The Browning Auto 5: Gun History
Shotgun expert Phil Bourjaily breaks down the history of the first semi-automatic shotgun and gives you tips for buying a vintage A5.
Utah got it wrong when it made the Model 1911 its state gun in 2011. The Auto 5 was the only choice. Both guns, of course, were inventions of Utah native John Browning. However, while the 1911 is undeniably great, there were semiautomatic pistols before the 1911, and there were semiautomatic pistols after it. The Auto 5 was revolutionary. It was the first semiautomatic shotgun ever, and it was so far ahead of its time that for the next 54 years no one was able to draw up a successful competitive design.
Named for its five-shot capacity, the Auto 5 – and the nearly-identical, Browning-licensed Remington Model 11 and Savage 720 – dominated skeet shooting for years. They were a duck camp standby and a common sight in midwestern cornfields and southern quail cover. They rode in police cars and served in wars from WWI to Vietnam. Browning’s design was produced for nearly 100 years. With millions made there are still plenty of Auto 5s in the field and hunters who swear by it.
Before we get to the gun, first, a bit about The Inventor, as he was called. John M. Browning was born in 1855 in Ogden, Utah, son of Johnathan Browning, a Mormon gunmaker who had settled in Utah after the Mormons were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois. Browning grew up in his father’s shop and showed a gift for gunsmithing from a very early age.
As a teenager, he took over the shop, along with his brother, Matt. Despite his gifts, or perhaps because of them, Browning soon grew bored with his work, which consisted almost entirely of repairing the percussion muzzleloaders that were still in wide use.
When breechloading guns started coming into the shop, a switch flipped in Browning’s mind. Seeing all the possibilities cartridge guns offered, he went on an inventing spree that lasted from 1879 right up until the day of his death in 1926. His first design was a single shot rifle which became the 1885 Winchester.
Subsequent achievements include the 1911, the Hi Power pistol, the Winchester Model 92 carbine, the Winchester Model 97 pump shotgun, the fully automatic BAR, the M2 “Ma Deuce” .50 caliber machine gun, the Superposed O/U and many more, including the Auto 5. It’s hard to imagine what modern guns would look like if it hadn’t been for John Browning.
Birth of the Auto 5
A semiautomatic shotgun presented Browning with a unique challenge. He admitted the Auto 5 was the most difficult gun to design of his career. In 1898 he and brothers built three different guns and tested them endlessly. The design he settled on was a long-recoil model. In long recoil operation, the barrel and the bolt move back together under recoil about three inches.
The bolt is held back briefly as the spring drives the barrel forward into battery, ejecting the spent shell and chambering a new one, then the bolt follows to close on the freshly chambered shell. The gun had a distinctive squared-off, “humpbacked” receiver to accommodate the bolt.
In one way, designing semiauto pistols, rifles and even machine guns was easy compared to making a semiauto shotgun. Most pistols and rifles need to function with only a very few loads, while shotguns have to work with a wide range of ammunition from light target loads to heavy hunting and buckshot rounds.
The problem is regulating bolt’s speed as it moves back to eject the old shell and forward to chamber the next one. The heavier the load, the harder and faster it drives the bolt back, battering the gun and shortening its life. But, if you make a gun that can stand up to heavy loads, there won’t be enough energy generated to drive the bolt back at all when you shoot lighter ammo. It’s a tricky balance, and one Browning struggled with. At least one of his early prototypes was ruined by the battering of the bolt against the back of the receiver.
Browning solved the problem with adjustable friction rings that slid over the magazine tube and sat on top of the spring that was compressed by the barrel under recoil. Set one way, the rings provided enough braking to slow the barrel down when firing heavy loads, and set other way, they reduced friction so the gun could function with light loads. Browning and his brothers tested the gun more than any other gun he ever invented to be sure it was ready.
Browning didn’t make guns himself. He designed them, then sold or licensed them to established manufacturers. He first took his gun to Winchester, which had bought so many of his designs already, balked at his request for royalties on the new shotgun. Browning took the gun to Remington, but the day Browning was set to meet with Remington’s president Martellus Hartley, Hartley died suddenly of a heart attack. Remington turned the gun down and Browning went to FN in Belgium, which would produce the gun until 1975. Browning also licensed his gun to Remington, which produced it as the Model 11 from 1905 to 1947. After his death the design was also licensed to Savage, which called it the Model 720 and made it from 1930 to 1949.
During World War II when Belgium was occupied by the Nazis, Auto 5s, nicknamed “American Brownings” were made in the Remington factory alongside the Model 11s. In 1976, Browning shifted Auto 5 production from FN to Miroku in Japan. Production ended in 1998 after a near-100 year run during which over 2,700,000 Auto 5s were made along with 850,000 Model 11s and several thousand Savage 720s. Guns based on the long-recoil design were introduced after the original patents expired, including the Remington 11-58 and the Franchi AL-48.
