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Americans have a knack for engineering, especially when it comes to firearms. From self-taught frontier tinkerers to gunsmiths born into their trade, American history is filled with gun inventors who made their mark on the country, but some names tower above the rest.
With so many legendary names to choose from, narrowing down the most standout American gun inventors to a single list is no easy feat. Some of the factors we’ll consider include how each candidate improved firearms technology, the historic impact of their designs, and how much their influence is still felt today. The stage is set, the competition is fierce, so let’s take a look at the top 10 greatest gun inventors in American history.
John Moses Browning receiving top billing should come as no surprise. Browning’s 128 firearm patents included shotguns and rifles, handguns and machine guns, and the prolific inventor helped conceive numerous cartridges like the .45 ACP, .50 BMG, and 9mm Browning Long. Not only is John Browning arguably the most influential gun designer ever, he also ranks among history’s greatest inventors in any field.
Browning’s work started in the foothills of Utah, where he received his first patent at age 24 for the Browning Bros. 1879 Patent single shot rifle. The design caught the attention of Winchester, and thus started a four-decade career that would find Browning working with six gun manufacturers developing civilian and military firearms of every type imaginable. If you’ve fired a gun, odds are you’ve used a Browning design or one of its spiritual successors.
No one else who created guns had as much influence as Browning, as evidenced by a list of just a few of his well-known firearms: The Browning Auto-5, the Browning Hi-Power, the Browning Superposed, the Colt Woodsman, three decades worth of Winchester lever action, pump action, and single shot rifle and shotgun models (including the famous Winchester Model 1894), the M1917 water-cooled machine gun, the M1919 air-cooled machine gun, the BAR, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, and an entire line of Colt recoil operated pistols, including the famed M1911 pistol, the sidearm that helped America become back to back World War champs. A brilliant inventor in an era of unprecedented American invention, no other gun designer is credited with so many revolutionary breakthroughs.
While not as widely known today as Browning, John Pedersen was no less resourceful. With 69 gun-related patents to his name that spanned nearly every civilian and military firearms genre, it's little wonder Browning called Pedersen “the greatest gun designer in the world.”
John Pedersen’s efforts to procure military contracts were partially hindered by poor timing and chance, as is perhaps most famously illustrated with the Pedersen Device. The U.S. military was impressed with Pedersen’s creation, a device that transformed a bolt-action M1903 rifle into a semi-automatic, but World War 1 ended before the new invention could be deployed. Pedersen’s next attempt to develop a semi-automatic standard for the American military with his T2 rifle series also garnered a great deal of interest but was ultimately bested by the famous M1 Garand.
Throughout his career, Pedersen engineered numerous guns for Remington that found success in the sporting market, including pump action rifles like the Remington Model 12, Model 14, and Model 25, and pump action shotguns like the Remington Model 10. Pedersen’s work laid the foundation for the famous Remington 870, and his collaboration with John Browning on the Remington Model 17 led to the popular Remington Model 31, the Ithaca 37, and the Browning BPS.
Contrary to popular belief, Samuel Colt did not invent the revolver, but he did invent the concept of accurately syncing a rotating cylinder to a fixed barrel. Colt was also one of the first designers to embrace the modern manufacturing methods popularized by gunmakers like John Hall and Simeon North by using interchangeable parts. In addition, Colt was an early adopter of the assembly line and designed his 1855 plant in New Hartford around this cost-saving process.
Introduced in 1836, the Colt Paterson percussion revolver was not an immediate success for the young inventor. The few military orders Colt procured were canceled or unpaid, and his Paterson plant closed down in 1843. Four years later, an order from Captain Samuel Walker and the Texas Rangers would revive Colt’s fortunes and lead to a series of design refinements that would catapult the company into a powerhouse and popularize the revolver with both the military and the general public.
Few others who created guns can be placed in the same league as Samuel Colt. All of the Colt percussion firearms are based on Samuel Colt’s patents, and those patents gave him a near-monopoly on the American percussion revolver market from 1847 to 1857. Samuel Colt was directly involved in gun design up until his death in 1862, and his name and celebrity helped carry the company to new heights long after his passing.
Smith and Wesson are household names today, but their success was far from certain when they partnered up in 1852. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson first turned their attention to developing magazine firearms, followed shortly by the Volcanic line of repeaters, which were lever action guns that fired self-contained cartridges. The history of Volcanic Repeating Arms and Oliver Winchester is a fascinating tale in its own right, but Daniel Wesson truly came into his own in 1856, when he rejoined Horace Smith to form the “Smith & Wesson Revolver Company.”
Gustave Young master engraved and gold plated Smith & Wesson Model No. 1 second issue revolver inscribed to New York Congressman Alfred Elys.
After signing an agreement with Rollin White for exclusive rights to his bored through cylinder patent, a vital component for a cartridge revolver, Smith & Wesson needed a reliable cartridge. Daniel Wesson took inspiration from Louis-Nicolas Flobert's .22 BB Cap and created the .22 Short rimfire cartridge, a design that included a small amount of mercury fulminate in the rim of a hollow brass case filled with black powder. The end product was the first practical American rimfire brass cartridge, a breakthrough that served as the foundation for modern ammunition.
