Special Guns Episode 14 BrowningQ&A

Special Guns with Roger Rule

Episode 14 – Browning Superposed Diana Over-and-Under


PART 1  {Virginia and Roger sitting behind table}

VIRGINIA: My name is Virginia Hall and I’m here today to introduce you to Roger Rule, author of The Rifleman’s Rifle, and host of this series of episodes, Special Guns with Roger Rule.

ROGER: Thank you, Virginia, welcome, …and welcome viewers to my 14th Episode of Special Guns with Roger Rule.

VIRGINIA: What do we have today?

ROGER:   Today, we have a Browning Superposed in Diana Grade.  Here’s how we got to it.

In our coverage of the evolution of the shotgun, we examined the changes and innovations of side-by-side double barreled shotguns from the hammer gun to the sidelock ejector to the boxlock, and to the hand-detachable boxlock, we call the droplock.

In the evolution of the over-and-under shotgun, we covered two successful early models: the 1899 German over-and-under and the improved 1909 English over-and-under.  Both of those shotguns are still successful sidelocks being built and cloned today.  While over-and-unders built with a boxlock action weren’t new, it wouldn’t be until 1926, when the guru of the gun inventors of all time, John Moses Browning, would finally design a successful boxlock over-and-under that would stand out among the greatest designs worldwide.

VIRGINIA:  And that’s what we have here?

ROGER: Yes, and to support that claim, in their book, Gamefield Classics, Michael MacInstosh and Bill Headrick dedicate a chapter to the Browning boxlock over-and-under, a gun that Browning called his “Superposed”.

I would like to quote an excerpt from that book:

Quote: “John Moses Browning was without question the most influential figure in the development of modern firearms.” (close quote).

            Just think about that attribute alone, “…the most influential figure in the development of modern firearms.”

Before we take a look at the gun, we need to see a brief close-up of the man.  I was first impressed when I learned he built his first gun when he was 13 years old in his father’s shop in Ogden Utah.  At age 24, he received his first patent, which was the first of a total 128 patents during his life, the most of any firearms’ designer.

PART 2 {Audio-only}

In the early 1880’s, the already-successful Winchester company learned that John Browning had built a breech loading single shot rifle that could compete with Remington’s rolling block or the big Sharp’s, which were then using powerful ammunition for buffalo hunting.  Which by the way, were big cartridges that Winchester’s lever-action guns could not handle.  To get into that market, Winchester sent an emissary to Utah to meet Browning.  Not only did they strike a deal for the new single shot, but also Winchester’s representative gave Browning a challenge to come up with a lever action repeating rifle that could handle the same power as the big single shot.

The new big single shot was built under the Winchester name and was crowned the Model 1885.

Within months, Browning met the challenge and came up with the solution to the lever action rifle for big powerful cartridges. For a fee, he sold the rights again to Winchester who brought it out as their Model 1886.  Shortly after this, Browning invented a small slide action rifle for rimfire to be sold to the popular shooting galleries, and Winchester continued their arrangement with Browning and produced the little gun as the Model 1890.  Following the popularity of the big Model 1886, Browning adapted a smaller version and Winchester produced it as the Model 1892.

With the advent of smokeless powder, firearms needed to be modernized with stronger designs and stronger steel and in answer to that, Browning developed what Winchester would call, the Model 1894.  “The Model 1894 would become the most famous rifle in the world,” a quote from my own book, 20th Century Winchester Repeating Arms Co.”

                        Other firearms historians have referred to the Model 1894, later simply known as the Model 94, as the “ultimate lever action design.” It was produced by Winchester from 1894 to 2006 extending more than a century and is the first commercial sporting rifle to sell over 7,000,000 units.

Browning continued his relationship with Winchester and designed the Model 1895 which was a lever action rifle that could be loaded with pointed nose or spritzer bullets, better suited for long range than were his previous lever action rifle designs.

And then Browning added another one to the Winchester line, one that would become the famous Model 1897 slide-action shotgun.  Again I quote from my own book,

“Near the turn of the century, the association between Browning and Winchester came to an end. .. an agreement between Browning and Winchester couldn’t be reached in 1901.”

