Small Wars Journal

Review: The Guns of John Moses Browning

Tue, 05/18/2021 - 9:40pm

Review: The Guns of John Moses Browning


By James King


Samual Colt may have created the gun that won the West but John Browning’s guns have won everything else.  From his humble beginnings in Ogden Utah to his death on the Fabrique Nationale factory floor in Belgium and beyond, Nathan Gorenstein tells a story that is long overdue, in the first major biography of the man who has been called the Thomas Edison of guns.  Not even Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK-47 can stake a claim to the level of influence in the conduct of warfare that John Browning’s inventions still have almost 100 years after his death.   


Born in 1855 not long after his father, who was himself a gunsmith, converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah to start a new life, John Browning grew up to a life sustained by the land.  At the time of his childhood Ogden, his life long home, was over 1000 miles from the nearest train stop and 35 from the next nearest town, Salt Lake City.  It was an environment where resourcefulness was a necessity and in this Browning excelled.  At only ten years old, John with the help of his little brothers built their first crude shotgun out of scrap steel and iron that their father had accumulated. Scared that it would either not work at all or blow up in their face Browning and his brothers collected enough powder and shot for one try.  Fortunately for Browning, the only thing dead after they fired it was the bird he had aimed at. His father chastised him for his poor craftsmanship and promptly destroyed the new weapon. John, however was not deterred and his unquenched desire to invent had begun.


Gorenstein picks up the story some years later, the railroad had finally connected the two coasts of the United States, the Civil War had only recently ended, and John Browning was in the business of repairing firearms.  After working on every conceivable style of firearm Browning new he could do better.  He reviewed the Sharp’s and Remington rifles until he was able to put together his first production quality lever action rifle. Winchester, the company that would mass produce many of Browning’s rifles would use the rifle called the model 1885 as the test bed for new ammunition for several decades. The next year’s variant the Winchester model 1886 would go on to earn the monicker of “the Best Rifle in the World’.


Browning, as Gorenstein continues, would take a two year hiatus from working on new firearm designs to head to Georgia to work as a Mormon missionary.  Almost immediately after his missionary work was completed Browning was right back at work creating hunting rifles, ultimately completing the Winchester model 1890 repeating rifle which would remain in production for almost 70 years.  The model 1890 had such a distinct sound that it can still be heard every time someone presses the lock button on their iPhone.


Browning’s influence on warfare would come shortly after and in rapid succession. First up, the gas powered machine gun.  Prior to his invention “machine” guns were the hand cranked Gatling guns pulled by wagons.  These large unwieldy weapons were crewed liked cannons are today.  Browning’s mechanism for using the gas of the fired cartridge would forever impact weapon design, almost every semi auto and automatic weapon in use today uses his system, it  also changed the tactics of warfare.  Smaller, lighter machine guns crewed by two to three people could be employed throughout the battlefield and moved quickly as needed.


The effect of this new weapon of war was apparent in the early stages of World War I.  Armies still using the tactics of the Napoleonic era were easily destroyed or driven to a standstill by these new mechanical killing machines.  The new weapons drove armies to dig trenches to keep soldiers out of the heavy fire. 


The next problem to solve was the ineffectiveness of the pistol.  Army officers returning from the Philippines after the Spanish American War told stories of their .38 rounds having little to no effect on charging enemy soldiers. Browning took this challenge and as with many of his rifle designs, created a mechanism that would last for generations.  Look at any semi-automatic pistol today and you will see the design created by John Browning.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in  the .45 caliber Colt pistol model 1911. A design that to this day is one of the most popular model of pistol in the world.


After his success with the 1911 pistol, Gorenstein discusses another iconic weapon of war created by Browning, the BAR or Browning Automatic Rifle.  The BAR, created to provide an automatic weapon to infantry squads, would see limited action during WWI, the war it was invented during but would be a main stay of squad equipment through out World War II.  No one in the military asked for the design but Browning knew what was needed and came up with a rifle that could be fired in automatic and carried by just one person.


The last weapon of war Browning is credited with creating came near his time of death in 1926.  In 1920 he was working with Colt firearms to build a .50 caliber machine gun, a weapon that would see combat in every war from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.  The weapon was so effective it was used in every possible configuration.  It was mounted on trucks, on tanks, on Jeeps and carried by infantry.  It was installed in the wings of fighter planes and the bodies of bombers.  It was used as an anti aircraft weapon and an anti personnel weapon.  While its role has diminished some from its heyday of WWII it can still be found mounted on tanks, LMTVs, MRAPs, HMMWVs, and Strykers among other things.


Gorenstein’s telling of John Browning’s story doesn’t end with his death in 1926.  It continues with the telling of how some of those weapons were used in combat.  From the soldiers of the 79th Infantry Division, Sergeant York, and T.E. Lawrence in WWI to the Battle of Britain, the bombing of German and Audie Murphy in WWII Gorenstein takes the reader through a series of historical moments in warfare that had Browning’s weapons not existed might have turned out differently.


The weapons of war have a fundamental impact on the tactics of combat and no one had more impact on the weapons used in warfare than John Browning. Nathan Gorenstein takes the reader on a journey to understand the inventor of the tools of warfare, tools that have stood the test of time.  Anyone who wants to better understand how the tactics of combat have come about need to understand how the tools that shaped those tactics were created.  An understanding of the tools of war are not complete without and appreciation of the life of John Browning, an appreciation that cannot be truly had without Nathan Gorenstein’s book.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel James King is a US Army Intelligence Officer.  He has served at every echelon from platoon to combatant command and has deployed three times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He has written several articles for Small Wars Journal on a wide range of subjects.  Lieutenant Colonel King holds a bachelor of arts in sociology from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from American Military University.



Wed, 09/22/2021 - 9:11am

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Wed, 09/22/2021 - 8:38am

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