How Today’s Semi-Auto Shotgun Came to Be.

Phil Bourjaily takes his readers on a journey of autoloader development.

If you’re a serious waterfowl hunter, your scattergun of choice is very likely an autoloader, probably a 12 gauge chambered for a 3-inch shell or even a 3-1/2 inch magnum. Many hunters take the autoloader for granted, but there was a time about a century ago when the self-loading smoothbore was just an idea in the fertile mind of firearm inventor John M. Browning.

In the January/February issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine the noted gunscribe Phil Bourjaily takes his readers on a trip through time, back to when double guns ruled the marsh, and how an inventor from Utah envisioned a better way to hunt waterfowl.

“John Browning chose a long-recoil action when he designed the first semiautomatic shotgun in 1900,” explains Bourjaily. “His original (Auto-5) works like this. Recoil drives the barrel and bolt back the full length of the shotshell into the receiver. The bolt stays back briefly as the barrel moves forward, and the ensuing action clears the fired shell and loads a fresh round into the chamber. (Guns like the Auto-5) were so far ahead of their time that they dominated semiauto design for the next 60 years.”

Duck Unlimited catalog cover with shotguns on it.
John M. Browning holding semi-auto Auto-5 shotgun

American inventor John M. Browning created the autoloading shotgun. He's shown here holding his legendary Auto-5, which is still a favorite of waterfowlers everywhere.


As an historic side note, Mr. Browning first offered the Auto-5 to Winchester Repeating Arms, a firm for which he had designed numerous guns for during the preceding two decades. Unable to come to a financial agreement with Winchester, Browning then offered the new design to Remington, but the president of that firm suffered a fatal heart attack while Mr. Browning was waiting in an outer office to discuss the terms of the arrangement.

Undaunted, Mr. Browning boarded a ship and steamed across the Atlantic to Belgium to offer the design to the large gunmaking firm of Fabrique Nationale. It was there that the Auto-5 found a lasting home, and FN continued to produce the Browning gun for nearly a century.

Workbench where John M. Browning created the semi-auto shotgun.

A re-creation of the humble workbench where John M. Browning created the autoloading shotgun. Note the original Auto-5 leaning against the wall.


“It wasn't until the 1950s that autoloader designers came up with new ideas,” continues Bourjaily. “Drawing on wartime advances in gun design, manufacturers made guns that operated on short-recoil actions, floating chambers, and expanding gases bled from the barrel to drive the action.”

“Finally, with the advent of steel shot and the development of the 3-1/2-inch 12-gauge, engineers struggled to solve the problem of making guns that could handle everything from target loads to 3-1/2-inch turkey and goose loads,” Bourjaily concludes. “They soon learned that it wasn't enough to simply stretch a 3-inch gun to shoot 3-1/2-inch shells; the gun had to be built for the stresses of very heavy loads…These guns were so successful that the 3-1/2-inch semiauto has become the flagship model of every gun maker's lineup.”

A5 Semi-Auto Shotgun

Browning firearms, always an innovator, has offered a number of follow-on autoloading shotgun designs since the original Auto-5. Gas-operated guns like the legendary Browning Gold, the affordable Silver, the soft-shooting Maxus and the latest inertia-driven A-5 are all outstanding shotguns and are worthy of a place in your gun rack (and more importantly, a trusted spot by your side in the blind or the duck boat).

Maxus Semi-Auto Shotgun

Naturally, all Browning autoloaders are available in your choice of 3 inch and 3-1/2 inch chamberings for added versatility, larger payloads and greater reach for those high-flying ducks and geese. And, as you’d expect from Browning, the 3-1/2 inch models function very well with more modest loads.

Check out the full article by Phil Bourjaily in the January/February issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine at:

Copyright 2017, Browning. Original article copyright Ducks Unlimited 2016. Review writen by Browning staff writer, Scott Engen. Cover and inside image copyright Duck Unlimited.