The Auto 5 was often called “A5” by its owners until 2012, when Browning introduced a new gun it calls the A5. That gun, while quite good, shares the humpback receiver but is completely different inside.
Auto 5 Variants
The Auto 5/Model 11/Savage 720 appeared in many variants and configurations in three gauges – 12, 16 and 20 – for sporting, target, military and law enforcement purposes. For years, the Belgian-made Auto 5, either in a 2 ¾ inch or 3-inch magnum version, was the prestige gun among waterfowl hunters. Upland hunters doted on the “Sweet 16,” a lightened, scaled down 16 gauge gun.
The Auto 5 came in 3-inch Magnum, Standard and Light versions. A very few “Super Lightweight” Auto 5s were made with alloy receivers late 60s. The Auto 5 appeared in police and military configurations as well, serving most notably with the British army during the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960.
Remington’s Model 11 was the first semiauto made in the U.S. In its early years, before the migratory bird treaty of 1916 put an end to commercial harvest of game, it was a favorite among market hunters for its rapid firepower. It was made in several hunting and target versions. For a long time Model 11s were the dominant gun among skeet shooters.
The Model 11 saw more law enforcement and military use than the Auto 5. They were issued to soldiers on guard duty and during World War II, and the Army Air Force used Model 11s to teach aerial gunners how to lead enemy planes by training them on the skeet field. Most of those Army guns were standard skeet guns, but some were set in aircraft-style mounts and even paired in mocked up turrets.
Likewise, the less expensive Savage 720 served in both sporting and military capacities. In addition to the 720, Savage made a lighter 726 Upland Sporter with a two-shot magazine, and the 745, a lightweight version with an alloy receiver.
Some tips on buying and owning an Auto 5
There are plenty of Auto 5s around today, and some Model 11s and 720s as well. They are still great hunting guns and a reliable gun for home defense or informal target shooting. If you want to own an example of John Browning’s greatest invention, it’s not hard to find one.
Belgian Auto 5s command the highest prices. Top dollar for a Belgian Light 20 gauge in unfired condition is about $1500 (12s are less), and you can find Auto 5s that in fine condition to take hunting for under half that. The Japanese guns are every bit as good as the Belgian Auto 5s, although some are heavier than the equivalent FN model, and they don’t bring quite as much money on the used market.
Model 11s and 720s aren’t as easy to find, if only because the youngest of them are still pushing 70 years old. Typically, they don’t sell for anywhere near the price of Browning Auto 5. If you want a smallbore, your only choice is the recently discontinued Franchi AL-48 in 28 gauge.
Check screws, rings and the forend. If you’re buying a used Auto 5, be sure both friction rings are in place and that none of the screw slots on the receiver are torn up. Auto 5s will work without rings, but not without pounding the gun. Marred screw slots mean an amateur has been poking around inside the gun. Auto 5 forends are made from very thin wood and they have a tendency to crack or warp (you’ll see a gap between the wood and steel if you look down from the top).
Owning An Auto 5
Great as Auto 5s were, and still are, they’re an older design, and there are a few things to think about when you buy, own and shoot one.Steel Yourself
Belgian guns are not rated for steel shot. Japanese Auto 5s are. You can find Japanese barrels to put on a Belgian gun, although they sell for $450 or so.Plug In
“Auto 5” gets its name from its ammo capacity. If you want one for dove or waterfowl hunting you will have to be sure a plug is installed in the magazine tube to limit its capacity to two shots.
Don’t Screw Up
Unlike modern guns, which can be disassembled by pushing out pins to remove the trigger group, Auto 5s are held together by screws, and taking the receiver down is complicated. Use only properly fitting screwdrivers, or let a gunsmith tear the gun down for an annual cleaning. The good news is, Auto 5s work so well you don’t need to take them apart often. If you absolutely have to clean the inside of the receiver just take the barrel off (that’s easy) tip the receiver downward and blast half a can of Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber inside.
Get the Rings Right
Pay attention to how you set the friction rings on the magazine tube. There should be a diagram glued inside the receiver. If not, get a copy of the manual from Browning or on line. The gun will function with heavy loads if you have the rings set for light loads, but it will kick hard and prematurely age the gun. Standard or Magnum
Auto 5s can’t shoot the range of loads a modern semiauto can handle. That’s why there are 3-inch and Standard versions. Magnums will shoot 3-inch shells and heavy 2 ¾ inch loads. Standards will shoot any 2 ¾ inch load.
Check the Chamber
Some Auto 5s, 11s and 720s (mostly 16 gauges) made before World War II, have 2 9/16 inch chambers but can be converted to shoot modern ammunition by a gunsmith.
Most gunsmiths can work on Auto 5s, but if you need work done by experts or want to have an old Auto 5 restored, Art’s Gunshop in Hillsboro, Missouri is the acknowledged expert on all Browning guns.
Take the Plunge
None of these obstacles are formidable and they are a small price to pay for owning a great, functional piece of firearms history.