Sunday, August 12, 2012

An American Icon: John Moses Browning

He epitomizes American genius.

A firearms designer who developed many varieties of military and civilian firearms, cartridges, and gun mechanisms, many of which are still in use around the world today.

John Moses Browning is the most important figure in the development of modern automatic and semi-automatic firearms in the world.

He is credited with 128 gun patents.

John Browning influenced nearly all categories of firearms design.

He invented or made significant improvements to single-shot, lever-action, and slide-action, rifles and shotguns, but his most significant contributions were in the area of auto-loading firearms.

He developed the first auto-loading pistols that were both reliable and compact by inventing the telescoping bolt, integrating the bolt and barrel shroud into what is known as the pistol slide.

John Browning's telescoping bolt design is now found on nearly every modern semi-automatic pistol, as well as several modern fully automatic weapons.

He also developed the first gas-operated machine gun, the Colt-Browning Model 1895 which has a system that surpassed mechanical recoil operation to become the standard for most high-power self-loading firearm designs worldwide.

But why stop with small arms like pistols, rifles, or even machine guns? Believe it or not, John Browning made huge contributions to automatic cannon development.  Yes, cannons.

The M4 cannon, a 37mm auto-cannon, was initially designed by Browning in 1921, and entered service in 1938.

During World War II, the M4 was used in both aircraft like the Mitchell Bomber and on U.S. Navy PT boats. It was also used in the Army Air Corps Bell P-39 Airacobra and P-63 Kingcobra fighters. It provided interceptors with a weapon that could shoot down any bomber with as little as one hit. 

The M1895, the M1911, the Ma Deuce, the BAR!  

Based on a John Moses Browning design dating to 1889, the M1895 Machine Gun was the first successful gas-operated machine gun to enter service.

The M1895 Machine Gun saw action in the Spanish-American War with the United States Marines.

The Colt-Browning M1895, nicknamed "the potato digger" due to its unusual operating mechanism, is an air-cooled, belt-fed, gas-operated machine gun that fires from a closed bolt with a cyclic rate of 450 rounds per minute.

Mr Browning's most successful designs include the 1911 pistol, the Browning .50 caliber machine gun, the Browning Automatic Rifle, and the Browning Auto-5 which was a ground-breaking semi-automatic shotgun.

Of the M1895, the M1911, the Ma Deuce, and the BAR (or B-A-R), the M1895 is the only one that I haven't gotten a chance to fire.

The M1911

The M1911 is by far my favorite pistol. I have a couple of them. I bought one old standby almost 40 years ago. And yes, she is as dependable today as she was then.
John Browning's M1911 is a single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated handgun chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge.

It served as the standard-issue side arm for the United States armed forces from 1911 to 1985 - and, believe it or not, it has been pressed back into service in recent months with the Marine Corps Special Ops Command.

The M1911 was widely used in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The M1911 is still carried by some U.S. military forces and law enforcement agencies.

Its formal designation as of 1940 was Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 for the original Model of 1911 or Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911A1 for the M1911A1, adopted in 1924.

The designation changed to Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M1911A1 in the Vietnam era. Today's Marine Corps is designating the M1911 as the Pistol, Caliber .45, Automatic, M45. This modern M1911 is being used by some elite units within the U.S. Marine Corps right now.

The M1911 was replaced by the M9 pistol as the standard U.S. sidearm in the early 1990s, but due to its poor knock down power and so-so performance in the field, it appears as though it is being slowly phased out.

Designed by John Browning, the M1911 is the best-known of his designs to use the short recoil principle in its basic design. The pistol was widely copied, and this operating system rose to become the preeminent type of the 20th century and of nearly all modern centerfire pistols.

The M2

U.S. Marine mans his Ma Deuce 
The M2, fondly referred to as the "Ma Deuce", has been in use longer than any other small arm in U.S. inventory except the .45 ACP M1911 pistol which was also designed by John Browning.
The Ma Deuce, also known as the M2 Machine Gun or Browning .50 Caliber Machine Gun, is a heavy machine gun designed towards the end of World War I by John Browning.

It is very similar in design to Browning's earlier M1919 Browning machine gun, which was chambered for the .30-06 cartridge.

The M2 is the primary heavy machine gun of NATO countries, and has been used by many other non-NATO countries.

The M2 uses the much larger and much more powerful .50 BMG cartridge, which was developed alongside and takes its name from the gun itself (BMG standing for Browning Machine Gun).