The Smith & Wesson Model No. 1 became the world’s first widely produced, fully self-contained cartridge revolver and its patents allowed the company to successfully corner the cartridge revolver market for the next two decades. In 1873, Smith retired and sold his share of the firm to Wesson, making Daniel B. Wesson the sole owner going forward.
Wesson remained actively involved in the firm until his death, playing a heavy role in developing the Smith & Wesson hammerless revolvers and the Smith & Wesson .38 Military & Police Series (the final iteration of which, the Model of 1905 Fourth Change, was later renamed the Model 10). This revolver has been in continual production for over a century and became a favorite with countless police forces and militaries around the world.
While the revolver ruled the frontier streets of 19th century America, the lever action rifle was king of the open range, and the practical groundwork for the famous Winchester rifles started with Benjamin Tyler Henry. Many elements of Henry’s concepts originated with Walther Hunt, Lewis Jennings, and other early inventors who created guns based on the principles which Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson later refined in their Volcanic designs. But Henry’s improvements made the idea commercially viable.
Benjamin Tyler Henry became well acquainted with the rapid evolution of repeating firearms and self-contained cartridges during his employment as a shop superintendent with Volcanic Repeating Arms and their successor, New Haven Arms Co. Intrigued by the possibilities, Henry began experimenting with Wesson's .22 caliber rimfire cartridge and refining it for rifle use. By the end of 1858, Henry had upgraded Wesson's cartridge to the .44 Henry Flat rimfire, a caliber capable of 1,200 fps muzzle velocity. Now all he needed to do was invent a gun to go with it.
By 1860, Henry had developed a prototype rifle and been awarded a patent that would change American history. The Henry rifle was a dramatic improvement over the Volcanic repeaters in every sense, laying the foundation for all lever actions to follow.
Over 13,000 Henry rifles were manufactured, and though the new weapon saw limited use on the battlefield, it made an impression in the final year of the Civil War. The lever action rifle had proven its worth, and successors like the Winchester 1873 would become some of the most American guns of all time.
John Hall, a gunsmith from Maine, patented a design for a breechloading rifle on May 21, 1811 that included a unique tilting breechblock and locking mechanism. Three years later, Hall's invention caught the attention of the United States Army Ordnance Corps. Hall eventually furnished the military with 100 of his Model 1817 breechloaders. While breechloading guns were not a new concept, Hall’s rifle was the U.S. government’s first foray into breechloaders, a design that offered a higher rate of fire over muzzleloading rifles as well as the ability to load while advancing and while taking cover in the prone position.
The federal government offered Hall a much larger contract and provided the young inventor with a shop next to the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Frustrated by his inability to meet higher production numbers, Hall adapted his rifle design to the “uniformity principle,” a reliance on interchangeable parts that would become known as the American system of manufacturing. In that armory sawmill called Hall Rifle Works, John Hall designed a collection of machines running off water power to ensure production could proceed at a pace far greater than traditional hand-cut gun making methods, while still maintaining proper fit and quality.
Writing to Secretary of War John Calhoun on December 20, 1822, Hall touted his achievements. “I have succeeded in establishing methods for fabricating arms exactly alike, & with economy, by the hands of common workmen, & in such manner as to ensure a perfect observance of any established model, & to furnish in the arms themselves a complete test of their conformity to it.”
Colonel George Talcott of the Ordnance Department affirmed Hall’s success in 1832, stating, “Manufactory has been carried to a greater degree of perfection, as regards the quality of work and uniformity of parts than is to be found anywhere – almost everything is performed by machinery, leaving very little dependent on manual labor."
Early inventors who created guns with some basic level of uniformity in mind were bound by the limitations of hand craftsmanship, but thanks to pioneers like John H. Hall and Simeon North, the Industrial Revolution arrived in America and firearms technology would never look back.
Though the Spencer rifle didn’t have as much long-term impact as the Henry, Christopher Spencer’s invention still made its mark on America in a big way. Not only was the Spencer design the first repeating rifle widely adopted by a major military, but the vast number of Spencer rifles and carbines that found their way westward were put to use on the American frontier.
After Christopher Spencer popped into the White House unannounced and won a meeting with President Lincoln, the Union orders for his rifles and carbines poured in. The Spencer was chambered for a more powerful cartridge than the Henry and without the drawback of its competitor's exposed magazine tube. Total wartime production approached 100,000, and though the revolutionary guns weren’t adopted until later in the war, General Ulysses S. Grant declared the Spencer “The best breech-loading arms available.”
With so many surplus rifles in circulation after the conflict, post-war demand for the Spencer simply dried up, and Spencer Repeating Rifle Company quickly went bankrupt. Christopher Spencer’s career as a gun inventor was far from complete, however, and the prolific designer came up with the first commercially successful American slide-action repeating shotgun in 1882, 11 years before Browning’s Winchester 1893.
