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.
By 1895 Winchester had been considering a slide-action rifle for some time, in 1882 William Mason had begun work on one (US Patent #278987) to counter Colt’s slide-action Lightning only to drop it. Finally in 1890, Winchester introduced a slide-action .22 calibre rifle developed by John Browning. The Model 1890 became extremely popular.
Between 1887 and 1895 Browning patented four slide-action rifle designs. The first of these, US patent #367336, was granted in July 1887, this was followed in 1888 by US patent #385238. In September 1890, the Browning brothers were granted US patent #436965, which along with the previous 1888 patent protected what became the Model 1890. Three years later Winchester introduced the Model 1893 pump action shotgun, that would eventually evolve into the famous Winchester Model 1897.
Finally, April 1895, Browning filed a patent for a design for a .30 calibre rifle which was granted in September 1895 (US patent #545672) This patent covers the rifle we’re examining here. The rifle itself is a slide or pump action in long barrelled configuration which Winchester described as a ‘Musket’.
The September 1895 slide-action design was purchased by Winchester but like so many other Browning designs, it never entered production and Winchester purchased the design purely to secure it and prevent other rival manufacturers picking it up. Winchester instead went with a lever-action design, patented in November 1895 (US #549345), which became the famous Winchester Model 1895.
The September 1895 slide or pump-action rifle design had a laterally camming locking breechblock. As we can see, externally Browning’s toolroom prototype looks somewhat similar to the contemporary Winchester Model 1895, with a single-stack integrated box magazine but with a pump sleeve rather than a lever.
An action-bar connects the slide/pump to the front of the breechblock/bolt carrieron the right-hand side of the rifle. The slide handle itself is made of a U-shaped piece of metal which wraps around the rifle’s forend. The slide has been roughly cross hatched to improve grip. There is a channel cut into the furniture for the action arm’s attachment point to travel. The slide is attached to the arm by a pair of screws.
However, Browning developed this prototype to allow loading of the magazine from below rather than through the top of the receiver. He added a hinged floor plate, with a spring loaded follower, that allowed loose rounds to be dropped into the magazine and then closed.
As we open the magazine, hinging the cover plate down, we see the carrier flip down against the plate to allow loading. The rifle was designed to be loaded from below with the bolt forward.
In the patent description Browning explained that his aim was to improve breech-loading box-magazine firearms by designing:
“…a simple, compact, strong, highly effective, and safe gun, containing comparatively few parts and constructed with particular reference to provision for charging the box-magazine with cartridges from the bottom of the frame of the arm while the breech-bolt is in its closed position, so that the arm may be charged without operating its action mechanism or disturbing the cartridge in the gun-barrel, if one is there.”
From the original patent drawings we can see the flat spring which acted on the carrier running below the barrel, ahead of the magazine. Inside the magazine are a pair of what Browning refers to as ‘spring fingers’ these act on the cartridges inside the magazine and keep them properly aligned, seen here in Fig.7 of the patent. In Fig.8 we can see what Browning calls a ‘box-like guideway’ which guide the rims of the cartridges, “preventing the cartridges from being displaced while being fed upwards.”
The rifle’s breechblock locked into a recess in the left side of the receiver, tilting at an angle with the rear of the breechblock canting to the left. When the pump handle was pulled rearwards the breechblock cammed laterally to unlock the action, extracted and ejected any spent casing and when the slide/pump was returned forward a new cartridge was picked up from the magazine, chambered the breechblock locked again ready to fire. The rifle’s hammer was cocked by the rearward movement of the breechblock.
Externally, the slide-action’s receiver looks similar to that of the production Model 1895 but internally they are very different. The action is certainly less open than the Model 1895’s but the lateral locking mechanism is less robust. Additionally, with no lever, as in the Model 1895, the slide-action rifle lacks the safety mechanism which prevents the action from opening accidentally.
The model is in the white and while externally the machining and tool work is very neat, inside the action we can see where the cuts in the receiver wall have been more crudely made. In terms of design, the slide-action prototype was certainly simpler and had fewer working parts than the Model 1895 lever-action.
Winchester purchased the .30 calibre slide-action design but never produced it, it is believed that only Browning’s prototype was built to prove the concept. The prototype was part of Winchester’s collection and may now be found at the Cody Firearms Museum.
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.
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.