Today's U.S. Navy M2 "Twin .50s"

During World War II, the M16 was a Half-Track with four M2 .50s in a single mount. It was called the "Meat Chopper!"
B-25H "Barbie III" with nose canopy open showing the four .50 cal M2 Browning machine guns and feeds, and note the 75mm M5 cannon below. Stuart airshow 2011
The M2 has been referred to as "Ma Deuce" by American Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen for the better part of a hundred years. She is also known as "the fifty" in reference to its caliber.

The design has had many specific designations; the official designation for the current infantry type is Browning Machine Gun, Cal. .50, M2, HB, Flexible. It is extremely effective against ground tropps, unarmored or lightly armored vehicles, boats of all sorts, light fortifications, and low-flying in range aircraft.

The Browning .50 caliber machine gun has been used extensively as a vehicle weapon and for aircraft armament by the United States from the 1920s to the present.

It was heavily used during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and these days during operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world right now.

Rhe M2HB is manufactured in the United States by General Dynamics and U.S. Ordnance for use by the United States government, and for US Foreign Allies via FMS sales. FN Herstal has manufactured the M2 machine gun since the 1930s.

The M2 Browning machine gun, the timeless .50 caliber "Ma Deuce", which was developed in 1918 and entered service with the US Armed Forces after World War I in 1921, still remains in active service for nearly a century with various armed forces across the globe in a variety of roles.

U.S. Ordnance developed their M2 Quick Change Barrel system after years of manufacturing machine guns for the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. allies.


John Browning's Browning Automatic Rifle, the "B-A-R", was one of a group of automatic rifles, or "machine rifles", and light machine guns used by the United States and numerous other countries during the 20th century.

Of the different variations of the B-A-R, the primary variation was the M1918. It was chambered for the .30-06 Springfield rifle cartridge.

I had the pleasure of firing it many years ago. I instantly fell in love with it's big .30-06 round.

It was specifically designed by John Browning in 1917 for the U.S. Expeditionary Corps in Europe as a replacement for the French-made Chauchat and M1909 Benet-Mercie machine guns.

The B-A-R was designed to be carried by advancing infantrymen using a sling over the shoulder or fired from the hip, a concept called "walking fire" - thought to be necessary for the individual soldier during trench warfare.

However in practice, it was most often used as a light machine gun and fired from a bipod which was introduced in later models. A variant of the original M1918 BAR, the Colt Monitor Machine Rifle, remains the lightest production automatic gun to fire the .30-06 Springfield cartridge, though the limited capacity of its standard 20-round magazine tended to hamper its utility in that role.

Though the BAR was designed for World War I, it was used into the 1970's by Army National Guard units.

These arms are nearly identical today to those assembled by John Browning, with only minor changes in detail and cosmetics.

Even today, John Browning's guns are still some of the most copied guns in the world.

His life was one of genius. He rivals Thomas Edison and other great inventors for a place in history.

John Moses Browning was born on January 23rd, 1855 in Ogden, Utah. He died on November 26nd, 1926, half way around the world doing what he did best - designing firearms.

He made his first firearm at age 13 in his father's gun shop, and was awarded his first patent on October 7, 1879 at the age of 24.

John Browning was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served a two-year mission in Georgia beginning on March 28, 1887.

His father Jonathan Browning, who was among the thousands of Mormon pioneers in the mass exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, to make the journey to Utah. Once there, he established a gunsmith shop in Ogden in 1852.

Jonathan Browning had built a gunsmith business in Nauvoo, developing and refining advanced (for the time) repeating firearms and manufacturing techniques. The Browning gunsmith in Nauvoo is now operated as a museum, and is open to the public at no charge.

His son, John Moses Browning worked in his father's Ogden shop where he was taught basic engineering and manufacturing principles. And there is something else, while there as a young boy, he was also encouraged to experiment with new concepts.

Because of this, he developed his first rifle which was a single-shot falling block action design - then founded his own manufacturing operation and began to produce this firearm.

Production examples of the Model 1885 Single Shot Rifle caught the attention of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who dispatched a representative to evaluate the competition. Winchester bought the design for eight thousand dollars and moved production to their Connecticut factory.

From 1883, Browning worked in partnership with Winchester and designed a series of rifles and shotguns. Most notably, the Winchester Model 1887 and Model 1897 shotguns, the falling block single shot Model 1885, and the lever-action Model 1886, Model 1892, Model 1894 and Model 1895 rifles, most of which are still in production today in some form or another.

