John M. Browning American Gunmaker - Part II

Part Two - The Son

Ogden, Utah, John Moses Browning’s birthplace, had its beginnings as a backwater fed by the swelling stream of immigration that followed Brigham Young’s trail of 1847. Its growth was encouraged by fertile soil and abundant water. In 1850, two years before Jonathan Browning and his family arrived and five years before John Moses was born, the settlement was surveyed, planted and officially named after Peter Skene Ogden.

Its namesake was a Canadian, son of a lawyer and a man of culture, spurred by the spirit of adventure to spend years exploring the western mountains for Hudson’s Bay Company. Writing in his journal in 1832, Ogden noted: “Here we are at the end of the Great Salt Lake, having this season explored one-half the north side of it, and can safely assert, as the Americans have of the south side, it is a barren country, destitute of everything.”

Twenty years later, when Jonathan first saw the lake and surrounding region, it was, for the most part, just as Peter Ogden had described it. When Jonathan arrived, in the fall of 1852, there were from 1,000 to 1,200 people in the town, with as many more in outlying settlements. Under the direction of the church leaders, forts or log stockades had been constructed at strategic points in the area for protection against possible Indian attacks. In general, Brigham Young preached the wisdom of feeding rather than fighting the Indians, but he backed this with an impressive state of preparedness that included, in addition to the forts, the organization of companies of militia. Few clashes resulted in bloodshed. In fact, the Indian depredations were small matters compared to the plagues of locusts, summer droughts and bitter winters which in turn threatened the community with starvation.

Ogden might have been the capital of Brigham Young’s remote and singular little empire but for the impassable last few miles of Weber Canyon, which compelled a detour that led into the valley 30 miles to the south where Salt Lake City was founded. Young could not have failed to be impressed by the natural advantages of this valley. There is an irregular triangle, with the mile-high Wasatch Mountains forming one side and the other sides marked by two of the largest rivers in Utah. The Ogden River foamed through the craggy splendors of Ogden Canyon until a large dam of comparatively recent construction impounded its water for irrigation and power. Now only in the spring is it free to tear at the retaining walls with its roiled and boiling overflow. Leaving the canyon, the Ogden winds through the town, while a few miles to the south the Weber River, draining a wide region of mountains and valleys along its own colorful path, angles erratically to a junction with the Ogden on the west edge of town.

Home builders soon diverted water from these rivers through a network of ditches and canals to irrigate outlying farms and to spread to many parts of the town. The standard lot was an acre. In addition to a farm not far from the settlement, the Mormon pioneer usually had, within his home fence, a bountiful vegetable garden and space for a cow and a team of horses. This practical arrangement, again the idea of Brigham Young, kept the people in groups for common defense and facilitated aid in case of accident or illness.

Jonathan had enjoyed one of his intermittent periods of prosperity while residing at Kanesville and waiting impatiently for the start of his trek west. He was elected captain of his company in the long wagon train that creaked from Iowa to this mountain-and-river triangle. Being an expert marksman, he furnished the train with meat from the large herds of buffalo. He arrived with six loaded wagons and nearly $600, carefully hidden beneath the false bottom in a flour barrel. That made him, comparatively, a man of substance. By trading his surplus oxen for materials, labor and assorted supplies, he was able to provide food and shelter for his large family before winter whitened the valley.

Jonathan was no longer the placid gunmaker of Quincy, content to watch the days, one much like another, pass while he hammered and filed. Circumstances had worked him over, and with rough hands. When the Mormons were expelled from Nauvoo, Jonathan went with them, calmly salvaging what little he could from the property he had acquired. Between that violent uprooting and his arrival in Utah, six years intervened, years of uncertainty. It is perhaps not surprising many of his industrious habits were left strewn along that trail, as were the material possessions those habits had, in quiet intervals, accumulated, or that Jonathan never again applied himself to inventing new guns. He scattered his energies in too many directions and became proficient at too many things.

The needs of the people were endless and critical, and means had to be devised to supply those needs. It soon was realized Jonathan was not only a mechanic, he was also a rough-and-ready engineer. Out of remembered observations, with instinct and practical experience as guides, he seemed able to achieve, by one makeshift or another, any mechanical objective. Versatile, 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 community first-aid station for all manner of machinery. He made money, but always, as soon as it came in, there was a new project waiting for it or the outstretched hand of a borrower. If he had possessed (or retained) a moderate talent for business management, he could have become wealthy. As it was, it is doubtful if many men 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.