Today’s episode is the last video of 2018, so we thought we’d end the year with a bang, literally. Earlier this year Matt had the chance to get behind an original Browning M1919A4 so we’ve put together a video showing the classic belt-fed machine gun in action with some slow motion footage thrown in!
This M1919A4 was built in 1944 at GM’s Saginaw Steering Division plant, in Saginaw Michigan. It was one of nearly half a million M1919A4s built during World War Two. In the video Matt explains a little of the gun’s history and how it worked.
This M1919 has been rechambered from the original .30-06 to 7.62x51mm NATO and uses M13 disintegrating links rather than a cloth belt or M1 disintegrating links. My thanks to Chuck and his buddy over at GunLab for letting me put several belts through his gun, it was a lot of fun.
We’ll have a full, in-depth, episode on the Browning M1919 in the future.
Thanks to everyone for watching, liking, subscribing and commenting on our videos this year, we can’t tell you how much we appreciate all the support we have received. I’m very pleased to say we reached 3,000 subscribers before the end of the year, very pleased that our community is growing! We have much more to come in 2019, and we’ll be back with regular videos in January.
The .22 Semi-Automatic is arguably one of John Browning’s most elegant designs, its balance and handiness is immediately apparent to anyone who has handled or shot one. In our latest video we examined the history behind the design and looked at its features in-depth. You can check out the video and full blog here.
Here are some additional photographs of the rifle:
The .22 Semi-Automatic was John Browning’s third .22 calibre rifle to enter production following the extremely popular pump-action Winchester Model 1890 and the beautifully simple Winchester Model 1900 single shot bolt action rifle. Since its first appearance 100 years ago the .22 Semi-Automatic has been sold by three manufacturers; Remington, FN Herstal and Browning themselves.
The .22 Semi-Automatic (SA22/.22 SA) is radically different from Browning’s earlier .22, whereas the Model 1900 had been simple and inexpensive the .22 SA is a masterclass in balance, ergonomics and operation. It feeds from a tube magazine located in the rifle’s butt and is blowback operated.
The most interesting aspect of the SA .22’s action is that the bolt is at the base of the receiver with the cocking handle protruding downwards. This makes the rifle truly ambidextrous as the spent cartridge casings are ejected straight down rather than up or to the right of the receiver as in most contemporary rifles.
The rifle is one of the most balanced of Browning’s designs and it can be balanced on a single finger placed just in front of the trigger guard behind the bolt handle. Ergonomically the rifle is extremely pointable with an easily acquirable sight picture. Another interesting feature is the rifle’s takedown mechanism. Once the bolt is retracted a small catch in the base of the forestock can be pushed forward allowing the rifle’s barrel to be unscrewed from the receiver. This makes the rifle extremely handy and easily portable weighing just 4.75 lbs or 2.15kg.
Browning originally designed the rifle in 1912 with the patents being filed in March 1913 and granted in January 1914. At which time the production rights were immediately taken up by Browning’s European partners FN Herstal of Belgium who sold the rifle throughout Europe. Production was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One and the subsequent German occupation of Belgium. However, production began again in 1919 and continued until it was again interrupted by World War Two. Initial FN models had a small loading port located on the wrist of the stock in contrast to later models which located the loading port on the right side of the butt-stock.
Production rights in the US were taken up by Remington who began production of what they designated the Model 24 in 1922, four years before Browning’s death. The Model 24 initially was only chambered in .22 Short but was modified to chamber .22LR as well. Up until this point the T.C. Johnson-designed Winchester Model 1903 had dominated the .22 semi-automatic market.
The Model 24 remained in production until 1935 when it was replaced by a the Model 241 ‘Speedmaster’ which built on the original design but introduced a longer 23.5-inch barrel and was heavier, weighing 6 lbs or 2.7kg. Developed by Crawford C. Loomis, the Model 241, had a tilting cartridge guide and a slightly different take down system – moving the take-down catch from the bottom to the left side of the receiver.
Around 100,000 Model 241s were made before Remington ended production in 1949 and sales of the rifle ended in 1951. At which point the Browning Firearms company moved to reintroduce the rifle in the US, marketing it as the Browning .22 Semi-Automatic in 1956. Initially the rifles were produced by FN in Belgium however, all Browning production shifted to Japan in 1976. China’s Norinco have also produced the JW-20/ATD22, a direct copy of the SA .22.
John Browning’s .22 Semi-Automatic has been in almost continuous production for 100 years, another fine example of Browning’s enduring legacy of timeless firearms designs.
