So the story goes: When legendary designer John Moses Browning showed the prototype of what was to become the Browning Auto-5 to the president of Winchester, the president said, "It’s the ugliest gun I’ve ever seen."
Declining the Auto-5 in 1898 was one of the worst business decisions the firm ever made. The glory went to Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale.
Variants of the blocky, graceless design were made under license by TOZ in Russia, Franchi in Italy, and Remington and Savage here at home. Savage’s offering, the Model 720, was built between 1930 and 1949. Browning-branded guns were eventually made by Howa in Japan, and production continued in limited numbers until the early 1990s.
As the storm clouds of World War II loomed on the horizon, the services struggled to train fighter pilots and gunners in the voodoo science of deflection shooting. Trap and skeet were found to be excellent low-cost methods of teaching lead, and the services bought shotguns for gunnery schools across the country.
Shotguns were also used for guard duty in built-up areas, such as ports and airfields, as pellets carry only a fraction as far as a rifle bullet.
Humpbacks were used across the Atlantic: An interesting photo exists of Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland hunting upland game with an Auto-5 during a lull in the Battle of Britain.
I bought the subject gun some years ago from a fellow member of the Los Angeles Adventurers Club. He said his father had purchased the worn 720 just after World War II and had hunted waterfowl with it for years. Army Ordnance Corps proofs on the left side of the receiver indicate wartime service, but whether as a gunnery trainer or guard weapon is uncertain. The internals still seemed tight, but the stock was badly cracked and loose. It was fitted with an ungainly Cutts compensator and a sensible, Modified choke.
I found a replacement stock by calling a now-defunct mom-n-pop, and gunsmith friend Danny Pedersen (928-772- 4060) located a student at his alma mater, the Yavapai College gunsmithing program, interested in working on the gun.
The student cut off the compensator for me and installed a Colonial removable Full choke. This is an internal/external that allows for some beef when constriction occurs. A raised bead was silver-soldered at the muzzle. When I fired some very hot 00 loads through it, the bead’s base actually popped off and had to be reattached with serious heat. This is a testimony to the stress that occurs as the shot load stretches the barrel during constriction.
Browning’s odd design is the only successful family of long-recoil operated guns. Upon firing, both the barrel and bolt travel locked together, like cars on an express train, the full length of the receiver.
Unlocking occurs when a top lug is cammed down out of a recess in the barrel extension. This releases the barrel, which is pushed forward by the recoil spring on the magazine tube. When it returns to battery, it trips the bolt release. The bolt is propelled forward by the action spring in the stock, and it in turn cams the feedramp up.
The barrel is pulled off the spent case and almost as an afterthought, a small ejector stub on the end of the barrel extension rudely hurls the spent hull out of the action.
The original Auto-5 has a magazine cutoff, but the 720 dispenses with it to save on production costs.
The mass of the entire barrel and bolt carrier group flying back and forth dramatically affects handling, with recoil rapidly followed by counter recoil as the heavy barrel slams back into battery.
An unusual feature is a friction collar on the magazine tube. This can be placed at the front to slow down the action for high-base shells or placed at the rear for garden-variety target loads.
Three 12-gauge factory loads and two handloads were used for the shooting portion of this report. Painfully at the top end was Federal’s brutal Prairie Storm, packing 1¼ ounces of Flight Stopper lead at 1,467 fps. I’ve killed pheasant roosters dead at 60 yards with it, but it probably has taken several thousand miles off my rotator cuff. Not for girly men.
Surprisingly, the next hottest round was Gamebore’s 2½-inch Pure Gold paper/fiber, which stepped out with the others, launching an ounce of No. 7 shot at 1,309 fps.
Docile Winchester AA Light Target, the industry standard for trap and skeet, hosted 11/8 ounces of No. 9s going 1,148 fps.
I traded for a box of reloads with serious trap competitor Greg Holden. He uses a Spolar press and wads over 20 grains of Hodgdon Clays to launch 11/8 ounces of West Coast No. 8.5 shot in Remington STS hulls, all ignited by Italian Cheddite primers. Out of Greg’s 34-inch Krieghoff, they produce a smidge over 1,300 fps, but the abbreviated barrel of the 720 offered them at just 1,239 fps.
y, I had a box of Magtech brass shells loaded some time ago with 51 grains of Goex FFg behind a (there will be a quiz) 10-gauge gas seal, 9/16-inch fiber wad, then a 3/16-inch cork wad, then an ounce of No. 8 shot, finally topped with an over-shot card. These were originally cooked up for Single Action Society doin’s. Several years ago I’d used some in my gas-operated Excel Auto, with huge gouts of sooty flame blasting out the ejection port, shearing off the hapless extractor. Hmmm…blackpowder…long recoil…
At The Range
With the Cutts compensator removed, the 720 becomes quite the handy defensive gun. At the Mojave Sportsman’s Club’s Seven Mile Range, the 720 patterned about 2 feet wide at 40 yards, the Colonial choke and wicked Federal No. 5 loads producing excellent pattern density. The pattern was 90/10, better suited for trap and rising pheasants than coyotes disappearing into the creosote bushes or bunnies and bad guys.
The club uses a Pro Chrono chronograph. Several members were finished shooting, but upon seeing the weird mix of ammo and the Humpback, they decided to stick around to see what would happen next. Their ribald commentary can’t be repeated here.
I chambered a round and fed four more into the magazine for each selection. In every case the first two rounds would hang up after releasing from the tube. Upon wiggling, the feedramp would cycle, desperately trying to load my left index finger into the gaping maw of the chamber. But experience with Garands has made me an eye blink faster. Rounds three through five would cycle perfectly.
I swapped the friction collar after the first monster Federal round and begged off after two more. Perhaps a pair of Dead Mule attenuators in the magazine tube and stock-bolt hole, combined with a Pachmayr Decelerator pad, would help.
Alas, the beautiful blackpowder loads didn’t have enough poop, their action being insufficient to provoke a complete reaction from the Savage 720.