In this day of highly trained specialists, hordes of technical engineers, and CAD programs, it is sometimes difficult to believe that the world’s greatest firearms designer had no formal training whatsoever in mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, or any of the other sciences now considered necessary to the trade. John Moses Browning dropped out of that proverbial one-room country schoolhouse in the sixth grade and went to work as an apprentice at his blacksmith/gunsmith father’s forge. He was one of those rare natural geniuses who, when faced with a problem, idea, or theory, sat down with a piece of metal in one hand and a file in the other and came up with the most successful firearm designs in history.
In 1921 Fabrique Nationale de’Armes de Guerre (FN) asked John Moses Browning to design a high-capacity, 9mm Parabellum pistol for upcoming French army trials, and he presented the firm with a pair of functioning tool-room models. Both were single-action (SA), striker-fired pistols, but the first was a blowback design whereas the second utilized the famous 1911 locking system, in which two lugs on the top of the barrel mated with matching grooves machined in the top interior of the slide, locking the barrel and slide together. When the pistol was fired, the slide and barrel recoiled a short distance together, whereupon a link on the bottom of the barrel articulated it down, allowing the slide to continue to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. A recoil spring under the barrel then pulled the slide forward, stripping the next round out of the magazine and chambering it. As the slide went into battery, the barrel moved up and locked the two units together again.
The second pistol included two radical improvements over the 1911. First, instead of the barrel unlocking by the articulation of a link, a cam that was integral with the barrel pulled it down to unlock from the slide during recoil. Second, despite his reported opposition to the concept, Browning designed a double-column, 15-round magazine for it.
After the French trials, which FN did not win, the company appointed Dieudonne Saive as the engineer in charge of the pistol program. Browning went back to work on his new over-under shotgun. The high-capacity 9mm turned out to be John Browning’s last pistol design.
Browning’s Last Pistol Gets Improved
In 1928 the period of patent protection that Colt and FN had agreed upon expired, and the Belgian firm called upon Saive to combine the best features of the Colt 1911 and Browning’s prototypes into an entirely new 9mm handgun.
Saive, who became FN’s chief engineer, continued to modify and improve Browning’s original design. One of the first–and most obvious–changes was an external hammer. He also designed a new trigger mechanism and new thumb and magazine safeties, and he decreased the magazine capacity to 13 rounds in order to reduce weight. Eventually, the only Browning/Colt features present were the locking and takedown systems and the excellent ergonomics of the grip. Known as the Grande Rendement, the progressively improved models were entered in army trials around the world.
In 1935 FN released the finalized version on the market as the Pistolet Browning Grande Puissance (Browning High Power Pistol, which is often abbreviated to GP, GP35, Hi-Power, or just HP). While Saive’s pistol had progressed quite a ways from Browning’s original design, FN’s decision to connect Browning’s name to it helped to guarantee its success.
And the pistol proved to be an instant success. It was adopted over the next few years by the armies of Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Peru, Finland, and China. When the “Second Great Unpleasantness” broke out, Belgium was quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht, which took possession of the FN facilities and continued production of HPs for the German armed forces under the designation 9mm Pistole 640(b).
During the war, Belgian émigrés, including M. Saive, helped the John Inglis Company, Ltd. of Toronto, Canada, to tool up and produce HPs for the Allies. The Chinese ordered the Pistol, 9mm, No. 1 Mark 1 and 1*, which had tangent rear sights adjustable to 500 meters and wooden holster/shoulder stocks. The Pistol, 9mm, No. 2 Mark 1 and 1* with fixed rear sights were supplied to Canadian and British forces, and they became favorites with Commando and airborne units. During the fighting in Europe, those pistols faced off against the HPs that were fielded by the Wehrmacht.
FN resumed production of the HP in 1954, and it became the most popular military pistol in use outside the Soviet bloc. In 1956 Great Britain and most of the Commonwealth armies adopted the HP, and it was taken into service by the armies and/or police of Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece, India, Formosa, Luxembourg, Australia, Paraguay, West Germany, Pakistan, Indonesia, Venezuela, Argentina, New Zealand, Peru, Iraq, Syria, Ireland, Colombia, Nicaragua, Jordan, and Israel to name just a few. Many of them still issue it as their standard pistol. Some were also fielded by U.S. Special Forces during the early fighting in Vietnam.
Its popularity with civilian shooters knew few bounds, and even in the United States–where, at the time, all 9mm pistols were looked upon with suspicion if not outright hostility–the HP gained a devoted following. Police agencies worldwide adopted the HP. A number of U.S. agencies–including Las Vegas PD and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team–approved its use by their officers.
A Few Deficiencies
While the HP had many positive attributes–excellent ergonomics, high magazine capacity, all-steel construction, an acceptably powerful cartridge, and ease of maintenance–there were also several glaring deficiencies. The safety lever was too small for easy manipulation. The small, rounded, blade front and narrow notch rear sights provided a very poor sight picture and slow target acquisition. And the most vocal condemnations were directed at the pistol’s magazine safety. While it prevented the pistol from being fired when the magazine was removed (a good or bad idea depending on which “expert” you tend to believe), it had an adverse effect on the trigger pull.
FN did not rest upon its laurels, and in 1982 the company introduced the Hi-Power Mark II. It featured extended ambidextrous safety levers, high-impact synthetic grips, practical fixed sights (adjustable sights were optional), redesigned magazine safety, and a new straight-line barrel feedramp t
hat offered improved reliability with JHP bullets.
While the Mk. II radically improved the combat worthiness of this venerable pistol, there was increasing marketplace pressure on FN to upgrade it further, and the early 1990s saw the introduction of the Hi-Power Mark III that was chambered for the .40 S&W cartridge. But I digress from the historical aspects of this column.
Shooting A Vintage Hi-Power
I thought it would be interesting to test-fire a purely military Hi-Power for this report, so I obtained a Canadian No. 2 Mark 1* from Michael Jon Littman. It had a barrel length of 4.7 inches, an overall length of 7.8 inches, and a weight of 32 ounces. Magazine capacity was 13 rounds, and sights consisted of a serrated blade front and a square-notch rear. The grips were plastic. Mechanically, it was in excellent condition with about 80 percent of the original finish. The bore was worn but clean.
Keeping the pistol’s military pedigree in mind, test-firing was conducted at a measured 50 feet with 9mm M882 ball and American Eagle FMJ ammunition. The shooting results are listed in the accompanying chart.
After firing it for accuracy from a benchrest, I ran it through a series of offhand drills on combat targets placed out at 7 yards. It was here that a few of the HP’s shortcomings came to the surface.
The short grip tang allowed the rowel hammer to chafe the web of my shooting hand. The sights were rather small, which prevented rapid follow-up shots and transitioning from one target to another. And the thumb safety was difficult to manipulate. These were counterbalanced by its natural pointability and a very decent trigger pull, which went a long way towards helping me perforate the targets in a pleasing manner.
Now before those Hi-Power aficionados out there begin inundating the editorial offices with irate letters and e-mails, let me add this caveat: The faults I mentioned in the previous paragraph are shared by most of the HP’s contemporaries, and I can state unequivocally that I would choose this Canadian Hi-Power over a 1940s-vintage Model 1911A1 or Walther P38 any day.
The Hi-Power was truly one of the most influential handguns of the 20th century. For one thing, it introduced the high-capacity magazine, which is a feature found on the vast majority of pistols produced today. In addition, I believe the case can be made that the HP was the driving force behind the international popularity of the 9mm Parabellum cartridge, a trend that shows no sign of slacking off. All in all, I believe that M. Saive deserves a heartfelt, “Le bon travail mon ami.”