In those early days, the Mormon Church advocated polygamy. Jonathan, a community leader, followed the practice to the extent of taking two more wives. First married in Tennessee at twenty-one, he brought to Ogden a large family: 11 of his 12 children were still living. Two years after his arrival, he married Elizabeth Clark, a convert from Virginia who became the mother of John, Matt and a daughter who died in infancy. Five years after his second marriage, in 1859, he married Sarah Emmett, who bore him seven more children, for a grand total of 22!

John Moses Browning was born January 23, 1855. Matthew Sandifer Browning was born October 27, 1859. The children of the first family, some already married when they reached Utah, were so much older than John and Matt that intimate ties never developed. It was otherwise in the case of the four boys in the third family. Jonathan Edmund (Ed), the eldest, was born a few months after Matt. Thomas Samuel (Sam) arrived the following year, followed by William Wallace (Will) in 1862 and George Emmett in 1866. While the boys were still young, Jonathan built a home for this third family on the corner across the street from Elizabeth’s (his second wife) adobe house. Encouraged by proximity and the general correspondence in age, the six boys of the second and third families grew up in close association. For the whole of their lives, their homes were no more than a block apart.

John’s seniority gave him the important rank of “big brother” while the boys were young, and certain inborn qualities maintained him in that position all his life. Matt, in particular, adopted him as a second father, for Jonathan’s paternal solicitude had to cover a considerable area! Young Matt, affectionate and companionable with few playmates among the thinly scattered neighbors, attached himself to John’s heels as soon as he could walk. This was the beginning of the partnership of the Browning Brothers, a union that bound John and Matt in close intimacy all their lives.

At the time Jonathan bought the acre for Elizabeth and built the small adobe home in the corner formed by the two streets, he moved his shop into a hastily built structure — best called a shed — only a few yards from the house. He left a much more productive location in what was becoming the business district of the settlement, and it has been suspected his purpose, at least in part, was to hide the shop from too easy accessibility. Most of his outside jobs required shop work, and random repair jobs irritated him. Whatever the purpose, the shop was at John’s door, ready and waiting, when he was born.

The shop was built of rough, green lumber cut from the inferior fir of the nearby mountains. The boards were set endwise and the cracks battened with strips of slab to which the bark was left clinging. Gradually it weathered and shred, finally reminding one, John later remarked, of an old buffalo with tufts of hair on its mangy sides. Jonathan from time to time expressed an intention of replacing it with a more substantial building, but when he died at the age of 74 it was still the Browning shop.

That shop has been called, in many articles, “the inventor’s school.” In point of fact, it was almost John’s only school. Jonathan went so far as to have his children learn reading, writing and simple arithmetic; beyond that, he considered schooling a waste of time. Better uses could be found for children at home, and Jonathan feared for the soul of an idle child. College was a word of vague meaning to him. He was separated from colleges by 2,000 miles and a world of indifference. He had picked up what he needed in the way of education as the need arose, and by that method no time was wasted in accumulating a surplus. John, in the main, followed the same method, the difference being his needs were much greater than his father’s. For instance, he made the first of his many trips to Belgium when he was 47 and soon lost patience with the slow process of transacting business through an interpreter, so he learned French! The ringing of hammer on anvil was among the first sounds John heard; his first steps were toward the gun shop; his toys were tools and gun parts. His mother, telling her grandchildren of those early toddling trips, would often add, “And there’s been grease on John’s face to this blessed day!”

Guns fascinated the small boy John, and it can be said guns still fascinate most boys and many of their fathers. John spent hours at a time pawing through the junk pile in the corner of the shop whereon Jonathan tossed countless odds and ends, never wasting a piece of metal, no matter how bent or seemingly useless. The pile served as a gunmaker’s primer from which John learned the names of gun parts before he learned his letters. His father, usually patient and good-natured, could always glance down from his work long enough to answer the boy’s questions. In his middle 50s Jonathan could look back a long way and was probably reminded of questions he had asked in the blacksmith shop in Tennessee, remembering, too, the clumsy flintlocks he had repaired — even admired — before the coming of the cap. What an improvement that was! And now he was even seeing breechloaders, with powder, bullet and cap all together in a metal case. How fast things had been changing! No telling what kind of guns that child in the corner would live to see.

John’s mother was sure John could not have been more than six when he dragged in a box to serve as workbench, set it beside the junk pile and started his career. Jonathan was already using him. Finding need for something he remembered tossing on the pile, he would tell John to dig it out. Then, if necessary, he would set John to cleaning off the rust with file and buffer. Now and then school interrupted John’s shop work, but not often. The many nearby canals provided a greater temptation.