Richard Jordan Gatling was a born inventor. His ideas ranged from steamboat technology to improved farm equipment, and the ever-inquisitive Gatling also found time to earn a medical degree in 1850. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Gatling turned his attention to firearms technology, conceiving of a rapid-fire, multi-barrel machine gun operated with a crank, which he patented in 1862.
Union bureaucrats were skeptical of the new weapon despite successful early trials, but General Benjamin Butler purchased eight of Gatling’s “Battery Guns” out of his own pocket and used them to defend his trenches during the brutal Siege of Petersburg. The U.S. Army officially adopted the Gatling gun in 1866 and continued to employ multiple versions of Gatling’s design into the early 20th century, when recoil-based machine guns like the Maxim design became favored over revolving barrels.
The Gatling gun is a powerful platform, even more so when paired with a motor. After WW2, the Gatling gun experienced a resurgence of sorts with multi-barrel rotating guns like the M134 Minigun and the A-10 Warhog fighter's Gau-8/A Gatling-type seven-barrel cannon. From the Civil War to Afghanistan, Gatling’s design has endured.
A U.S. Army Colt Model 1877 Bulldog Gatling Gun from the George Moller Collection, one of 17 purchased by the American military, sold for $345,000 in Rock Island Auction Company's Premier Auction.
“It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine - a gun - which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” - Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling
General George S. Patton hailed the M1 Garand rifle as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Its inventor, John Cantius Garand, spent 15 years developing the legendary gun, designing numerous models and solving multiple engineering challenges to perfect one of the first semi-automatic rifles widely adopted and fielded by a major military. What Garand lacks in total number of firearms patents, he makes up for by helping put superior firepower in American hands during WW2.
Though Canadian-born, John Garand lived in America from age 11 onward and was honored with a variety of notable awards from the grateful country he’d adopted. Garand loved machinery and target shooting, two interests that led to a fascination for gun design. During WW1, Garand became intrigued with the idea of improving existing light machine guns. He submitted a design to the U.S. Navy that won him a job at the Bureau of Standards, then an engineering position at the government’s Springfield Armory in 1919, where Garand’s work on the M1 rifle began.
The automatic weapons of WW1 demonstrated the need to move beyond a bolt-action infantry standard. When the military held early test trials for a semi-automatic replacement to the Model 1903 and Model 1917 rifles, Garand set his sights on the goal and never looked back. When the dust settled, the M1 Garand became America’s new infantry rifle and helped pave the way for Allied victory across Europe and the South Pacific.
What does AR stand for? If you’re a firearms fan, you’re more than familiar with ArmaLite and their all-star gun inventor, Eugene Stoner, whose AR-15 and M16 designs would influence American Military doctrine for decades to come. A WW2 marine vet and Aviation engineer, Stoner’s experience with firearms and the latest lightweight materials like advanced plastics and aluminum alloys made him a perfect candidate for Armalite’s chief designer.
Stoner’s prototypes included the AR-3, AR-9, AR-11, and AR-12. His AR-5 take-down survival rifle was both successful as a U.S. Air Force contract order and later became a popular gun in the civilian market as the AR-7 Explorer.
The AR-10, its AR-15 successor, and the M16 truly made history, with the M16 becoming the most-produced gun in 5.56 mm with nearly 8 million manufactured. As successful as Stoner’s AR-15 design was with the military, the famous platform has seen even more prolific adoption in the commercial market in its semi-automatic variants and has become America’s most popular rifle.
“My aircraft background experience allowed me to get into some of these lightweight materials, for instance, forged aluminum receivers which were rather unknown at the time in weapons, but there was nothing particularly new to what I’ve been doing all along on the aircraft equipment.” - Eugene Stoner
The ten names featured above, while some of the best of the best, only scratch the surface when it comes to legendary gun inventors who helped America span a continent and defend Western Civilization in the 20th Century’s two greatest wars. Geniuses like Christian Sharps, Nelson King, John Thompson, David Marshall Williams, and many more also deserve high praise for their contributions to the American story and our nation’s firearm heritage.
Other giants in the firearms world earned their reputations through different means, like Eliphalet Remington founding an iconic American company and Oliver Winchester financing, manufacturing, and marketing “the gun that won the West.” Perhaps the highest testament to America’s elite gun makers and gun inventors is how many of their arms are still sought after and fielded today, and how appreciation for their works has given rise to a thriving collecting community hoping to own a piece of that legacy.
The history of the modern world has been inextricably linked to the history of the gun, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos each week that dive deeper into this fascinating topic. From articles on the bow vs the gun, the revolver vs the pistol, the development of the Uzi, and the types of repeating assault weapons available when the United States Constitution was written, we thoroughly explore the history of the gun and the men who pushed the boundaries of firearms technology and shaped our world today.
Following his stinging defeat in the 1912 election, President Theodore Roosevelt planned a trip to South America with a lecture tour and river
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