Browning had developed what would become his famous Browning Auto-5 shotgun (patented in 1900) and he no longer wanted to sell the rights to Winchester, but decided to retain ownership of the patent and receive royalties from sales.

PART 3 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table}

ROGER: With no deal made at Winchester, Browning went to Remington.  While Browning was waiting for an offer from Remington, the president of the company died of a heart attack.  Browning next turned to one of the largest firearms manufacturers in the world, Fabrique Nationale, in Belgium. Today, we usually just refer to them as FN.

For the next few years, that shotgun, the Auto-5 or A5, and several of Browning’s pistol designs would be produced by FN.

We are covering this detail of the A5, although not our subject today, because it was this incident with the A5 that took Browning to Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale, where the gun of our subject today would be eventually made.

But John Browning wasn’t to this point yet, in our chronological account.   Just before the turn of the century while he was designing guns for Winchester, he began experimenting with self-loading mechanisms.  About the same time, the US Military was adopting new firearms, and a test was conducted with several companies entering their rifles and pistols.  Browning had worked on a self-loading handgun or what we call today, a semi-automatic, and had sold it to Colt under a first patent date of 1897.

When the trials began, there were many makes represented.  By 1906, the candidates were narrowed to two: Savage and Colt’s Browning patent. A series of field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held to decide between the two.  Both designs were modified and improved between each testing.  At the end of 1910, the last test was attended by Colt’s designer, John Browning. Over the course of two days, with 6000 rounds fired each, under grueling conditions, the Colt passed with no reported malfunction.  The Savage design had 37 malfunctions.

PART 4 {Audio-only}

Following its success in trials, the Colt pistol was formerly adopted by the Army on March 29, 1911 and designated the Model of 1911 and eventually the M1911 in the mid-20s.  It would remain the standard Army pistol through both world wars, the Korean war, the Viet Nam war, and was finally replaced in 1985 when the military decided to change the caliber to 9mm instead of 45 ACP, mainly for increased magazine capacity.  Today, I’m told it is back in service still, for some operations, and has endured for over 100 years.

During this first decade of the 20th Century, FN was producing Browning’s designs of his other semi-auto pistols.  As he continued his work in both the self-loading and fully automatic fields, he would go on to create some of the most famous guns in the 20th century: the Browning Hi-Power pistol (adopted by British military), the 30 caliber water-cooled machine gun, the 30 caliber air-cooled machine gun, the Browning 50 caliber machine gun, and the BAR or Browning automatic rifle. Many of these are still manufactured and in use, and some have become the most copied guns in the world.

PART 5 {Roger and Virginia sitting at table, gun in holders, adjust camera for standing}

ROGER: With all these great repeating, self-loading, and automatic guns to his credit, it is strange that John Browning’s final design which represents the crowning achievement of his long career  is a double-barrel over-and-under shotgun… our subject gun today.

It was about 1922 when he began tinkering with the only break-action shotgun of his own design. He had learned that American shooters had growing interest in English over-and-unders and thought there would be a market for an American version.

Then, in March 1926 when the patents were granted, Browning sent the drawings and a working model to Fabrique Nationale where his guns had been manufactured since 1902. That fall, he sailed to Europe to oversee the tooling and the final progress for the new gun, but on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Browning suffered a heart attack and died at the FN plant at the age of 71.

VIRGINIA: He died there!

ROGER: Yes, that was in 1926, and because of family setbacks with his heirs, it would be another five years, 1931, before the new gun was introduced to America, under the model name “Superposed.”  And curiously enough, with that five-year delay, the big Italian company, Beretta, got into the hunt for this market, but we’ll cover that angle in our next episode.

Back to our Superposed model, the initial guns had two triggers.  Browning had been working on a single trigger design with an inertia block principle but it was not perfected.  It would be his son, Val, who would finish the single trigger design and patent it in 1939.  When the Germans overran Belgium in WWII, FN ceased production and it wasn’t until 1948 that production on the Superposed resumed.

Over the years, the gun was very successful, especially for a relatively expensive gun.   But in the 70s, sales began to slow because of competition from less-expensive guns and FN turned to a simpler version, the Citori, and shifted the bulk of the manufacture to Japan.  From 1977, the Superposed has been available only by special order.

