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June 13, 2023

John Browning Shotguns: A History of Innovation

By Joe Engesser

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John Moses Browning introduced the world to some of the finest weapons, including numerous sporting arm models that are still widely fielded today. Browning shotguns include some of the most popular platforms in history. From the Auto-5 to the Browning Superposed, the inventor’s influence on the genre is immeasurable.

Rock Island Auction Company offers a large swath of Browning shotguns for sale during its June 21-23 Sporting & Collector Auction.

The Browning shotguns featured below represent a small sample of the history on display at Rock Island Auction Company. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each fantastic firearm.

The Auto-5 (top) and a Browning Superposed (bottom) are two of the most prolific Browning shotguns.

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Browning Shotguns History

John Moses Browning was born in Ogden, Utah, in 1855 and built his first gun at age 13. Ten years later, he partnered with his brother Matthew and formed the Browning Brothers Company. John Browning sold his 1879 patent for a single shot rifle design to Winchester in 1883, beginning a decades-long partnership with the firearms giant that would result in some of the most famous American shotgun designs.

The Winchester Model 1885 was patented in 1879 by John Moses Browning and originally manufactured in the Browning Bros. shop in Ogden, Utah, before Winchester purchased the rights.

Browning’s first gun design was a sporting arm, a single shot rifle assembled from spare parts at his father’s shop. Over the next five decades, Browning went on to hold 128 firearm patents, including some of the finest shotgun concepts in history. Browning shotguns innovated in every corner of the genre, setting standards in their field that continue to dominate the market today.

A Winchester 1887 shotgun (top) and a Winchester 1885 High Wall rifle (bottom) two early designs from John Browning.

The Winchester Model 1887 Shotgun

While the double barrel shotgun was a frontier mainstay, new gun designs like Christopher Spencer’s slide action Model 1882 allowed for greater capacity. John Browning was interested in developing his own take on the pump action shotgun, but Winchester insisted on a lever action model instead.

The first of many Browning shotguns to hit the market, the Winchester Model 1887 lever action.

In the late 19th century, Winchester’s entire brand was centered around lever action long arms, so John Browning took to the drawing board and was granted U.S. Patent 336,287 for what would become the Winchester Model 1887 lever action shotgun. The later Winchester Model 1901 was a smokeless powder version of the Model 1887 and offered in 10 gauge only, but by this time the writing was on the wall for Browning’s unique lever action shotgun.

The Winchester Model 1893 Shotgun

Though the Model 1887 experienced modest success, Winchester soon came to their senses and encouraged Browning to pursue his original idea for a pump action shotgun. In 1890, John Browning filed a patent for his second pump repeater design, his first being an 1888 patent for what would become the Winchester Model 1890 rifle. Browning’s U.S. Patent 441,390 shotgun concept would mark the birth of one of America's most iconic military weapons.

This exceptional Winchester Model 1893 slide action shotgun sold at RIAC in September of 2019.

As Browning shotguns go, the Winchester Model 1893 was a sound design that was mostly hindered by circumstance. Firearms technology had been rapidly evolving, and the introduction of smokeless propellants required a sturdier frame than the Model 1893 was conceived to handle. Though production life for Browning’s first pump action shotgun was cut tragically short, its 1897 upgrade would go on to become a legend.

The Winchester Model 1897 Shotgun

The last decade of the 19th century was a busy time for John Browning, who introduced icons like the Winchester Model 1892, Model 1894, and Model 1895 lever action rifles, laid the foundation for several classes of blowback and recoil-operated pistols, and even found time to invent the M1895 "Potato Digger" machine gun. At this stage in his career, creating a take down shotty that would go on to sell over one million units was just another day at the office for the venerable inventor.

One of the most popular John Browning shotguns for sale in the current collecting market, the Winchester Model 1897.

