Browning Hi Power

A Brief Guide To The Browning Hi Power

Now that Springfield Armory and Girsan are bringing it back, this is a good time to talk about the Browning Hi Power. It is/was more or less the first modern handgun. Almost all modern handguns either descend from the Hi Power or were influenced by it.

It was the first double-stack pistol, which almost all modern pistols are. The barrel design is still being used by almost every modern handgun.

It's one of the most proven handguns for any use, including competition and combat, and it absolutely is a good concealed carry gun even today.

So what's so special about this old gun?

Inventing The Browning Hi Power

Browning with his BAR

The Browning Hi Power was invented to sell a bunch of pistols to the French.

In 1921, the French government put out a request for a new pistol, and like most gun designers and gun companies, John Moses Browning (and his employer, Fabrique Nationale Herstal aka FN) got to work on a new gun design.

The French government had a list of must-haves, which included their desired cartridge (a 9mm caliber bullet at 1150 fps) and carrying capacity of 10 rounds. The gun had to be capable of killing a man at 50 meters.

As to design, they wanted a gun that was easy to strip and maintain in the field. It had to be hammer-fired, with a manual safety and a magazine disconnect safety, which rendered the gun unfirable if the magazine was dropped from the pistol. The gun was to be called the "Grande Rendement" or "Grande Puissance" or "High Capacity" or "High Power."

FN told Browning to get to work on the action, and his counterpart and protege Dieudonne Saive got to work on the magazine.

The wrinkle, of course, was that Browning's most successful handgun - the 1911 - was still under patent at Colt, so he had to devise a totally new system.

Saive quickly nailed the staggered magazine design, and Browning went through a few iterations of a pistol design. The first to see trials was a striker-fired system, essentially a scaled-up Colt 1908 Vest Pocket, which didn't win approval.

Browning suffered a fatal heart attack in 1926 (the legend is he was found at his work desk) and Saive had to take over the design work.

Over the next few years, Colt's patents on the 1911 expired. Saive took a few elements of the design and added them to complete the project, including a barrel bushing and the slide stop/release lever design, giving the gun the same takedown sequence. He also changed the firing mechanism to a single-action, hammer-fired design.

So while it's usually called a "Browning" gun, the reality is most of the work was done by Saive.

For the final version of the gun, Saive revised the frame and barrel bushing, and shortened the magazine to 13 rounds. It had the features that the French government wanted, and the highest carrying capacity of any handgun at the time.

But apparently that wasn't good enough, as the French passed in favor of the Pistole Model 1935 by Charles Petter. However, the Belgian government did not pass and ordered more than 60,000 of them, adopting it as the pistol model of 1935 - or P-35 in their nomenclature - and the rest is history.

Double Stack Magazines And Modern Barrel Design Comes From The Hi Power

Handgun Magazine

Dieudonne Saive invented the staggered double-stack magazine for use in the Hi Power, which of course has been a feature in modern handguns basically ever since.

There were other guns that had double rows of ammunition, but they were drastically different.

For example, the Mauser C96 pistol, British Enfield and M1 Garand rifles all have internal magazines with double stacks, but the cartridges don't stagger; it's two vertical rows. The way those guns work is that the bolt feeds alternating rows - right, then left and so on - whereas staggered magazines taper to feed a single cartridge.

Then we have the barrel design. The barrel has a block below the chamber, which acts as a linkless tilting cam, keeping the barrel captured in the frame but tilting as part of the recoil cycle. The channel you see cut in the barrel block is where the barrel link pin (part of the slide stop lever, just like a 1911) sits.

Browning Hi Power barrel

This recoil lug design is part of almost every popular handgun ever made. In fact, here's a Glock barrel:

Glock barrel

The only real exceptions are guns that use a Walther design - such as the fixed barrel PPK (and blatant ripoffs like the Makarov) and the P38's locking block, which the Beretta 92 is a copy of - and Beretta's rotating barrel system. There are a few other rare examples, but that's pretty much it.

So...the Hi Power established some fundamental tenets of handgun design that have informed basically every significant handgun ever since. It was the original Wonder Nine, and there is no way to overstate its importance in terms of influence.

Sure, different firing systems have come about - DA/SA, striker-fired - and obviously a boat load of other developments (polymer frames, rails, optics, whatever) but the Hi Power is the origin of the modern 9mm handgun. This is where they all come from.

The Hi Power In Military Service And Competition

Military service man using firearm

The Browning Hi Power was designed as a military sidearm and is actually still in use in some countries today. In terms of global distribution, it was - in fact - the most common military sidearm of the latter half of the 20th century.

