Browning Machine Gun
Among the first successful Browning applications of this idea was the Colt–Browning M1895 “potato digger” machine gun, the first successful gas-operated machine gun. It was based on a design by John and brother Matthew Browning. They filed a patent for automatic rifles in 1892, and from this idea sprang the M1895.
Machine guns were not new. The 1861 Gatling Gun, a hand-cranked multi-barrel device that could fire as much as 200 – 400 rounds per minute was the grandfather of machine guns. Hiram Maxim’s 1884 design is credited as the first machine gun, the first automatic weapon in the world. But it was recoil, not gas operated. The thump of a shot ejected the spent shell, loaded a fresh round. A water-shrouded barrel was required to cool the heat from the continued firing in a single barrel. It had a 600-round per minute firing rate.
The M1895 Machine Gun saw action in the Spanish–American War with the U.S. Marine Corps. It had approximately a 400-round per minute rate of fire.
Browning, like Maxim, also toyed with recoil operated firearms. Browning finished a new, long recoil operated, semi-automatic shotgun design in 1898 and wanted Winchester to make it. Previously, the deal Browning had with Winchester was a single, upfront payment for his designs. If this new shotgun became successful, Browning and brother Matthew wanted royalties from the sale of the gun — not a one-shot payment.
Winchester balked. Remington was approached, but the company’s president, Marcellus Hartle, died from a heart attack before an approval. In 1897, Browning had negotiated a contract with Fabrique Nationale (FN) to manufacture his gas operated, .32 caliber semi-automatic pistol design for markets outside the U.S., so he offered the shotgun to FN. They accepted, and in 1903 began producing the hump-backed Browning Auto-5. FN production ended in 1998, but Browning picked the A-5 up again, tweaked the design for the 21st century, and in 2008 began a new version of the A-5. Both versions remain very popular shotguns.
A second recoil-operated autoloading firearm, a rifle, also sprang from Browning’s design. In October of 1900, Browning was granted a patent for this, which he sold to Remington and became known as the Model 8, in .25 Remington, .30 Remington, .32 Remington, and .35 Remington. FN produced the same rifle outside the U.S. Some 80,000 Model 8 rifles were sold in the U.S., the rifle was less popular in Europe.
As a result, the fruitful 19-year Winchester — Browning relationship soured. In 1902, Browning cut ties with Winchester. But Browning’s relationship with FN, Colt, Remington, and other firearm manufacturers would grow during the 20th century. His son Val, for example, served as a liaison to FN in particular, making many steamship trips across the Atlantic to Belgium.
John Browning’s firearm and ammunition designs owned the 20th century.
In 1900, Colt manufactured a Browning-designed .38 caliber short recoil-operated semi-automatic pistol, the first semi-automatic pistol in the U.S. A year later, his gas-operated .32 caliber semi-automatic Colt pistol came to be. In 1903, at the request of FN, Browning developed a 9 x 19 mm military semi-automatic pistol.
In 1904, Colt was working with John Browning on a .41 caliber cartridge and a recoil-operated autoloader pistol to go with it, but when the U.S. Army insisted on using .45 caliber rounds, Browning pivoted the design to produce Colt’s Model 1905 automatic pistol and the new .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge. In 1909, he patented a similar .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol sold by both Colt and FN. A year later, 1910, patents were filed on a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, what would become the Model 1911. It served as America’s official military sidearm for almost 75 years — through World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam, until 1985. It’s still used, in a modified form but still in .45 ACP, by the Marines and some law enforcement agencies.
Browning Automatic Rifle
Browning’s work on other military firearms also continued. In 1917, the year before the U.S. became involved in World War I, Browning (via Colt) showed the Army two types of automatic weapons: his water-cooled and belt-fed machine gun, unveiled at Congress Heights in Washington, D.C. in February; and a shoulder-fired automatic rifle he called the Browning Machine Rifle. Both used the Army’s standard .30-06 round. The live-fire demonstration so impressed the gathered crowd that Browning was immediately awarded a contract.
The machine gun became the Army’s M1917 .30 caliber, firing 450-600 rounds per minute weapon, and like the Model 1911 pistol, would see service through two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam.
Browning’s automatic rifle also found favor, becoming the famous BAR, the M1918 .30 caliber automatic rifle. It was designed for “walking fire” — suppressive fire to keep an enemy from firing back — carried by infantry squads during an assault, although a 20-round magazine hampered this somewhat.
