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.
Today, were taking a look at a Winchester prototype developed in the mid-1860s, a period when Winchester was seeking to build on the success of the 1860 Henry Rifle and place the company on a firm financial footing. Oliver Winchester had taken control of the New Haven Arms company before the Civil War and while for a time it had been known as the Henry Repeating Arms Company he eventually sought to put his stamp on the company, renaming it Winchester Arms Company in 1866. At the same time he decided to focus the company’s energies on winning military contracts around the world.
This developmental prototype is in the ‘musket’ configuration: with a longer barrel, a bayonet lug and a wooden forend. The prototype represents one of the many developmental steps towards what would become the Model 1866. It has a number of interesting features – a steel, rather than brass, receiver and a hinged loading port developed by Nelson King, Winchester’s superintendent between 1866 and 1875.
The rifle itself was built by Luke Wheelock, Winchester’s model room mechanic and a designer in his own right who would go onto develop his own rifle designs for Winchester.
The rifle is 54.5 inches long, with a 33.75 inch barrel. Believed to have been built in 1866, it is chambered for a .45 calibre rimfire round. King patented his loading port in May 1866. He described how the port worked:
“Through one of the plates S (preferring that one upon the right-hand side) I form an opening, 0, as denoted by broken lines, Fig. 1, and also seen in section, Fig. 7. This opening is formed so as to communicate through the frame directly to the chamber E in the carrier block, as seen in Fig. 3. Through this opening, and while the carrier-block is down and all parts of the arm in a state of rest, insert the cartridges, point first, through the said opening in the plate S into the chamber E the second cartridge pressing the first into the magazine, and so on with each successive cartridge until the magazine is filled, or until the requisite number has been inserted therein, the follower G being pressed up before the entering cartridges. In the rear of the chamber E2 the frame forms a shoulder to prevent the cartridges from being forced out through the opening in the plate S3 is a cover for closing the opening in the plate S3 and is hinged thereto, as seen in Figs. 1 and 7, the hinge being provided with a spring,a1, the tendency of which is to open the cover C. A spring-catch, d, (see Fig. 1,) secures the cover when closed, so that by pressing upon the said catch the cover will fly open. After the requisite number of cartridges have been placed within the magazine, close the cover, as seen in Figs. 1 and 2.”
To paraphrase: ammunition can be loaded through the opening in one of the receiver side plate when the carrier block is down, insert the cartridges through the opening, pressing the first into the magazine and so on until the magazine is filled… a cover for closing the opening is hinged to the receiver side plate. A spring catch secures the cover when closed.
According to Herbert Houze, King developed the covered loading port design in early January 1866, with a design drawing dating to the 14th January, confirming this.
King altered the design of the rifle’s cartridge carrier so that a cartridge could pass through its lower section straight into the magazine when the action was closed. In theory the aperture could be placed on either side of the receiver, in practice is was placed on the right. Prior to this Winchester had experimented with systems where the tube could slide forward (G.W. Briggs US #58937), a port in the base of the receiver (J.D. Smith US #52934) or a sliding forearm covering a loading port at the rear of the magazine tube (O.F. Winchester UK #3284 [19/12/1865]).
King’s system had the benefit of allowing the rifle to be quickly loaded or topped off without rendering the rifle unusable while loading. Positioning the port in the receiver allowed the magazine tube to be enclosed by a wooden forend.
A cartridge guide was fitted inside the receiver which guided rounds through the cartridge carrier and into the tube magazine. The rounds were prevented from popping out of the magazine, when the carrier was aligned and the cover open, by a shallow shoulder which projected in line with the carrier’s channel to hold cartridges in the tube by their rim.
The hinged cover is held shut by a spring catch mounted on the rear of the cover. When the knurled section on its front is pressed rearwards the cover pops open. The spring catch is actuated when it tensions against the cover’s hinge as it is closed. On the back of the cover there is also a cartridge stop for when the cover is closed.
Another small but interesting feature of the prototype is the catch at the rear of the lever loop, this differs from the manually turned catch seen on the Henry and production 1866. This design appears to be a much better safety feature, simply requiring the user’s hand to depress the catch to unlock it from the stock. It also appears to be a much simpler mechanism than that seen in later models like the Model 1895. The trigger also had an extension protruding from its rear which appears to prevent the trigger from being pulled when the lever isn’t full closed. Neither of these features appear in King’s May 1866 patent.
It appears that the idea of the port with a hinged cover was superseded by what we now recognise as the classic Winchester loading gate in the summer of 1866. King’s new system replaced the hinged cover with a piece of stamped spring steel attached to the inside of the receiver side plate by a screw. The spring steel gate could be pushed in, with the nose of a cartridge, to allow rapid loading. The front face of the gate formed a cartridge guide removing the need for the separate machined guide used in King’s earlier iteration of the system.
King’s revised loading port system required just five, rather than twelve, components: King’s altered cartridge carrier, receiver side plate, spring metal loading gate plate and retaining screws. This simple but elegant design continued to be used for decades on various models of rifle. The company were so pleased with the refinement of the rifle that, according to R.L. Wilson, King was awarded a payment of a $5,000 reward by the company’s board of directors.
Winchester introduced the rifle in 1866, with the first deliveries being made early in 1867, the new rifle was offered in various barrel lengths and patterns including carbine, rifle and ‘musket’. Winchester found some success selling 1866 rifles to the militaries of France and the Ottoman Empire, while many other countries purchased rifles for testing including Britain and Switzerland (whom came close to adopting the Winchester.) The rifles also found success on the civilian market with around 4,500 sold in the first five months.
The Scientific American described the new rifles as “elegant in appearance, compact, strong, and of excellent workmanship. On examination we find its working parts very simple, and not apparently liable to derangement.”
King incrementally developed his loading system before radically simplifying it and this prototype rifle represents an important developmental step in the design of what would become the Model 1866 – one of Winchester’s most important rifles.
Special thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum for allowing us to take a look at this fascinating prototype rifle.
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Winchester Repeating Arms Company, H. Houze (1994)
Winchester: An American Legend, R. L. Wilson (1991)
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.