Exclusive: Sidetracked: Brownings Genius – Still

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You can follow progress only so far. Eventually you look back and wonder why you’re still going.

I’d intended well enough. My next pistol would hew to contemporary standards. Glowing sights. Multiple rails. Magazine capacity to tire the thumb. It would carry as much polymer as three football helmets, and a trigger pull long enough to start a chain saw. Cosmetics? Think Darth Vader’s backup.

Alas, nostalgia stepped in. At the fuel pump one day, watching digits spin as if clocking kilowatts from Grand Coulee Dam, I recalled 24-cent gasoline. With it came the image of my pal Henry’s air pistol, also of 1950s vintage. It looked like a Model 1911. It shot little darts as well as skirted pellets. I coveted that gun. Henry is no more, but I don’t blame the pistol. And it got me to thinking farther back.

sidetracked 1

Aided by a red-dot sight, this tricked-out 9mm pistol pulls Browning’s
genius to top competitive levels.

sidetracked 2

This Browning .22 rimfire is on a scaled-down frame. Early Ace conversions
employed full-size 1911s.

When …

He shaped the wood with a hatchet, wired the barrel to it and screwed on a scrap-metal pan. He heated a batch of coke on the forge and scooped it into a perforated can with a wire leash. “You swing the can like this,” he told his brother. “Keep swinging or we’ll have to start over.”

Traipsing into the sage, the boys spied a trio of prairie chickens. A pine splinter thrust into the can caught fire. “Hold it to the pan,” said the older boy, stock to his shoulder. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. The explosion knocked him flat. But when the smoke lifted, all three birds lay toes up!

Next morning, the lad confessed. Their father shook his head and sighed, “You’re almost eleven. Can’t you build a better gun than that?”

He did, eventually. But the youngster also had to help his father at the forge. He sewed moccasins too. A home-made bow and arrows gathered the necessary buckskin — if not by lethal puncture. With sign language the boy traded then to an itinerant Indian for more buckskin.

John Browning’s needle-work on moccasins would later serve him as he stitched loops in belts for his first machine guns.

Just after John turned 13, a wagon-freighter stopped at his father’s gun shop with a wreck — “This will cost more to fix than it’s worth,” shrugged Jonathan. The freighter bought a used gun for $10, then, leaving, tossed the damaged smoothbore to John. He restored that gun to working order.

It was the first of many repair jobs. Boredom followed. As John split his time between the shop and school, he chafed. In 1869 a ceremonial spike marked completion of the transcontinental railway, at Promontory Point, just 50 miles away. That year John’s teacher told him frankly: “There’s no use coming back in the fall. You know about as much as I do.”

Determined not to mimic his father in a humdrum life fixing all things mechanical, John was too busy to pursue anything else. But one day in 1873, a shovel-load of damp charcoal hit the hot forge, and showers of glowing fragments set the shop afire. John’s mother arrived with a bucket of water in time to save most of the building. An overdue renovation followed. Brother Matt helped with that.

Five years later, John would craft there the first of many new firearms. With no milling machine, he’d hand-forge the small parts and finish them with a file. His only real tooling: Jonathan’s foot-lathe, carted by ox-team on the trail of the Mormon migration from Missouri.

sidetracked 3

Ruger’s new stainless 1911 is handsome, durable — and a great bargain.
Wayne’s shoots very well.

sidetracked 4

Springfield Armory offers 1911s on different frames, with various
slide/barrel lengths, accoutrements.

Rifles First

To the everlasting dismay of handgunners keen for an alternative to Colt’s Single Action Army, John Browning would spend the next quarter-century squandering his time on rifles. Had his first single-shot dropping-block mechanism failed, he might have come up with the 1911 earlier.

“Please tell me how to patent a gun,” John wrote to Schoverling, Daly and Gales, the New York jobber from whom he bought supplies. The firm obliged. Meantime, Jonathan Browning died. John and Matt enlisted brothers Ed, George and Sam to help build and staff a new facility — not just to repair but to manufacture guns. Frank Rushton, a British gunsmith on a tour of the American West, happened by just in time to set up new power machinery.

“I want the first one.” The fellow looked rough; but the $10 gold piece he tendered was genuine. He handed the prototype rifle back to John. Three months later, 25 single-shots were finished. They sold for $25 each. Demand for that rifle, and proceeds from Matt’s retail counter (Colt revolvers brought $15) kept the Brownings in business.

In 1883 Winchester salesman Andrew McAusland came across a used Browning rifle. Though Winchester owned the repeating rifle market, it lacked an action stout enough for the government’s .45-70 cartridge. If this design could be purchased, it would augment Winchester’s line and scotch a competitor. He sent the gun to New Haven. Company VP Thomas Bennett booked passage on the first train to Ogden.

He found the Browning gun shop, billed as the biggest between Omaha and the Pacific, strikingly modest — and run by a crew barely out of their teens. But he came right to the point: “I want rights to your rifle.” John looked Bennett in the eye and said: “Ten thousand dollars.” A huge sum. Bennett countered coolly at eight. The deal was struck. The rifle would become Winchester’s Model 1885.

Over the next 17 years, John Browning would deliver 44 firearm designs to Winchester. Bennett bought all of them, though only 10 saw production. Browning’s talent could not be allowed to wander.

Immediately upon his return, Bennett asked John for a .45-70 repeater. For the subsequent Model 1886, Winchester paid Browning $50,000 — “more money than there was in Ogden,” smiled John. Bennett next assigned him a lever-action shotgun. John shrugged. “Okay, but a slide-action will sell better.”

The Model 1887 had just been released when John and a companion began their two-year stint as Mormon missionaries. In a retail shop in Georgia, John spied the new shotgun. Reluctantly the proprietor handed it to the dusty traveler, remarking, as John cycled the action, that he seemed familiar with it. “He should be,” piped up his friend. “He designed it!”

