Confessions of a Browning A-5 Aficionado
The Browning A-5, the most important semi-automatic shotgun ever made, is likely also one of the most misunderstood shotguns, despite its 110 year history. There is an amazing amount of misinformation and misunderstanding about what it was, what it is and what it does. Although at its best in the field, the A-5 won its fair share of National Skeet Championships in the form of the Remington Model 11. Whether an A-5, the license-built Savage 720 or Remington Model 11, or the versions after the Browning patents ran out (Remington 11-48, Franchi AL48, etc.), the A-5 is easily the most influential shotgun ever made.
It was not designed to be quickly completely disassembled. The ultra-thin screws of the Belgian A-5 served as a deterrent to the would-be home gunsmith. Likely more A-5's have been damaged by amateur smithing attempts than any other gun. The information is readily available on what to do, though. Anyone can download the field service manual from Midwest Gun Works if they are curious. I'm often asked by people who have inherited or otherwise obtained fifty year old A-5's “what they should do.” Well, almost every mechanical device that you care about deserves a professional service every fifty or sixty years, whether you think it really needs it or not.
Art's Gun and Sports Shop of Hillsboro, Missouri is the best in the business. You can tune into Art's at http://www.artsgunshop.com and watch videos of Art Isaacson himself bringing an old A-5 twenty gauge back to life. While periodic field-stripping, inspection, lubrication and normal cleaning is easy enough as described in the A-5 owners manual, beyond replacement of brass friction rings and a perhaps a recoil spring, the innards of an A-5 are best left off to a professional like Art who has done thousands of them. It costs more to have to have a pro like Art first undo a bad “fix” and then “re-fix” it the right way rather than just asking him to just do it right the first time.
The notion that an A-5 kicks extra hard is wrong. Properly set-up, they are one of the softest-shooting shotguns ever made, but only if you do your homework. Rumor has it that John Browning suggested 30W motor oil to lightly lubricate the magazine tube. The first of the A-5 patents (No. 659507) was awarded on October 9, 1900. While that may well be, it all has to be put into context. The Ford Model T was introduced eight years later, in 1908. We have far better-performing lubricants, protectants and motor oils today.
My great-grandfather, George Chamberlain Wakeman, who I had the good fortune to know quite well, was a farmer and commercial hunter. Aside from punt-guns, his two favorite shotguns were a damascus-barreled Ithaca Side-by-Side and a Remington Model 11. Great Grandpa was very hard on his guns. They were just tools and he shot them to pieces and could rarely be accused of cleaning them. He shot the vent rib off of his Model 11 and just kept on shooting. When he was done hunting, the Model 11 always ended up in the same place, leaning on the wall behind the refrigerator.
That Model 11 is still fully functional today. My grandfather's sole hunting gun for most all of his life was a Belgian A-5. My Dad saved his paper-route money and after a couple of years bought a used Winchester 1897 12 gauge for his first shotgun. That did the trick for a long while, but a very bad electrocution required skin grafts and made his left hand temporarily worthless for shucking. Not letting accidental contact with an 11kV line ruin pheasant hunting, Dad went the A-5 route, finding that he could balance the A-5 on the wrist of his claw-like left hand and still make it rain pheasants. Dad's hand got better, but the A-5 was there to stay. Many firearms aspire to be lifetime guns, but the A-5 is the genuine article. A-5's have already made the trek through five generations of Wakeman hunting, so I can personally attest that they are more than just lifetime gun wannabees. A-5s are the real deal.
To finish up on the recoil notion, when I was in Argentina a few years back, one of the bird boys asked if I liked A-5s. Of course, the answer was yes. He proudly brought out his A-5; to say it looked rode hard and put away wet would be an understatement. He asked if I wanted to try it and I said, “Of course.” Now, that A-5 kicked. It practically tore my shoulder off. I popped off the barrel and there was no bronze friction piece, no bevel ring, no nothing. Just a barrel on a spring. I asked if he understood that some critical parts were missing and he said, “The little pieces? Don't need them, threw them away ten years ago.” I mentioned that he'd likely have a lot more comfortable gun with those little pieces installed properly. He said, “No. This is the best. This is the best gun ever. It never jam. It never jam.” I didn't doubt him. That A-5 cycled just fine, even though the back of the receiver was pounded mercilessly with every shot and apparently had been enduring that for years.
I've purchased countless A-5s over the years, new and used. To date, I have never bought a used A-5 with the bronze friction piece and the bevel ring set up correctly, not one. Sure, I hear that A-5s kick. The first question is about the friction piece and ring set-up. The normal reply is, “What is a friction piece?” So, there you go.
You'll also hear a lot about “the hump.” Actually, A-5s have no hump. Those with a sincere interest in humps will refer to the Bactrian camel and the Dromedary. The Dromedary is the one hump camel, while the Bactrian has two. Those are legitimate humps, far predating the A-5. The A-5 bears no resemblance to either. The hump is just an inaccurate way to refer to a squared-off receiver, which isn't all that confusing to begin with. Most repeating shotgun receivers are squared off at the front and on the top, so the idea of another squared-off side should baffle no one.
