What If John Browning Were Never Born?

What If John Browning Were Never Born?

John Moses Browning and a Winchester official examine an early production Browning Automatic Rifle.

Between 1847 and 1852, thousands of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as Mormons) left Illinois and began a trek to what would become the Utah Territory.

The church had been founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s. Several of its tenets —  the best known being polygamy —  had led to both religious and political persecution and legal repercussions for its members. Their leader, Brigham Young, decided to relocate in Utah, where they hoped to construct a society in isolation based on their beliefs and values.


The so-called "Harmonica Gun" was invented by John Moses' father, Jonathan Browning. (Courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, ME, www.jamesdjulia.com)


One of the original Mormon pioneers was a blacksmith/gunsmith named Jonathan Browning.[1] Settling on the frontier, the Mormons needed firearms and someone to repair them and Browning's business prospered. On Jan. 23, 1855, a son was born to Jonathan and his third wife Elizabeth Clark.[2] They named him John Moses Browning, and (to use that old expression) a legend was born!

John Browning dropped out of school and went to work in his father's shop in Ogden, Utah, from the age of seven, where he was taught basic engineering and manufacturing principles and was encouraged to experiment with new concepts. He was granted his first patent in 1878 for a single-shot, falling-block rifle, after which he opened his own manufacturing operation in partnership with his younger brother Matthew.

John Browning's rifle attracted the attention of Winchester, which was impressed enough that it purchased the rights to the rifle and marketed as the Winchester Model 1885 (a.k.a. Low Wall). This was the beginning of a three-decade relationship between John Browning and Winchester.

The Winchester Low Wall rifle was the first Browning design to be produced commercially.

In this day of highly trained specialists, hordes of technical engineers and CAD programs, it is sometimes difficult to believe that one of the world's greatest firearms designers had no formal training whatsoever in mechanical engineering, physics, metallurgy, chemistry or any of the other sciences now considered necessary to the trade.

Browning's most famous invention was the Colt M1911 pistol. (Courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, ME, www.jamesdjulia.com)

John Browning was one of those rare natural geniuses who when faced with a problem, idea or theory sat down with a piece of metal in one hand and a file in the other and come up with the most successful firearm designs in history. He was the most prolific firearms designer of the 19th and early 20th centuries and, by the time of his death in 1926, John Browning had been granted 128 patents for firearms, their operating systems and ammunition.

His designs were, in great part, responsible for the success of such giants of the firearms industry, such as Colt, Winchester, Fabrique Nationale, Remington and Savage. John Browning designed everything from .22 pistols to 37mm cannons — and several of the cartridges they fired. His pistol designs are especially significant as he perfected blowback operation- 1899 (FN Mle. 1900); the short-recoil locked breech system - 1911 (Colt M1911); and the high-capacity pistol magazine - 1935 (FN Hi-Power).

The Browning-designed FN Hi-Power, as perfected by Dieudonné Joseph Saive, was the first pistol to use a high-capacity magazine and was the most popular 9mm pistol in the world from 1935 until just recently.

Practically every semiauto pistol manufactured today contains one of more design features pioneered by John Browning. His 1911 and Hi-Power pistols are still in production and are two of the most popular handguns on the market. The 1911 is still in service with the US military after more than a century. His firearms, especially his later pistol designs, showed an understanding of ergonomics far in advance of many of his contemporaries.

John Browning invented several of the most influential lever action rifles and the first truly practical pump action and semiauto shotguns and rifles. Some of which are still in production after more than a century. His M1917A1 and M2 machine guns set the standard for medium and large caliber full-auto weapons and the .50 caliber M2 is still manufactured and in service around the world.

So what would firearms and the firearms industry look like today if John Moses Browning had not been born? For starters, the following companies would not have produced these firearms, many of which proved to be their biggest selling items.

John Moses Browning holding an FN Auto-5 shotgun.

