May 13, 2016
By Paul Scarlata
In a day of CAD programs and 3D printers, it is 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 M. Browning dropped out of that proverbial one-room country school house in the sixth grade and went to work as an apprentice at the forge of his blacksmith/gunsmith father and would eventually develop iconic firearms like the Colt 1911 and the FN Browning Hi-Power.
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.
To say his designs were commercially successful would be a gross understatement when you consider the influence this one man had upon the world's arms industries. The commercial successes of Colt, Fabrique Nationale, Remington and Winchester were all based to one degree or another upon Browning-designed firearms.
While Browning designed everything from single-shot .22 pistols to 37mm cannon, he is perhaps best remembered for his semiautomatic pistols. In the 1890s, Browning's mechanical genius turned to the design of automatic firearms and his first U.S. patents for a semiauto pistol were granted in April of 1897. He offered several designs to Colt. While the Hartford, Conn., maker was not too keen on diverging from revolvers, the semiauto pistol's rising popularity was obvious and Colt eventually purchased U.S. rights to several of Browning's designs.
That same year he met Hart O. Berg, the American representative of Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (FN), of Herstal, Belgium. FN had been founded to manufacture Mauser rifles for the Belgian army, but with the contract fulfilled, was casting about for other products so as to keep the assembly lines humming. The wily Belgians saw the commercial possibilities of the new pistol and signed a contract with Browning.
In 1900 FN began production of the Pistolet Browning ModÃ¨le 1900, which became so popular that "Browning" became synonymous with "pistol" in many parts of the world. It also served as the launching platform for the 7.65mm Browning (.32 ACP) cartridge which became the issue round of most European police forces and was also widely used by the military.
In 1903 FN introduced another Browning pistol, the Pistolet Browning Grande ModÃ¨le 1903. Another blowback operated design, it was a full-sized military pistol chambered for the 9mm Browning Long cartridge and was adopted by a dozen armies and police forces around the world.
Seven years later, FN introduced what was probably the sweetest pocket pistol ever designed, the Pistolet Automatique Browning ModÃ¨le 1910. In 1922, at the request of several armies, the design was upsized to produce the Pistolet Automatique Browning ModÃ¨le 1910-22 chambered for both the 7.65mm and 9mm Browning Court (.380 ACP).
In 1921, FN asked Browning to design a high capacity, 9mm Parabellum pistol for upcoming French army trials. Within short order, he presented them with a pair of functioning toolroom models. Both were single-action striker-fired pistols, but the first was a blowback design, while the second utilized a variation of the locking system Browning had developed for the Model 1911.
But with the second pistol, Browning included two radical improvements over the 1911. First, instead of the barrel unlocking by the articulation of a link, an integral cam on the bottom of the barrel pulled it down to unlock it from the slide during recoil. Secondly, despite his reported opposition to the concept, he designed a double-column, 15-round magazine for it.
After the French trials, which they did not win, Browning returned to work on his new over-under shotgun. He remained at FN — where the workers referred to him as le MaÃ®tre (the Master) — until his untimely death in 1926.
In 1928, the period of patent protection that Colt and FN had agreed upon expired and the Belgian firm appointed Dieudonne Saive as the engineer in charge of the pistol program. Saive — who would become FN's chief engineer — combined the best features of the Colt 1911, Browning's prototypes and a number of his own ideas into an entirely new 9mm handgun.
The first, and most obvious, modification Saive made was replacing the striker with an external hammer. While the pistol used an exposed hammer, slide stop, magazine catch and thumb safety similar to the 1911, the grip safety is absent.
In its place, Saive incorporated a magazine disconnect that prevented the pistol from firing when the magazine is removed. The stirrup type trigger used on the 1911 was replaced by a connecting bar that releases the hammer when activated by the trigger. To reduce weight, the magazine capacity was lowered to 13 rounds.
Eventually the only Browning/Colt features remaining 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 (for you Francophobes, that means "Browning Hi-Power Pistol") which is often abbreviated to GP, GP-35, Browning Hi-Power or just HP. While Saive's pistol had progressed quite a ways from Browning's original design, FN's connecting Browning's name to it was a wise marketing decision which helped to guarantee its success.
It was offered in two versions, one with fixed sights and another with a tangent rear sight adjustable from 50 to 500 meters (1000-meter sights were available as an option for the overly optimistic) and a detachable wooden shoulder stock. Some shoulder stocks had leather holsters riveted to them, while the Belgian army issued them with a large leather holster with two pockets — one for the pistol and another to hold the stock.
