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John Moses Browning: The Mormon Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 24, 2023 3:01 am

John Moses Browning: The Mormon Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 24, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, few people are aware that John Moses Browning—a tall, modest man born in 1855 and raised as a Mormon in the American West-- invented the mechanism used in virtually all modern pistols, created the most popular hunting rifles and shotguns, and conceived the machine guns introduced in World War I which dominated air and land battles in World War II. Nathan Gorenstein (author of The Guns of John Moses Browning: The Remarkable Story of the Inventor Whose Firearms Changed the World) is here to tell the story of this little-known American legend whose impact on history ranks with that of the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.

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See AT&T.com or visit an AT&T store for details. And we continue with our American Stories. Few people are aware that John Moses Browning, a tall, modest man born on this day in 1855 and raised as a Mormon in the American West, invented the mechanism used in virtually all modern pistols. He created the most popular hunting rifles and shotguns and conceived the machine guns introduced in World War I and which dominated air and land battles in World War II. Nathan Gorenstein, author of The Guns of John Moses Browning, is here to tell the story of this little-known American legend whose impact on history ranks right there with the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. This is a story about the most important American inventor most of your listeners have never heard of. We grow up knowing about Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford.

But missing from that list is another fellow I'd suggest should be on it, John Moses Browning, who was born in 1855 on the far edge of the American West. He died in 1926 in the offices of an industrial complex in Europe that was created on the basis of his inventions. What did he do? He's a guy whose machines started World War I and won World War II and influenced America and the world to this day. Who am I?

My name's Nathan Gorenstein. I've spent a career as a newspaper reporter and editor and now book author. And I got interested in Browning when I was researching firearms for another book and I realized that this guy had changed the world.

But no one had ever written a serious biography of him. If you go online, there are tens of thousands of books, articles, videos about his firearms, which are ubiquitous. And most of you know them under the names of Colt, Winchester, Savage, Remington, and in Europe, Fabrique Nationale, if I can say that in French.

But all those products didn't come from the minds of engineers in those companies. They came from this guy from Utah who was born before the telegraph reached his town. So he was a tall man over six feet. He was balding and he was unknown outside the world of gun manufacturing until World War I when America entered the war.

And Americans finally learned that their boys, husbands, sons, brothers were going to go to war armed with the weapons invented by one guy who they had never heard of. So who was this fellow? Well, he was born in Ogden, Utah, when it was a Mormon town. His father had three wives. He and his brother Matt, who was important to John Browning's career, were the offspring of the second wife. Your father, Jonathan Browning, was a blacksmith and gunsmith. And so John, who went to work, this was the frontier after all, so you went to work early. He was at work in his father's shop at five years old.

And this is in 1860. And for the next 15 years, he got what amounted to a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and firearms design, because his father's shop was located next to one of the major pioneer trails heading west. And over the years, he saw every kind of firearm imaginable, that he had to fix, repair.

They built some themselves. So he had a really, like in many sports, you see someone go out and do something and they're really good. And you realize that, well, they're so good because they were doing it from five years old.

Well, he was so good because he was doing it from a tiny age. But he had one other advantage that most of us use on a very basic level every day. It's called spatial recognition or spatial rotation.

And so we use it every day when we pack a suitcase. We have to figure out how do things go inside or we look at a map and we have to figure out how to get somewhere. But Browning's great gift was that he could think in three dimensions. So think of a Rubik's Cube. It's a six-sided thing with all these colored cubes and you have to rotate them so they line up.

Well, most of us find that really hard to do. Browning is the kind of guy, because of his mental skills, he could have done that in his head and probably done two or three at the same time. He never used blueprints. He didn't do working drawings. He didn't have a computer.

He didn't have a slide booth. He had his head. His granddaughter, who's in her 90s now, told me a great story told to her by her mother about the elderly Browning sitting in a chair at night in their house, tapping on his head for hours at a time. It used to drive the mother crazy, but what he was doing was thinking through ideas. So he'd come up with an idea for a firearm. He would make a couple of rough sketches, sort of like his own notes that no one else could read. And then he would cut out templates, flat pieces of metal, maybe cardboard, that he would work in his hands to see how they would interact. And then he and one of his half-brothers, he had a big family who many of them helped him in his business, would stand by basic metal working machines and make each part one at a time.

Browning would tell Ed, this is a little thicker, this is a little smaller. And they would design enormously complicated metal machines to thousandths of an inch tolerances and send them off to factories in the East, which would then make them. They didn't use blueprints. It was just they made a gun. They would test it.

