The Harmonica Gun and Jonathan Browning’s Legacy

The harmonica gun is one of the fascinating rarities in arms design to come out of the mid-19th century. Rock Island Auction Company’s December 8 – 10 Premier Firearms Auction offers one of the most historic examples of this scarcely-seen platform in Jonathan Browning’s personal harmonica rifle.

The-Harmonica-rifle-of-Jonathan-BrowningThis immensely significant harmonica rifle is documented as built by Jonathan Browning and carried with him during the Mormon Exodus. Available this December.

This one-of-a-kind harmonica rifle carries a provenance that traces all the way down the Browning family tree to the patriarch himself. Jonathan Browning was a gunsmith, businessman, pioneer, and the father of famed arms inventor John Moses Browning, and he carried this very rifle while leading a wagon train from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Utah over the Mormon Trail.

In a December auction filled with Old West rifles, exceptional rarities, and legacy arms of every era, Jonathan Browning’s documented harmonica gun checks all the right boxes for gun collectors hoping to own a piece of frontier arms innovation from America’s most prominent family of gun inventors.

Rock Island Auction Company’s December 8 – 10 Premier Firearms Auction, the inaugural event for the company’s new state-of-the-art facility at 3600 Harwood Rd., Bedford, Texas, will be the largest firearms auction in the history of the Lone Star State.
Get guns in your inbox! Sign-up for our weekly emails.

What is a Harmonica Gun?

For centuries, gun designers experimented with repeating firearms. While Samuel Colt turned to the rotating cylinder to provide customers with multiple shots, some inventors instead explored the idea of a slide bar repeater, or “harmonica gun.”

The harmonica gun, a firearm with multiple chambers bored into a removable steel slide, saw several design variations across multiple platforms. The firearm’s nickname was derived from the similarities between its thin rectangular slide bar and the harmonica instrument.

Zettler-Marked-Four-Shot-Percussion-Harmonica-RifleA Zettler-marked, boxlock action, four shot percussion harmonica rifle. This unique firearm has a center hammer and a knob on the bottom to free the breechblock. Available this December.

The harmonica gun represents one of the earliest detachable magazine designs, in this case a steel slide inserted perpendicularly into the receiver. After each shot, the slide is moved horizontally in succession, either manually or by a hammer-driven ratchet action depending on the model.

For earlier harmonica guns, the user would be required to cock the hammer, release the slide bar’s locking mechanism (either a cam or a spring-loaded plunger), manually move the slide bar’s next chamber into line with the bore, and re-secure the locking mechanism before each shot. The rounds in the slide bar were individually loaded prior to shooting, like a cap and ball revolver.

Rare-Jarre-10-Shot-Pinfire-Harmonica-PistolHarmonica guns were designed in both muzzleloading and cartridge varieties. The latter is illustrated by this rare Jarre 10 shot pinfire harmonica pistol. Available this December.

Harmonica guns were produced in both rifle and pistol variants. Most American models were designed with a single barrel and a sliding magazine, while some later examples, including certain models produced by Alphonse Jarre of Paris, included a separate barrel for each chamber of the magazine.

Who Invented the Harmonica Gun?

It’s uncertain who initially started producing the harmonica gun, but the concept dates back to at least the early 19th century. In March of 1814, James Thomson, a merchant and inventor from Colebrooke Terrace, Islington, London filed British patent No. 3784 for a flintlock “poli-chambered gun”, a predecessor to the harmonica gun concept. In April of 1837, Elijah Fisher and Dexter H. Chamberlain were granted a patent for a percussion harmonica gun, with Cyrus B. Allen of Springfield, Massachusetts producing their design.

five-shot-harmonica-gun-design-produced-and-owned-by-Jonathan-BrowningThough other inventors experimented with the percussion harmonica gun, Jonathan Browning went on to become its most prolific producer. Available this December.

In ‘Firearms of the American West: 1803-1865’, authors Louis A Garavaglia & Charles G. Worman write, “In February of 1838 Nicanor Kendall & Co., advertising in the St. Louis Missouri Republican, declared that they would have “constantly in this market a supply of single and double barrel rifles [and] slide repeating rifles.” Kendall’s “slide repeating rifle”-later termed a “harmonica rifle”- was designed around a rectangular iron bar, bored with five chambers at right angles to the bar’s long axis.”

Harmonica-gun-patentElijah Fisher and Dexter H. Chamberlain were granted a patent for a percussion harmonica gun in 1837.

