The Man Behind the Guns: John Moses Browning

"The time and place for a gun maker just got together on this corner. And I happened along."

~ John M. Browning

Profile of a legend

In France, his last name is considered a proper noun for the word pistol. He held 128 gun patents and designed and built 80 separate firearms — 44 of them manufactured by Winchester. It can be said without exaggeration that Browning’s guns made Winchester. And Colt. And Remington, Savage, and Fabrique Nationale (FN). Not to mention his namesake company, Browning. Few are the gun manufacturers that have not bought a license to use one of many Browning’s patents. His work includes the full spectrum of single shot, lever action, pump action, semi-automatic, and full-automatic firearms, with calibers ranging from .22 rimfires to 37mm cannon shells. His 1911 .45 pistol, Browning Automatic Rifle, 1917 .30 and .50 caliber machine guns are just some of his guns that became part and parcel in the US arsenal during several conflicts. His final design at the time of his death — the Browning Hi-Power pistol — would become a precedent for today’s high-cap 9mm pistols.

These innovative guns sprang from the mind and hands of a man who was born in an era of black powder and percussion caps. During his era, the average gun design was expected to take 2 years from drawing board to prototype. For John Moses Browning, it was not unusual for him to turn out many finished firearms in a single year — and all of them become instant best sellers. Once he made a daring deal with Winchester Arms to design a new rifle to replace the aging Model 73 within 30 days. If he succeeded, he would earn $20,000, but if he failed, he would surrender his design for free. Browning easily made the deadline, and the Model 92 became part of the great line of Winchester rifles.

A talented linage

His father, Jonathan Browning, was a natural born mechanic and an accomplished gunsmith in his own right. His philosophy was to always strive for functional simplicity in design. In 1832, he designed and manufactured a multi-shot percussion cap rifle. The rifle had a sideways magazine that came in a 5-, 10-, or 25-shot capacity. Using a thumb lever, the shooter could advance the magazine to the next chamber, with the magazine pressed tightly against the bore to ensure a secured gas check. To appreciate this achievement wrought by simple blacksmith tools and Jonathans’ superlative talent, one can compare his rifle with the failure of the Colt Revolving Rifle produced in 1855 by a fully equipped industrial factory. The Colt rifle, while innovative, could not maintain a gas check, leading to poor performance and misfires.

Jonathan brought his family from Brushy Fork, Tennessee, to Quincy, Illinois, in 1833. In 1840 he was introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter days Saints. Following his conversion to the "Mormon" church, he settled in Nauvoo in 1842. His blacksmithing skills would be later be put to good use by Church President Brigham Young, repairing and providing tools and firearms for the Saints exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake Valley, Utah. Several of his repeating rifles provided game and protection during the long journey west.

In 1852 Jonathan made the trek west and settled in Ogden, Utah. Shortly after his arrival, he entered the practice of polygamy and took two additional wives. His second wife, Elisabeth Clark, gave birth to John Moses Browning on January 23, 1855.

Child prodigy

John started working in his father’s shop at age six. By age seven, he could identify every part on a firearm by name and function. After his mother taught him how to read and write, he began to take repair orders from customers. At age ten he made his first crude gun from scrap laying about the shop. He and his brother Matt tested it by successfully bringing down several grouse for his father’s breakfast. Six years later, a passing freight driver gave him a high-quality shotgun that had been severely damaged during his journey. With great care and determination, Browning disassembled the wrecked firearm, and through reverse engineering, replaced, repaired, or rebuilt from scratch all the damaged parts. In his words he related:

"Finally the idea came. A good idea starts a celebration in the mind, and every nerve in the body seems to crowd up to see the fireworks. It was a good idea, one of the best I ever had, and so simple it made me ashamed of myself. Boylike, I had been trying to do the job all at once with some kind of magic. And magic never made a gun that would work. I decided to take the gun apart, piece by piece, down to the last small screw, even though [the] parts that were mashed and twisted together. And when I did, finally finishing long after supper that night, the pieces all spread out before me on the bench, I examined each piece and discovered that there wasn’t one that I couldn’t make myself, if I had too. If I had been in school that day, I would have missed a valuable lesson"

