John Moses Browning is the greatest gun designer in human history, the father of modern firearms, and an insane super-genius who designed everything from the lever-action cowboy rifles you see in old Westerns to heavy belt-fed machine gun that is literally still mounted on vehicles used in every branch of the United States military to this very day. Among his 150 patents and the 80 guns he designed, an unbelievable number are still in use today among military, police, and civilians around the world. The dude invented the pump-action shotgun, the gas-operated ammunition cycling system that is utilized by literally every semi-auto and full-auto weapon in use today, and, of the 10 standard small arms utilized by American soldiers who were storming the Beaches of Normandy in World War II, six of those weapons had been personally designed by John Moses Browning. This is made even more incredible when you realize that John Moses Browning personally helped contribute to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the destruction of Adolf Hitler’s regime even though he died eleven years before World War II even freaking began.
Browning was born January 21st
, 1855, in Ogden, Utah. His dad, Jonathan Browning, had been a Mormon gunsmith in Tennessee, helping fix and build weapons for badass American frontiersmen working on the fringes of the American countryside. After he got pretty hardcore into Mormonism, Browning relocated to Nauvoo, Indiana, to join the congregation of Reverend Joseph Smith, but when Smith was assassinated and the Temple was burned down, Browning was brought in by Brigham Young to serve as the gunsmith during the Mormon Exodus west to Utah. There, in the desert frontier, he helped settlers build, maintain, and repair the weapons they needed to fight off threats from everything ranging from killer bears to Native American warriors.
John Moses Browning got started working on guns at an early age, when at just ten years old he found an old broken flintlock musket and repaired t using wood and metal he just found laying around in his dad’s shop. He turned a smashed-up piece-of-garbage gun into something that would actually fire, but his dad, like any good badass cowboy frontier dad, was just like “yeah, this is good, but you can do better.” When Browning was 14 he built a gun from scratch for his brother. A few years after that, he’d already made a name for himself working as an apprentice in his dad’s gunsmithing shop, doing neighborhood D&D blacksmith kind of stuff for the local settlers – everything from building rifles to repairing broken sewing machines and helping farmers repair damaged equipment. He learned the trade, and was excellent at fixing anything that had any moving parts on it, but his true passion lie not with running the shop, or making money, but in building cool stuff.
Jonathan Browning died in 1879, leaving 24 year-old John Browning in charge of the shop. Browning updated the shop’s tools from hand-powered stuff to steam-powered equipment, got married, got his first patent, and started building a pretty cool single-shot breech-loaders rifle. He didn’t really love running his business and doing the day-to-day paperwork crap associated with being a small business owner, though, and in 1883 he caught a pretty awesome break when the big-time Winchester Company caught wind of the fact that there was some mid-20s gunsmithing genius out in Utah who was selling guns faster than he could build them. Winchester’s head guy, T.G. Bennett, headed to Ogden and offered John Browning $8,000 to buy the rights to produce Browning’s rifle, and of course we all know that $8,000 in 1883 is the equivalent of roughly seventy-five kajillion dollars in 2018, so there should be no surprise that Browning accepted.
At Winchester, Browning developed and designed the 1886 and 1895 lever-action Winchester repeating rifle. Bascially, this is the freaking lever-action gun that every cowboy carries in every cowboy movie ever made, and it was designed by a kid in his late-20s who just so happened to be a genius at making awesome stuff using machine tools and the power of his incredible mind. He was later asked by Winchester to build a lever-action shotgun, which he did, but Browning didn’t love the way it worked. Instead of a lever-action, he decided, a pump-action would be much better. So he designed the Winchester 1897 Pump Shotgun, a weapon that was carried by American infantry soldiers from the year 1897 all the way through Vietnam and even the first Gulf War 100 years later. It was the world’s first pump-action shotgun, and Browning is basically the man capable of designing what would eventually become the best weapon in virtually every single first-person shooter since Doom
Browning wanted his weapons to possess two things – speed and reliability. Unfortunately, those two things had, until Browning, primarily been limited by a human being’s own inability to do anything fast or reliable, and guns only fired as fast as a man could pump, lever-action, or draw back a bolt of a bolt-action rifle. Even the famous Gatling Guns and the French mitrailleuses, while technically “fully automatic” still had to be operated by a man cranking a lever around in a circle. John Browning thought there had to be a better way.
He was right.
One day, Browning was at a big shooting competition, and he noticed that every time the shooters would fire their weapons it would blast around the grass and reeds around the barrel. Browning decided that if there were some way to harness the power of the gas that was generated by the ignition of gunpowder in a cartridge, perhaps that could cycle rounds through the weapon in a way that would be consistent, and also way faster than a dude could cycle rounds.
He drew up some plans, designed a mechanism, and it turns out he was right. To this very day, virtually every semi-auto and full-auto weapon on Earth utilizes this method. And, honestly, until we invent laser rifles or man-portable rail guns, it’s going to be the basis of cycling rounds through a firearm for the foreseeable future as well.
Browning invented the 1895 Machine Gun, which was the first fully-automatic weapon ever purchased by the United States military. It was used in the Boxer Rebellion and the Spanish-American War, primarily as a ship-based weapons system, but this design was a breakthrough in weapons development forever.
From here, Browning went on to invent some of the most iconic guns ever built. Working for Winchester, Remington, Colt, and FN, he created semi-auto shotguns when he built the Auto-5, then he invented virtually every man-portable firearm used by the U.S. to stomp Hitler’s nuts in World War II. His pistol design, created in 1911 as a response to a call by the U.S. military to upgrade their sidearm from a .38-cal to a .45-cal is still revered today as the Colt M1911. In military testing for the weapon, the second-best gun malfunctioned nearly 40 times for every 6,000 rounds put through it.
Browning’s Colt 1911 did not fail once. In the entire trial. Not a single jammed round.
Do you know what helped? The fact that Browning had not only designed the gun, but the bullet that went through it. We know the round today as the .45 ACP.
Browning went on to build the BAR assault rifle, the M1917 machine gun, the M1919 .30-cal machine gun that was mounted on nearly every U.S. airplane and tank of World War II, and the Browning M2, “Ma Deuce”, a full-auto, belt-fed .50-caliber machine gun that you can still see today on Abrams tanks and Bradley IFVs. When the Allies stormed D-Day 13 years after Browning’s death, five of the ten small arms in the U.S. Military were guns he had designed… and one of the ones he didn’t design, the Thompson Submachine Gun, was chambered in .45 ACP, which is a bullet that Browning invented.
Oh, right, and he’d also designed the pistol the Brits and Canadians were carrying, the Browning Hi-Power. Just, you know, for good measure.
That’s right. The same guy designed the Colt 1911, the lever-action Winchester, the M2 Browning machine gun, and the freaking .45 ACP cartridge. Basically every badass weapon from cowboy days to Nazi-killers was created by the same soft-spoken, quiet, humble, eccentric genius. A man who was referred to across FN in hushed tones as simply, “le maître,” meaning, “the Master”.
John Browning died the day after Thanksgiving 1926. His weapons are still in use in militaries across the world to this very day.
Carter, Greg Lee. Guns in American Society
. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Conroy, Bob and Paul Ruffin. Browning Automatic Rifle
. Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press, 2015.
Sweeney, Patrick. The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
. Gun Digest Books, 2006.
Tillman, Barrett. D-Day Encyclopedia
. New York: Regnery Publishing, 2014.
Yenne, Bill. Tommy Gun
. New York: Thomas Dunn Books, 2009.