Browning Auto-5

The world’s greatest gun designer’s greatest gun

Dad repaired the cracked forend of his Auto-5 with a drywall screw.
This improvised fix gives the gun character.

John Moses Browning was one of 22 children born to a trigamist Mormon pioneer father who fled west to avoid religious persecution. Young John began working in his dad’s gun shop at age seven. He designed his first firearm, a single-shot falling-block rifle, at age 13.

When John Browning keeled over from heart failure in 1926 at the FN factory in Liege, Belgium at age 71, he held 128 patents. Browning invented the telescoping bolt, the pistol slide, the gas-operated machinegun and a variety of common cartridges to include the .25ACP, 32ACP, .380ACP, 45ACP and the .50BMG.

In addition to the 1911 pistol, Browning designed every major machinegun used by the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Browning’s belt-fed .30-caliber M1917 and M1919 as well as .50-caliber M2 and M3 guns armed Allied forces alongside his eponymous Browning Automatic Rifle. Japanese aircraft also employed copies of Browning weapons.

John Browning’s son Val was the first Allied soldier to fire the BAR in anger during WWI. JMB’s 37mm M4 autocannon armed the Bell P39 Airacobra as well as U.S. Navy PT boats. If we had any real sense as a nation (we don’t), we would celebrate John Moses Browning Day as a federal holiday. We should commemorate the great man with postage stamps and federally organized machinegun shoots from coast to coast.

Despite all those guns and all those patents, the one weapon of which John Browning was said to have been most proud was his Auto-5 shotgun. A long-recoil design, the 12-gauge Auto-5 was the world’s first successful autoloading shotgun and it remains relevant today.

Will’s snake gun is a 1920s-era Remington Model 11 with the addition of a
Paradigm SRP Gator Spreader, shortened buttstock and flashlight.

The Design

The Browning Auto-5 was so named because it carried a total of five rounds onboard. The gun’s mechanism creates its distinctive humped back. A nearly identical design was marketed by Remington as the Model 11 and by Savage as the Model 720. The latter two guns lack the Auto-5’s magazine cutoff.

Browning designed the gun in 1898 and the last Auto-5 left the factory a century later. American forces used militarized versions of the Model 11 in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. The British Special Air Service used the gun during the Malayan Conflict. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself with one in 1994.

There is a series of bronze bushings which must be properly oriented within the forearm for safe operation. Failure to tune the gun for its loads puts undue strain on the forearm and it is notorious for splitting the furniture. I cannot for the life of me remember how the bushings go — thank goodness for Google.

The barrel and bolt cycle is a single unit, allowing this massive component to absorb much of the recoil. The same basic design drives the semiautomatic Barrett M82 .50-caliber anti-materiel rifle. This inspired mechanism keeps these powerful weapons comfortable.

Dad’s Browning Auto-5

My dad bought his Belgian-made copy new in the 1950s. In my father’s capable hands this remarkable scattergun has killed more wild turkeys than Noah’s flood. The workmanship is simply gorgeous.

Like many Auto-5s, the forearm on dad’s gun split. He repaired the component with a drywall screw, wrecking the resale value. I don’t care. I’d lose my home before I let this gun leave the family. It conjures countless warm memories of traipsing about the Mississippi Delta wilderness at his side.

The Gator Spreader turns the shot string into a horizontal scythe and even resembles an alligator.
The gun runs fine so long as nothing obstructs the reciprocating barrel.

The Remington Model 11

$200 via an online gun auction. The Model 11 was a favorite of Depression-era gangsters and lawmen, and I wanted a facsimile for my personal collection. I pruned the tube back to 18″ and mounted up a new front bead to create a spitting image of John Dillinger’s handheld howitzer. His original Model 11 is the centerpiece of the Dillinger weapons display at the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC.

The steel on my gun sports a beautiful brown patina, and the forearm was naturally split. I carefully glued and clamped the cracks back together before drilling tiny holes crosswise against the grain. I glued toothpicks into these holes and then gently sanded the edges flat so the repairs are legitimately invisible. The toothpicks now rigidly secured in shear make the forearm stronger than when it left the factory. There is an engineering solution to every problem.

Bonnie Parker’s Remington Model 11 Whippet shotgun was chambered for 20 gauge.

Bonnie Parker’s Whippet

Most gangsters’ whippet shotguns began life as Model 11s. These motorized bandits would trim the barrels back and saw down the buttstocks to make the guns more maneuverable and faster in action. Bonnie’s personal gun was a 20-gauge. She even sewed a fake zipper pocket into some of Clyde’s trousers to conceal the muzzle of his whippet when he entered a bank.

My whippet is 16-gauge. The 20s were available, but they were expensive. By contrast my sweet 16 set me back maybe $250. I trimmed the barrel and buttstock paying meticulous attention to the sundry length limits so as not to run afoul of the National Firearms Act.

A Model 11 For The Information Age

My current primary snake gun is a thoroughly modernized Model 11 which left the factory in the 1920s. The upgrade gear came from Brownells and Paradigm SRP. An extended Remington 870 magazine tube is a drop-in addition. I refinished the rusted steel with inexpensive bake-on engine block paint from my local auto parts store. A generous recoil pad from Brownells keeps things comfortable.

The Gator Shotgun Spreader is a modern iteration of the duckbill choke used by U.S. Navy SEALs in Vietnam. This inspired device threads into place and very effectively compresses the shot cloud into a horizontal line of concentrated chaos. The Gator Spreader will not crack like the duckbill originals and it even looks like an alligator. In a weird way nearly a century after his death my old friend John Moses Browning helps keep my rural farm free from venomous serpents even today.

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