The Browning A5 12 Gauge: Resurrecting a Legend, Part 1
Major Pandemic 04.23.14
The Browning A5 shotgun is a stunning achievement of engineering. Disassembling the Browning A5 will confirm the genius of the design and confound most amateur gunsmiths, but a properly setup A5 is the fastest and softest shooting shotgun of anything still on the market. It was and still is a revolutionary design that still outperforms many, if not all, new shotgun designs.
Not only does the shooter get a softer recoil of a semi-auto bolt on the A5, but the barrel also slides backward as well on each shot to dissipate recoil. The result is a very soft shooting shotgun.
The downside is that the Browning has well over 50% more parts than a Benelli, Remington, Mossberg, or really any modern shotgun, but those parts do things that the new guns don’t.
I wanted – no, I needed a high capacity Browning A5 12 gauge for sporting clays and 3Gun. I am a huge fan of the tank-like durability of the Browning A5 design and have been shooting a Belgian Browning Sweet 16 since I was barely walking. Yes, I am of the belief that there is no quality comparison between the finely made Belgian models and the bastardization that the Japanese factory labels as a Browning. Lately though, 16ga shells have literally been impossible to find, so I have kept an eye out for a good deal on a 12ga Belgium Browning A5.
In good condition, an A5 can run as high as $1,000, in excellent condition quite a bit more. $600 will usually give you a well worn A5 in working condition with the updated speed-feed and screw in chokes, but it will be nothing pretty to look at. After over three years of being patient, my gun dealer had a very old estate auction specimen in decent condition available for only $200, complete with smooth top barrel and beautiful furniture. I would have liked to have a vent rib and screw-in chokes, a little less surface rust, and a little better stock, but it worked. Why only $200?
Sadly, it featured a very old Lyman adjustable choke which killed the value. Adjustable chokes are great from a hunting perspective, and most will agree they work awesome, but they look like hell and always cut the value in almost half.
This was also a really early A5 – like 1920s, nearly a century old Browning A5. Due to the age, it had the pre-speedfeed, one-piece-shell-lifter, which meant that loading required pushing the bolt release button for each shell loaded — a total pain in the butt. The lack of the very cool and fast speed-feed feature, goofy two handed feeding requirements, plus the 2-shell magazine limiter, were big bummers for a gun I was transforming into an awesome, fast handling, 3-Gun shotgun, but… “Gentlemen, We Can Rebuild this Browning A5. We have the technology. We have the capability….”
List of Updates and Upgrades
Once I placed the Browning on the stretcher and had the guts all pulled apart for a deep cleaning, I decided it was time to add in a list of updates, including a 2-piece lifter and speed feed conversion and a boost to the magazine capacity. Let’s get through the first of multi-part upgrade.
The speed feed upgrade
The initial versions of the A5 had a front trigger guard vertical sliding safety and the one-piece lifter. The next version included the Speed-Feed feature and moved the safety to a traditional button cross-bolt location at the rear of the trigger guard. This old specimen is vintage and had the front trigger safety and the one-piece lifter.
There are actually two big advantages of the Speed-Feed upgrade. The first is that it allows the Browning to be loaded without pressing the bolt release with one hand to release the loading gate while the other hand feeds each round. This is a painful and time consuming reloading process, so doing the conversion would be a huge speed and ergonomics update.
The Browning locks open after the last round is fired, which provides the autoloading benefit of the Speed-Feed feature. Instead of dropping one shell in the chamber or worrying about racking the bolt, just shoot until empty and focus on feeding rounds into the tube, and the Browning A5 will auto feed the first round you shove in the tube into the chamber. This allows very fast reloads, especially if you just emptied your gun and only need one or two rounds to finish a stage. As a lifelong Browning shooter, I am always stunned on other guns; “What do you mean I need to feed and rack the bolt?”
If you get lucky enough to obtain a A5 in good condition with this feature, rejoice and be happy. If not, luckily the older version’s feeding can be easily upgraded with $129 of factory drop-in parts direct from Browning Service. You will still have to manage with the sliding safety unless you upgrade the trigger housing as well — easily another $150 in parts, but doable.
Surprisingly the Speedfeed upgrade is easy if your screws have not all rusted tight. If they are rusted, then turn it over to a gunsmith who will charge around $100 to install your parts. My A5 came apart easily and I had the updated two-piece carrier assembly, carrier spring, carrier latch, and carrier latch spring swapped in about 30 minutes. This included time spent watching the well done disassembly video below:
If you are comfortable building an AR15, then you can complete this update.
Required parts from Browning Service/Parts:
- 50440-B1111064 – 2 Piece Carrier Assembly 12ga
- 50467-B1111107 – Carrier Spring
- 50537-B1111269 Carrier Latch
- 50540-B1111277 Carrier Latch Spring
- Total: $129.
Some say this conversion requires fitting. My parts dropped in without an issue. I do know that fitting is required for the 16 and 20 gauge models, as there are none of these parts left in existence.
Nordic Components magazine tube extension
I love the innovation of Nordic Components, and it was no surprise to me that they offer one of the only Browning A5 MXT magazine tube extensions. These kits include the nut and spring, which can add +1 to +9 rounds, depending on the length you select.
This is a simple upgrade. Just unscrew the existing magazine tube cap and screw on the Nordic MXT tube extension with the included spring. In this case I added a +6 extension, which updated my A5 to a 9 +1 total capacity with 2-3/4” shells. Note that if you want to swap back to hunting 2+1 hunting capacity, all you need to do is remove the tube and reinstall the original spring, limiter dowel, and handguard nut, and you are back in the hunt.
Here are two big tips when installing the tube and 4 foot long magazine spring. First wear safety glasses. Second, place a 1/4″ dowel rod in the magazine tube, thread the spring on, and then slip on the Nordic extension with some of the dowel exiting out the end of the tube. The Nordic extension specifically has a hole in the end of the extension for this spring install method. Screw the extension in place and pull the dowel out. This method will keep the spring in line throughout install, keep the cursing to a minimum, and save about 500 calories from chasing a spring around the room.
I really went back and forth on whether to keep the adjustable choke or convert over to screw in tubes. Many consider an adjustable choke a huge feature for a hunting shotgun, and I am a believer. They are one of the simplest choke tube devices on the market with no barrels to swap out or chokes or wrenches to lose or store. That noted, they look horrible, and this permanently mounted Lyman “Corncob” version is among the ugliest, with the expansion chamber soldered in place. Despite its looks, the expansion chamber and compensator is supposed to reduce recoil. Without a direct comparison, it is hard to say for sure.
Although I am not a huge 3 Gun or clays competitor, I do see folks swapping out chokes in competition on a regular basis to combat winds and provide improved patterns at larger distances. This is the sweet spot for this Lyman monstrosity of a choke that allows fast and easy choke pattern changes with just a few spins of the choke. Keeping it also saved me about $200 in gunsmithing to convert it over to screw in chokes, which would have been a purely aesthetic decision.
There is no doubt that this redo has the same appeal to many as restoring a classic car. In fact, estimates are that this old Browning A5 is circa 1920s, which puts it well into the vintage category of firearms . I was thrilled to be able to breath new life into this nearly 100-year-old but fully functional gun with a little TLC and a few upgrades.
So how does it all work? Awesome! Like any Browning A5, you do need to lube down the spring and friction rings and assure the friction rings are tuned/placed in the correct position for your load. I have run around three boxes of 2 3/4″ shells through the updated A5 and it works just like any of the updated speed-feed A5’s do. Now I can load up nearly a half box of shells and just yell pull and shower the skies with lead. This is great deal and a fun project that still has more surprises around the corner.