Great Celebrity Breakups: Winchester and John Browning

In August 1903, Thomas Bennett (head of the Winchester company) wrote a letter to his many distributors and agents explaining how Winchester had decided to part ways with the Browning Brothers, and how the company would certainly be better off as a result. The gun at the heart of the breakup was Browning’s new self-loading shotgun, the Auto-5. Browning would end up taking the design the FN, where it became a massive commercial success – but the whole story is really much more nuanced than most people recognize.

This isn’t simply a matter of Browning demanding a royalty arrangement, but rather much more…

Winchester’s “sour grapes” letter about the Browning brothers. Courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum.

Nathan Gorenstein’s biography of John Browning is available on Amazon:


  1. That really is a great book, I bought it when you featured it in a book review and learned a lot from it.

  2. Bennett’s letter is also quoted in a history of the Winchester company by one Herbert G. Houze, that I found in the library some years ago. Again, I recommend “John M. Browning: American Gunmaker” by Browning’s son John Browning with Curt Gentry, though the Browning-Winchester split is not covered in this detail. It lists in an appendix every one of Browning’s patents with photographs of the sample guns, though the “link-action” shotgun is only mentioned in passing. I am picking up my copy of Gorenstein’s book today.

    • American sales-doctrine has always borrowed heavily from religion. It used to be fairly obvious, but with the decrease in religiousity, it’s just something we forget.

      If you’ve ever been to something like a Mary Kay Cosmetics convention and an old-school Southern Baptist revival meeting, you’d understand.

        • Any sales convention, actually. When I was an Army Recruiter, the annual convention for our regional command was… Disturbing, really. There was a meeting for Caterpillar’s sales reps going on in the same complex at the same time, and you’d have been able to find all too many parallels, to include all the married guys hitting the strip clubs downtown. Including some of the wives…

          Bizarre, TBH. All of it–I went through the entire thing with a sense of bemusement, noting how much familiarity it had when compared to a couple of the revival meetings I got dragged to earlier in my life. About the only thing missing from the Recruiter deal was someone speaking in tongues and handling snakes…

          I acquired a life-long dislike of any sales process, and an outright hatred of salesmen.

  3. The irony of the executives at Winchester killing their golden goose out of sheer hubris is something we see repeated time and time again throughout human history. You can only observe it, wonder at it, and try to apply the lessons in your own life.

      • @Daweo,

        Never heard those Iron Maiden lyrics. I was thinking more of the Aesop’s Fable about the “Goose that laid the golden eggs”. Which I think that Iron Maiden was referring to, as well… I just never heard of that song, and then I also didn’t ever hear the Grimm’s fairy tale about the “Golden Goose”, either–Which makes your confusion totally understandable. In my mind “gold+goose” can only be referring to Aesop’s instructional tale, but I’m obviously working from a cultural bias, here.


        Yeah, they are scarily prescient lyrics. I wonder if Iron Maiden had their recording contracts in mind, writing that…?

  4. Classic bulk paperback of years past:
    ‘The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation.’ By Cerf and Navasky. 1984.
    Over 400 pages of hubris, prejudice, bureaucratic bullshit and general foolery.

    • I vaguely remember that one…

      One shudders to think what length the latest edition would come to… I think there’d have to be several hundred pages just on Afghanistan alone.

  5. Jumping in on the same theme…

    There is an absolute and visceral hatred of both creativity and success

    Churches that descended from the Roman / Augustinian tradition, seem to have been more successful in lessening that hatred, and slightly calming the raging green eyed monster

    So, an American might aspire to having a beach front property, a muscle car and a trophy girlfriend for himself,

    Rather than aspire to having his more successful neighbour’s cow die.

    Envy tends to get restrained the most, in business decisions (get woke –> go broke!)

    And least in politics, academia, and fields like medicine, and of course under the Yorke of bureaucracy – and it really shows!

    Business people who let envy rip, tend to get weeded out by their own mistakes.

    That letter is absolutely sour grapes, winchester had lost possibly the finest gun designer in history.

  6. Thank you for at last pointing out how much Winchester did for Browning. Turning an idea, however brilliant, into a patent and then into a product is a very big proposition, and Winchester did it over and over for Browning on speculation. Certainly the 1893 and toggle shotgun were very expensive (to Winchester) Browning failures. Browning’s snit has always seemed petty and ungrateful to me.

    • Say you invent a new thing, which you’re certain is going to be highly profitable to manufacture and sell; the people you’ve been working with, however? They refuse to actually produce and market that product, preferring to sit on it. What course of action do you think you would take?

      I think Winchester made some very bad decisions, and paid the price. Browning was under no obligation to play their game–They were not, after all, paying him a salary or a retainer. If they’d locked him down like that, and he’d signed willingly? I’d probably agree with you–As it was, he was a free agent, and Winchester screwed up by not keeping him happy. Why they did that? Ego? Arrogance? Short-sightedness? Who really knows… All we can look at is the long-term effect, and that was all to Winchester’s detriment.

    • The first Browning design that Winchester bought, was the falling block, hammer fired single shot.

      The interpretation that I like best, is Winchester paying the Browning family for all of the guns that they had made, and.for rights to the design

      In order to prevent the Brownings establishing a serious competitor to Winchester, in the west generally, and amongst Mormons more specifically.

      The Brownings were well capable of building up into a serious competitor.

      J M Browning, was born into gunsmithing, and so were his brothers

      Admittedly, Winchester was on a different scale at that time, but the Browning Brothers had already proven that they could manufacture the single shot as efficiently as anyone else

      There’s no reason to believe that J. M. Browning was any less skilled than any other gunmaker of that day

  7. Bennett’s remark that the Browning thought of themselves as the “whole thing” isn’t without reason. Maybe the Browning’s were a bit confident, after all Winchester hadn’t made any of their own designs for a while. Everything Winchester produced for the previous 13 years were all designed by Browning. Winchester made a Navy rifle under contract, but everything else they produced was designed by JM Browning. Bennet bought dozens of gun patents just so they wouldn’t have to compete against those models if someone else made them. I wonder if it was more about the principal of royalties more so than just the money itself. Personally I’m glad the break happened. Had it not, then we would never of had the beautiful Belgian shotguns that we do. Winchester would never of paid for the quality and workmanship that FN did to produce them.

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