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John Moses Browning (January 23, 1855 – November 26, 1926) was an American firearms designer who developed a wide variety of weapons, cartridges, and firearm mechanisms, many of which are used in the U.S. military and elsewhere to this day. Browning was granted his first patent in 1879 for a falling-block rifle called the Browning Single Shot. He was only 24 years old. This successful design, manufactured in his own gunsmith shop in Utah, caught the attention of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. in 1883 and led to a nineteen-year relationship with that company. He contributed, selling the government one of his latest weapons for $750,000, Browning went on to become one of the most important figures in the development of modern repeating, semi-automatic, and fully-automatic firearms for a number of different manufacturers and is credited with 128 patents, including some of the most commercially and militarily successful firearms in history. He also founded his own firearm manufacturing company, the Browning Arms Company.

Early life[]

John Moses Browning was the eldest son of Jonathan Browning and his second wife, Elizabeth Clark Browning. Jonathan converted to Mormonism in 1840 while living in Quincy, Illinois, a few miles from the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo. In 1846, he moved west into Iowa with the Mormon exodus following Joseph Smith's murder. Jonathan ultimately arrived in Ogden, Utah in 1852 with his first wife and eleven surviving children. Two years later he took Elizabeth Clark, a Mormon convert from Virginia, as his second wife. John was born the following year. Altogether, Jonathan had three wives and twenty-two children. John had close relationships with his younger brother, Matt, and younger half-brothers, Jonathan Edmund (Ed), Thomas Samuel (Sam), Will, and George (born of Jonathan's third wife). He was not as close to his older half-siblings (born of Jonathan's first wife), many of whom were adults by the time of John's death (birth?).

Jonathan invented two repeating rifles in the years prior to John's birth. One was a Cylinder Repeating Rifle based on the same principles as the single-action revolving pistol. The second was an ingenius Slide Repeating Rifle using a horizontal sliding bar magazine containing 5 to 25 pre-loaded ball-and-cap rounds. A thumb-operated lever moved each load in line with the bore and produced a gas-tight connection. Neither design was patented and it is not known how many examples of either type was produced.

Jonathan's gunsmith shop, and his two firearms inventions, had a great influence on John's emerging inventive genius. John assisted his father in the family gunsmith shop from an early age, learning to repair the various flintlock, cap, and early breech-loading firearms that came through the shop. He built his first gun from scrap components at the age of ten. He attended school intermittently until he was fifteen before working full-time in the family business. Jonathan began working in a variety of side businesses, and by 1873 had turned over operation of the gunsmith shop to John, at age 18. It was in this shop five years later that John invented his Single Shot Rifle.

John married Rachel Teresa Child in April 1879. In May 1879, John submitted the patent application for his Single Shot Rifle. Jonathan signed the patent application as a witness. Jonathan died the following month, just four months before John was granted patent no. 220,271 on October 7, 1879.

Life in firearms[]

Winchester Repeating Arms Co.[]

John Browning designed many of Winchester Repeating Arms Co.'s most successful and well-known firearms. The first was the Winchester Single Shot Model 1885, a renamed Browning Single Shot marketed nationally by Winchester. Winchester paid Browning $8,000 for the rights to the design and the right of first refusal on Browning's idea for a large-caliber repeating rifle (later sold as the Model 1886). This established the pattern where Browning sold the manufacturing and sales rights for his designs to Winchester, freeing Browning to concentrate his immense talents on the invention and design of new firearms rather than on manufacturing and sales. Winchester ultimately produced seven Browning-designed rifles and three Browning-designed shotguns. The remaining twenty-four rifle designs Winchester purchased from Browning were never manufactured. Winchester purchased many of Browning's designs merely to keep them out of the hands of competing manufacturers.

Among the weapons Browning designed for Winchester between 1883 and 1902 were the famous Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun and the Winchester Model 1897 pump-action shotgun. During the same period he designed a series of iconic Winchester lever-action rifles including the Model 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895 rifles. The Model 1892 was often used in Hollywood westerns as a stand-in for the earlier Winchester Model 1873 because of their close resemblance, and because the Model 1892 was widely available until production ended in 1941. Over one million Model 1892 rifles were produced during that 49-year period. John Wayne and Chuck Connors both carried Model 1892s in popular westerns. The Model 1894 was one of the most successful hunting rifles in history. Widely known as the "Winchester .30-30" after its most popular chambering, it remained in production by Winchester until 1980 with over 2.5 million rifles produced. Browning also designed the popular .22 caliber pump-action Winchester Model 1890 rifle.

