10 Facts About John Moses Browning, the “Father of Modern Firearms”
The Old West wouldn’t have been the Old West without John Browning — or at least without his rifles.
Dubbed the “Father of Modern Firearms,” John Browning is synonymous with the guns that built the Old West. As far as gunsmiths go, he was one of the best; so much so, in fact, that the other guns we associate with the Old West, like the Colt Single Action Army, Savage, Winchester, and Remington, were all based on Browning’s original designs.
Just how much do we know about this legendary gunsmith? Enough to know that he lived an extraordinary life solely focused on an item that would get you canceled for discussing today. And despite his reputation and legacy, he remained humble as he joined Western American history.
“Although John was a millionaire many times over, he remained the same quiet, unassuming and kindly man throughout his life,” claimed a 1961 Frontier Times article. “He shrugged off high honors, awards and decorations, yet he never lacked a kindly word for even the sweepers in the factory.”
Here are 10 facts you may not know about John Browning, the “Father of Modern Firearms.”
1. John Browning made A LOT of guns.
John Moses Browning made his first gun when he was just 13 years old, an accomplishment that would totally freak out people living today.
But as a boy of 7 years old, Browning was put to work early in his father’s gun shop and encouraged to play with guns (yikes?). By constantly playing with firearms, Browning figured out how they worked and, more importantly, how to improve their functionality.
On October 1, 1879, when he was 24, John Browning was awarded his first patent. But it wasn’t his last: in all, Browning secured 128 gun patents.
People who are good with math (not me!) crunched the numbers, estimating that during the 47 years Browning was actively inventing and making firearms — with all 128 patents under his belt — he was single handedly responsible for the production of more than fifty million weapons.
That’s a boatload of guns.
2. Guns were the Browning family business.
John Browning’s father, Jonathan, was originally from Nauvoo, Illinois, but he moved to Ogden, Utah, in 1852, where he set up a gunsmith business. Like John, most of Jonathan Browning’s sons learned the family trade.
In 1878, John Browning and one of his brothers (there were a lot of them) branched off to start their own gun shop. They named their company “The John Moses Browning and Matthew Sandefur Browning Gun Company,” but since that didn’t fit on their business cards, they shortened the name to just “Browning Arms Company.”
Speaking of short: John and his brother were only in business for a short time when Jonathan, the patriarch, died (no, not from a gunshot wound) in 1879 at the age of 73. The family business passed to John, who merged it with Browning Arms Company.
To keep peace in the family, he made sure to keep all his brothers — Matthew, Jonathan, Edmund, Thomas, Samuel, George, and William — on the payroll.
3. John Browning had three moms.
John Browning’s father, Jonathan, was Mormon and lived in the Mormon community in Nauvoo, Illinois. Residents of the area didn’t get along with local Mormons (or maybe it was the other way around), and things came to a head in 1844 when the Prophet Joseph Smith, the leader of the religious group, was assassinated.
Lest they be next, in 1846 the Mormon people of Nauvoo made an exodus from Illinois to Utah, where they hoped to practice their religious beliefs in peace.
One of the Mormon religious practices that riled feathers when the group was living in Illinois was polygamy. As a polygamist, Jonathon Browning had three wives; therefore his son John had three moms. And he had a whole lot of siblings: Jonathan Browning fathered 22 children with his three wives.
In case you were curious, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon, were not peace-pushing, anti-gun folks, at least not in the 1880s. Jonathan Browning, and later John Browning, produced plenty of guns to arm the Mormon church.
We know this because the weapons they made for the church bore a label reading, “Holiness to the Lord — Our Preservation.”
4. John Browning wasn’t a polygamist — he just had a large family.
John Browning was raised as a Mormon and continued to practice the belief system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints his whole life — except for one of those beliefs.
By all accounts, John Browning was not a polygamist like his father. There are records of only one marriage, stating that John Browning wed Rachel Theresa Child on April 10, 1879, in Ogden, Utah.
The couple had ten children, but only eight survived to adulthood. One of them, a son named Val Allen Browning, eventually joined the family business. Upon John Browning’s death, Val Browning took over as the president of Browning Arms Company.
Like his father, he designed weapons and components, but he only received 48 gun patents in his lifetime, compared to his father’s 128. Slacker.
5. Browning designed guns for Winchester.
John Browning did such a bang-up job (pun intended) developing new weapons for his own company that, in 1878, Oliver Winchester, the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in Connecticut, recruited Browning to design a lever-action, repeating shotgun for them.
Under the Winchester name, Browning designed the Winchester Model 1885 single shot and the Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun, among others, but he really didn’t think this was the best approach.
All his work on the lever-action system convinced him that the pump-action system was a better alternative.
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6. Browning wasn’t as concerned as Sarah Winchester about their roles in gun-making.
John Browning continued to design and make guns his entire life, right up to his last moments on Earth. Literally. He dropped dead of a heart attack in 1926 while standing at his workbench working on the designs for a self-loading pistol.
By all accounts, Browning died with a clean conscience. He was apparently not at all troubled by the fact that, because of his efforts, there were so many weapons in the world.
