John M. Browning’s Greatest Hits - Episode 1

A 12-Part Tribute to the World’s Greatest Gun Designer

John Moses Browning. The greatest firearms inventor the world has ever known.

2018 marks the 140th anniversary of the opening of John M. Browning’s first gun shop in Ogden, Utah Territory in 1878, and with it began the company that still proudly bears his name today.

His father, Jonathan Browning, was a frontier gunsmith and firearm inventor in Illinois and later in the Utah Territory. Jonathan was credited with developing the “slide rifle” for the percussion guns of the era. It used a rectangular block that had a series of parallel chambers that held both ball and powder along with and capped nipples. 

Top view of the Johnathan Browning slide gun.

The block (which was essentially an early detachable box magazine) was inserted into a matching cut in the side of the rifle and manually advanced after each shot, giving the frontier rifleman multiple shots without having to stop and reload from the muzzle.

John Moses Browning as a young man.

John Moses Browning was born in 1855, and from an early age was apprenticed at his father’s gun shop in Ogden, Utah Territory, not far from where the east and west ends of transcontinental railroad met in 1869. It was in this humble frontier gun shop that John, along with his brothers Matt, Ed, George and Sam created and manufactured the rugged yet precise single-shot rifle that started it all – The Browning Model 1878.

A robust dropping-block design, the Browning Single Shot (sometimes referred to in some litereature as the Model 1878) was typical of the large bore “buffalo rifles” of the era. It featured a centerline external hammer and a small underlever that did double duty as the trigger guard. The fired cartridge case was extracted and ejected in a single, smooth motion when the lever was opened. A fresh cartridge was inserted by hand, then the lever was closed, the hammer cocked and the rifle was ready to fire. A US patent for the design was granted to Mr. Browning on October 7, 1879. 

The Browning Brothers store in Ogden, Utah.

In the following years the Browning brothers manufactured several hundred of these rifles at the gun shop in Ogden, mostly by hand using simple machine tools powered by a small steam engine, working on rough forgings and barrels that had been ordered from a source back East.

T. G. Bennett. At the time he was general manager and soon became a leading figure in the history of Winchester Repeating Arms. His greatest accomplishment may have been launching the design career of John Moses Browning.

Sometime in the early 1880s one of these Browning rifles came to the attention of T.G. Bennett, the general manager of Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, Connecticut. Bennett was highly impressed with the simple and reliable design and fine craftsmanship, especially since it had come from a gun firm he’d never heard of, located in a small railroad town somewhere far to the West. 

Realizing the commercial potential of the Browning rifle, Bennett was quickly aboard a westbound train headed for Ogden, Utah Territory, a week long-journey at the time. There he found John M. Browning and his brothers selling their rifles as quickly as they could be made. Bennett negotiated an agreement on the spot for Winchester to buy the rights to manufacture the Browning single-shot rifle.

In addition, this initial agreement launched a nearly two-decade long working relationship between Winchester Repeating Arms and John M. Browning. It was a period during which virtually every gun bearing the Winchester brand was designed by Mr. Browning himself, often working closely with the engineering staff in New Haven.

Winchester Repeating Arms soon introduced the Browning-designed gun as their Model 1885, and since then it has gaining a worldwide reputation as the finest single-shot rifle ever produced. Made in numerous variations and evolutions, it has been chambered in everything from .22 Short to the largest big-bore cartridges of the day. Even today a rimfire version of the Model 1885 remains in the Winchester Repeating Arms product line, and around the globe Browning remains one of the most respected names in firearms and outdoors products.

And to think it all started 140 years ago, in a little frontier gun shop, on a dusty side street in Ogden, Utah Territory…

(In our next episode – John M. Browning Designs the Model 1886 – The first big-bore lever-action repeater.)

JOHN M. BROWNING'S GREATEST HITS -- EPISODE 2 COMING SOON.

Copyright Browning, 2018. Written by Browning staff writer Scott Engen. Photos are copyright by Browning and/or Winchester Repeating Arms (used with permission) or are in the public domain or as indicated in the caption.