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John Browning.
John Browning was awarded 128 firearm patents in his lifetime. Public Domain

If asked the simple and straightforward question, who is the most famous firearms designer in the world – even amongst enthusiasts – the answer is likely be Samuel Colt, who is known, of course, for his revolvers.

However, Samuel Colt didn’t actually invent the revolver and his first foray into the business world didn’t exactly work out. While he did become a shrewd businessman who successfully utilized advertising, product placement and mass marketing to sell products, he died a decade before the introduction of the iconic Colt Single Action Army “Peacemaker.”

Colt may be among the most famous names in firearms, one that is associated with the Old West like no other, but when it comes to who rightfully should earn the title of most prolific gun designer, that honor goes, hands down, to John Moses Browning (1855-1926).

No other gun designer has been credited with so many revolutionary firearms designs. More importantly, unlike many of the small arms designers that came before – such as Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim who were tinkerers and general inventors – John Browning was a firearms designer by trade. He developed not only military and civilian firearms, but also developed numerous cartridges and many other gun mechanisms.

Jonathan Browning
Photo of Jonathan Browning in Salt Lake City circa 1865. Public Domain

While Browning wasn’t exactly born with a gun in his hands, he certainly grew up around firearms. Yet his father wasn’t a lawman, outlaw, or gunslinger.

Rather, Jonathan Browning was an inventor who trained as a blacksmith before becoming a gunsmith after an apprenticeship with Samuel Porter in Nashville, Tennessee. The elder Browning even began producing his firearms in 1831 and invented a “sliding breech” repeating rifle at his shop in Quincy, Illinois a few years later.

Jonathan Browning continued to work on his firearm designs even after he became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With his family he emigrated to Nauvoo, Illinois after followers of Joseph Smith were forced to leave Missouri. There is a family story that during his time in Illinois the elder Browning had a young Abraham Lincoln as a house guest on at least two occasions, but whether this is a myth or not has been lost to history.

What is known is that after Joseph Smith was assassinated, the Browning family left Illinois and followed Brigham Young to Iowa, where Jonathan continued to repair guns. As was common with the Mormon community at the time, Jonathan Browning was a polygamist with three wives. He fathered 22 children, including John Moses Browning and Matthew Sandefur Browning (1859-1923).

When the Brownings settled in Ogden, Utah, Jonathan ran a small gun shop, and this is where the younger John Moses learned the family trade.

The Browning Brothers Gun Shop in Utah Territory (circa 1882). In the photo are (left to right): Thomas Samuel Browning, George Emmett Browning, John Moses Browning, Matthew Sandefur Browning, Jonathan Edmund Browning, and Frank Rushton.
The Browning Brothers Gun Shop in Utah Territory (circa 1882). In the photo are (left to right): Thomas Samuel Browning, George Emmett Browning, John Moses Browning, Matthew Sandefur Browning, Jonathan Edmund Browning, and Frank Rushton. Public Domain

John Moses (henceforth referred to as Browning) could be described as a child prodigy when it came to firearms. He was almost to guns what Mozart was to music.

Browning developed his first firearm in his father’s gun shop when he was 13 years old, and was awarded the first of his 128 firearm patents by age 24, a rifle that Winchester would manufacture as the Single Shot Model 1885.

The Winchester Years

The partnership with Winchester came about soon after Browning co-founded the John Moses and Matthew Sandefur Browning Company (Browning Arms Company) in 1878 with his brother. Here he developed his designs for handguns and rifles, including single-shot, lever-action, pump-action, and most significantly, auto-loading firearms. The company bearing his name also produced other sporting goods that included fishing rods and reels, archery equipment including bows, gun safes, hunting knives and even bicycles. The elder Jonathan Browning died in 1879, soon after production of the production of the single-shot rifle began, sadly before John Browning’s career truly began in earnest.

It was just a few years later when Browning’s design caught the eye of Thomas Gray Bennett, vice president of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Seeing the potential of the design, Bennett purchased the manufacturing rights. While Winchester’s engineers made some improvements to the original falling block design: angling the block at six degrees to create a positive breech seal, it began a 20-year long collaboration between Browning and Winchester.

Winchester Model 1885 Rifle

Winchester Single Shot Model 1885 rifle
The Single Shot Model 1885 started the Browning-Winchester partnership that was to last 20 years. Winchester produced nearly 140,000 Single Shot rifles from 1885 to 1920, and it was found that the falling-block Model 1885 had been built with one of the strongest actions known at that time. Public Domain

The rifle was originally produced to satisfy the demands of the growing sport of long-range “Match Shooting,” but remained so popular with shooters that it was produced from 1885 until 1918.

