It was a sad day in 1999 when Browning announced it was discontinuing the Auto-5 humpback. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house — at least not my house.
My first experience with the Auto-5 came in 1996 at the hands of Lonnie Ray, my father-in-law. He had invited me to go duck hunting the day after Thanksgiving as soon as the turkey wore off. As dawn broke, I crouched in a duck blind on the edge of a flooded cornfield in Porter County, Ind. I hadn’t brought a gun with me during my holiday visit, so Lonnie lent me his Belgian Auto-5 Magnum.
I had seen many humpbacks through the years but had never fired one. When a lone drake mallard skittered over the paper-thin ice, I painted a stripe through him and touched ’er off. My life would never be the same.
Neither would my shoulder. As the duck crumpled, that old humpback slammed into me like an Erie-Lackawanna freighter on its 4:19 Toledo run. Beaming, Lonnie said, “That old Browning really hammers the ducks, doesn’t it?”
“Uh huh,” I gasped. “But how do you get them to shoot it?”
The Classic Design
Ah, the art and mystery of the Browning humpback. It’s been gone for six years, and every day and in every way, its square, uncompromising profile looks better. For 96 years, it remained in production — longer than any other model of shotgun. John Wayne used a humpback. So did John Dillinger. Its fame was such that even current Browning shotguns such as the Gold Classic High Grade are still described in company catalogs as “beautiful semi-humpbacks.” It was one of the greatest sporting firearms of all time.
Introduced in 1903, the original Auto-5 was a marvel for its day. It embodied the first practical application of the long-recoil principle in a sporting firearm. Nowadays, the idea of a shotgun with a barrel that blows backward to eject the empty hull, cock the hammer and chamber a fresh shell seems laughably primitive. But in 1903, it was a daisy.
Not only was the Auto-5 the first successful autoloading shotgun, it was also the most flexible autoloader of its day. Today’s gas-operated rifles and shotguns gobble up anything you stuff in them, from light target loads to magnums. During the first few decades of the 20th century, however, that was different. In those days, autoloading pistols and rifles operated reliably only with one specific bullet weight and powder charge. Light loads wouldn’t cycle the action, and heavy loads would beat up the gun. The Auto-5 was different.
What made it different was the “friction ring.” This small, reversible ring of steel, beveled inwardly on one face, sits atop the recoil spring and encircles the magazine tube. With its beveled face pointing toward the magazine cap, the friction ring forces a springy collet called the “friction piece” to constrict around the magazine tube when the gun is fired, putting the brakes on the backward motion of the barrel during recoil. This is helpful if you are shooting heavy loads. With the friction ring reversed so its flat face points toward the magazine, the friction piece cannot constrict. That lets off the brakes and lets light loads cycle the action.
To switch from light loads to heavy loads or vice versa, you could remove the barrel, reverse the friction ring and replace the barrel. The problem arises when the friction ring is set in the wrong direction. Shooting a light load with the ring in the heavy-load position will typically produce a jam. Conversely, shooting a heavy load with the ring in the light-load position will typically belt the holy hell out of you, as I discovered in that Indiana duck blind. My teeth still hurt.
Many Other Features
In its day, the five-shot Auto-5 was all you needed for bobwhites to bears. Unlike its competitors, the Auto-5 incorporated a magazine cutoff, a small T-shaped lever protruding from the lower left side of the receiver. Flipping this lever let you feed one round directly into the chamber without having to unload the magazine. If you were pounding the cornfields for pheasants and kicked up an 8-point buck, you could flip the cutoff lever, open the action to eject your No. 6 load, slip in a slug, and say goodbye to Mr. Buck. At least that was the theory.
The Auto-5 also introduced American shooters to the idea of an operating handle. For the benefit of those, including me, who incorrectly call it “that finger thing,” the operating handle is the small cocking piece you pull to charge a semiauto shotgun. Today, every semiauto has an operating handle. It seems like the most natural concept in the world, doesn’t it? However, the Auto-5 was the first sporting gun to feature an operating handle. Other semiautos of the day used plungers, toggle-joints and who knows what else as cocking pieces.
Foolproof reliability made the Auto-5 successful. Its natural-pointing characteristics made it beloved, though. Some shooters, such as my friend Jim Schlender, can pick up any shotgun and bust birds with it. Some of us, however, have a tough time finding shotguns that fit. For those so handicapped, an Auto-5 does what no other shotgun does: It points. That Gibraltar-like receiver rising before our eyes gives us a thrill no other shotgun can.