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During World War One the British Army had been early adopters of the light machine gun concept, recognising the mobility and firepower offered by the Lewis Gun as early as 1915. Despite the Lewis Gun’s proven track record after the war a lighter weapon was sought.
In the final months of World War One the US had begun fielding the Browning Automatic Rifle, Model of 1918, in what they had envisaged as a ‘walking fire’ role. Relatively soon after the war British Ordnance began the search for what they termed a ‘light gun’. They took an interest in the BAR ordering 25 Colt Model 1919 commercial guns for testing and evaluation at a cost of £1,575 in November 1920. According to James Ballou’s book on the BAR, Rock & a Hard Place, the serial numbers of these guns ran between C-100374 to C-100398. The Colt Model of 1919 differed little from the earlier US military model, the principle changes were the lack of a flash hider and the use of relocating of the recoil spring to the butt, acted on by a transfer rod, from inside the gas cylinder tube.
This batch of guns was adapted to chamber the rimmed British .303 round, necessitating a curved magazine, a .303 barrel, an adapted bolt, extractor and ejector. In April 1921 the BAR along with four other light machine guns (the Madsen, Beardmore-Farquhar, a Lewis Gun and strip and magazine fed Hotchkiss guns) at the School of Musketry at Hythe.
The Browning fared well in the testing with the evaluating officer stating that for a “light gas-operated weapon the Browning has done remarkably well…” In fact the Browning was selected as first preference out of the five weapons tested. The testing board felt it was suitably light and would be the cheapest to manufacture. The board made a series of suggestions to improve the BAR for British service:
Move the cocking handle to the right side of the weapon
Fit a light bipod which is height adjustable
Ejection port and magazine well dust covers
Gas regulator hole to be clear of threads of regulator
Improved method of fixing position of gas regulator
Magazine well capable of receiving Lee-Enfield rifle magazines
No further action was taken until 1927 when it was decided that the Superintendent of Design should adapt several Brownings to improve the weapon for British service. According to Jame Ballou’s book these new modified BARs were not all from the original batch of test guns, at least one was a Colt gun purchased through FN.
The adapted BARs had carrying handles, flash hiders, bipods, Lewis Gun-style pistol grips, new rear sight and protected front post, an ejection port dust cover and a redesigned butt stock. A number of other changes were also made including switching the charging handle to the right (this change was found to be less necessary with the addition of a pistol grip).
While the modified BAR’s came fairly close to being adopted the principle problem remained the weapon’s limited 20 round magazine. Various larger magazines such as a 40-round box magazine from Colt and a 30-round drum were considered. By 1930 several new light machine guns had appeared and the Browning was beginning to look obsolescent. The Czech vz. 26 would eventually be adopted as the Bren.
We recently had the opportunity to examine what we believe to be a British trials BAR. Vic examined the gun finding that rather than a commercial Model of 1919, purchased for the first set of evaluations, it was marked as a Model of 1925. Interestingly, however, rather than resembling a Colt M1925 it had all the characteristics of an earlier M1919.
The gun examined, serial number C-102723, falls outside of the serial range James Ballou states belonged to the 25 original .303 BARs. While it is marked M1925 the gun shares none of the characteristics of an M1925 – lacking the reshaped wooden foregrip, stubby pistol grip and rate of fire reducer. It does, however, have the 1919’s style of stock, foregrip and its relocated recoil spring. Additionally, the gun has had a folding carry handle, very similar to that of the later British trials BARs, added.
With little solid information available there could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the BAR Vic was able to examine was purchased for the later trials (between 1925-30) and it underwent minimal alterations – there is some variation between the documented surviving examples. The discrepancy between parts and the model name is curious. It is possibly a mix of parts were used to assemble the weapon during experimentation with configurations and an M1925 receiver was used as the basis of the gun but it was assembled with an M1919 barrel and furniture.
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Length: ~115cm / 45 in
Weight: .303 M1919 approximately 7kg, later trials guns between approximately 7.5-8.5kg
Sights: M1917 Rifle sights
Action: Gas-operated, rising bolt lock
Feed: 20-round curved box magazine
The Browning Automatic Rifle, R.R. Hodges, (2012)
Rock and a Hard Place: The Browning Automatic Rifle, J.L. Ballou, (2000)
Video from the Institute of Military Technology showing a .303 M1919 BAR (source)