Famous Browning firearms got their start in Quincy

Jonathan Browning's most famous firearm was the slide bar breech repeating rifle, commonly referred to as the harmonica gun. He manufactured these guns in Quincy, Nauvoo and in Kanesville, Iowa. In Quincy, the guns cost $24 to make and took two weeks to produce. | Photo courtesy of James D. Julia Auctions Inc.
Posted: Nov. 12, 2017 12:01 am Updated: Nov. 12, 2017 12:15 am

The Browning Arms Co. is a world-renowned firearm and outdoor company. Along with Winchester firearms, it is a division of the Belgian conglomerate FN Herstal. The place of origin of the Browning firm is Quincy.

Jonathan Browning was born in Sumner County, Tenn., in 1805. He learned the gunsmith and blacksmith trade after a long apprenticeship in his native state. He moved to the Quincy area in 1834 and became established as a blacksmith, locksmith and a gunsmith. Jonathan was a cousin of Orville Hickman Browning, a Quincyan who was a good friend of Abraham Lincoln and served in the U.S. Senate. Jonathan Browning was respected in the community both for his craftsmanship and his leadership and in 1840 was elected a justice of the peace.

Browning interacted with the Mormon refugees fleeing Missouri after Gov. Lilburn Boggs' extermination order in 1838. The nature of that early interaction is not precisely known, but history documents that a few years later Browning traveled to Nauvoo and met with Joseph Smith Jr. Browning subsequently converted to Mormonism and established a home and a gun shop in Nauvoo. Today the Browning gun shop museum, free and open to the public, is a popular tourist attraction in Nauvoo.

Under Joseph Smith's leadership, Nauvoo by 1844 was a boom town rivaling Chicago in population. But the relationships between the Mormons and their Illinois neighbors began to fail. The Mormons formed the 2,000-man Nauvoo Legion, which prompted their neighbors to organize vigilante militias in response to the Mormons. In 1844, Smith was arrested, taken to the Hancock County Jail in Carthage, and on June 27, killed by a mob in his prison cell. Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford sent a militia unit to Nauvoo to protect the Mormons but to no avail. The Illinois State Legislature revoked the Nauvoo city charter, which disbanded the Nauvoo Legion, and required the return of their government-issued firearms. The Mormons were once again forced to relocate.

Jonathan Browning and his family, along with the other Mormon faithful, left their homes to move west. Browning, at the request of then Mormon leader Brigham Young, established a gun and blacksmith shop in Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), Iowa. From there he repaired and supplied arms to Mormon families who were beginning their trek forming the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City.

Also at Young's request, Browning made a trip to the Utah Territory in 1852. He led a group of 10 Mormon families and their wagons. In Ogden, Utah, he once again established a blacksmith and gunsmith shop. John Moses Browning, who was born in Ogden in 1855, began working in his father's shop at the age of 7. John Moses would go on to become one of the most famous gun designers in world history. He would be awarded 128 firearm patents. Among his most famous firearms are the 1911A pistol, the .30-caliber machine gun, and the .50-caliber M2 ("ma deuce," as it is often called). Jonathan Browning died in Ogden on June 21, 1879.

Browning's most famous firearm was the slide bar breech repeating rifle, commonly referred to as the harmonica gun. He manufactured these guns in Quincy, Nauvoo and in Kanesville. In Quincy, the guns cost $24 to make and took two weeks to produce. The Nauvoo-period guns had a label that stated "Holiness to the Lord -- Our Preservation." The Ogden Utah shop purportedly was limited to firearm repairs, but harmonica guns have been found with "J.M. Browning" stamped on the barrel dated 1853. That date would place the gun as being made in the Ogden shop.

Harmonica guns are highly prized by both gun collectors and because of their Mormon history. Both Rock Island Auctions in Illinois and James D. Julia Inc. of Maine, two of the country's premier firearms auctioneers, have sold these fine examples of frontier history. Their workmanship in these guns is unparalleled for this period. They were used in the Mormon Wars, the Walker Wars in Utah, and by the Mormons on their trek west to Utah. Most of the Browning harmonica rifles sell in the $50,000-$100,000 range based on condition and the provenance of the firearm.

James D. Julia auctioneers, in its fall 2012 auction, offered a one-of-a-kind harmonica rifle. It was Jonathan Browning's documented personal harmonica rifle. In fine condition, the gun was purchased by John Kontes from J.E. Browning, a direct descendant of Jonathan Browning. Kontes then consigned the gun to Julia. The bill of sale for payment, the check with the endorsed signature of Mr. Browning, and photos of members of the Browning family all added to the impeccable provenance (a record of ownership) of the rifle. The auction estimate of the rifle's value was between $75,000 and $150,000. It did not meet reserve and did not sell at the auction. Another of Browning's harmonica rifles, which was owned by Congressional Medal of Honor winner George E. Albee, sold at auction for $138,000.

Jonathan Browning's American legacy runs much deeper than his firearms history. Like many of the early Mormons, he was a polygamist whose three wives bore him 22 children, 19 of whom reached adulthood. He has over 4,000 living direct descendants today.

Jack Freiburg is a third-generation insurance agent, and a proud sixth-generation Quincyan. He is an avid outdoorsman, naturalist, and a collector of historic hunting and fishing memorabilia.



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