The Winchester Model 1897 introduced an improved slide lock to reduce jamming and featured a barrel and magazine tube that could be quickly removed. This later feature set a market standard that has become nearly universal today. Like most Browning shotguns, the Model 1897 was first introduced as a civilian sporting arm. The shotgun's application for military service was quickly embraced during the Philippine-American War and again 15 years later during WW1, where Browning's design was officially adopted as the U.S. “Model of 1917 Trench Shotgun.” Modifications for battle included a bayonet lug, a heat shield, and a shorter barrel for maneuverability. The Model 1897's lack of trigger disconnector also allowed the weapon to be slam-fired, enabling a trained soldier to empty their trench gun in seconds.

A Pauline Muerrle master engraved Winchester 20 Gauge Model 12 "Skeet Grade" shotgun. An evolution of John Browning's Model 1897, the Winchester Model 1912 became the most popular pump until the Remington 870.

If John Browning’s Model 1897 set new standards for shotgun design, the Winchester Model 12 arguably perfected them. Serving as the Model 1897's direct successor, the Model 12’s improvements included shrouding the exposed hammer, strengthening several of the internals, and adding a separate bolt release that could be activated by pressing a button near the trigger guard.

The Browning Auto-5

In the same month Colt placed Browning’s .38 caliber recoil-operated pistol on the market, the Sight Safety, John Browning filed the first of four patents for a new long-recoil semi-automatic shotgun concept. Due to an ongoing conflict over royalty payments and a dispute concerning the aesthetic and market potential for the new autoloader design, President T.G. Bennett of Winchester lost out on what would become the most popular line of Browning shotguns.

The king of Browning shotguns, a factory engraved Belgian Browning Auto-5 “Twenty.”

John Browning would ultimately sail to Europe and sign a contract granting Fabrique Nationale exclusive global rights to produce and sell his autoloading shotgun during its initial run. Hitting the market in 1902, the Browning Automatic 5 (often referred to as simply the A-5) was the world’s first successful semi auto shotgun. Widely advertised as “Five shots under your finger” and nicknamed “Humpback” due to its trademark squared receiver, the A-5 developed a reputation as a versatile workhorse that still endures more than 12 decades after its debut.

Remington Model 11, a licensed version of Browning's Auto-5 shotgun produced for the American market.

The story of Browning shotguns takes a twist with the Remington Model 11, a licensed version of the Auto-5. Before John Browning traveled to Belgium to ink his deal with Fabrique Nationale, he was scheduled to meet with Remington’s President Marcellus Hartley in January of 1902. Mr. Harley passed away of a heart attack before any deal for the Auto-5 could be finalized, but two years later Browning would approach Remington again, this time offering Remington the rights to produce the Auto-5 shotgun design in the United States if they agreed not to export, allowing FN to retain export rights to every other market. This licensed version of Browning’s autoloader was dubbed the Remington Model 11.

The Stevens Model 520 and Model 620 Shotgun

As the Auto-5 began its successful run, John Browning continued to explore new shotgun designs and filed two patents for a “hammerless” pump shotgun with a unique take down barrel and a bolt that locked into the top of the receiver. Stevens Arms Company purchased the rights and began manufacturing the shotgun in 1909.

One of the Browning shotguns commissioned for warfare, a WW2 U.S. marked Stevens Model 620.

One of the lesser-known Browning shotguns, the civilian version of the Stevens Model 520 continued production until WW2. Both the Model 520 shotgun and its streamlined successor, the Model 620, were adopted for military service, redesigned with shorter barrels, heat shields, and bayonet lugs, and lacking a trigger disconnector to enable slam firing.

The Remington Model 17 Shotgun

Hot off the heels of his achievement developing the 1911 pistol, Browning filed another patent on a pump shotgun design in 1913 that caught the attention of Remington Arms, but manufacturing was delayed by WW1. Before Remington resumed sporting arm production in 1921, John Pedersen, another prolific American inventor with a reputation to rival Browning's, made changes to Browning's design, and the Remington Model 17 was born.

A scarce factory engraved Remington Model 17 Grade D "Peerless" slide action shotgun was offered by RIAC in September of 2015. Like many Browning shotguns, the Model 17 went on to inspire some of the most popular designs in the industry today.

Though only manufactured for 12 years, the 20 gauge Model 17 would serve as the blueprint for future success stories like the Remington Model 31 and the Ithaca Model 37 and heavily inspire platforms like the Browning BPS and Remington 870.