The squared-off receiver of the A-5 serves a purpose, though. It provides an instant, broad sighting plane that also removes any need for a barrel rib, ventilated or otherwise. All you see is top of the bead, whether or not your A-5 has a barrel rib.
The A-5 design promotes keeping your head-up, with no stock-crawling. You won't hear of people getting their faces slapped with the comb of an A-5 as it typically the side of your jaw you are shooting off of, not plunging your cheek into the wood. Too much comb can be a real face-breaker, I can tell you from experience. Not the case with the A-5. It is instinctively fast to shoulder and fire with very little movement of your head. For those who say they don't like looking at the hump, if you are looking at the hump you likely just don't know how to shoot an A-5.
Certainly A-5 shotguns do not fit all individuals perfectly. This really shouldn't cause great surprise, as SxS or O/U shotguns also do not fit everyone perfectly. No gun does. Adding length of pull to an A-5 is as easy as adding a pad or spacers, as with any shotgun. We don't think much of adjustable combs and other stockwork when needed for other shotguns, so it should hardly be considered worthy of great trauma if the shotgun happens to be an A-5.
The other idea out there is that A-5s are always heavy. That isn't always the case. The recently tested A-5 20 Mag weighs 6.5 lbs. We can call it light, we can call it heavy, but 6.5 pounds (unless gravity is different in your neck of the woods) is just 6.5 pounds. Though rare, the A-5 was made in an alloy-receiver SuperLight version. Browning, likely correctly, thought that American hunters were a bit rough with their guns and that the weaker alloy receiver was not a good choice for the American market. When you have a steel barrel and breechblock repeatedly recoiling into an alloy receiver, sooner or later the steel wins. Also, weight between the hands adds smoothness to the swing, offers better handling and is something that alloy takes away from the A-5. Steel also holds sharp crisp engraving where alloy attempts usually look cheap and muddy by comparison.
The older licensed versions of the Browning A-5, the Remington Model 11 and the Savage 720, both have good track records, as well. They do lack the refinements of the later A-5s, like the magazine cut-off and speed loading, but were nevertheless built upon the same impressive action. If imitation is the more sincere form of flattery, the Franchi AL48 flatters the A-5. Waiting until the Browning patents had expired, Franchi was free to copy the A-5 without paying licensing fees, and they did.
The Franchi AL48 has an alloy receiver, making it cheaper to build and lighter in weight. It has its own following, but lacks the refinements of the later A-5's and is not as durable. Yet, it is strong enough. The AL48s I've personally owned have been lacking in wood quality and had heavy, mushy triggers compared to the Browning original. The AL48 is still being produced today, but never had the magic of the A-5. Perhaps it is because Franchi ignored what I feel are the two best upland versions of the A-5, the Sweet Sixteen and the Mag 20.
When the A-5 production shifted from FN in Belgium to Miroku in Japan, both good and bad things happened. The Miroku guns are well-made, perhaps using better steel than the FN product. Along with Miroku came an end to some of the hand work, the hand checkering and better engraving that was now done more economically, if less artfully, in Japan. A-5s also got heavier, with heavier screw-choked barrels, standard ventilated ribs and thicker forearms. The Miroku guns also became heavier for another reason; their barrels were longer. The Belgian Brownings had metric length barrels, so a “28 inch” Belgian Browning actually had about a 27.5 inch barrel. The Belgian “blue” (that actually had some blue hue to it) was gone in the Miroku guns, replaced by hot salt black, as with most guns today. Probably cheaper to apply, but another subtle loss of the Belgian mystique.
The A-5 20 Mag I reviewed weighs exactly 6 lbs. 7 oz. I also have an A-5 20 Mag Miroku, with amazing wood. However, my “26 inch” Miroku 20 Mag with Invector screw chokes weighs 7 lbs., 7 oz., one full pound more than the Belgian version. Sure, it is just as well made, perhaps stronger, certainly more versatile with its factory screw-chokes and rated for steel shot. However, a full pound extra on a 20 gauge gun is a hefty price to pay.
So it went with the rest of the A-5 line, to the point where the last production A-5 “Light Twelves” were heavier than vintage FN 12 gauge standard weight guns, much less the Belgian Light Twelves. Costly to produce compared to the blow-molded, punch press competition, the notion that the A-5 was heavy and ponderous compared to other autos, while not true during FN production, was becoming more true every year in Japan. Still the greatest of all time, like the old prize-fighter that stuck around for a few too many fights, the now pudgy A-5 lost its edge.
For those that know what they are looking for, the A-5 cannot be bettered. For the reasons described, the FN production from the late 1950's through 1975 or so remains the best of a fine breed.
Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.