For Browning, it allowed him to design guns, and Winchester produced the patents—whether the guns were produced or not—just to keep competitors from producing them. This allowed Browning to work on his designs and leave the marketing to someone else.

Winchester produced nearly 140,000 Single Shot rifles from 1885 to 1920, and it was found that the falling-block Model 1885 had been built with one of the strongest actions known at that time.

Winchester Model 1886 Rifle

The Winchester Model 1886 lever action rifle.
The Winchester Model 1886 lever action rifle. imfdb.org

The Browning-designed Winchester Model 1886 was a lever-action repeating rifle featured increased physical strength compared to the previous 1876 Model to handle the more powerful rifle cartridges of the period. Some 160,000 of these were produced.

It was originally chambered in .45-70, .45-90 WCF, and .40-82, and was later offered in several other big bore cartridges, including .50-110 Winchester. The action proved strong enough to make the jump to smokeless powder with only minor modifications to the rifle. Beginning in 1903, the model 1886 was chambered for the smokeless .33 WCF.

At the onset of World War I, the Royal Flying Corps bought Model 1886 rifles in .45-90 Sharps and loaded them with special incendiary bullets designed to ignite the hydrogen gas in German airships.

Winchester released a slightly modified version of the Model 1886 in 1935 as the Model 71 chambered for the powerful .348 Winchester.

Winchester Model 1890 Slide Action Rifle

The Winchester Model 1890 slide action rifle.
The Winchester Model 1890 slide action rifle. imfdb.org

In the late 1880s, Winchester asked Browning to design a new rifle to replace the Model 1873 and the result was the slide action Model 1890, which proved to be the most successful repeating rimfire rifle for general all around shooting ever made by Winchester.

Approximately 849,000 Model 1890 rifles were produced between 1890 and 1932.

Winchester Model 1892

The Winchester Model 1892 lever action rifle.
The Winchester Model 1892 lever action rifle. Imfdb.org

In the early 1890s Winchester called upon Browning to design a level action to compete with a recent offering from rival Marlin, and the result was the Model 1892—essentially a scaled-down version ofthe 1886 action for smaller carbine cartridges.

These guns were a huge hit and Winchester sold more than one million between 1892 and 1945. The rifle was carried by Admiral Robert E. Peary on his trips to the North Pole. It was offered in many chamberings, but the most popular was .44-40.

Some 21,000 were used by the Royal Navy during WWI and Admiral Robert E. Peary carried a Model 1892 rifle on his strips to the North Pole and the one millionth 1892 rifle was presented to Secretary of War Patrick Hurley on Dec. 13, 1932. Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett carried one on his expeditions and the famous jaguar hunter Sasha Siemel used a short-barrreled Winchester 92 carbine with a bayonet attached.

In total, 1,007,608 Model 1892 rifles were made by the original Winchester company.

The Great Depression killed sales of the 92 and production was halted at the onset of WWII when Winchester retooled for the war effort. Production of the Model 92 was not resumed after the war, but was picked up again in the 1970s by Amadeo Rossi in Brazil and then by Chiappa in Italy, Browning in Japan, and Winchester in Japan as well.

Modern 92 rifles can handle high-pressure handgun rounds, such as .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .454 Casull.

Winchester Model 1894

Winchester Model 1894
The Winchester Model 1894 lever gun. imfdb.org

Browning continued to refine his lever action design, and produced the Winchester Model 1894, which was one of the most famous and popular hunting rifles of all time.

Firearms historian and Range365′s own Hal Herring called the Model 1894 the “ultimate lever-action design.”

The Model 1894 is the rifle that became synonymous with “Winchester.” Eventually, like all insulated vacuum bottles are a Thermos, all lever guns started to be called Winchesters. It was the first commercial sporting rifle to sell over 7,000,000 units.

The rifle was originally chambered for the .32-40 Win and .38-55 Win black powder cartridges and in 1895 was the first rifle to be chambered in the smokeless .30 WCF—Winchester Center Fire, which would go on to become the .30-30 Winchester.

Three U.S. presidents were presented with landmark Model 1894 rifles: Calvin Coolidge received the millionth rifle produced in 1927, the 1.5 millionth rifle was given to Harry Truman in 1948, and the two millionth rifle was presented to Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

The 1894 was made by Winchester through 1980, and then by U.S. Repeating Arms under the Winchester brand until 2006. Today reproductions are made by Miroku in Japan and imported by Browning Arms.

