Over the past year we’ve looked at a number of John Moses Browning’s lesser known rifle prototypes. Each offers something innovative, a detachable box magazine, a slide action and an en bloc loading system. These prototype rifles are unique and likely the only ones of their type in existence. The prototypes were originally sold to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, but like many of the arms Browning sold to the company they never went into production.
Winchester bought the designs from Browning simply to prevent their competitors from getting their hands on them – as a result they are largely forgotten. The rifles became part of the Winchester factory collection and today they are all held at the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West – we appreciate their assistance and kindness in allowing us to examine them.
In 1891, Browning designed a new rifle that fed not from a tube magazine but from a detachable box magazine. Box magazines were a relatively new concept with James Paris Lee leading the field. This one-of-a-kind Browning toolroom prototype uses the same locking mechanism as the Winchester 1886 and is in ‘musket’ configuration.
This fascinating rare prototype uses a conventional lever-action but departs from Browning’s earlier designs for Winchester. Instead it feeds from a 5-round en bloc clip rather than a tube magazine. The rifle is in a military – ‘musket’ configuration suggesting it was designed for the military market.
This final design was patented in 1895, it uses a slide action and like the other designs was purchased by Winchester but never manufactured. Instead, Winchester went with the iconic lever-action Model 1895. This rifle has an integral box magazine which was loaded from below.
The 1890s were one of John Browning’s most prolific periods, during which he developed a host of firearms which would never actually see production. Here, we’re lucky enough to be able to examine one of those prototypes that were never produced. Dating from 1892, this rifle departs from Browning’s earlier lever-action rifle designs in a number of interesting ways. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the design is its use of en bloc clips, instead of the tube magazine traditionally used by Winchester’s repeating rifles. John Browning, and his brother Matthew, filed the patent covering the design in June 1892.
The rifle is in what is typically referred to at the time as a ‘Musket’ configuration, signifying that it is a military long-arm. It has a long 32.5 inch barrel, which is held in place by two barrel bands. Overall the rifle is around 50 inches in length and weighs just over 9lbs. The rifle is chambered in a .30 calibre cartridge, likely the then new .30-40 Krag round given its proposed market. It has a ladder-style rear sight with range graduations from 100 to 1,000 yards.
Okay, let’s take a closer look at the prototype. During the 1890s Browning experimented with a series of magazine systems including an en-bloc clip system. This rifle uses a 5-round magazine which is fed from an en-bloc clip. The idea of an en-bloc clip was relatively new with Ferdinand Mannlicher patenting the idea in the 1880s and using it in his Model 1886 and 1888 rifles. It is unclear if Browning was familiar with Mannlicher’s system but the two are very similar. If you’re unfamiliar with en bloc clips it means that the cartridges are loaded into the weapon in the clip rather than stripped from the clip.
Browning’s prototype holds five rounds in its clip, which from patent drawings we can see was not reversible. Sadly, we don’t have an example of Browning’s clip to examine but his 1892 patent (see above) gives us a good idea of what it would have looked like. It clearly has a cut at the top of the clip which appears to have been used to help guide the round up into the chamber.
Rounds were pushed up into the action by a follower arm which was actuated by a v-spring located at the front of the magazine housing. The bottom of the fixed magazine housing has a cut-out corresponding to the clip to allow it to fall or be pushed clear by a new clip once it was empty.
The rifle also departs from the traditional hammer system and uses a striker-fired action. From the patent drawings we can see how the rifle’s striker worked, with a coil spring extending into the stock and a sear holding the striker to the rear. The striker is made up of two pieces with the striker hitting a long firing pin inside the bolt.
The striker has, what the patent refers to as, a ‘thumb piece’ to enable re-cocking and to indicate if its cocked or not. The striker was cocked by the cycling of the lever and held in place by the trigger sear.
The lever was held in the close position, preventing out of battery discharges, by what Browning’s patent calls a downward-projecting dog, which projected through a small hole in the trigger assembly link and locked into a catch in the front of the lever loop.
The use of a striker, rather than an exposed hammer, allows the rifle bolt’s travel to be enclosed rather than have the bolt project out of the rear of the receiver, as in previous Winchester lever-actions, we can see that this rifle’s bolt slides back at an angle partially down into the wrist of the stock. This is arguably more ergonomic and potentially helps to prevent ingress of dirt.
The first half of the lever’s travel pulls the bolt to the rear, while the second part cocks the striker. An arm extending from the lever pushed the bolt rearward until the trigger sear was engaged. In order to give the lever enough throw to open the action far enough to allow a round to be loaded the trigger mechanism has to be pivoted out of the action, much like the earlier Winchester 1886.
The bolt has a pair of trunnions which project from the sides of the bolt, these run inside longitudinal grooves either side of the receiver, while the rear of the bolt is free to angle up and down as it cycles. The action is locked by the rear of the bolt secured against the rear of the receiver, rather than with a rising locking bolt.
During the period Browning was also working on other lever action and, even more unusual, so-called pull-apart actions as well as various magazine types including a revolving magazine, stripper-clip box magazines and of course as we’ve already seen a detachable box magazine-fed rifle. The 1890s were a truly prolific period for Browning.
The design was purchased by Winchester and the Brownings’ patent was granted in November 1892. The gun, like many of Browning’s other designs of the period, never saw production. Making this rifle a rare one-of-a-kind prototype. It’s an elegant design and the action is smooth. When Winchester did finally seek to produce a military lever-action they chose another of Browning’s designs which retained his traditional rear-locking bolt, which became the Model 1895.