At 92, Val Browning puts his two dogs into a car each day and drives 17 miles to keep alive the name and reputation of the most prolific firearms inventor in history.
Browning is the former president and now honorary chairman of the board of Browning, the firearms company named for his father, John M. Browning, who before his death in 1926 designed more than 80 military and sporting arms.A list of John Browning's inventions could serve as the framework for any history of firearms over the past century. It includes the Winchester Model 1886 lever-action repeating rifle, America's first smokeless-powder sporting rifle, the automatic shotgun, the Colt .45 automatic pistol and all the machine guns used by U.S. troops on land, sea or air from World War I to the Korean War.
"He was a most unpretentious man. You would never know he was a man of any renown to meet. There was never any kind of show," says Val Browning, whose description of his father could apply equally to the son.
A respected firearms inventor himself with 48 patents, generous benefactor of colleges and hospitals, decorated by Belgian royalty, Val Browning nevertheless has lived his life in the shadow of a giant.
"He was such an extraordinary genius and accomplished so much that there wasn't much left to do in firearms design except to take advantage of modern materials and methods," Val Browning said of his father during an interview at Browning corporate headquarters.
Indeed, Val Browning's two most satisfying inventions were improvements to his father's designs a quick-loading feature for the automatic shotgun and a single-trigger mechanism for the over-under double-barrel shotgun.
Val's son, John Val Browning, 62, was president of Browning for 14 years until just before it was acquired in 1977 by Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre of Belgium. He speaks with insight about the challenge his father faced as a son of the man who put the common noun "browning" meaning a pistol designed by John Browning in French dictionaries.
"It's a very difficult problem for him," the younger Browning said. "But I think that he always understood it. He was always striving to do something on his own. He just didn't sit down and live off the fame of his father. And what he could do, he did."
Two years ago, father and son returned to Belgium, where Val Browning had charge of his father's firearms interests from 1920 to 1935, and to northern France, where as a young second lieutenant in 1918 he instructed American troops in the use of two John Browning inventions the .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun and the fabled Browning automatic rifle.
"I was up at the front to keep track of them and to report on their performance," Val Browning said.
His father's .50-caliber machine gun was produced too late for use in World War I, a conflict triggered in 1914 when a John Browning-designed .32-caliber pistol was used to assassinate Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo.
Eight years after the war, at the Fabrique Nationale plant at Liege, John Browning, 72, suddenly took ill. Val Browning, who was with him, recalls the moment:
"He said, `Son, I think I'm dying.' I said, `No, I don't think so.' I was of course trying to encourage him. But he was, and he did."
Returning to his native Ogden in 1935, Val Browning became president of the J.M. & M.S. Browning Co. and Browning Arms Co., a post he held until 1962, when he was succeeded by John Val Browning.
But today, only Val Browning remains associated with the sporting arms company formed the year after his father's death. "That's one reason why I stayed on, so there would be somebody with the name connected with it," he said.
Like his legendary father, Val Browning is a habitual walker and before injuring his shoulder four years ago when his golf spikes caught in the grass an avid hunter, and consumer, of duck, pigeons and small game.
"If I didn't eat what I shot, I wouldn't shoot it," he said, touching on reasons he believes the sporting arms business has a rocky future.
Population growth, dwindling wildlife habitat and "the general feeling against firearms in this country make it so that it's rather an undesirable business to be in," he said.
John Val Browning puts it another way: "The idea of going out hunting is considered somewhat reprehensible. The same sensitivity does not seem to extend to fish."
Val Browning, father of four and a widower since 1975, embraces life with an avidity and humor that belie his years. More refined than his frontier father, he reads constantly, has a substantial art collection and loves music.
"I'm trying to understand atonal music, but I think I'm a little bit too old for that," he says in the deadpan that sets up the punchline. "In other words, I can't whistle it."
An early riser who walks two miles a day, Val Browning quit smoking 50 years ago when an errant cigarette ash ruined a good suit.
Also, "I used to like a cocktail very much indeed. And sometimes three of them." But he's learned to "sort of listen to what my system was trying to tell me," and a single cocktail every couple of months, in social settings to ease a natural shyness, is all he allows himself.
"He has the blood pressure of a 16-year-old," says his cook, Nancy Clifford.
His dogs, Beau and Jill, come along as he drives up Weber Canyon to company headquarters at Mountain Green. He keeps busy there for three or four hours a day, sometimes test-firing Browning's latest line.
The afternoons at his Ogden home are devoted to books, records and walks in the garden with his well-mannered companions, who, it must be said, do not escape the master's wit.
"I spell it B-E-A-U when he's good," Val Browning says in mock-stern tones, "but when he's bad, it's just plain B.O."