50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
It can be argued that, for the first couple of decades of its life, the Colt Government Model of 1911 had no competition. After all, it helped win “The War To End All Wars,” and, afterwards, continued to prove itself as a self-defense and law enforcement weapon, as well as one worth its salt on target ranges. In terms of reliability, ruggedness, and reputation, John M. Browning’s slab-sided warhorse had no equal—that is, until 1935, when Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium, introduced the P-35, or the Browning Hi-Power, as it is more popularly known.
This 9mm wartime Hi-Power Type II variant has desirable tangent sights, German “WaA 140” Waffenamt’s (Weapons Office) inspector stamps, and matching serial numbers, with walnut grips (subsequent grips were Bakelite). It does not have Belgium’s pre-war polish, but has yet to exhibit the roughness of later Nazi guns.
The Hi-Power, or HP nomenclature, was derived not from its caliber—the 9mm was hardly a qualifier in that respect—but for its improved magazine capacity of 13 rounds, compared to the 1911’s seven-round stack. After all, it was only natural that the Hi-Power would be compared to John Browning’s Government 1911, for the same man designed both guns.
Unfortunately, the Hi-Power was one of the last designs Browning worked on, for on November 26, 1929, this remarkable firearms genius died of a heart attack, while at his desk in his son Val’s office at Liège. Browning’s death came just two years after he had been granted two separate patents for a semi-automatic pistol the French government had commissioned him to produce. One was for a locked breech system, while the other was a blowback design, similar to the 1911. In spite of the fact that the locked-breech design was ultimately selected, the Hi-Power has often been referred to as an “improved 1911,” the supposition being that Browning had taken his basic 1911 design and simply updated it. But such was not the case, for having sold all rights for the 1911 to Colt’s, Browning was forced to, in essence, compete against himself by creating a gun that would circumvent his original patents. Of course, this situation became even more complicated with his death.
Luckily for the future of the GP-35, or the Grand Puissance, as the gun was initially being called, Fabrique Nationale had another talented firearms designer, Dieudonné Joseph Saive, who became FN’s head of firearms development, after Browning’s demise. It was Saive who perfected the HP’s double-stack magazine, thereby giving the gun its 13-plus-one capacity without dramatically thickening the grips. He also tweaked Browning’s original grip contour, making it more comfortable in the hand. But proving the old adage that timing is everything, in 1928, the patents on the Colt 1911 expired, giving Saive an advantage that Browning did not have: he could now incorporate some of the 1911 elements into the Hi-Power, including a simplified takedown system and a removable barrel bushing. Years later, Saive would also create an aluminum-alloy frame for the Hi-Power, as well as a short-lived double-action version, in 1952.
The Browning Hi-Power was well received when it was finally introduced in 1935. With its 45⁄8-inch barrel, it was balanced and ergonomic, functioned flawlessly with military ball ammunition, was accurate enough to print 21⁄2-inch groups at 25 yards (ideal for a military sidearm), and, being slightly smaller than the 1911, it weighed only two pounds. But it was less than perfect.
For one thing, the sights were small and difficult to align (the same critique given to the 1911). The safety on the left side of the frame was miniscule and “mushy,” absent the defining “click” of the 1911. Most notoriously, the trigger pull was extremely heavy, and, when the gun went off, it had a nasty habit of biting the hand that held it—yet another trait the Hi-Power inherited from its inventor’s Government 1911. Specifically, unless the pistol was held just right, the hammer spur could punch the web of the hand, between the thumb and the index finger, with each shot. This same anatomical area was also in danger of getting pinched as the slide cycled. Additionally, some shooters familiar with the 1911 objected that there was no grip safety, although like the 1911, the hammer did have a half-cock position. And then there was the magazine disconnect. This was even more disconcerting to many, for it prevented the gun from firing unless the magazine was fully inserted (in all fairness, it was a feature the French government required).
Nonetheless, these were finely crafted, superbly finished pistols exhibiting the best of Belgian manufacturing skills. Plus, with the Hi-Power’s increased firepower, it quickly gained a reputation in the field, even though it was soon discovered that the 13-round mags were less prone to malfunction when only 12 rounds were loaded. Two versions were initially offered, a fixed sight Ordinary Model and an Adjustable Rear Sight Model. Some of the guns were fitted with backstraps that were cut for detachable shoulder stocks.
Ironically, France ended up not adopting the Hi-Power. But Belgium did, and, eventually, the gun ended up being used by both Allies and enemies during World War II. Germany took over manufacturing the Hi-Power, when it invaded Belgium, in 1940; the guns subsequently suffered a noticeable lack of refinement as the war progressed. As Joseph M. Cornell noted in his excellent Standard Catalog of Browning Firearms (Gun Digest Books, 2008), “The finish on these Nazi guns runs from as fine as the Pre-War Commercial series to downright crude, and it is possible to see how the war was progressing for Germany, by the finish on their weapons.”
Before the Germans occupied the FN factory, Hi-Power drawings were sent to Canada and England and Allied wartime production relocated there. After VE Day, Hi-Power production in the FN factory regained its pre-war luster, and the pistol was eventually adopted by more than 50 armies throughout the world, including those of Belgium, Britain, Israel, Australia, and Singapore, to name but a few. In addition, ever since 1971, some Hi-Powers have been assembled in the FN Portuguese factory from Belgium-made parts (contrary to popular belief, they have never been manufactured in Portugal). The Hi-Power began arriving in the U.S. as a civilian arm in 1954, and has since enjoyed an admirable reputation as a self-defense and competition gun, as well as a collectable. At one time it was also chambered in .30 Luger, and a .40 S&W version was introduced in 1994. However, beginning in 2011, only the 9mm has been imported into the U.S.
Today, the Browning FN Hi-Power is actually a better gun than John Browning or Dieudonné Saive had originally conceived. The hammer, safety, and trigger pull (although still heavy) have all been improved, it now has an enlarged, ambidextrous safety, and it is available with fixed or adjustable sights. If there’s a downside, due to U.S. import restrictions, the magazine now has a reduced capacity of 10 rounds. In addition, a number of limited edition versions, including the 1878-1978 Centennial Model, the highly desirable engraved Louis XVI Model (imported from 1980 to 1984), and the 75th Anniversary Model, with gold-accented and engraved silver nitride finish (a black oxide with thumbrest stocks, and polished blue steel versions are also available), make the Browning Hi-Power the ultimate testimony to John Browning’s final vision of what a single-action semi-automatic pistol should be. As such, it deserves a place on our bucket list.