By Mike “Duke” Venturino, GUNS Magazine
Few handguns have been used by both sides in numerous conflicts, been made on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and remained in production for 80 years. The Browning Hi-Power 9mm has done so.
Often hallmarked as John M. Browning’s last design, he died several years before it was introduced. More accurately he died before the design was finished. For a quarter century, JMB had close ties with the Belgian firearms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre, the factory for which he was designing and what came to be known as the Hi-Power. After his death in 1927 the chief arms designer for FN, Dieudonne Saive, finished his work and in 1935 the pistol was introduced in Belgium.
Duke’s WWII Hi-Powers include (top) an Inglis with canvas British/Canadian issue holster, (middle) a Chinese contract Inglis with wooden shoulder stock/holster, and (bottom) an FN-made Nazi issued one with replica of German military holster.
These three Browning Hi-Powers (aka P35) span a 70-year manufacturing period and were made on both sides of the Atlantic. From left: FN made one with German World War II markings of 1944/45 vintage. Middle is John Inglis (Canadian) made one also from 1944/45. At right is
current Browning production labeled “Made in Belgium/Assembled in Portugal.”
In shooting the WWII Hi-Powers and the current production Browning Hi-Power, Duke has fed them factory loads, handloads with home cast bullets, commercially cased bullets and jacketed bullets. He has not experienced a single stoppage with any of the 9mm ammunition types.
Although it was quickly adopted by the military forces of several small nations, only about 35,000 were produced prior to World War II. In May 1940 Germany’s Blitzkreig overran Belgium, but the workforce at FN was instructed to continue production. Of course everything made went towards the German war effort. Its official designation in German use was Pistole 640(b). More commonly it was referred to as P35.
In details the FN Hi-Power had a 4.65-inch barrel, weighed 35 ounces, was 7.75 inches in overall length and had a magazine capacity of 13 rounds. Grips were checkered wood but the sights were the most unusual feature. Front sight was ordinary: a simple blade. The rear sight was both odd and unrealistic. It was a tangent-type with graduations to 500 meters! Remember we’re talking about a 115-grain bullet moving out at about 1,200 to 1,300 fps.
The oddness isn’t over yet. The rear of the grip was slotted to accept a detachable wooden shoulder stock and being hollowed out the stock also served as a holster. As we will see shortly, this combination was greatly favored by the Chinese.
Just before WWII began, a Canadian company called John Inglis Ltd. gained a contract to make BREN light machine guns for both Great Britain and Canada. Further into the conflict, the company was enticed to begin making copies of the Browning Hi-Power. However, the Nazis controlled the drawings and specifications necessary for manufacture of such. According to the book The Inglis-Browning Hi-Power Pistol by R. Blake Stevens, the Inglis engineers received six Belgian-made Hi-Powers from China and then reverse engineered them for their own production lines.
Also according to the book mentioned above, the first Inglis Hi-Powers left the factory in February 1944 with production ending in September 1945. During that time over 151,000 Canadian Hi-Powers were made. They were sent to China and Great Britain and also served with Canada’s own troops. The Inglis Hi-Powers came in two broad versions. One is referred to by collectors as the “Chinese version.” It has the tangent sight and is cut for the wooden shoulder stock. However, it must be noted not all the Chinese versions went to China. The one in my collection has British proof marks.
Duke plinks steel with an Inglis Hi-Power.
Many thousands of FN Hi-Powers were made in Belgium when occupied by the German Army and all were taken. Production continued until the end of the war.
The John Inglis Company of Canada acquired six FN Hi-Powers from China and reverse engineered them into two broad versions. This is the so-called “Chinese version” because it is equipped with wooden shoulder stock and also has the 500-meter tangent rear sight.
The British and Canadian governments saw the 500 meter sight and heavy wooden shoulder stocks as relatively useless and had their Inglis Hi-Powers uncut on the back of the grip frame and with more traditional notched blade rear sight machined integral with a hump at the rear of the slide. That hump is unique to Inglis Hi-Powers.
Belgian and Canadian wartime Hi-Powers also differed in exterior finish and grip materials. On this side of the Atlantic, Hi-Powers were given a phosphate finish akin to American Parkerizing, while those from Europe were blued. It is written by others that FN wartime’ manufacturing quality ranged from pre-war exquisite to war-emergency crude towards the end. The one in my collection fits in between those extremes. Grips on FN Hi-Powers remained checkered wood but those by Inglis were checkered synthetic material. Both of my Inglis ones have lanyard rings but my FN does not.
