It’s John Moses Browning’s last design. A classic. And suprisingly, a firearm TTAG has not reviewed yet. It’s about time, I thought. The Browning Hi Power was actually designed during the Roaring 20’s as a contender to replace a large number of service pistols the French military had used in WWI, all of them chambered in 7.65mm (.32 ACP), and none with a magazine larger than nine rounds. Browning began work on the design not long after Armistice Day and filed for a patent in 1923. Like his then-recent FN M1922 and the original M1910 (the pistol used to kill Archduke Ferdinand to spark WWI) the Hi-Power prototype was striker fired, but featured a revolutionary double-stack magazine invented by Diedonne Saive, one of Fabrique Nationale Herstal’s lead Belgian designers . . .
Alas, Browning passed away in 1926 before his patent was even accepted in the US. The French, downsizing like every European army in the 1920’s, lost interest in the new Hi-Power prototype and bought a few FN 1922’s for their navy. They would later adopt the Mle 1935 in 7.65mm Longue.
But Diedonne Saive continued to tinker with the Hi-Power design while also working on the “Baby” Browning 6.35mm (.25 ACP) pocket pistol, another hugely successful design which is still made today. In 1928, Colt’s exclusive rights to the M1911 pistol expired, allowing Saive to mine Browning’s earlier design for ideas.
He ended up adding the single-action exposed hammer setup to the Hi-Power, although strangely, not the 1911’s trigger. By the early 1930’s, Saive’s rework was nearly in its final form. He settled on a magazine of 13 rounds and crucially did not use the barrel bushing of the 1911. The so-called Browning linkless cam system was perfected, a system that has been used on the vast majority of modern pistols including the CZ-75 and GLOCK. A plunger-style magazine safety, different from the M1922’s, was included in the hopes of still filling the French contract.
With the Depression easing for a time and Facism beginning to menace Europe, the Hi-Power was rolled out in 1935. It was immediately adopted by Belgium (for officers and tank crewmen), Lithuania, Latvia, and Nationalist China, but only about 35,000 were made before the outbreak of war. Despite the Belgians having more men under arms than all English-speaking countries combined in 1939, Belgium and FN Herstal were overrun by the Nazis in 1940.
The Nazis would commandeer FN and force production of Hi-Powers with basic combat sights, mostly for use by the Waffen SS. Fortunately, Diedonne Saive escaped to Canada where he oversaw production (by John Inglis Co.) of tangent-sighted Hi-Powers for Chiang Kai-shek and later a model exclusively for Canadian and British troops with better sights than the non-tangent Hi-Powers. Speaking of, we really need to start our comparisons.
Comparison of slide/sight combinations: Original combat sights, internal extractor from 1961 (“pre-T series” – top); Tangent sighted, with later external extractor (“C Series”); 1980’s Mk. II with parkerized finish; current production Mk. III with matte black finish, both sights dovetailed (bottom).
The “original” Hi-Power was made from 1935 until the early 1980’s with Browning occasionly selling guns with “original” features until 1990 or so. The P35 had either a tangent (rifle-type, think Mauser or AK) or combat sights. The tangent is adjustable out to 500 meters (presumably for volley fire) and the combat includes a simple dovetailed real sight and a “half moon” front sight, a pinned half circle essentially.
Early P35’s had internal extractors like the M1911, but in 1963 or so a more durable external version was made standard. Most original and all Mk.II Hi-Powers have forged steel frames…not ideal for +P ammo, but certainly serviceable. The Mk.II would introduce slightly improved combat sights, an ambi-safety, plastic grips and a matte finish. However, the Mk.II’s front sight would still not be dovetailed.
This changed with the introduction of the Mk.III in 1989, and by 1994 all Hi-Powers were being made with cast steel frames (better for +P and tougher in general). At the same time, the .40 S&W version was introduced featuring a extra-durable slide and ten-round magazines as standard for that chambering.
In 1954, the British military adopted the Hi-Power as it’s first standard semi-automatic pistol and that opened the floodgates for 50+ armies to adopt the pistol. Hi-Powers are common in the Middle East (my Mk. II is ex-Israeli) in South America (my 1961 Hi-Power is a ex-Buenos Aires Police pistol, a common CAI import in the 90’s) and Europe (my Mk.III is a former Austrian police sidearm).
While the British have recently began to adopt the GLOCK 17, Australia still uses the Mk.III, and Canada still uses plenty of WW2 production Inglis guns that were put into long-term storage and gradually brought into service. They are THAT good. India makes its own version of the Inglis for use by its military and FM in Argentina does the same with the standard Hi-Power. Hi-Powers were also built by FEG of Hungary for export and are a good entry level Hi-Power available for $200-$350.
While there are plenty of ideas around about how to truly bring the Hi-Power into the 21st century, the Hi-Power design has not been updated since 1994. FN unfortunately is showing no plans to do so and Browning USA is simply billed as a hunting arms importer that also sells cute deer stickers. Personally, this shooter thinks it could be done rather simply.
Ratings (out of 5 stars):
Accuracy: * * * *
Great with any model…one star deducted for magazine safety limitations. Remove it and generally you’re good with an Original or Mk. II. You may need to get a new trigger spring to improve reset with the Mk. III. Still, even with the mag safety, trigger pull is better than any stock pistol with it’s main safety contained in the trigger.
Ergonomics: * * * *
Another strong suit; many argue that only the CZ-75’s angle of grip can touch the Hi-Power’s. Easy to manage ambi-safety and essentially the 1911’s slide stop. Extremely simple to field strip. Minus one star for hammerbite issues.
Reliability: * * * *
On a surplus gun, at least replace the recoil and firing pin springs to insure reliability. NIB, they’re great.
Customize This: * * * * *
Tons of grip options, after-market magazines (MecGar is the best), custom parts (Cylinder & Slide does impressive work), sights (I have Meprolights on my Mk.III). I would dock the Original and Mk.II to four stars for limited sight options.
Fun Factor: * * * * *
Used by both sides in WWII, and by 50+ armies post-war. No handgun ever made can touch that. Gimme some tears, James Yeager.
Overall: * * * * *
Historical yet still relevant, classy yet practical, the Hi-Power is a must own.
…Dedicated to the late Stephen A. Camp, Hi-Power and pistol expert.