It would work. You can see them in museums now across the country. And they look like industrial produced weapons, but they were made in this small workshop in Ogden, Utah, by John Browning and his brothers. Now, Browning was reluctant to start designing weapons because he thought that was inventing things.

Don't forget, he's out on the Western frontier where he's sort of in the middle of nowhere and inventing things were done by the great industrial companies back East. And he felt he was, you know, he didn't want to do it and his father had to push him to do it. One of the things that encouraged him was that he got married to a woman by the name of Rachel and he had to support a family. As a quick aside, Browning was interested in a plural marriage.

Rachel wasn't. And the story line is that when Browning suggested it to her, she said, over your dead body. But so he started inventing guns.

Rachel, he and Rachel would have 10 kids, by the way. And then a firearm made its way to Winchester, which was stymied. Winchester was famous for its very original lever action rifles, but they were trying to develop a better gun and the in-house guys couldn't do it. And then one of their salesmen shows up with this really simple but effective high powered hunting rifle. The exact kind of thing their people couldn't make because they wanted it to handle a major military cartridge.

A high powered military cartridge. So they buy it from Browning. The head of the company on his way to San Francisco in business stops in Utah and buys it for $8,000 the rights to make the weapon. But Winchester realizes in Browning they have the real deal because he has other ideas. And he shows them one of them, which becomes the most famous, second most famous lever action rifle in the world.

And they buy that for an unheard of sum of $50,000, which was a huge amount of money. Don't forget all these guns are being made under Winchester's name. No one in the public knows who's designing these firearms. Browning doesn't work for Winchester, but he sells each of them to the company for a set sum of money or else goods to be sold in the sporting goods store that his brother operates in Ogden. So Browning sort of creates the Winchester Rifle Company because at that point they have one old lever action gun. So he creates for them single shot rifle, lever action rifle, lever action shotgun, pump action shotguns. And then he designed the most popular hunting rifle in America, probably the Winchester 30-30 lever action rifle. It's still made today. Over six million have been sold and people say it's the rifle that has taken more gear than any other rifle in America.

But he was really just getting started. And you've been listening to author Nathan Gorenstein tell the story of John Moses Browning. The man who designed the guns, the firearms that were used in World War I and World War II ultimately allowed us to win World War II. But also the rifles, the shotguns that we used to defend ourselves and hunt. The man who had the ideas that became the guns. And by the way, we love to talk about our founders and how they protected intellectual property rights with the patent in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. That's how forward thinking they were.

When we come back, the story of John Moses Browning, born on this day in 1855 here on Our American Stories. For NFL teams, two conference championship games and only a few more shots to win big on the playoffs with DraftKings Sportsbook, an official sports betting partner of the NFL. Counting down to Super Bowl 57. New customers can bet just $5 and get $200 in free bets instantly. Download the DraftKings Sportsbook app and use promo code TIMER. New customers can bet $5 on the conference championships and get $200 in free bets instantly. Only at DraftKings Sportsbook with promo code TIMER.

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Learn more about their clean standards and shop clean at Sephora Beauty at Sephora.com. And we continue with our American stories and author Nathan Gorenstein, author of The Guns of John Moses Browning, the remarkable story of the inventor whose firearms changed the world. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1855, John Moses Browning was born.

Let's pick up where we last left off. He had an enormous curiosity, and once he got an idea in his head, he couldn't stop working on alternatives to the initial idea and advancements to the idea. So for example, in 1889, he was out shooting.

He was a big trap shooter, a very successful one, I might add. And they were out practicing one day, and he noticed that the grass which had grown up high around the shooting range was being blown over by the gas, hot gas, the gunpowder coming out of the front of the rifle. And many people had recognized that that was energy going out of the gun and that maybe you could do something with that. And there had been ideas kicked around, but no one had ever made a firearm that tapped the burning gunpowder, the gases, to produce energy to operate a mechanism. Well, Browning went home, and the next day he had a crude prototype made.

The newspaper reporter got into the office. It's the only account we have of Browning at work, and it describes the inventor pretty excited going on saying, I got this new thing, and it's going to go hell-winding, he says, once he pulls the trigger. And the writer calls an automatic rifle. Now, automatic rifles we know today, for good or ill, it's the major combat weapon in the world today.

