This article is dedicated to all the Browning Hi-Power aficionados everywhere…
The Browning Hi-Power is a single-action, 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. It is based on a design by American firearms inventor John Browning, and completed by Dieudonné Saive at Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium. Browning died in 1926, several years before the design was finalized. The Hi-Power is one of the most widely used military pistols of all time, having been used by the armed forces of over 50 countries.
The Hi-Power name alluded to the 13-round magazine capacity; almost twice that of contemporary designs such as the Luger or Mauser 1910. The pistol is often referred to as an HP (for “Hi-Power” or “High-Power”) or as a GP (for the French term, “Grande Puissance”). The term P-35 is also used, based on the introduction of the pistol in 1935. It is most often called the “Hi-Power”, even in Belgium. It is also known as the BAP (Browning Automatic Pistol), particularly in Irish service.
The Hi-Power was designed in response to a French military requirement for a new service pistol, the Grand Rendement (French for “High Yield”), or alternatively Grande Puissance (literally “high power”). The French military’s requirements were that the arm should be compact, have a capacity of at least 10 rounds, a magazine disconnect device, an external hammer, a positive safety, be robust and simple to disassemble and re-assemble, and be capable of killing a man at 50 meters; this last criterion was seen to demand a caliber of 9 mm or larger, a bullet mass of around 8 grams, and a muzzle velocity of 350 m/s. It was to accomplish all of this at a weight not exceeding 2.2 lbs.
FN commissioned John Browning to design a new military sidearm conforming to this specification. Browning had previously sold the rights to his successful M1911 U.S. Army automatic pistol to Colt’s Patent Firearms, and was therefore forced to design an entirely new pistol while working around the M1911 patents. Browning built two different prototypes for the project in Utah and filed the patent for this pistol in the United States on June 28, 1923 and granted on February 22, 1927. One was a simple blowback design, while the other was operated with a locked-breech recoil system. Both prototypes utilized the new staggered magazine design (by designer Dieudonné Saive) to increase capacity without unduly increasing the pistol’s grip size or magazine length. The locked breech design was selected for further development and testing. This model was striker-fired, and featured a double-column magazine that held 16 rounds. The design was refined through several trials held by the Versailles Trial Commission.
In 1928, when the patents for the Colt Model 1911 had expired, Dieudonné Saive integrated many of the Colt’s previously patented features into the Grand Rendement design, in the Saive-Browning Model of 1928. This version featured the removable barrel bushing and take down sequence of the Colt 1911. By 1931, the Hi-Power design incorporated a shortened 13-round magazine, a curved rear grip strap, and a barrel bushing that was integral to the slide assembly. By 1934, the Hi-Power design was complete and ready to be produced. It was first adopted by Belgium for military service in 1935 as the Browning P-35. Ultimately, France decided not to adopt the pistol, instead selecting the conceptually similar Modèle 1935 pistol.
The Browning Hi-Power has undergone continuous refinement by FN since its introduction. The pistols were originally made in two models: an “Ordinary Model” with fixed sights and an “Adjustable Rear Sight Model” with a tangent-type rear sight and a slotted grip for attaching a wooden shoulder stock. The adjustable sights are still available on commercial versions of the Hi-Power, although the shoulder stock mounts were discontinued during World War II. In 1962, the design was modified to replace the internal extractor with an external extractor, improving reliability.
Standard Hi-Powers are based on a single-action design. Unlike modern double-action semi-automatic pistols, the Hi-Power’s trigger is not connected to the hammer. If a double-action pistol is carried with the hammer down with a round in the chamber and a loaded magazine installed, the shooter may fire the pistol by simply pulling the trigger. In contrast, a single-action pistol must be cocked manually before the first shot, either by thumbing the hammer back, or by pulling the slide to the rear and releasing it. In common with the M1911, the Hi-Power is therefore typically carried with the hammer cocked and the safety catch on (a carry mode often called cocked and locked in the USA or “made ready” in the UK, or sometimes called condition one).
The Hi-Power, like many other Browning designs, operates on the short-recoil principle, where the barrel and slide initially recoil together until the barrel is unlocked from the slide by a cam arrangement. Unlike Browning’s earlier Colt M1911 pistol, the barrel is not moved vertically by a toggling link, but instead by a hardened bar which crosses the frame under the barrel and contacts a slot under the chamber, at the rearmost part of the barrel. The barrel and slide recoil together for a short distance but, as the slot engages the bar, the chamber and the rear of the barrel are drawn downward and stopped. The downward movement of the barrel disengages it from the slide, which continues rearward, extracting the spent case from the chamber and ejecting it. After the slide reaches the limit of its travel, the recoil spring brings it forward again, stripping a new round from the magazine and pushing it into the chamber. This also pushes the chamber and barrel forward. The cam slot and bar move the chamber upward and the locking lugs on the barrel reengage those in the slide.
