Not many handguns can claim to still be in service nearly 90 years after they were first introduced.
That very select group has some esteemed members indeed; you’ve got the Colt M1911A1, the Smith & Wesson Military & Police (Model 10) revolver, and one of the most famous 9mm handguns ever designed, the Browning Hi-Power.
The design itself was borne of a French military requirement from just after WWI for a new service pistol. The requirements were relatively straightforward – it had to be a semi-automatic handgun, chambered for 9mm Parabellum or larger, with a magazine capacity of at least 10 rounds.
See our story on the new Springfield SA-35 replica of the Browning Hi-Power
Being one of Europe’s pre-eminent arms manufactures, the Belgian-based Fabrique Nationale wasted no time in coming up with something to fit the bill.
FN’s resident arms designer was none other than the legendary John Moses Browning and he was soon at work designing a gun to meet the requirements.
The obvious place to start was with Browing’s previous handgun design, the phenomenally successful M1911 pistol. Awkwardly, however, the design and patent were held by Colt so Browning was forced to get creative, taking the basic principle of the M1911 by making changes to several areas including using a linkless cam to connect the barrel and frame.
It’s often said the Hi-Power was the legendary John Moses Browning’s last design and in a way this is true – it had its genesis as a 9mm version of the M1911A1 pistol.
However, much of the credit for the Hi-Power must go to Belgian arms designer Dieudonné Saive, who took over work on the design after Browning died at his desk in 1926. Saive subsequently produced one of the greatest handguns of all time.
One of Saive’s many innovations was the double-stack magazine, giving the design an unprecedented magazine capacity of 13 rounds — nearly double the capacity of any existing service handgun in 1935.
One of the unusual features of the Hi-Power is its magazine disconnect safety. If the magazine is removed from the gun, it cannot be fired. This was a requirement of the original French military design, intended so if the user got into a hand-to-hand struggle with an opponent, they could drop the magazine out and prevent the gun being turned on them.
While this sort of makes sense in the context of a World War I-era trench raid or close combat situation, it was inexplicably retained on post-war commercial models of the pistol – despite having no benefit for civilian users and actually making the trigger pull worse.
Saive also changed the Hi-Power from a striker-fired design (much like a modern Glock pistol) and added an external hammer — a desirable feature for militaries and police forces at the time, as it enabled to user to readily see if the gun was loaded and ready to fire at a glance.
MILITARY & POLICE SERVICE
Despite being the ones who called for a gun like the Hi-Power in the first place, the French military eventually decided to adopt a 7.65mm eight-round pistol, the MAB P1935, partly due to budgetary constraints.
The Belgians, however, seeing the design’s potential, adopted the handgun as the GP-35 in 1935. Known as the Grand Puissance (“High Power”), it was issued to officers and tank crews. A number of other smaller European countries also adopted the design, as did the French (in small numbers) and even Nationalist China, where the design was seen as a modern cousin of the iconic Mauser C96 (right down to the detachable stock/holster).
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, it was soon clear they’d be heading to France via Belgium. Saive and several other FN staff escaped to the UK with all the blueprints and technical plans for the Browning Hi-Power pistol before the Germans arrived.
The Germans almost immediately had the Hi-Power put into production for their own use, designating it Pistole 640(b). More than 329,000 were made before the war ended.
Meanwhile, across the channel, the British and the FN staff were working out how to put the Hi-Power into production. Britain’s arms industry was already stretched thin making the current service weapons without trying to get a new gun design into production in between visits from the Luftwaffe, so instead the Hi-Power’s plans were sent to Canada, far out of reach of German bombs. There, the Toronto-based John Inglis & Co geared up to start manufacturing the gun, after reverse-engineering some of the pre-war examples obtained from China.
The first Inglis-made Hi-Powers were finished in January 1944 and the gun was designated 9mm Pistol No 1 Mk I, featuring an adjustable rear tangent sight calibrated out to 500m, with the rear of the grip inletted for a detachable wooden shoulder stock which also doubled as a holster. They were intended for Nationalist China, with nearly 37,500 being built and supplied to them and many more getting as far as India before the war ended.
Pistols intended for the British and Canadian militaries had fixed sights and were designated 9mm Pistol No 2 Mk I. Confusingly, however, as the British already had another Pistol No 2 Mk I in service, a top-break .38/200 calibre revolver made by RSAF Enfield.
By early 1945 the Inglis-made Hi-Power pistols were equipping notable numbers of British and Canadian commando, paratrooper and tank units in Europe. Changes to the extractor and ejector resulted in the Pistol No 2 Mk I*.
