Gun History: John Moses Browning and the Great War

The most prolific firearms designer in history had a huge impact on how WWI was fought.

We all owe John Moses Browning a debt of gratitude, and not just for your Grandaddy’s A5 that’s still killing geese just as dead as it did for him nearly 100 years ago. His designs helped tip the tides of war in the Allies favor not once, but twice.

Browning A5
A disassembled Browning Auto-5 semi-auto shotgun.
A disassembled Browning Auto-5 semi-auto shotgun.Buds Gun Shop

Born January 23, 1855 with a mind that was at least 50 years ahead of his time, John M. Browning invented many firearm components and systems that are ubiquitous even today. He built his first firearm at age 10 in his father's gun shop, and was awarded the first of his 128 firearm patents on October 7, 1879, at the age of 24. From the 1911, which is considered by many to be the greatest pistol ever created, to the inertia system found hidden inside the buttstock of Benelli’s shotguns, there’s evidence of his influence everywhere.

Browning with water-cooled Model 1917
John M. Browning behind his invention, the M1917 machine gun.
John M. Browning behind his invention, the M1917 machine gun.Browning Archives

But perhaps nowhere was his genius more needed than on the war-torn battlefields of Europe. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand kicked started a conflict that would spill to multiple continents, embroiling the entirety of the globe in warfare the likes of which had never been seen before. Soon, the whole world was fighting The Great War, called the War to End All Wars.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and John Moses found himself with a very bloody muse. Many American GIs shipped out with antiquated weapons that were better suited to chasing Pancho Villa across the arid Southwest, not the muddy trenches facing machine gun fire. Automatic weapons were starting to come into their own, creating a wall of bullets the Doughboys had to somehow survive.

Potato Digger
Browning's Potato Digger
Browning's Potato Digger wasn't a popular machine gun, but was a necessary bridge for the gun maker between the lever gun, and the full-auto machine gun.Wiki Commons

To give Allied Forces a fighting chance, Browning hit the drawing board in an effort to provide suppressive fire. His first go at a machine gun was based off the lever action of the Winchester 1886 he designed. The gun would be known as the M1895 "Potato Digger" because the reciprocating lever would dig into the earth under the gun if a small trench wasn't dug, thanks to a tripod design that was too short.

The guns exhibited some success on the battlefield, but Lt. Col. Roosevelt wasn’t overwhelmed by the performance of the M1895, though.

"These Colt automatic guns were not, on the whole, very successful...they proved more delicate than the Gatlings, and very readily got out of order." John took those words as a challenge, and set out to build a better machine gun.

Val Browning demonstrates the M1917
Val Browning, John's son.
Val Browning, John's son, was a 2nd Lt. with the 79th Infantry Division at Verdun in WWI. Here he gets behind his father's invention.Wikimedia Commons

Browning took another run at machine gun design around 1900, when he filed a patent for recoil-operated automatic weapon. This was shelved for various reasons until 1910, at which time he built a water-cooled prototype of the sliding block design.

The resultant gun was belt-fed, consuming .30-06 rounds at a rate of about 450 rounds a minute. In testing performed for the Army, the M1917 fired 20,000 rounds without a single hiccup.

The performance satiated representatives from the Army, but John Moses wasn’t satisfied. He loaded another belt and went through an additional 20,00 rounds, with the only casualty being a broken firing pin. Browning then grabbed another gun and fired it continuously for 48 minutes and 12 seconds, cranking out over 21,000 rounds.

Val Browning with an M1918 BAR
Here, Val is shown with the M1918 BAR, or Browning Automatic Rifle.
Here, Val is shown with the M1918 BAR, or Browning Automatic Rifle.Wiki Commons

Many gun historians will tell you that Browning's greatest contribution to small arms design was the Browning Automatic Rifle, also known as the BAR. This would be the gun that would introduce the world to the concept of "walking fire," with the soldier supporting the weapon via a shoulder sling while advancing through a trench. The firearm was relatively light by machine gun standards, with the early versions weighing only about 16 pounds, making it easily portable by a single operator. It's only con was a small magazine capacity for full-auto fire.

Debuted at the same February 27, 1917 demonstration that also introduced the M1917 to military leaders, the BAR was awarded a contract on the spot. The gas-operated automatic rifle fired from an open bolt, and was loaded via a 20-round box magazine. The gun ate rounds of .30-06 more reliably than its predecessors could ever dream of, making the adoption a no-brainer for the military brass. The BAR was christened the M1918 when it began its service life.

WWI-Era “Trench Broom
John M. Browning-designed the Model 1897 pump shotgun, which was built by Winchester.
John M. Browning-designed the Model 1897 pump action shotgun, which was built by Winchester.wiki commons

Automatic weapons were not Browning’s only contribution that impacted the war. The Winchester Model 1897, which would become known as the “Trench Broom,” would find its way its way into the fray. The 1897 was a pump-action shotgun with an external hammer and tube magazine, an evolution of John’s earlier designs. The gun proves so popular and effective that over one million would be produced from 1897 until 1957. After the War, they would find favor with police departments and hunters alike and led to the pump action being the preferred design of repeating shotguns for decades to come.

A diagram of the M1911 pistol in .45 ACP.
M1911 Diagram from the Soldier's Handbook
A diagram of the M1911 pistol in .45 ACP, another of Browning's inventions. It was the sidearm for the U.S. Army and the rest of the U.S. military from 1911 to 1985.Wiki Commons

Browning lent his talents to sidearms as well, producing what is likely the most iconic pistol of all time: the 1911. The single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, pistol was chambered in .45 ACP, and utilizes the short recoil principle that he pioneered and perfected. The M1911, as it is known by those in the service, was the standard-issue sidearm for the United States Armed Forces from 1911 to 1985 when it was replaced by the M9 in 9mm.

The pistol has not disappeared from service entirely, as the combination of a large caliber, heavy bullet out of a fast-handling pistol with a crisp, single-action trigger has earned plenty of proponents. The M1911 is still used by some Special Forces units and parts of the U.S. Navy. All told, the United States procured around 2.7 million of the pistols during its service.

Now, the century-old design can be seen in myriad competitions such as USPSA, IDPA, and International Practical Shooting Confederation, and not seen tucked into the belts of countless concealed carriers.