BOOK REVIEW: The Guns of John Moses Browning: The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World
By Nathan Gorenstein
Reviewed By: Friedrich Seiltgen
Nathan Gorenstein’s biography of John Moses Browning chronicles his birth in Ogden, Utah and Mormon upbringings, to his missionary work in Georgia, and his genius firearms designs.
Born in 1855, Browning produced his first gun at the age of 10 from leftover parts in his father’s gunsmith/blacksmith shop. After John completed the gun, he and his brother Matt pilfered enough gunpowder from his father’s shop for just one shot!
It was a gamble, as the boys didn’t know if the gun would fire or blow up! The other and perhaps bigger issue would be their father’s reaction to taking scarce gunpowder, especially if they didn’t come home with something to eat.
The boys went out and found a covey of grouse. While John held the gun steady and aimed, Matt touched off the gun with a glowing stick placed into the flash hole of the barrel. The gun fired, and the boys went home with three grouse.
While eating a grouse and biscuit breakfast the next morning, John’s father Jonathan didn’t mention the pilfered gunpowder, but was unimpressed with the gun, telling him, “John Moses, you’re going on eleven; can’t you make a better gun than that?”
Educated in a one-room schoolhouse until he was 15, Browning was told to move on because his teachers had taught him all they knew. When it came to firearms designs, Browning possessed the remarkable trait of thinking in three dimensions and only used the blueprints he “saw” in his head. John was able to visualize three-dimensional objects and manipulate them in his mind, enabling him to go from “mind to metal” with no blueprints in between.
Browning was a Mormon, and as such, he was sent to do missionary work in Georgia at the age of 19. Later in life, Browning regretted not starting design work at 19 instead of 23. But he made up those years with a vengeance.
Gorenstein tells the second time that father Jonathan commented on his son’s firearm design skills. His life remained unformed until, the story goes, a particularly frustrating repair job moved John to declare the defective firearm a “freak.” He invited his father over to take a look. And while both men were looking over the gun, John stated, “I can make a better gun than this.” Jonathan, now 72, looked up from the gun and said, “I know you could, John Moses. And I wish you’d get at it. I’d like to live to see you doing it.”
While Browning didn’t invent the machine gun, he did invent a major improvement to it: gas operation. In 1889, Ogden residents passing by Browning’s shop heard the crack of a rifle being fired. Not a single shot or several shots fired in succession, but the sound of 15 or so shots fired faster that anyone could pull a trigger. The sound they heard was of Browning’s invention: the gas-operated machine gun!
Browning’s epiphany came to him during a match at the Ogden Rifle Club. Located along the Weber River, the range was a bit wild and covered with grass and weeds. Browning noticed the vegetation would blow down and pop back up after each shot. Browning decided he would find a way to harness this energy. Browning took a piece of wooden plank, drilled a hole a bit larger than the bullet caliber, and placed it in front of the barrel. As he shot through the wooden plank, it flew away from the grass, driven by the gas of the combusting powder. Browning turned to his brothers Matt and Ed and stated, “It looks as though we’ve stumbled onto something new,” and told them they would start the next day on the invention.
Ed asked John jokingly if he figured on having it done by noon. John came back with, “About four p.m. I’d guess.”
The next day, Browning put together a working concept of his vision. It consisted of a steel paddle-looking device attached in front of the muzzle. There was a hole drilled through it with a rod going back to a modified trigger. Once the trigger was pulled, the paddle would move back and forth causing the rod to work the lever to eject the spent casing and cock the hammer. And just like that, the gas-powered machine gun was invented in one day!
This book covers Browning’s beginnings with Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre, or as it’s known today, FN. Browning took his designs to Europe and helped FN become a major player in the arms business. His pistol designs were so famous that in France, pistols were given the name “Le Browning.”
Browning had a great love of Liege. Each of his trips to Belgium became longer. While at the FN factory, John Moses was “embraced by managers and workers alike.” Browning made Colt and Winchester famous, but there was a lot going on behind the scenes with FN.
Browning’s designs received praise and awe from both friends and enemies alike. During WWII, Luftwaffe Commander and fighter ace Adolph Galland, inspecting a shot-down B-17, stated in his report that the B-17 had “every possible advantage in one bomber; first heavy armor; second enormous altitude; third colossal defensive armament; fourth great speed.” Luftwaffe’s reports show some pilots never edged closer than a thousand yards, the maximum effective range of Browning’s “Ma Deuce.”
As I am fascinated by war stories, one of my favorite chapters in this book is “Soldiers at War.” Gorenstein chronicles multiple stories of soldiers using Browning designs in battle with great success.
Browning’s firearm designs are a part of history. The M1911 is still in production and serving certain units of the U.S. Armed services; the Browning Auto-5 shotgun remained in production until 1998. The “Ma Deuce” was developed in 1918, entered U.S. Military service in 1921, and is still in use after a century!
Browning would pass doing what he loved. In 1926, he died while working at a bench on a pistol design at his son Val Browning’s design shop in Liege, Belgium. The pistol design would be completed in 1935 by Belgian designer Dieudonne Saive. It was called the GP35, but you know it as the Browning Hi-Power.
Like many firearms enthusiasts, I am a fan of Browning and his designs, but Nathan Gorenstein’s book is an outstanding look into the thought process of the world’s most prolific firearms designer. The book’s title is spot on! “The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World.” This could not be truer. Browning’s genius was on a level with Einstein, Edison, Ford, and Tesla. The book is a fascinating mix of Browning’s personal life and professional history that is a must for any firearms enthusiast.
That’s all for now folks! Please keep sending in your questions, tips, and article ideas. And as always – “Let’s be careful out there.”
Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, First Aid, Active Shooter Response, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. His writing has appeared in The Counter Terrorist Magazine, American Thinker, Homeland Security Today, and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.