More than 50 countries would purchase the Hi Power as either their standard-issue gun or for limited use.

Initially, it was adopted by the Belgian army, and a contract was also secured for the Chinese government as they were fighting the Japanese and needed the guns. Belgium, however, was overrun by the Nazis by 1940, who started putting guns together out of FN's parts bins to supplicate their stocks of 9mm pistols.

Saive got the heck out of Dodge, landing in England and going to work for the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield. He reproduced the blueprints, which were sent to John Inglis and Sons of Canada, which is why you hear about "Inglis Hi-Power" pistols.

The guns were made in Canada under license, and sent to the UK for Allied use and for the Chinese nationalist contract.

After the war, production moved back to FNH, though the gun was also made under license in other countries for military/national police use. Copies were produced in Hungary (FEG) Israel (Kareen) Argentina (FM) among others. India went so far as to buy Inglis's tooling in the 1970s to produce their own copy, which is still in service with their national police and military today.

The Hi Power proved itself to be a reliable, accurate and capable handgun in every conflict it served in, at least as far as handguns could at the time.

The Hi Power also established itself as a capable competition pistol in practical shooting sports. While not inaccurate, it wasn't a good bullseye gun but was very successful in the early days of IPSC.

Minor power factor shooters took any edge they could get over 1911 shooters, and the edge the Hi Power had was capacity. In the first few years of IPSC World Shoot championships, the top five shooters were almost always shooting 1911s or Hi Powers.

Browning Hi Power In Commercial Production

Browning Hi Power

Commercial production - outside of production for military/police contracts - began after World War II, with the first examples hitting store shelves in the 1950s in most countries. While surplus P-35 pistols were exported and sold in a number of countries, the first commercial production models were designated Mark 1 models.

The standard production gun was changed in 1962 from an internal extractor (a la the 1911) to an external extractor, which aided in reliable feeding.

Mark I Hi Power pistols had similar sights to the Government 1911 (staked front, dovetailed rear) spur hammers and Bakelite grips. Target models were also made available, with adjustable rear sights and a dovetailed front sight. Ring hammers were a common option.

The Mark I pistols were known for certain deficiencies such as inconsistent feeding of hollow points, which was certainly noted by police officers who carried the gun as an authorized alternative to duty revolvers.

Surplus pistols of various origin (Israel, Hungary, Argentina, elsewhere) have been imported here and there. They are generally understood to be rougher than the FN-made guns in fit and finish (with some parts incompatibility) but are otherwise serviceable. Supplies of these pistols are intermittent. They are all military models, with fixed sights and plastic/rubber grips.

In 1982, the Mark II model was introduced. The Mark II added 3-dot sights to all models, ambidextrous thumb safeties, and revised the barrel throating to allow for reliable feeding of JHP ammunition. Spur hammers were common, but ring hammers were available as a factory option.

The Mark II was typically offered in matte blue or bright blue, but a chrome finish was also available.

The Mark III debuted in 1988, with a firing pin block added to the firing system, a black epoxy finish, and dovetailed sights. The Mark III also saw new calibers, with .40 S&W and .357 Sig being offered alongside 9x19mm.

The Mark III had more trim levels being offered, including the Standard, Capitan, and Practical trims with various features.

Browning, the firearms company, never manufactured the Hi Power (or much of anything else, for that matter; most of their rifles and shotguns are made by Miroku in Japan) but the Hi Power was sold under the "Browning Arms" brand. They were made, of course, by FNH.

FNH announced the cessation of Hi Power production in 2018, seemingly bringing the story of the Hi Power to a close...or so it seemed.

In a matter of months after FN's announcement, Turkish gun maker Tisas announced the Regent BR9, a Hi Power clone that was almost perfectly clone correct. Unfortunately, supplies was slow and sporadic in coming. There were some rumblings of QC issues, but didn't seem to be universal.

Granted, the 2020/2021 pandemic didn't help...but there weren't a lot hitting dealer shelves or online retailers with regularity before either.

And then some others stepped up to the plate.

In September of 2021, EAA (European American Armory) announced that Girsan, a Turkish gunmaker whose products EAA imports and sells, had started making the MC P35, a Hi Power clone. The MC P35 is a clone of the Mark III models, with a matte black finish and 3 dot sights.

Not long after that, Springfield Armory announced the SA-35, a slightly modernized Hi Power repro. Springfield's model includes a number of strategic improvements to make the gun a little better, including an extended thumb safety (non-ambi) improved sights and an improved trigger, with no magazine safety. Finish is matte blue, with wood grips. 

