Skip to Main Content

The Guns of John Moses Browning

The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World

The first major biography of “the Thomas Edison of guns,” John Moses Browning, a visionary inventor who designed the modern handgun and whose awe-inspiring array of firearms helped ensure victory in numerous American wars and found an important place in American culture.

Few people are aware that John Moses Browning—a tall, humble, cerebral man born in 1855 and raised as a Mormon in the American West—was the mind behind many of the world-changing firearms that dominated more than a century of conflict. He invented the crucial design used in virtually all modern pistols, created the most popular hunting rifles and shotguns, and conceived the machine guns that proved decisive not just in World Wars I and II but nearly every major military action since. Yet few in America knew his name until he was into his sixties.

Now, author Nathan Gorenstein brings firearms inventor John Moses Browning to vivid life in this riveting and revealing biography. Embodying the tradition of self-made, self-educated geniuses (like Lincoln and Edison), Browning was able to think in three dimensions (he never used blueprints) and his gifted mind produced everything from the famous Winchester “30-30” hunting rifle to the awesomely effective machine guns used by every American aircraft and infantry unit in World War II. The British credited Browning’s guns with helping to win the Battle of Britain.

His inventions illustrate both the good and bad of weapons.

Sweeping, lively, and brilliantly told, this fascinating book introduces a little-known American legend whose impact on history ranks with that of the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.

Chapter One: Frontier Lessons CHAPTER ONE FRONTIER LESSONS
John Browning’s first firearm was a crude shotgun, fashioned from a discarded musket barrel as long as he was tall. He built it in his father’s workshop in less than a day and afterward went hunting in the grass of the high plains with Matt, his five-year-old brother and future business partner.1

The 1865 Browning home in Ogden, Utah, was adobe brick, situated a few steps away from untrammeled land filled with grouse, a small wildfowl that made tolerable eating once it was plucked, butchered, and cooked, preferably with bacon fat to moisten the dry flesh. Utah’s five varieties of grouse could fly, but mostly the birds shuffled about on the earth. The male “greater” grouse reached seven pounds, making a decent meal and an easy target, as yellow feathers surrounded each eye and a burst of white marked the breast. A skilled hunter could sneak up on a covey picking at leaves and grasses and with one blast of birdshot get two or three for the frying pan.

Such frugality was necessary. The closest railroad stop was nearly one thousand miles east, and the largest nearby town was Salt Lake City, thirty-five miles to the south and home to only ten thousand people. Ogden’s settlers ate what they grew, raised, or hunted. Water for drinking and crops depended on the streams and rivers that flowed west out of the mountains into the Great Salt Lake, and irrigated wheat, corn, turnips, cabbage, and potatoes. Each settler was obliged to contribute labor or money to construct the hand-dug ditches and canals. They made their own bricks, cured hides for leather, and made molasses out of a thin, yellowish juice squeezed from sugar beets with heavy iron rollers and then boiled down to a thick, dark bittersweet liquid.

The rollers were made by John’s father, Jonathan, himself a talented gunsmith who also doubled as a blacksmith while pursuing a variety of entrepreneurial adventures that never yielded more than mixed success. Jonathan’s shop was his son’s playground, and John’s toys were broken gun parts thrown into the corner. At age six, John was taught by his “pappy” to pick out metal bits for forging and hammering into new gun parts. Soon the boy was wielding tools under his father’s direction.

To build that first crude gun John chose a day when his father was away on an errand. From the pile of discards John retrieved the old musket barrel and dug out a few feet of wire and a length of scrap wood. He clamped the barrel into a vice and with a fine-toothed saw cut off the damaged muzzle. He set Matt to work with a file and orders to scrape a strip along the barrel’s top down to clean metal. With a hatchet John hacked out a crude stock. The boys worked intently. On the frontier a task didn’t have to be polished, but it had to be right. Basic materials were in short supply, and to make his gun parts and agricultural tools Pappy Browning scavenged iron and steel abandoned by exhausted and overloaded immigrants passing through on their way west. Once, he purchased a load of metal fittings collected from the burned-out remains of an army wagon train, and as payment he signed over a parcel of land that, years later, became the site of Ogden’s first hotel.

John used a length of wire to fasten the gun barrel to the stock, then bonded them with drops of molten solder. There was no trigger. Near the barrel’s flash hole John screwed on a tin cone. When it came time to fire, 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 lean in and ignite the primer with the tip of a smoldering stick, and the cobbled-together shotgun would, presumably, fire.

This wasn’t without risk. There was no telling if the soldered wire was strong enough to contain the recoil, or if the barrel itself would burst. Then there was the matter of ammunition. Gunpowder and shot were expensive imports delivered by ox-drawn wagon train, and early settlers, surrounded by game, suffered pangs of hunger when foodstuffs were eaten up, powder was exhausted, and their firearms hung useless on the wall. Even as a shotgun—which fires lead pellets—the Browning brothers’ makeshift weapon might prove ineffective. John could miss, and anger their father by using up valuable gunpowder with no result. Despite the risks, John pilfered enough powder and lead shot (from Jonathan’s poorly hidden supply) for one shot.

