Jul 23, 2021
Episode 18: Browning Auto-5
Part of why I love old firearms so much is the history and romance that goes along with each particular gun. Many old firearms evoke feelings of nostalgia, memories of loved ones, and good times long gone. Is it the smell of a particular gun oil, or the lines of a gun that will spark these fond memories? I know people who grew up knowing only that grandad had a side by side- all they could remember was the shape of the gun. Then and now there are many side by side shotguns, which does not help identify WHAT side by side he had. For the topic of today’s discussion, shape was everything. I am Joel Penkala, and this is 10 minutes on the Browning Auto-5.
At one point in time, if you saw a gun shaped like a 1911, it was a Colt- an iconic gun in its own right and easily identifiable from other pistols of the day. Now, the Colt has been copied and remanufactured by so many makers that the shape no longer dictates the maker. For the Browning Auto-5, this is not the case. If you see an old shotgun with a squared-off receiver in the back, chances are its an A5. And even if its not a Browning A5, its a clone made when John Browning licensed his original design to Remington or Savage. And, far fewer of those versions of this classic autoloading shotgun were ever made.
The A5 was one of John Browning's pet designs, which he regarded as one of his best. The Auto 5 was a 5 shot, semi-automatic shotgun, meaning that the cycling of each new round into the chamber was the result of capturing the energy from the previous shot. The idea might seem mundane to us these days as there are so many modern auto loaders on the market, but back when Browning invented the A5, it was the first shotgun of its kind, and one of the first semi-automatic guns commercially viable as well(rifle shotgun or pistol).
It was in 1898 that John Browning set out to develop a semi-auto shotgun (the same year the Mauser 98 was developed which is food for thought that they were still perfecting bolt action rifles when Browning was coming up with an autoloading shotgun). Browning was said to have devised several versions of the auto to test, but he and companions settled on the long recoil version of the design as the most feasible.
Unlike many of todays autos, the A5’s barrel moves along with the bolt during the normal cycle of operation. 4 shots are placed in the magazine tube, below the barrel, and one is put into the chamber. The gun is fired and the resulting force pushes both the barrel and bolt rearward together as a unit. Once at the end of their rearward travel, the bolt is held back by a mechanism attached to the rear of the lifter, while the barrel is driven forward by the large spring around the magazine tube. As the barrel moves forward and clears the spent case, it actuates both the ejection of the case, and initiates the lifter to raise the next round into position. The mechanism on the rear of the lifter releases the bolt, allowing it to move forward and bring the new round into the chamber in the barrel. There is a great video online- check it out- as I suspect my description here is likely a bit hard to follow unless you have recently taken apart an A5.
The distinctive lines of the A5 are a result of needing to enclose all of the above inside the action. The Auto-5 has an aesthetic all its own. The top of the receiver is flush with the barrel and terminates at nearly a 90-degree angle at the back of the action. This angle drops down to where the stock lines meet the back of the action giving the rear of the gun a squared, yet still rounded look that can be seen from across a duck marsh or corn field earning it the name the Humpback Browning.
One of the most innovative features of the A5 was the friction ring system that John Browning designed so that the gun could accommodate a variety of loads. Any semi-auto mechanism driven by the pressures of recoil must take into account that each shotgun load has a different amount of recoil or rearward force. Heavy loads = more force. Light loads are less force. Design a gun for light loads, and the heavy loads will overpower the mechanism and damage the gun. Design for heavy loads and light loads will not have enough force to cycle the gun properly. Browning saw to this with a system of friction rings that are integral to the proper function of the gun. The rings could be stacked in different configurations over the magazine tube, and in front of the mainspring, such that they would increase or decrease the amount of friction applied during cycling, applying more when needed for heavy rounds. This elegant solution made the A5 a very versatile and reliable gun.
Much like his other designs, John Browning had little interest in manufacturing his own firearms and so approached both Winchester and Remington to produce his latest gun. Winchester would not agree to pay Browning royalties on the gun, and complications at Remington prevented a deal. Having been down this road before, Browning approached Fabrique National (FN) in Belgium, who promptly agreed to produce the shotgun. The first A5s rolled off the line in 1902, with production continuing until 1975. In a seemingly very familiar fashion (think Weatherby Mark 5) the production was moved from FN to Japan, where A5s were produced at the Miroku factory until 1998.
I mentioned before that Remington would produce the Remington 11, and Savage would have a crack at the gun in its Model 720, and though similar, these guns were slight modifications to the original Browning design. It is of note that Remington would produce A5’s during the years of World War 2 along side its Model 11’s, though once the war was over, production did shift back to FN in Belgium.
The A5 I am holding is a bit of a unique one, although with 2.7 million made, it’s hard to believe that mine is special beyond my own curiosity. It is a 16 gauge gun with a solid rib. It is an early manufactured gun, made in the late ’20s, and is marked both Browning Arms Company Ogden Utah on the barrel and Fabrique National on the receiver. It is unrestored and I love the patina it carries. It shows proof marks on the bolt and action, which is something that I have always loved- maybe because it helps tell the story of a gun. The bolt and both largest screws on either side of the action are marked with the last three digits of the serial number; another cool feature of older guns when parts were made to fit THAT particular gun.
My A5 also has the earlier style safety - it is located at the front of the trigger guard and slides forward and backward- rather than the side to side of later versions of the same gun. Although a curiosity at first, the more I worked the sliding safety, the more natural it felt. Not to mention that it positioned your trigger finger nicely for the trigger pull that would follow.
Much like guns of the same vintage the Browning and its clones the Remington 11 and Savage 720 would see service on the battlefield and with law enforcement. US-marked guns were used as guard weapons and for trench warfare, and trainers were used to introduce the concept of lead for gunners trying to shoot down enemy planes. Clyde Barrow used a cut-down version of an A5 during the infamous crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde.
The venerable Auto 5 saw far more use in the fields and woods and became a staple at deer and duck camps. Because the production of the A5 spanned so many years, versions were available from the factory in all three most popular chamber lengths- early guns were 2 ½” followed by the standard 2 ¾” and eventually 3” magnum. The popularity of the A5 led to the development of Light and Super Lightweight models, though very few of the Super Lightweight were made.
A5 barrels came in several styles, including plane no rib, solid rib, and vent rib versions, and with a variety of fixed chokes. A5s would eventually adopt adjustable chokes, though not until later production years. Slug barrels were also available adding to the versatility of the gun.
Browning has recently reintroduced the A5, and though the gun looks somewhat like the original, the internals are very different than that of the original long recoil version. I haven’t handled the new version myself, so until I do, I will hold off any comment on them.
It is undeniable that the Browning Auto 5 has found a place in the heart and hands of sportsmen and women across our country. And if you are still unconvinced about the popularity and status of the A5- go ask singer/songwriter Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadors how he feels about his grandfather’s Browning, or maybe just go listen to “The Housefire” by the Troubadors.