Much like the famous nineteenth century firearms designers—whose ranks included Christian Sharps, Samuel Colt, Richard Gatling and Hiram Maxim – there were those early twentieth century arms designers who have left their mark on the world. While not as famous as other modern inventors and innovators such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, these weapons designers played a crucial role in shaping the century.
John Browning—The Prolific Gun Designer
Other than Samuel Colt no American gun designer is perhaps as well known as John Browning, and no other gun designer in the world is credited with so many revolutionary designs. Unlike Gatling or Maxim, Browning was a firearms designer by trade and he developed not only military and civilian firearms but also cartridges and other gun mechanisms. Simply put John Browning was the gun world's combination of Leonardo de Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison rolled in one.
He developed his first firearm in his father’s gun shop when he was thirteen years old, and was awarded the first of his 128 firearm patents by age of twenty-four. His designs encompassed handguns and rifles; and this included single-shot, lever-action, pump-action and most significantly auto-loading firearms.
His designs include the M1911 pistol, the Browning Hi-Power, the M1917 water-cooled machine gun, the M1919 air-cooled machine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). He also developed a number of cartridges including .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .45 ACP, .50 BMG and 9-millimeter Browning Long among others. Many of these firearms and cartridges are still in use today; a testament to the quality of his designs.
Hugo Schmeisser—Father of the Assault Rifle
Even among gun “experts” Hugo Schmeisser is too often associated with the German MP-38/40 submachine gun, but in truth Schmeisser only managed the plant where the gun—designed by Heinrich Vollmer—was produced. However, Schmeisser’s impact on small arms is far more reaching as he is the true father of both the “submachine gun” and the “assault rifle.”
Much like the prolific American small arms designer John Browning, this German designer grew up around firearms, and Hugo was the son of Louis Schmeisser, a noted gun designer who helped with the development and production of Theodor Bergmann’s machine guns as well as being the lead designer of the Dreyse 1907 Pistol. The younger Schmeisser received his training at Bergmann’s company and at the end of the First World War designed the MP-18, the first practical submachine gun.
In the 1930s he then worked closely with Vollmer, and while Schmeisser didn’t design the MP-38/40 he did design the weapon's straight magazine and received a patent for it.
However even before the Second World War broke out Schmeisser began development of a short cartridge 7.92mm automatic weapon originally dubbed the Mkb 42 before being designated the MP-43 and later MP-44. Some ten thousand units were manufactured but as the story goes it met with disapproval from Adolf Hitler, who didn't like the idea of the weapon's intermediate round—which was a new concept at the time being larger than the pistol rounds fired by submachine guns but smaller than a rifle round.
In truth, Hitler was opposed to the weapon because German industry couldn’t replace the twelve million Kar 98k rifles with the new weapon, but after seeing it in action the German leader gave it the title “Sturmgewehr.” The select-fire StG44—or “assault rifle, model 1944”—arrived too late to make a difference for the Nazis, but after the war the Soviets noted the design. Schmeisser, along with 15 other Germans was forced to work with the Soviets until 1952—and it is believed today that he likely influenced the design of the AK-47.
John T. Thompson—Father of the Black Gun
Today’s “black guns” owe a lot to a design from more than 100 years ago, when John T. Thompson began working on what would eventually earn the moniker “Tommy Gun.” Thompson was a career military officer and during the Spanish-American War served as Chief Ordnance Officer during the Cuban campaign. He was one of the few officers who managed to resolve the logistical problems of that campaign, and after the war his ability to tackle difficult problems was put to good use when he was appointed chief of the Small Arms Division for the Ordnance Department. He supervised the development of the M1903 Springfield rifle and later chaired the board that approved the M1911 pistol.
In 1914, Thompson retired from the U.S. Army to take a position as chief engineer for the Remington Arms Company, and he oversaw what was at the time the largest small arms plant in the world. It also allowed Thompson to study weapons design including a delayed-blowback breech system designed by Commander John Blish of the United States Navy. Together the two raised the money to found the Auto-Ordnance Company and began work on a personal machine gun.
When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917 Thompson returned to the U.S. Army with the rank of brigadier general and was appointed Direct of Arsenals, where he oversaw all small-arms production for the military. When he retired again he resumed work perfecting his “Trench Broom,” which was chambered in .45 ACP. The weapon program, then titled “Annihilator” arrived too late for the war—prototypes were on the way to Europe when the Armistice was signed—but the new firearm was released commercially in 1921 as the “Thompson Submachine Gun.” Its history with gangsters and then the military in World War II says the rest!
Mikhail Kalashnikov—Designer of the World's Most Iconic Firearm
The Soviet arms designer didn’t invent the assault rifle (see Hugo Schmeisser above), but Mikhail Kalashnikov improved upon the concept and made it so easy that—as noted by Nicholas Cage in the film Lord of War—a child could use it! As of 2004 a report on small arms noted that of the estimated five hundred million firearms in the world, some one hundred million belong to the Kalashnikov family and three-quarters of those are AK-47s.
What makes Kalashnikov’s story so amazing is that unlike many of the other men on this list he was a self-taught mechanic and engineer. When he was conscripted into the Red Army his small size meant his was assigned as a tank commander. When he was wounded during World War II he began designing weapons, and was assigned to the Central Scientific-development Firing Range for Rifle Firearms.
Kalashnikov designed several weapons, including a submachine gun, but when he took elements from the American M1 Garand and the German StG44 he created the gun that would soon become iconic around the world. While the AK-47 is often known simply as a “Kalashnikov,” the designer continued to focus on improving upon it with the AKM (Kalashnikov Modernized Assault Rifle) and then the PK machine gun.
Unlike Samuel Colt or John Browning who became rich for their designs, Kalashnikov claimed he was more motivated by the service to his country, and reportedly made no direct profit from weapons production.
Just about every other gun designer on this list has his name on at least one firearm, but when it comes to Eugene Stoner it's likely many people who even own a version of the rifle he designed may not know his name. Today the AR-15 is iconic—loved by shooters and loathed by gun-grabbing politicians—but in 1954 when Stoner went to work as chief engineer at ArmaLite his designs were in a word “radical.” His only success at that point was the AR-5 survival rifle, which was adopted by the United States Air Force.
Stoner's next design was the AR-10, a lightweight select-fire infantry weapon, and while today that firearm has found new respect it was rejected by the U.S. Army in favor of the M-14. However, some in the military liked what they saw and Stoner revised the concept to accommodate the smaller caliber .223 Remington cartridge and this AR-15 was soon adopted by the United States military as the M-16.
The M-16 would go on to have its baptism of fire in Vietnam, but eventually would be a respected firearm that found use in both the military and commercial markets. While Stoner is most famous—if famous at all—for his AR-15/M-16, he continued to design small arms for the military. He developed the Stoner 63 Weapons System, a modular system that could be reconfigured to a standard automatic rifle, light machine gun, medium machine gun or even a solenoid-fired fixed weapon platform.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.