- Robert E. Petersen Collection
- Ancient Firearms - 1350 to 1700
- Road to American Liberty - 1700 to 1780
- A Prospering New Republic - 1780 to 1860
- A Nation Asunder - 1861 to 1865
- The American West - 1850 to 1900
- Innovation, Oddities and Competition
- Theodore Roosevelt and Elegant Arms - 1880s to 1920s
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- Modern Firearms - 1950 to Present
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Springfield Armory Model 1911A1 Semi Automatic Pistol
Cutaway firearms such as this Springfield produced version of the Browning-design Model 1911 pistol help illustrate the innovative genius behind otherwise concealed features. SN 7225
John Moses Browning (1855 - 1926) was a true genius of mechanical design. The son of a Mormon gunsmith, he began working full-time in that profession at age 15. His 1878 design for a single-shot metallic cartridge rifle resulted in the first of many patents that he would receive during his lifetime. In partnership with five of his brothers, Browning later opened a machine shop in Ogden, Utah, but the firm's output of three guns per day could not keep up with demand for his products. One of his rifles was purchased by a representative of Winchester Repeating Arms Company and shipped to Thomas G. Bennett, the firm's General Manager, who purchased the patent rights for $8,000 and hired the Browning brothers as Winchester "jobbers".
At this time, Winchester's popular Model 1873 lever-action rifle could not handle large-caliber ammunition such as the .45-70 cartridge. Browning set himself to this task, and he designed and patented a simple but strong lever-action rifle with a smooth action. This rifle, which would become the Winchester Model 1886, could handle cartridges as large as the .50-110 Express, and is considered by some to be the finest lever-action rifle ever. Browning's association with Winchester continued until 1902 and resulted in the Model 1885 Single Shot Rifle, the Model 1887 lever-action shotgun, the Model 1893 and Model 1897 pump-action shotguns, and the Model 1892, Model 1894, and Model 1895 lever-action rifles. The Model 1894 alone resulted in over five million sales for the company and is still in production.
Additional Browning patents were purchased by Winchester but never produced to prevent competing firms from bringing them to market. In the summer of 1896, Browning traveled to Colt's Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut with four patented semi-automatic pistols of his design. Two of these guns were forerunners of such famous arms as the Fabrique Nationale Model 1900 and the Colt Model 1911. All possessed features that are still commonly used on semi-auto pistols such as slides, slide springs located over, under, or around the barrel, grip safeties, and detachable magazines located inside the butt. As a result of this visit, Browning signed an agreement that licensed Colt to produce his pistols and promised additional licenses for improvements in these designs. In return, Colt agreed to provide royalties, something that was foreign to Winchester at that time, as the firm bought patents outright from their designers.
A year later, while visiting the Colt offices, Browning met Hart O. Berg of Fabrique Nationale of Belgium. Browning, Colt, and FN entered into a licensing agreement that gave the North American market to Colt, the European continent to FN, and a shared market in Great Britain. In addition, the two firms agreed to pay cross royalties for territorial "infringement." Browning was no stranger to Colt. In 1888, he came up with the idea of harnessing propellant gas from the muzzle of a rifle to cycle the gun's action. Three years later, he took his patented design for the world's first gas-operated fully-automatic "machine gun" to Hartford. Under Colt auspices, he demonstrated this gun for the U.S. Navy, which was interested in obtaining machine guns that were capable of firing continuously for three minutes. Browning doubted the ability of his prototype, with its 600 rounds-per-minute rate of fire, to stand up to this punishing test. Although the barrel turned red-hot, the gun successfully completed the trial, and Browning signed a licensing agreement with Colt. These machine guns later saw action in both the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion.
In 1915, Browning anticipated U.S. entry into the war that was then raging in Europe, and designed two machine guns that would see wide service over the next several decades. The first was a water-cooled machine gun, chambered for the .30-06 cartridge, that successfully fired 20,000 rounds during two different trials without a malfunction. This gun also fired a continuous burst for over 48 minutes, ending only when the ammunition belt was completely expended. The second of these designs was for the B.A.R., or Browning Automatic Rifle, a 15-pound light machine gun that also chambered the .30-06 cartridge. When the United States went to war in 1917, the government bought production rights for these two guns, as well as the Colt Model 1911 pistol, for $750,000. Browning moved to Hartford to supervise the manufacture of these guns by Colt and other contractors, but by the time production reached its peak, the war had ended.
However, these guns played an important role during the Second World War and other conflicts. Browning's post-First World War military designs included both water- and air-cooled .50 caliber machine guns, and a 37 millimeter automatic cannon for use in aircraft. For the civilian market, he was responsible for the Auto-5 semi-automatic shotgun, the Superposed double shotgun, the Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol, and several other designs, including a .22 caliber rifle with one spring and a single moving part. All told, John Browning received over 120 U.S. and foreign patents for over 80 different firearms, and his designs were produced by a variety of manufacturers. He died of heart failure in 1926 at age 71 in the Fabrique National office of his son, Val.