In ten minutes the brothers were in open country. Ogden’s eastern side nestled against the sheer ramparts of the Wasatch Mountains, and to the west lay the waters of the Great Salt Lake. To the north the Bear and Weber rivers flowed out of the Wasatch to sustain the largest waterfowl breeding ground west of the Mississippi River. Early white explorers were staggered by seemingly endless flocks of geese and ducks. In the 1840s pioneers described the “astonishing spectacle of waterfowl multitudes” taking to the air with a sound like “distant thunder.” Mountains rose up in all four directions, with one range or another flashing reflected sunlight. It was a striking geographic combination, magnified by the bright, clear sunlight of Ogden’s near-mile-high elevation. A settler’s life was lived on a stage of uncommon spectacle.2

John carried the shotgun while Matt toted a stick and a small metal can holding a few clumps of glowing coal. The idea was to take two or three birds with a single shot, thereby allaying parental anger with a show of skilled marksmanship. Barefoot, the brothers crept from place to place until they spotted a cluster of birds pecking at the ground. Two were almost touching wings and a third was inches away. John knelt and aimed. Matt pulled the glowing stick out of the embers, almost jabbed John in the ear, and then touched the stick to the tin cone to fire the shot. The recoil knocked John backward—but in front of him lay a dead bird. 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, as Jonathan breakfasted on grouse breast and biscuits, John listened to sympathetic advice from his mother and chose that moment to tell Pappy the story of his gun, his hunt—and the pilfered powder. Jonathan sat quietly and when John was finished made no mention of the theft. He did ask to see the weapon and was unimpressed. “John Moses, you’re going on eleven; can’t you make a better gun than that?”

Matt snickered. John choked down his remaining breakfast. “Pappy has drawn first blood, no doubt about that. He hadn’t scolded about the powder and shot, and the sin of stealing. But he’d hit my pride right on the funny bone,” John told his family decades later. A moment later he followed his father into the shop. He unrolled the wire from the barrel, “whistling soft and low to show how unconcerned I was,” and then stamped on the stock, snapped it in two, and tossed the pieces into a pile of kindling. “I remember thinking, rebelliously, that for all Pappy might say, the gun had gotten three fine birds for breakfast. Then I set to work. Neither of us mentioned it again.”

The father, Jonathan, who was tutor and goad to his son John, was born in 1805 to a family that emigrated from Virginia to rich farmland outside Nashville, Tennessee. Jonathan Browning was the sixth of seven children raised on a homestead at Brushy Farm along Bledsoe Creek, a four-mile-long tributary feeding the Cumberland River. Early on, Jonathan decided he’d rather hammer on an anvil than walk behind a plow and at nineteen years of age apprenticed himself to a Nashville rifle maker. He returned to Bledsoe Creek to open his own shop in 1826, and in November of that year, at age twenty-one, married a local woman, Elizabeth Stalcup. She was twenty-three, the only child of a widowed mother. When Jonathan’s parents and several brothers moved west to Quincy, Illinois, a newly settled town on the Mississippi River, Jonathan and Elizabeth followed. In 1834 they moved to the village of La Prairie. It was the start of a decade-long trek westward as they added children at the rate of one infant per year.3

The extended Browning family in Illinois included a cousin, Orville, a politically ambitious attorney who boasted that frontier rarity, a college education. Orville practiced real estate law, and so, along with gunsmithing, Jonathan began purchasing land in the surrounding counties, often at sheriff sales, and holding the parcels for eventual resale. While Orville persuaded Jonathan to run for justice of the peace, it was gunsmithing that produced a lucrative income for his growing family. In addition to a steady flow of repairs, Jonathan designed a repeating rifle that used the same mechanism found in Samuel Colt’s new six-shooter pistol: a metal cylinder with six cylindrical chambers, each loaded with a lead ball and gunpowder, which would be ignited by a percussion cap. Colt’s gun was the first practical repeating firearm. Jonathan produced a rifle-sized version and crafted a trigger, stock, and barrel. A surviving example shows an exquisite level of craftsmanship, but it required time and effort that Jonathan found unsustainable.4

While Jonathan was inventing, cousin Orville was elected to the state legislature, where he befriended another young lawyer, a tall, thin man with a distinctive jaw named Abraham Lincoln.5 The men were of similar age and background. Both grew up in Kentucky, served in the state militia, and had similar politics—they were opposed to the expansion of slavery—which eventually led them to join the new Republican Party. The two legislators became friends, and Browning family oral history says that at Orville’s behest Jonathan and Elizabeth, who enjoyed a relatively spacious home on account of their ever-expanding family, played host to Orville’s friends or clients in need of lodging. On two occasions young lawyer Lincoln was the guest. So the story goes, anyway. Research by a Browning descendant comparing the dates and locations in family lore with the available records of Lincoln’s travels wasn’t definitive but suggests the family lore is “likely” grounded in fact. One story does have a strong whiff of verisimilitude. At an evening meal with Lincoln, probably around 1840, Jonathan remarked how earlier that day he’d set a neighbor’s broken arm, a skill learned after trading a gun for a “doctor book.”

