The Browning A5 is an iconic American firearm that saw action on the battlefields, in infamous crime sprees, and in the uplands
Part of why I love old firearms so much is the history and romance that goes along with each particular gun. Many old firearms evoke feelings of nostalgia, memories of loved ones, and good times long gone.
Is it the smell of a particular gun oil, or the lines of a gun that will spark these fond memories? I know people who grew up knowing only that grandad had a side-by-side – all they could remember was the shape of the gun. Then and now there are many side-by-side shotguns, which does not help identify what side-by-side he had. For the topic of today’s discussion, the shape was everything.
The iconic design of the Browning A5
At one point in time, if you saw a gun shaped like a 1911, it was a Colt – an iconic gun in its own right and easily identifiable from other pistols of the day. Now, the Colt has been copied and remanufactured by so many makers that the shape no longer dictates the maker.
For the Browning Auto-5, this is not the case. If you see an old shotgun with a squared-off receiver in the back, chances are it’s an A5. And even if it’s not a Browning A5, it’s a clone made when John Browning licensed his original design to Remington or Savage. And, far fewer of those versions of this classic autoloading shotgun were ever made.
The A5 was one of John Browning’s pet designs, which he regarded as one of his best. The Auto 5 was a five-shot, semi-automatic shotgun, meaning that the cycling of each new round into the chamber was the result of capturing the energy from the previous shot. The idea might seem mundane to us these days as there are so many modern auto loaders on the market, but back when Browning invented the A5, it was the first shotgun of its kind and one of the first semi-automatic guns commercially viable as well (rifle, shotgun, or pistol).
It was in 1898 that John Browning set out to develop a semi-auto shotgun (the same year the Mauser 98 was developed). Browning was said to have devised several versions of the auto to test, but he and his companions settled on the long recoil version of the design as the most feasible.
The mechanics and features of the the Browning A5
Unlike many of today’s autos, the A5’s barrel moves along with the bolt during the normal cycle of operation. Four shots are placed in the magazine tube, below the barrel, and one is put into the chamber. The gun is fired and the resulting force pushes both the barrel and bolt back together as a unit. Once at the end of their backward travel, the bolt is held back by a mechanism attached to the rear of the lifter, while the barrel is driven forward by the large spring around the magazine tube. As the barrel moves forward and clears the spent case, it actuates both the ejection of the case and initiates the lifter to raise the next round into position. The mechanism on the rear of the lifter releases the bolt, allowing it to move forward and bring the new round into the chamber in the barrel.
The distinctive lines of the A5 are a result of needing to enclose all of the above inside the action. The Auto-5 has an aesthetic all its own. The top of the receiver is flush with the barrel and terminates at nearly a 90-degree angle at the back of the action. This angle drops down to where the stock lines meet the back of the action giving the rear of the gun a squared, yet still rounded look that can be seen from across a duck marsh or corn field earning it the name the “Humpback Browning.”
One of the most innovative features of the A5 was the friction ring system that John Browning designed so that the gun could accommodate a variety of loads. Any semi-auto mechanism driven by the pressures of recoil must take into account that each shotgun load has a different amount of recoil or backward force.
Heavy loads equal more force; light loads create less force. Design a gun for light loads, and the heavy loads will overpower the mechanism and damage the gun; design for heavy loads and light loads will not have enough force to cycle the gun properly. Browning saw to this with a system of friction rings that are integral to the proper function of the gun. The rings could be stacked in different configurations over the magazine tube, and in front of the mainspring, such that they would increase or decrease the amount of friction applied during cycling, applying more when needed for heavy rounds. This elegant solution made the A5 a very versatile and reliable gun.
Fabrique Nationale’s hand in the Browning A5
Much like his other designs, John Browning had little interest in manufacturing his own firearms and so approached both Winchester and Remington to produce his latest gun. Winchester would not agree to pay Browning royalties on the gun, and complications at Remington prevented a deal. Having been down this road before, Browning approached Fabrique Nationale (FN) in Belgium, who promptly agreed to produce the shotgun. The first A5s rolled off the line in 1902, with production continuing until 1975. In a seemingly very familiar fashion (think Weatherby Mark V) the production was moved from FN to Japan, where A5s were produced at the Miroku factory until 1998.
I mentioned before that Remington would produce the Remington 11, and Savage would have a crack at the gun in its Model 720, and though similar, these guns were slight modifications to the original Browning design. It is of note that Remington would produce A5s during the years of World War 2 alongside its Model 11s, though once the war was over, production did shift back to FN in Belgium.
The multiple uses of the Browning A5
The A5 I am holding as I write this is a bit of a unique one, although with 2.7 million made, it’s hard to believe that mine is special beyond my own curiosity. It is a 16-gauge gun with a solid rib. It is an early manufactured gun, made in the late 1920s, and is marked both Browning Arms Company Ogden, Utah on the barrel and Fabrique National on the receiver. It is unrestored and I love the patina it carries. It shows proof marks on the bolt and action, which is something that I have always loved – maybe because it helps tell the story of a gun. The bolt and both largest screws on either side of the action are marked with the last three digits of the serial number; another cool feature of older guns when parts were made to fit that particular gun.
My A5 also has the earlier style safety located at the front of the trigger guard and slides forward and backward (rather than the side-to-side movement of later versions of the same gun). Although a curiosity at first, the more I worked the sliding safety, the more natural it felt. Not to mention that it positioned your trigger finger nicely for the trigger pull that would follow.
Much like guns of the same vintage, the Browning and its clones – the Remington 11 and Savage 720 – would see service on the battlefield and with law enforcement. U.S.-marked guns were used as guard weapons and for trench warfare, and trainers were used to introduce the concept of lead for gunners trying to shoot down enemy planes. Additionally, Clyde Barrow used a cut-down version of an A5 during the infamous crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde.
The venerable Auto 5 saw far more use in the fields and woods, though, and became a staple at deer and duck camps. Because the production of the A5 spanned so many years, versions were available from the factory in all three most popular chamber lengths. Early guns were chambered for 2 1/2-inch shells followed by the standard 2 3/4-inch and eventually 3-inch magnum. The popularity of the A5 led to the development of Light and Super Lightweight models, though very few of the Super Lightweight were made.
A5 barrels came in several styles, including plain no-rib, solid-rib, and vent-rib versions, and with a variety of fixed chokes. A5s would eventually adopt adjustable chokes, though not until later production years. Slug barrels were also available, adding to the versatility of the gun.
Browning has recently reintroduced the A5, and though the gun looks somewhat like the original, the internals are very different from that of the original long recoil version. I haven’t handled the new version myself, so until I do, I will hold off any comment on them.
It is undeniable that the Browning Auto 5 has found a place in the hearts and hands of sportsmen and women across our country. And if you are still unconvinced about the popularity and status of the A5, go ask singer/songwriter Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours how he feels about his grandfather’s Browning, or maybe just go listen to “The Housefire” by the Troubadours.
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The Gun Room Podcast is presented by Upland Gun Company
Joel Penkala is an Upland Bird Hunter and outdoors enthusiast from New Jersey. His love of all things upland has led him to travel and hunt around the United States and fostered his affinity for double guns and bird dogs. He runs English Setters in his home covers chasing Woodcock, Grouse, and Pheasants.