The Army ordered 12,000 Browning Automatic Rifles from Colt, but Colt was already cranking out firearms for the conflict in Europe and couldn’t complete the order, so Winchester got a 25,000 BAR deal and refined the BAR’s design slightly for mass production. In July of 1918, the BAR arrived in France with the 79th Infantry. It was personally demonstrated against the enemy by 2nd Lt. Val Browning, John’s son. The BAR impressed the Allies during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and France alone requested 15,000 BARs to replace their jam-prone Chauchat machine rifles.
The BAR would continue to be used through World War II and Korea. It also became a favorite weapon for criminals during the 1930s. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker preferred BARs with armor-piercing .30-06 ammo and stole both from National Guard armories. The price for a black-market BAR was $5,000 in 1936. As gangsters upped their automatic fire, the FBI, the U.S. Treasury Department, and other law enforcement agencies responded by buying BARs, too.
Ma Deuce: Browning’s .50 Caliber Machine Gun
In addition to the BAR and .30 caliber machine guns, in 1917, Browning was also working on a .50 caliber version of his .30 caliber machine gun. The larger rounds were needed to defeat armor, appearing on tanks and aircraft. Army Ordnance consulted Browning about creating a projectile that could pierce this armor, and he’s reputed to have told them, you create the round, I’ll build the gun. The Army then contracted with Winchester to produce this round, modeled after a souped up .30-06 cartridge, initially with a rim, so Winchester could use it in their non-Browning anti-tank rifle. However, General John “Black Jack” Pershing intervened. He wanted a rimless cartridge. Frankford Arsenal took over production, and the Army returned to Browning for the machine gun.
Colt and Browning created a water-cooled prototype, testing it on World War I Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. It didn’t pan out. The gun was heavy, fired less than 500 rounds per minute, difficult to control, and not powerful enough to pierce armor with a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps. Cartridge improvements and design changes were promised. In 1921, Browning introduced his M1921 water-cooled machine gun. Both Winchester and Browning made improvements which brought the gun’s velocity up to 2,750 fps, with a 600-rounds per minute rate of fire.
Browning’s death in 1926 allowed S. H. Green to study the M1921’s design problems and make some changes. His adaptations — it was still mostly Browning’s gun — allowed a single- receiver design to turn the gun into seven types of .50 caliber machine guns by using different jackets, barrels, and other components. Colt began manufacturing this version, the M2, the enduring “Ma Deuce” Browning Machine Gun in 1933. It’s been used by the U.S. military ever since, longer than any other firearm except Browning’s Model 1911 .45 ACP pistol and is the primary heavy machine gun of NATO and other countries as well. It also spawned a spin-off, the M4 37 mm autocannon, also created by Browning in 1921 and used in planes and U.S. Navy PT boats in World War II.
No other gun designer has been credited with as many revolutionary firearms and ammo designs as John Moses Browning. His work spans decades when enormous changes came to firearms and ammo development. Yet, unlike many other gun designers, Browning was a firearms designer by trade, not a tinkerer. Richard Gatling, for example, tinkered to invent a screw propellor for ships, a wheat drill, hemp break machine, and two plows, as well as his Gatling Gun. Hiram Maxim, the machine gun inventor, also developed hair-curling irons, a mousetrap, steam pumps, and claimed a certain lightbulb as his own. Browning created not only military and civilian firearms, but also developed cartridges and gun mechanisms. Regardless of the superiority of today’s ammo and firearms, but there’s no AR or Glock without John Moses Browning’s work. Plus, the Browning name lives on in modern Browning offerings like the X-Bolt bolt-action rifle and other firearms. A list of ammo and firearms he designed — those not previously mentioned — includes the following:
- Cartridges – .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm Browning Long
- Pistols – FN M1899/M1900 (.32 ACP), Colt Model 1902 (.38 ACP), Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer (.38 ACP), Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless (.32 ACP), FN Model 1906 Vest Pocket (.25 ACP), Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket (.25 ACP), Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless (.380 ACP), FN Model 1910 (.32 ACP, .380 ACP), FN Model 1922 (.32 ACP) and (.380 ACP), Colt Woodsman pistol (.22 LR).
- Shotguns – Savage Model 720 long-recoil semi-automatic, Ithaca Model 37 pump, Stevens Model 520/620 pump, Browning Superposed over/under, Remington Model 17 pump.
- Rifles – Winchester Model 1890, slide-action repeating rifle (.22 LR), Winchester Model 1900 bolt-action single-shot rifle (.22 LR), Browning 22 semi-automatic rifle (.22 LR), Remington Model 24 semi-automatic rifle (.22 LR), FN Trombone pump-action rifle (.22 LR).