Classic Gun Review: Belgian Browning Hi-Power Mk I
The Belgian made FN Browning Hi-Power pistol ranks as one of my favorite side arms of all time. I appreciate the gun for its history, as well as its practical use. I’ve bought, shot the heck out of, and then sold many of mine to friends who just couldn’t live without one after shooting them.
That process had left me in the shameful state of not having one around for the last few years. Fortunately a trip to Cabelas recently ended with the purchase of a Mk I that’s in great shape. This one, a Mark I made in 1977, has proven a step above most of the Hi-Powers I’ve previously owned. I think I’ll keep it.
There’s far too much history in the Hi-Power to go into in one article. Heck, even a series of articles wouldn’t really do it justice. I would recommend anyone interested in a good history of the gun to obtain a copy of “FN Browning Pistols, Side-arms that Shaped World History” by Anthony Vanderlinden. Suffice it to say, if you’ve been a fan of either firearms or history over the last century, you’ve read something about the Hi-Power, whether you knew it or not.
It’s not all ancient history. When I deployed to Afghanistan in the 2009, the P35, (the military model and of the Hi-Power), was still being used by the British troops, who refer to it as the L9A1. They didn’t switch to the GLOCK until 2013. Although rare, Hi-Powers have been found among members of the Taliban as well.
This was certainly not the first time two forces fought each other with Hi-Power pistols. During WWII, several of the Allied countries would go into battle against their German enemy with both sides well equipped with the Hi-Power pistol, although usually made in different countries. With the exception of the US, just about every major country has used it at some point.
Ever heard of the “Mozambique Drill”, or the more PC version, the “Failure to Stop” drill? Well then you know a tiny bit of the Hi-Power’s history.
If you’ve never owned, or at least spent some time shooting the Hi-Power, do yourself a favor and get right on that. There’s something inexplicable about the pistol. At the time of its first production, is was revolutionary. Even today, it holds up well against contemporary duty and self defense automatics.
Depending on the magazine, it will hold anywhere from 14 to 16 rounds. For an all-steel gun, it’s fairly lightweight. It has every bit of the reflexive pointablity of Browning’s masterpiece, the 1911. And for good reason. He started the Hi-Power design as well. It’s accurate, reliable, easy to use, and beautiful.
From the purely practical side, there are few pistols as easy to field strip as the Hi-Power. In fact, without much practice, it’s possible to assemble and disassemble the firearm with a single hand. There is very little maintenance involved with the guns, especially when compared to other designs of the time.
Unlike most modern 9X19mm pistols, the Hi-Power was not designed to shoot hollow point ammunition. It was designed as a military firearm. Standard ball ammunition in the 115gr variety is what the gun was built to shoot. And it shoots that extremely well.
When using the ammunition it was designed for, recoil is quite light and easy to manage. Empty, the all steel Hi-Power weighs about 8oz more than an empty GLOCK 17. For an all steel gun, that’s still light, at least compared to a Colt Government 1911.
The weight of the gun, combined with great ergonomics, makes for a fast, light-recoiling pistol. There’s a reason the Hi-Power was used to win many competitions, and more than one gunfight. It’s fast to draw, fast to point, fast to fire and fast to fire again.
For those like me seeking to run a heavier, hotter round like the 124gr+P cartridge, you will find swapping the factory 17lb recoil spring for one a bit heavier (around 18.5lbs) will be helpful. The gun has been around forever, and differing varieties of recoil springs are inexpensive and easy to find.
Some people like to go even heavier, but I’ve found the heavier springs are difficult to get back into the gun and provide little benefit. At any (spring) rate, I’ve never had a Hi-Power break from recoil, and I’ve shot thousands of rounds through guns that had tens of thousands of rounds through them before they got into my hands.
The grip of the Hi-Power is fairly wide, especially with the stock checkered wood grips. It’s about the same size in circumference as Beretta 92 series. If this were a double action gun, like the M9, with the trigger set forward, small handed users might have a problem. But it isn’t, and they don’t.
I asked two women of small stature to shoot the Hi-Power at The Range at Austin. Both commented that the grip looked big, but found that it fit their hands just fine once they shot it. The wide arched rear of the grip fits hands well and helps keep the gun on target.
Both the front and the back of the grip is smooth and rounded. The light recoil of the 9mm round the gun was designed for makes handling the gun easy, but, like any pistol, texturing the front and rear of the grip is helpful. As the front strap is a bit more narrow at its point than a 1911, many find that checkering doesn’t’ work well.
Instead, a stipple type texture is often deployed. It’s not as attractive as good checkering, but when done correctly it provides an excellent grip surface. There are also a number of grips available on the aftermarket, some thinner, and some much more aggressive.
The Hi-Power, although it is a full sized pistol, tends to give the manly-mitted more trouble than our more dainty-pawed population. That’s because the beaver tail on the Hi-Power’s grip is quite short, and sometimes sharp. For folks with particularly large hands, that beavertail can push back during recoil and bruise or cut the web of the hand.
