Predating most other high-capacity pistols by as much as half a century, the Browning Hi Power was the original "wonder nine." John Browning designed its bones at the request of the French military, but he passed away in 1926, just a year before the U.S. patent came through.
The process of refining and finalizing the Hi Power was a lengthy endeavor that spanned more than a decade.
FN's Dieudonn© Saive took up the torch after Browning's death and finessed the locked-breech system, reduced capacity from 16 rounds to 13, integrated the previously removable barrel bushing into the slide, and implemented other refinements.
Over time, the Hi Power gained worldwide renown, and it has ably served as the standard-issue sidearm for at least 50 different militaries.
It continues to do so in the hands of the Belgian Army along with a dozen or more others, ranging from the Canadian Armed Forces to the Singapore Armed Forces.
While fans of the Hi Power admit that it has a few design flaws, the Grande Puissance, as it is known, has a certain panache that keeps it solidly atop the high-capacity 9mm podium in terms of historical respect and eminence.
A slew of variants, reproductions, and imitations exist—far too many to list and detail here—and perhaps the best of the lot is the custom gun Nighthawk is putting out. Some serious handgunners are saying it is the finest Hi Power to ever grace dealers' shelves.
As the company's website indicates, Nighthawk Custom saw no reason to reinvent the perfect double-stack pistol. Instead, the company is finessing current-production Hi Power pistols made by Browning with several modifications.
Before delving into the customizations, let's take a look at the features of the standard Hi Power as currently sold by Browning.
In basic terms, the Hi Power is a single-action semiautomatic pistol of locked-breech design. The barrel is 4.63 inches long. The frame and the slide are made of steel. Capacity of the double-stack magazine is 13 rounds.
Browning currently offers three variants: a Hi Power Standard, with fixed sights, blued finish, and standard-grade wood grips; a Standard/Adjustable Sight version with blued finish and wood grips; and a Mark III with fixed sights, matte black epoxy finish, and composite grips. All feature ambidextrous thumb safeties.
Retail prices range from $1,110 to $1,200. All feature the external extractor introduced around 1962 to improve reliability, and all are fitted with the spur-type hammer standardized in 1972.
In function the pistol is of short-recoil design. When the hammer falls and the cartridge fires, the barrel and slide reciprocate rearward together for a short distance, after which a cam slot in the bottom of the barrel engages the frame, pulling the barrel down so the locking lugs disengage and the barrel halts.
Under momentum, the slide continues rearward, drawing the fired cartridge case from the chamber and ejecting it, and cocking the hammer. When it reaches maximum rearward travel, the recoil spring throws it forward. As it returns, the slide picks up a fresh cartridge, which glides up beneath the sturdy 0.10-inch-wide extractor, and slams the barrel forward.
The frame cams the barrel up, locking the lugs into battery, and it's ready to fire again.
So what magic has Nighthawk performed on Browning's stock Hi Power to make it worth $1,700 more?
To begin with, a custom extended beavertail, which prevents the hammerbite so common with standard models, has been added. Nighthawk also has replaced the standard spur-type hammer with a competition combat-type hammer paired with an improved sear lever and trigger. And the trigger pull has been tuned to a crisp 4-pound pull.
To aid accuracy the barrel is recrowned, and fast-handling characteristics are improved by contouring the magazine well to enable quicker mag changes. Recoil control is improved by hand-stippling the frame and trigger guard.
To reduce glare, the top and rear of the slide are stippled as well, and the sights have been replaced with a Heinie Slant Pro rear and 14K gold bead front.
Instead of rebluing after the modifications are completed, each pistol is finished in a corrosion-resistant, extremely tough, non-glare satin black Cerakote. Checkered select cocobolo wood grips add a refined touch, although slender black G10 grips are available as an option. Two 13-round magazines come with each pistol.
As one would expect of a product with its marrow rooted in John Browning's genius, the Nighthawk Custom Hi Power feels at home in my palm and points like an extension of my body.
The stippled texturing offers a secure grip without galling the hand, and it will never fray the lining of one's Harris Tweed. I grip pistols high and hard, and the extended beavertail adds tremendously to the outstanding feel, balance, and comfort of this Hi Power.
When pointing the pistol, the ambidextrous safety lever falls directly beneath my firing-hand thumb, making it easy to disengage and providing a familiar feel to my 1911-trained hand. It engages easily, with a crisp, positive "click." As an aside, the Hi Power was originally intended to be carried cocked and locked.
A fun feature unfamiliar to many shooters is the magazine ejection spring that preloads as you insert a magazine. It ensures that empty magazines leave the mag well with enthusiasm when the mag release button is pressed. Even with the gun upside down, the magazines launch clear of the mag well.
The trigger on my pistol averaged 3 pounds, 10 ounces over a series of five measurements and had less than an ounce of variation. I will confess that it wasn't as crisp as the best 1911 triggers I've used, but it was very good.
To evaluate its accuracy, I rested the Hi Power over a sandbag and fired a series of three consecutive five-shot groups at 25 yards and then averaged the results. I repeated the process with several different loads with bullets ranging in weight from 115 to 147 grains.
Interestingly, the pistol seemed to prefer bullets in the heavier range, turning in its best average with Hornady's 135-grain Critical Duty load and its second-best with Browning's new 147-grain BXP load. Of the six loads tested, all but one averaged less than 3.0 inches at 25 yards.
Point of impact was slightly left with most loads, but curing that's as simple as loosening the Allen-head setscrew in the Heinie Slant Pro rear sight and drifting it a bit.
With clinical testing completed, I transitioned to practical shooting, running informal drills on my Action Target IDPA Practice Torso, a steel half-size torso target with center mass and center head reactive cutouts.
Double-taps, magazine dumps, and careful shots with both strong and weak hand demonstrated the fine heirloom-quality pistol's ergonomics and accuracy. Since the grip naturally positions the hand in a proper shooting grip, getting the Hi Power into action from my Galco holster was effortless, smooth, and fast.
Reliability, as one would expect from a pistol hand-tuned by one of the finest custom houses in America, was stellar even with the mixed bag of random 9mm loads that I used for running my casual drills. The refined Hi Power digested all the mixed bullet weights and nose profiles along with more than one cartridge that had a bit of corrosion or discoloration marring the brass case.
While Nighthawk opted to customize and tune existing production pistols made by Browning, there still won't exactly be a flood of these fine Hi Powers hitting the market. But that's okay. And at $2,895 not a lot of shooters will line up to purchase one.
That's okay, too. This is a connoisseur's pistol: a Hi Power for the discerning disciple. For those who love the Hi Power pistol for what it is — a superb high-capacity medium-bore pistol of infinite shootability and extraordinary historical significance — there isn't anything else like it.