Of note, because more and more hunters expected to be able to use a receiver-mounted scope on their rifles, Winchester changed the top-ejecting design of the the rifle in 1982 to an angled cartridge ejection design, which allowed the rifle to function with conventional scopes.

Winchester Model 1895 Rifle

Winchester 1895 lever action rifle.
The Winchester 1895 lever action rifle. imfdb.org

One of the final rifles that Browning designed for Winchester was also one of his most unique, though it included a rear locking bolt as in his previous designs dating back to the Model 1886.

The Winchester Model 1895 was the first Winchester lever gun to feed from a 5- or 4-round integral blind box magazine located beneath the action instead of a tubular magazine, as it was designed from the start for modern, smokeless cartridges—many of which were military cartridges with spitzer-shaped bullets (pointed). Bullets on cartridges used in tube magazines must be flat or rounded (or polymer tipped), so that they don’t set off each other’s primers while under spring tension in the tube during recoil.

The rifle was used by several militaries, including the U.S., Great Britain, and mostly by Imperial Russia. Interestingly, the Russian models could be loaded using the same stripper clips used for the Mosin Nagant through the top ejection port right into the internal magazine, something no other lever gun could do, and neither could the Winchester 95s sold int he U.S. Of the 425,000 M1895s produced, about 300,000 were made for Russia between 1915 and 1917.

modern production Winchester Model 1895 rifle
The Model 1895 currently offered by Winchester Repeating Arms has an abbreviated handguard compared to the original military version pictured above. Winchester Repeating Arms

Teddy Roosevelt famously carried one chambered in .405 Win. on his African safaris and referred to it as his “Big Medicine.”

In 1908 the Model 1895 became the first commercially produced sporting rifle chambered in .30-06 Springfield, then called “.30 Gov’t 06”).

You can still buy a Model 1895 rifle from Winchester Repeating Arms in Teddy’s preferred caliber, .405 Winchester.

Winchester Single-Shot Rifle Model 1900 Rifle

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Winchester Model 1900 single-shot rifle. GunsInternational.com

In 1899, at the tail end of the partnership with its partnership with Browning, Winchester decided to produce and market a simple and affordable .22 caliber rifle that could be used for hunting small game and for recreational shooting.

John Browning and his brother Matthew designed such a weapon for this purpose and it was introduced as the Winchester Single-Shot Rifle Model 1900.

Winchester Model 1887 Lever Action Shotgun

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The Winchester Model 1887 lever action shotgun. Rock Island Auction Company

Browning took his repeating rifle design to shotguns with the Winchester 1887, which was designed to meet of lawmen and cowboys who found that the traditional double barreled shotguns didn’t offer enough firepower. It was one of the very first successful repeating shotguns.

While Browning suggested that a pump action design would be better for a shotgun, but Winchester was known as a lever gun company at the time, and they wanted their new shotgun to be a lever gun too. Browning delivered with the breech-loading, rolling block lever action Model 1887.

Winchester Model 1897 Pump Action Shotgun

The Winchester 1897 pump action shotgun.
The Winchester 1897 pump action shotgun. imfdb.org

While the Winchester 1887 Shotgun provided a repeating design, Browning devised a pump-action system with his Winchester Model 1893 Shotgun and refined it with the Model 1897.

It was the first truly successful pump-action shotgun produced and over a million of the exposed hammer shotguns were made in various grades and barrel lengths from 1897 until it was discontinued by Winchester in 1957.

Winchester Model 1912 Shotgun

Winchester Model 1912 pump-action shotgun
The Winchester Model 1912 pump-action shotgun. imfdb.org

Dubbed the “Perfect Repeater” at its inception, this hammerless shotgun served as the successor to the earlier Winchester Model 1897.

Nearly 2 million were produced between 1912 and 1963 in a variety of grades and barrel lengths. With a shortened barrel, it was used by the U.S. military and saw service in both World Wars.

Browning and Winchester Part Ways

Browning’s partnership with Winchester and more specifically with Thomas Gray Bennett came to an end over what would later become the Auto-5 self-loading shotgun. Browning, who had received a single fee payment for each design that was licensed exclusively to Winchester, had felt that if the shotgun became successful he should be granted substantially more money. However, Winchester’s management rejected Browning’s offer and at this resulted in the prolific gun designer looking for a new partner.

Browning approached Remington Arms, but the president of that gunmaker died before a deal could be reached. While Browning’s company manufactured the shotgun, it was produced by the Remington and other manufacturers until license.