The design performed spectacularly well in combat, with guns being supplied to Chinese, Soviet, and Greek forces alongside those of Britain and Canada. When the war ended, production was re-started at the FN factory in Liege, Belgium. As the world’s militaries and police forces rebuilt, there was a huge demand for modern and effective sidearms and the Hi-Power fit that need.
More than 60 countries eventually adopted the pistol as their military service handgun, including the Australia. Versions of the pistol, both licensed and unlicensed have been made in Belgium (later on, the guns were assembled in Portugal), Canada, India, Argentina, Hungary and Indonesia.
The Browning Hi-Power went through two major changes. The Mk II was introduced in the early 1980s, while the current iteration, the Mk III, was introduced in 1989. The major differences between the models are the Mk II has an ambidextrous safety catch and a redesigned feed ramp, while the Mk III also features a cast steel frame which is better for hotter modern ammunition, an internal firing pin safety, and a slightly redesigned ejection port.
In an attempt to endow the design with more stopping power, a Browning Hi-Power chambered for .40 S&W was available in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The idea was sound in theory, but in practice there are plenty of double-action semi-auto .40 S&W handguns on the market and concerns about the ability of the Hi-Power to tolerate a regular diet of the more powerful cartridge meant the gun was not as successful as it could have been.
THE HI-POWER TODAY
Production of the Browning Hi-Power by FN-Browning ended in 2017, partly due to high costs. Browning-made Hi-Powers were extremely well-made but incredibly unattractive price-wise when compared to almost anything else that wasn’t a specialist IPSC pistol.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been issuing Browning Hi-Powers as their standard handgun since 1972 when the L9A1 version was adopted, with the current Hi-Power Mk 3 being introduced in 2001. The ADF has about 8000 in inventory, with a replacement expected to be announced in 2022.
Canada and India are among nations still issuing the pistol as a primary sidearm (although Canada plans to phase it out soon), while dozens more still have them as reserve weapons or police handguns.
India still manufactures and issues a licence-built copy, the Pistol 1A, a copy of the WWII-era Pistol No 2 Mk I*, with its distinctive hump on the back sight.
From a civilian perspective, there has been a considerable resurgence of interest in the Browning Hi-Power design following the end of production by FN. Turkish gunmakers have been producing very good copies for a few years now, particularly the ZIG-14 handgun made by Tisas.
US manufacturer Springfield Armory created quite a stir with the announcement of their SA-35 pistol, which is being touted as a US-made Browning Hi-Power with a few refinements (such as removing the magazine disconnect).
Most versions of the Browning Hi-Power encountered by shooters in Australia are the Practical model, which is chambered for 9mm Parabellum, has 120mm barrel fit for Australian licensing laws, and also features adjustable sights, a two-tone finish and Pachmayr grips.
While magazines in Australia are restricted to 10 rounds for target shooting, the Hi-Power pistol was originally made and issued with 13-round magazines and aftermarket parts manufacturer Mec-Gar produce a 15-round magazine that fits flush with the bottom of the grip. Twenty-round magazines which extend below the grip also exist.
Despite being a fantastic and inherently ‘pointable’ handgun, the standard Browning Hi-Power has a terrible trigger, with a heavy, gritty pull coming in at 8lb (3.6kg). Partly this is due to heavy trigger mainspring which is rated at 32lb (14.5kg) pressure, but much of the blame lies with the magazine disconnect, which features a plunger pressing on the magazine.
One of the first things many Hi-Power owners do when they acquire one is to remove the magazine disconnect.
While intended to ensure the gun will fire all types of military-issue 9mm ammo, including hotter loads designed for SMGs, the heavy firing spring also makes the pistol rather difficult to cock, so some shooters replace it with an aftermarket one with a more reasonable 28lb (12.7kg) pressure.
While the Hi-Power design might be venerable, anyone who has used one agrees they have a certain special something about them. As the first of modern 9mm semi-automatic pistols, they occupy a hallowed place in the annals of firearms history.
Browning says on its website: “When you shoot a Hi-Power it is not just shooting ‘another nine’ — it is shaking hands with the greatest firearms designer the world has ever known.”
That goes some way to explaining the continuing appeal of an outstanding pistol which has been dubbed the King of Nines for its place at the very top of the pantheon of all-time great 9mm Parabellum semi-automatic pistols.
The Browning Hi-Power has featured prominently in several books over the years, and there’s plenty of information about them on the internet, but readers looking for an accessible overview of the design will find Robert J Maze’s book Howdah to High Power well worth reading, with Ian Skennertons’ 9mm Browning Hi-Power Handbook and Leroy Thompson’s The Browning Hi-Power Pistol also making worthwhile additions to the library.
Browning Hi-Power Mk IIIS
Calibre: 9mm Parabellum
Magazine Capacity: 13 rounds
Barrel length: 120mm
Overall length: 197mm