My latest copy of the American Rifleman (May 2010, p. 42) brought news of a new semi-automatic shotgun in an article by Phil Bourjaily, noted shotgun expert. The title announces “The Humpback Returns: Browning’s New A5.” The “humpback” reference, of course, refers to the original Browning Auto-5, one of John M. Browning’s finest inventions, the first semi-auto shotgun, and the only successful one for many years. So the Browning organization is going retro and the resemblance to the original Auto-5 which the square-backed receiver gives is obvious. It does look familiar, but the hump is a little less pronounced on the new model. I like its looks and think it is an attractive arm. It is made with a black anodized aluminum alloy receiver at a Browning facility in Portugal.A quick reading of the article, however, shows that the retro appearance is superficial. Although it is a semi-auto, the new A5 has an action that is completely different from the original Auto-5. Whereas the old Auto had a long-recoil action, the new action is inertia-operated and Browning calls it “Kinematic Drive” (Mercy!) I won’t take space trying to explain functional differences here; I couldn’t do a very good job. Suffice to say the two types of actions use the energy of firing recoil differently to eject the empty and load a fresh shell. Both are strictly mechanical, however; neither uses gas operation to get the job done. The bottom line is that the new A5’s operation resembles the more modern Benelli action more than it does the old Belgian Browning. I should say also that the new Browning has many nifty functional and convenience features in its own right. Bourjaily gives a good rundown and reports that folks who used the new gun at Browning-sponsored hunting events were quite impressed. Imagine that.
John Moses Browning loved shotguns and was an avid user of the scatter arm for trap and field. He was a member of a match-winning 4-man trap team in the early 1900’s and he loved to hunt, but his driving need to invent and design new guns limited his time for that activity. He invented three successful shotgun designs for Winchester, the first being the lever-action Model 1887, followed by the Model 1893 pump and the immortal Model 1897 pump. John, his brother Matt, and the two other trap team members put the 1893 to good use in trap matches. In addition, Browning invented ten additional complete shotguns, mostly pumps, that were purchased by Winchester but never marketed. This curious practice was followed by Winchester, with rifles and shotguns, to prevent competitors from getting Browning designs, all of which might be expected to be very good and successful in the market. As if this were not enough, John M. designed the Stevens Model 520 and 620 pumps, and a pump that became the Remington Model 17 and was later used as the basis for the famous Ithaca Model 37.
Browning’s crowning achievement in the shotgun arena, however, was the magnificent Auto-5, for which he obtained four design patents beginning in 1901. It is ironic that this important arm was the basis for a separation of Browning from Winchester, a company with which he had enjoyed a very productive relationship for more than twenty years, going back to the single-shot rifle which became the Winchester Model 1885, and including many notable arms such as the lever-action rifle models of 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895. Because of prior history and his love for Winchester, Browning tried and tried to get a deal on the auto, but in the end, Winchester was too wary of the idea of automatic sporting arms. The Belgian firm of Fabrique Nationale had no such reservations and began to manufacture the Auto-5 in 1903. Marketing considerations resulted in Remington also being licensed to manufacture and sell the design in America as the Remington Model 11, which they began to do in 1905. The success of these arms was immediate and complete, and continued throughout the twentieth century. I think it is the case that Browning never sold another gun to Winchester.
If you wanted a new gun for pheasants and ducks, I will bet that you would be very satisfied with the new A5 Hunter. It is currently made only in 12 gauge (3”), with 26,” 28,” or 30” barrel, and will set you back $1,559 with a walnut stock. If you would like a durable but creepy plastic stock you can get one for a bit less. The Rifleman article included no patterning reports, but patterns are bound to be good.
Those of you who have read other writing at this site will know, however, that my brain operates largely in real retro mode, so I think if I wanted the feel of a Browning auto I would opt for a used example of the old Auto-5. Never a big shotgunner, I have hunted pheasants on occasion, and as I write this, the desire to find out what old Browning customers know seems to be growing. Something appealing about having that barrel and bolt slam back at you as it ejects a fired shell and gets ready to slam in a fresh one.
If I decide to satisfy this desire I will have no trouble. Fabrique Nationale had made 2,000,000 editions by the early 1970’s. Noone knows for sure how many Remington Model 11s were sold, nor the number of any of the other makes which were copies of the Browning design. Belgian models are common on the used market at prices of $500 on up. A pretty nice one can be had for $1,000. Who knows? If I can find something to trade, an Auto-5 might be in the cards for me and if so, you will probably hear more about it here.