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.

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About William C. Montgomery

William C. Montgomery is a freelance writer and photographer living in north Texas. His writing covers diverse topics including automobiles, business, politics, and gun rights.

6 Responses to Ode to Browning

  1. avatarDonal says:

    As an aside, I just happened to be reading that the Archduke was wearing a bulletproof vest. I guess he should have had a bulletproof collar, too.

  2. avatarMartin Albright says:

    Don't forget the Browning's last design, the High Power a/k/a the P-35, which I believe was the first pistol to use the now-ubiquitous double-stack magazine to hold a then-unheard of 13 rounds of 9mm. Still considered one of the best semi-auto pistols ever designed.

  3. avatarBrad Kozak says:

    Great article, Bill! As a "1911 guy," I've long been fascinated with how Browning's work took gun design a exponential leap forward innovation-wise. Sadly, he was largely unappreciated in his time – his last designs (for FN) came because American manufacturers said "no thanks," so he took them elsewhere.

  4. avatarMcThag says:

    Savage beat Browning to the punch on the double stack pistol mag with the Model 1907.

  5. avatarMonte says:

    An excellent summary about one of the greats who blessed shootists of all stripes with his incredible talents. Many thanks. All I can add would be this…

    The Holy Gospel of John (Moses Browning)*

    1 In the beginning was the 1911, and the 1911 was THE pistol, and it was good. And behold the Lord said, "Thou shalt not muck with my disciple John's design for it is good and it workith. For John made the 1911, and lo all of his weapons, from the designs which I, the Lord, gave him upon the mountain."

    2 "And shouldst thou muck with it, and hang all manner of foul implements upon it, and profane its internal parts, thou shalt surely have malfunctions, and in the midst of battle thou shalt surely come to harm."

    3 And as the ages passed men in their ignorance and arrogance didst forget the word of the Lord and began to profane the 1911. The tribe of the gamesman did place recoil spring guides and extended slide releases upon the 1911 and their metal smiths didst tighten the tolerances and alter parts to their liking, their clearness of mind being clouded by lust.

    4 Their artisans did hang all manner of foul implements upon the 1911 and did so alter it that it became impractical to purchase. For lo, the artisans didst charge a great tax upon the purchasers of the 1911 so that the lowly field worker could not afford one. And the profaning of the internal parts didst render it unworkable when the dust of the land fell upon it.

    5 And lo, they didst install adjustable sights, which are an abomination unto the Lord. For they doth break and lose their zero when thou dost need true aim. And those who have done so will be slain in great numbers by their enemies in the great battle. (a)

    6 And it came to pass that the Lord didst see the abomination wrought by man and didst cause, as he had warned, fearful malfunctions to come upon the abominations and upon the artisans who thought they could do no wrong.

    7 Seeing the malfunctions and the confusion of men, the lord of the underworld did see an opportunity to further ensnare man and didst bring forth pistols made of plastic, whose form was such that they looked and felt like a brick, yet the eyes of man being clouded, they were consumed by the plastic pistol and did buy vast quantities of them.

    8 And being a deceitful spirit the lord of the underworld did make these plastic pistols unamenable to the artisans of earth and they were unable to muck much with the design, and lo these pistols did appear to function.

    9 And the evil one also brought forth pistols in which the trigger didst both cock and fire them and which require a "dingus" to make them appear safe.

    10 But man being stupid did not understand these new pistols and didst proceed to shoot themselves with the plastic pistol and with the trigger cocking pistols for lo their manual of arms required great intelligence which man had long since forsaken. Yet man continues to gloat over these new pistols blaming evil forces for the negligent discharges which they themselves had committed.

    11 And when man had been totally ensnared with the plastic pistol, the lord of the underworld didst cause a plague of the terrible Ka-Boom to descend upon man and the plastic pistols delivered their retribution upon men. And there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the land.

    12 Then seeing that the eyes of man were slowly being opened and that man was truly sorrowful for his sinful misdeeds, the Lord did send his messengers in the form of artisans who did hear and obey the teachings of the prophet and who didst restore the profaned 1911s to their proper configuration, and lo, to the amazement of men they didst begin to work as the prophet had intended.

    13 And the men of the land didst drive out the charlatans and profaners from the land, and there was joy and peace in the land, except for the evil sprits which tried occasionally to prey on the men and women of the land and who were sent to the place of eternal damnation (b) by the followers of John.

    (a) Several old manuscripts add the following text. "And they [also rendered as "these men"] didst chamber it for cartridges whose calibers startith with numbers less than the Holy Number 4. And lo the Lord did cause great grief amongst these men when their enemies who were struck in battle with these lesser numbers didst not fall but did continue to cause great harm."

    (b) or Hell

    *As translated from the original ancient manuscripts by Fr. Frog.

    © copyright 2002 by John C. Schaefer

  6. avatarDave says:

    Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that Browing’s “Ma Deuce” literally saved liberty and freedom against tyranny in WWII. Every U.S. and almost every Allied combat aircraft carried airborne versions of the .50 BMG M2 as primary air-to-air (and in some case air-to-ground) armament.

    Of the M2, German Air Marshal Hermann Goering allegedly said: “If the German Air Force had had the Browning .50-caliber, the Battle of Britain would have turned out differently.”

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