“Fact is, that’s the way I got my first Bible, traded a gun for it.”

Lincoln said that reminded him of “the saying about turning swords into plowshares—or was it pruning hooks?”

“Plowshares,” Jonathan replied.

“Well, that’s what you did, in a way turned a gun into a Bible. But the other fellow—he canceled you out by turning a Bible into a gun. Looks like the trade left the world about where it was.”

The men chuckled; then Jonathan admitted “there was something else funny” about the transaction. “To tell the truth, the mainspring in that old gun was pretty weak, and some other things…”

“You mean to admit that you cheated in a trade for a Bible—a Bible!” Lincoln exclaimed.

Jonathan said that the artful deal making went both ways. “When I got to looking through the Bible at home, I found that about half the New Testament was missing.”

Mending, be it bones or guns, was the evening’s favored metaphor. “The United States are to become the greatest country on earth. But what if the hotheads break it in two, right down the middle? That would be a welding job!” Lincoln declared. “It would need the fires of the infernal for the forge. And where was the anvil? Where is the hammer? Where was the blacksmith?” That blacksmith turned out to be Lincoln, and the fires four years of bloody civil war. Cousin Orville became an advisor to President Lincoln, though the better-educated man believed himself worthier and was privately envious of the rougher, self-educated Lincoln.6

Of greater significance for the Browning family was Jonathan and Elizabeth’s introduction to another man, the charismatic Joseph Smith, who in 1823 declared that he’d found a new holy gospel written on golden tablets discovered buried in a New York hillside, and so was inspired to found a new religion. Most of his neighbors considered it a blasphemous cult. Smith called it the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. Forced to flee Missouri in 1839, Smith and his followers trekked to Illinois and founded the town of Nauvoo, a name drawn from Hebrew for “they are beautiful.” An earlier stop in Missouri led to that state issuing an extradition warrant for “overt acts of treason,” but Jonathan’s cousin Orville got the warrant thrown out by an Illinois court. That didn’t end Smith’s problems, as rumors circulated about his “plural marriages,” an affront to the law and social mores. Yet the new faith expanded. Unlike most other sects born during the spiritual revival of the mid-1800s, Smith’s religion provided a cohesive community and economic security, a “theocratic-democracy” that offered structure “for lives beset by unpredictability, disorder and change” amid the uncertainties, isolation, and insecurity of the frontier.

In 1840 a proselytizing Mormon in need of a gun repair introduced Jonathan to the faith and, after a lengthy conversation in the shop, the customer called at his home and presented Jonathan with the Book of Mormon. Jonathan wasn’t economically insecure—his business dealings were thriving. Though uneducated in any traditional sense, he was an ambitious, curious man who may have seen the church as an alternative to the many warring Protestant sects. It offered the promise of salvation and a comprehensive social network that was rooted in a patriarchal family structure. “He seemed to perceive a clearly marked road to salvation, a map in effect, to guide man through the wilderness of life to the gates of heaven,” his grandson Jack wrote a century later.

Jonathan was baptized into the church, moved to Nauvoo with his family, and briefly became owner of a two-story home and gun shop. In 1844 the first and only edition of a Nauvoo newspaper, the Expositor, published an editorial that bitterly criticized Smith for serving in the dual role of mayor and church leader. Smith declared the newspaper a public nuisance and ordered the town marshal to destroy the printing press, an ill-considered decision that led to criminal charges of riot and “treason against the state.” Smith was jailed and on June 27, 1844, a mob stormed his cell. A gun battle broke out and Smith was killed.

It was around this time that Jonathan designed a second firearm, soon much sought after by his Mormon brethren. It was an ingenious device called the slide bar repeating rifle, colloquially named a harmonica rifle, since a vital part indeed bore a resemblance to the musical instrument. A brief description of how a firearm works is helpful to understand not only that rifle but John Browning’s later work.

As Browning reached manhood in the 1870s the basic architecture of the modern firearm was cemented into place. Any pistol, rifle, shotgun, or machine gun, no matter how complex or powerful, has the same essential components: a hollow steel barrel, with an opening at one end called the muzzle, where the bullet emerges, and a hole at the other end, called the breech, where the barrel is bored out to create the loading chamber. When a gun is loaded, the “cartridge”—a brass case with a pinch of explosive primer at its base followed by gunpowder and topped by a lead projectile—is inserted into the chamber. Then the chamber is sealed by a “breechblock” so that the hot gas produced by fast-burning7 propellant is directed forward, out of the muzzle, and not backward (into the shooter’s face).

The breechblock is also sometimes simply called the block or the bolt. Thanks to the English language’s many borrowed words, and a history of firearm development dating to the 1200s, a single component can have a variety of names. “Bullet” is from the French word for “small ball” and technically only refers to a lead projectile, but it’s also used to describe what is otherwise called the cartridge, a word with roots in medieval Latin. A cartridge is also called a round, from the original round musket balls. “Ammunition” refers to one or more cartridges.

