The Magazine

The American Way with Guns

Our national story is firearms all the way down

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Colt died in 1862, at the age of 47, leaving behind a thriving business in Connecticut and an immortal firearm.

 

I

n common with the names Colt and Winchester is a third, Browning, which is also indispensable to an appreciation of America’s history with guns. Browning designed them. Colt and Winchester made them. And Americans loved them.

John Browning was the Thomas Edison of American arms. He was a man of tireless imagination who held 128 patents when he died in 1926 at the age of 71. Browning became fascinated by guns and their operation when he was very young; he could take them apart, repair, and rebuild them when he was still just a boy. One of his early efforts came into the hands of a senior vice president at Winchester who was so impressed that he traveled from Connecticut to Ogden, Utah, to meet with Browning. The visit spawned a collaboration that yielded some 40 Winchester guns. In one famous episode, Winchester challenged Browning to come up with a replacement for the aging Model 73 in less than 30 days. If he succeeded, he would be paid $20,000. If not, the company got whatever his work had produced and paid him nothing. Browning made the deadline, easily, with the Model 92, which was the rifle that was, in fact, favored by a lot of movie cowboys, to include John Wayne.

But the most famous of the many legendary Browning creations is a Colt: the .45 caliber pistol known as the 1911, which became a ubiquitous element in the American military from the time it was introduced until it was replaced, by a Beretta 9 millimeter for reasons that still seem flimsy, in 1985.

The 1911 is solid, tough, dependable, easy to take apart and clean, and beautiful in an exceedingly unlovely way. It is as American as Coca-Cola. The legend of the 1911 is vast. The gun was even said to have been used by an American aviator whose plane had been shot up in a dogfight. He was hanging in his parachute and his Japanese enemy was coming back to strafe him. So he took out his pistol and shot down the Zero. Hard story to check, but the fact it was ever told says a lot about that pistol.

Browning’s name is not attached to his masterwork. But there are Browning automatic shotguns, and millions of old soldiers and Marines remember the Browning Automatic Rifle—the BAR. When asked to develop this weapon, on a crash basis during World War I, Browning took the job for a nominal fee. His partners objected, saying he should have charged many times what the government had offered. Browning, who was in his sixties at the time, said, “Yes, and if we were 15 or 20 years younger, we’d be over there in the mud.”

Among Browning’s many innovations is the slide-action shotgun, which he created for Winchester as the Model 97. You do not have to know much about firearms to know what a “pump gun” is. Movie people love it for the ominous snick snick sound the action makes. In countless scenes, the bad (or good) guy works that action just before he blows someone away or, possibly, just to let someone know he is there and prepared to shoot. (I always wonder why the shooter doesn’t already have one in the chamber, but that’s just me.) That snick snick is like the buzz a rattle-snake makes when it is about to strike. John Browning could have made himself even richer if he had been able to patent that sound.

The original pump gun evolved into the Model 12. Winchester made over two million of them. I own two.

It isn’t a beautiful gun in the way that the Pennsylvania long rifle is. But it breathes quality and dependability, which is what it was always famous for. Model 12 owners have long bragged about the thousands of rounds their guns have fired without malfunctioning. You can take it apart easily enough, and if you keep it clean it will not let you down. And there is, admittedly, something deeply satisfying about that snick snick sound it makes when you operate the slide, though you don’t really notice it when you are in a duck blind.

There isn’t anything especially sinister about the gun. It is wood and steel. It was made in Connecticut, more than 50 years ago, by people who were skilled with machine tools. That was a time when, if you put the words “Connecticut” and “guns” together, it did not evoke horror but industry and prosperity.

I like the gun because it is simple and reliable and, above all, like that Pennsylvania long rifle given to me by my friend, it is undeniably American. And since two million like it were made and sold, lots of people must have been as satisfied by them as I have been.

A few years ago, a friend who was visiting saw that gun in the rack and said he remembered owning one like it when he was a kid, growing up on the Eastern shore of Maryland. “I wanted that gun more than anything in the world. I saved every dime I made doing odd jobs and working in the summer until I finally had enough to cover the price. My dad had taught me the shooting and the safety, and now I had my own gun and, you know, on the opening day of duck season, I went to the marsh and when it was time to go to school, I took the gun with me. I left it in my locker, all day, and took it home with me after school. Lots of the boys I went to school with did the same thing. Can you imagine?”

No. And that’s a shame.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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