These are the gun designers whose works shaped American firearms as we know them today.
Who were among the best of the best when it came to American gun designers?
- John M. Browning
- Samuel Colt
- Benjamin Tyler Henry
- Eugene Stoner
- John Garand
- Dr. Richard Gatling
- David Marshall Williams
- John Thompson
- Christian Sharps
- Christopher Spencer
Barrel, ignition, propellant, projectile. What makes a gun a gun has remained incredibly consistent since that first Chinese gentleman set match to touch hole nearly 900 years ago. Yet, today’s firearms are a world away from the ancient gonnes and fire lances that started it all.
From frizzens to rifling to cold hard steel, improvement has been the standard when it comes to guns. And the modern shooter has reaped the benefits of man being man and never leaving well enough alone. Consider today's simple budget rifle; the jaw of a marksman from a century ago would sweep the floor given its shot-to-shot accuracy.
While many of the great leaps have come about from nameless blacksmiths and unheard-of basement tinkers, there are gun designers that tower over the firearms world. With that in mind, we’re going to look at 10 of the greatest gun designers from America. In one way or another, these men made guns faster, more accurate, easier to operate and just plain better. Not to mention, they cranked out some of the all-time classics shooters still relish today.
John M. Browning
This list has no particular order. That said, John Browning still deserves to lead. Regardless of field or endeavor, few people can boast the impact of this prolific, self-taught firearms genius.
Had his only contribution been the 1911, he would have been considered one of the top gun designers. Throw in the 1919 light machine gun and the M2, perhaps among the greatest to ever come down the pike. But with more than 120 firearms and firearms parts patents, Browning is far and away the most influential man to ever tinker with guns.
From his humble roots in the Utah foothills, he touched nearly every corner of gun design. Winchester Model 1894, Browning Auto-5, Browning Hi-Power, Browning Superposed, Colt Woodsman — the list goes on and on.
Even today, creeping up on a century after his death, he still casts his shadow over the entire gun world. And in all likelihood will for generations to come.
Contrary to popular legend, Samuel Colt did not invent the revolver. He did, however, modernize the concept to make it a practical handgun, one that dominated the 19th Century and beyond.
Despite mechanical difficulties, the Colt Paterson, introduced in 1836, popularized the revolver with Americans. Extricating U.S. soldiers from sticky situations in the Mexican-American War and saving outgunned Texas Rangers a number of times, the handgun proved the advantage of superior firepower. Won over, the nation flocked to Colt’s next-generation revolvers, especially the iconic Single Action Army.
Less recognized, but perhaps more important was Colt’s contribution to firearms manufacturing overall. At the forefront of modern manufacturing, maybe his biggest impact was the use of interchangeable parts. Hard to imagine otherwise today, but the simple idea revolutionized gun production, not to mention made for a heck of a lot more reliable firearm.
Benjamin Tyler Henry
The lever-action, as we know it today, was not the sole handiwork of Benjamin Henry. His is an improvement on Walter Hunt’s mechanism used in his 1848 Volition Repeating Rifle. But arguably, Henry’s refinement of Hunt’s concept —the 1860 Henry Rifle — not only made the lever-action commercially viable, but also a better gun. It also formed the bedrock of nearly all lever-actions to come.
Reliable ammunition — the .44 Henry Rimfire — was one part of the equation. The other was a self-cocking mechanism that acted in concert with the lever-action. A rifle ready to fire the moment the lever loaded another round was dang near like when peanut butter met jelly. And it was put to good use.
A Henry Rifle was a cherished possession by Union soldiers in the American Civil War. And could be used to devastating effect, as the Sioux and Cheyenne more than demonstrated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The cards were stacked against Eugene Stoner and his little plastic rifle from the start. But the AR-15’s elegantly simple design would come to dominate modern firearms like no other.
America’s most popular rifle presently, the AR has carved an enduring niche into a majority of the gun world’s hearts. And its military variations — the M16 and M4 — have been decisive tools in protecting peace here and abroad.
As far as American gun designs are concerned, at least circa the 1950s, the AR-15 was a radical departure. Plastic, aluminum, small caliber — it seemed to run counter to all intuition that this rifle would eventually take the place of the wood and steel of the past.
Stoner had a way with materials and ergonomics, redefining how a rifle looked, felt, weighed and fit. And he didn’t relegate his ingenuity to semi-automatics. Equally as clever was the AR-5 — a hardscrabble survival rifle designed to keep downed bomber crews alive.
As one of 12 children — six of them boys, all with the first name St. Jean le Baptiste — it wass difficult to stand out. John Garand found a way. He simply invented the backbone of America’s victory in World War II — the M1 Garand.
By far the most advanced infantry weapon of the conflict, the first successful semi-automatic rifle put into military service, the M1 outgunned nearly everything on the battlefield. On top of that, it was as tough as Ironwood, capable of chewing through .30-06 ammo in the freezing snow of Bastogne and the tropical muck of Guadalcanal.
