Trying to compare Browning’s legendary Auto 5 with its new incarnation the A5 is a bit like comparing a much-loved classic film with a modern re-make — you have to pretend the original didn’t exist, take the new one at face value, and hope the director gets it right for what is often a fiercely loyal audience. Has Browning got it right with the launch of its new A5? Like many, I only own one semi-auto — a classic Belgian-made Auto 5 and it is this that I would compare to the new gun.
On the other side of the pond, the original Auto 5 appears to be held in almost religious awe by its users and is etched indelibly in the history of US fieldsports. It is a much-loved gun with a reputation for tank-like build quality and is often passed from father to son. Perhaps because of this, the new gun has received a mixed reception. Some welcome the attributes of the new gun, for others the old one is irreplaceable. The fact is, the new A5 is vastly different from the original. It is really an Auto 5 in shape only — more or less. Nostalgia aside, is there anything wrong with that? Let’s see.
John Moses Browning’s Auto 5 came into being in 1902 and ceased production in 1999 — such a time span being testament to its great popularity. There was apparently much sorrow when it was discontinued, so Browning has now launched its latest incarnation.
In terms of styling, the A5 is similar to the Auto 5 but the famous “humpback” has been toned down and the new gun looks sleeker. This may appeal to shooters who found the previous rather pronounced hump a bit off-putting. However, probably the most radical change is that the long recoil system, in which the barrel as well as the bolt recoils, has been completely replaced with a short-recoil inertia-operated bolt, which Browning has called a Kinematic Drive System. Browning is so sure of this design that it is offering a five-year/100,000-round guarantee.
A lot less hassle?
The new A5 is designed to fire 2¾in-3in cartridges — there is also a 3½in model recently released. In the case of the old Auto 5 one has to alter the position of the friction rings around the magazine tube depending on the cartridges being fired. When I bought my 16-bore Auto 5 a couple of years ago I spent a long time on the Internet reading conflicting opinions on which way round and where the friction rings should go. I have only fired light loads through it — 24/28g loads with the rings in the same position and it has never jammed, but I can’t recall the friction ring combination for more powerful loads — I would have to look it up. Some would say that this is part of the charm of the old gun while others would argue that the new one is a lot less hassle.
In tandem with the friction ring confusion is the fact that the older long-recoil design has a large spring around the magazine against which the barrel recoils. When the gun is being assembled, the unwary can be caught out by the jack-in-a-box effect if you lose your grip. Again, it’s not a concern with the new gun.
The new A5 is very smooth to load and, unlike my old model, doesn’t require both hands to perform the task. The new A5 features Browning’s famous Speed Load system. It appeared on some models of the old Auto 5s. With the bolt back on an empty chamber, the gun will still chamber a cartridge if one is slipped into the magazine. It can also empty the magazine without working the bolt backwards and forwards to eject the rounds.
On my older Browning, the safety catch is at the front of the trigger-guard and requires you to put your thumb inside the guard to push the catch forwards to fire. I’m not overly keen on this. With the new A5 the safety catch is outside and at the rear of the trigger-guard and has a knurled surface to aid grip. On the gun I tested it was smooth and quiet.
The new gun is quick and easy to assemble, is light, thanks to its aluminium receiver, handles well and cycles rounds quickly — a feature of inertia bolts. It also comes with three Invector chokes that have a brass seal around the outside to prevent ingress of fouling into the threads, the barrel has an extended forcing cone and is back-bored, which helps reduce recoil and can improve patterning. The barrel is suitable for steel shot. The gun tested also came with a spacer to lengthen the stock, and adjustments to the height of the stock can be made. The stock is fitted with an Inflex II recoil pad, which is smooth, so reducing snagging and felt recoil. There was also a combination trigger-guard lock included.
The A5 in the field
There are three versions of the A5 — a black synthetic version, the Stalker; the Camo version and a wooden one, the Hunter. We took the wooden one out for an afternoon of decoying pigeon.
Who better to put the gun through its paces than Pigeon Bob — a pigeon shooter extraordinaire. Bob was in a favoured, and thankfully sheltered, spot in Wiltshire with a few woodies already in the bag when we met up with him on a bleak day in March. Although the A5 is designed for 70-76mm cases, I tried some shorter 65/67mm 28/30g loads just to see how it would perform and fired the gun out across the field. Recoil didn’t seem especially noticeable and the A5 happily cycled some paper-cased 65mm cartridges with no problem, but it wasn’t overly keen on some of the shorter plastic ones. The gun is designed to fire a wide range of ammunition but it pays to try different brands to achieve consistency.
With this brief experiment over, the A5 was handed to Bob who promptly dropped a pigeon over the decoys with his first shot. He said the older Auto 5 humpback had put him off in the past, and he preferred the toned-down design of the new gun. A few more woodies thumped down before the failing light forced us to put this latest Browning away.
The A5 is light, fast and did what it was supposed to do. It’s a good-looking semi-automatic built in the tradition of its predecessor. It doesn’t have the quirks of some of the old guns and none of the problems with fouling found in gas-operated semi-autos. Those American shooters attached to the heritage and patina of an old Auto 5 may be reluctant to adopt the radically changed new version. Without such historical attachments British shooters will perhaps be more open to giving it a try.
At the launch of the new A5, Browning’s slogan was “This isn’t your Grandpa’s Auto 5”. Not at the moment, but it possibly will be for generations to come.