Again quoting Michael MacIntosh and Bill Headrick from Gamefield Classics,

and I quote: “Owing to its barrel-lump action and underbolt fastener, the Superposed is not the sleekest of its kind, but it is the American over/under, possessed of an undeniably handsome charm. Especially the small bores…the 20s are particularly pleasing.”  (close quote).

They went on to add, quote: “These [the 20s] handle well and when barreled to a full 28 inches, have handling characteristics that are simply superb.” (close quote)

We are fortunate enough that today’s gun is a Browning Belgium Superposed in 20 gauge with 28” barrels.  And, it is in the Diana Grade.

The grades have changed over the years, at first just numbered Grade One through Six, but their main production later became known as Standard, Pigeon, Diana, and Midas grades, with Midas being the most expensive. The Midas grade had the most extensive stock work with the detail of its checkering patterns, and the metal work had gold inlays, hence the Midas name.  But, it would be the engraving of the second to the top grade, the Diana grade, which is often thought of more highly than the Midas by Browning collectors in terms of design and quality of engraving.

VIRGINIA: This is not a new gun?

ROGER: No, while it looks new, this gun was built in 1966 in the Belgium custom shop and the engraving was done by the master Belgian engraver, R. Kowaiski, and is signed by him on both sides of the receiver.

VIRGINIA: So this is a 20 gauge gun today, like the one we had last week?

ROGER:  Correct, this is in the neat little 20 gauge with 28” barrels, which is the version the authors of Gamefield Classics alluded to, as having superb handling characteristics. The gun has 2 ¾” chambers marked with a symbol on each barrel indicating that both of them are choked skeet. It has a manual safety, which is appropriate for clay pigeon competition.  Also, its single trigger is selective, controlled by moving the tang mounted safety to the right or left.  When moved to the right, you can see the letter U in gold on the left, meaning it is set for the under barrel to fire first.  Moving the safety left, you can see the letter O in gold on the right, meaning it will fire the over barrel first.

So let’s look at the metal work first, then the wood and then we’ll disassemble it and look at the mechanics.

{Stand up, pick up gun, continue holding}

We’ve already said the barrels are 28” in length. It has a 5/16” standard ventilated rib, which is cross-hatched, with two sights, an ivory front bead and a small ivory bead midway down the rib. The barrel-assembly with rib is the only blued portion on the gun, blued with a polished rust-blue finish. The single selective smooth trigger is gold and all the remainder of the metal parts are coin finished with full coverage engraving, heavily engraved with chisel and hammer, deeply and masterfully executed with leaves and acanthus vines intermixed with game animals.

{Show it to Virginia}

VIRGINIA: Another gun with realistic engraving, look at those animals.

ROGER: Yes, on the underside of the action are two quail in flight with two rabbits or hares on the trigger guard.

On the left side of the receiver are five pheasants with one in flight. In very fine engraving, we see “R. Kowaiski”, the engraver’s signature, under the two standing pheasants.

On the right side of the receiver are four ducks with two in flight.  And under the duck sitting on the water, again in very fine engraving, there’s the engraver’s signature “R. Kowaiski.”

All other coin finished areas are engraved: the upper tang, the trigger guard, and the Browning version of the forearm release latch and its escutcheon. The top lever is checkered with a fish-scale pattern on both sides.

Overall, the engraving is just spectacular.  You would be hard-put to see better engraving, unless it is another Diana Superposed. The animals are realistic and the leaves and vines are stylized as if they are arabesque scrolls deeply cut, and so full, there is engraving on top of engraving.

VIRGINIA:  It’s beautiful, or should I say handsome!

ROGER: I’m always calling a rifle or shotgun beautiful too, and I have noticed many of my gun club friends use that description as well.

Looking at the inscriptions:  The left side of the upper barrel reads: “Browning Arms Company St.Louis, Mo. & Montreal P.Q. (for Montreal Province Quebec) and under that on a second line is Made in Belgium.  According to the Blue Book of Gun Values, this inscription was only used for guns from 1959 to 1968 so for out 1966 gun here, the inscription is correct. The right side of the upper barrel reads: “Special Steel – 20 Ga.  – 2 ¾” shells” and under that Patents Numbers with periods where we would put commas (2.203.378-2.233.851).  This is European connotation where they use periods where we use commas in a number; and vice versa, commas where we use periods.

