Gun Digest

Collecting Browning’s First 20-Gauges

Both of the author’s 20-gauge Brownings have the round grip, a feature preferred by many shooters and collectors.
Both of the author’s 20-gauge Brownings have the round grip, a feature preferred by many shooters and collectors.

When a gun manufacturer introduces a new shotgun, it is almost a foregone conclusion that it will first be offered in 12 gauge. Only after the market has been tested for a while does the maker come out with other gauges. Browning is no different, but the wait was worth it for the company's first 20-gauge models.

The Hammering Humpback

The venerable old Browning humpbacked A-5 first came off the production line at the Fabrique Nationale factory in Belgium in 1903. The first shipment to the U.S. arrived in 1905, all in 12 gauge. Four years later, in 1909, the first 16 gauges came off the assembly line, but the 20 gauge didn’t see the light of day until 1958, more than a half century after the first 12 was made.

There are many reasons why it took Browning so long to come up with a 20-gauge A-5. For one thing, the 16 was a more popular bore size than the 20 during the first half of the 20th century. Another reason was that the 16-gauge A-5, which was lightened considerably in 1936 as the “Sweet Sixteen,” was a great seller for Browning. Anyone wanting a smaller gauge, lighter gun, bought the Sweet Sixteen.

Then, of course, World War II had an impact. It put a hold on many Browning projects when the Nazis occupied Belgium. But before the war, there just weren’t any other autoloading shotguns that could compete with Browning’s quality and reputation.

At the end of the war, Remington vastly modified and modernized their autoloader and in 1949 came out with the Model 11-48. The 11-48 was made in 12, 16 and 20 gauge. The 20 weighed less than Browning’s Sweet Sixteen, and it also cost less. Additionally, new imports from Italy – the Franchi 48AL and the Breda, two modernized versions of the Browning autoloader – appeared on the market in the 1950s. They were both lighter than the A-5 and available in 20. The Franchi in particular was exceptionally lightweight, and caught the attention many of upland gunners.

Many years ago I shot ducks with an old gentleman who called his Sweet Sixteen “Widgeon.” He said the 12 gauge I was shooting should be called “Mallard” because it was bigger, thicker. He said an A-5 20 would be a “Teal” because it was smaller and more slender.

Not long after the end of World War II shotgun ammunition was improved considerably and the newer 20-gauge rounds became as effective as the old 16 gauge of the prewar era. The popularity of the 20 gauge soared while the 16, although still popular and number two in sales, began to sag a bit.

It was time for Browning to do something about the situation, so Val Browning, son of the great John M. Browning, redesigned the old A-5 and scaled it down for a 20 gauge. Val had done this before, back in 1936 when he redesigned and lightened the 16 gauge and came up with the highly successful Sweet Sixteen model.

The new “Twenty” was introduced in 1958 and became an immediate success. Although Browning advertised it as weighing less than 6¼ pounds, to reach that weight you had to get a gun with a short, plain barrel, and hope the wood was not very dense. It did weigh less than 6½ pounds with a ribless barrel, sometimes dipping down to 6¼, but rarely below that weight unless you went for a 24-inch barrel. Nevertheless, it was a great success and the Twenty remained unchanged, except for the shape of its grip in 1968, until it was discontinued in 1997.

The Sleek Superposed

The Browning Superposed over/under made its first appearance in America in 1928 as a 12-gauge gun. It was made only in 12 through all the pre-World War II years, although Val Browning had developed a scaled-down 20-gauge version and there may have been some very rare 20-gauge Superposeds in Europe before the war. However, it wasn’t until after the war, in 1949, that the first 20-gauge models arrived in America.

Initially they were available in just one grade, the so-called Grade I with minimal engraving. They were delightful little guns and immediately caught the fancy of upland gunners. Unlike the A-5 20 gauge, which remained the same throughout its life except for a change in grip shape and the change of manufacture to Japan in 1976, the Superposed 20 underwent some changes almost immediately.

First, the engraving pattern was increased only two years after its introduction. Then in 1955, the Lightning grade was introduced. The Lightning had been available in 12 gauge before the war, but production was stopped after the war. In 1955, both the 12 and the 20 were available in the Lightning grade.

The Lightning was a lightened version of the Superposed. In 12 gauge, there was sometimes as much as a pound difference in weight between the Standard and the Lightning. This was especially true of the prewar 12-gauge Lightnings, which were available without a rib and could weigh as little as 6¾ pounds. In 20 gauge the difference was not that great, although the Lightning 20s tended to be lighter by anywhere from ¼ to ½ pound than the Standard 20s.

The 20-gauge Superposed later appeared in an even lighter version called the Super Light, with not just slimmer wood but also metal shaved and thinner barrels. However, there were some so-called “Super Light” A-5s made by FN that were never imported by Browning. These were alloy-framed A-5s that weighed much less and were made in Belgium at the FN factory in the 1970s, just about the time Browning switched the manufacture of A-5s to Japan. But, they were only sold in Europe.

The 20-gauge Superposed made its first appearance in the 1950 issue of Gun Digest. For the first year or so, Browning tagged the 20-gauge model the “Blue Streak.” However, that name was unceremoniously dropped a short time later. Note the issue prices!

The first-year 20 Superposed was a very simple affair. The engraving pattern was sparse, but deeper cut and of very good quality. The wood, although not fancy, tended to be much better, showing some attractive grain, unlike the later “blonde” wood that showed up in the 1960s. For some reason many seem to think that this very plain, light colored wood is somehow superior, and actually seek out the guns with blonde wood.

The main difference appears to be in the finishing of both metal and wood. The early guns seem to show much more care in metal polishing and fitting. The wood was oil finished before the war but finished with lacquer after the war. It had a nice subdued finish, not the glossy finish found on later guns when polyurethane replaced the traditional lacquer finish. The checkering was also finer and of better quality, or so it seems.

Collecting Browning's 20s

Are these guns all that rare and collectible? Well, that depends.

Perhaps the Superposed 20 is more collectible since fewer were made and it is older than the A-5 20 by some 10 years. Normally, when you do find a Superposed 20 that was made in 1949, it is usually pretty worn or has had some changes made to it, most of the time it has been re-blued.

The same thing applies to the 20-gauge A-5, perhaps even more so, since A-5s were less expensive and were considered to be working guns and used heavily, sometimes carelessly. A die-hard Browning collector would consider them as collector’s pieces.

Belgian Brownings are still quite common on the used gun market. The Superposed, in the opinion of many, is still not overpriced like some of the other classic shotguns. This applies primarily to the Grade I 20 gauge, which can still be found for anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 in good to excellent condition. Unfortunately, the Superposed higher grades have skyrocketed in price. The Pigeon Grade (Grade II) usually sells for between $3,500 to $7,500 in good to excellent condition, and the Diana Grade, probably the most desirable of the higher-grade Brownings, can go for anywhere from around $6,000 up to $10,000, and even more for mint condition.

These prices, as already stated, are for 20-gauge models. Values are much higher for the 28 gauge and .410 bore. The 12-gauge guns are much lower priced and more common, and therefore may be considered even better bargains.

This article is an excerpt from Gun Digest 2015, 69th Annual Edition.

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