John followed with the slide-action 1893, which became the 1897. As he’d predicted, it sold well, remaining in production for 60 years.

sidetracked 5

Browning’s application of a slide mated to its frame on rails was brilliant,
if not intuitive. A stellar idea!

sidetracked 6

Defensive pistol drills at Gunsite Ranch include prone
shooting with — what else? — 1911s in .45 ACP.

It’s Free?

Around 1890, Bennett requested a short-action rifle like the 1886. He wanted it soon, offering John $10,000 for delivery in three months, $15,000 if he could finish in two. John reportedly replied: I’ll take $20,000 and get it to you in 30 days. If I’m late, it’s free.” Incredulous, Bennett agreed. The Model 1892, destined to become one of Winchester’s all-time greats, arrived on schedule. The 1894 Winchester, a logical sequel, became America’s deer rifle.

In the three years after his mission, John earned 20 patents. His idea for a slide-action .22 drew cool response when he submitted drawings. He built the prototype anyway and sent it east with a note. “You said it wouldn’t work, but it seems to shoot pretty fair for me.” The Model 1890 would endure as one of the most popular rimfires of all time.

About this time, John Browning struck upon something that would change his direction — and that of firearms development. Having seen grass blown about by muzzle blast at a shooting match, he retired to his shop and strapped a Model 1873 rifle to a board, which he fastened to the floor. In a wooden block he drilled a hole. Then he aligned the hole with the muzzle so a bullet would pass through it. Upon firing, the block flew across the shop.

Self-loading firearms followed, the first cycling 16 .44 WCF cartridges per second. John favored Colt with the design, as Colt had manufactured all U.S.-built Gatling guns. Several machine guns later, he was asked to submit a gun for the Navy’s deck-raking test. A tentmaker helped stitch 1,800 canvas loops in the belts. The Brownings loaded them by hand with .45-70 cartridges. In the shooting tunnel, John sat behind the breech and pressed the trigger. The gun roared to life — and kept roaring. Its barrel glowed red, eventually spewing blue mist as bullets melted in their passage, 10 times a second. No failures.

In March, 1899, Browning informed Bennett he had an autoloading shotgun. But Bennett decided not to manufacture the new gun. He must have known it would function; it would, however, compete with the hugely successful Model 1897. The long relationship had ended. John peddled the design to Fabrique Nationale in Belgium.

John Browning built his first autoloading pistol in 1894, shipping a finished .38 to Colt the next year. Another Browning .38 appeared in Colt’s 1900 catalog as the first U.S.-made autoloader. A brilliant, though not altogether intuitive feature was a slide mated to the frame by rails. The 1902 Military Model followed. The Moro insurrection in the Philippines had soured infantry officers on the .38 Colt. Browning responded with exposed-hammer and hammerless models chambered in the more potent .45 ACP, a round John helped design. The exposed-hammer Colt Model 1905 drew a government order for 200. Eventually 6,100 Model 1905s were built.

Refinements resulted in the Model 1911, slated for military tests March 3 of that year. Browning worked at the Hartford plant with Colt engineer Fred Moore to ready the pistol. It would be subjected to 6,000 firings in 100-round strings, then an acid bath, dusting, then more shooting — some with deformed cartridges. The 1911 spat the first 6,000 bullets without a hitch and passed all remaining tests.

John Browning’s Colt pistol would serve the U.S. through both world wars, Korea and Vietnam.

sidetracked 7

Ashley Emerson goes practical with this use-polished custom carry gun,
a holster-friendly Commander.

sidetracked 8

Short-barreled 1911s (here a Para) are popular protection in pickups: intimidation on wheels.

1911 Time

About the time all this history had sorted itself, the gasoline pump hiccupped to a halt. The tally on my slip could have bought several 1911s back when the pistol was new.

Now almost every handgun manufacturer with CNC tooling sells a 1911. In recent decades mind-numbing lists of variations validate a growing fan base. “Iconic” is now trite; but the 1911 is truly iconic.

Me, I’m still most intrigued by the 1911’s inventor, a child of America’s frontier, who conceived what few if any others could imagine. He built models of wood in a shop that, in a fit of charity, you’d call rudimentary. He designed and fashioned simple, sturdy parts “measured in inches,” according to an awe-struck protégé. Those parts functioned reliably even in dirty guns with flawed ammunition. Browning had an eye for cosmetics too. His guns had a simple elegance appealing even to the unsophisticated. They define the way we think guns should look. Winchester’s 1886, 1892 and 1894 still make riflemen swoon. The 1890 slide-action .22 New Haven snubbed is still copied. The profile of the 1911 must be one of the most recognizable firearms ever.

As I’m not accomplished with a pistol, I’d be presumptuous claiming the 1911 makes me a better shot. No handgun has managed that. But I like the way a full-size 1911 fills my saucer-size hand, the way it sheds those wee wobbles as it gloms onto a target. The trigger has a touch of take-up, not a jack-handle pull. Even the bounce of a 1911 pleases; it’s firm and substantive, but without bite.

This pistol’s many faces include truly seductive renditions, which is why handgunners with just one 1911 are commonly viewed as troubled. But even the most basic — the kind of pistol plucked from the mud at Verdun — has timeless allure.

Hoarding, however, has become more costly. In the days of 24-cent petrol, surplus 1911s traded for $39.50.
By Wayne van Zwoll

sidetracked 9

This Springfield snubby in 9mm is more controllable than short-grip .45s.
Big paws need more handle.

sidetracked 10

Kimber’s long list of fetching 1911s includes rimfires. This businesslike
model is bored to .17 Mach 2.

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