Belgium vs. Japan: Who Made the Better Browning Auto-5?
Most hunters think the “Belgian Browning” is the better gun, there's more to the story
John Browning’s Auto-5 set the bar for semi-automatic shotguns. The famous “hump back” was made in countless configurations and gauges. It was used by a myriad of hunters for all kinds of wild game. It’s as useful in a duck blind as it is in a treestand. The Auto-5 is a truly beloved gun that’s well made and has a long-standing reputation for reliability.
But as with most iconic guns, there are endless arguments about which model is best. It’s an inherent character trait of hunters and gun nuts that they argue with one another. And the Auto-5 is ground zero for shotgun-collector disagreement. The reason being, Browning’s repeater was first built by Fabroque Nationale (FN) in Belgium. Then the manufacturing of the Auto-5 was taken over by the Japanese gunmaker Miroku, which continues to make Browning’s Citori.
Most hunters will tell you that the Belgian-made Auto-5 was the superior gun. But the Japanese have proven to be better engineers over the decades (not just in guns, but cars, electronics and more). So, wherein lies the truth? What’s the difference between and FN- and Miroku-made Auto-5? Let’s find out.
First, a History Lesson
In 1865, Hart Berg was born in Philadelphia, to industrious parents of German-Jewish descent. Berg’s parents eventually sent him to Europe to continue his education, and he became an engineer in Belgium. Berg kicked around a bit, finally returning to the U.S. and settling in Hartford, Conn., taking a job with Colt.
By 1896, Europe lured him back and he went to work for FN. FN was already in the guns and ammo business by then, but they loved bicycles and motorcycle manufacturing too, a major European mode of transportation then and now. As luck would have it, Colt had an interest in bicycles as well and that lead Berg back to Hartford in 1897 to study bicycle design. John M. Browning was a frequent visitor to the same Colt factory Berg worked in at the time.
Browning and Berg became acquainted in Hartford. Colt was building Browning guns, but didn’t want to, so Berg was more than happy to link Browning and FN together. With the relationship in place, Browning pistols built by FN hit the European market.
And when Browning couldn’t strike deals with Winchester or Remington to build the Auto-5, he naturally turned to FN and the “Belgian-made Browning” was born.
The Auto-5 Becomes Iconic
The Auto-5 and the U.S-made Remington Model 11 (Browning sold the design rights of the A-5 to the American gunmaker) revolutionized shotguns, because hunters could go afield with a gun that held five rounds instead of one or two. Even after waterfowl hunters were limited to three shotshells, it was still more firepower than a single-shot or double gun. And the Auto-5 was ultra-reliable too. Browning’s long-recoil design, which sent the bolt and barrel backwards at the same time, cycled spent shells fast with minimal maintenance. Sales of FN-manufactured Browning’s were brisk and soon 16- and 20-gauge offerings joined the lineup. Straight grip, round knob pistol grip, long barrels, short barrels, tight chokes or open, you could get an A-5 in just about any configuration you wanted.
FN continued to build A-5 shotguns until World War II disrupted manufacturing, but resumed building the shotgun in the 1950s. Remington built A-5 guns along with the Model 11 during WWII. But by the mid-1970s manufacturing costs for a shotgun made entirely of machined parts were soaring. The high cost of making A5s meant the line faced uncertainty. If Browning didn’t find a cheaper way to make the gun it could have been discontinued.
A New Era for the Auto-5
Val Browning, John’s son, started looking around for a manufacturer to produce Browning guns at a lower cost without sacrificing quality. He made his way to Japan to evaluate Miroku. Val Browning liked what he saw, particularly the Charles Daly-branded over/under shotguns made there.
Miroku began building the A-5 in 1976 and for the first time “made in Japan” appeared on a Browning barrel. Val also wanted a cheaper over/under, replacing the Superposed with a gun more appealing to a mass market. That gun became the Citori, and is still a Browning mainstay. Miroku also built BL-22 rifles, BLR lever guns, and others. Miroku made the A-5 until 1999.
What’s the Difference Between FN and Miroku Auto-5s?
Just as soon as the A-5 Miroku-built shotgun hit the U.S. market, the term “Belgian Browning” was born. Of course, Belgian-made A-5s had been around for decades, but now the FN gun was suddenly more desirable. Why? What’s the major difference between the Belgian- and Japanese-made A-5?
To answer this question I turned to Art Isaacson, owner of Art’s Gun Shop in Hillsboro, Mo., a full-service Browning repair facility. Isaacson has almost 50 years of experience with Browning shotguns and is a former Browning gunsmith and shop manager. He’s torn apart, fully restored, repaired, hunted with, and just plain shot more A-5’s than anyone else in the business. His YouTube series is very popular and covers a wide variety of Browning guns including a complete A-5 breakdown.
“There is very little difference in the Belgian manufactured Auto-5 versus the Japanese built one,” Isaacson said. “But there are a couple of significant differences that give the Miroku gun an edge. The first is the nitride coating on the magazine tube. Older Belgian guns lack this coating and require petroleum-based oils applied on the tube with regularity to keep the surface slick and the shotgun functioning properly. The other is the addition of the Invector choke tube system in 1983. These two changes make the Miroku gun more versatile and easier to maintain.”
Titanium nitride coatings have been popular for tools such as drill bits for many years. The coating hardens the surface, increasing wear life by reducing friction. Often when an older A-5 stops ejecting, the magazine tube has run dry and the surface places drag on the recoil spring. Slick it up with nitride and that same surface requires less lubrication and lasts longer.
Interchangeable choke tubes changed shotguns forever. Fixed choke barrels have their limitations, requiring ownership of multiple barrels to increase versatility. It’s hard to use the same choke effectively on a close-range bobwhite quail and a mallard at 40 yards. Browning brought the very popular Invector system to their shotguns in 1983, thus no Belgium made A-5 has them factory installed. Also, Belgian A-5s are not safe for steel shot. Japanese A-5s are.
Bottom line, the original Browning A-5 is still a very popular gun today for good reason. They point well, function reliably, look great, and last a long time. You can’t go wrong with an old school Belgian model or the more modern Miroku— they are both fine shotguns. But the idea that the Belgian gun is better than the Japanese A-5 is a myth, because the Miroku-made auto-loaders are more durable and versatile.