There are a couple of good stories about John Moses Browning and the work it took for him to get the Auto 5 made. As with most of his long-gun designs of that era, Browning first took it to Winchester. They had a long working relationship at the time, one that had resulted in multiple lever and pump action rifles and the model 93and 97 pump action shotguns. The story goes that Winchester thought the new autoloading shotgun design was ugly. I agree that the humpback is nowhere near the sleek and sexy Browning-designed Winchester 94, but still. What were they thinking when they passed on buying his patents on this one?
Browning next went to Remington to see if it would be interested in making the ugly gun. The story told here is that while John Moses was waiting for a meeting with Marcellus Hartley, the president of Remington, Hartley had a heart attack and died. I guess that’s what happens when you leave the greatest firearms designer of at least the past 200 years waiting.
No doubt frustrated, Browning next went to his new friends in Belgium. FN Herstal ran with it and ended up making the Auto 5 for almost 100 years. The Auto 5s made by FN for sale in the U.S. carried the Browning name, while they were marked “FN” for the rest of the world. Auto 5s marked “FN” show up from time to time here in the States. One thing to remember if you come across one is that they are not chambered in the typical American fashion. One notable difference is that instead of 2 ¾ or 3 inch chambers, the FN-marked guns will be metric.
Design and Function
Here is a simple description of how this type of action works: when a round is fired, the bolt and the barrel are locked together. The force of the recoil moves them both backwards and compresses a spring that is coiled around the magazine tube. Once they have reached the rear of the receiver, the barrel and bolt unlock. The barrel then returns, using the stored energy of the recoil spring. There is also an ejector built on the rear of the barrel that kicks the spent shell out. The bolt then moves forward under power from an additional spring that is in the stock. On the bolt’s return, a new shell is picked up and guided into the chamber.
In order to fit the workings of this long recoil action inside the gun, the receiver has a sharp drop-off towards the stock. This is where it gets the humpback nickname, even though it’s not a hump actually—just a sharp drop off at the back end of the receiver.
Let’s get back to the mechanics. As shotgun shooters know, there is a large variety of shotgun shell loads available. There are light target or trap loads, heavy turkey loads and fast waterfowl shells. Accommodating the difference in energy of these loads is the hardest part of designing an autoloading shotgun. The Auto 5 uses friction rings around the magazine tube that function with the recoil spring to absorb the correct amount of energy. The rings can be flipped around for different loads. Browning has the manuals for the Auto 5 on its website that give detailed instructions on how to set the rings up. A well maintained and properly set up Auto 5 is a pleasure to shoot. The recoil isn’t that bad, though it is still a shotgun and will kick as such. These old shotguns sometimes have a reputation of kicking like a Missouri mule, and they will if they are not set up correctly.
FN made the Auto 5 from 1902 until 1998-9. They were made in Belgium until 1975, when production moved to Japan. Yet the Auto 5 design wasn’t just made by FN. The classic Remington Model 11 is a licensed copy and was the first semi-auto shotgun to be made in the United States. Remington made around 850,000 of them between 1905 and 1948. Savage also made the models 720 and 745 from 1930 until 1949. All told, the Auto 5 design is the second most manufactured auto-loading shotgun of all time. Only the Remington 1100 edges it out.
If you have never shot one of the old Auto5s, there are a couple of things that are a little different from its successors. The biggest one is the sight picture and cheek weld. The way the back of the receiver “humps” up means that you don’t have to tuck your head down as far to get the consistent cheek weld. Maybe it’s because I grew up shooting the old humpbacks, but nothing else I own or have shot feels as natural or comes to my shoulder faster.
The other main difference is the way the recoil feels. Well, not the actual recoil, really. The force I’m referring to is what I call the reverse recoil. When the barrel and then the bolt return to battery, it pulls the shotgun back down more than a shotgun that just has the bolt returning home. I’m sure it’s a matter of physics involving the mass of the barrel, but it is useful for reducing split times between shots.
I will admit I am a bit biased when it comes to the Auto 5 and its variants. I learned to shoot on them. These were the shotguns of my Grandfather. He had four of them, two Belgian- made Brownings and two Remington model 11s. There is no telling how many boxes of shells these guns have fired or how many birds have they’ve knocked out of the sky. My grandfather was a bird hunter. These old scatterguns have been across miles and miles of fields and woods. They all have a few bumps and bruises. It’s all character of a well-loved and well-used firearm. They are mine now and reside in the safe most of the time, but they still get pulled out at least a couple times a year to go do what they do best—throw lead and go boom.