John Browning’s 1892 En Bloc Lever-Action Prototype

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.

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Right side of the rifle, note its ‘musket’ configuration (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Browning’s patent drawing showing the rifle’s action (US Patent Office)

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.

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A look at the ejection port for the en-bloc clip (Matthew Moss)

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.

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The rifle’s lever fully-forward with its action open and striker cocked (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A view inside the action with the bolt partially retracted before it moves down and back into the rifle’s wrist (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Left side of the rifle (Matthew Moss)

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.

This rifle is a unique prototype and it was an honour to examine it. It’s now on display at the newly refurbished Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West. Our thanks to the museum for allowing us to film items, like this one, from the museum’s collection.


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Bibliography:

‘Breech-loading Firearm’, J. & M. Browning, US Patent #486272, 15/11/1892 (source)

John M Browning: American Gunmaker, J. Browning & C. Gentry (1964)

Browning Prototypes – Detachable Box Magazine Lever Action Rifle

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.

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Right side of the rifle (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A close up of the magazine well, note the added metal lip of the front of the well, not a part of the receiver (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Close up of the magazine removed from the rifle – right side (Matthew Moss)
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A view of the top of the magazine with the small opening and notch for the cartridge rime visible (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A close up of the front wall of the magazine, note the locking notch (Matthew Moss)

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.

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The Browning’s 1891 patent for the magazine, note ‘h‘ is the shoulder which pulled rounds out of the magazine (US Patent Office)

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.

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The rifle with its action open, bolt o the rear and lever forward. Note the striker assembly at the rear of the bolt (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A close up of the rifle’s receiver which is still ‘in the white’ (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Left side profile of the rifle (Matthew Moss)

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.

If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here. We have some great new perks available for Patreon Supporters.


Bibliography:

‘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)