The Browning Hi-Power: Gun History
It’s an iconic 9mm combat pistol designed by America’s most famous gunmaker. It’s considered one of the best combat pistols ever designed. But it never caught on like the 1911. What’s the story behind the HP?
The Browning Hi-Power pistol, first produced in 1935, is one of the best combat pistols ever designed. Lightweight, accurate, with a comfortable grip angle and chambered in 9mm with a 13-round capacity magazine, the Hi-Power is still being used or has just recently replaced by military forces in over 50 countries worldwide.
Outside of the U.S., the HP—it goes by many different names—is held in high regard. Ask a grunt from Australia, the UK, Canada, most of South America, in the Mideast, India, and Southeast Asia and you’ll find out. Since it was the last pistol designed by John Browning (sort of, but I’ll get into that, too) who also designed the 1911 and which is held in the highest esteem by Americans, we want to like the Hi-Power…but many of us don’t.
So why don’t American shooter’s embrace the Hi-Power like the 1911? What could be more American than John Browning? What’s not to like?
An All-New Pistol
The design of the HP is seminal and innovative, with many design features copied by manufacturers today. Still, you’ll hear a lot of “buts” when shooters talk about the HP’s characteristics. Some will call them quirks or peculiarities. Perhaps it is because the Hi-Power is a French design (again, sort of, but I’ll get into it).
I doubt John Browning would recognize today’s Hi-Power as his last pistol design. In the 1920s, Browning was done with Winchester and crossed the Atlantic to design shotguns, machine guns, and pistols for Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium.
The last pistol Browning was working on was chambered in 9mm with a 16-round capacity double-stack column magazine, a slightly different grip angle and different barrel linking system than the 1911, and a pivoting trigger. Metal was shaved off from the slide and receiver to make the pistol lightweight and provide balance. Browning also incorporated a striker-fire mechanism. (Was Browning ahead of his time incorporating a striker fire mechanism? I’m nodding my head, and you should be, too.)
The French military, however, had a different idea of what the next generation of combat handguns would be, and in the 1920s embarked on a new pistol design called the Grande Puissance, which literally translated means “High Power”—hence one of the many names the pistol would be called.
The French spec called for the sidearm to be compact, durable, and simple to disassemble and reassemble. It also called for a magazine capacity of at least 10 rounds, a magazine disconnect device, an external hammer, and a positive manual safety. So, the striker mechanism was scrapped in lieu of a hammer mechanism.
Browning died before the design was finished, and FN’s Dieudonné Saive picked up where Browning left off. By 1928 the patents on the Colt 1911 has expired and Saive incorporated some of the 1911’s features. He also opted for a slide with an integral barrel bushing, and built in a magazine disconnect device per the French specs. By 1934, the pistol design was finished. But the French military, after years of testing and redesigning, opted out of the Hi-Power.
Too bad for the French military.
The Belgian military adopted the new pistol, calling it the Browning P-35 or P35. The “35” indicates the year the pistol began service.
If this was the first major name change for the Hi-Power, the next would come via the Nazi war machine.
The Blitzkrieg and the Hi-Power
In 1940, Germany’s preamble to World War II, the Blitzkrieg, had German troops occupying the FN factory. They decided to keep the factory and produce the new pistol, designating it Pistole 640(b). German Waffen-SS, among other troops, used the Hi-Power during the war.
Blueprints for the pistol were smuggled out of occupied Belgium and brought to Canada, where they were manufactured by the John Inglis and Company for use by Allied forces during WWII in China.
This was when the Hi-Power pistol gained traction among military forces as a superb fighting pistol. More names for it were introduced then as well:
- The British call it the L9A1, Pistol No 2 Mk 1, Pistol No 2 Mk 1* (yes, with the asterisk), or Mk 1.
- In Bulgaria, a licensed copy is known as the Arcus 94.
- In Israel, the licensed version is the Kareen.
- In Argentina, it is the FM90.
- RFI manufactures the Hi-Power in India and calls it the Pistol Auto 9mm 1A.
- In the U.S., the pistol is known as the Hi-Power, a distinction made by the Browning firearms company when importing the pistols from Belgium.
An Endurable Design
Pick up a Hi-Power and what immediately becomes apparent are the ergonomics. In hand, the pistol seems almost contemporary. It doesn’t feel like a combat pistol that first saw action nearly a century ago. That’s the attraction to the HP, and for some, it ends there.
There have been many improvements and variants over the years. Early guns had an internal extractor similar to a 1911, but in 1962 that was changed to a more robust external extractor. And as shooting tastes changed over the years, the HP tried to keep up. As ambidextrous safeties became popular, the HP incorporated them. A double-action model, called the BDA, was developed to keep up with Wonder Nines in the late 1970s and 1980s. Most Wonder Nines died out fast like one-hit wonder pop bands, and so did the BDA.
What dates the HP is the single-action mechanism. The grip angle is a comfortable 105 degrees. A 1911 has a grip angle of 110 degrees; a Glock G17 112 degrees. Natural and comfortable are the best ways to describe the angle. The grip itself is thin. Most double stack pistols feel bloated in your hand, making them difficult for shooters with small hands to grasp well. The Hi-Power packs 13 rounds in its magazine, and it is not that much fatter than a 1911 grip. That 13-round magazine was one trait that made the Hi-Power stand out before double-stack magazines became the norm. The fact that the Hi-Power is made of metal but is as light as a polymer frame pistol is impressive. It is also much simpler to field strip than a 1911.
