r/guns - First of Firsts [Article]

r/guns – First of Firsts [Article]

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It is September 17th, 1903. Theodore Roosevelt has been president for two years; in three months the Wright brothers will make their first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, NC, and in Ogden, Utah, the Browning Automatic Arms Company took first delivery of what John Moses Browning referred to as his “greatest achievement”, the Browning Auto-5 shotgun.

The origins of this story begin with John Browning, Thomas Bennett and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1885. John Browning had devised a strong, single shot falling block rifle, Thomas Bennett (the head of Winchester) had discovered this and offered Browning a decent sum for his invention. Thus began a long history of John Browning designing firearms for Winchester, with Winchester offering Browning flat sums for his inventions, eventually buying the rights to 44 of his patents. These patents would become the Winchester models 1885, 1886, 1887, 1890, 1892, 1893, 1894, 1895 and 1897 rifles and shotguns.

Browning however, was not content with his repeating designs and became interested in automatic actions where the power of a fired cartridge would automatically reload the mechanism. By 1895 Browning had developed a gas operated machine gun design which Colt was producing, and by 1899 he had begun receiving royalties from FN in Belgium for a small .32 caliber blowback pocket pistol he had designed.

In addition to being a talented firearms designer, John Browning was also an accomplished wingshooter and participated in many shotgun sports, including live bird trap shooting (when that was a thing). Thus, he desired not only machine guns and pistols, but an automatic shotgun which would place a number of immediate follow up shots at the hands of the shooter, ideal for fleeting game birds or aerial targets.

First attempts at this were not successful. Browning did develop a functioning short recoil, toggle locked shotgun, was granted a patent for it and sold said patent to Winchester. Unfortunately, Georg Luger learned of this and sued Winchester for patent infringement on the basis of his own toggle locked designs. This resulted in a prolonged legal battle, for which the courts sided with Luger, preventing Winchester from producing or selling Browning’s first automatic shotgun.

Browning would go back to the drawing board and devised one of the most long-lived shotgun designs in history. This locked breech, long recoil design would become known the world over as the Automatic Five, Auto-5 or often just shortened to A-5. Yet, it almost never happened

Browning received his first patents for the long recoil shotgun in 1898, and finalized the design by 1900. When Browning approached Bennett about the new autoloading shotgun, Bennett stalled. Perhaps it was the prior patent litigation with Luger that bothered him, or perhaps he did not believe in the sales potential of an automatic shotgun. When Browning finally pushed the issue in late 1901, but also asking not for a flat sum, but for royalties on each gun sold (something which he had experienced with FN selling his designs), Bennett flat out refused him. Browning took his guns and drawings, and left Winchester and did not return until the First World War.

Still believing the design had merit, Browning approached Marcellus Hartley who had been the head of Winchester’s rival, the Remington Arms Company, and offered the design to him for production. Unfortunately, just a few hours prior to Browning’s appointment, Hartley died in his office, putting Remington into disorder for some time as new leadership was sought.

Undeterred, Browning sailed to FN and offered the design to his friends and colleagues in Belgium. They were enthusiastic and the tool up for production began immediately. The first guns would be delivered on September 17th, 1903. The first purchaser was John Browning, who ordered the first 10,000 guns off the production line for resale in the Browning Brothers sporting goods shop in Ogden, Utah. Browning’s initial agreement with FN was such that they would sell the guns abroad and Browning would receive a royalty, and Browning would be the exclusive importer for resale in the United States.

Although Browning’s gun was finally in production, problems arose with sales in the U.S. as the first 10,000 guns were arriving. The Dingley Tariff Act of 1897, applied an additional 50% cost to goods like Browning’s guns imported from abroad. It was quickly realized that importing all of these guns from FN was unsustainable. In 1905, Remington had stabilized under new leadership and Browning assisted in tooling up at Remington for what would become their licensed copy, the Model 11.

Of the first 10,000 guns made, little records are available. Some serial number data is available, and the Shirley/Vanderlinden book suggests that of the 10,000 guns about 3000 actually made it into the states before the tariff issue was realized. Though, this is not necessarily serial numbers 1-3000.

These first imports would not only be the first semi-automatic shotguns sold in the United States, but the first semi-automatic longarms to be encountered as a whole, as the Winchester 1903 semi-automatic .22 rifle would not be seen until December 1903.

Imports would resume after 1909 tariff reform, but Remington and later Savage would have market dominance in the U.S. selling licensed copies of the Browning Auto-5 until after the Second World War. Eventually made by four companies (FN, Remington, Savage, Miroku) and with almost 3.7 million examples produced across these makers (not counting derivatives like the Remington 11-48, Franchi AL48 or Savage 745), and remaining in production until 1998 the Auto-5 remains the longest lived, and one of the most highly respected and popular semi-automatic shotguns ever made.


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