In 1883, a traveling salesman from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company bought a used single shot rifle made by Browning from a gun owner. He showed it to Mr. T.G. Bennett, the Vice President and general manager of Winchester. Bennett was so impressed by the quality and the smooth action of the gun, that he traveled all the way from New Haven, Connecticut, to Ogden, Utah, to meet John Browning personally. Arriving at the roughhewn, primitive Browning workshop, he entered into an agreement to purchase the rights to the rifle for $8,000, a princely sum in those days. Thus began a 19-year relationship with John M. Browning and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In a four-year period from 1884 to 1887, he sold 20 newly designed guns to Winchester. A two-year break occurred when John Moses Browning accepted a call from the Church to serve a two-year proselyting mission in Georgia. Notwithstanding almost being tarred and feathered along with his missionary companion on one occasion, he fulfilled his duty faithfully and returned to his vocation in March 1889. Many of the guns Winchester bought from him were never manufactured. The company simply could not produce that many models. Instead, Bennett bought all of Browning designs for the express purpose of keeping them out of the hands of Winchester’s competitors. As a result, Winchester had all but a monopoly on some of the finest American-made rifles on the market.

While Browning’s lever-action designs look little different externally from previous Winchester firearms, internally there was no comparison. Browning’s creations for Winchester permitted, among many things, larger and more powerful caliber firearms to be offered to the public. John Browning was great believer in Murphy’s Law: "If anything can happen in a gun it probably will sooner or later," he once said. His firearms were deliberately built with twice the required safety margins then necessary. As a result, when the transition from black powder to smokeless occurred at the turn of the century, none of his black powder rifles designed for Winchester required any design modification to shoot smokeless ammunition other than a stronger grade metal barrel.

Among his many firsts, Browning pioneered the first practical and successful pump action shotgun, the Winchester Model 97. These were used as so-called "trench guns" by U.S. troops in WWI. Many of these shotguns where issued to soldiers skilled in trap shooting and were employed to shoot and deflect enemy hand grenades in mid air. One account tells of two hundred entrenched U.S. troops armed with Model 97’s using devastating 12-gauge shotgun fire at close range to stop a massive German infantry attack.

Pushing the envelope

Browning broke with Winchester in 1902 over Bennett’s reluctance to produce Browning’s remarkable recoil operated semi-automatic shotgun. This revolutionary shotgun scared the conservative thinking Bennett, who still thought in terms of lever and pump action firearms. After a heated argument with Bennett, Browning took his prototype back and attempted to sell it to Remington. But the president of Remington Arms, Mr. Hartley, died of a sudden heat attack just minutes before Browning was to meet with him. As a result, Browning sold the shotgun to Fabrique Nationale (FN) in Belgium, where it was known as the Browning Automatic—5. FN expected the radical new shotgun would take several years to catch on with the public. To their pleasant surprise, they sold out the first batch of 10,000 in the first year they were introduced. Remington would later purchase a license to make the shotgun under its own name called the Remington Model 11.

The idea to create a machine gun came to Browning in 1889 during a shooting meet at the Ogden Rifle Club. He observed how the blast from a friend’s rifle parted the tall weeds in passing. Piqued about the waste of excess energy, he instantly was struck with inspiration. Browning immediately abandoned the shoot, and hailed his brothers to take him home. Ed Browning, responding to the puzzled looks of the other shooters seeing John leave suddenly, simply said, "We’ve got to go back to the shop. Looks like John just thought of something." Heading to the horse rig, Ed asked his brother Matt; "What the hell’s struck him, Matt?" Matt in turn asked John, "Yes John, what the hell’s struck you now?" John replied: "An idea hit me, Yes sir! An idee, as pappy was used to say — biggest one I ever had. Get the damn horse going, Matt."

As they rode, John explained how the blast from the shooter’s gun gave him an idea to harness the wasted gas energy to make a fully automatic firearm. Within two days after arriving back at the shop, John mounted an old, worse-for-wear Model 73 .44 caliber Winchester rifle on a wooden platform, added some components, and made it fire continuously at 16 shots per second. The sheer audacity to make an old black powder cartridge lever action rifle fire in full automatic is nothing short of miraculous — for anyone other than John Browning, of course.

