The Greatest Blunder In Commercial Firearms History

Nathaniel F
by Nathaniel F

What sort of mistake could possibly take the top spot of “worst decisions in firearms history”? It would have to be a decision that not only in retrospect but at the time was one of the worst possible decisions a company could make, and it would have to have longstanding aftereffects that would change firearms history forever.

It would have to be a decision like… Winchester Repeating Arms Co. parting ways with the famous John Moses Browning (page 152):

It may seem impossible today, but it’s true that in 1903, Winchester let go of the firearms designer that would eventually hold the virtually indisputable top spot among firearms designers in the entirety of history. Winchester felt that John Moses Browning, inventor of almost countless entirely new kinds of firearms, was simply too expensive to keep on the payroll. Apparently, though, Browning was not too expensive for Colt’s or Belgian manufacturer Fabrique Nationale, both of whom were quick to offer Browning acceptable agreements to produce his revolutionary firearms designs.

It is quite unthinkable to the modern mind that any company could possibly let go a talent such as Browning’s, but what’s beyond baffling is the fact that the dispute that led to Browning’s release from Winchester was over the design that would become the Browning Auto-5 shotgun – the very first semiautomatic shotgun ever produced. Browning had previously agreed to work for Winchester producing designs for a flat fee – for his revolutionary Auto-5, he wanted revolutionary payment in the form of royalties. Winchester did not accept this, and as a result the company went without Browning’s genius for 23 more years, during which time the greatest firearms designer ever to live invented the handguns that led to the timeless 1911, the Remington Model 8, FN Model 1910, the Remington Model 17 (which itself led to the Model 31, the Ithaca 37, and the Browning BPS) the M1917 machine gun and its air cooled follow on, the M1919, the BAR, the Remington Model 24, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, the Superposed shotgun, and other firearms. In light of this, Winchester’s assessment that it “shall be perfectly able to get along without the Brownings, and shall probably be better off without them than with them… We do not believe they will get along as well without us as they did with us” can at best be met with protest.

Winchester surely had its reasons for letting the Browning brothers go, but even at the time the folly of this decision should have been obvious. Browning was no novice to firearms design and had already more than once revolutionized the world of firearms with the 1897 shotgun and the 1895 machine gun. It should have been clear to the leadership at Winchester that retaining Browning was a priority above all others… But to the delight of competitors companies like Remington and FN, it wasn’t.

Nathaniel F
Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at

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  • Maodeedee Maodeedee on Aug 04, 2015

    "Browning was a mechanical genius, however, lacked the necessary industrial engineering methods to bring his ideas into mass production"

    In other words he didn't have enough formal training. And yet his ideas WERE rendered into mass production without much difficulty or the necessity to significantly re-work the original design. And what he lacked in formal training he more than made up for it with sheer intuition.

    Not long a go an engineering design team with the aid of some sophisticated computer modeling, went to work designing the perfect ergonomic grip angle for an auto-pistol that would be comfortable to the broadest possible range of hand sizes and would line up the hand with the arm so as to point naturally with the hand and arm held so that the sights line up, in the words it would posses excellent "pointability".

    What they came up with was a grip identical to the 1911. If You've never held a browning Hi-power in your hands. or shot one, You need to. AThe basic lines an proportions of the gun which Browning designed are perfect. He was not able to work out all the small detains of the overall design betore he died but the basic proportions were all of his own inspiration.

    This is a double-stack gun where ONLY the grip is wide enough to house the double column magazine and the rest of the gun is smaller and there is no excess bulk and even the front of the slide is narrower than the part of the slide which travels on the frame rails and the frame itself is narrower at the top than the grip area.

    The FN browning SA-22 is another example of making a firearm as compact as it can possibly be with no unnecessary bulk. Compare the 1897 to Winchester's model 12 and same thing there. IMO, the hi-power and the SA-22 are magnificent works of mechanical art and are to mechanical design what Michelangelo's David is to fine art

  • Jamie Clemons Jamie Clemons on Aug 04, 2015

    You win some you lose some.

    • Maodeedee Maodeedee on Aug 04, 2015

      @Jamie Clemons Browning was known to be very winsome. Winchester, on the other hand.....