January 03, 2011
In my view John M. Browning was the most amazing designer in the entire history of firearms. When you study the long list of handguns, rifles, shotguns, and machineguns he designed, you can see that my statement is a pretty safe one to make. I admit a certain loyalty to his 1911 .45 semiautomatic, but his last handgun deserves the title of classic, too.
John Browning finished the design of the 4.75-inch-barreled, 13-round, 9mm Hi-Power pistol shortly before his death in November 1926.
The autoloader we call the Browning Hi-Power was designed in the last years of Browning's life. Using the same short-recoil operation, locked breech, and exposed hammer of the 1911, Browning developed his new handgun for the 9mm cartridge. In doing so, he did away with the swinging barrel link of the 1911 and replaced it with a fixed-cam lockup that was less prone to wear. He also did away with the grip safety. In fact, it has been said that Browning only put a grip safety on the 1911 pistol because the military requested it. The Hi-Power pistol also did away with the 1911's removable barrel bushing. It had a 4 3/4-inch barrel. The grip frame was enlarged to allow for a 13-round magazine.
A patent for the new Hi-Power pistol was granted to Browning on February 22, 1927, just a few months after the inventor's death. In those last years of his life, Mr. Browning had begun to carry more and more of his gun designs to the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale. Fabrique Nationale began to distribute the Hi-Power in 1935, and it was called the Model 1935, or P-35. In those disturbing days prior to World War II, numerous countries around the world began to outfit their armies with the new Browning pistol. Among these countries were Canada, China, Denmark, Great Britain, Estonia, Holland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Even the German army carried Hi-Powers, after it occupied Belgium in about 1940. In addition, numerous law-enforcement agencies and unofficial mercenary groups quickly developed a fondness for the Hi-Power because, like the rest of Browning's designs, it was reliable and dependable. And those are essential characteristics that any fighting gun must have.
As good as it is, however, the Hi-Power has had its drawbacks. One of these is that the trigger pull just can't be tuned quite as nicely as that on a 1911. The reason for this is that in order to accommodate the larger magazine, Browning had to use the transfer-bar trigger system instead of the stirrup arrangement of the 1911. The less-than-desirable trigger pull of the Hi-Power is made worse by the fact that the gun incorporates a magazine-disconnect safety that is integral to the gun's trigger. This magazine disconnect can be removed, lightening the trigger a bit, but this removal will also void any warranty that the manufacturer might offer.
Another drawback for the Browning Hi-Power has been that it has made use of the 9mm cartridge. With full-metal-jacketed or early hollowpoint ammo, the 9mm just was not a reliable man-stopping round. Some 30 years ago, a Texas Ranger friend of mine matched his pair of .45 ACPs against some outlaws who were hiding behind a homemade barricade. He was pretty upset that his 230-grain hardball ammo wouldn't penetrate the barricade to his satisfaction.
So he soon outfitted himself with a pair of 9mm Hi-Powers, knowing that the 115-grain 9mm hardball had a reputation for better penetration. Naturally, his next gunfight was with a crook who just stood up and shot it out. The Ranger fired four or five shots before his opponent fell down. Thinking that most of his shots must have missed, the Ranger was amazed to find that he'd put all of his 9mm rounds into the bad guy's chest. They had just zipped through the man's body and hadn't imparted enough force to knock him down. Frustrated, the Ranger sent the outlaw's body off to the morgue and went back to carrying his .45s.
Fortunately, 9mm bullet design has come a long way in the past few years. Today we have some really proven fight stoppers like the Federal Hydra-Shok, the Hornady XTP, the Winchester SXT, and the Speer Gold Dot. These bullets give much better expansion and impart a good deal of energy into the target. In addition, Browning has offered the Hi-Power in .40 S&W for those who prefer the heavier bullet and larger caliber.
I have owned quite a number of Hi-Powers over the years. I bought my first one when I was a young patrolman in Denton, Texas. Back in those days, we were required to carry a revolver in our duty holster, but nothing was said about our choice of backup guns. So I packed a Smith & Wesson Model 19 loaded with hollowpoint man-stoppers and used a Hi-Power loaded with 9mm hardball for my backup gun. My idea was to use the high-capacity auto pistol in the event of car chases, where the 9mm would give better showing on car bodies than would the .38 Special loads in my revolver.
Like many of you, I have been an inveterate gun trader, and I found that all of my Hi-Powers had gone off in one swap or another. Accordingly, I contacted Browning and made arrangements to buy one of the Mark III Hi-Powers in 9mm. The Mark III has a matte finish, fixed sights, plastic grips, and ambidextrous safeties.
My next step was to contact Robbie Barrkman, head honcho of Robar Co., Dept. ST, 21438 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85027; 623-581-2648; www.robar guns.com. Besides being a nice guy, Barrkman is a very knowledgeable firearms man with more than a passing knowledge of gunfighting needs and techniques. Under his watchful eye, his crew of gunsmiths applied the NP3 finish to my Hi-Power. At the same time, they replaced the factory sights with fixed Novak sights and replaced the ambidextrous safeties with a single safety of combat configuration. The action was tuned, and all of the pistol's sharp edges were removed. When I got it back home, I topped this classy gun off with a set of checkered cocobolo grips that were a kind gift from one of my readers.
My custom Hi-Power is more than just a pretty handgun. The old thing will shoot, too. When loaded with ammo it likes, and when I'm doing my part, the gun will produce two-inch groups at 25 yards. When I'm packing the Hi-Power, it is usually loaded with Hornady 115-grain XTP ammo or Federal 115-grain Hydra-Shok loads. Either will get the job done.
By all accounts, John M. Browning was a quiet, gentle man who just happened to design some of the best fighting guns we've seen in modern times. There's just no telling how many lawmen, soldiers, and honest citizens are alive today because they had a Browning Hi-Power on their hip.
Any time you decide to make a list of the classic firearms of our time, be sure to add the Browning Hi-Power to it. That pistol is a true classic in every way.