Reader Ben T. Jimenez writes:
The Browning Hi-Power — also known as BHP or GP-35 — was the last project firearms design genius John Moses Browning worked on. He didn’t live to see the project completed, but he laid the groundwork for the pistol that addressed many of the shortcomings of his classic 1911. The High-Power would go on to be manufactured by Browning until 2017, an 82-year run that few designs can equal.
The BHP is a locked-breech semiautomatic pistol similar to the 1911. Unlike the 1911’s toggle link, the BHP uses a cam to unlock the barrel, similar to those in use on modern designs. The operating controls are in the same position as a 1911, although there is no grip safety.
A significant first was the double-stack magazine that held 13 rounds of 9mm. Many people think that “high-capacity” pistols are a relatively new thing, but JMB had them back in the 1920s. This was double the firepower of the 1911; however, the smaller round would prove to be a comparative drawback well into the 1990s.
The BHP is also easier to disassemble than the 1911, with a convenient take-down notch on the slide to hold it to the rear while the slide stop is removed. No barrel bushing meant no bushing wrench.
The Hi-Power has few downsides — primarily bite from the round, Commander-style hammer and the heavy trigger pull caused by the magazine safety. When the BHP was being designed for a French military contract, it was required to have a magazine disconnect that would prevent the gun from firing with the magazine removed. Aside from being a bad idea on a military sidearm, this creates issues with the trigger pull that are usually resolved by removing the disconnector.
Overall, the BHP was a slim, lightweight (by 1935 standards) powerhouse that had an unmatched capacity. It was eventually adopted by 50 nations as a military sidearm and manufactured under license or bootlegged on every continent not covered by an ice cap.
It was used by both sides during World War II, as the Germans continued production at the FN Herstal plant in Belgium after it was captured. When the Germans showed up at the front door, FN management ran out the back with the plans to build the Hi-Power and got them to England for use by the Allies. The Inglis Company in Canada made good use of the plans, with the BHP serving in British and Commonwealth forces well until 2017.
The BHP in America
Unlike the rest of the world, the U.S. gave a lukewarm reception to the FN Hi-Power, as it was known in Britain. The first examples were imported in 1954 and had to contend with a cornucopia of surplus military leftovers from The Big One. Not helping the situation was America’s disdain for the 9×19 round, which was 1) the cartridge of the enemy even though the British also used it and 2) not a .45ACP. The U.S. was still locked in the grips of the revolver vs. automatic debate that didn’t really end until the late ‘80s.
Another obstacle was the lack of a decent 9mm carry round, which also wasn’t resolved for many decades. The big .45 didn’t need a fancy projectile to be effective — it was the ballistic equivalent of running someone over with a truck. Even after the U.S. military switched to the 9mm in 1985, it took years for the 9 to gain the respect it has today.
Tried and True
FN and Browning didn’t do much to help the plight of the BHP. They limited catalog offerings to a few SKUs per year, adding and dropping models at will.
In the 1980s, the Browning Double Action (BDA) was offered, which was largely a double-action version of the BHP. Mostly.
Toward the end, you could have fixed or adjustable sights and a blued, phosphate or two-tone black/silver version. There was not a whole lot of product development going on.
Custom gunsmiths would take a BHP and work their magic, creating awesome versions that fixed the factory issues and brought the Hi-Power to its full potential. That was great if you had a few grand to plunk down and a year or so to wait.
Browning was prohibited from developing an updated combat version of the BHP under the terms of its agreement with FN, and FN was pushing its new polymer police and military guns and had no interest in muddying the waters with an alloy-frame BHP with an integrated accessory rail and night sights. As a result, the Hi-Power was officially laid to rest in 2017.
Prices continue to climb on original FN or Browning guns. The Inglis pistols have become prized collectibles from World War II, and even licensed copies made in China, South America or Turkey command a premium.
Educated shooters looking for a good CCW pistol to keep in their IWB holster would do well with the Hi-Power Mark III version. These are usually the most affordable, coming with a matte military-type finish and black plastic grips. The sights are easily replaced with tritium night sights, as are the grips with a rubber or G10 gripping surface.
A few companies make replacement fire control components and no-bite hammers for shooters with meaty hands. Magazines of 17 rounds will keep pace with any modern plastic-fantastic.
The Browning Hi-Power faced an uphill battle in the U.S. since its introduction here. Much of that was from preconceived notions about the caliber it was chambered in. The rest of the world didn’t operate under the shadow of the 1911 and .45ACP, so they bought Hi-Powers as fast as they could. It was the GLOCK 19 of the free world until the GLOCK 19 replaced it.
Today the .45 round is showing its age in terms of performance against body armor, and the current generation of shooters have grown up with the 9×19 as our nation’s service cartridge. The FBI re-adopted it last year, and major police departments are dumping their .40 S&W guns in favor of parbellums. The 9 is king.
In an age of plastic pistols, the Hi-Power offers comparable reliability and firepower in a classic design that’s as effective today as it was in pre-war Europe. Grab one if you can.