Whatever the name, ammunition in a modern firearm is loaded through the breech, rather than down the muzzle. That advance came when inventors in the nineteenth century figured out how to design breechblock mechanisms that could quickly open and close while withstanding the force of exploding gunpowder. Reduced to its most basic element, a modern firearm design begins with selecting—or inventing—the breechblock. As John Browning later wrote, “With me, the breech closure is the initial point, everything else is designed to conform to it.”8

In Jonathan’s harmonica gun the sliding bar was drilled to hold five charges that could be fired in quick succession. The loaded bar slid sideways into the rifle and was locked in place by a lever. With a pull of the trigger the hammer snapped forward, struck a percussion cap, and ignited the powder.

To reload, the lever was released, the bar was slid over, and the next chamber was aligned with the barrel. About four hundred of the rifles were built over the next decade as the family traveled west, pausing in Iowa before setting out for Utah with a family of eleven children and seven wagons of supplies and equipment, and carrying a respectable $600 in savings. They arrived in Salt Lake Valley on October 2, 1852, midway through the great Mormon migration west.

By then Jonathan was forty-seven years old and had lived more than half his life. Nevertheless, he marked his arrival in Mormon Utah by starting two new families, permitted by the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage. In 1854 he married his second wife, a thirty-seven-year-old native Virginian, Elizabeth C. Clark. She had two daughters named Mary and Nancy from a previous marriage in Illinois—a marriage Jonathan had in fact presided over nine years earlier as a justice of the peace. Clark and that husband made the trek to Utah and settled in Ogden, where they divorced and she became reacquainted with Jonathan. What the first Elizabeth thought is unclear, though some family accounts say displeasure prompted her to find separate living quarters.

The second Elizabeth and Jonathan had three more children. The first was John Moses, who arrived in 1855, followed by a sister who died as an infant in 1857. Two years later Elizabeth gave birth to Matthew Sandefur, his middle name the maiden name of Elizabeth’s mother. John Moses became the inventor and Matthew the financial wizard behind what eventually became a joint enterprise called the Browning Bros. They grew up in an adobe home Jonathan built for Elizabeth and her children at what is now the corner of Twenty-Seventh Street and Adams Avenue in Ogden, some ten or twenty yards from his crude blacksmith shop. Hastily erected soon after his arrival in Utah, it was built of green, freshly cut timber boards with the bark still attached. Jonathan installed an anvil, hearth, bellows, and foot-driven lathe carried all the way from Illinois.

Jonathan wed for a third time in 1858, marrying Ann Emmett, twenty-eight, an emigrant from the United Kingdom with a two-year-old daughter, Sarah, who died before she reached adulthood. It’s unclear whether Ann was ever married to Sarah’s biological father.9

Jonathan was now the patriarch responsible for three families. That fact must have hit home with particular force when his second wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to Matthew on October 27, 1859, just ten months after his third wife, Ann, gave birth to her first son, Jonathan Edward Browning, nicknamed Ed. Six more children followed for a total of twenty-two among Jonathan’s three wives. They lived a simple, difficult frontier existence, in three different homes. One of Ann’s sons, T. Samuel, recalled their adobe home had only two rooms, two windows, and a dirt floor. “Mother made all of our clothes,” he said. “She would wash and card the wool, spin and weave it, and cut it and sew it.” The ubiquitous sagebrush was used as fuel for heating and cooking, and Jonathan “usually killed a beef, put it into brine and then hung it high above the fireplace to dry. We could just slice it off and I remember how good it tasted.” Unruly children were disciplined with “a strap on the seat of our pants.”10

The grown children from Jonathan’s first marriage never developed the close family ties established by their younger half siblings. The children of second wife Elizabeth Clark—who’d nurse her husband’s first wife in her old age—and third wife Ann generally considered themselves members of a single family.

Jonathan branched out into new business endeavors, including a brickyard, a leather tannery, and a sawmill, though none brought prosperity. He held positions in the church and served in the state legislature. He proved to be a “rough and ready” engineer, skills that put him in wide demand, but despite his popularity, and a reputation for honesty and skill, economic security eluded him. Grandson Jack described Jonathan with this carefully written paragraph:

Thus, versatile in imagination and mechanical skills, generous, never thrifty, obeying more wholeheartedly than most the admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and, let it be admitted, gullible, Jonathan soon saw his shop turned into a kind of community first-aid station. He made a good deal of money, but always, as it came in a new project was waiting for it—or the outstretched hand of a borrower. If he had possessed a moderate talent for business management, he could have become wealthy. As it was, no man in the community worked harder, accomplished more, and had less to show for it. He lived in confusion, and seems to have been only mildly troubled by it.11

The business failings of the father were not to be repeated by John and Matt.