Browning’s Other Rifles and Shotguns

Throughout his prolific career John Browning designed firearms for a number of gun manufacturers, which then produced his guns under license.

Browning Auto-5, Winchester Model 11, Savage Model 720 Semi-Auto Shotgun

The Browning Auto-5 semi-auto shotgun.
The Browning Auto-5 semi-auto shotgun. imfdb.org

Designed by John Browning in 1898 and patented in 1900, the Browning Auto-5 was the first successful, mass produced semi-automatic shotgun. You can probably guess that the “A-5” name comes from “Auto” and the fact that it had a five-shell capacity. It saw military service from WWI through the Vietnam War.

Nicknamed the “Humpback” because of its unique silhouette, the shotgun was serially produced from for over 100 years. It was first manufactured by FN Herstal in Belgium beginning in 1902 as the Auto-5 and also under license by Remington as the Model 11 and by Savage as the Model 720—only the latter two variants lacked the magazine cutoff switch present on FN-made Auto-5 shotguns.

An example of a Belgium-made FN Auto 5 from 1969. Note the magazine cuttoff switch on the left side of the receiver, a feature only present on A5s made by FN.
An example of a Belgium-made FN Auto 5 from 1969. Note the magazine cutoff switch on the left side of the receiver, a feature only present on A5s made by FN and the “American Browning” shotguns made by Remington during WWII, which differed from Remington’s nearly identical Model 11. photo from gunauction.com

At the beginning of WWII, Browning moved production of the Auto-5 from Belgium to Remington Arms in the U.S. The Auto-5 was produced alongside the Model 11 at Remington until FN could start making guns again after the war ended.

Production returned to FN in 1952, but the majority of Auto-5 production moved to Miroku in Japan in 1975 until 1998 when production ceased.

The last commemorative model of the A-5 was produced by FN in 1999 and then, in 2014, Browning Arms release the new A5—a recoil-operated shotgun with an external resemblance to the Auto-5, but with significant internal changes.

To date, the Auto-5 is the second best selling auto loading shotgun in history behind the Remington 1100.

For more history of the Auto-5, go here.

Stevens Model 520

Stevens Model 520 shotgun
The Stevens Model 520 trench gun. imfdb.org

Browning worked on a pump-action shotgun that was originally manufactured by the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company between 1909 and 1916 as the Model 520.

This shotgun is a hammerless, pump action, take-down design with a tubular magazine that holds 5 rounds. The 520 can famously be slam fired, meaning there is no trigger disconnector, so if the trigger is held down, the shotgun will fire repeatedly just by working the slide.

The design was improved as the M620 in 1927, and was produced as a “Trench Gun” version with a 20-inch barrel for use by the military.

Stevens was sold to New England Westinghouse in 1915 and civilian firearm production was reduced. The company was renamed J. Stevens Arms Company and production was moved to Chicopee Falls, MA to produce Mosin-Nagant rifles under contract for Russia during WWI. After the war, in 1920, full production of civilian arms resumed and under Savage ownership, the Model 520 was produced until 1939. It was replaced by the Model 520A, which was produced until 1948.

The aforementioned Model 620 was internally similar to the Model 520 and was produced until 1939, It was replaced by the Model 620A, produced until 1955.

Remington Model 17 and the Ithaca Model 37 Shotguns

Ithaca 37 shotgun
The 12 gauge Deer Slayer Police Special variant of the Ithaca 37 shotgun with rifle sights and a “riot gun” length barrel. imfdb.org

While not technically a “Browning,” the Ithaca 37 was based on a 1915 patent by Browning for a shotgun initially marketed as the Remington Model 17 and was intended to compete with the popular Winchester 1912.

The Ithaca was actually designed in 1931, but patent issued delayed its introduction for several years. Production was greatly reduced by the Ithaca Gun Company during WWII while the company was making M1911 pistols and M3 submachine guns. Civilian production ramped up after the war and the 37 was made in large numbers for the civilian, military, and police markets.

The pump gun has a combination ejection and loading port at the bottom of the receiver leaving the sides and top closed to the elements and therefore an excellent military shotgun. And, since shells eject from the bottom, it was easily used by left handed shooters. Like the Stevens Model 520, it could also be slam fired.

Ithaca made the shotgun in a number of variants and is actually has the longest production run of any pump shotgun in history. The company suffered a bunch of setbacks over the years and has changed hands a few times. For a time, the 37 was renamed to Model 87, but that was short lived. When the company changed hands again in 2005, production of the 37 was halted but later resumed.

