John Moses Browning (courtesy redditweekly.com)

We keep trying to get TTAG commentator Dyspeptic Gunsmith to write for us. He insists he doesn’t have the time…and then posts articulate, insightful material in the comments section. Go figure. So here’s DP’s take on the genius of John Moses Browning . . .

What most people fail to appreciate about JMB’s design output is this: not every gun was a “clean sheet.” John Moses Browning (insert Mormon Tabernacle Choir giving a rousing chorus of Handel’s Messiah here) was a consummately smart man – meaning, he “stole” features from his previous guns that solved problems in firearms design and used those ideas in later guns.

Take apart the lever-operated rifles. Lay them out, side-by-side. You see the evolution happening there.

Take apart the 1903, 1908 and then the 1911. You can see the evolution happening in there.

Take apart the 1911. Look at the sear/trigger spring. Take apart a 1918 BAR. Look at the sear/trigger spring. Very similar.

Take apart the A5. Look at the way it recoils to throw the breech block back and get hooked, then released. Now see how the M2’s barrel recoils and throws the breech block back… same sort of idea.

Browning was one of the few gun designers to realize that ALL firearms need to solve four problems:

1. Firing the cartridge.
2. Extract the spent case, dump it overboard.
3. Re-set the lockwork to enable the trigger/firing pin to set off the next cartridge.
4. Grab a new cartridge, load it into the chamber, locking the chamber shut.

That’s it. That’s what all guns have to do when operating, regardless of whether they’re falling block, bolt action, short recoil, long recoil, blowback, gas operated, etc. All guns have to do the same things.

Now, the difference between various actions is “how much human intervention happens between steps 1, 2, 3 and 4.” For example, on the Browning Superposed, the cartridges are fired, then the gun has to be broken open and the hinging action of opening the action actuates the ejectors, kicking out the spent shells. The lockwork is reset when the action is hinged open. Now a human has to stuff new cartridges into the chambers and re-close the action.

A 1911, 1903, 1908 have similar ideas of how to do this, and the 1919, 1918 BAR and M2 have different ideas of how to do this, all with much more automation.

Browning was a guy who realized this demarcation of operations inside a gun and, once having solved one of these steps in a previous design, he’d sometimes lift ideas and solutions to the issues of any one of these steps into a new design.

Most other firearms designers come up with a whole new design for everything in their gun, and then fail to think of how they can adapt what they’ve already done in one gun into a new gun. Eugene Stoner was a modern exception to this rule.

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44 Responses to Dyspeptic Gunsmith: John Moses Browning’s Designs Both Innovated And Evolved

  1. We keep trying to get TTAG commentator Dyspeptic Gunsmith to write for us. He insists he doesn’t have the time…and then he posts articulate, insightful material in the comments section.

    Really “lengthy” comments that could have been an article. Happens all the time.

  2. Well I posted it in the comment section of the other article so I’ll do it again here. DG’s book on how to make firearms using hand tools, with commentary on the history and evolution of those firearms throughout, is a book that begs to be written.
    I’m begging for it to be written. And I’m betting thousands of others agree with me. I know how much time it takes. I’ll preorder. A lot.
    Seriously, I haven’t begged like this since I dated in high school.

    • You’re going about asking the wrong way. Asking him to plan out, think about writing, and sequentially write it will never get you anywhere.

      Instead, TTAG needs to plan a series of posts that are meant to goad him to write a chapter or part of a chapter in the comments section. Then, when you present him with like 70% of the book written, you say “Just finish the book, you’ve already more than half written it!”

      • My first though was “regular interaction with customers about products they think they understand a lot better than they do should do the trick.” But perhaps this only speaks to my own dyspepticism.

        • Exactly.

          The word “dyspeptic” means either of:

          1. Relating to or having dyspepsia.
          2. Of or displaying a morose or irritable disposition.

          The latter is what happens to a lot of gunsmiths.

        • Reminds me of a sign in an old friends gun shop. Something like-
          Shop rate $50.00 per hour
          $100.00 per hour if you watch
          $150.00 per hour if you help

        • “Shop rate $50.00 per hour
          $100.00 per hour if you watch
          $150.00 per hour if you help”

          That’s a *really* bad idea.

          He lets someone watch. Suddenly, they become convinced they’re a gunsmith.

          Next, they start butchering guns while going around loudly telling people “Dyspeptic showed me how to do it!”.

          I learned this the hard way. (Not guns, another discipline that required fine motor skills).

          Never. Again.

