Ode to Browning

By William C Montgomery on April 13, 2010

John Moses Browning was the most influential gun designer. Ever. John C. Garand, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Hiram Maxim, Georg Luger, Dr. Richard J. Gatling, Benjamin Henry, Christian Sharps, General John T. Thompson, and Samuel Colt were one hit wonders by comparison to Browning’s legacy. Browning regarded John Pedersen as the world’s greatest gun designer, but his own work greatly eclipses that of the prolific Remington Arms designer. Browning’s firearms helped conquer the Wild West, accompanied Teddy Roosevelt up San Juan Hill against the Spanish, sparked off the chain of events that led to World War I and later helped to tip the balance of power against the Kaiser’s forces, ended Nazism (literally) and Imperialist Japan, and fought communist expansionism in Korea and Vietnam. To this day, his gun designs endure as favorites of police and military forces around the world, as well as sportsmen.  Not bad for a gentle Mormon kid from Ogden.

John Moses grew up in his father’s Ogden gun shop repairing the firearms of Mormon pioneers and frontiersmen who were attempting to tame the territory’s high desert plateaus and arid valleys into paradise. Browning cursed the poor designs of gun manufacturers and eventually turned toward designing and manufacturing guns of his own. Examples of a single-shot falling block rifle made its way to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who contracted him to begin designing rifles and shotguns beginning in 1883.

Most notable among Browning’s work for Winchester: the Model 1897 shotgun and the Model 1894 rifle. The lever action Model 1894 rifle, also know as the Winchester .30-30 or Winchester 94, remains in production today and is the best selling center-fire hunting rifle ever produced (more than seven million sold).

At the turn of the century, Browning took up designing automatic handguns for Colt and Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN). His work resulted in a series of cartridges that are now ubiquitous throughout the world including the .25 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), .32 ACP, .38 ACP, .380 ACP, and last but certainly not least, the .45 ACP.

A few years after introducing the .45 ACP, Browning unveiled the Colt M1911 chambered for the energetic cartridge. In 1924, the U.S. military adopted the weapon as a general issue sidearm, a position it enjoyed for half a century. The gun continues to be used widely among military forces and police departments, and remains a favorite weapon for personal defense.

On June 28, 1914, on a Sarajevo side street a disgruntled Bosnia Serb named Gavrilo Princip took a Browning designed FN Model 1910 .380 ACP pistol (serial number 19074, if you must know) and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the neck and his wife, Duchess Sophie, in the stomach.  Their murders provided the spark that set off the First World War.

Once America joined the war, doughboys reached for the Browning-designed pump-action Winchester Model 1897 for trench warfare.  The gun terrorized front-line German troops, who protested that its use violated the 1907 Hague Convention to no avail. The military also adopted the Browning M1917 water-cooled machine gun. The .30-06 caliber gun won an army competition by firing 450 rounds per minute – for 48 continuous minutes (nearly 22,000 rounds). The gun was used with a tripod on the ground as well as mounted on aircraft.

Following The Great War, Browning kept up working on weapons that were put to great use during World War II. In 1917 he completed a shoulder weapon capable of full-automatic operation known as the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Two years later came the M1919, a lightweight air-cooled .30 caliber machine gun that was used extensively by light infantry units during the war in addition to being mounted on vehicles and aircraft.

“Ma Duce,” the nickname for Browning’s M2 Machine Gun followed. For this gun, browning developed a scaled up .30-06 cartridge that became designated the .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun). This flexible machine gun has been in non-stop use by the U.S. military in one form or another since it entered service in 1921. It is effective against infantry, light armored vehicles, and aircraft. In recent decades the cartridge has found new life as a favorite round for long-range sniper rifles.

The Second World War in Europe ended as the First War had begun, with the firing of a cartridge designed by John Moses Browning. On April 30, 1945, Adolph Hitler pressed an engraved Walther PPK to his temple and discharged a .32 ACP (known throughout Europe as the 7.65x17mm Browning SR) into his head.

When Browning passed away on November 26, 1926, he had 128 gun patents to his credit. Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, his legacy sometimes flies below the radar since Winchester, Colt, Remington (Models 8 and 24 semi-automatic rifles and Model 11 / Sportsman shotguns), Savage (Model 720 shotgun), and FN brand names appear on most of the guns he designed, not to mention the millions of military arms manufactured that bore no brand name whatsoever.

But his legacy lives on. The telescoping bolt design found in the M1911 and the more refined Browning Hi-Power handguns has been copied for use in nearly every modern automatic pistol. One might be tempted to say that he was the Michael Jordan of gun design. I would prefer to say the MJ is the John Moses Browning of basketball. But even that’s not quite true. His Airness wasn’t that much better than his peers. Browning was.