The millionth Ithaca 37 was produced in 1968 and as of 2003, more than 2 million had been produced. It’s the only pre-WWII shotgun still in production. It was used in the U.S. armed forced in WWII, the Korean War, and especially in the Vietnam War, where it was valued for its reliability in the harsh jungle environment. It was also heavily used by the NYPD and the LAPD where it remined in service until the 1980s and 1990s, respectively.

The Remington Model 17, on which the Ithaca was based, was also a hammerless, under-loading, bottom-ejecting shotgun that could be taken down. Browning sold the manufacturing rights to Remington, but due to WWI, the gun wasn’t manufactured until 1921, after John Pedersen had made alterations to the design with additional changed from G.H. Garrison.

The Model 17 was a 20 gauge shotgun that served as the basis for the Ithaca 37 as well as the Remington Model 31 and the Browning BPS. Some features of the the Model 17 were also incorporated into the Mossberg 500 and the Remington 870.

Browning 22 Semi-Auto Rifle

The Browning 22 Semi-Auto rifle.
The Browning 22 Semi-Auto rifle. imfdb.org

The Belgian firm FN Herstal began production of the Browning .22 Semi-Auto in 1914 and it remains in production to this day.

It was the first production semi-automatic rifle chambered in .22 LR and today is regarded as a classic. A lighter-weight version was also produced as the Remington Model 24 from 1919-1934, before it was replaced by the Remington Model 241.

FN Trombone

The FN Trombone rifle.
The FN Trombone rifle. imfdb.org

This pump action rifle was designed by Browning in 1919 and then first produced by FN Herstal in 1922.

Today it is far more common in Europe and rarely encountered in the U.S. This was due to a regional exclusivity agreement that existed between FN and Colt, which specified where Browning-designed firearms could be sold.

Browning’s Handguns

As prolific as John Browning was when it came to rifles and shotguns, he should also be remembered for producing some truly iconic handguns as well.

FN Browning M1900

FN Browning 1900 pistol
The FN Browning M1900 pistol. imfdb.org

Among the first of Browning’s pistol designs was the FN Browning M1900, a single action, semi-automatic pistol that he designed in the late 1890s for Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN).

It was the first production handgun to feature a slide—a feature that is still predominant in semi-auto handgun designs today.

The FN M1900 was chambered in .32 ACP and the magazine held seven rounds.

The Colt M1900 pistol.
The Colt M1900 pistol. imfdb.org

After Browning’s partnership with Winchester ended, he began to work with Colt and among his earliest designs for the iconic gun maker was the Colt Model 1900, a short-recoil “self-loading”—or semi-automatic—.38-caliber handgun.

It marked the introduction of the .38 ACP round, but even in this early design, it’s easy to see the roots of what would become the iconic 1911.

Colt Model 1902

The Colt Model 1902 pistol.
The Colt Model 1902 Military pistol. imfdb.org

Browning’s next handgun design was the Colt Model 1902 pistol, also a short-recoil, semi-automatic and basically an improved version of the M1900.

Browning sought to join contemporary gun designers, notably Hugo Borchardt and Georg Luger, in producing a marketable semi-automatic pistol.

It was made in two versions including the Colt Model 1902 Military and Model 1902 Sporting —some 18,000 of the former and just under 7,000 of the latter version were produced, making this a rare firearm for Colt/Browning collectors.

Colt M1903 Pocket Hammer Model

Colt M1903 Pocket Hammer
The Colt M1903 Pocket Hammer pistol. imfdb.org

Browning followed up on the Model 1902 with the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer, yet another short-recoil, semi-automatic pistol. It was chambered in .38 ACP and was essentially a compact version of the Model 1902 and was produced from 1903 to 1929.

The European version was produced as the FN Browning 1903, but that particular firearm is a bit longer and was chambered in 9x20mm Long for military sales. You can really see the beginnings of the 1911 in this design.

Colt M1903 Hammerless and M1908 Pocket Hammerless

The Colt M1903 Hammerless pistol.
The Colt M1903 Hammerless pistol. imfdb.org

While John Browning was working on the Colt Model 1903 Pocket pistol, he also worked on the Colt M1903 Hammerless, which was produced between 1903 and 1945.

Despite the name, this pistol does have a hammer, but the hammer is actually hidden under the rear of the slide. This allowed it to be carried and withdrawn from a pocket quickly and smoothly without snagging.