Browning's relationship with Winchester ended following a dispute over his revolutionary design for a semi-automatic shotgun, popularly known as the Auto 5. Browning offered the Auto 5 design to Winchester in 1900 but sought royalties rather than an outright sale. When Winchester's president, T.G. Bennett, resisted this new arrangement due to the precedent it would set for purchase of further designs, Browning decided to offer the design to competitors. He first attempted to offer the Auto 5 to Remington Arms Co. Unfortunately, Remington's president, Marcellus Hartley, died of a heart attack on the very day he was scheduled to meet with Browning. Browning then decided to offer the Auto 5 to Fabrique Nationale in Belgium based on the successful relationship he recently established with that company to manufacture his Model 1900 .32 cal. semi-automatic pistol.

Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co.[]

Browning began developing gas-operated machine gun designs in 1889. These designs were prompted by his observation while target shooting that the muzzle blast from shotguns disturbed the long grass at the Ogden Rifle Club. Browning realized this wasted energy could be harnessed to operate self-loading firearms including machine guns for military use. He approached the Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co. in late 1890 when his machine gun design was sufficiently developed. He selected Colt based on its experience developing military arms for the United States Government, including the hand-cranked Gatling Gun. His design ultimately became the gas-operated Colt Model 1895, the first fully automatic machine gun purchased by the U.S. Government. This machine gun was known as the "potato digger" because of its distinctive lever-style action. A lever located under the barrel was actuated by expanding gases passing through a port near the muzzle. The lever pivoted downward in a long arc to operate the self-loading mechanism. If fired too close to the ground, the lever could dig into the ground and spray dirt when fired. For this reason, the Model 1895 was typically mounted on a tall tripod, wheeled carriage, or ship-board mount. The Model 1895 was used successfully by United States Marines during the Boxer Rebellion in China and by the United States Navy during the Spanish American War. In December 1894, during the development of the Potato Digger, Browning filed a patent for an important variation on his gas-operating principle. In this variation, the gas port was connected to an elbow that re-directed the force along the axis of the barrel. This idea would later be applied to more modern and efficient gas-operating systems.

Browning began designing a new recoil-operated machine gun in 1900 and an automatic rifle in 1910. These designs sat unused when the U.S. government showed little interest in appropriating funds necessary for their further development or purchase. In early 1917, as U.S. involvement in World War I became imminent, the government urgently sought replacements for the obsolete Colt Model 1895. John Browning put forward both of his previously-designed weapons which were immediately adopted as the M1917 water-cooled .30 cal. Heavy Machine Gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle ("BAR"). Manufactured by Colt, Remington, and Westinghouse, the M1917 first saw combat with the 79th Infantry Division on September 26, 1918, and continued to be used in World War II and Korea. The BAR, built by Colt, Winchester, Marlin, FN, and others, was also used through the Korean Conflict. Two other Browning-designed Colt machine guns were developed too late to see service in World War I, but saw extensive use in subsequent conflicts.  The .50 cal M2 Browning machine gun (aka "Ma Deuce") is used in active duty operations around the world to this day. The M1919 is a lighter, air-cooled variation of the earlier water-cooled M1917. Several million of Browning's M1917, M1919, and M2 machine guns have been produced.

Browning also produced a series of semi-automatic pistol designs for Colt, culminating in the famous .45 cal. Colt M1911. The first Browning-designed Colt pistol, the Model 1900, was also the first semi-automatic pistol produced in the United States. Browning then designed the Colt Model 1903 Pocket .32 cal. semi-automatic. In 1905, Browning designed two .45 cal. semi-automatic pistols in response to government interest in a higher-caliber sidearm to replace the standard-issue .38 cal. revolvers then in use. The two designs were hammer and hammerless variations on the same basic design. Colt offered the hammer version for commercial sale starting in early 1906. In 1906-07 the U.S. military tested several semi-automatic pistols, including designs from Colt, Luger, Savage, and others. These weapons were deemed unsatisfactory for military use and the competitors were asked to improve their designs in anticipation of new trials in 1910. Browning modified his design in 1909-1910 and, following successful government tests, it was adopted as the official sidearm of the U.S. military. Almost 2.7 million M1911s were produced for military use during World War I, World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. It was not replaced in U.S. military service until the adoption of the Beretta M9 in 1985. Commercial versions of the M1911 continue to be produced by Colt and numerous other manufacturers for civilian use.

Fabrique Nationale de Herstal[]

[under construction]

Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip used a Browning-designed FN 1910 Pistol to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. This assassination led to the outbreak of World War I.