Perhaps as rugged as his rifle, John Garand endured plenty etching his name into firearms history as one of the greatest gun designers. From humble beginnings, the French-Canadian immigrant worked his way from sweeping factory floors as a child to machining tools as a young man to engineering guns in the prime of his life.
And his caliber of dedication was on full display in perfecting his masterpiece, which he slaved over for 15 years to perfect. It was lucky for U.S. soldiers that such men existed.
Dr. Richard Gatling
It’s no understatement, Richard Gatling’s gun reshaped military firearms. The precursor to the modern machine gun was the first firearm capable of laying down a high volume of aimed fire for a continuous period of time through a mechanical loading system.
Previous to the advent of the Gatling Gun in 1862, the best a military could muster was a volley gun, which suffered from slow reload times and inaccurate fire.
Those familiar with Gatling find it no surprise he’d cook up something as unique and just plain clever as the multi-barreled gun. The man had tinkering in his blood, spending the better part of his life concocting solutions to the problems of his day. The Gatling Gun itself borrowed from another of the good doctor’s inventions — a seed planter.
A medical doctor by training, Gatling was inspired to create the gun with the hopes of shrinking armies, a bid to lessen soldiers’ exposure to the greatest wartime killer of the time — disease.
David Marshall Williams
Prison gives a man plenty of time to think. And during his stint for second-degree murder, David Williams' mind was firmly planted on firearms.
Williams cooked up the short-stroke gas piston used in many semi-automatic rifles and the floating chamber, which made full-sized guns capable of firing .22 rounds in his time behind bars. Upon his release after serving 8 years of a 30-year sentence, he refined these concepts and eventually presented them to the War Department.
He is best known for the gas piston system used in the M1 Carbine, a vital military small arm from World War II through the Vietnam War. His contribution to the rifle and a little Hollywood dazzle earned him the nickname “Carbine” Williams. Though, in truth, he had little to do with the overall design of the M1.
This isn’t to downplay Williams' design genius, or his place on this list of great gun designers. His concepts were groundbreaking. Even General Julian Hatcher of the Ordnance Department and Hatcher’s Notebook fame went so far as to say Williams had the “greatest native ability of anyone [I know] of” when it came to gun design.
Seeing the difficulties of clearing dug-in positions in the trenches of World War I, John Thompson became obsessed with the idea of a “trench broom.” It would sweep the enemy away like the pump-action shotguns in use during the Great War, but only with more firepower. The result is among the most iconic submachine guns of the 20th Century — the Thompson.
Chambered in the man-stopping .45 ACP, the Thompson went into full production in 1921 and then served all the way up to the Vietnam War. Though initially it was not a success in peacetime, the U.S. Military finally adopted the submachine gun late in the 1930s.
Thompson originally wanted it to fire a more powerful cartridge; however, he found the friction-based Blish lock delayed blowback action had its limitations. Pistol-caliber ammunition, however, had its advantages. Depending on the variation, a soldier could thumb off 600 to 1,500 rounds per minute behind the Thompson's trigger.
The Sharps Rifle was not the first-breech loader, a concept that dates back to the 16th Century. But it arguably was the first successful one. From 1848, when Christian Sharps received the patent for his falling-block rifle, up until his company ceased production in 1881, more than 120,000 Sharps were made.
This was ample time for the rifle (and carbine) to etch itself in American and firearms history. The Sharps was the most used carbine of the American Civil War, giving mounted troops the ability to crack off 8 to 10 shots a minute. It then went on to become an icon of the West, particularly as the choice rifle of many commercial buffalo hunters.
In addition to harnessing the power and speed of the metallic cartridge, the single-shot rifle was also deadly accurate. In perhaps its best-known chambering — .45-70 Government — a Sharps could easily hit targets past 1,000 yards.
Christopher Spencer doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Perhaps it’s because few of the concepts represented in his Spencer Rifle survive today. But it’s difficult to argue the man who came up with the first repeating rifle adopted by a military didn’t have an important impact and wasn't worth including on this list of influential gun designers. He, in essence, ushered in the era of long-gun firepower with his truly unique design.
At 14 to 20 rounds per minute, the Spencer’s rate of fire vastly outgunned nearly everything in the American Civil War with the exception of the Henry Rifle. And even there, the Spencer might have had a leg up, at least concerning reload time. With the aid of a Blakeslee cartridge tube, the rifle’s seven rounds were replenished in one fell swoop, where it was a cartridge-by-cartridge affair with the Henry.
Like his rifle, Spencer the man seemed to be well ahead of his time. In addition to his work in firearms, he also came up with the first full automatic turret lathe and also tooled around with a steam-powered horseless carriage of his own design.