EPU Gun of the Week

Browning Hi-Power

Originally posted January 31, 2016

Our Gun of the Week this week goes by many names around the world, but here in the United States we know it best as the Browning Hi-Power.

Browning Hi-Power, right side

The gun we now know as the Hi-Power was developed for and originally produced by Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre in Belgium. Fabrique Nationale started out as a consortium established by various existing Belgian gun manufacturers in and around the city of Liège (including the Nagant brothers mentioned in previous entries), the idea being that it could produce for large-unit-number military contracts more efficiently than any one of the smaller parent firms. Eventually it took on something of a life of its own, and today has long since outlived the companies that set it up (rather to their managers' chagrin, one expects).

Browning Hi-Power, left side

The project that led to the Hi-Power began in 1922 at the suggestion of the French government, which was considering the adoption of the powerful German 9mm Parabellum cartridge and, understandably, did not particularly want to give its military arms business to anyone in Germany so soon after the Great War. Having developed earlier pistols for FN in a similar caliber (9mm Browning Long), not to mention the .45-caliber M1911 for the US armed forces, John Moses Browning was the natural choice to try to meet that requirement.

After four years of preliminary work, Browning was in Liège working on the 9mm project when he died in November 1926. He had been working with Fabrique Nationale for nearly 30 years by that point, apart from a four-year absence enforced by the First World War, and according to Edward C. Ezell's Handguns of the World, was held in such esteem by the company that his body lay in state in the FN board room so that everyone who worked there could come and pay their respects to le Maître, as he was known.

People often describe the Hi-Power as Browning's last design, but this is not perfectly correct. It was the last gun he worked on, and embodies a number of innovations he made, and so undoubtedly represents an evolution of the principles of handgun design he'd started refining around 1898 (in the two different designs that saw production as the FN and Colt Model 1900s). However, the design wasn't finished when he died, and indeed by the time of his death was already not entirely his work. He had a collaborator on the project, who then stepped in after his death to finish the job: Belgian firearms engineer Dieudonné Saive, who is perhaps better known in military firearms fandom as the designer of the FAL rifle and its various descendants.

Saive took around three years to complete the new pistol's design, guide the prototypes through testing, and so forth, and then production was delayed by several years owing to the unfortunate timing of the 1929 world economic crash and the ensuing Great Depression—which is why the last creation of a firearms designer who died in 1926 entered production as, to give it its full name, the Modèle 1935 pistolet automatique Grand Puissance. It's from this, and its English translation, that many of its other names are derived; in various literature, you'll see this pistol described as the "FN Browning Model 1935", "FN GP-35", "HP-35", and so forth. ("Hi-Power" is the name it's sold under here in the United States. The British, less fond of a creative advertising misspelling, always insisted on "High Power", when they weren't just calling it by its Army designation, L9A1.)

That's enough history for right now; there'll be a little more at the end. Let's have a closer look at mine and see what's what.

First, a look at the markings. There are surprisingly few; for a gun that has had so many names, it's interesting to me that the US commercial version doesn't have any name on it. It just sort of... speaks for itself. On the right side of the slide it's marked with simple production info:

modern Browning Hi-Power right side markings: MADE IN BELGIUM - ASSEMBLED IN PORTUGAL

And the left has the name and, per federal law, headquarters cities of its North American manufacturer/importer.

modern Browning Hi-Power left side markings: BROWNING ARMS COMPANY MORGAN, UTAH & MONTREAL P.Q.

(The required caliber marking is on the barrel itself, on the part that is visible through the ejection port when the action is closed.)

Because the Browning Arms Company is an American corporation and yet a wholly owned subsidiary of Fabrique Nationale, these guns are not considered "imported" in the same way that they would be if the company selling them in the US was just buying them from FN and then reselling them. (That is presumably also why they don't say Fabrique Nationale anywhere on them.) Incidentally, the original incarnation of Browning Arms was more what we might now think of as a "design studio" than a manufacturing company. While he was alive, Browning's designs were almost always developed for and manufactured by other companies; for instance, most of his long arms before 1900 were designed for Winchester, and thereafter Remington, while he did his handgun business in Europe with FN, but in his native country through Colt. Guns being sold in the US with Browning's name on them is a thing that didn't really start until after his death.

And no, I don't know why FN makes the parts in Belgium but has them assembled in Portugal. I can only assume there's some arcane tax or labor-relations reason for it.