Winchester: High and Low Wall single shot rifles; M1886, M1892, M1894 & M1895 lever action rifles; M1890, M1906 and M62 pump action rifles; M1887/1901 lever action shotguns; M1893 and M1897 pump action shotguns.

Fabrique Nationale: Models 1900, 1903, 1905, 1910, 1910/22 and Hi-Power pistols; FN Auto-5 and Superposed shotguns; FN .22 and .35 caliber semiauto rifles; Model 1922 pump action rifle.

Remington: Model 11 semiauto and Model 17 pump action shotguns; Model 8 and 24 semiauto rifles.

Savage/Stevens: Model 520 pump action shotgun.

Colt: Model 1900, 1902, 1903, 1905, 1908, 1911, 1911A1 and Woodsman pistols; Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR); M1895, M1917, M1919 and M2 (.50) machine guns.

Ithaca: Model 37 pump action shotgun.

the Colt M1895 was Browning's first gas operated machine gun. Here, Browning demonstrates how to aim and fire the gun.

If John Browning had not been born, it is likely that early semiauto pistols such as the Mauser, Bergmann, Schwarzlose, Mannlicher and Parabellum —  which for the most part were large, heavy, complicated, not overly reliable and expensive — might have dominated the early pistol market. Without John Browning, truly practical and, more importantly, rugged and reliable semiauto pistols may not have been designed for several more decades, ensuring the continuing dominance of the revolver as the handgun of choice of militaries, police forces and civilians.

It's worth noting that if we were still using other weapon systems as old as the 1911 pistol and M2 machine gun, we would be fielding artillery like the French 75mm cannon and fighter aircraft like the Sopwith Camel.

While other machine gun designs (e.g. Maxim, Hotchkiss) were successful, none of them proved as reliable, adaptable and long lived as John Browning's. His medium and HMGs are notable in that they use the same receiver — with few or no modifications —  for ground, aircraft, vehicle-mounted, air-cooled and water-cooled guns. The gas operating system he pioneered in 1917 for the BAR is still in use today with the FN MAG, one of the most widely used machine guns in the world.

The Winchester M1895 used a box magazine rather than a tubular one. (Courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, ME, www.jamesdjulia.com)

He invented the first smokeless powder, lever action rifle — the Winchester M94 — which became the dominant sporting firearm in the western hemisphere for eight decades. Without the M94, American sportsmen might have clung to large caliber, black powder rifles for much longer than was the case.

the Browning-designed Ithaca Model 37 shotgun was popular with hunters, police and the military. This is a WWII "Trench Gun" version. (Courtesy of Rock Island Auction Co.)

As was the case with his pistols, John Browning's pump action shotguns were the first truly practical firearms of their type and set the standard for all that followed. The Winchester M1897 proved so popular that it remained in production for over fifty years. The first successful, pump action shotguns that were not based upon Browning's designs, the Winchester Model 12 and Remington Model 31, were not introduced until 1912 and 1931.

The FN Auto-5 shotgun was the first successful semiauto shotgun in history.

This page from Sears' 1902 catalog shows a variety of Winchester rifles, all designed by John Moses Browning.

The story is the same with semiauto shotguns. FN and Remington both produced Browning-designed semiauto shotguns which dominated the sporting market until 1949 when Remington brought out their Model 11-48. Winchester entered this market in 1911, but its semiauto shotguns were commercial failures well into the 1950s.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, John Browning's designs were notable for their simplicity. The KISS principle. The fewer parts, the fewer things to go wrong! The secret to the success of Browning's designs is they worked and kept on working, regardless of the conditions under which they were used.

An engineer from one of the largest arms making companies in the world once told me something that I believe is a fitting epilogue for John Browning: "If it wasn't for John Moses, we'd all be in a lot of trouble!"

[1] Between 1834 and 1842 while living in Illinois, Jonathan invented the so-called "Harmonica" repeating gun (see pictured), and he received many orders.

[2] Jonathan Browning was a polygamist and had three wives with whom he fathered 24 children.

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