VIRGINIA: I never knew that.

ROGER: There’s your non-gun lesson of the day Virginia.

Looking at the stock and forearm wood, we see immediately that this is a high gloss finish, which was very popular in 1966 when this gun was built.  The wood is French Walnut and the finish accents the figure which on the Midas and Diana grades vary from exhibition to near exhibition grade.  This one would be in the near-exhibition grade category with some nice stump figure on both sides and light fiddleback grain showing here and there but evenly distributed.

Stock measurements are 14 3/8” x 1 5/8” x2 1/8” over the factory trap pad with Browning’s logo and the gun weighs 6.6 lbs.  Looking at the stock shape, it has a classic fluted comb.  It has a pistol grip called the “flat knob” style by Browning collectors (and this is to distinguish it from the “round knob” version like the Prince of Wales grip).  Collectors also look for the length of the tang, long tang versus short tang, and this shotgun is a short tang variation.  I will point out, that usually on the short tang version, the wood to metal fit is not as well done as on those with the long tang, but that’s not the case for this gun. Its short tang is very nicely mated to the stock.

{Set gun in holders, sit down}

One thing Browning collectors are aware of, for guns of this period, a problem surfaced that Browning had used salt in a process to cure or age stocks faster.  The story is told in several books but the Blue Book of Gun Values by F.S. Fjestad says it as well as any source.  And I quote:

“During late 1966, Browning’s salt problems began to emerge, and continued until 1970. The majority of salt wood Superposed models from this era are in the round knob short tang configuration…” (close quote)

This gun, built in 1966 would be an early gun for that problem and being a flat knob version would give us the idea that it probably escaped the problem. Also, the very fact that the stock is near-exhibition grade rather than exhibition grade tells us logically that it is from the end of the inventory of figured wood before Browning started using the salt process.

VIRGINIA: Why did they use the salt process?

ROGER:  As I understand it, they were running out of highly figured wood needed for their high grade guns.  Wood for stock making has to be dried to a point that it usually takes years for it to dry. Browning either had in inventory much highly figured wood for the future that was not dry yet, or acquired that type of wood, and needed to speed up the drying process to use the wet wood.  Someone came up with a plan to use a salt process to cure or dry the wood quickly, and while it seemed to work, it left a salt residue in the wood that escaped back into the metal after the guns were made, causing enormous oxidation which we call rust, where the metal parts touched the wood.  This problem did not show up immediately.

But for our gun here today, we have had this particular gun checked out and it is confirmed, that it is an early 1966 flat-knob variation that was ahead of the salt problem, or certainly missed it.

PART 6 {Audio-only}

Back to our description: The forearm is the wide type for competition shooting, often referred to as a beavertail forearm.  It has finger channels that are carved into the design nicely.  Its 90-degree forearm tip seems to go well overall in design with the flat-knob pistol grip.

The checkering is very traditional on the Diana grade as opposed to the fancy carved patterns on the Midas grade.  For the Diana, the pistol grip has fully wrapped-around checkering over the wrist not just coming together at a point.  Because of the short tang, it wraps around under the grip in a novel pattern coming together at two points and leaving a nice elliptical shape of uncheckered wood just below the trigger guard.  This actually looks better than the pattern that is designed for the long-tang version of this gun. The checkering is point pattern with double borders.

The forearm checkering is a full wrap-around point pattern, very generous, and has double borders everywhere except where is stops at the finger channel. There, it has single borders.  It is fine checkering, at 26 lines per inch, which shows the beautiful grain figure and color of the wood through the checkering.   Additionally, where the pistol grip checkering wraps around the upper receiver tang and where the forearm checkering wraps around the forearm release housing, the flow of the borders and pattern are superbly done with nicely planned margins.

Overall, this is an elegant shotgun and at the top of the heap when it comes to the best of the engraver’s art.