Ogden’s isolated character abruptly changed in 1869 with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, 1,933 miles long and connecting Omaha, Nebraska, to a wharf on San Francisco Bay, with a major hub in Ogden. Chinese and Irish emigrants had built the line by hand, forty-foot rail by forty-foot rail, installing each with a choreographed display of hard labor. Divided into crews of a dozen men, the first laid down wooden crossties, atop which another crew laid one-thousand-pound iron rails. Lever men moved each rail into place, bolters connected it to the previous rail, and spikers pounded in ten spikes per rail. Then it was all repeated again, and again, and again. The Union Pacific crew working westward arrived in Ogden on March 8, 1869, to find the entire town gathered for a celebration. At 2:30 p.m. the coal-fired locomotive Black Hawk steamed into view, slowly rolling in on the newly laid tracks.12

“A number of us boys had heard that it was coming,” Samuel said. “So we went out to the south end of town and climbed over a bank and heard it whistle.” He was nine years old and had never seen a train or heard an earsplitting steam whistle and found, “It frightened us very much.” The track crews worked into the center of town, and “when the train came into Ogden, and whistled, people were so frightened they ran in all directions.” Children fell into a muddy trench in their panic.

After the Black Hawk ground to a halt, a band played, artillery fired a salute, and a celebration lasted into the night. Track work resumed the next day, and on May 10, after another fifty-seven miles of rail were laid, a Union Pacific train met a Central Pacific train at Promontory, Utah. The moment was recorded in the famous photograph of two locomotives head-to-head on a single track, surrounded by workingmen and dignitaries posing motionless for the camera.

Never profitable, and plagued by corruption, the railroad nevertheless changed the national concept of time. A trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, which previously took months, cost $1,000, and required either a voyage around Cape Horn or a trek across the disease-ridden Isthmus of Panama, was reduced to seven days, including stops. Within a year, $65 purchased a seat in “immigrant” class—on a bench—and a trip from one coast to the other. Equally important, freight no longer moved at the pace of an ox or horse, and the telegraph, paralleling the rails, joined cities and towns in near-instant communication. When John Browning began designing his firearms he ordered supplies directly from the large wholesalers in New York City, communicating with them by letter in a matter of days. If the need was urgent, a telegram arrived in hours.

The quality of life in Ogden also changed. Some Mormons worried that an influx of railroaders and non-Mormons would undermine the Latter-day Saints’ strict prohibitions against drinking, swearing, premarital sex, and gambling, and there was, inevitably, an influx of “Gentiles” and their less-than-Mormon practices. The wickedness reached its apogee at a transient “hell on wheels” labor camp in Promontory. Workers lived in boxcars surrounded by tents serving as hotels, restaurants, saloons, gambling dens, and brothels. There were con men, assorted criminals, and one fellow called Behind the Rock Johnny, said to have bushwhacked five people. Ogden’s population grew to ten thousand and it acquired the nickname Junction City, along with a red-light district of national repute.13 Each year, tens of thousands of passengers traveling east or west stopped in Ogden to change trains and entertain themselves along Twenty-Fifth Street, a broad avenue a few blocks over from Browning’s home, extending from the station into the center of town and lined with hotels, bars, and, discreetly, bordellos.

The year of the railroad’s arrival also marked the end of John’s formal education. At age fifteen, he had completed the equivalent of eighth grade. His few teachers had only modest educations themselves, and one is said to have told John he’d exhausted his instructors’ store of knowledge. Life outside the classroom continued to offer an education of its own.

For nearly a decade, starting in the 1860s and ending in the early 1870s, a Native American—his tribe is unknown—appeared at the Browning homestead twice a year. He dropped a ragged bundle of possessions in the barn, set himself down at the base of an apple tree, and began constructing moccasins. “He never spoke, never even nodded; the lot might still have belonged to his people so did he make himself at home,” Jack wrote. Once or twice a day Elizabeth sent John out with a meal. In the first years the young Browning delivered the food and wandered away, until one day he delivered an extra ration of food and asked the Indian to show him how to cut and sew the deerskin into footwear. “Although there was no exchange of words, there was doubtless a spiritual confabulation between the two creative artists. John was permitted to pick up this or that piece for close examination, to slip a hand into a finished moccasin, and trace every seam,” Jack wrote. Years later Browning came across a display of Native American handiwork and showed his children the little tricks of construction taught to him as a child.

He also built himself a bow and carved and fletched his own arrows, becoming sufficiently skilled to trade his handiwork to siblings and neighbors’ children in return for their labor. “He could get his chores done for a week for a bow and a couple of arrows.” Of course, the buyer would soon need additional arrows, which John traded for eggs, potatoes, and the occasional nickel. When he wanted material for his own moccasin making, John staged a demonstration for a local Native American youth and traded a bow and arrow for tanned deerskin.

By 1869 Browning possessed a range of metalworking skills. He could saw, file, weld—hammering strips of metal into a larger, stronger piece—and use a hearth and bellows to forge and shape iron and steel. That spring a freight wagon driver arrived with a finely made but now badly damaged single barrel shotgun. It had been crushed when a wooden cargo box fell on the stock and metal parts—the trigger, springs, hammer, and levers that comprise a firearm’s “action.” The barrel was intact, but the warped and twisted action made the cost of repair exorbitant. The customer was both in a hurry and drunk, the story went, so he purchased one of Jonathan’s reconditioned guns with a $10 gold piece. On his way out he handed the seemingly useless shotgun to a surprised and pleased young John.

