I didn't know John Browning, but my grandmother did. She told me that John and Matt Browning came to what she called "The Ranch" on Uintah flat south of Ogden to test their guns. She sometimes provided lunch.
Regrettably, in 1922 Uintah was the place where a school teacher shot one of his students. The teenager's grave is in Uintah cemetery, where I "visit" relatives each year. Uintah youngsters carried firearms. They favored a Browning-designed bolt action .22-caliber rifle that sold for $5.00. My father had one a decade earlier. The teacher was frightened, and so he armed himself with a pistol. One evening, a youngster walked toward the teacher on a lonely path. The teacher felt threatened. He shot the boy. The incident tore apart the little community for years, until another teacher came along to bind up the wounds by "inventing" a community project.
Without question, John Browning was a weapons genius. He could design and build a new gun almost as quickly as most of us can take one apart, clean it and put it back together. Like many geniuses, Browning was exploited by business "sharpies." Winchester Company bought his patents, but refused to give him credit or royalties. The company made hundreds of millions with his inventions. The Winchester lever-action repeating rifle, invented by Browning, was the most popular sporting rifle ever produced, but Winchester would not include Browning's name on the gun. Colt Firearms also bought Browning patents but refused to give him credit or royalties. Browning finally found two outlets that appreciated his skills: The U.S. military provided appropriate recognition and compensation for his military weapons, and a fair-dealing manufacturing company in Belgium offered royalties for Browning's hunting weapons.
Now, the Utah legislature wants to exploit Browning again by listing one of his weapons as the "state gun." Lawmakers thoughtlessly picked the gun least likely to represent Browning's genius — the 1911 .45-caliber automatic pistol. First, Browning thought the bullet requested by the military was too large for a pistol. Second, the gun has one purpose: to stop (kill) human beings at close range. Third, the short barrel and stubby projectile compromise the accuracy of the gun (except for specially built target models). Fourth, the .45 is more for show than utility. (On rare occasions when Browning carried a pistol, it was usually a .32-caliber automatic.)
Browning invented superb military weapons, including the .50-caliber machine gun. It became a fixture on tanks, planes, ships and in the field. But he was most proud of his sport rifles and shotguns. "I'm a hunter," he often said. If Utah were to adopt any Browning firearm as a state symbol, it should be a hunting model.
Few question the desirability of recognizing John Browning for his inventive genius. But the state has other inventive geniuses who also deserve recognition. Philo Farnsworth, from Beaver, Utah, changed the world when he invented television. David Evans did as much to make computers successful as any other human being. Mario Capecchi, Utah's only Nobel Prize winner, made modern medical marvels possible. Willem Kolff saved millions of lives by inventing machines to substitute for failed human organs. John Warnock invented computer programs used by computers all over the world — Photoshop, Adobe, etc. Other Utahns are equally deserving of recognition.
Instead of showcasing a single minor product by one of Utah's prolific inventors, it would be more appropriate to remember the innovators themselves.
The legislature should designate a yearly "Utah Innovators Week," where John Browning and others could receive appropriate recognition. The week might be incorporated into the curriculum for students studying Utah history. The innovators might be honored at the State Capitol and in communities across the state. Business leaders might be encouraged to feature Utah innovators and the benefits of innovation in advertising and on billboards.
After all, what counts in the long run is not the inventions but the inventors, and a climate that both encourages and stimulates new ideas, new products and individual initiative.
comments on this story
John Browning said, "The time and the place for a gunmaker just got together on this corner, and I happened along."
The best thing we could do in John Browning's honor is to make Utah the right "corner" for the next John Browning, or Philo Farnsworth, or David Evans or Mario Capecchi.
G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University. E—mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.