Published In Ogden City Magazine 2023 Fall Edition
The Browning family story started in Sumner County, Tennessee, with the discovery of a broken rifle. Jonathan Browning took a job as a farmhand, offering to work in exchange for a discarded gun he found hanging on the wall of a barn in 1818. Discovering his mechanical talent early in life at the age of 13 he rebuilt a gun that the local blacksmith had given up on. By the time Jonathon was 19, he was a skilled gun mechanic without knowing how to build one or having apprenticed to a gunsmith who could teach him that skill.
He found his way to a gunsmith in Nashville and proposed to offer his labor free in exchange for teaching him the art of gunsmithing. Seeing potential in Jonathan, Samuel Porter took him on as his new apprentice insisting, that he be paid and giving him room and board as well. The skills Browning learned in this period provided him with cash, confidence, and a friend in Porter.
Seeing an opportunity to serve a need that the pioneers had, Browning set up a blacksmith shop in Quincy, Illinois, and helped outfit hundreds of groups with supplies and firearms headed west. Browning joined the migration west in 1852 arriving in Utah with six wagons in his party and $600 in his pocket, he chose to settle his family in Ogden. A few years later, on January 23, 1855, John Moses was born to Jonathan and Elizabeth.
John Moses worked in his father’s Ogden shop from the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles. His first firearm was a crude shotgun, fashioned from a discarded musket barrel that was as long as he was tall. The gun had no trigger so near the barrel’s flash hole, John screwed on a tin cone and made other adjustments. Working in his father’s workshop for less than a day he then went hunting in the grass of the high plains with Matthew, his five-year-old brother, and future business partner.
When it came time to fire the weapon, gunpowder, and lead birdshot would be loaded down the muzzle, and finely ground primer powder would be sprinkled into the cone. The brothers would work together as a team: John would aim, Matt would ignite the primer with the tip of a smoldering stick, and the cobbled-together shotgun would, presumably, fire.
The brothers moved from place to place until they spotted a cluster of birds pecking at the ground. John knelt and aimed. Matt pulled the glowing stick out of the embers and touched the stick to the tin cone to fire the shot. The recoil knocked John backward, but a dead bird lay before him. Two other wounded fowl flapped nearby. Matt scampered ahead and stood, a bird in each hand, whooping and trying to wring both necks at once. The next morning his father had the grouse with biscuits for breakfast. John picked this time to tell his story about the gun and the hunt. Jonathan asked to see the gun. His response was, “John Moses, you’re going on eleven; can’t you make a better gun than that?”
By the age of 18, Browning had taken over his father’s business and by 24 he applied for the first of 128 firearm patents he would go on to earn for firearms and cartridges. J.M. Browning is known as the father of modern firearms. In 1879 he co-founded the Browning Brothers Company with Matthew. They renamed it Browning Arms Company when they took on the rest of their brothers to run their gun shop.
While John Moses Browning came up with the ideas, the task of translating them into steel prototypes was left to the manufacturers. To Browning, objects were ideas. He had the unique ability to visualize and manipulate objects in his head, enabling him to go from mind to metal. Remarkably, he never used blueprints. The modern world calls it “spatial thinking,” and most people utilize a rudimentary version of this skill when packing a suitcase, as we fold shirts, pants, socks, and jackets into shapes that fit the container. Advanced spatial thinking includes “mental rotation,” the ability to imagine three-dimensional objects and rotate them left and right or up or down. And then there is spatial realization, involving multi-step manipulations of the objects in your mind.
Browning is regarded as one of the most successful firearm designers of the 19th and 20th centuries and pioneered the development of modern repeating, semi-automatic, and automatic firearms. He influenced nearly all categories of firearms design, especially the auto-loading of ammunition. He invented or made significant improvements to, single-shot, lever-action, and pump-action rifles and shotguns. He developed the first reliable and compact auto-loading pistols by inventing the telescoping bolt, then integrating the bolt and barrel shroud into what is known as the pistol slide. Browning’s telescoping bolt design is now found on nearly every modern semi-automatic pistol, as well as several modern fully automatic weapons. He also developed the first gas-operated firearm, the Colt–Browning Model 1895 machine gun – a system that surpassed mechanical recoil operation to become the standard for most high-power self-loading firearm designs worldwide.
Browning’s most successful designs include the M1911 pistol, the water-cooled M1917, the air-cooled M1919, and heavy M2 machine guns, the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, and the Browning Auto-5 – the first semi-automatic shotgun.
John M. Browning’s prolific work on weapons and weapon systems has contributed to the safety and freedoms of the USA and our armed forces ever since. The Browning Firearms Museum celebrates the genius of John M. Browning, the inventor of many sporting and military firearms. Original models of firearms designed by John M. Browning are displayed in the museum, including several rifles, shotguns, pistols, machine guns, and cannons.
The John M. Browning Firearms Museum is located on the second floor at the north end of Union Station – there is access by elevator and stairs. Tickets can be purchased in the Gift Shop in the Grand Lobby. It is an attraction not to be missed.