John M. Browning’s Greatest Hits - Episode 2

The Model 1886 – John M. Browning’s Legendary Big-Bore Lever-Action Repeater

Winchester Model 1886

In Episode 1 we explored the creation of legendary gun designer John M. Browning's first great invention, called the "Single Shot," by the Browning brothers (and also referred to by others as the Model 1878 single shot rifle).

Part of the agreement between Browning and T.G. Bennett, the General Manager of Winchester Repeating Arms for the firearm giant to produce Browning’s robust single shot rifle (soon to be renamed, once again, and known around the globe as the Winchester Model 1885) was for Mr. Browning to take a crack at creating a big-bore repeating rifle.

John M. Browning as young man

As - bit of background, in the early 1880s a seemingly unsolvable design problem faced America’s gun makers. The big-bore “Buffalo Rifle,” usually chambered in a massive straight-walled cartridge like the 45-70 Government, was limited to hefty single-shot breech-loading designs like the Browning, Sharps or the US military “Trapdoor” Springfield.

This was because the breech block lockup and linkage designs on the lever-actions of the era couldn’t handle either the massive back-thrust of these big cartridges when fired, nor were they long enough to reliably load and extract them from a tubular magazine. 

Winchester Model 1873

Winchester’s highly-popular Model 1873, later known as “The Gun That Won the West,” was reliable and rugged, but it was limited to short pistol-length cartridges like the .44-40 Winchester.

Enter the genius of John M. Browning. Even while he was discussing the sale of manufacturing rights for the Model 1885 with Mr. Bennett, his mind was working on solving the big-bore repeater problem.

The lever-action gun that John. M. Browning ultimately designed was outstanding in every respect. It is not unrealistic to say that this big-bore repeating rifle was, to use the modern phrase, a total “game changer.” Patented by Mr. Browning in the autumn of 1884, the new rifle was robust enough to handle the largest cartridges of the era yet was portable enough for a hunter to comfortably carry either afoot or on horseback.

Winchester Model 1886
Winchester's Mr. Bennett

The initial presentation of the new rifle design to Mr. Bennett was important enough to John M. Browning that he and his brother Matt boarded a train in their hometown of Ogden, Utah Territory, bound for New York City and thence to the Winchester Repeating Arms factory in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Winchester New Haven Connecticut Factory

The Browning brothers, neither of whom had ever traveled much beyond a day’s horseback ride from where they were born, spent a day in New York City seeing the sights. While there they gave a preview of the new rifle to one of their firearm industry colleagues. After carefully examining the rifle, he noted with some awe that he was holding the future of Winchester Repeating Arms in his hands.

The following day the Browning brothers showed the prototype to Mr. Bennett in New Haven. While the exact price Bennett paid for the Browning patent on the Model 1886 is lost to history, several reliable sources place it in the neighborhood of $50,000, literally a small fortune back then. In fact, it was, as John M. Browning once alluded, “…probably more money than there was in Ogden (Utah) at the time.” In today's dollars payment would be around $1.3 million dollars.

The legendary Model 1886 rifle did indeed prove to be a game changer for both Mr. Browning and Winchester Repeating Arms. The rifle remains popular with collectors and hunters alike, so popular in fact that it remains in the Winchester product line today. 

Today's Browning Lever Action.

Today's Browning lever action is the BLR. At its core it continues to solve the problem that John Browning faced over 130 years ago. That is, building a rifle strong enough to handle powerful cartridges. BLRs come in both short and long actions and can handle everything up to the belted magnums. The BLR was introduced in 1971 and with its detachable box magazine, many hard-core lever shooters consider it the culmination of the lever action advantage.. READ MORE ABOUT THE BLR. 

Copyright Browning, 2018, 2019. 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.