  3. I’d certainly pay good money for the book; first time I’ve ever planned on buying a book that isn’t even being written, which the author doesn’t plan on writing…. yet.

  4. Have to ask, why would intelligent, creative people like gun designers always try to start from scratch?

    If you look at some of the most successful guns post-JMB, like the 870, the 1100, the 700, the 110, the 70, they all took ideas from older guns being produced or were produced and evolved the concepts. A Model 70, a 700 and a 110 are all based on the Mauser to an extent too.

    • Well, you are asking that question from your current perspective – firearms using metallic cartridges filled with nitrocellulose (smokeless) propellant are a mostly mature technology.

      In JMB’s time… not so. JMB’s time as a firearms designer spanned from his childhood, where his father (Jonathan Browning), also a gunsmith/gunmaker was making pre-cartridge firearms and then paper cartridge firearms, to black powder brass cartridge firearms, then to smokeless cartridge firearms. In the period from the pre-Civil War era to the 1950’s, every innovation on a gun made by just about anyone covered from end-to-end in patents, trademarks and so on. There were knock-down, drag-out court battles over gun patents, there were secret (and not-so-secret) price rigging, market division, etc between the big gun companies. The history of firearms development in JMB’s time is more akin to what people remember of the computer industry from the 1970’s to now in terms of wealth, the way it enriched a few individuals to seemingly absurd levels of wealth, the intellectual property fights, etc.

      So there was a LOT of “clean sheet” design in guns to avoid patent infringement in that day. Today, if you wanted to put together a semi-auto shotgun, you could steal any number of ideas that were previously under patent protection, but are now no longer patentable because there’s so much “prior art” in the field. You could produce a semi-auto gun that’s a rip-off of any number of features from a half dozen gas-operated or recoil operated semi-autos, never have to do a lick of original work yourself, just concentrate on the manufacturing aspects of making it as inexpensively as possible and call it a day – and that’s about what the design would take, a day of pulling apart existing shotguns and ripping off ideas.

      In JMB’s day, the best example of a “clean sheet” design made necessary by patent infringement issues was the Winchester 1911 semi-auto shotgun. Winchester was always a pretty competent gun company, but the 1911 shotgun stands out as the mother of all lemons in Winchester’s product history. The back-story on this shotgun is fascinating stuff:

      JMB was designing what became the A5 semi-auto shotgun. Great shotgun, as I’m sure most people here know now. JMB had an informal agreement with Winchester to bring all new designs by Winchester for first right of refusal. Winchester had been paying JMB a lump-sum payment for his designs since the beginning of the Winchester/Browning relationship. With the A5, JMB wanted a change in the agreement: A lower lump-sum up front, and then a percentage of the sales off the shotgun.

      Winchester’s executives absolutely refused to give JMB a percentage of the sale price of the shotgun. So JMB decided at the last moment to pull the A5 design from Winchester, and (after the president of Remington died just prior to meeting with JMB about the A5 design), JMB travelled overseas to Belgium, where the relationship with FN started and flourished. Winchester’s executives realized they made a huge mistake, and that a semi-auto sporting shotgun was going to be a huge, runaway success, unlike most guns Winchester had produced up until this point.

      So Winchester’s engineers were told by the feckless & stupid management to pull a rabbit out of the hat (every engineer here at TTAG knows this routine…), and come up with a semi-auto shotgun. But there was a catch – many of these Winchester engineers had been working for years with Browning on making engineering and patent drawings, patent filings, etc for what would become the A5. These engineers knew, in great detail, what they could NOT use for ideas in their gun – and it took them years and years to work around Browning’s patents – which these same engineers had drawn up for filing with the USPTO – and deliver a shotgun that worked.

      The result was the Winchester 1911, which is known among gunsmiths and collectors as “The Widowmaker.” You cocked the shotgun by grasping the knurled area on the barrel (which looks like crap, BTW), and pushing the barrel back into the receiver. Some people were not strong enough to do this safely, and they’d put the butt on the ground and push downwards on the barrel – with the muzzle typically pointed right at their chest. There were several accidental discharges that killed owners of the 1911 dead as a wedge, and the gun was withdrawn from the market.

      Re: the Mauser and the 70, 700, etc. The Mauser’s patents were active and in force about 100+ years ago. We ran into patent conflicts with Mauser’s patents during WWI – we (America) were paying Mauser patent royalties on (if memory serves) 15 patents for features from the Mauser used on the 1903 Springfield, even as we were killing Germans in WWI with the 1903. One of the great ironies of arms history. By the time the Model 70 came along, the patents on the Mauser 98 had expired. By the time the 700 came along, Remington was just stripping out most all of the features from the 98 that they could. The 700 lacks most all of the safety features of the Mauser, and what Remington patented were things like the Walker Fire Control System, ie, the flawed trigger design that Remington has recalled twice now.

