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.
During my recent visit to the Cody Firearms Museum I was lucky enough to examine a number of interesting firearms (more videos soon). In this video we take a look at a Winchester Model 1905 chambered in .45 ACP.
The Model 1905 was originally designed by Thomas Crossley Johnson, as a commercial rifle chambered in either .32 or .35 Winchester Self Loading. It was the second of a series of blowback operated rifles Johnson designed between 1903 and 1910.
The origins of this gun, however, are less clear. It is part of the Cody Firearms Museum’s impressive collection and is believed to be a Winchester-made prototype. Dating the rifle is more difficult. It was originally believed to have been developed during the First World War but the Winchester Arms Collection’s records date the rifle to 1919. It has also been suggested that the conversion may have been developed by Winchester as an auxiliary arm for the US Army, as a replacement for the 1911 pistol for some troops – much along the lines of the later .30 carbine. There are no records, however, to suggest the .45 ACP Model 1905 was ever officially tested.
Herbert Houze, former curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, believed the conversion was actually developed after World War Two. No patents or Winchester documents are known to refer to it but Houze believed that one of Winchester’s engineers, Harry H. Sefried, developed the conversion as a side project with a potential aim to interest law enforcement agencies in a carbine chambered in the readily available .45 ACP round.
Taking a stock rifle a number of changes were made, the rifle was re-barrelled and rechambered for the .451-inch .45 ACP round and the bolt face was modified slightly. The 1905 originally fed from straight 5 or 10-round box magazines. In order to feed from a Colt 1911 magazine a new magazine housing was added. The curved front of the trigger guard has been machined back and is now flush with the rear of the conversion housing which appears to be integral to the lower receiver’s frame. On close inspection we can clearly see that parts have been brass brazed together around the original magazine release and inside the magazine well.
The rounded magazine housing has a new magazine release positioned at the front of the magazine, as in the 1911 and allows the magazine to be inserted at an angle. The ejection port has also been altered with an additional cut-out being made at the top to aid ejection.
Take down remains the same, with the upper and lower separating once the take down screw at the rear of the receiver is loosened. The conversion appears to be well thought out and the finish and care taken would indicate this was rifle wasn’t a rough proof of concept prototype. Sadly, there is no information on how the conversion performed.
Regardless of the origins of the conversion Winchester never offered the chambering commercially and this prototype is the only example known to exist. Today, it is held by the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West in Wyoming. The museum has just undergone a major renovation and is well worth visiting. Our special thanks to the CFM for letting us examine this rare rifle.
Herbert Houze, the former Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum who is mentioned in this article and video, recently passed away – this video is dedicated to his memory.