Over seven million Model 1894s have been produced, more than any other centerfire sporting rifle.

John M. Browning and Winchester Repeating Arms Company

Winchester manufactured several popular small arms designed by John M. Browning.

For decades in the late 19th Century-early 20th Century, John Browning designs and Winchester firearms were synonymous and the collaboration was highly successful.

Like most things though, this came to an end when Browning proposed a new semi-automatic shotgun design, a prototype finished in 1898, to Winchester management and they refused to back the development of the shotgun.

Ultimately it became the Browning Auto-5 shotgun.

The problems that divides folks usually has something to do with money.

As was the custom of the time, Browning's earlier designs had been licensed exclusively to Winchester (and other manufacturers) for a single fee payment. With this new product, Browning introduced in his negotiations a continuous royalty fee based upon unit sales, rather than a single front-end fee payment.

If the new shotgun became highly successful, Browning stood to make substantially more fee income over the prior license fee arrangements. Winchester management was displeased with the bold change in their relationship, and rejected Browning's offer.

Remington Arms was also approached, however the president of Remington died of a heart attack as Browning waited to offer them the gun. This forced Browning to look overseas to produce the shotgun.

Having recently successfully negotiated firearm licenses with Fabrique Nationale de Herstal of Belgium (FN), Browning took the new shotgun design to FN; the offer was accepted and FN manufactured the new shotgun, honoring its inventor, as the Browning Auto-5.

The Browning Auto-5 was continuously manufactured as a highly popular shotgun throughout the 20th century.

In response, Winchester shifted reliance on John Browning designs when it adopted a hammerless shotgun design of Thomas Crossley Johnson for the new Winchester Model 12, which was based upon design features of the earlier Browning-designed Winchester Model 1897 shotgun.

This shift marked the end of an era of Winchester-Browning collaboration.

John Browning designed products to the end of his life. He was known as a dedicated and tireless inventor, an innovator, an experimenter, who sought breakthrough consumer-oriented features and performance and reliability improvements in small arms designs.

He did not retire from his career in his elder years, but dedicated his entire adult life - literally to his last day of life - to these pursuits.

On November 26, 1926, while working at the bench on a self-loading pistol design for Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN) in Li├Ęge, Belgium, he died of heart failure in the design shop of his son Val A. Browning.

Even the 9 mm self-loading pistol he was working on when he died had great design merit and was eventually completed in 1935, by Belgian designer Dieudonne Saive. Released as the Fabrique Nationale GP35, it was more popularly known as the successful Browning Hi-Power pistol, a favorite of sportsman and law enforcement.

The Browning Hi-Power would have a lengthy period of service outside the United States, and remains the standard side arm of the Australian, British, and Canadian armed forces.

The premium priced Browning Superposed shotgun, an over-under shotgun design for the ages, was his last completed firearm design and possibly his most elegant. It was marketed originally with twin triggers; a single trigger modification was later completed by his son, Val Browning.

Commercially introduced in 1931 by FN, Browning Superposed shotguns, and their more affordable cousins, the Browning Citori made in Asia, continue to be manufactured and come with different grades of fine hand engraving and premium quality wood. They are a wonderful tribute to a great gun maker and inventor.

Throughout his life, Browning designed a vast array of military and civilian small arms for his own company, as well as for Winchester, Colt, Remington, Savage, and Fabrique Nationale de Herstal of Belgium.

John Browning's firearms have been made, both licensed and unlicensed, by hundreds of factories around the world.

In 1977, FN Herstal acquired the Browning Arms Company which had been established in 1927, the year after Browning's death.

John Moses Browning was the most famous and competent gunmaker the world has ever known. He invented more firearms than any other gunmaker in the history of the world.

He is truly an American Icon!

Story by Tom Correa


  1. I have a 1911-22 and an Ithica 37. I love them both, He was a genius who helped us win both world wars.

  2. It's kind of ironic that John Moses Browning made guns although he was a Mormon. I just wish he would have made some revolvers. That would have been nice. But beggars can't be choosers and as for Browning, when it came to guns, he did what he had to do. And to think that he only lived to be 71. That's not too old at all. But it is interesting when you find out that the very same Browning rifle you had as a boy was made by a simple Mormon from Utah. And that Mormon was John Moses Browning. I guess you could say John Moses Browning really WAS a son of a gun. (No pun intended). Mr. Browning, thank you for your service to the firearms industry and may you never be forgotten.


Thank you for your comment.