The Browning Hi-Power proved an instant success, being purchased over the next few years by the armies of Belgium, China, Estonia, Latvia and Peru. In 1939 Finland purchased 2,400 Hi-Powers from FN (Sotilaspistooli FN M/35 "GP") for use in the Russo-Finnish Winter War against the USSR.
When the Second World War broke out, Belgium was quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht, which took possession of the FN facilities (referred to as Werk LÃ¼ttich) and continued production of Browning Hi-Powers for the German armed forces under the designation 9mm Pistole 640(b). Note: some pistols assembled when the factory was under German control do not have the magazine disconnect safety.
A number of Belgians, including Saive, escaped to England and later were relocated to Canada, where they assisted the John Inglis Co., Ltd. of Toronto, to tool up to produce Browning Hi-Powers for the Allies. As had FN, Inglis originally produced pistols with both adjustable (No. 1 Mark 1) and fixed (No. 2 Mark 1) sights. Beginning in the fall of 1944 modifications to the extractor, locking lugs, magazine and external milling operations resulted in the No. 1 Mark 1* and No. 2 Mark 1* pistols being adopted.
The Chinese placed an order for the Pistol, 9mm, No. 1 Mark 1 and 1*, which had tangent rear sights and Mauser-style wooden holster/shoulder stocks. The Pistol, 9mm, No. 2 Mark 1 and 1* with fixed rear sights were supplied to Canadian and British forces, becoming a particular favorite with Commando and airborne units. During the fighting in Europe, these Canuck Browning Hi-Powers faced off against FN-made Browning Hi-Powers fielded by the Wehrmacht. By the time production ended in 1945, the Inglis company had produced approximately 153,000 pistols.
With the liberation of Belgium from Nazi control, FN resumed production of the Browning Hi-Power in 1944. With the war-ravaged armies of the world seeking new weaponry it became the most popular military pistol in use outside the Soviet bloc.
By 1956 Britain, followed by most of Commonwealth armies, officially adopted the Browning Hi-Power and in 1967 began purchasing new pistols from FN — known as the Pistol Automatic L9A1 — to supplement those Inglis No. 2 Mark I* pistols already in service. Until quite recently, British forces continued to purchase the Browning Hi-Power from FN, although it appears the Brits plan to replace them with the SIG/Sauer P226, which is already in service with some British Special Forces.
In the postwar years, the Browning Hi-Power's popularity exploded and it was taken into service by the armies and/or police of — to name but a few — Argentina, Austria, Australia, Cambodia, Columbia, Denmark, El Salvador, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Syria, United Arab Republic, Venezuela and West Germany, many of whom still issue it as the standard pistol. They were fielded by U.S. Special Forces during the fighting in Vietnam.
Besides purchasing the Browning Hi-Power from FN, several countries produce copies and/or variations — with and without benefit of a license. These included Argentina, Bulgaria, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria and Venezuela.
While FN assembled a few lightweight Browning Hi-Powers with aluminum alloy frames that reduced the unloaded weight to only 23 ounces, they did not prove popular on the commercial market. In the 1980s, the Ã–sterreichische Landes Gendarmerie (Austrian State Police) — which had been using the Browning Hi-Power since the 1950s — placed an order with FN for the alloy frame model, which remained in service until replaced by the Glock 17.
For sale in those countries that forbid civilians from owning handguns chambered for "military" calibers (e.g. Italy, France, Mexico, Spain) FN has periodically produced runs of the Browning Hi-Power chambered for the 7.65mm Parabellum and 9x21 cartridges.
Its popularity with civilian shooters knew few bounds, and in 1954 the Browning Hi-Power was introduced on the U.S. market. At the time all 9mm pistols were looked upon with suspicion if not outright hostility, but the Browning Hi-Power gained a devoted following and was adopted or approved by a number of law enforcement agencies, the Las Vegas, Nevada PD and the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team come to mind.
During its production life, a number of changes have been made to the Browning Hi-Power:
1930s — The barrel cam was changed from round to square in shape.
1950 — dimensions of the barrel lug and cam were changed, which required some changes to the frame also. Post-1950 manufacture barrels will not function on pre-1950 pistols.
1951â€“52 — the design of the magazine safety was changed.
