John Browning's Amazing A-5 Shotgun

By Randy Wakeman

Once in lifetime a product comes along that can define the essence of the hunt, the smell of the field, the cackle of the pheasant, the joy of growing up, the sweet song of a German short-hair pointer busting his way through the briars and brambles. For me, that is the Auto-5 created by John Moses Browning early in the spring of 1900.

"Prolific" seems a lamentably insufficient description of Mr. Browning. The maestro designed no less than 44 different models of guns for Winchester, including such successes as the Winchester Model 1886, 1892, and 1894 rifles. The Winchester Model 1897 shotgun is yet another example of Browning design. Incredible as it sounds, over 75% of all the repeating firearms in America by the year 1900 were Browning designed arms. It didn't stop there. Not everyone is aware that the Colt "Woodsman" .22, and the Colt 1911 .45 were the fruits of Mr. Browning's efforts as well. Perhaps you are familiar with the Ithaca Model 37, so named when manufacturing rights were procured from Remington in 1937 for their model 1917, which John M. Browning patented in 1915.

John Browning himself described the Automatic Five as his most difficult invention. When he started work on it in 1898, the transition from blackpowder to smokeless was not complete, and consistent loads were not the norm. Exploding barrels were not uncommon, and even more conventional shotguns had difficulty handling the erratic loads of the day. Semi-automatic shotguns did not exist; the A-5 was to be the very first.

The first patent was finally applied for and granted in 1900. John Browning knew he had a revolutionary product, and asked Winchester for a royalty arrangement with this gun. That was not the norm of the times, as Browning's other patents had been purchased outright by Winchester. After some two years of stonewalling and sandbagging by Winchester, John Browning had his fill. He made the trek to New Haven, Connecticut, in late 1901 to "get some action" on his auto shotgun. Winchester refused to pay a royalty and the nineteen-year Browning / Winchester relationship was terminated.

In January of 1902 John Browning called Marcellus Hartley, the President of Remington Arms, to set up an appointment. Hartley was excited, to say the least, about producing the Browning automatic shotgun and asked John Browning to come in that very afternoon to work out the details. In an unexpected bit of drama, Mr. Hartley had a massive heart attack and died while John Browning was waiting to see him at Remington. The date was 8 January 1902, unfortunately the very last day of Mr. Hartley's life, but also the day that the Browning Arms Company was born.

John M. Browning traveled to Liege, Belgium, where a hero's welcome both surprised and humbled him. John Browning's legend was already established in Liege, more so than in the States. Progress was swift. A contract was signed with F.N. in March 1902, and the first production A-5's rolled out late in 1903. Stamped "Browning Automatic Arms Company," the initial 10,000 units were imported into the U.S. in 1904, selling out in less than a year.

The ball continued to roll, and in 1905 Remington was finally licensed to make and sell the A-5, which became their Model 11. Later Savage Arms also produced the gun. Imagine, if you would, a product so dominating, so superior, that it had no competition at all for over 50 years! That, my friends, is the A-5.

The A-5 gave birth to the Browning Arms Company, and the F.N. / Browning relationship has continued to this day. The Walloon region of Belgium recently bought F.N. back from the French conglomerate GIAT. To complete the circle, Browning Arms is actually a division of Fabrique' Nationale d'Arms de Guerre. Over 2,000,000 A-5's were produced in Belgium alone before production shifted to Miroku of Japan. Finally replaced (after several unsuccessful attempts) in the Browning line by the cheaper to manufacture Browning Gold, the A-5 is still being built in Belgium on a custom basis by the F.N. Custom Gun Shop.

Anytime you fire "old humpback" you are enjoying a piece of Americana. You are using the most difficult and most satisfying creation of the most prolific gun designer in history, a man whose ingenuity helped win two world wars. Maybe it is just me, but I swear that dogs hunt better, pheasants fall faster, the skies are bluer, and the birds even taste better when an A-5 is involved. When you swing a walnut and steel A-5, you're not just pointing a shotgun--you are swinging an American dream.

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Copyright 2003 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.