Regardless of origin, the military use of Browning’s Hi-Power did not end with WWII. The Brits adopted them for general issue in 1954 but had been using them for special troops such as airborne soldiers since 1944. The book The Last Drop by Stephen L. Wright is about the great airborne invasion of Germany east of the Rhine River in March 1944. In it, one British paratrooper is quoted as saying his officer was waving a “Browning 9mm” at a German tank but had the good sense to take cover instead of engaging it.
According to Military Small Arms Of The 20th Century by Ian V. Hogg and John S. Weeks, no fewer than 55 nations adopted Hi-Power pistols purchased from FN in the post-WWII decades. Without doubt many of those thousands of pistols are still riding in active-duty military holsters.
And still the story continues as the Browning Hi-Power is far from obsolete. It is still a fine defensive handgun. Today, a great selling point for many gun buyers is a double-action trigger mechanism, but many tactical experts consider DA triggers far less than important. After all, the ubiquitous Model 1911 from so many makers has a standard single-action trigger.
For the purposes of this article I ordered a currently produced Browning Hi-Power to shoot and show alongside my three of WWII vintage. In short, it compares well. According to several references, post-1950 production Hi-Power barrels will not interchange with pre-1950 ones. There may be other internal changes which would be of interest more to engineers than to shooters.
Outwardly, early and current Hi-Powers are amazingly similar. I had the choice of target or fixed sights and picked the latter. They are dovetailed to the slide, front and rear. Interestingly, my 1944 vintage FN sample has a nearly identical rear sight dovetailed in but the front sight is staked as with the Colt Model 1911/1911A1. Note here the front sights on both my Inglis Hi-Powers are dovetailed. The new version’s sights are also white-dot types, which, of course, the early ones are not. Nor do current Hi-Powers have lanyard rings.
The backstrap of the Inglis Chinese Hi-Power (above, left) is cut for a shoulder stock and has a lanyard ring. The current Browning Hi-Power (above, right) has neither. Front sights on Inglis Hi-Powers were dovetailed to the slide (below). FN Hi-Power front sights were staked to the slide.
An average group from Duke’s FN Hi-Power (above) using 115-grain FMJ factory ammunition is an acceptable 2-3/4 inches at 25 yards. The best group fired by Duke with the current production Browning Hi-Power (below) using 115-grain FMJ Federal American Eagle factory loads was an exemplary 1-3/8 inches.
Another external difference of these pistols is the safety arrangement. The WWII-era ones have a thumb-actuated safety on the pistol’s left side. The new one’s safety is ambidextrous. In terms of function, the safety on all versions can be engaged only when the hammers are at full cock. There is a half-cock notch on the hammer. Its purpose is to catch the hammer if it slips from your grasp when de-cocking. Lastly, all three of my early Hi-Powers have the so-called “burr” hammer spur but the new one has a traditionally-styled one. Grips are checkered and look like wood but are some sort of synthetic material.
On the left side of the new Hi-Power’s slide is an interesting stamping. It says “Made in Belgium, Assembled in Portugal.” Its exterior finish is a deep blue with good polish and the fit is very nice. In operation it is far stiffer than my 70-year-old Hi-Powers, which is not a criticism. It’s understandable.
My “tests” of the current production Browning Hi-Power were mostly an insult to the word. I didn’t test anything. I simply played with shooting the Browning using a wide variety of factory loads and handloads, which I had sitting around in my “shooting shack.” Ranges ran from 25 to a full 100 yards. Targets were both paper and steel. About 200 rounds of 9mm were fired.
At least at the very end I shot some groups on paper with good quality, American Eagle 115-grain FMJ ammo. Five-shot clusters ran from about 1-1/2 to 3 inches. They were generally on for elevation but a bit left of center. If this pistol were mine I’d drift the rear sight, but seeing as how it must go back to Browning I didn’t mess with it. Still, once I gained insight as to a point of aim, hitting my steel PT-Torso target at 100 yards wasn’t difficult.
Here is one last thing I can say for Hi-Powers, both old and new. In my experience they are virtually trouble free in regards to functioning. Cast bullets, jacketed bullets, factory loads, handloads…, none of the four in my experience have ever failed to function. For perspective, I have three P08 Lugers made between 1917 and 1938. All are finicky about ammunition. Sometimes they will feed one brand of 115-grain FMJ factory loads but not another even though I can see no differences. My P38 made in 1943 is better than the Lugers but not perfect.
As yet in the firing of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of rounds through my three WWII vintage Hi-Powers and 200 through this current one, I have never suffered a stoppage of any type.
The world is full of autoloading pistols today, but all-steel ones are certainly a minority and the Browning Hi-Power must be one of the best available.
Photos By Yvonne Venturino