“Going in swimming was simple,” John said. “You just slid out of what happened to be left of shirt and jeans, and dove.” Trout, suckers and chubs strayed from the river and were caught on bent pins. John, improving on the pin, made fishhooks in the shop, ringed and pointed them, cut beards and tempered, adding to his knowledge and his hoard of hooks for trade. John enjoyed play as much as any boy.

A few times, much against his will, John was put to work on one or another of his father’s projects outside the shop. But more and more he was occupied within the shop by his own desire and inclination. There were days at a time when the shop was left in the charge of Elizabeth and John while his father was absorbed in an outside enterprise. Often a customer would come in with a repair job to find the boy alone at his little bench. Elizabeth would come at John’s summons, write a tag and make a guess at the time the job would be finished. Jonathan, trapped by his wife’s promises, followed many a busy day with night work by the light of a kerosene lamp. Frequently it would fall to Elizabeth to collect for the finished work, little windfalls that were important to her domestic economy. It was she who kept the shop precariously alive until John became able to scribble a name on a tag.

When John was about seven and beginning to take himself seriously as a gunsmith, he was pressed into service in a tannery his father had built and, for a time, operated. This employment lasted less than a month, but during this time, despite his age, John learned the processes through which a hide passed on its way to becoming leather, and what he once learned he always remembered. He had the best seat in the house from which to view the activities, as he rode the horse, old Button, that powered the tannery.

Early of a morning, bareback on Button, father and son rode to the tannery some blocks from home in the straggling business district. Usually they took lunch with them, stayed late and rode Button home at night. Through the long day, John and Button circled the pit where the bark was ground. Home again evenings, John still had his regular chores to do.

“The job,” John said, “was interesting for awhile, in spite of the smell, but by and by it got so monotonous that, now and then, I’d go to sleep and fall off the horse. When I fell off, Button would stop, and when Button stopped, the tannery stopped. When the tannery stopped, you could hear the tapping of the two cobblers in their corner making boots. I don’t know why Pappy left the pleasant smells of the shop and the work he did so easily and so well to wear himself out in a tannery of all places!

“Anyhow, there I was barefoot in my father’s tannery. Big rolls of leather piled here and there, two cobblers at work, and I was barefoot. For that matter, there was not much more between Button and me than the hair on his back. That shows the kind of manager Pappy was. He had fun building the tannery, but he had no interest in selling leather and collecting for it. His idea was sound, however, and the man who bought the tannery from him made money. But Pappy was 50 years old when I was born, and his wanderings after he joined the church had scattered his energies in so many directions he could not settle down to steady work at the bench. Just repairing guns, the same old jobs over and over, can get pretty monotonous. I got so tired of it myself I would have tried something else if I hadn’t got to figuring on that single-shot. If Pappy had been a young man when the breechloaders began to come along, he probably would have done some more inventing. He had done about as much as could be done with the percussion lock. In his place, I’d have been looking for a change myself.

John’s sons and daughters later enjoyed and encouraged his reminiscences as the family sat together on the porch in the early Ogden evenings. They were amazed at his remarkable memory. He not only remembered the details of the tannery, he claimed he could still smell it.

“Mother put an end to that job after a few weeks. One evening when I came home too tired to eat supper she said, ‘Pappy, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, letting a little boy work so hard!’ Pappy knew the signs. He firmly believed that when the Lord appointed six days for labor, he meant man, woman and child, all day and hard. He hated idleness — he was even suspicious of the luxury of his own rocking chair — but he also liked peace, and Mother was ruffling up. He pulled his whiskers and said, ‘Maybe he is a mite young for that job. You reckon we could spare him in school for two or three months?’

“On the way back to work the next morning, Pappy got to wondering who’d ride the horse, and it struck him that the only times Button stopped were when I fell off. So he tried tying a bag of shavings to the old nag’s back, and he plodded around as well as ever. Somebody yelled ‘giddup’ now and then or threw a piece of tanbark at him. Thereafter, when Pappy said one of the boys was ‘not worth a sack of shavings,’ we all knew exactly what he meant!”

John went to school “Mostly,” his mother Elizabeth said, “to learn to write repair tags for the shop. At night, he’d cut up all the paper he could find and make tags. I had to help him print the names of all the people he could think of. He was always like that, centered on something. The other boys went to school because they were sent; John went to learn to fill out repair tags.”

John attended school intermittently until he was 15. Most of the time, however, he spent in the shop. He liked to have his father away so he could take charge, Elizabeth recalled.