By 1890, Browning had a practical working prototype, along with canvas ammunition belts made by a professional tent maker. The prototype had no water-cooled jacket, nor a ventilated barrel. It had no tripod, or anything approaching a firing grip. Its finish was very rough, with blacked heat welds and hammer strikes embarrassingly visible. It would be easy to mistake the weapon as some kind of a piston and tube component of a larger machine. But it worked, and it worked extremely well. In 1891, Browning demonstrated the machine gun to the Colt Manufacturing Company, personally firing 200 rounds of 45/70’s without a hitch. In a second demonstration before an audience of several military representatives, the test required that he fire 1800 rounds in three minutes. The barrel turned red hot, a lead mist enveloped John Browning, and his body cramped terribly securing the gun during firing. But when it was over, every round had been expended, and none of the weapons’ components failed during the stress of the demonstration. To say those who witnessed the event were impressed is an understatement. They were awestruck and wild with enthusiasm at the gun’s performance. They saw his machine gun vastly superior to the current Gatling guns in service. But without military contracts, Browning’s wonder gun would lie fallow until 1895, and even then only the U.S. Navy contracted with Colt for a small number of the Browning-designed machine guns. His Colt Model 95 "Peace Maker" machine gun received its first baptism by fire in China, where the U.S. Marines used them to great effect defending the foreign legations during the Boxer Rebellion.

America’s armorer

When the US declared war on Germany in 1917, its military arsenal was sadly wanting. Until arms production could be put into full gear, the U.S. army had to buy machine guns from its allies. Ironically, the Lewis gun was invented in the U.S., but was not adopted by the military. It now was being purchased from the British government. But at least the Lewis had a good reputation for reliability. The French 8mm Chauchat, however, was totally unsuited for rigors of combat in the mud of the trenches of the Western Front. Its 250-rpm rate of fire was dismal for a machine gun. The Chauchat was so poorly designed that it had to be fired in short bursts or in semi-automatic to prevent it from jamming due to overheating. US soldiers at the Western front were in desperate need for something better.

When approached by the government for help, Browning selflessly sold the rights on his 1911, Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and other machine gun designs for only a fraction of their commercial value: He earned just three-quarters of a million dollars compared to an estimated $12 million in royalties he could have otherwise received. When his brother Matt complained about accepting the government’s first offer and not haggling over the price, John replied: "Yes, and if we were fifteen or twenty years younger, we’d be over there in the mud."

The BAR served the U.S. Army’s request for a one-man automatic weapon to enable troops to advance with "walking fire." The first BAR used in combat was carried by Browning’s son, First Lieutenant Val A. Browning, who served with the 79th Division in July 1918. Reports from the field to General Pershing extolled the BAR’s sterling performance. With minor changes, the BAR would serve again in WWII and Korea.

With the introduction of tanks in WWI, the call went out for an anti-tank weapon to counter them. Browning took his 1917 .30 caliber machine gun design and up-scaled it to .50 caliber. It was designated as the M2, but most soldiers affectionately called it "Ma Deuce." Still going strong after 92 years of service, the M2 is one of the oldest firearms still in use in the US arsenal. Though evolving tank armor soon changed the M2 role as an anti-tank weapon, it became standard equipment for US military vehicles, aircraft, ships, and infantry. It established a proven track record as an effective anti-aircraft, anti-light vehicle, and most definitively, as an anti-personal weapon. When the German General Erwin Rommel, "The Desert Fox" of North Africa, captured Tobruk from the British, he discovered a quantity of .50 Browning M2s. After Field Marshal Herman Göring congratulated Rommel on his victory, he added; "If the German Air Force had had the Browning .50-caliber, the Battle of Britain would have turned out differently." The Japanese used M2’s obtained from their early Pacific conquests as a template to make an effective 20mm auto-cannon for their aircraft. Quad-mounted M2’s on halftracks became the great equalizer for outnumbered U.S. troops facing massive Red Chinese human wave attacks during the Korean War.

One of the M2’s finest moments was in January 26, 1945. During an attack by six German tanks and a superior force of infantry at Holtzwihr, France, Lieutenant Audie Murphy ordered his troops to withdraw while he stayed behind to call in artillery strikes. As the Germans closed in, Murphy leaped on top of an abandoned burning US tank destroyer and employed the mounted M2 like a scythe against the enemy soldiers. Scores of the enemy were killed, some as close to ten yards of his position. The German tanks, without infantry support, withdrew. Lt. Murphy was wounded during the action, and for his courageous effort, received the Medal of Honor.

Copied and often imitated, the efforts to replace the M2 with lighter weapon platforms like XM312 have meet with disappointment; modern technology has yet to surpass the bedrock reliability and performance of Browning’s century-old design.