Henry Gross Jr. of Tiffin, Ohio also assembled various styles of the harmonica gun during this period. Gross’s most famous example was a 5 shot, pill ignition harmonica gun owned by Sam Houston that’s displayed in the Smithsonian. A number of firearms from both Nicanor Kendall and Henry Gross Jr. accompanied pioneers into the expanding American Midwest, including the harmonica gun.

Jonathan Browning was likely inspired by Kendall’s design, and could have encountered one of the Henry Gross Jr. models as well. In his book, ‘Following the Wrong God Home: Footloose in an American Dream’, author Clive Scott Chisholm credits Heber Chase Kimball, a leader in the early church and a member of the Nauvoo City Council, for introducing Browning to the Harmonica gun.

five-shot-harmonica-gun-jonathan-browningThis documented Jonathan Browning harmonica rifle features a five round chamber bar, heavy octagon barrel, and brass receiver. Available this December.

‘Firearms of the American West: 1803-1865’ states that by 1842 Jonathan Browning “was making his own “slide gun,” which according to the customer’s preference could fire between five and twenty-five shots without reloading.”

The Harmonica Gun of Jonathan Browning

Jonathan Browning, the father of John M. Browning and the first of four generations of firearm inventors, was born in Tennessee in 1805. He learned gunsmithing and blacksmithing at an early age. In 1834, Browning relocated his burgeoning family to a farm near the city of Quincy, Illinois, where he repaired and crafted conventional firearms as well as experimenting with repeating designs like the revolving rifle.

In 1840, Jonathan Browning met Joseph Smith and converted to the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Two years later, Browning moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, and constructed a new home and gun shop that still stands today as a museum. There, he continued to build firearms that helped the growing Mormon community protect themselves from persecution, including his own variation of the harmonica gun. According to the Historic Society of Quincy & Adams County, Browning’s harmonica gun “cost $24 to make and took two weeks to produce.” This would have been roughly twice the price of a typical single shot rifle of the period.

Jonathan-Browning-harmonica-rifle-constructed-in-the-1840sJonathan Browning produced and repaired a variety of firearms from his gun shop in Nauvoo, Illinois, including his early harmonica guns. Available this December.

After Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844, his followers in Illinois faced relentless persecution. Numerous period references to Browning’s harmonica rifles can be found in various newspaper reports and Mormon journals often referred to as “fifteen shooters”.

Frank Worrell, one of the men who’d aided in Smith’s murder, led a mob against Nauvoo the following year, only to be gunned down by a defender wielding a harmonica rifle. That winter, George Albert Smith, another prominent leader in the Mormon Nauvoo Legion, wrote “We have four peices of cannon & a great number of fifteen shooter rifles & many six shooter pistols & if a c[o]llision should take place with the mob we would stand a good chance to give them a sound scrubbing.”

Many of Smith’s followers traveled west in what became known as the Mormon Exodus. Browning’s harmonica rifles are mentioned in several accounts of this migration as indispensable tools for big game hunting and as displays of power shown to Native Americans encountered on the journey.

Jonathan Browning temporarily settled in Western Iowa, eight miles south of Council Bluffs, which was then called Kanesville. At the request of Brigham Young, the acting head of the church, Browning helped outfit and equip Mormon pioneer wagon trains as they headed for Utah Territory.

Jonathan-Browning-Harmonica-rifleJonathan Browning’s harmonica rifle no doubt provided a sense of security for the wagon train he captained during the long journey to Ogden, Utah. Available this December.

In 1852, Jonathan Browning resumed his journey to Utah and captained a wagon train of 10 Mormon families on the 1,000-mile trek across the Great Plains. According to members of the Browning family, the harmonica gun for sale this December at Rock Island Auction Company accompanied Jonathan Browning on this three-month expedition. Jonathan’s rifle was passed down from father to son for generations before being purchased in recent times by Idaho Falls gunsmith and firearms collector John Kontes from J.E. Browning, a direct descendant of Jonathan Browning.

Harmonica Gun Early Competitors

The harmonica gun offered frontiersmen one of the first attainably priced repeating firearms in an age when percussion revolvers were in their infancy. Both weapon types suffered from issues like chain fire, where the muzzle flash could unintentionally ignite the charge in an adjoining chamber.

scarce-Collier-Percussion-Revolving-Shotgun-with-Wyatt-Patent-Grip-SafetyAn incredibly rare “Third Model” Collier patent revolving shotgun with the Wyatt Patent grip safety. Available this December.

Harmonica rifles and revolving rifles like the Paterson and the J. Miller pill lock system were also both subject to gas blowby and the tendency to blast lead shavings and unburnt powder into the underside of the shooter’s wrist and forearm. This issue could be avoided by keeping both hands behind the magazine or cylinder and wasn’t a problem in the handgun variants of each model.

