November 28, 2022
John Moses Browning was born on January 23, 1855, to Jonathan Browning and Elizabeth Caroline Clark Browning. Jonathan had travelled to Utah in 1852 in order to join Brigham Young and other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. John M. would grow up to be one of the greatest American gun designers—if not the greatest. As mentioned in the article on Springfield’s new SA-35 elsewhere in this magazine, his successful guns include the Hi-Power. He also designed the Model 1911, the Colt Woodsman, and at least 11 other semiautomatic pistols; the popular SA-22 and Remington Model 8 semiautomatic rifles; a bunch of fully automatic machine guns, including the M2HB and the BAR; the Winchester Models 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895 lever actions; the classic Superposed over-under and Auto-5 semiautomatic shotguns; the Winchester Model 1897, Winchester Model 1912, and Ithaca Model 37 pump-action shotguns; and many more.
He also created at least seven cartridges (.25 ACP, .32 ACP, .38 ACP, .380 ACP, .45 ACP, .50 BMG, and 9mm Browning Long). Sources say he was awarded 128 patents for his civilian and military designs.
John’s father was a gunsmith and established a shop in Ogden, Utah, so young John started working in the gunshop at the age of seven. When he was 13 years old, he designed and built his first firearm: a falling-block, single-shot rifle. Ten years later (1878), he and his brother Matthew co-founded the John Moses and Matthew Sandefur Browning Co. It was later renamed Browning Arms Co.
In 1879 John married Rachel Theresa Child (they eventually had 10 children) and also received his first patent; he was 24 years old at the time. In 1926, two months shy of his 72nd birthday, John died of heart failure literally sitting at his workbench in Liege, Belgium, working on the Hi-Power design. Before passing away, John pioneered the development of modern repeating semiautomatic and automatic firearms and influenced nearly all categories of firearms design.
Detailing all of John Browning’s successful and influential gun designs in this short space is impossible, so I’m going to focus on my favorite. As much as I enjoy the Model 1911 (I currently own more than a dozen of ’em) and appreciate the “improvements” embodied in the Hi-Power, my favorite John Browning-designed gun is the sleek, slim SA-22. I have two of them these days, one in .22 LR and one in .22 Short, but I’ve owned several others—plus Remington Models 24 and 241, which were modified versions of Browning’s design.
The .22 rimfire, bottom-ejecting SA-22 (also known as the .22 Auto and 22 Semi-Auto) was first produced in 1914 by Fabrique Nationale. It is a takedown rifle in which the barrel/forearm and the receiver/buttstock assemblies are joined by interrupted threads and locked in place with a push-button, sliding lock. The tubular magazine is contained inside the buttstock, and the loading port is either on the side of the buttstock or on top of the buttstock. It was also produced by Remington as the Model 24 and Model 241 and copied by Norinco of China. More than 500,000 SA-22s have been sold since 1914.
When it comes to firearms designers, we almost certainly will never see the likes of John Moses Browning again. His military and sporting guns have been, and continue to be, produced the world over. His recoil-operated system (perfected with the Model 1911) became the preeminent type of the 20th century and of nearly all modern centerfire pistols. His sporting gun designs have been manufactured by the biggest and greatest firearms companies, including Browning, Colt, Fabrique Nationale, Remington, Savage, Stevens, and Winchester.