AKs, ARs, they were all gas-operated firearms. Well, Browning had just invented the first one in a day. And he used that basic concept to develop what became the first machine gun purchased by the American military in 1895, another gas-operated gun. That wasn't all he did. At the same time he was doing that, he invented the first semi-automatic shotgun, which Wilder used today.

It made a huge amount of money for him. And then he went on to invent the modern pistol. So every handgun in the world today is essentially based, uses as a mechanism, a design Browning invented in 1896, 1897. That's the slide action pistol.

When you go to the movies or a cop show and you see the top of the handgun go back and forth, that's the slide. That and the internal mechanism of the slide is what Browning invented. There were a lot of competitors, many, particularly in Europe, there were lots of inventors trying to make an automatic pistol, as they called them. They only fired one shot, but they were called automatic pistols. And there were, I'm going to say, over probably two dozen competing concepts at the time.

But Browning's was the only one that lasted. It is the basis for not every, but virtually all handguns made in the world today. That can be good or bad, depending how you feel about it, but no one can deny the historic import of that. At that point, he and his brother realized a couple of things that they weren't making as much money as they could have because they were getting from Winchester. They had always been getting flat payments and they wanted royalties on each gun made. Colt gave them royalties, but Colt at that point wasn't producing that many guns.

This is around 1900. So Browning and his brother, because they meet a guy at the Colt factory from Philadelphia, his name is Hart O. Berg. He was really a Zeller kind of guy.

He keeps popping up in all these places across Europe, the Wright brothers and submarine sales. But at this point, Berg is a firearms engineer, and he had been educated in Liège, Belgium, which had a large armor making industry going back to 1400. So he and Berg hit it off.

Now, why did they hit it off? Well, there in Yankee, Connecticut, Browning is a Mormon. In those days, Mormons were blasphemous, and Browning himself, who was a Mormon missionary in Georgia, and we almost got beat up badly by a mob, you know, Mormons were bad folks to a lot of people. And Berg was Jewish. So here were the two sort of outsider guys who become friends, and Berg is apparently the only industry person that Browning ever invited back to Ogden.

Browning really kept the two sides of his business separate. Anyway, so Browning and Berg become friends. Berg goes back to Belgium, and Browning invents the side action pistol. He invents three of them, actually, and Colt only wants to make one. This is the larger, heavy duty one that they think they can sell to the army. This gun eventually becomes the famous M1911, the side item of the American army for 85 years. But the one Browning likes is this cute little thing.

It's a gun and it's a machine, but it's enormously well engineered, and it's like a little engine in your hand. Colt doesn't want to make it, and Berg writes a letter saying, well, we'll make it. And at that point, FN, that's Fabrique Nationale in Belgium, had a factory with nothing to make in it. So in 1898, Browning travels to Belgium, and the FN people go crazy over his gun, and they start making it. And that starts a 27, 28 year long relationship between FN and Belgium and Browning.

And Browning would end up spending almost half of every year in Belgium. He taught himself French. He did it, his granddaughter tells me, by looking up words in a French dictionary. Once he got a couple of words right, he'd see a word he didn't understand, look that up, get that translation. If he saw words in the translation he didn't understand, he'd look that up.

So he was self-taught, and he became an aficionado of French literature. He grew a goatee, and he wore this white Panama hat, and he was tall and he was American from the West. And he quite intrigued the Belgians. If there's photographs of Browning with a slew of FN engineers, and he's a head taller almost than anybody else there.

He was considered a character, but what he did, he brought FN and the city of Liège, sort of a great industrial fortune, because they start making his little pistol. They made a couple of different versions, all designed by Browning. And between 1900 and 1914 they sold one and a quarter million of them. And that's about one handgun for every three or four hundred people in Europe at the time. That's a lot of guns.

And it created a problem. There's a great German report from around 1911 that says, everyone wants to buy a Browning, and returning from a culture of the knife, where an apprentice would go out, get a job, and buy a fancy knife. And now they want to go out and buy a gun, preferably a Browning little semi-automatic pistol.

And the problem was that these were new things, and they were almost like the iPhone of the time. That's not an exaggeration, because people had never seen a little mechanical device like this, finely made, beautifully engineered. And you pull the trigger, and what happens? You get an explosion, you get the brass casing popping out, the slide moves back and forth, and you hold it in your hand. And it became a real popular item among both good people and bad people, I might add.