      • Sir, if you don’t publish a book, how will we ever compile all the information you have into a single location? Seriously, I’ve learned more about the history of firearms from you, then in any searching I do online…. thanks for your insight, information and most of all sharing them with us….

      • Whatever Farago has offered is clearly not enough.

        He needs either double it or pay you twice your going rate per hour.

      • Remington did buy the rights to produce the A5 from Browning though and they did make and sell them as the Remington Autoloading shotgun, I have a 1906 E grade of it, and it is literally identical to early A5’s. Same with the Remington Autoloading rifle, JMB was quoted as saying it was his favorite rifle he ever made.

        • The one significant difference between the Model 11 Remington and the FN A5 is the fiber recoil buffer in the back of the receiver. Do not operate a Model 11 without that buffer. Sometimes, with age, the fiber buffer dries up, and falls off the rivet.

          The “E” grade of the Model 11 is Very Nice, and if that gun is in 90%+ shape, then you should not sell that without getting an examination for mental soundness.

  5. Hmmm, sounds like a possible case of irritable bowels. I’d see a doctor if I were he. As for JMB (praised be his name), he also believed you never design a part to do one job if can do two or more at the same time. That takes genius – the genius of simplicity.

  6. This is the story of the innovation of man. Nearly all inventions are built upon previously discovered ideas. Very few were eureka moments where something completely new came from only an idea and no inspiration. This podcast episode truly opened my mind to this phenomenon: TomWoods.com/501.

  7. “We keep trying to get TTAG commentator Dyspeptic Gunsmith to write for us. He insists he doesn’t have the time…and then he posts articulate, insightful material in the comments section.”

    He *is* writing for TTAG.

    On his own terms and schedule. Be grateful for his benevolence so far and don’t piss him off. 🙂

    And JWT hit it on the head…

  8. I’d love to see something like a “Dear Dyspeptic” column regarding all sorts of firearm issues. For those of us with limited gun knowledge, I’d like to be able to pick his brain and get advice on topics like firearm recommendations, what to look for when buying a specific type of gun, what to avoid, relationship advice, etc.

  9. I’m guessing that Mr. D. Gunsmith has spent more than a few evenings reading up on the history of his profession. I imagine him in a high backed comfortable leather chair with a biography of John M.Browning, or a book by Elmer Keith with a pipe and a glass of 20 year old smooth sipping liquor. At least I hope he gets to do that once in a while.

  10. DG is obviously too busy perfecting his revolutionary molded Cheezewiz gun design to be bothered with such mundane tasks as writing the next “Gun History for Dummies” book.

    The books are out there. I second the motion asking for his recommended reading list. We would all be better off spending more time reading what has already been compiled, rather than staring at gun blogs for hours on end.

    • OK, that I can do. I’ll put together a reading list in the next couple of weeks, going through my bookshelf and writing up a review where I can.

      I should warn people at the outset that some of the books in my collection are rather expensive to find now. Also, some of them are in German.

  11. I thought when I first read it that this comment was so good that it deserved center stage. I’m glad to see that RF agreed with me, at least this time around.
    RF: see, I don’t disagree with you ALL the time 🙂

  12. Lots of interesting info. Betcha’ DG would write down more musings if you offered up some financial remuneration RF…

    • For some folks, time is worth more than money.

      If memory serves, DG gunsmiths, teaches at the local community college and is involved with the local volunteer fire – paramedic department.

      And keep Mrs. DG happy.

      His dance card is probably full.

  13. Folks, it is easy enough: TTAG simply needs to archive Dyspeptic Gunsmith’s comments, then compile them all into a memoir type article. It may not necessarily be a “comprehensive” history on a specific path, but it would be much like a collection of letters. Bits and pieces of historical facts that would make for interesting reading. Just my 2 cents.

    As for JMB; lets face it, even today long after his demise the weapons bearing his name still hold a coveted position in anyone’s collection whether they be new or old models. There are certainly a few I would very much like to own: BAR in 270, Hi-Power, and even one of the new .22 cal target pistols. I know many are assembled in places like Portugal. I would personally like to find some of the older models that are completely Belgium made. Regardless, FN has done right by upholding the Browning name and maintaining the standard associated with it.

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