The rifle we’re examining is one of dozens of designs sold by the Brownings to the Winchesters Repeating Arms Company during their long relationship. This design dates from the early 1890s and represents one of Browning’s numerous attempts to move away from the tube magazine-fed designs favoured by Winchester.
The prototype is based around the lever-actuated vertically sliding locking block patented by Browning in May 1884 and first used by Winchester in the Model 1886. The rifle itself is in the ‘military musket’ configuration with full-length handguards, military sights, a cleaning rod and able to mount a bayonet.
The rifle is chambered in a .45 calibre cartridge, likely .45-70, and weighs just over 9lbs. Browning patented the design of the rifle and magazine in August 1891, with the patent being granted in December (US #465339). It is attributed to John Moses Browning and his younger brother Matthew S. Browning.
The most interesting feature of the rifle is its detachable box magazine. The magazine is held in place by a spring-loaded catch at the front of the magazine which locks against a tab in the magazine’s wall.
It differs from the box magazines previously developed by James Paris Lee, which Lee begun developing in the mid-1870s (see examples listed below). It’s a simple design with a follower powered by a coil spring. The prototype mag itself is made from pressed metal and is held together with some rough welds. Unlike the magazines we’re familiar with today, the top of the Browning’s magazine is almost entirely enclosed with only a small opening at the rear. The rounds would be loaded nose-first with their rims sliding into the channel at the rear of the magazine.
The single-stack magazine appears to hold around five rounds, with Browning’s patent supporting this. The position of the magazine, in front of the action – not below it, is a hint at how it worked. An almost fully enclosed magazine does have its advantages – it would have prevented dirt from entering the mag and it also overcame the need for feed lips which were susceptible to damage, one of the elements which took Lee some time to perfect.
So How Did The Magazine Work?
There is a shoulder on the underside of the bolt which caught the rim of the cartridge which was protruding from the magazine. The bolt pulled the cartridge backwards, out of the magazine and onto a cartridge lifter. As the lever reached its full forward travel the lifter then elevated the round up into line with the breech. When the lever was cycled back again the round was pushed off the lifter and chambered, just as in a normal tube-fed Winchester. As the lever reached the end of its return travel the locking block rose to locked the action.
The prototype has a sliding safety bar that locks the lever and blocks the trigger. The trigger differs from the Model 1886 as it is integrated with the lever. In the photograph below we can see the locking block descended, with the lever forward, and the breech block to the rear with the action open. We can also see the striker assembly at the rear of the bolt. The striker cocks on closing when the lever is returned rearward.
It’s quite an exposed action, with the entire top of the action open. With the action closed in the photograph below we can see the extractor running along the right side of the bolt.
It’s clear from the design of the magazine that Browning didn’t intend the rifle to be reloaded with stripper clips, although single loading of the rifle itself (not the magazine) would have been possible. When compared to other contemporary system this would have been somewhat of a disadvantage compared to Lee’s magazine’s later loading with chargers and stripper clips. However, from examination of Browning’s 1891 patent his intention becomes clear, the patent explains that he intended for the magazine itself to be replaced:
“One magazine may be readily removed from the gun and another introduced in its place, so that the person, using the arm may have at hand several magazines to be interchanged as the cartridges from one magazine are exhausted.”
This is a concept that wouldn’t be accepted by militaries for decades. Winchester purchased the rights to the design but this was one of many designs Browning sold the company which never saw production. The design and prototype are fascinating and represent one of Browning’s lesser-known concepts.
This rifle is a unique prototype and it was a true honour to examine it. It’s now on display at the newly refurbished Cody Firearms Museum, at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West. The new museum is phenomenal and well worth a visit. Our thanks to the museum for allowing us to film items, like this one, from the museum’s collection.
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‘Magazine Gun’ J.M. & M.S. Browning, US Patent #465339, 15 Dec. 1891 (source)
John M Browning: American Gunmaker, J. Browning & C. Gentry (1964)
Some of James Paris Lee’s magazine patents, for comparison:
‘Improvement in Magazine Fire-arms’, J.P. Lee, US Patent #221328, 4 Nov. 1879 (source)
‘Magazine For Fire Arms’, J.P. Lee & L.P. Diss, US Patent #295563, 25 Mar. 1884 (source)
‘Magazine Fire Arm’, J.P. Lee, US Patent #383363, 22 May, 1888 (source)
‘Gun Magazine’, J.P. Lee, US Patent #627824, 27 Jun. 1899 (source)