The Browning Superposed Shotgun

The last in a long line of Browning shotgun designs conceived by the prolific inventor, the Browning Superposed offered an affordable over/under to the public for the first time. In 1923, John Browning filed the first of two patents for the concept, but he sadly passed away before the gun could be placed into production.

Before his death in late 1926, John Moses Browning gifted the world one last shotgun design with the Browning Superposed.

After his father's death, Browning’s son Val Allen Browning, who had been working in Belgium as the Browning Arms representative to Fabrique Nationale, took it upon himself to complete his father’s two unfinished designs: the Superposed shotgun and the Hi Power pistol. The Browning Superposed hit the market in 1931 and had a greater influence on the popularity of over/under shotguns than any other model.

A fine example of one of the most popular Browning shotguns,an engraved and gold inlaid Belgian Browning 20 gauge Superposed.

Until the Superposed was released, most over/under shotguns were high-priced, made-to-order guns from Europe and Great Britain and were unable to compete with the popularity of their side-by-side counterparts in the United States. With the Superposed shotgun, John Browning saw an opportunity to develop a quality production-made over/under that could be priced to compete in a crowded market. The model went on to become one of the most popular over/under shotguns in the world.

The Ithaca Model 37 Shotgun

With the raging success of Winchester’s Model 12, the Ithaca Gun Company needed a shotgun that could compete. The story behind the Ithaca Model 37 shotgun started with the aforementioned Remington Model 17 and U.S. Patent 1,143,170 filed by John Moses Browning in 1913. Ithaca patiently waited for John Browning’s patent to expire in 1932, but then discovered John Pederson held a separate patent covering his modifications to the Model 17 that didn’t expire for another four years.

Taking inspiration from Browning shotguns like the Remington Model 17, the Ithaca Model 37 has stood the test of time.

In the meantime, Ithaca designer Harry Howland implemented a series of refinements intended to simplify production and lower costs. All the waiting paid off, and the Model 37 quickly earned a reputation as a rugged autoloader that lent itself perfectly to military service. The Ithaca Model 37 has seen action in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam, has become one of the most widely adopted police shotguns, and remains a popular field gun throughout the Midwest.

The Legacy of John Browning Shotguns

John Browning shotguns set the standard for performance and features for decades to come. Browning’s designs remain extremely popular among civilian markets and police departments around the world, with many of his inventions so successful that they’ve seen little modification to the original design.

Browning shotguns from two eras, the Ithica 37 (top) and the Browning BPS (bottom).

John Moses Browning’s longtime partner Fabrique Nationale purchased the Browning Company in 1977. Though manufacturing is performed in Belgium, Japan, Italy, and Portugal, the Browning Company maintains its headquarters in Mountain Green, Utah, 16 miles from John Browning’s hometown of Ogden. The company’s catalog continues to feature shotguns based upon or heavily influenced by John Browning’s original designs.

A factory engraved and gold inlaid Browning Citori XT Trap Unsingle shotgun two barrel set with case and boxes, one of the numerous models inspired by John Browning shotgun designs. Available this August.

Browning Shotguns for Sale and More

Just as John Moses Browning set out to offer quality shotguns that could cater to both the blue-collar hunter and the gentleman shooter, the impressive selection of Browning shotguns for sale at Rock Island Auction Company includes examples for every taste and budget. From benchmark pieces to your next field gun, from pristine to gracefully restored, there’s a Browning shotgun to be found that’s perfect for your collection.

Rock Island Auction Company offers an assortment of Browning shotguns for sale and hundreds of other sporting arms for every hunting, shooting, and collecting aspiration.

For more gun blogs and gun videos on both historic and modern sporting arms, subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter, where we feature classic models and brands like Parker Brothers, Abercrombie and Fitch, and the Winchester Model 21 from the early 20th century, as well as historic curiosities like the Paradox gun, the combination gun, and the punt gun mega fowler.

Browning shotguns for sale! Rock Island Auction Company features Browning shotguns for every collecting aspiration, including some of the finest Browning Superposed in the sporting arms pursuit.

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