PART 7 {Sideboard, gun in case in components, Roger talking off camera}

                        Here we have our Browning Diana Superposed in 20 gauge. Now let’s disassemble it and look at the mechanics.

{Disassemble it- ab lib underline}

Pressing down on the Browning takedown release frees the forearm and then we shift the forearm forward.  The barrels can be removed from the action. With Browning’s system, for field disassembly, the forearm stays attached to the barrels.

{Set stock half down, hold barrels}

To remove the forearm from the barrels, three different mechanical variations were made over the years. For this one, there is a screw in the end of the forearm in the forearm bracket.  That screw needs to be removed, then you remove the forearm bracket and the forearm, by sliding them forward off the end of the muzzle.  But, you don’t need to go through that gyration for regular cleaning.

Let’s examine the barrel assembly.

Note the three locking lugs.  The front one has the familiar cutout for the hinge pin, and instead of one centered chopper lump behind that, it has two rear ones, both right and left under the chambers.  On the chamber wall we can see **$ telling us these are choked skeet.  Also, on the left side of the lower barrel, we can see the number 49669 and above that a zero and the Belgium proof mark. On the right side, there is 4 and the Belgium proof mark.  Looking at the chamber end, we see the automatic ejectors are marked O and U to tell us which barrel they belong to. There are four areas on the bottom of this assembly that are engraved since they penetrate the receiver floor when assembled.  On the left side of the forearm release latch we see the serial number again, 49669V.

{Set down the barrels and pick up the stock and action}

Looking at the stock and action assembly, we can see the locking bolt move as I move the top lever, and we can see the ports where the lugs on the barrel flat mate to. The hinge pin system is very similar to a boxlock side-by-side double and nothing like the trunnion system on the English Boss.  It is because of this conventional locking system that causes the action to be tall, with a height of about 25% higher than just the height of the stacked barrels.  On the small gauges, this is not nearly as noticeable as on the big 12 gauge version – as was pointed out by the authors of Gamefield Classics.

Re-assembling the gun, keeping the forearm forward, you do not need to slide the ejectors back away from the chambers on this system.  In fact, close the ejectors up against the barrel chambers.  Then hold the barrels at 45 degrees and insert into the action.  When locked up, then align the cocking lever of the forearm release latch with its recessed track in the receiver and slide the forearm back into place.  Then press the forearm release back into its escutcheon by moving the release button forward until the latch catches… you’ll feel it go into place and hear the click.

Included with the gun is a nice leather Browning trunk case with the maker’s name in leather on the outside and the maker’s logo printed on the wool fabric inside the lid.

PART 8 {Roger and Virgina sitting at the table}              

VIRGINIA: The way this gun breaks down and re-assembles is a lot different from the other guns we’ve been looking at.

ROGER: Yes, that fact is liked by some shotgunners, to keep the forearm attached to the barrels when you strip it down for range cleaning.

Let me sum up and use your word, Virginia, … that overall, this Browning Superposed Diana in 20 gauge with 28” barrels is a beautiful gun and one very hard to top.

There is much published material that say these guns are still available by special order and are being built in Browning’s custom shop in Leige (Lee-azj) Belgium.   The Blue Book of Gun Values shows the Diana starting at $21,913 and add 20% for 20 gauge, or  $26,296, and we are told by a Browning authorized dealer, Marc Murphy of Michael Murphey Guns in Kansas, that these guns take 12 to 16 months and the price quoted is without custom alterations.

Why are they still popular?  We are told by Irwin Greenstein in his article, “The Secret of the Browning Superposed”, in Shotgun Life magazine:  (quote)

“The Superposed achieved the reputation of a singular American legend…In many influential circles, the Superposed has become recognized as the most reliable shotgun ever made.” (close quote)

So for this singular American Legend, we would have been remiss if we had not included it in our series of Special Guns with Roger Rule.

That winds up our story for today.  I want to thank you Virginia, and thank you viewers for watching, and if you enjoyed this episode, I invite you to subscribe to my YouTube channel and share with others.  And, I hope you join us next week for another episode of Special Guns with Roger Rule.  We will be looking at the big Italian company that decided to take on Browning’s Superposed and capture some of the over-and-under market for themselves.