The same can’t be said for Sarah Winchester, the wife of Oliver Winchester of Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She was so distraught over the passing of her husband, Oliver, in 1880, and of her son, William Wirt Winchester, a few months later, that she became convinced that the spirits of all the people killed with Winchester firearms were cursing her family.
To confuse the spirits, she spent all her inheritance on building a home in San Jose, California, which is now known as the Winchester Mystery House. The home is a maze of confusing hallways, hidden passages, and dead ends with 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 6 kitchens, and 47 staircases.
It’s the perfect place to play hide-and-seek from vengeful spirits.
7. Browning found inspiration in an unusual place.
After his stint with the Winchester company, John Browning focused his efforts on a pump-action system with the goal of increasing the speed and accuracy when firing multiple rounds.
His pump-action method worked by providing a smooth way for shooters to fire a round, expel the spent shell casing, position a new cartridge in place, and shoot the next round — all in mere seconds.
When he perfected this system in 1888, Browning did what he always did: he ran off to the patent office to file a patent on his invention. And then, he started work on his next project. This one was a doozy (not an Uzi).
Browning was always on the lookout for ways to speed up bullets, and for guns to be able to shoot more rounds in a short amount of time, but the human factor was slowing things down. Stupid humans.
One day, while attending a shooting competition — he was a man of limited interests — John Browning noticed something that got him thinking. At the event, there was a patch of tall reeds growing.
When the men fired — we can assume they were all men since the 1880s were a pretty sexist time — the reeds violently blew back from the blasts of air accompanying the bullets as they were shot out of the guns. There was a lot of air escaping in a forceful manner. Maybe he could harness that air movement to power the repeating mechanism.
A few years later, after a lot of trial and error, Browning had it all figured out: in 1892, he patented the first totally automatic firearm.
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8. Browning’s guns went from the Old West to overseas.
Browning’s automatic rifles were a big hit — at least for people not on the receiving end.
The United States military took notice and knocked on John Browning’s door. In the early part of the 1900s, Browning worked diligently on enhancing and refining his automatic weapon design, and filing for more patents. Seriously, this guy couldn’t get enough of the patent office.
By the time World War I began, American soldiers were well-armed with Browning Automatic Rifles. Not long after, they had Browning machine guns in their arsenal. These powerful, reliable, deadly tools of death (sounds dramatic, huh?) helped win the war.
“When World War I broke out, John had two guns ready — the recoil-operated, belt-fed heavy machine gun, and a gas-operated automatic rifle fed with a 20-round clip,” wrote Glen Perrins in Frontier Times. “They were the most effective guns of their type known.”
A few decades later, Browning automatic guns were once again the weapons of choice for troops fighting in World War II. In fact, the military still uses guns designed by John Browning and manufactured under either the Browning name or the names of other gun makers, like Rossi, Colt, and Navy Arms.
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9. Browning spent his later years in Belgium.
Sitting on his stack of patents, John Browning worked out lucrative licensing agreements with other gun manufacturers to use his designs, and not all of them were in the United States.
He even negotiated an agreement with a gunmaker in Belgium — Fabrique Nationale de Herstal, or FN. This started a long collaboration between John Browning and FN.
In the years following the end of World War I, Browning traveled to Belgium to work closely with the weapons designers at FN. The thought of retiring never crossed his mind. He was completely dedicated to his work.
Browning was in Belgium on November 26, 1926, still working out the kinks of a new design with the folks at FN and his own son, Val Browning, when his heart gave out. He was 71 years old.
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10. Browning’s legacy’s changed over the years, but his place in history remains.
The weapons designed by John Browning remain the go-to guns for sportsmen, gun collectors, the military, and law enforcement. They are powerful, reliable firearms that gun enthusiasts highly value.
Unfortunately, some bad actors are also attracted to these kinds of guns and, as we all know from watching the nightly news, or Twitter, use them for high-profile crimes.
Many of Browning’s weapons are held up as examples of the types of guns that should be banned. Will that eventually happen? Who knows. Does that make John Browning a bad person? There may be plenty of people who believe that it does.
But John Browning was an inventor and innovator who took an existing product and greatly enhanced it, and for those reasons, and he prolific output in the 19th century, he’s an icon of Old West firearm history.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- Bainbridge, J. J. (2023). Gun Barons: The Weapons That Transformed America and the Men Who Invented Them. Griffin.
- Browning, J., & Gentry, C. (1964). John M. Browning, American Gunmaker: A Illustrated Biography of the Man and His Guns. Doubleday.
- Chapel, C. E. (2013). Guns of the Old West: An Illustrated Reference Guide to Antique Firearms. Skyhorse Pub.
- Gorenstein, N. (2022). The Guns of John Moses Browning: The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World. Scribner.
- Kirkland, K. D. (2011). America’s Premier Gunmakers: Browning. JG Press.
- Miller, D. (2006). The History of Browning Firearms: Fortifications Around the World. Lyons Press.
- Miller, D. (2014). The History of Browning Firearms. Chartwell Books, Inc.
- Perrins, G. (1961). A Wizard with Guns. Frontier Times, 35(4), 10–49.
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.