John M. Browning & Civilian Arms

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posted on April 24, 2021
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Remington Model 11

Quick! If I say “John M. Browning,” what comes to mind? Likely, the Model 1911, Browning Hi-Power, “Ma Deuce” or the BAR—all of them originally military weapons. The Colt and FN .25, 1903 and 1908 pistols, which were made for civilians first, might come to mind as well.

Ultimately, Browning contributed over 125 firearm patents and designs over his lifetime. Many of his works were designed for the sporting arena and civilian defensive use. Nathan Gorenstein’s new book, The Guns of John Moses Browning (out May 25), details Browning’s involvement in trap shooting. This was when the pigeons in the trap were not clay, but live, and thus less predictable than something thrown by a machine.

John M. Browning
John M. Browning

Winchester Firearms purchased a number of Browning’s designs for a flat fee; these included the Model 1890 pump-action .22, which was very popular for target gallery shooting in fairs. He also developed the Model 1894 lever-action rifle and the Model 1897 pump shotgun. Browning knew that his new shotgun would be so irresistible to bird hunters that he successfully held out for Winchester to pay a per-gun royalty.

In addition to his early creations for Winchester, one of Browning’s best-known designs, the Auto 5 (pictured at left), was initially licensed to FN of Belgium with American production and sales licensed to Remington and Savage. Remington produced it as its Model 11 and Savage as its Model 720. (Browning later produced it under its name as the Auto 5.)

All of these designs for sporting shotguns made trap shooting a widely practiced sport, which was also widely reported on. Certainly, trap shooting became more popular after the introduction of the Winchester 1897 pump, as there are only 5,462 references to trap shooting in American newspapers from 1777 to 1895, compared to 27,209 in the much-shorter period of 1895-1963. To put it another way, newspapers went from mentioning trap shooting about 50 times a year to 400 times a year!

Magazines, such as Country Life in America, extolled the advantages of trap shooting over “shoot[ing] holes in a stationary target with single bullets from a rifle.” Consider the cultural change from the days when The New York Times covered the activities of the American Trapshooting Association. As The Amateur Sportsman observed in 1909: “It is as hard to briefly summarize a year’s trap shooting as a year’s baseball. Both sports cover the entire country and are active the entire period of warm weather, before mentioning the 450 trap shooting tournaments nationwide.”

Such was the culture the National Rifle Association built upon with shooting competitions from its founding in 1871. Browning continually helped to evolve that culture with new gun designs.

Some of Browning’s semi-automatic pistols are known for their long and successful military service—such as the Model 1911 and its many derivatives—but Browning’s first semi-auto pistols were designed in the 1890s for the civilian market. He invented the idea of a slide moving back and forth to eject and load a fresh round. The Borchardt and Luger pistols use a toggle to achieve a somewhat similar result, but you would never mistake either in operation for the Browning-patented design used today on nearly all semi-automatic pistols.

Browning’s Government Model, while originally a military arm, came into civilian use at Camp Perry matches after World War I. These matches, both civilian and military, have produced generations of skilled marksmen.

John Browning’s design work transformed not only military firearms, but also competition and civilian ownership, as well as the use of firearms for self-defense, hunting and other sporting uses. It is hard to imagine America today without his inventions.

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