“He might be doing a chore for me or just playing in the yard, and a block away he’d see a man with a gun. It was funny to see John race to the shop and be ready with a file in his hand, looking busy when the man came in. He’d ask the questions he heard Pappy ask so many times, rattling off the names of gun parts as well as Pappy himself. One day a man I’d known a long time came to the house after leaving his gun in the shop with John. He was grinning all over. ‘Elizabeth,’ he said, ‘that’s a kind of young gunsmith you got out there, but he seems to know his business. He takes my old gun, squints at it, tries the lock and tells me the mainspring’s busted — which it was. But then he looked up at me and asks me if I’d left a load in it when the spring busted, and darned if I hadn’t!’ ”

Elizabeth recalled, too, that frequently a stranger would come into the shop and ask, “Where’s the gunsmith, Sonny?” John would say, “Pappy’s out for a little while, but I’ll tag your gun and tell him what you want done.” Every time the stranger would be treating John like a man before he left.

Elizabeth’s recollections, John’s reminiscences and many of the stories of this period survive only because of the remarkable foresight of Matthew Browning. At some point in his adulthood, probably over a number of years, he found the time to set down incidents regarding John which he found particularly interesting. He also urged his son and those of John to do the same, though they proved less conscientious than he. His notes are undated and sporadic and lack continuity, but much more important, they are lively and informative. Several of the conversations quoted in this book also took place in the presence of coauthor John Browning, eldest son of the inventor. No claim is made that these are word-for-word transcriptions, nor has an attempt been made to reproduce the exact idioms the brothers used, but it is wonderful to have these stories and reminiscences as part of this tale. SS

Book excerpts are reprinted with permission from the book publisher about this fascinating history of the pioneer gunmaker John M. Browning. Look for more chapters in upcoming issues.

Look for another installment from this book that reveals the life of John M. Browning, world’s greatest gun inventor, in an upcoming issue of Shotgun Sports. Curt Gentry is a Western historian and author of 12 other books. John Browning, eldest son of John M. Browning, also took part in producing this biography. You can purchase this book from Shotgun Sports by calling 800-676-8920 or visit (see ad on page 10).

Author’s note: In many instances, serial numbers on manufactured models did not begin with the number “1” or even a relatively low number. As a result, guns will often be found bearing serial numbers which are higher than total unit production figures. This is applicable not only to the rifles but also to the shotguns and pistols.

History: This was John M. Browning’s first firearm model, invented in 1878 when he was 23 years old. Patent was filed May 12, 1879, and U.S. Patent No. 220,271 was granted October 7, 1879. Production by the Browning Brothers, Ogden, Utah Territory, began about 1880 and continued until 1883, with a total of approximately 600 rifles manufactured. Manufacturing and sales rights were sold to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1883 and the gun appeared in 1885 as the Winchester Single Shot Model 1885. The following specifications refer to the Winchester Model.

Description: Lever-action, exposed-hammer, fixed-barrel single-shot rifle. The hammer drops down with the breechblock when the rifle is opened and is cocked by the closing movement. It can also be cocked by hand.

Caliber: The Single Shot has been adapted to over 33 different calibers, more than any other single-shot or repeating rifle known. Including both rim and center-fire types, its loads ranged from the 22 Short to the 50/90 Sharps. It was the first Winchester rifle capable of handling the powerful metallic cartridges of the period.

Breechblock: Falling-block type.

Safety: Manual, half-cock notch on hammer. Mechanical, can only be fired when the action is closed.

Model style: Sporting and special sporting rifles, special target rifle, Schuetzen rifle, carbine, musket, shotgun.

Barrel length and style: Lengths vary, depending on the model, from the light carbine with a 15" barrel to the 30" Schuetzen. Round, octagon, or half octagon.

Weight: 4½ to 13 lbs., depending on specifications.

Stock: Plain sporting rifle, rifle type, straight grip; special sporting rifle, rifle type, pistol grip; Schuetzen rifle, special Schuetzen type, pistol grip, carbine, carbine type, straight grip; musket, musket type, straight grip; shotgun, straight grip, rubber buttplate.

Modifications: Through the years the Single Shot was produced in a variety of models. The light carbine (called the “Baby Carbine”) appeared in 1898. The takedown model was introduced in 1910. A special military target version was introduced in 1905; in 1914 it was revamped as the Winder Musket, named in honor of Colonel C.B. Winder, and was used for training troops in World War I. In 1914 the Single Shot was also made into a shotgun chambered for the 3", 20-gauge shell.

Date discontinued and production totals: Discontinued in all models in 1920. Total production of all models was approximately 140,325, which includes the 600-unit production by the Browning Brothers.

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