The early harmonica gun was typically slower to fire than its revolver competitors due to the need to manually re-index after each shot and manipulate the locking mechanism. Harmonica pistols also had a disadvantage over revolvers when it came to holstering and could be unwieldy to fire due to the shifting weight of the slide as it moved from left to right or vice versa with each subsequent shot.

The harmonica gun’s handling issue could be mitigated with experience, as one example recorded by William Clayton notes during the Mormon Exodus, when Heber Kimball used his “heavy loaded” harmonica rifle to take a buffalo on horseback “at full gallop.”

Extremely-Rare-Serial-Number-Cochran-Patent-Under-Hammer-Percussion-Turret-Revolver-with-Factory-Engraved-German-Silver-GripSerial number 2 C.B. Allen Cochran patent under hammer percussion turret revolver with a factory engraved german silver grip. This design was produced by the previously mentioned gunsmith Cyrus B. Allen, who manufactured the limited number of Elijah Fisher and Dexter H. Chamberlain harmonica guns and numerous other innovative firearms designs in the 1830s. Available this December.

In their favor, harmonica guns offered a higher capacity compared to their revolver counterparts, in some instances by a substantial margin. In one widely printed sermon from 1857, when warning his people to prepare for the  imminent threat from the United States Army, Brigham Young stated, “I have about a hundred shots on hand all the time; three or four fifteen shooters, and three or four revolvers right in the room where I sleep.”

Harmonica guns were also faster to load than some early revolver models that required disassembly. And in the case of Jonathan Browning’s design, harmonica guns were easier to produce and repair for an independent gunsmith, all qualities that made them an ideal repeating firearm for the Utah settlers far removed from accessible supply lines.

Harmonica Gun Evolution

After arriving in Ogden, Utah in the fall of 1852, Jonathan Browning continued to produce his harmonica gun design. The example below, manufactured by Browning in 1853, exhibits a larger bore and slightly longer barrel than the rifle he carried during his journey to Utah Territory.

j.m.-browning-percussion-rifle-50A documented Jonathan Browning 1853 percussion harmonica rifle owned by Congressional Medal of Honor winner George E. Albee sold for $138,000 in RIAC’s September 2015 Premier Auction.

In 1854, English inventor Alexander Bain filed a patent for a pump action harmonica gun. A crank-operated harmonica gun, described as “a small fieldpiece,” was patented in 1856 by Charles C. Terrel of Shullsburg, Wisconsin. Though neither of these saw significant production, French inventor Alphonse Jarre found some limited success with his 1862 pinfire harmonica gun patent.

Jarre’s “breech-bar” harmonica gun used a horizontal arrangement of pinfire chambers to supply repeating fire, which could be put to use on pistols, rifles, and even cannons. In operation, the slide bar is pre-loaded with 10 pinfire cartridges, all secured in place with a spring-retained bar, and is then advanced from chamber to chamber left to right by a push arm connected to the double action trigger. As illustrated by the example below, the chambers each have their own short barrel, but other examples use a single barrel.

10-Shot-Jarre-Pinfire-Harmonica-Pistol--marked-155A rare Jarre 10 shot pinfire harmonica pistol. Available this December.

Though capable firearms, the harmonica gun’s advantages were gradually overshadowed by more reliable revolvers, the invention of rimfire and centerfire cartridges, and the lever action repeater. Models like the Henry rifle and its Winchester successors provided ample capacity and would go on to dominate the repeating long arms market, with the harmonica gun falling into relative obscurity by the end of the 19th century.

Phenomenal-Winchester-Model-1886-Lever-Action-rifleA phenomenal Winchester Model 1886 lever action rifle, a robust design from Jonathan Browning’s son, the legendary John Moses Browning. Available this December.

The Legacy of Jonathan Browning

As a resident of Ogden, Jonathan Browning served as probate judge, a member of the Utah Territorial Assembly, and he became an influential member of the Mormon Church. Jonathan continued to operate his gun shop, where the most famous of his 22 children, legendary inventor John Moses Browning, would eventually get his start.

Jonathan-Browning-manufactured-harmonica-gunJonathan Browning’s documented harmonica rifle has a slight flourish of engraving on the top of the barrel at the breech, and it has blade and notch sights in the style often found on Kentucky rifles. The smooth walnut half stock also has a Kentucky style butt and furniture. Available this December.

Though Jonathan Browning became the most noted producer of the percussion harmonica gun and would make incremental improvements to the design, raw materials were more scarce in Utah and much of his time was now occupied with supplying the growing community with plows, mill irons, and factory machinery, so Jonathan largely stuck to the tried-and-true in the firearms he manufactured. His son John Moses later recalled, “We ridiculed some of the guns we fixed, and I damned some of them when Pappy wasn’t near, but it never occurred to us to make better ones. He was too old, and I was too young.”