It was popular with U.S. military officers, but also was popular among civilians and criminals of the day because it was relatively small and easy to conceal. Bonnie Parker famously used on to break Clyde Barrow out of jail after she smuggled it in taped to her thigh and John Dillinger was carrying this pistol when he was killed by FBI agents outside the Biograph theater in Chicago in 1934.

It was chambered in .32 ACP. A larger variant, the Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless, was introduced in .380 ACP.

FN Model 1905 (1906) and Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket

The FN Model 1905 pistol.
The FN Model 1905 pistol. imfdb.org

Known as either the FN Model 1905 (for its patent date) or FN Model 1906 (the year of manufacture), it was produced by FN Hertsal from 1906 to 1959.

The same design was produced as the Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket and is one of the only case in which both companies put the same design into production without significant modifications. This gun served as the basis for FN’s “Baby Browning” designs.

The compact, hammerless, striker-fired pistol is single-action and was made by Colt from 1908 until 1948. The gunmaker marketed it as a concealed carry firearm that could be, you guessed it, easily tucked into a vest pocket. It was chambered for the .25 AC cartridge, also invented by Browning, as was the FN Model 1906.

It was 4.5 inches long with a 2-inch barrel and weighed just 13 ounces with a six-round capacity in a single-stack mag. Almost a half million of the pistols were sold during its production run.

FN Model 1910 and Model 1922

The FN Model 1910 pistol.
The FN Model 1910 pistol. imfdb.org

While working with FN, Browning developed a blowback-operated, semi-automatic pistol, which was produced as the FN Model 1910.

Many of Browning’s designs were produced by FN in Europe and also by Colt Firearms in the U.S., with an agreement dictating which company’s guns would be sold in certain countries. But in this case, the Model 1910 was only produced in Europe.

FN Model 1922 pistol
The FN Model 1922 pistol had a longer barrel and slide and a longer grip to accommodate two additional rounds in the magazines. imfdb.org

The design featured an operating spring that surrounded the barrel, a novel feature at the time that became standard in many future handgun designs, including the Walther PPK and the Russian Makarov pistol.

The Model 1910 was produced until 1983. A military variant was also produced as the Model 1922 (pictured above) with a longer barrel, slide extension, and longer grip to accommodate two additional rounds.

The Colt Woodsman

The Colt Woodsman .22LR pistol.
The Colt Woodsman .22LR pistol. imfdb.org

The Colt Woodsman was one of the most widely produced .22 Long Rifle handsgun ever, with more than 690,000 being made over the years. The semi-auto sporting pistol was manufactured by Colt from 1915 to 1977. It was based on a Browning design that the engineers at Colt refined before it was introduced.

The frame design changed over time, in three distinct series: series one being made in 1915–1941, Series Two in 1947–1955, and Series Three produced from 1955–1977.

However, all are based on Browning’s original design. Browning developed the Woodsman with a short slide, no grip safety, and no external hammer—features he didn’t deem necessary for a civilian-only handgun.

Browning and the U.S. Military

While the company bearing the family name was founded to make sporting rifles and handguns, Browning’s designs also caught the eye of the U.S. military and over the course of his career his designs including the M1911 pistol, the Browning Hi-Power, the M1917 water-cooled machine gun, the M1919 air-cooled machine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).

The Browning brothers developed the gas-operating system that was first used in the Colt-Browning M1895 machine gun – nicknamed the “potato digger” due to its unusual operating system. It fired from a closed bolt and had a cyclic rate of 450 rounds per minute. It saw use in the Spanish-American War, as well as the Second Boer War and even limited use during the First World War. Some of the weapons were later used in the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, and finally in the Spanish Civil War.

Colt 1895 Automatic Machine Gun

Colt 1895 Automatic Machine Gun
The Colt 1895 Automatic Machine Gun. imfdb.org

The Colt–Browning M1895, nicknamed “potato digger” because of its unusual operating mechanism, WAS John and Matthew Browning’s first machine gun design, and the first successful gas-operated machine gun to enter service.

For more on the history of the M1895, go here.

The M1911 Pistol

Among the most famous of Browning’s designs was the Colt M1911 .45 ACP pistol, which was used by the U.S. military from the 1911 until 1986 when it was finally replaced by the 9mm Beretta M9 pistol.

The Colt M1911 pistol in .45 ACP.
The Colt M1911 pistol in .45 ACP. Imfdb.org

Even today, modernized variants of the M1911 are still used by the U.S. Army Special Forces and the U.S. Navy.

For a complete history of the 1911 pistol, go here.

