Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Happy Birthday

Today is John Browning's birthday - or perhaps it was two days ago. No matter. He was perhaps the most prolific and ingenious weapons designer the world has seen.

Most of the other famous designers gained their notoriety from a single design. Eugene Stoner is revered for the AR15/M16 family of rifles. Mikhail Kalashnikov is famous for his AK47. The only other designer responsible for multiple successes would be Dieudonne Saive, who is credited with finishing the GP35 (Browning High Power) after Browning's death, plus the FN Model 1949 and the FN FAL - the "right arm of the free world." Not a small achievement.

However excellent the designs these men were responsible, they cannot hold a candle to Browning's catalog. He used radically different principles in different designs, and made them "simple." For instance, let's look at the Browning breakdown .22 rifle that JMB is holding in the picture above. I own one of these, and am familiar with tearing one down. The firing mechanism is operated by blowback from the ignition of the .22 round. As a firing block is moved rearward, the spent round is extracted and ejected, plus the sprung firing pin is locked back, ready to strike the next round. This round is picked up from the bottom and placed in the chamber as the spring loaded block moves forward. Rounds are loaded in the side of the buttstock and are directed to below the firing block. Simple and elegant.

Compare this to the Browning Auto 5 shotgun, which I also possess. The barrel and bolt move rearward at the start of the blowback from recoil, and friction rings set the proper force to restrict the whole operation. It was the first successful semi-auto shotgun, and is still revered as an effective hunting and sporting gun to this day. I've found that the humpbacked receiver helps me get on target - I've got a big head, and proper cheek welds often find the line of sight on other shotguns to be above where it should be in a perfect world. The extra height of the Auto 5 makes quite a difference for me.

Another iconic design is the 1894 Winchester. I've got a 30-30 carbine with a large loop, a John Wayne preference. The bolt is held in place by a retractable lock, and the bolt and lock are actuated by a toggle mechanism actuated by the lever. This is a great improvement on the first successful lever action rifle - the Winchester 1866. The bolt in this rifle was held in place by leverage from the toggle action alone. The improved '94 allowed for far stronger calibers.

Now let's look at probably his most famous design - the M1911, aka the Colt 45. This semi auto pistol is probably what most people think of when someone mentions auto pistols. Browning's design included a "slide," which contained the barrel, firing pin, extractor, ejector and sights. JMB had other slide designs before the 1911, but they weren't as commercially successful. Keep in mind that other semi-auto designs used complicated and therefore expensive and less reliable toggle linkaqe such as the Borchardt C93 and it's "successor" the P08 Luger, which I have a copy of as well - y'all probably figured out I've got a 1911 or two laying around.

The 1911 reloads under recoil - the barrel and slide come back together for a short time, then the barrel tips downward and stops, while the slide continues rearward, extracting the spent round, cocking the hammer, and stripping a fresh round from the magazine and locking it into place with matching locking rings machined into the barrel and slide - it all "sets in" as the barrel it tipped back in line with the slide. Nearly all consequent pistol designs use some variant of this one.

These examples are hardly the only successes Browning had - most of the crew fed machine guns of WWI and WWII were his - the Ma Duece (M2) is still being issued.

Most of our industrial heroes generally provided our society with incremental improvements - Henry Ford is credited for introducing assembly line methods to automotive production. He neither invented the automobile nor the assembly line, but his genius was the first marriage of the two. As I've mentioned, other famous weapons designers were responsible for one weapon - which are generally improvements on previous work. John Moses Browning was a brilliant engineer, period.

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