FN Browning .22” Calibre Automatic Rifle
Anyone who has read about John Moses Browning will, no doubt, have come across those two iconic photographs of “le maitre”. In each, he is holding examples of his genius, the unmistakeable FN Browning Auto-5 (the ‘humpback’) and the FN Browning .22” calibre Automatic Rifle. The latter became the most successful of Browning’s small calibre sporting rifles, also taking credit for being the first production semiautomatic .22” rifle.
Introduced in 1914, this blowback action self loading rifle has an overall length of 37 inches (94cm) with a round, ‘take-down’ barrel of 19.25 inches (489mm). It was also known as the ‘Browning Semi Automatic 22’ or ‘SA-22’. A leaf rear sight with a knobbed wheel adjustment was later replaced with a simple fold down rear sight. A small bead front sight was common to almost all models.
A tubular magazine is located in the walnut butt-stock and, in early rifles, loading was by means of a port located in the top of the stock. In later versions, this was replaced by a side-loading port on the right side of the stock. This enabled the capacity to be raised from eight rounds of .22” LR to eleven rounds and eleven rounds of .22” Short to sixteen rounds. A cross-bolt safety is positioned at the front of the trigger guard.
The one piece receiver has an opening at the bottom for the ejection of spent cases, with FN’s brochures claiming; “complete protection of the user from hot powder gases or defective cartridges are assured”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop the occasional hot spent case from going down the shooter’s sleeve. (I speak from experience.) However, the downward ejection makes it suitable for either right or left handed shooters.
‘Taking down’ the rifle is relatively straightforward. The barrel lock, located underneath in front of the breechblock finger piece, is pushed forward while the breechblock is moved back about a quarter of an inch. This prevents the extractor from catching during disassembly. By rotating the barrel a 90 degree turn to the left, it can now be pulled forward and out. The firing mechanism can be removed from the receiver with no need for tools. It is not uncommon to find examples where the butt-stock has been gripped, instead of the receiver, to gain extra leverage on disassembly, resulting in a split developing in the wood.
With no side ejection port the receiver had a large “canvas” for engraving. There were six grades, in total, with the higher grades including gold inlay and elaborate wood carving. In earlier Belgian examples, engraving was hand cut, whereas work on Japanese rifles was machine initiated, including use of laser cutting, with finishing by hand. That said, the overall quality is still high. Factory made leather cases were also available to store, display and carry the taken down rifle.
The first U.S. patents had been granted in 1913 (1,065,341/1913 & 1,065,342/1913) and in 1914 (1,083,384/1914), with FN obtaining manufacturing rights for Europe and for most of the rest of the world in 1914, production commencing in the same year, only to cease almost immediately for the duration of the First World War.
In the U.S., Remington had obtained the manufacturing rights and, from 1922, marketed it as the Model 24 – initially in .22” Short only – until 1935 when it was replaced by the longer barrelled – 23.5 inch – Model 241 Speed-master. As with the later FN versions, both Model 24 and 241s had the side opening loading port. Production of the Model 241 ceased at the Ilion, New York plant in 1949.
FN first began exporting the SA-22 to the US in 1956, after the expiry of the Remington manufacturing rights, with all rifles grooved for scopes. In recent years, barrels have been available with a ‘cantilever’ scope sight mount that extends back over the receiver, thus ensuring that the alignment of the barrel and scope remain constant. These were produced by FN, at the Herstal factory in Belgium until 1974. In 1976, production resumed but now in Japan by Miroku. A close copy has also been made by Norinco of China which, at one time, was imported into the US by Interarms under the name of the Model ATD.
Dating pre ’56 rifles can be difficult, in as much as matching numbers to dates. Browning’s own website simply states that “no serial numbers are available. That said, the numbering system appears to be straightforward, digit only and sequential.
With the importing of rifles to the US, the serial numbering system was changed to a combination of letters and numbers. A “T” prefix was used for .22” Long Rifle and “A” for .22” Short. However, the “A” was changed to “E” for Short and a number added for the year, e.g. 1 = 1961. From 1969, two digits were used for the year of manufacture, with serial numbers starting with 1000. E.g. 69T1156 would refer to a 1969 .22” Semi-Automatic rifle in .22” Long Rifle with the serial number 1156.
During the move of production, in 1974, from Herstal to Miroku, Japan, the order of the serial number code was, in effect, reversed. The serial number now preceded the calibre code, followed by a two figure year code. E.g. 1270T74 = a 1974 Semi Auto rifle in .22” LR calibre with the serial number 1270.
This arrangement was only used until 1976, when Browning standardised its serial number identification. The serial number remained at the front but a two letter code now denoted the year of manufacture with a three digit numerical code for the firearm type and grade of finish. E.g. 01035RT246 = a .22” Semi-Auto Grade 2 rifle, made in 1976 with the serial number 01035.
However, once again, the coding was revised in 1998 in order to work with Browning’s new database. The letter code, for year of manufacture, remained the same but, each year the serial numbers would start at 01001, with the three digit code of 212 for the .22” Semi-Auto Rifle.
To date, more than half a million Browning 22 Semi-Auto rifles have been produced since 1914. Many were used as gallery rifles, functioning perfectly for many years, often firing frangible “lead dust” bullets and with little cleaning or maintenance – a testament to their reliability, simplicity of design and to the genius of John Browning.
Credits: photos by MBH Laine, text by Alan Orrock