The Disconnect and Other Differences
Here’s where the “buts” come in.
The beaver tail is small. Shooters with large hands can experience hammer bite, and there is no simple fix. Modern polymer frame pistols have modular backstraps; the grip safety on a 1911 can easily be replaced. Doing so is not so easy on the HP.
The next “but,” and probably the most disagreeable to shooters, is the magazine disconnect safety. With the magazine removed the Hi-Power will not fire. Some shooters hate this and have the magazine disconnect removed from the pistol. Not only does this null and void the warranty on a new pistol, it also allows an empty magazine to fall free from the butt when the magazine release button is pressed. We Americans can’t stand a combat/defense pistol that doesn’t dump the magazine to our feet when we press the magazine release button. The magazine disconnect acts like a brake and holds the magazine from falling free. To fix this gripe, a metal spring was added to the magazine body to help it eject freely. Some think this is more of an afterthought than fix.
The last complaint shooters have with the HP is the trigger. It pivots and works with the disconnect. At best, there is plenty of take-up and a consistent break; at worst, the trigger feels like it is dragging through gravel and crumbles rather than breaks. (What we tend to forget is that most 1911s made prior to the 1990s had less than perfect triggers, too.)
At the Range
I first became acquainted with the HP when reading the book Serpico. Frank Serpico joined the NYPD in 1971 and uncovered massive corruption within the department. He armed himself with the 13+1 round capacity Hi-Power. In the movie, the gun salesman asks Serpico, played by Al Pacino, if he’s expecting an army. Serpico replies no, just a division, meaning the corrupt police division.
Since reading the book, I’ve handled and shot a few HPs. During the rise in popularity of the .40 S&W caliber, Browning offered an HP in that caliber, and recently a pal let me run his .40 HP. I liked it but it has since dropped from their catalogue.
In my opinion the best HP is a 9mm because that chambering offers the best balance of power, round capacity and recoil management. My latest Hi-Power is a blued target model made in 1994. The other finish option is a matte black epoxy coating. What the finish lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in function—it’s dull, so there is no glare like there is with bluing, plus it resists scratches and corrosion better.
I like the large target sights, serrated on the edges facing the shooter so there is no sun glare, and with clear adjustment directions. There never seemed to be a desire to improve the sights on the standard HP, as was done with the 1911—another drawback for some shooters. The grips are the iconic flat checkered walnut. Many shooters ditch the factory wood for Pachmayr or Hogue aftermarket grips. The thumb safety is ambidextrous and not as easy to manipulate as ambidextrous safeties on a 1911.
Since I’m well familiar with Hi-Powers and what I prefer to call their characteristics, I scrounged up two new aftermarket magazines from Mec-Gar. These are 15-round magazines that offer two more rounds than the standard factory mag, while still having a flush fit. There is no spring to help eject the magazine, which is fine by me.
It seemed appropriate to run my HP through the Mozambique Drill, which is part of HP lore (though political correctness requires the drill to be renamed the Failure Drill or Failure to Stop Drill). The technique originated with Mike Rousseau, a Rhodesian mercenary engaged in the Mozambican War of Independence from 1964 to 1974. During a battle, Rousseau encountered a guerrilla about 10 steps away. Rousseau fired his Browning HP35 and hit the guerrilla in the chest with both shots, but the guerrilla continued to advance. A final, accurate shot to the head stopped the threat.
The drill has the shooter stand in front of target five yards away. On the buzzer, the shooter draws and fires two shots center of mass and one to the head. If you can do it in four seconds, you’re doing good.
I used three types of 9mm ammo: Aguila 124-grain FMJ, Hornady American Gunner 115-grain XTP, and SIG Sauer 115-grain FMJ—a good assortment of bullet weights and types. I didn’t draw and fire but started at the low, ready position. The HP made me look good and in fact jacked my confidence up. Recoil is pleasant. The trigger on my gun a bit gritty, but the center of mass shots were easy to pull off quickly and accurately. The head shot took more focus on the trigger.
Moving to accuracy testing, I used a rest to shoot at a target at 25 yards. Five-shot groups with the Aguila and SIG ammo averaged about 1.5 inches; with the Hornady, 2.5 inches. I have no doubt that the groups would have been smaller if the gun had a better trigger, but for a combat/defense pistol, the groups were stellar.
Reliability is built into the DNA of the Hi-Power, and I found the HP would do my bidding with no issues. It ran with no malfunctions. Magazine reloads needed to be modified since I had to strip out the empty magazine. Smoothness and speed would be gained with continued training.
The Hi-Power is iconic. You can say it is long in the tooth, dated, and insignificant in this age of polymer pistols. I say long live the Hi-Power.
Caliber: 9mm Capacity: 13+1 Trigger Weight (as tested): 6 lb. 14 oz. Barrel Length: 4.62 in. Overall Length: 7.75 in. Weight: 32 oz. MSRP: $1120