In my last two shotgun columns I wrote about John Browning’s first two shotgun designs: the lever-action Winchester 1887 and the Winchester pump-action 1897. This month we’ll take a look at his third — the world’s first semiautomatic shotgun, the Browning Automatic 5, most often called the Auto-5 or simply A-5. The name of the shotgun designates it is an autoloader with a capacity of five rounds, four in the magazine tube and one in the chamber.
The Auto-5 was produced continually for almost 100 years from 1900 to 1998 by several makers including FN, Remington (Model 11) and Savage (Model 720). The Remington Model 11 was the first auto-loading shotgun made in the U.S. and was produced from 1905 to 1947.
The shotgun was used to deadly effect by both peace officers and outlaws during the prohibition era and the military bought almost 60,000 Model 11s during World War II.
The Remington was also used to train aerial gunners in World War II. I remember my dad telling me how they would drive around a large circular track with two “automatic shotguns” mounted on a truck, following a second truck launching clay targets. The purpose was for the gunners to get a sense of firing at a moving target, from a moving target, at different angles of attack. He said for a farm kid, it was the most fun he had while in the Service.
The shotgun has a distinctive high receiver, earning it the nickname “Humpback.” The top of the receiver goes straight back level with the barrel before dropping to the stock, making the A-5 easy to identify.
The A-5 can be loaded by placing four rounds into the tubular magazine. Apply the safety. When the bolt handle is retracted it stays to the rear then a button on the right side of the receiver is pushed, chambering a shell and closing the bolt. The shotgun can be “topped off” by placing another shell in the magazine.
The A-5 is a long-recoil action. When a chambered shell is fired, the barrel and bolt recoil together to re-cock the hammer. As the barrel returns to its initial position, the bolt remains behind and ejects the spent shell. The bolt then returns forward and feeds another shell. This type of long-recoil action was the first of its kind and patented by Browning in 1900.
Run the gun
I have heard several people say the one problem with the Auto-5 is it’s somewhat finicky about ammo. The most common complaints are ejection problems with light loads and excessive recoil with buckshot and slugs. Both can usually be corrected in a few minutes.
The A-5 has a system of a friction piece and ring that retard the barrel’s rearward travel. The friction piece and ring are set based on the type of load to be fired through the gun.
On one side of the ring is a bevel while it is flat on the reverse side. For heavy loads the side with the bevel fits on the friction piece in front of the recoil spring. For light loads, remove the friction piece, ring and recoil spring. Replace the ring with the flat side towards the muzzle, replace the recoil spring and the friction piece. Setting these rings correctly is vital to good performance and to ensure a long life to the shotgun.
The Widow Maker
People who believe the safety inside the trigger guard of an M1/M14/Mini-14 is unsafe would almost certainly become apoplectic of the safety on an Auto-5.
On the early guns the safety was positioned slightly forward of the trigger and was pushed to the rear for “safe” earning it the nickname of the “widow maker” or “suicide safety.” Gun Safety Rule 2 was, and remains, especially important. Somewhere around 1928 Remington changed it to the now-familiar cross-bolt safety behind the trigger.
Removing the barrel is like any other shotgun. Unscrew the magazine cap and lift the barrel out. To replace it, however, it is important to push the barrel down hard until it stops inside of the receiver before replacing the magazine cap.
Just screwing on the cap will likely leave the barrel out of battery.
For hunting, it’s possible to cut a dowel of appropriate length so the magazine will only hold three rounds to be in compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
If you want to go the other way and increase the capacity, the threads at the end of the magazine tube are the same as on modern Remington shotguns. Therefore, a magazine extension for a Model 870/1100/11-87 will work.
First year gun
The shotgun shown here is my personal Model 11 and its low four-digit serial number places it in the first year of production (1905). The previous owner of this shotgun apparently did not know or appreciate it was a first year production piece because the barrel has been shortened to 18.5″. A custom front sight consists of a professionally installed bead on a post fitted into a dovetailed ramp.
The stock has the old bird’s head type pistol grip with checkering and the wood shows a lot of grain. A rubber recoil pad has replaced the original steel butt plate. The forend is also hand checkered.
It has been said Browning believed the Automatic 5 was his crowning achievement — high praise itself for this shotgun.
While original FN-made Auto-5s have become somewhat scarce, the Remington guns are still seen quite often and going for around $500. This is more than a fair price for a great shotgun still carrying a lot of history with it.