And so the Germans say, what do we do about this? Because people didn't appreciate, if you fire a gun, the bullet will go for a mile. And you're listening to Nathan Gorenstein tell the story of John Moses Browning. And for a while, Browning was content selling his ideas and his designs. To Winchester, he got a flat fee. To Colt, he got a royalty. But Colt didn't have the volume. And in the end, Browning needed a manufacturing home, a place where he could, well, not keep it all, but keep control of it all, and make more money for himself and his family. And he found it in the unlikeliest of places, and found a partner in Europe, in Belgium, of all places. Not a place one today associates with a manufacturer of handguns. And my goodness, he sold 1.4 million between 1900 and 1914.

An enormous sum, and had enormous influence on all the other manufacturers as well. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of John Moses Browning. And by the way, pick up where you can Nathan Gorenstein's book, The Guns of John Moses Browning, the remarkable story of the inventor whose firearms changed the world.

And indeed, they did. Pick it up at a bookstore, or at Amazon, or the usual suspects. And again, when we come back, more of John Moses Browning's story here on Our American Stories. Our American Stories is brought to you by DraftKings Sportsbook, an official sports betting partner of the NFL. Counting down to Super Bowl 57, new customers can bet just $5 and get $200 in free bets instantly. Download the DraftKings Sportsbook app and use promo code TIMER. New customers can bet $5 on the conference championships and get $200 in free bets instantly. Only at DraftKings Sportsbook, with promo code TIMER.

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Learn more about their clean standards and shop clean at Sephora Beauty at Sephora dot com. And we return to our American stories and the story of John Moses Browning, born on this day in 1855. Between 1900 and 1914, Browning sold one and a quarter million of his slide action pistols, what author Nathan Gorenstein called the iPhone of its time. Let's return to the story.

And so the Germans say, what do we do about this? Because people didn't appreciate you fire a gun, the bullet will go for a mile. You had guys in Europe, and women too, sort of showing off to their friends and shooting people.

You had people on trains doing target practice, not out of any venal aspect, just because they didn't really understand that they had a weapon in their hands. Anyway, Eppen also starts making another Browning design, which is the semi-automatic shotgun, which is a huge popular thing in America and Europe. And the Brownings start becoming very wealthy because they're getting royalties on all these guns. And back in Ogden, Browning's brother Matt turns out to be a really good businessman. He becomes a banker, he invests in companies, they build an opera house with a couple of other folks in Ogden that's still there in Ogden now.

And he becomes head of the school board and he becomes one of the major folks in Ogden. And while Browning the inventor is well known in his home state, he's not in the rest of the country. That doesn't happen until 1917, 1918, when America enters World War I with an army that has no guns, essentially.

I mean, that's virtually literally. They had like 400 machine guns, I think, and it was a very small army. So they had to get arms. And the only person, well, the arms they chose were John Browning's arms. Before the army asked for it, between 1900 and 1912, on his own, he had created a modern machine gun and a modern automatic rifle. The rifle is the Browning automatic rifle, which people are famous, which he's famous for and was used until Vietnam.

You see it in World War II movies all the time. And it was the first automatic rifle adopted by the American military. And the only one of it only it was far more advanced than any of a couple of versions that were used in Europe, which were much larger, heavier, unreliable. He also invented the.30 caliber machine gun.

That's also the machine gun you see in every World War II movie, either with a vented barrel or with a big water-covered jacket. So he had these designs sitting there and so drags them out and they get perfected and they stop building them in huge numbers. I might add, they were also issuing his 1911 pistol to troops.

So this one guy is arming the American military, except for rifles. And so he gets all sorts of attention and people want to know who he is. And there were all these profiles written about him.

But the interesting thing missing is him. There's not one quote from Browning in any of these profiles. His brother Matt must have issued press releases to people about his brother because a lot of these articles sort of quote the same anecdotes. But, you know, they're asked about, well, why do you make guns? I mean, guns have been controversial throughout American history.

The pro-gun and anti-gun fight is not new to this era. So one reporter got Browning to agree to let him paraphrase him. And here's what Browning said when asked him.

He was asked, why don't you make automobiles? Browning assured readers that he was a peace loving man who deplored war. Indeed, had spent most of his career making sporting arms, but was compelled to answer his nation's call. So Browning is now famous. But, you know, he's not a kid. He's in his 60s at this point.

He has his son and Matt's son taking over part of the business side of the operation. But Browning in 1918 is asked to invent another gun for the military. And this gun is probably in historic terms, it's probably the most significant invention. The tanks had appeared on the European battlefield and the American military wanted a machine gun that was powerful enough to penetrate tank armor. So they asked Browning to create something that could fire a 50 caliber round.