Here's a closer look at the magazine, which is mechanically and historically—believe it or not—one of the most notable parts of the gun.

Browning Hi-Power magazine, back view

This is a double-stack, single-feed magazine, which means there are two partially overlapping columns of cartridges inside it when it's loaded, but the "on deck" cartridge—the one about to be fed into the chamber—is in the center. It holds 13 rounds. "OK, so what?" I hear you thinking. Modern 9mm pistols, the so-called "wondernines" of the 1980s and onward, hold more than that. The Glock 17, for instance, holds 17,¹ and there are others with even larger capacities out there.

That's today. This was 1935. Heck, when this design was finalized, it was 1929. In those days, the only way you were likely to see a self-loading pistol that could hold more than seven or eight rounds was if you came across one of the machine pistol variants of the Mauser C96. Magazines could be had for those that held 20 or more, but, well, at that point you were basically dealing with a small submachine gun. They were also not considered very reliable. In the mid-1920s, not many people believed a double-stack magazine could be made to work well enough to be suitable in a service pistol—particularly if the magazine, rather than something inside the gun, had to do the job of centering the topmost cartridge for feeding.

(It's possible to do that, by the by—double-stack, double-feed magazines are common in 9mm submachine guns like the Heckler & Koch MP5 family. The feed system inside the gun's receiver does the job of feeding cartridges first from the left column, then the right, then the left again, using cleverly designed feed ramps and chamber mouth geometry. That's a later innovation, though, and anyway tends to make the gun a bit wider than you'd really want a handgun to be. Not that there are no double-feed handguns, but as far as I know they're still not common.)

The interesting part here is that one of the people who didn't think a double-stack magazine would work was John Browning, who originally designed his 9mm prototypes with the same well-tested single-stack design he'd always used. It was Dieudonné Saive who insisted that it could be done, and then, rather than spend a lot of time trying to persuade le Maître verbally, went ahead and built one to prove it. As such, the Grande Puissance launched with a markedly larger magazine capacity than any other major handgun in the world at the time, and remained a leader in the field for quite a while afterward. Even today, 13 rounds is a respectable quantity.

Also of note in this picture is that little spring sticking out of the back of the magazine, down at the bottom. That spring is a relatively recent innovation, and its only job is to apply a bit of tension against the rear lip of the magazine well when the magazine is fully inserted. And why would you want that? Well, tactical priorities are like any other thing, they change over time. It used to be that pistols were for one-handed shooting only; then, for a while, the Done Thing was to put your off hand's index finger on the front of the trigger guard, so they were squared off to make that easier; then that went out of style and they stopped; nowadays it seems to be coming back in. The spring on the newer Hi-Power magazine is to accommodate one of the current Tactical Fads, which is a demand that, when you hit the magazine release, the magazine is positively ejected from the firearm rather than just... you know... falling out. (Or even unlocking but needing to be pulled out, which also used to be The Right Way once upon a time, the idea being that you'd be less likely to lose the dang thing.) I kid you not. Tactical People argue about this stuff all the time. If your mag flies out instead of dropping out, that'll save you... oh... as much as 250 milliseconds on your reload, and That Could Mean the Difference Between Life and Death!

(I mock, because most of the guys who argue about this stuff are never going to be in a situation where it makes any damn difference at all, but really, in fairness, under certain circumstances it totally could.)

Anyway. The spring is something neither Browning nor Saive would have recognized, but the magazine itself was something of a revolution in its time and established a baseline for the state of that particular art going forward. Not bad for the resolution of an argument between two colleagues.

Speaking of the magazine, like virtually all modern semiautomatic handguns do, the Hi-Power locks open when it's empty.

Browning Hi-Power, left side, locked open

Looking more closely, we can see the safety lever, which—as on the Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless, among other Browning designs—also serves as a (secondary, in this case) slide lock when open. (If you peer at the side of the slide just behind the grip serrations, you can see the notch where it goes when the gun is placed on "safe" with the slide in battery.)

detail, Browning Hi-Power left side safety lever doubling as slide lock

The slide will not drop automatically when the empty magazine is removed (unlike on, for instance, the Nambu Type 14), but this can be used for a little extra insurance, for instance while cleaning. You don't want to trip the slide release, which is that lever with the grooved button just at the top front of the grip panel there, by accident and shut it on your thumb or something. :)

Over on the righthand side, the open view is much the same. Note that this is a later-model Hi-Power with an ambidextrous safety lever; the original version, and in fact up through the late 1980s, had it only on the left, for right-handed shooters.

