50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
You would think a company that had made a fortune from the numerous single-shot, lever-action, and smoothbore inventions of just one man over the years would have been an eager and anticipatory purchaser for any firearms design that particular individual brought to them. But such wasn’t the case in 1903, when firearms genius John Moses Browning presented his concept for a semi-automatic shotgun to Winchester president T.G. Bennett. Bennett turned down the gun, infuriating Browning and consequently ending his 19-year association with the company. Browning eventually found an eager audience for his shotgun with Fabrique Nationale of Liège, Belgium, and the gun that Winchester didn’t want went on to become the famous Browning Auto-5.
Twenty years later, Browning had another idea for a unique shotgun that would become just as legendary. Because the top barrel was affixed to the bottom tube, rather than alongside it, as was common with double guns at the time, Browning called his new smoothbore the Superposed. In 1923 he was granted the first of two patents for what would become the world’s first commercially made over/under shotgun. It has been reported that this stacked barrel concept was actually suggested to Browning by his friend Gus L. Becker, an Olympic trap shooter and skilled upland hunter. Whether or not this is true, it is known that once the gun got into production, the very first Superposed was shipped to Becker.
In reality, the concept of a stacked-barrel scattergun wasn’t new. It existed as early as the eighteenth century with swivel-breeched muzzleloaders. But Browning’s design would become a benchmark for what remains one of the most popular shotgun designs today.
Of course, like most things Browning invented, the concept was a little ahead of its time, and companies were hesitant to take a chance on his stacked barrel smoothbore. Undaunted, Browning once again turned his gaze overseas, to Fabrique Nationale. As FN produced other successful Browning designs after the Auto-5, Browning felt the skills of its European workers would do justice to the complexities of his new shotgun. Although it was mass produced, the Superposed would require a lot of hand fitting, not just of the frames to the barrels, but for the precise meshing of internal parts as well. As the Superposed progressed, the artistry of FNs engravers and woodcarvers would also come into play.
Unfortunately, what many feel was John Browning’s most sophisticated firearms design was also his last. On November 26, 1926—the day after Thanksgiving—John Browning suffered a heart attack and died in his son Val’s office in the Fabrique Nationale factory in Belgium, while working on the Superposed. The responsibility and, consequently, the credit for finally getting the gun into production fell to the capable hands of his son. Indeed, it is Val Browning whom author Ned Schwing credits for the success of the Superposed in his now out-of-print (and highly collectable) book, Browning Superposed: John M. Browning’s Last Legacy (Krause Books).
Initially, doubling was a problem with the innovative smoothbore, even though the very first guns, which were produced in 1926, had double triggers. To correct this situation, in 1933 the innocuously named Superposed Twin Single Trigger was patented by Val Browning, who had proven to be a brilliant firearms inventor in his own right. The Superposed Twin Single Trigger was unique in that pulling the front trigger fired the bottom barrel first, and then, with a second pull of the same trigger, the top barrel was fired. Or the shooter could pull the rear trigger and fire the top barrel first, then fire the bottom barrel with a second pull of that same trigger. Of course, any shotgunner used to a traditional double trigger and automatically shifting his finger from the front trigger to the rear for a fast second shot would find that particular barrel had already been fired. To alleviate this problem, a non-doubling single trigger was developed.
The Superposed was officially launched in 1928, with a price tag of $107.50. First brought out in 12-gauge, a 20-gauge was eventually added and finally, 28-gauge and .410-bore models. (A 16-gauge version was never made.) Immediately it broke new trails that would, subsequently, be well traveled by other over/under shotguns that followed it. In 1931, the Superposed won eight state championships, as well as the World Live Bird Championship in Monte Carlo. The cover of Browning’s 1935 catalog shows no other than Gus Becker, proudly posing with a Browning Superposed with which he broke 401 consecutive clay targets without a single miss. Inexplicably, the shotgun is called a Browning Overunder in the catalog.
Over the years, the Superposed has been produced in escalating and constantly changing levels of excellence, including Grades I through VI and going on from there. S.P. Fjestad’s Blue Book of Gun Values lists more than 50 variations. The different grades primarily reflect external engraving and precious metal embellishments, with many of the engravers signing their work. Indeed, a great number of Superposed shotguns were museum masterpieces as much as they were well-built shotguns.
One Superposed variation slightly less desirable than the rest is the so-called “salt wood” guns. During the 1960s and ’70s, many Superposeds suffered from a malady that resulted in almost instant rust in the wood-to-metal areas. This was caused by a salt curing process Browning used at the time in order to dry their wood without kilns. Unfortunately, not all the salt was leeched out of the wood before it was fashioned into stocks. Once this problem came to Browning’s attention, the company offered to replace the stocks and repair the damage on Superposeds sent in by the original purchasers.
Grade I, Diana, and Midas Superposed shotguns were discontinued in 1977, but the Presentation grade was introduced that same year. A Superposed rifle/shotgun combo was brought out in 1978 in celebration of Browning’s centennial. As evidence of the Superposed continued favor as a hunting arm, a Waterfowl Superposed was debuted in 1980, and then a Black Duck Waterfowl version in 1983. The Midas, Pigeon, and Pointer were reintroduced in 1985. By then, prices had escalated to encompass the $3,700 to $8,600 ranges. In an effort to keep costs down, a greatly modified version, the Citori—made in Japan by Miroku—was introduced, in 1973, and is now one of the flagships in the Browning line.
Today, the FN Browning Custom Shop in Liège, Belgium is once again offering the Superposed, specifically the B-125 and B-25, both highly personalized guns that range from single, tasteful engraving to highly stylized chiseled relief metal sculpting. Made up of more than 70 individual parts and requiring 155 different assembly steps, the Superposed remains an extremely labor intensive and, consequently, a very expensive gun to make. None are cataloged in the U.S., although they may be special ordered from a Browning authorized dealer. To that end, and thankfully, the Browning Superposed is still being hand built in Belgium to discerning customer’s specifications. Each gun is individually crafted and remains an example of what many consider to be the finest over/under shotgun ever devised.
The first time I saw a Superposed I was a newlywed, many decades ago, having recently moved to Southern California from Arizona, and it didn’t take me long to discover Kerr’s Sport Shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Championship shotgunner Alex Kerr was the owner, and it was a monthly ritual for me to stop into the shop, where I once just missed seeing Elvis Presley buy a gun for a complete stranger (gee, if I had only entered the store a few minutes sooner, that guy could have been me!), and listened to Robert Blake doing his Baretta routine for the clerk and customers. The gun racks were always full of some of the highest-grade rifles and shotguns to be found, and it was there that I saw my first Superposed, although in my ignorance at the time, I called it a Superimposed.
Sadly, Kerr’s is long gone now, but in compiling my bucket list for this book, and after adding the Browning Superposed as one of the guns I absolutely had to have, I stumbled upon a Browning Lightning model with a Broadway rib (so named because of its wide sighting plane running the length of the barrel), that was made in 1965—about the same time I first stepped into Alex Kerr’s shop. Best of all, the barrel was factory stamped “Kerr’s.” It is not too farfetched to surmise that this may have been one of the very guns I had drooled over decades ago.
Whoever originally bought it from Kerr’s shot it, but shot it well, and the over/under now had a luxurious patina—kind of like myself, I like to think. Yes, I bought it, thus completing that portion of my ever-expanding bucket list.