I am a good example. During a recent trap outing at the magnificent Iola, Wis., Conservation Club, I missed 10 straight with Jim’s Winchester 101, as fine a shotgun as I’m ever likely to hold. In frustration, I dug my 1939 Auto-5 out of my trunk. (I bought this grand old gun years ago in South Bend, Ind., home of the Fighting Irish, so I call it “the Humpback of Notre Dame.”) Sure enough, the birds began breaking — not all of them, but enough to make me smile.
History and Imitation
By all rights, the Auto-5 should have been made by Winchester. After all, John Browning designed much of the gun under Winchester’s roof in New Haven, Conn. But Winchester’s refusal to pay Browning royalties for the design precipitated a notorious falling-out between the parties, so Browning left Winchester with his Auto-5 design under his arm. He ended up at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. FN began manufacturing the gun in 1903, but it wasn’t officially imported into the United States until 1923. However, many examples apparently made it across the Atlantic soon after the gun was introduced.
Thus, the first Browning-designed humpback officially sold in the United States wasn’t the Browning Auto-5. It was the Remington Model 11, a near-knockoff of the Auto-5 that was produced under license from Browning from 1911 to 1948. In 1930, another officially licensed Auto-5 clone appeared: the Savage Model 720. Finally, in the 1970s, two other Auto-5 clones were rolled out: the Auto Pointer, made by the Yamamoto Co. of Tokyo, and the Herter’s SL-18, made by The Pine Co., also of Japan.
It’s confession time. In terms of shooting qualities, I cannot tell any difference between a Belgian Auto-5, a Japanese Auto-5, a Remington 11, a Savage clone or an Auto Pointer. I’ve shot them all, and they all do well for me. We will pause a moment while Browning collectors gnash their teeth and rend their garments. Sorry! The cachet of the “Belgium Browning” has always seemed more imaginary than factual to me. In fact, the best-shooting humpback I’ve fired was a Savage 745, the alloy-receiver variant of the Model 720. The Belgian guns are superb, of course, but the beauty of an Auto-5 is in its design, not the maker’s name engraved or roll-stamped on it. Purists sniff and snort about “Japanese Brownings” and barely acknowledge the existence of the Remingtons, the Savages or, God forbid, the Auto Pointers. Shame on them.
Cataloging the Imitations
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Auto-5 has certainly been flattered. There are enough flavors of humpbacks to confuse the casual shooter.
These humpbacks are not true clones. If they were, all parts would interchange. They don’t. Really, 100 percent parts interchangeability among humpback variants is a problem. Some parts, such as recoil springs, interchange between guns of the same gauge. Others, such as safeties and magazine cutoffs, don’t. Other parts, such as forearms and metric-thread screws, interchange on paper but not in real life. Other parts, such as buttplates and barrel extensions, don’t interchange but can be fitted. Some can’t, no matter how much bad language you use. I’ve found parts interchangeability among humpbacks seems to have two or three rules and 5,000 exceptions.
The forends on humpbacks tend to split, and the old hard-rubber buttplates get brittle or shrink with age. Although the design is sturdy, replacement parts are occasionally necessary. If you’re trying to rehabilitate your humpback, the good news is that most critical components — barrels, forearms and buttstocks — are available as newly made or NOS (new old stock) parts. Gun Parts Corp. sells enough parts to repair almost any humpback, and even major catalog houses such as Cabela’s sell wood and aftermarket barrels. A 10-minute Internet search will find enough humpback parts to build one from scratch.
Browning’s Web site (www.browning.com), one of the finest in the shooting industry, includes a historical timeline. In the entry for 1998, these two touching sentences appear: “The famous Auto-5 shotgun, invented in 1903, and one of John M. Browning’s greatest inventions, lives out its life. Amid much concern and thought, it is discontinued from the line.”
Although I realize that modern Browning shotguns, such as the Gold Series, are fine guns, I’ll always leave room in my gun rack for at least one Auto-5 or a humpback clone.
But come to think of it, Browning had it wrong. The Auto-5 never “lived out its life.” There are still hundreds of thousands of humpbacks out there. Every year, I see them in Michigan’s aspen thickets, in Indiana’s cornrows and on Wisconsin’s granite hillsides.
“Lived out its life?” Say what? Everybody knows that humpbacks live forever.
This article appeared in the November 5, 2004 issue of Gun List (now Gun Digest the Magazine).