Browning Hi-Power, right side, locked open

Of particular note in this view is the button on the side of the frame above the trigger assembly. That is actually the same piece of metal as the slide release lever on the other side, and is the place to start when disassembling the Hi-Power. When the slide is locked open, with a little finagling, you can start to push that through.

Browning Hi-Power disassembly, part 1

(This is another time when you'd want to use the safety as a more positive slide lock, to avoid tripping the main one by mistake as you're taking it off.)

Once you've done that, you can see how the assembly goes together on the other side.

Browning Hi-Power disassembly, part 2

From there the slide release lever and retaining pin can be worked completely free of the gun and put aside. Apart from the barrel's operating lug, that one little piece of metal is probably the most complicated single part, in terms of machining, on the whole pistol.

Browning Hi-Power disassembly, part 3

At this point the safety/slide lock can be released and the slide guided forward, past its usual stopping point...

Browning Hi-Power disassembly, part 4

... and completely off the front of the gun.

Browning Hi-Power disassembly, part 5

It's way easier to do this than it is to finagle the barrel out of lockup and get the slide off the 1903 Pocket Hammerless.

Now that the slide is off, the recoil spring's guide can be disengaged from the operating lug at the bottom of the barrel, and the spring and guide removed from the slide assembly. As in the 1903, the spring and guide don't have to be separated (and you would never practically want to, unless the spring was damaged and you had to replace it).

Browning Hi-Power disassembly, part 6

Finally, the barrel just drops down and slips backward out of the slide. This is as dismantled as you're ever going to want your Hi-Power to be unless you have to do some kind of repair work on the trigger/hammer mechanisms, which most end users are not going to be attempting themselves, and—this was always one of Browning's goals—it requires no tools whatsoever to accomplish. The smallest single part is the combination slide release and retention pin, which is not impossible to lose, but certainly easier to keep track of than a bunch of loose screws or drift pins.

With the barrel and slide separated, we can see more of how the locking mechanism works. It looks similar to the barrel retention system in the 1903 Pocket Hammerless, but its function is very different.

detail, Browning Hi-Power barrel and slide

(N.B. The barrel is actually "upside down" in this shot, because the flash picked up the lugs better that way.)

In the Hammerless, the matching lugs on barrel and frame are just there to keep the barrel in position; the Hammerless, a .32, is a straight blowback design without any sort of locking system besides the inertia of the slide and the tension of the recoil spring. 9mm Parabellum is a more powerful cartridge, and while various attempts have been made to develop a simple blowback action for it, they all have the common feature that they have failed. A 9mm handgun really needs some kind of locking breech to function reliably and safely, and those lugs, along with the geometry of the operating lug on the bottom of the barrel, are what provide it in the Hi-Power.

Basically, what happens is that under recoil, the barrel and slide come back together for a short distance, their relative positions maintained (and the chamber thus still locked shut) by those lugs on top of the barrel mating with the ones inside the arch of the slide. At a certain point in their travels, the operating lug at the bottom of the barrel encounters a surface machined inside the frame (which I couldn't get a good photo of, sorry) which acts on those complicated surfaces, camming the back of the barrel so that it tilts downward and then stopping it from traveling any farther back. When that happens, the lugs at the top disengage, and the slide is free to travel the rest of the way back without the barrel. By that point the bullet has left the barrel and the chamber pressure has fallen to safe levels; the extractor on the slide pulls the empty case out of the chamber, the ejector kicks it out of the ejection port at the end of travel, and then the spring takes over and pulls the whole works forward into battery again, sweeping the next cartridge off the top of the magazine as it goes.

This is a very elegant mechanism, and one on which a fairly arresting number of new semiautomatic pistols are still being based to this day. Apart from some bits of the trigger lockwork and the ejector, the slide and barrel themselves are the only moving parts. Earlier Browning tilting-barrel locking systems, such as that found on the M1911, had a swinging link instead of the solid camming lug under the barrel, which added another axis of rotation and meant that the barrel moved farther out of its locked alignment before returning to battery. (If I had a 1911, I could take it apart and show you the differences, but unfortunately I don't, so you'll have to take my word for it.) By this refinement, Browning addressed two common complaints about the M1911: that the swinging link had a tendency to wear out quickly in hard use, and that the pistol tended to be, let us say, not especially accurate. (1911s can be made very accurate, but it takes some work. There is any number of smiths and companies around the country who will charge you a very great deal of money to do it.)

