Browning Auto-5 Review: An American Classic

The semi-automatic Browning Auto-5 held five 12-gauge shells, hence the name Auto-5. One of three million produced between 1903-1998.photo from the NRA Museums

From the fertile mind and imaginative genius of John M. Browning sprang the world’s first popular self-loading shotgun, the Auto-5. Browning’s semi-automatic, developed early in the 1900s, would capture the hearts of sportsmen for the next century and led to the development of hundreds of autoloading shotgun models used by hunters, law enforcement, and military the world over. Yet the story of how the Auto-5 came to be is an interesting tale of tragedy and missed opportunities.

John Browning’s business plan was rather simple: He would design a gun and someone else would manufacture it. He would sell or license his patents to Winchester, Colt, or whomever he was dealing with and they would produce, market, and distribute the model to the general public. Such forays into the world of shotgun design had resulted in the wildly successful Winchester Model 1887 lever-action and the Winchester Model 1897 pump-action.

The biggest difference between Browning and others in the gun trade was that Browning, by selling or licensing his patents, put the task of defending the patents against infringements on the manufacturer. This laborious and costly sideline of business practices had driven many a talented inventor into bankruptcy as they tried to maintain the integrity of their products. Companies like Colt and Winchester were large enough to easily swat the copycats away.

The U.S.-made version of the Auto-5 was manufactured by Remington and called the Model 11. It was made between 1904 and 1949.

But by 1900, the successes of some of Browning’s models led him to seek alternate paths of remuneration for his efforts. He approached Winchester with a plan to seek a royalty fee per gun for the licensed use of his self-loading shotgun patents. Winchester, which was quite happy with the previous arrangement that had worked in their favor for the past 15 years, said no.

Browning then took his prototype over to Remington-UMC in Ilion, New York. While Browning was sitting in the waiting room prior to his meeting with Marcellus Hartly, the president and owner of Remington-UMC, Hartly dropped dead. In the midst of mourning, Remington said no.

Not easily discouraged, Browning made yet another trans-Atlantic voyage to Belgium and dropped in at the Offices of Fabrique National in Herstal. Here he found a receptive audience. FN was happy to meet Browning’s financial demands, and Browning, in an unprecedented move, immediately placed an order for 10,000 Auto-5s that he himself could sell back in the States.

Seattle Farmer Aiming Shotgun

No matter one’s social status or degree of personal wealth, there was an Auto-5 for every budget.© Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection; Museum of History and Industry/CORBIS

Beginning in 1903, the Auto-5 was rolling off the factory floors and finding its way into the homes and hearts of sportsmen in both Europe and the United States. Browning, via FN, offered the gun in a variety of configurations. There were four different grades of embellishment that went from the “plain Jane” Grade 1, available for $49.95 in 1931, to the Grade 4, which was available for $277, quite the King’s ransom during the Depression era.

Barrel lengths ranged from 26 inches to 32 inches and featured the full spectrum of chokes and barrel configurations of ribbed or non-ribbed barrels. It held five rounds and was initially available in 12 gauge only.

In Sean Connery’s fourth outing as James Bond in 1965’s Thunderball, he and his nemesis Largo find some time with the Auto-5 off of the sandy beaches of the Bahamas.

In 1936, Browning introduced the Auto-5 in 16 gauge and named it the “Sweet 16.” It soon became a fast seller and was followed later with a 20-gauge version.

The Second World War put a stop to the imports from Belgium, but by then, Browning had come to terms with Remington-UMC, which had been making the gun since 1904, under the name Remington Model 11. Savage made the same gun, calling it the Model 1907 (also the M-720) and both companies made a Police/Military version for use during the Second World War. Prior to the occupation of the Low Countries in the spring of 1940, over 350,000 Auto-5s had been manufactured and sold throughout the world.

The Model 11 as made by Remington was also configured as a police and military shotgun that was used by soldiers and defense-plant guards during World War II.

Manufacture of the Auto-5 at FN resumed in 1947 and continued until 1975, when costs forced the manufacture of the venerable self-loader to shift to the Miroku Factory in Japan. By the time production finally ceased in 1998 with the last Auto-5 manufactured, over three million had been produced.

There are literally dozens of configurations of the Auto-5: Field grade to presentation grade; pre-war or post war; Belgian, Japanese, or U.S. manufacture; along with three gauges and numerous barrel lengths to make all take up six full pages in the latest edition of the Blue Book of Gun Values.

John M. Browning (1855-1926) with his most successful shotgun design, the Auto-5.

John M. Browning passed away in his factory office on November 26, 1926. There were no visitors waiting in the outer office.

+Photos from the NRA Museums and the author.