The Hi-Power has two flaws: The standard trigger pull is heavy, especially for a single-action pistol. This disadvantage is a consequence of the Hi-Power’s magazine safety design, which was initially added to the model to meet the requirements of the French military in 1935. The standard Hi-Power magazine safety is connected to the trigger and is released by a plunger pressing on the surface of the magazine. This action of the plunger on the magazine adds tension to the trigger pull, and the required force to operate this feature adds resistance as well. This problem is often resolved by removing the magazine safety entirely, thus voiding the pistol’s warranty, or by polishing the interface surfaces between the safety plunger and the magazine. After-market trigger springs with reduced tension are also available to improve the trigger pull.
In addition, the pistol has a tendency to “bite” the web of the shooter’s hand, between the thumb and forefinger. This bite is caused by pressure from the hammer spur, or alternatively, by pinching between the hammer shank and grip tang. Many HP owners fix this problem by altering or replacing the hammer, or by learning to hold the pistol to avoid injury. While a common complaint with the commercial models with spur hammers similar to that of the Colt “Government Model” automatic, it is seldom a problem with the military models, which have a smaller, rounded “burr” hammer, more like that of the Colt “Commander” compact version of the 1911.
Nevertheless, its ability to hold 13 rounds of ammunition, nearly double that of the Colt M1911 made it very desirable as a military-issue pistol.
Browning Hi-Power pistols were used during World War II by both Allied and Axis forces. After occupying Belgium in 1940, German forces took over the FN plant. German troops subsequently used the Hi-Power, having assigned it the designation Pistole 640(b) (“b” for belgisch, “Belgian”). Examples produced by FN in Belgium under German occupation bear German inspection and acceptance marks, or Waffenamts, such as WaA613. In German service, it was used mainly by Waffen-SS and Fallschirmjäger personnel.
Hi-Power pistols were also produced in Canada for Allied use, by John Inglis and Company in Toronto. The plans were sent from the FN factory to Britain when it became clear the Belgian plant would fall into German hands, enabling the Inglis factory to be tooled up for Hi-Power production for Allied use. Inglis produced two versions of the Hi-Power, one with a fixed rear sight and one with an adjustable rear sight and detachable shoulder stock (primarily for a Nationalist Chinese contract). The pistol was popular with the British airborne forces as well as covert operations and commando groups such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the nascent British Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. Inglis Hi-Powers made for Commonwealth forces have the British designation ‘Mk 1′, or ‘Mk 1*’ and the manufacturer’s details on the left of the slide. They were known in British and Commonwealth service as the ‘Pistol No 2 Mk 1′, or ‘Pistol No 2 Mk 1*’ where applicable. Serial numbers were 6 characters, the second being the letter ‘T’, e.g. 1T2345.
In the post-war period, Hi-Power production continued at the FN factory and, as part of FN’s excellent marketing and superb product line-up (which also included the FN FAL rifle and FN MAG general purpose machine gun), it was adopted as the standard service pistol by over 50 armies (93 nations). At one time most NATO nations used it, and it was standard issue to forces throughout the British Commonwealth. It was manufactured under licence, or in some cases cloned, on several continents. Former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein often carried a Browning Hi-Power. Former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi carried a gold-plated Hi-Power with his own face on the design of the grips which was waved around in the air by Libyan rebels after his death.
While the Hi-Power remains an excellent design, since the early 1990s it has been eclipsed somewhat by more modern designs which are often double action and are manufactured using more modern methods. However, it remains in service throughout the world. As of 2007, the MK1 version remains the standard service pistol of the Canadian Forces, with the SIG P226 being issued to specialized units along with the Sig Sauer P225. The weapon is the standard sidearm of the Belgian Army, the British Army (although the SIG-Sauer P226 is being gradually introduced ), Indian Army, Indonesian Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, Argentine Army, Luxembourg Army, Israel Police, Singapore Armed Forces and Venezuelan Army, among others. The Irish Army replaced its Browning Pistols (known popularly as BAPs, or Browning Automatic Pistols) with the H&K USP automatic in 2007.
Genuine Browning Hi-Power P35s are still manufactured by FN Herstal of Belgium and Portugal, and under license by Fabricaciones Militares (FM) of Argentina. The Hi-Power remains one of the most influential pistols in the history of small arms. It has inspired a number of clone manufacturers (including Charles Daly of the Philippines & USA, FEG of Hungary, Arcus of Bulgaria, IMI of Israel, and others). Many modern pistols borrow features from it, such as the staggered column high-capacity magazine, and the Browning linkless cam locking system (which on modern pistols is often simplified so that the barrel locks into the ejection port, meaning the barrel and slide do not have to be machined for locking lugs). Until recently, FEG made an almost exact clone in 9mm and .40 S&W, but the company now manufactures a version with modifications to the barrel, linkage, and slide stop that are incompatible with genuine Hi-Powers.