M1917 Machine Gun

M1917 Machine Gun
In 1901 Browning filed a patent for an automatic recoil loader, and while this design didn’t initially catch the interest of the U.S. military it eventually became the Model 1917 .30 caliber recoil-operated machine gun. imfdb.org

A decade before the outbreak of the First World War Browning sought to improve upon the Maxim-based design that was in service with the militaries of Great Britain, Germany, Russia and other European nations.

While his innovative design took more than a decade to perfect it was lighter than the Maxim or Vickers and offered smoother operation. The result was the water-cooled M1917, a .30 caliber recoil-operated machine gun that had a rate of fire of upwards of 600 rounds per minute.

For a full history of the M1917 machine gun, go here.

M1919 .30-Cal Machine Gun

M1919A4 machine gun
The M1919A4 machine gun mounted on a tripod. imfdb.org

Browning then improved upon that design with the M1919 Browning, which air-cooled system lightened the weight considerably. While gunners had to be trained to manage the barrel heat by firing in controlled bursts, the design was so innovative that the M1919 has seen use as a light infantry machine gun, mounted on aircraft and even in anti-aircraft roles.

More than 100 years later the M1919 still remains in use in secondary roles with militaries around the world. The same basic design principles of the M1919 were also applied to the M2 .50 caliber machine gun when it was developed in the 1930s.

M1919 machine gun
The Browning .30 M1919 was introduced after the end of the First World War but remained the main light machine gun of the U.S. military until the adoption of the M60. The M1919 still remains in use with militaries around the world in a secondary role. Peter Suciu

John Browning also was among the first firearms designers to successfully address the issue of “walking fire” with his Browning Automatic Rifle, the first truly successful automatic rifles.

Chambered for the same .30-06 Springfield rifle cartridge used in the main battle rifle of the American military during the First World War (the 1903 Springfield), the BAR was designed to give an infantryman the ability to move forward with sustained fire.

For more history on the M1919 machine gun, go here.

M2 Machine Gun “Ma Deuce”

M2 Browning machine gun in .50 BMG.
M2 Browning machine gun in .50 BMG. imfdb.org

Near the end of WWI, Browning created a design that would eventually become the M2 Browning machine gun in the 1930s after his death. It was similar to the M1919 Browning and also owed some of its design to Browning’s M1921, which was a water-cooled .50-caliber machine gun produced in 1929.

The M2 used the large .50 BMG cartridge, also developed by Browning for use in the M2.

Because of its M2 military designation, it garnered the popular nickname “Ma Deuce,” which has persisted to this day. The large-bore machine gun is effective against infantry, unarmored or light armor vehicles, boats, light fortifications, and low-flying aircraft.

M2 Browning and M1919 Browning in Fury
M2 Browning and M1919 Browning in Fury imfdb.org

Over the years it has been used extensively by the U.S. military and other militaries as a vehicle- and aircraft-mounted machine gun. It saw heavy use during WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Falklands War, the Soviet-Afghan War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan. It is sitll the primary heavy machine gun of NATO countries and it has been in use longer than any firearm in the U.S. arsenal, other than the M1911, another Browning design.

These days, the modern M2HB is made in the U.S. by General Dynamics and U.S. Ordnance for the government and for allies. It is also made by FN Herstal in Belgium. —Dave Maccar

For more history on the M2 Browning, go here.

M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)

Browning BAR.
The Browning Automatic Rifle was developed to provide “walking fire” to soldiers. It was used by the U.S. military and some were even favored by criminals. The legendary Bonnie & Clyde preferred BARs. Peter Siucu

The BAR didn’t entirely live up to the U.S. War Department’s requirements to supply soldiers with a weapon that was both a rifle and light machine gun, but with its 20-round magazine the BAR was more than good enough that there were actually worries during the final stages of the First World War that the German Army would capture and copy its design.

The BAR also went on as a support weapon in the Second World War, the Korean War and even the early stages of the Vietnam War.

For more history of the BAR, go here.

Browning the Legend

Over the course of John Browning’s career he also developed a number of cartridges including .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .45 ACP, .50 BMG and 9mm Browning Long, among others. Many of these firearms and cartridges are still in use today; a testament to the quality of his designs. What is also notable about Browning is that nearly all of his designs were also manufactured under license by other companies and this included Colt, FN Hertsal, Miroku, Remington, and Winchester.

This is also where John Browning differs from Samuel Colt. The latter was a good designer who built a great company that bears his name. Browning on the other hand was a great designer who opted to sell or license his designs.

