Browning is undoubtedly the greatest firearm designer of all time. The list of his sporting arms, lever action Winchester, pump and semiauto shotguns is long, and the useful careers of some of his military arms is even longer. The Browning .50 caliber M2 machine gun (the “Ma Deuce”), designed late during WWI, is still in use by the US Military today. His Model 1911 pistol remained our military’s primary issue sidearm right up until the 1980s, and has since gone on to whole new wave of massive enthusiasm for both target-shooting and personal defense. A hundred years after its design, the old 1911 is still pretty much America’s default handgun.
The 1865 Browning home in Ogden, Utah, was adobe brick, situated a few steps away from untrammeled land filled with grouse, a small wildfowl that made tolerable eating once it was plucked, butchered, and cooked, preferably with bacon fat to moisten the dry flesh. Utah’s five varieties of grouse could fly, but mostly the birds shuffled about on the earth. The male “greater” grouse reached seven pounds, making a decent meal and an easy target, as yellow feathers surrounded each eye and a burst of white marked the breast. A skilled hunter could sneak up on a covey picking at leaves and grasses and with one blast of birdshot get two or three for the frying pan.
Such frugality was necessary. The closest railroad stop was nearly one thousand miles east, and the largest nearby town was Salt Lake City, 35 miles to the south and home to only ten thousand people. Ogden’s settlers ate what they grew, raised, or hunted. Water for drinking and crops depended on the streams and rivers that flowed west out of the mountains into the Great Salt Lake, and irrigated wheat, corn, turnips, cabbage, and potatoes. Each settler was obliged to contribute labor or money to construct the hand-dug ditches and canals. They made their own bricks, cured hides for leather, and made molasses out of a thin, yellowish juice squeezed from sugar beets with heavy iron rollers and then boiled down to a thick, dark bittersweet liquid.
The rollers were made by John’s father, Jonathan, himself a talented gunsmith who also doubled as a blacksmith. Jonathan’s shop was his son’s playground, and John’s toys were broken gun parts thrown into the corner. At age six, John was taught by his “pappy” to pick out metal bits for forging and hammering into new gun parts. Soon the boy was wielding tools under his father’s direction.
To build that first crude gun John chose a day when his father was away on an errand. From the pile of discards John retrieved the old musket barrel and dug out a few feet of wire and a length of scrap wood. He clamped the barrel into a vice and with a fine-toothed saw cut off the damaged muzzle. He set Matt to work with a file and orders to scrape a strip along the barrel’s top down to clean metal. With a hatchet John hacked out a crude stock. The boys worked intently. On the frontier a task didn’t have to be polished, but it had to be right. Basic materials were in short supply, and to make his gun parts and agricultural tools Pappy Browning scavenged iron and steel abandoned by exhausted and overloaded immigrants passing through on their way west. Once, he purchased a load of metal fittings collected from the burned-out remains of an army wagon train, and as payment he signed over a parcel of land that, years later, became the site of Ogden’s first hotel.
John used a length of wire to fasten the gun barrel to the stock, then bonded them with drops of molten solder. There was no trigger. Near the barrel’s flash hole John screwed on a tin cone. When it came time to fire, gunpowder and lead birdshot would be loaded down the muzzle and finely ground primer powder would be sprinkled into the cone. The brothers would work together as a team: John would aim, Matt would lean in and ignite the primer with the tip of a smoldering stick, and the cobbled-together shotgun would, presumably, fire.
This wasn’t without risk. There was no telling if the soldered wire was strong enough to contain the recoil, or if the barrel itself would burst. Then there was the matter of ammunition. Gunpowder and shot were expensive imports delivered by ox-drawn wagon train. And the Browning brothers’ makeshift weapon might prove ineffective, or John could miss, and anger their father by using up valuable gunpowder with no result. Despite the risks, John pilfered enough powder and lead shot (from Jonathan’s poorly hidden supply) for one shot.
In ten minutes the brothers were in open country. Ogden’s eastern side nestled against the sheer ramparts of the Wasatch Mountains, and to the west lay the waters of the Great Salt Lake. To the north the Bear and Weber rivers flowed out of the Wasatch to sustain the largest waterfowl breeding ground west of the Mississippi River. Early white explorers were staggered by seemingly endless flocks of geese and ducks. In the 1840s pioneers described the “astonishing spectacle of waterfowl multitudes” taking to the air with a sound like “distant thunder.” Mountains rose up in all four directions, with one range or another flashing reflected sunlight. It was a striking geographic combination, magnified by the bright, clear sunlight of Ogden’s near-mile-high elevation. A settler’s life was lived on a stage of uncommon spectacle.
John carried the shotgun while Matt toted a stick and a small metal can holding a few clumps of glowing coal. The idea was to take two or three birds with a single shot, thereby allaying parental anger with a show of skilled marksmanship. Barefoot, the brothers crept from place to place until they spotted a cluster of birds pecking at the ground. Two were almost touching wings and a third was inches away. John knelt and aimed. Matt pulled the glowing stick out of the embers, almost jabbed John in the ear, and then touched the stick to the tin cone to fire the shot. The recoil knocked John backward—but in front of him lay a dead bird. Two other wounded fowl flapped nearby. Matt scampered ahead and “stood, a bird in each hand, whooping and trying to wring both necks at once.”
The next morning, as Jonathan breakfasted on grouse breast and biscuits, John listened to sympathetic advice from his mother and chose that moment to tell Pappy the story of his gun, his hunt—and the pilfered powder. Jonathan sat quietly and when John was finished made no mention of the theft. He did ask to see the weapon and was unimpressed. “John Moses, you’re going on eleven; can’t you make a better gun than that?”
Matt snickered. John choked down his remaining breakfast. “Pappy has drawn first blood, no doubt about that. He hadn’t scolded about the powder and shot, and the sin of stealing. But he’d hit my pride right on the funny bone,” John told his family decades later. A moment later he followed his father into the shop. He unrolled the wire from the barrel, “whistling soft and low to show how unconcerned I was,” and then stamped on the stock, snapped it in two, and tossed the pieces into a pile of kindling. “I remember thinking, rebelliously, that for all Pappy might say, the gun had gotten three fine birds for breakfast. Then I set to work. Neither of us mentioned it again.”