Unconstrained by time or the need to turn a profit, Browning saw an opportunity, as the expensive barrel was the one part Jonathan’s shop couldn’t replicate. He laid the damaged gun parts out on the bench for a close inspection and felt his confidence vanish. John had no idea what, exactly, to do. Where to begin? How was he to convert this mashed-up collection of metal and wood into a functioning firearm? Frustrated, stewing in a potent mix of youthful anger and pride, with the chance to own the best shotgun in town disappearing before his eyes, John burst out with a curse. “Damn it to hell!”14

On the other side of the shop Jonathan was shaping metal parts for a sawmill, his latest entrepreneurial effort. He looked up and pointed a big steel file at his son. “John Moses, don’t you know that everything you say and do is recorded?” And jabbed the tool skyward.

For young John it was a moment of sublime exasperation, followed by the discovery that the unconscious mind, stimulated by stress, can solve the previously insoluble. Spurred by his irritation, Browning’s mind spit out an idea, and he hit on the thought process that underlay his work for the next six decades.

“A good idea starts a celebration of the mind, and every nerve in the body seems to crowd up to see the fireworks,” he said years later. “It was a good idea, one of the best I ever had, and so simple it made me ashamed of myself.”

“Boy-like—and very often man-like too—I had been trying to do the job all at once, with some kind of magic,” Jack wrote in the 1950s, quoting the story told by his father decades earlier. Browning at that young age taught himself how to solve mechanical problems by first discovering where to start—importantly the correct place to start—and then proceeding in a strict sequence. “The oldest ‘step at a time method,’?” he called it. “The idea was no great shakes itself,” but as he correctly observed, “It requires a lot of patience and a good many men get discouraged and quit.”

The years already spent in his father’s shop also proved their value. “It seemed as though every haphazard bit of knowledge I picked up playing in the shop, watching Pappy, doing little jobs for him, and every knack I’d learned they all bunched together and focused like a lot of little lights. In the aggregate to make quite an illumination. I learned right there how to use your brain.”

The next morning he spread the parts across the workbench and, as he examined each piece, saw “that there wasn’t one I couldn’t make if I had to.”

John rebuilt the shotgun in two months, finding time between chores and work in the shop. The quality of his final product was on par with the high-end barrel, though Jonathan couldn’t quite come out and say so. Instead, he offered a thick plank of expensive walnut for the shotgun’s new stock.

As Jonathan spent more time attending to his outside business ventures, he left John to run the shop, overseen by his mother, Elizabeth. With his father’s attention already spread thin among his many children and three wives, John became accustomed to running his life pretty much as he pleased, which clashed with Jonathan’s prime principle of child raising—at least with boys—to never allow an idle moment for fear trouble would ensue. Jonathan became infamous for concocting make-work jobs. John became skilled at evading them. As the oldest among Jonathan’s second and third broods, he also became the de facto leader.

One anecdote from the early 1870s illustrates John’s role as intermediary between older father and youthful children. In advance of a summertime three-day trip to Salt Lake City Jonathan called together John, Matthew, and the four boys of his third wife—George, Samuel, Ken, and Tom—and announced that during his absence they were to busy themselves digging a cellar hole for a supposed addition to the homestead, notwithstanding that it meant three days sweating in the July sun. Once Jonathan departed, however, John cobbled together an escape from the unpleasant task. First, a customer dropped off a repair job, and John pointedly negotiated the price up from $2 to $2.50, sure to please his father. That gave John an excuse to remain indoors. Then an uncle on his way to repair an irrigation ditch arrived with a bent shovel. John negotiated a deal. In return for fixing the shovel the uncle would put the boys to work on the ditch in the mornings, and let them swim in the canal in the afternoons. That pleased the four boys. When Jonathan returned there was no hole in the ground, but John showed him $2.50 in gold and described the ditch repair. Jonathan took $2 and gave John 50 cents for ammunition. No more was heard of the cellar project.

John increasingly forsook work for hunting, riding into the mountains in pursuit of majestic elk, which could reach seven hundred pounds and sport a massive rack of antlers. In summers the animals roamed above six thousand feet on aspen-covered mountainsides, moving downhill as winter approached. Years later—while eating by himself in a Hartford hotel—Browning was approached by young magazine writer Lucian Clay. Browning refused to discuss his firearms work but eagerly recalled his youthful hunting adventures. “He went on to tell me of the year when he lived on elk steaks for weeks at a time—elk steaks for breakfast, elk steak sandwiches for lunch while hunting, and steaks for supper.”15 Those mountain journeys were almost certainly in the mid-1870s, when John was in his late teens or early twenties and trying to figure out his future.