Browning continued to work until he died of heart failure at his workbench on November 26, 1926, while he was working on a self-loading pistol design for Fabrique Nationale de Herstal, a weapon that would go on to become the FN Hi-Power.

Browning Over/Under Shotgun
The Browning Superposed was the first successful mass produced O/U shotgun and the last firearm designed by John Browning. After his death, the design was completed by Browning’s son, Val A. Browning. It was produced from 1931 to 1940. Browning

More than 90 years after John Browning’s death his firearm designs remain innovative and even iconic. While his name may not be as well known as Edison or Leonardo D’Vinci, in the world of firearms he was a combination of those men and so much more.

EXTRA: The Browning Hi-Power, FN, Belgium, Canada, and WWII

The FN Hi-Power 9mm pistol.
The FN Hi-Power 9mm pistol. Wikimedia Commons

One of the more unique Browning designs was the Hi-Power, a single-action, semi-automatic handgun that was based on John Browning’s action, but completed by Dieudonné Saive at Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium.

Browning had died in 1926, almost a decade before the design was finalized. Even from a cursory glance it is easy to see this handgun is based on the Colt M1911.

However, the Hi-Power, which was developed to fire the 9mm Luger/Parabellum cartridge, has a 13-round magazine capacity—twice that of the M1908 Luger or an M1911. In fact, it was one of the highest capacity semi-autos on the market for a good chunk of time.

Browning began work on the new handgun in the early 1920s and two prototypes were reportedly produced, the first in 1923 and the second in 1927. One featured a blowback design while the other utilized a locked-breech recoil system, but both featured the staggered magazine that Saive had been developing.

Following Browning’s death, the patents to the M1911 expired in 1928, and Saive was able to integrate many of that handgun’s design elements into the Hi-Power. The gun was adopted by the Belgian military as the Browning P-35.

Ironically, FN began designing the gun in response to the French military calling for a new handgun, but for a number of reasons, the French opted not to adopt the Hi-Power and selected the similar Modèle 1935 pistol instead.

During the War

During and interesting chapter in the history of the Hi-Power, in 1940, when Belgium was occupied by Germany, the FN plant continued to produce the handgun, which was then designated Pistole 640(b) and used by German Waffen-SS troops, among others.

Blueprints for the pistol were smuggled out of occupied Belgium and brought to Canada, where the gun was then manufactured by the John Inglis and Company for use by Allied forces during WWII.

After WWII, various nations adopted the Hi-Power, and it was used by most NATO countries (since the 9mm was adopted as the standard NATO pistol cartridge), and was the standard firearm of the British Commonwealth, though it’s called something different in different countries:

  • The British call it the L9A1, Pistol No 2 Mk 1, Pistol No 2 Mk 1* (yes, with the asterisk), or Mk 1.
  • In Bulgaria, a licensed copy is known as the Arcus 94.
  • In Israel, the licensed version is the Kareen.
  • In Argentina, it is the FM90.
  • RFI manufactures the Hi-Power in India and calls it the Pistol Auto 9mm 1A.
  • In the U.S., the pistol is known as the Hi-Power, a distinction made by the Browning firearms company when importing the pistols from FN in Belgium, though production ceased in 2017.

Interestingly, currently FN Herstal owns both Winchester and Browning Arms.

The Guns of John M. Browning

RIFLES

  • Winchester Model 1885 Rifle
  • Winchester Model 1886 Rifle
  • Winchester Model 1890 Slide Action Rifle
  • Winchester Model 1892
  • Winchester Model 1894
  • Winchester Model 1895 Rifle
  • Winchester Single-Shot Rifle Model 1900 Rifle
  • Winchester Model 1887 Lever Action Shotgun
  • Winchester Model 1897 Pump Action Shotgun
  • Winchester Model 1912 Shotgun
  • Remington Model 17 and Ithaca Model 37 Shotgun
  • Stevens Model 520
  • Browning 22 Semi-Auto Rifle
  • FN Trombone

HANDGUNS

  • FN Browning M1900
  • Colt Model 1902
  • Colt M1903 Pocket Hammer Model
  • Colt M1903 Hammerless and M1908 Pocket Hammerless
  • FN Model 1905 (1906) and Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket
  • FN Model 1910 and Model 1922
  • The Colt Woodsman
  • Browning Hi-Power

MILITARY ARMS

  • M1911 Pistol
  • M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
  • Colt 1895 Automatic Machine Gun
  • M1917 Machine Gun
  • M1919 .30-Cal Machine Gun
  • M2 .50 BMG Machine Gun

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