So that's the FN GP-35/HP-35/L9A1/Pistol High Power Mk {I|II|III}/Browning Hi-Power, simultaneously John Browning's last hurrah and one of Dieudonné Saive's first big shows. Here in the US, the Hi-Power tends to be less famous than its older cousin who joined the Army, which is only natural. It's certainly less prominent in American popular culture than the good old Army .45. Moviegoers of a certain age will recognize it as the gun Axel Foley carried in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, and... that's about it. (Actually, it's been in a ton of movies, but it's usually not the Hero Gun.)

In Europe, it's considerably better-known, as it was adopted by armed forces all over the continent and—this is how you know a gun is well-designed—on both sides of the Second World War. The Germans kept them in production when they took over Belgium in 1940, while the British (with the connivance of certain FN employees) smuggled copies of the plans to Canada, where John Inglis & Co. of Toronto, Ontario put them into production for the use of His Majesty's troops. The Hungarian arms company FÉG also cloned the gun at some point during or after the war (no one seems to be entirely sure, since it only became common knowledge in the West after the Iron Curtain came down), and CZ-UB in Czechoslovakia heavily based its famous CZ 75 on the Hi-Power design as well.

As still another aside, and through the odd vicissitudes of industrial business, Inglis is now a brand of household appliances, as the company was bought out by Whirlpool Canada, while FÉG long ago converted into a manufacturer of HVAC equipment. Weirdly, FÉG's Hi-Power clone, the PJK-9HP, remains immortalized in Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Publication 3317.2, Safety and Security Information for Federal Firearms Licensees, as the model for the fictitious firearm in the "how to read firearms markings for inventory recording" diagram: the JPG Industries Model PB&J-9HP. Seriously.

ATF Publication 3317.2 sample firearms inventory page
Made in beautiful Yunghar!

Here's something funny: Notice where they point out where it says "caliber"? That's wrong! OK, the "9" in the PJK-9HP's model name probably does indicate that it's 9mm, but it's not directly and explicitly a caliber marking. There's no such cartridge as "9mm HP" anyway, it would say some variation on 9mm Para[bellum], or 9mm Luger, or 9x19mm. That's not even where caliber markings usuallly are; on most modern semiautos they're somewhere near (or, as in the case of late-model Hi-Powers, in) the ejection port. The ATF made up a fictitious firearm and then interpreted its markings incorrectly. On their own government form. God bless America. :)


The Hi-Power's a notable and influential item, is what I'm getting at, and the things that make it notable are documented as the work of both of its designers, which I think is pretty cool. In one sense, it could be argued that the Hi-Power represents the end of the "heroic age" of firearms designers, when One Talented Man (I have yet to hear of a prominent female firearms designer of the period, though I would quite like to) could reasonably put his name to a fully realized product, and the beginning of the modern collaborative-engineering model at the same time. I think this is particularly true in that Saive wasn't simply tapped by FN's bosses to take over from Browning when le Maître died; they were working together.

I'm not saying it's the last firearm to be strongly associated with the name of a single designer; there have been others since. I already mentioned Gaston Glock, whose original 17 is sort of the firearms equivalent of Outsider Art. The M1 ("Garand") rifle comes to mind, and a lot of Gun Guys will answer "Eugene Stoner!" if you ask them who designed the AR-15. However, like the Hi-Power, those famous guns were really team efforts whose known designer was really just their best-known designer.

Hope you enjoyed this look at a firearm that is significant, still relevant, and just incidentally one of my personal favorites. Next week: I actually have no idea right now.


¹ I always thought that was why it was called the Glock 17. It's not the 17th gun Gaston Glock designed, it was his first;* but evidently it was his company's 17th patented product, the previous 16 having been knives and curtain rods and such-like non-firearms. I guess the 17-rounds thing is just a coincidence.

* And if one wished to be a bit uncharitable, one could say with only slight exaggeration that, for all the dizzying profusion of today's Glock product line, he never really designed another one. :)