John Browning vs Hiram Maxim: Patent Fight!

When John Browning designed his Model 1895 machine gun with it’s rotary-lever gas operation system, Hiram Maxim filed suit claiming patent infringement. Maxim had filed quite broad patents covering gas pistons operation, but specifically in a linear format. Browning and Colt (who had the license to manufacture the Model 1895 machine gun) countered that the swinging lever was a different system, and thus not covered by Maxim’s patents. More to the point, they claimed that the gun would work without using a gas piston at all – and built this experimental model using a gas trap or muzzle cap system instead to prove the point.

Ultimately, the genesis of the fight was moot (the Maxim did not run well in 6mm Lee Navy, and would not have won a US Navy contract regardless of the Colt/Browning gun), and the court ultimately decided in favor of Colt and Browning. But this gun remains from the incident…

13 Comments

  1. Many years ago someone told me that the lever action guns were especially watched by the BATF, because of this modification. I did some research and actually found a patent drawing that showed how to do this, if you had some metal working / gun smithing expertise. Have you ever heard of this fact??

    • Sounds pointless for those guys to label lever guns as “easy to convert into super murder machines.” Adding a mechanism to operate by gas pressure does not make your standard tube-fed Winchester or Marlin into an effective machine gun, as rimmed cartridges on elevator ramps and a magazine capacity of less than 10 cartridges generally do not mix with rapid fire (over 5 shots per second, let us say). I could be wrong.

      • Well, both Maxim and Browning converted Winchesters to full-auto, Maxim with a butt-plate that operated the lever on recoil and Browning with his gas-flap at the front. Then they went on to produce less ungainly weapons.

  2. A modern author once used the old-fashioned word “cad” to describe Hiram Maxim. Maybe his patent challenge doesn’t quite justify that, but he was a pretty general-purpose sort of

    I don’t want to use bad language on this genteel site.

  3. Holy Locomotive! It seems that the mass of the reciprocating parts would be sufficient to make the gun jump about enough to be unusable. Was this intended to be a proof of concept example that would later be refined?

    • The muzzle part of it was a one-off made for the sole purpose of proving a point to the patent office. Ian discusses that at 4:15.

      The machine gun Colt was producing (the “potato digger”) was simpler.

  4. 1) Maxim’s tactic of suing for patent infringement is a standard tactic – “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks”. You’ve got nothing to lose by bringing a suit (in the US the loser does NOT automatically pay the winner’s court costs)
    2) I’ve always thought that Sjoren Bang had the perfect name for a firearms designer
    3)I guess the Maxim patents were expired when the US adopted Browning’s recoil operated M1917 and M1919
    4)He may have been a cad, but he was also a genius…Edison’s backers were so scared by Maxim’s work with electricity that they paid him a large sum of money to get out of the field for ten years. George Westinghouse? Don’t make us laugh, he’s the air brake guy…
    5) Maxim lived for a period of time in my home town, Fanwood NJ – but there is no memorial and if you mentioned his name to 99.9 percent of the people – even historical society members – they’d say “Who?” I didn’t learn about the connection until long after college and when I asked around town, in the library, etc, I drew a blank

    • Maxim’s gas piston patent was filed in 1884. It would have absolutely been expired by the time that the Browning M1917 and M1919 machine guns were produced. That particular patent would have entered the public domain in 1904, assuming that the term of the patent didn’t get adjusted, and most other Maxim gun related patents would have been entering the public domain fairly close to the same time frame.
      Those patents, I think, are the reason why Maxims dominated the machine gun market all the way to WWI. There are only so many ways to operate a machine gun, and Maxim had most of the really good ones locked down until the first decade of the 20th century. By which time, he was the machine gun manufacturer to beat.

  5. In all this patent back-and-forth, where does Baron von Odkolek, who sold a patent for a gas-piston-operated gun to Hotchkiss in the 1890s, fit in? Was Maxim’s piston patent unenforceable on the Continent?

    Again, to all here, I recommend “John M. Browning, American Gunsmith” by his son,, John A. Browning, and Curt Gentry. A little uncritically adoring of the master, but packed with interesting anecdote, it recounts the day JMB successfully operated his gas-actuated Winchester — in full auto!

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