Ward Armstrong probably knows more about Browning pistols than anyone else on the planet. At least that’s the impression one gets. He also seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various Brownings who made guns over the years in Ogden, no mean feat since, as he said, a lot of them were named John.
I had the pleasure of finding him being the docent at the Browning Arms Museum on Tuesday in Union Station. I forget why, but he started out talking about a recent visit to the museum by Roy Huntington, publisher of American Handgunner Magazine (www.americanhandgunner.com) , and Bill Laughridge, of Cylinder&Slide, a Nebraska company that does custom pistolsmith work. Ward called Laughridge the foremost expert in the nation on the 1911 Browning pistol.
Laughridge and Huntington visited Ogden in September to photograph the original prototype of the 1911 in the museum’s collection, one of two made before Browning put serial numbers on the prototypes, so they don’t get much earlier. A post in the museum display speculates this particular pistol was made around 1905, when John browning was working up ideas for the 45 calibre piston the military was seeking.
|Ward Armstrong and the 1911 prototype|
Is the gun in the Union Station collection the first or second? Nobody knows, nobody cares. If John Browning made two, they were probably made side-by-side so it doesn’t matter. One of the later prototypes, the ones with the serial numbers, recently sold for $250,000. This one? No way of knowing, it’s not going anywhere.
Laughridge’s story about his encounter with the 1910 prototype can be read here: http://www.cylinder-slide.com/1910hammerless.shtml.
The most interesting part of the visit, Ward said, came with Laughridge asked for permission to take the prototype, this one-of-a-kind priceless pistol, apart so he could photograph its innards.
“And I said sure, and he said in the article after I left he thought ‘What if I can’t put it back together?’”
But he did, and there it hangs in the collection display. Reading his description of taking the pistol apart it’s fun to see his amazement to be handling a pistol worked on by John Browning himself. As a prototype he can see the signs of hand work everywhere — small filing marks, tiny adjustments, design elements that were not used in the production guns, and on and on.
If the guy had been handling the Arc of the Covenant he couldn’t have been more overwhelmed.
I was interested to read the report on how the 1911 was tested by the military to see if it could handle the rigors of combat. It was test fire six thousand times, then tested with deformed cartridges, rusted with acid,submerged in sand and mud and fired again.
It never failed.
Contrast that with the way the military adopted the M4 (later M16) rifle for our troops in Vietnam. The rifle did OK in initial tests in the US, but when it was given to the troops in Vietnam it couldn’t handle the humidity and rapidly rusted, leaving whole platoons in combat with rifles that had jammed.
Meanwhile the Russian-designed Kalashnikov was capable of firing even after a mud/sand bath, and some of our troops used those instead. Chroming the internals of the M16 solved the problem, but it never would have happened if they’d tested the guns as well as they’d tested the 1911.
Ward took me over to see me the the miniature gun collection donated by Matthew Browning Ellis, the grandson of Matthew Browning, but stopped for a second to show the display of the 1911 prototype to a guy in biking leathers holding a helmet.
“So that’s the holy grail right there,” the guy said, his voice soft with, yes, reverence. He and Ward talked briefly about how the thumb safety was added to make the pistol more dependable for the cavalry, and then Ward quietly walked away, leaving the guy alone to look.
Charles Trentelman is a retired columnist from the Standard-Examiner in Ogden now volunteering as a blogger and historian at Union Station. His blog posts do not represent the opinions of the Union Station Foundation.