For a few really beefy-pawed individuals, the spur trigger models can come back and strike the web of the hand as well. Unlike the 1911, elongating the beavertail is much more difficult and involves welding material onto the frame, blending it in, and refinishing it.
For the vast, vast majority of people I’ve seen have this problem, it’s not because their hands are too big, it’s because they are gripping the gun incorrectly. Like most automatics, and certainly with the 1911, the firing hand should come behind the gun and the web of the thumb should ride up to the top of the grip. Then squeeze hard. Folks tend to drive their hand straight down on top of the pistol as they would a single action revolver. This is a surefire way to get bitten, even if your hands aren’t that big.
As for me, I have size large hands, but when gripping the pistol correctly, I have no issues with the beavertail or hammer spur biting me. Hi-Powers have been made all over the world, by many different manufacturers at different times. So some of them have rough or sharp edges on the beavertail. If that’s the case, sending it to a gunsmith to have it smoothed out and refinished is a wise choice.
You’ll likely find a very wide variety of finishes on Hi-Powers, even those made by FN. The military models tended to get a Parkerized or even enameled finish while the civilian models were usually blued. This blued model has only a little holster wear on the finish, and is generally in very good shape. I’ll likely have the grips stippled and the sights changed, so some refinishing will be done no matter what. For a two to three hundred bucks more, I’ll have the entire pistol refinished with a higher polish, but the factory polish is still very nice, even after decades of use.
Unlike the 1911, the Hi-Power has a pivoting trigger. I’ve never fired a great stock P35 or Mk1 Hi-Power trigger, but I have shot some that are OK. This one is in the OK category. Some Hi-Powers have a lot of grit in the trigger travel before a heavy break. Fortunately, this one does not. There is an infinitesimal bit of take-up follow by a hard, but clean break. My Lyman scale puts this trigger at just over 8lbs, which is on the heavy side for these guns. With some more use, that may come down a tiny bit.
There are a few different safeties on the Hi-Powers, depending on model and year. This one has the simplest type, a single-sided small raised rectangle with deep serrations. Although it’s small I’ve never had any trouble taking it off quickly with a sweep of my thumb. That changes if I have gloves on, or if my hands are slick. I’ll likely end up swapping it with an extended type, which are inexpensive and can be fitted with nothing more than hand tools and patience.
The Hi-Power’s magazine release is easy to reach with my firing hand thumb, well textured, and works well. However, the release simply releases the magazine, it doesn’t eject. In other words, when you hit the release, the magazine doesn’t fall to the ground. If you pull it, the magazine will come out if you have depressed the magazine release. If you depress the magazine release and then shake it hard, the magazine will come out. Usually.
This isn’t a flaw in this particular gun, it’s how the gun is designed. Although this is not unique to the Hi-Power, a lot of young or new shooters will have never experienced a gun that does this. If you want to swap the magazine quickly, you’ll need to get in the habit of sweeping down the grip with your support hand on the empty magazine on your way to get a loaded magazine. If you are shooting single-handed, you’ll need to reach up and strip the old one, or maybe shake the old one loose.
Reloads are simply never quite as fast with a Hi-Power as they are with firearms that eject the magazine. But with some training, that time is minimal. (The newest production Hi-Power magazines from Browning have a small spring on the bottom to help with ejection. I haven’t tried them yet and I couldn’t find one ready to ship by the time of this article.)
Unfortunately, the Hi-Power includes a magazine disconnect “safety.” That means it will not fire without a magazine. The magazine disconnect safety was originally added to the Hi-Power to appease the French military. I am not French and I think it’s absolutely insane in a duty or carry gun.
Removing the magazine disconnect safety is an inexpensive and easy fix with the Hi-Power. Correcting that design error also has the added benefit of reducing the trigger pull weight by a pound or more, as well as improving its overall feel. It may also get rid of the magazine not falling out on it’s own when you depress the magazine release. I’ve seen it get rid of that issue, and I’ve seen it just improve it. Either way, get rid of it.
The Hi-Powers came with a variety of sight set ups, the most common being a fixed front with a rear sight adjustable for windage and elevation. This particular civilian-focused Hi-Power sports the simplest sights available. A small, rounded blade fixed front sight and a drift-adjustable rear notch sight. They aren’t horrible, but there are just barely better than that.
Because the front sight is fairly thin and the rear sight notch fairly wide, getting a good horizontal grouping is difficult. Under bright light, the gleam from the rounded front sight works well, but that same front sight pretty much disappears in low light, especially against a dark background.
This is one of those places where the stock Hi-Power is OK, but with a little bit of work, it can become great. As you’ll see, accuracy is very good, but with better sights and a little trigger work, could be made exceptional. For me, with this particular model of Hi-Power, a sight change is a must.