Several of his designs are still in production today, more than eighty years after his death. Some of his most notable designs include:



Action Caliber Production Dates Quantity Produced Source

Winchester Single Shot Model 1885


33 different calibers

1885 - 1920



Winchester Model 1886 (later Model 71)



1886 - 1957



Winchester Model 1890 (later Models 06 and 62)


.22 long rifle, .22 long,

.22 short,and .22 WRF

1890 - 1958



Winchester Model 1892 (later Models 53 and 65)


.44-40, .38-40,

.32-20, and .25-20

1892 - 1947



Winchester Model 1894 (later Models 55 and 64)


.32-40, .38-55, .25-35,

.30-30, and .32 Special

1894 -



Winchester Model 1895


.30-40 Krag, .38-72, .40-72 Win,

.303 British, .35 Win, .405 Win,

.30-03, .30-06, and 7.62 mm (R)

1896 - 1931



Winchester Model 1900 (later Models 1902, 1904,

99 Thumb Trigger, 58, 59, 60, 68, and Model 36 Single

Shot Shotgun)

Bolt Action

.22 long and .22 short

9mm paper shot shells

1899 - 1946



Remington Model 8 Autoloading Rifle (later Model 81) and

FN Caliber .35 Automatic Rifle


.25, .30, .32, and .35 Rem.

1906 - 1950



FN .22 Caliber Automatic Rifle (later Remington Model 24

and Browning .22 Automatic)


.22 long and .22 short 1914 - 300,000+ -
FN .22 Caliber Pump Action Pump .22 long, .22 short, .22 lr 1922 - 125,000+ -

Machine Guns[]

Model Action Caliber Production Dates Quantity Source
Browning Model 1895 (Colt) gas-operated, air cooled .30-40 Krag, 6 mm Lee 1895–1917 1,500+

Browning Model 1917 (by Colt, Remington, Westinghouse,

and others)

short-recoil, water cooled

.30-06 1917 - millions -

Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) (by Colt, Winchester,

Marlin-Rockwell, FN, and others)

selective fire automatic

.30-06, 6.5 mm, 7 mm,

7.62mm, and 7.9mm

1917 - unknown -
Browning Model 1919

short-recoil, air cooled

.30-06, 7.62mm NATO 1919 - millions -

Browning M2 (by Colt, High Standard Co., Savage Arms,

Buffalo Arms, Frigidaire, AC Spark Plug, Brown-Lipe-Chapin,

Saginaw Division of GM, Kelsey Hayes Wheel, and others)

short-recoil, water cooled .50 BMG 1921 - 2,000,000+ -
Browning 37mm M9 Aircraft Cannon (by Colt, Vickers, others) long-recoil, air cooled 37mm 1929 - <100,000 -


Model Action Caliber Production Dates Quantity Produced Source
Colt Model 1900 / 1902 short-recoil .38 ACP 1900–1928 111,000+ -
FN Model 1900 blowback operated .32 ACP 1900–1910 724,450 -
Colt Model 1903 Pocket blowback operated .32 ACP, .380 ACP 1903–1946 710,224 -
FN Model 1903 blowback operated 9mm (Browning Long) 1903–1939 58,442 -
Colt Model 1905 short-recoil .45 ACP 1905–1911 - -

FN Model 1905 Vest Pocket /

Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless

blowback operated .25 ACP, 6.35mm 1905 - millions -
FN Model 1910 / 1922 blowback operated .32 ACP, .380 ACP 1912 - 969,000+ -
Colt Model 1911


.45 ACP, Super 38, .22 1911 - 3,000,000+ -
Colt Woodsman blowback operated .22 lr 1915 - 500,000+ -
FN 9mm Parabellum "Hi-Power" short-recoil 9 x 19 1935 - - -


Model Action Caliber Production Dates Quantity Produced Source
Winchester Model 1887 - Lever Action - 12 G - 1887- - -
Winchester Model 1897 - Pump Action - 12G - 1897- - -
Winchester Model 1910 - Lever Action - 10G - 1910- - -
Browning Auto-5 - Recoil Blowback - 12G - 1900- - -
Browning Superposed


In addition, the cartridges he developed are still some of the most popular in the world. They include:


  • Browning, John and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker. Doubleday & Co. New York. 1964.
  • Wilson, R.L. Colt: An American Legend. Abbeville Press, New York. 1985.
  • Wilson, R.L. Winchester: An American Legend. Abbeville Press, New York. 19xx.
  • Sweeney, Patrick. The Gun Digest Book of The 1911, Vol. 1. Gun Digest Books. Wisconsin, 2001.