So clearly, there's still enough enthusiasm and demand for the gun to keep it in production.

Okay, great...but what are these guns like to live with?

The Hi Power As A Shooter's Gun

Browning 9mm pistol

As a shooter's gun, the Hi Power has a lot of great attributes but has some deficiencies that require redress or training to overcome.

The trigger reach of the Hi Power is short; in fact the trigger reach is ¼" shorter than most factory 1911s and ⅓" shorter than a Gen 3 Glock 19. That makes the trigger easy to control, and is one of the reasons why the Hi Power is classically a favorite of shooters with small hands.

Older generations (Mark I, surplus pistols) were known for being very picky with anything other than FMJ ammunition due to the feed ramp geometry. However, FN Mark II (and later) pistols as well as some aftermarket guns have a revised feed ramp for reliable feeding.

Some generations of the gun had spotty metallurgy and cast frames. High round counts would see frame and slide wear or breakage beyond typical maintenance such as spring replacement, cleaning/lubrication and replacement of small parts.

Therefore, take care in selecting one. Used Hi Powers should probably not be carried unless thoroughly inspected by a gunsmith.

While much has been made about how naturally it points, there are some ergonomic failings.

The classic thumb safety is small, and can be difficult to consistently engage or disengage. The same goes for the magazine release. Some manufacturers install improved versions of one or both...but usually you have to add aftermarket upgrades.

The beavertail of the frame is sufficient for most people, but small. This can make the highest possible shooting grip difficult for some shooters, which is why custom shops like Nighthawk and MK3 Customs (who specialize in Hi Powers, among other guns) add extended beavertails to Hi Power pistols.

On a related note, the BHP is known for hammer bite, both shooting (the hammer pinching the web of the thumb) and carrying (poking the person carrying it) the gun. Spur hammers are the usual suspects, but even ring hammers are known to pinch or poke.

Swapping a spur hammer for a ring hammer can help. Another solution is to add the Safety Fast System or SFS. How the SFS works is changing the hammer so that it can cam forward when the sear hooks are engaged, allowing the hammer to drop forward but also engage the manual safety.

Basically, you cock the gun, then push the hammer forward which causes the safety to engage. Sweeping the safety off drops the hammer back into the cocked position. An SFS-equipped Hi Power (or 1911; the system is made for those guns as well) allows you to carry without getting poked by the hammer.

The factory sights usually stink...but what gun does that not apply to?

Then we come to the magazine disconnect safety. The presence of this hateful remnant of the French military RFP has plagued Hi Power shooters with magazines that don't drop free and a gritty, creepy trigger pull. A lot of people remove it, and enjoy improvement to both.

The trigger is relatively easy to improve, up to a point. Aftermarket triggers with revised geometry, polished trigger bars and aftermarket springs do wonders, but beyond this a Hi Power trigger job approaches alchemy to get the desired results.

There is no magazine well, which can make reloads less efficient than other pistols. Springfield Armory has addressed this with the SA-35 by beveling the magazine well, but that only helps so much; you're still trying to put a rectangle into a rectangular hole, which means they have to be aligned pretty precisely.

While the Hi Power was common in the early days of IPSC and it is obviously one of the all-time great fighting pistols, USPSA, IPSC and IDPA rules limit what divisions it can be used in, which can put the Hi Power shooter at a disadvantage in capacity or power factor.

NRA Action, ISPC and IDPA are a bit friendlier in terms of the rulebook, but not by much. USPSA is the most popular practical shooting sport, so be aware of that.

The Browning Hi Power For Concealed Carry

Single vs Double Stack Magazines

As a carry gun, a Hi Power has - if anything - been underappreciated. The gun is slim and compact for a service pistol. Just as the 1911 is deceptively easy to conceal, so is the Hi Power for the same reasons. 

With a stout belt and good Hi Power holster, they actually make a good carry gun provided they feed defensive ammunition reliably. The later production runs of FN pistols had few issues; most hiccups with JHP are typically older pistols with the original feed ramp and throating.

The Hi Power does not have a good way to mount a light and outside of custom slide milling, the gun has not really been made to accept a red dot. How important that a matter of some debate, but it does bear mentioning.

The most modern gun? No. That said, a good example is more than tenable as a defensive pistol. The capacity (15+1 With MecGar magazines) plus the shootability makes it an easy gun to get hits with.

It's one of the all-time great service pistols. It will do anything a modern pistol will do in terms of shooting, so long as a red dot or a pistol-mounted light is not a priority.

About The Author

Writer sam hoober