That means a bullet that's a half inch wide. And so Browning goes to work and he uses it as the basis for that design for the machine gun he invented in 1900. So, I mean, that's how advanced his mind worked. And what he invents, he dies in 1926 and the gun is not finished yet.

It was so powerful that it was difficult to keep on target. And Browning came up with a new recoil system and did other things to try and make it controllable. But what he invented is the 50 caliber machine gun, the M2.

Why is that significant? Well, every American airplane in World War II, every fighter plane, every bomber was armed with Browning's machine guns. So there wasn't an air battle fought in World War II by the Americans that didn't use Browning's guns. His guns also armed the British Spitfire and Hurricanes 30 caliber guns during the Battle of Britain. And eight guns in each Spitfire and Hurricane.

And the British would tell you that's what won the Battle of Britain. And there's a British engineer says, you know, fighter planes are great, but I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially they're hood ornaments if you don't have guns in them that work. And the British had picked Browning's 30 caliber gun because they were fast and reliable. You know, if a gun jams in the wing of an airplane, you can't go out and fix it.

So you had to have something that would work quickly and that was reliable and wouldn't jam. The same thing with Browning's 50 caliber guns. So all those P-51 Mustangs, Lightnings, Thunderbolts, the B-17s, the B-24s, everything. I mean that literally is armed with Browning's machine guns, but that's not all.

So the Army's out there and what do they use? They're automatic weapons at that time. A Browning, World War I, Browning Automatic Rifle and his 30 caliber machine gun and his 1911 pistol. And the only other, well, there's two other sort of major weapons, the Garand rifle, which is a major factor, and the Thompson submachine gun, which looks great, but actually wasn't all that effective because it shot a pistol caliber cartridge.

And troops, particularly in the Pacific, would complain it didn't have the power to penetrate vegetation. And that's why they preferred the Browning because it shot a larger cartridge. But those were the major firearms used by the American military. So one can honestly say there wasn't a ground battle won that wasn't won thanks to Browning's weapons. And again, you know, that's a major historical impact. You know, there's not a major historical event in the world that hasn't been affected by firearms. For good or ill, you know, firearms can save a life, take a life. They could feed a family. They can wipe out a species. You know, they occupy a spectrum from good to evil.

And what we do with them is sort of dependent on ourselves. What happened after John Browning's death was that his son and nephew took over the business. And they imported guns and sold them under the Browning name, originally from Belgium and then eventually from Japan. Mostly made by a very good firm in Japan called Morocco and sold by FN. It turned out that in the 1970s FN purchased the Browning company.

That's Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. And so the Winchester rifles designed by Browning and the shotguns sold today come from Japan and are owned by FN in Belgium. And the M2.50 caliber machine gun is still used by the American Army today and by 80 other countries around the world.

There have been five attempts to replace it with something lighter, with more control of recoil, but they've all failed. Browning would sometimes be challenged on why he made firearms. And he had a response to that, and we get it once in one newspaper article where he's paraphrased.

And this is what the article says. He replied to the effect that the world's need of guns still was greatest. That the field of arms invention was infinitely larger yet than that of the motor car. He is, however, an ardent peace advocate, but recognizes the need of preparedness and the fact that generations probably must pass through an era of evolution and the use of force before the nations will be ready by reason of scientific advancement and intellectual culture to beat their guns into plowshares and their swords into printing books. And that was a widely held belief at the time. There were books published about the theory that modern technology would make war impractical and impossible.

Unfortunately, that hasn't proved to be the case. And no, indeed, technology did not usher in a world of peace. But what John Moses Browning accomplished, particularly for outfitting American soldiers in battle, American planes and British planes in battle, well, it could easily have saved the world from the Nazi menace and Japanese imperial ambitions. And what a story this is, a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Nathan Gorenstein for sharing the story of John Moses Browning. His book, The Guns of John Moses Browning, the remarkable story of the inventor whose firearms changed the world, is available in bookstores or wherever you get your books online. And what a story to tell about the inventiveness that started way back in that shop of his father's at the age of five.

We learn this over and over again. The Wright brothers, no big PhDs from colleges. No, theirs was making their way in a bicycle shop as mechanics. And what we learn here is for 15 years, as Nathan said, John Moses Browning got a PhD in firearm engineering ever since he was a boy in his father's shop. The story of John Moses Browning, born on this day in 1855.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-24 19:57:09 / 2023-01-24 20:11:31 / 14

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