Browning knew a life spent repairing old muzzle-loaders offered only terrible boredom. It would have taken an exceedingly dim mind not to be inflamed with curiosity and restlessness by the strangers crowding Ogden streets, borne back and forth across the continent by locomotives moving east and west at all hours of the day and night. Browning could have pursued other work—the railroad would have welcomed a talented mechanic—but he never did so: “I couldn’t bring myself to ask anybody for a job. It seemed to me that by the act of asking a man for a job I admitted my inferiority to him.” Browning added, “The fact is, I was lazy.” If so, it was laziness only by Browning’s definition: “The only shop work I liked was gun work.” But by his early twenties he’d been hammering, filing, and fitting the same parts for more than a decade. There was little more to learn from fixing guns.

Browning was freed from that drudgery by the scientific advancements that transformed America in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Had John lived just ten or twenty years earlier he would have been stymied by crude materials and unsophisticated technology. Browning’s genius lay in imagining new machines—which is what a firearm is—and the guns he created grew from chemical, metallurgical, and manufacturing advances. As Browning acknowledged to family members later in life, those discoveries matched his talents and took him from small-town repairman to international inventor.

Two new technologies in particular laid the foundation of Browning’s career, developments he followed from behind his workbench in Ogden. Most important was the advent of metallic ammunition, which meant that by the early 1870s muzzle-loaders were rapidly supplanted by breech-loading rifles. No longer did powder and ball have to be poured down the barrel and then compressed with a ramrod. These new rounds were called rimfire cartridges because a pressure-sensitive explosive was layered inside the rim of a thin copper base easily crushed by a gun’s hammer. A drawback, however, was that soft copper limited rimfire cartridges to small, low-pressure charges. Otherwise, the cartridge could rupture and jam the firearm.

Rimfire cartridges were soon supplanted by sturdier center-fire ammunition, with the explosive primer contained in a small metal cup pressed into the cartridge base. Because the base didn’t have to flex, the ammunition maker could use a thick shell of brass, a robust alloy of copper and zinc.

This was a big deal. The size and power of a bullet was now only limited by the strength of the steel barrel and action. In response the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in New Haven, Connecticut, upgraded its existing rimfire lever-action rifle and gave it a new name, the Model 1873. Readers will know it by a marketing slogan: “The gun that won the West.” It was, indeed, sought after by settlers, cowboys, and Native Americans, too, as George Armstrong Custer learned to his regret in 1876. His troops were armed with U.S. Army issue single-shot carbines while some 25 percent of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors carried lever-action repeaters.

The Model 1873 fit easily in a saddle scabbard, held fifteen rounds, and could fire as quickly as a shooter could work the lever and pull the trigger. It also had its own significant limitation. The internal mechanism that loaded, fired, and ejected the ammunition—called the action—couldn’t withstand the high pressure generated by long-range cartridges. It limited the rifle to low-powered revolver rounds, also designed and produced by Winchester. While sufficient for short-range hunting and self-defense, it was unsuitable for the military. The Army wanted a cartridge that traveled farther and hit harder and for its sturdier single-shot rifles adopted the powerful .45-70 cartridge. The first number describes a bullet nearly a half inch in diameter, the second the weight of black powder in grains, in this case about equivalent to a modern nickel.16 Combined with a brass cartridge the round was 2.55 inches long. The .45-70 could kill a deer, or slay an Indian, at twice the range of Winchester’s revolver ammunition. Widely available at a reasonable cost, the .45-70 cartridge became a favorite among hunters and target shooters, leaving Winchester at an increasing competitive disadvantage.

The year 1873 also saw a near catastrophe in the Browning household. Jonathan was heavily invested in real estate while unable—or unwilling—to collect on debts owed to him by fellow townspeople. With cash tight, Jonathan purchased a cut-rate load of wet coal and carelessly tossed a shovelful into the shop’s open hearth. Moisture in the coal flashed into steam and turned the black nuggets into incendiary bombs that scattered burning embers across the wood floor. An otherwise small accident developed into a near disaster because the workshop floor was only swept twice a year. Feeding on dry wood shavings and other debris, the smattering of small conflagrations began merging into a single, large one. Elizabeth rushed in with a bucket to help fight the blaze. It was touch-and-go, but father, wife, and son quenched the flames, after which Jonathan’s second wife unloaded on her husband’s lackadaisical attitude toward neatness, cleanliness, and organization.

“Good thing if this rubbish heap burned down long ago,” she said. “What do you reckon people say when they pass here?” Her condemnation took in the exterior walls, unpainted and still shedding bark, and the sign, which hung by a single nail and was so weathered as to be near unreadable. “I wouldn’t keep pigs in this place,” she said.

The eighteen-year-old John Browning knew his mother was correct on all counts. Jonathan had thrown the shop together twenty years earlier, and it had received little maintenance since. If the shop was to remain a going concern the family patriarch would have to confront reality. That task fell to John, who dreaded a confrontation with the old man. Jonathan had abandoned the religion of his parents to embrace a controversial new faith, sired three families, and crossed the Great Plains to Ogden, where his vigorous work helped secure the town’s future. Taking on his father would be like taking on Goliath, John said. When the time came, John found his father sitting with one foot wrapped around the anvil, and a different mythical figure came to mind, the ancient Roman god of fire:

When I came in and saw Pappy sitting on the anvil, he looked, somehow, like Vulcan himself. I was so used to seeing a giant of a man, shaped by a rough and rugged life. Seated on the anvil, one heel hooked on the block, the sledgehammers and tong sprawled about him, he took a picture that hasn’t faded in all these years.