Jonathan Browning lived just long enough to see his son John Moses file his first gun patent in May of 1879 for the Browning Single Shot. The elder Browning passed away a month later in Ogden. According to John M. Browning, his father, “worked so hard that, finally tired out, he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”

Highly-Attractive-Exceptional-Special-Order-Winchester-Deluxe-Model-1885-High-Wall-SchuetzenAn exceptional special order Winchester Deluxe Model 1885 High Wall Schuetzen .22 Short takedown rifle with its factory letter. John M. Browning’s first patent was sold to Winchester and became the Model 1885. Available this December.

John Moses Browning would be awarded 128 firearm patents and invented some of the most influential firearms of all time, including the Browning Auto-5, the Browning Hi-Power, the Browning Superposed, numerous Winchester lever action, pump action, and single shot rifle and shotgun models, some of the world’s most famous machine gun models, and an entire line of Colt recoil operated pistols, including the iconic M1911 pistol. For America’s most famous gun inventor, it all started in his father’s humble shop in Ogden, Utah.

The Harmonica Pistol Today

In the late 1960s, a multi-shot grenade launcher design called the T148 was considered by the U.S. Military as a replacement for the M79. The weapon was fed by a spring-driven harmonica magazine that could hold 3 rounds.

Though the T148 is one of the few instances where a more modern version of the harmonica gun concept has been directly explored, the platform’s most lasting influence survives in the idea of a removable slide magazine as well as a possible influence in the belt-fed system. Rifles like the Remington-Lee series and early pistols such as the Borchardt C93 demonstrated the effectiveness of a detachable box magazine, where the equivalent of the harmonica slide is inserted vertically into the magazine housing beneath the receiver.

Borchart-C93An early inscribed serial number 19 cased Loewe Model 1893 Borchardt pistol rig with a matching walnut shoulder stock, four matching magazines, and accessories. Available this December.

The harmonica gun has rarely appeared in popular media, with 1970’s ‘Adiós, Sabata’ being one of the few examples where the unusual weapon is featured onscreen. In this unique Spaghetti Western, protagonist Yul Brynner brandishes a harmonica gun as his primary firearm, typically storing his cigar in the last chamber of the slide.

Adios-Sabata-Harmonica-GunSabata (Yul Brynner) carries a custom harmonica gun in ‘Adiós, Sabata.’

Harmonica Guns for Sale and More

As firearms expert, collector, and prolific author Norm Flayderman noted, harmonica guns are “rarely seen or traded on the open market place.” The documented Jonathan Browning harmonica rifle for sale this December carries the immense history, rarity, and extraordinary provenance of a cornerstone collector’s piece and embodies the legacy of America’s most prominent family of gun inventors.

A-legacy-gun-from-the-Browning-familyJonathan Browning’s harmonica gun includes a provenance that traces all the way down the Browning family tree to the patriarch himself. Available this December.

Harmonica guns represent just one of a multitude of fascinating firearm designs to emerge in the mid-19th century. While Colt, Winchester, and Smith & Wesson would come to dominate the market, the period saw innovation and experiments in every facet of arms design. Concepts like the Mitrailleuse volley gun and the Gatling gun brought increased firepower to the battlefield, the rocket ball and the Volcanic pistol set the stage for the lever action rifle, and the cane gun and palm pistol brought a new meaning to conceal carry.

Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Auction events present a rare opportunity for collectors to inspect, examine, and handle some of the most seldom-seen firearms in history, with this December’s auction, the inaugural event for the company’s new Bedford, Texas facility, featuring one of the most diverse lineups to ever cross the podium.

Palm-Pistols-some-of-the-most-unique-guns-aroundRock Island Auction Company’s December 8 – 10 Premier Firearms Auction features a range of rarities from every genre and era of gun invention.

Subscribe to the Rock Island Auction weekly newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that cover the most intriguing designs in firearms curiosa. From articles on the LeMat revolver, the combination gun, the Walch revolver, the Hotchkiss cannon, the Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus, the Gyrojet, and more, we explore the evolution of the gun in all its facets.

Robbins-and-Lawrence-Second-Model-Smith-Jennings-Repeating-RifleA rare factory engraved Robbins & Lawrence Second Model Smith-Jennings repeating rifle, ancestor to the Volcanic, the Henry, and the famous Winchester lever action family to follow. Available this December.

Rock Island Auction Company

Leave a Reply