Creating a legend

Of all of Browning’s outstanding firearms, the one recognized as his signature work is the .45 ACP Colt 1911 automatic pistol. Prior to the 1911, automatic pistols as a whole were fragile, unduly complicated, and prone to jamming under harsh environmental conditions. The majority of the calibers available were marginal at best in performance. Browning’s 1911, initially produced by Colt, has since been reproduced in some shape or form by almost every gun manufacturer up to the present day. To explain it’s popularly as one of the best selling pistols for almost 100 years, it is necessary to revisit its origins.

The .38 caliber revolver in service with the U.S. military during the Philippine insurrection 1899—1913 was found to be ineffective against charging Moro natives. (Note: This pistol was chambered for the .38 Long Colt cartridge, not the .38 Special.) The call was made for a more powerful handgun for the US military personnel. Competitive trials for a new pistol were held on March 3,1911. Each gun had to successfully fire 6,000 rounds, followed by another trial shooting with deformed ammunition to further test its reliability. The trial lasted two days. When the 1911 fired its last round, a nearby soldier who assisted in loading the magazines exclaimed, "She made it, by God!" At his acceptance speech following the pistol trial, Browning concurred that he had little to add to the young soldier’s statement.

Until it was replaced (and not without some heated controversy) in 1985 by the 9mm Beretta 92, the 1911 served faithfully in every following U.S. conflict. It received its baptism of fire in General "Black Jack" Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa during the Border war with Mexico. Sergeant York utilized a 1911 during his Medal of Honor feat in capturing 132 German soldiers in WWI. A backhanded testament of the pistol’s reputation came from those who practiced an extremely dangerous endeavor of illegal employment. Notorious criminals Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger, and Bonnie Parker were killed or captured with 1911’s in their possession. During WWII, among the many exploits involving the 1911, one account even credits a pilot shooting down a Japanese Zero that was strafing him after parachuting from his crippled B-24 bomber. All those who used the 1911 praised it stopping power and ability to function under wartime conditions.

You can take the boy from the country…

From his humble roots as country boy raised in the Utah desert, Browning’s ongoing dealings with Fabrique Nationale would find him a second home in Belgium. In his typical do-it-yourself philosophy, Browning taught himself French so he would not be limited to using a translator to converse with the FN craftsmen. Among the local citizens of Liege, the six-foot tall Browning became a familiar sight as he took frequent walks wearing his broad-brimmed hat and cape. Such was his reputation at FN, he was respectfully referred to as "Le Maitre," or "The Master." In 1914, in appreciation for help making FN a world-class arms manufacturer, he was knighted to the order of Leopold by King Albert of Belgium. Browning found such awards embarrassing; in no small part for the expected ribbing he would receive from his country-bred brothers on the royal title "Sir" now prefacing his name. Few men live to enjoy such acclaim and recognition while alive. Fewer still are those that do not let fame change them. Notwithstanding all the wealth and recognition he received during his lifetime, Browning was never happier than being at his workbench working on a new gun. His brothers told how he would seldom bother to change from his dress clothes after entering the shop, but would just jump right in to work. His work ethic was best summed up by his mother, Elisabeth, who reminiscing on John as a young child using tools, would close with the oft-repeated statement; "And there’s been grease on John’s face to this blessed day!"

While celebrating Thanksgiving in Liege in 1926 with his family, John M. Browning succumbed to a sudden heart attack and passed away. He was 71 years old. In honor for his selfless contributions to the U.S. military, a military escort was provided for his final trip home. Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis gave the eulogy at his funeral.

John Moses Browning contributions to the advancement of firearm technology continue to live on long after his death. His work helped transition gun technology from the age of black powder and percussion caps to modern day smokeless ammunition and full automatic fire. As summed up by gun historian, Philip Sharpe: "Browning developments all had one peculiar and very necessary feature. They worked, and kept on working. There are few modern guns today that have not been influenced one way or another by Browning’s hand."

Browning’s secret to his success is best explained by an incident involving his brothers Ed and George. One day, his brother George noticed his brother Ed had abandoned the workshop where John was working furiously on a gun project.

"Why aren’t you working upstairs?" George asked.

Ed replied: "Oh, John’s stuck. He’s swearing every little while. He doesn’t know whether I’m there or not."

"That’s too bad. I thought it was coming along fine."

"Don’t worry, it won’t be long now. John so hot that something has to give pretty soon — and it won’t be John."

Reference: John M. Browning, American Gunmaker. John Browning and Curt Gentry, 1964, Doubleday & Company.