But there was no fight in the old man.

Jonathan sold the property where his shop and home were located—the southeast corner of Twenty-Seventh Street and Adams Avenue in Ogden—“together with all the improvements” to John and Matt for $500 on January 7, 1879.17 The exterior was refurbished with new siding and the interior was painted. Matt joined John full-time in the shop, and their daily chatter about repairs included a running critique of each malfunctioning firearm. The extent of John’s skill was still unclear. The brothers “ridiculed some of the guns we fixed, and I damned some of them when Pappy wasn’t there, but it never occurred to us to make better ones. He was too old, and I was too young,” said John. His life remained unformed until, the story goes, a particularly frustrating repair job moved him to declare the defective firearm a “freak.” He invited his father over to take a look. Jonathan’s eyesight was failing, and he leaned in close as John said, “I can make a better gun than that myself.” Jonathan, now seventy-two and knowing his end was far closer than his beginning, looked up. “I know you could, John Mose. And I wish you’d get at it. I’d like to live to see you doing it.”
Photograph by Becca Flemer.

Nathan Gorenstein is a former reporter and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he covered city and state politics and produced a wealth of groundbreaking work. He was previously a reporter for the Wilmington News Journal, where he led coverage of Sen. Joseph Biden’s first presidential campaign. He is also the author of Tommy Gun Winter, the story of a Boston gang from the 1930s that included an MIT graduate, a minister’s daughter, and two of Gorenstein’s own relatives. He currently lives in Philadelphia.

“A well-researched and very readable new biography.”

Wall Street Journal 

“A text gun collectors and historians of armaments will cherish.”
 

—Kirkus Reviews 

“An in-depth look at Browning’s development process…Gorenstein’s work strikes a balance between accessibility and lavish detail.” 
 

—American Rifleman 
 

“A meticulously detailed biography of the self-taught firearms inventor known as “the Thomas Edison of guns.”…. Gorenstein ably captures his subject’s work ethic and impressive natural gifts. This comprehensive account makes clear that Browning is a more crucial figure in world history than is widely known.”

Publishers Weekly

“Revelatory…In his beautifully crafted, fast-paced narrative, Gorenstein not only gives us the singular life of Browning; he brilliantly illuminates, so we mortals can understand, how great inventors think and work.” 
—Jim Rasenberger, author of Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

“Marvelous…Once just an obscure name, Browning, the Mormon whose weapons won wars, emerges as one of America’s greatest inventors.” 
—Alexander Rose, New York Times bestselling author of Washington’s Spies and American Rifle

"Vivid, meticulous, fascinating….Don't flinch as Gorenstein explains what happens when a Browning weapon hits a target. A remarkable and detailed story!" 
—Bing West, New York Times bestselling author of No True Glory, Call Sign Chaos, and The Last Platoon

"The furious complexity of the human species means that the word 'genius' can apply equally to the likes of Shakespeare, Einstein, Mozart — and John Moses Browning, whose revolutionary firearms designs resulted in world-changing weaponry…. Gorenstein explores, in intricate and granular detail, the nature and implications of his achievement." 
—Julia Keller, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It

“Excellent….Gorenstein shows us the real man behind [the] famous name, as well as the family around him. Following Browning from his birth in rural Utah to his death in urban Belgium, we see how a changing world shaped his inventions, and how, in turn, his inventions shaped the changing world.” 
Ian McCollum, Editor, ForgottenWeapons.com

"Historians and firearms aficionados will revel in Nathan Gorenstein's meticulous portrait of the arms maker's life, which was devoted to revising, reworking, and tweaking to perfection blueprints he ‘saw’ in his head for a stunning array of weapons, including pistols, shotguns, and automatic rifles.” 
—Larry Kahaner, author of AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War

"Very engaging…If you already know the difference between a ‘locked breech’ and ‘blowback’ pistol, here's a chance to understand the life of history’s premier gun designer.  If you haven’t encountered those phrases before, here's a chance to see how a guy growing up poor in a remote Western village became one of the greatest mechanical engineers of his time, transforming the world."
—Clayton E. Cramer, author of Lock, Stock, and Barrel: The Origins of American Gun Culture

“The perfect combination of technological and social history—a feat rarely attempted and even more rarely achieved with such thorough attention to detail.” 
—Ashley Hlebinsky, former co-host of Discovery Channel’s Master of Arms and Founding President, Association of Firearms History and Museums

“The surprising story of a genius inventor who changed the course of American history. It will captivate readers interested in firearms and the process of innovation. I highly recommend it.” 
—Paul M. Barrett, author of GLOCK: The Rise of America's Gun