One of the high points for all Belgian-made Hi-Powers is the intrinsic accuracy of the weapon. As I’ve said, I’ve put quite a few rounds through these guns over the years and even former military models shot fairly well, despite a lot of slop in the slide-to-frame fit. Models designed for and sold on the civilian market shoot even better, as they usually haven’t seen as much wear and tear.
This particular gun, over four decades after it left the factory in Belgium, shoots better than most. No ammunition I shot scored over a 2 1/4″ average group at 25 yards off a rest. That worst group was shot by the Freedom Munitions 165gr Hush Round, and that’s still pretty good, especially for a round whose weight is well outside the norm for the gun.
The best groups came from the Ruger-branded 74gr ARX round, printing an average 1.5″ five-round group for four shot strings. Right behind it was the inexpensive and easy to find Remington UMC 115gr FMJ at 1.7″. All shots were taken with bags off a rest and all accuracy testing was taken on a fouled bore after 400 rounds of ammunition had been fired through the gun.
This Hi-Power will feed any FMJ of any weight I put into it. It didn’t matter if I was using the original magazine or new 15-round flush fit Mec Gar magazine. No matter what FMJ was used, the pistol loaded, fired, and cycled without issue. If you are running any of the Commonwealth Standard Mk1Z or MkIIz or NATO standard rounds, you’ll experience nothing but the joy of shooting with the Hi-Power.
But no hollow point ammunition. At all. Zero, zip, nada. I tried many different weights and shapes, and not a single HP I tried would feed.
There are many different versions of the Hi-Power. Like most of the 70’s era pistols, this one has a hump in the feed ramp. I am at a loss to explain why it’s there, but it makes shooting the HPs a no-go in this pistol. A competent gunsmith can fix this or you can just buy a drop-in or replacement barrel or pay to have one fitted. As this barrel shoots well and is in good condition, I would much rather have the ramp altered than put in a replacement barrel, drop-in or not.
If the gun is merely a range toy, or for some reason you’d like to keep it stock, you can run it with FMJs all day every day. Alternatively, since it will run the completely capable ARX round mentioned above, you could just stock up on that round and run it as your carry ammo while shooting FMJ at the range.
The Hi-Power is a great gun for what it is, and for what it was designed for. It’s an even better gun for what it can be. You can easily spend a few thousand dollars on a Hi-Power, but most of that expense will be purely cosmetic.
For under a grand, you can turn what is an historic and already very practical pistol into a fantastic firearm for duty, range, or everyday carry. That’s what I’ll be doing with this one. Unfortunately, Browning has discontinued the Hi-Power. Used models of any quality are quickly increasing in price, and gunsmiths familiar with the Hi-Power are starting to experience longer wait times. So now is the time to get one.
Whether you keep it stock or customize it as your own, if you get a chance to shoot or to own a quality Hi-Power, jump at the chance. You’ll be glad you did.
Specifications: Browning Hi-Power Mk I
Capacity: 13+1 standard
Frame material: steel
Slide material: steel
Barrel length: 4.7″
Sights: checkered hardwood
Frame Width: 1.4″ (at widest part of grip)
Slide Width: .9″ (at widest part of slide)
Weight: 2lbs (unloaded with magazine)
Sights: fixed front and drift adjustable rear ledge
MSRP: (discontinued) Quality used guns should run between $600 and $900
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style and Appearance * * * *
This is purely subjective, but I adore the elegant lines of the Hi-Power. There’s something about the narrowed and flat front end of the slide that’s not only functional, but beautiful. For this particular used firearm, there is a mild amount of holster wear near the muzzle, but otherwise the original finish shows very little wear. There is little to no polish inside, and light tool marks abound.
Customization * * * *
There is an extremely wide range of Hi-Power pistols out there, as you might imagine there would be for a gun that’s been produced for almost 100 years. There are also a lot of parts out there, and many can be swapped by any individual with the willingness to be patient and to learn. There are also some great Hi-Power-specific gunsmiths in the US that can perform a wide variety of services, and many others outside of the country. Oddly enough, I’ve generally found them less expensive than the ubiquitous 1911 smiths.
Accuracy * * * *
Nothing got to the 1″ mark, but multiple brands hit the 1 1/2″ to 2″ mark. I’ve not yet found a really poor-shooting Hi-Power, but this one is a particularly good one.
Reliability * * * * * (and * *)
Shooting the projectile it was designed to shoot — the 115gr FMJ — I had no problems at all. I’ve never shot a Hi-Power that had any reliability issues with that bullet. But with any hollow point, it’s a no go.
Overall * * * * (and * *)
If you accept what the gun was designed for, a double stack military sidearm shooting 115gr ball rounds, the Hi-Power is exceptional. With that round, it’s infinitely reliable and surprisingly accurate. But the trigger is meh, the sights on this model are not good, and it won’t feed modern hollow point ammunition. For a little, or a lot of money, all that can be changed. The end result is a pistol that was great when it was made, and even better now.