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).
Recommended books for gun collectors:
Gun Digest 2011, 65th Edition