoil-operated machine gun to the USA in 1917 as his contribution to the war effort.

He also worked on a .50 calibre machine gun and automatic cannon, but both came after the First World War. In 1923, he developed the 'superposed' double barrel shotgun, which had the barrels one above the other instead of the traditional side by side. In the same year he developed his automatic pistol, further simplifying the action. This would become the Browning Hi Power (P35). It was the last major design of John Moses Browning. He died on 26 November, 1926, of heart failure at Liege, Belgium.

The Legacy

So why do we need to be mindful of John Moses Browning? Although he would not know the future of his weapons, they were developed into fighting tools for war on land, sea and in the air. The .30-calibre Browning M1919 machine gun, the recoil-operated gun of 1917, became the armament of the eight-gun fighters of the RAF, the Spitfire and Hurricane, which fought off the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. It was also the gun for American fighter planes of the early Pacific actions, secondary armament for US tanks and the support MG for the Infantry. Later, it was replaced by the .50 calibre machine gun used in all theatres of war in aircraft and in tanks.

The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was the section automatic in the US Infantry from 1918 to 1958, the Colt M1911 and M1911A1 pistol was another long service gun from 1911 to 1978 and is still popular with civilian hand-gunners in the USA. The Browning Hi Power is alive and well and serving in over 100 armies and police forces of the world. Many old service weapons are still in use, for good, and not-so-good, armies and organisations.

John Moses Browning does not seem like a violent, war-loving man. Many of his designs were, and still are, for sporting use. Without doubt, his contribution to the world was to provide the means to resist and overcome tyranny and oppression. He probably saw his designs as problems solved.


1More accurately called the Pennsylvania Long Rifle from its state of origin.2Production was taken over by Marlin and, after redesign incorporating a piston action, became the standard machine gun for US aircraft until replaced by a version of the M1919 Browning in the mid 1930s.

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