1958 — the design of the sear was changed.
1962 — the internal extractor replaced with external extractor.
1965 — a two-piece barrel was standardized.
1971 — the rowel hammer was replaced with a spur hammer.
While the Browning Hi-Power possessed many positive attributes — excellent ergonomics, large magazine capacity, all-steel construction, an acceptably powerful cartridge and ease of maintenance — there were also several deficiencies.
The safety lever was too small for easy manipulation, the small rounded blade front and narrow notch rear sights provided a rather poor sight picture and slow target acquisition, and reliability with JHP ammunition was poor.
But 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 and often prevented magazines from falling free when the release was pressed.
FN did not rest upon its laurels and over the years the Browning Hi-Power has been offered in a variety of configurations and finishes. In 1982 the Browning Hi-Power Mark II was introduced, featuring a black epoxy finish, extended ambidextrous safety levers, practical fixed sights (adjustable sights were optional), redesigned magazine safety and a throated barrel with straight line feed ramp for improved reliability with JHP bullets.
To correct the perennial problem of magazines not falling free, FN installed a spring assist unit — often referred to as a "mousetrap" — at the rear of the magazine body that expels empty or loaded magazines from the grip quite authoritatively when the release is pressed.
While the Mk. II improved the combat-worthiness of this venerable pistol, there was increasing marketplace pressure on FN to upgrade it even further. 1994 saw the introduction of the Browning Hi-Power Mark III, which featured a passive firing pin safety and was available chambered for either the 9mm Parabellum or .40 S&W cartridges, although the latter chambering was dropped in 2010.
Over the years, FN has offered the Browning Hi-Power in a number of variations that featured different finishes, sights, extended barrels and grips and a complete description of them is beyond the scope of this article.
To placate those who were concerned about "cocked and locked" carry, FN made changes to the pistol's trigger mechanism. The first was the HP-SFS (Safe-Fast-Shooting) which allowed the hammer to be pushed forward, which automatically activated the safety catch. When the safety is pressed down ("off" position) it releases the hammer to spring backwards to the single-action position.
The BDA was a DA/SA pistol with ambidextrous hammer drop safety levers and was adopted by the Finnish army as the Sotilaspistooli M/80 and M/80-91. A variation, the BDAO, utilized a double-action-only trigger. Both models resemble the Browning Hi-Power except for a bobbed (BDA) or spurless (BDAO) hammer and a larger, recurved trigger guard. There were also the BDA-9S and BDA-9C with shorter barrels and grip frames. While many parts were interchangeable with the standard pistol, the 14 round magazines are not. None of these pistols are listed in FN's current catalog.
The Hi-Power is still in production and U.S. customers can buy either the Mark III or the "Standard" Model which features a traditional blue finish and adjustable sights.
Test Firing the FN Browning Hi-Power Pistol
I felt that it would be interesting to compare several Browning Hi-Powers and see how they performed. I am the proud owner of a 1980s vintage Browning Hi-Power that has received a custom trigger job in which the magazine safety was removed, a set of Heinie high profile combat sights, extended safety lever and Hogue finger groove rubber grips. Browning Firearms of Ogden, Utah supplied me with a brand new Mark III pistol.
The following month — and during much cooler weather — my good friend Michael Jon Littman loaned me a Canadian No. 2 Mark 1* from his personal collection. Mechanically it was in excellent condition with about 80 percent of the original finish and a worn, but clean, bore.
Test firing was conducted from a rest at 25 yards with Remington ammunition loaded with 115-grain JHP bullets and some 124-grain 9mm Ball M882 the results of which can been seen in the chart below. All three Hi-Powers shot to point of aim and produced well centered groups in the 2- to 3-inch range.
As is my SOP, each pistol was run through a series of offhand drills on combat targets placed out at 10 yards, and it was here that the design's strengths and weaknesses came to the fore.
First of all, the short grip tang allowed the rowel hammer on the Canuck No. 2 pistol to chafe the web of my shooting hand quite a bit. My custom Browning Hi-Power has had the hammer spur shortened which, combined with the Hogue grips, did away with this problem while the shorter spur hammer and ergonomic grips of the Mark III prevented hammer bite completely.
The sights on all three pistols were excellent, which allowed fast target acquisition and transitioning from one target to another. I fact I found the Inglis' sights to be the most practical of any issue military pistol of that era that I have ever fired. But having said that, I found the No. 2's flat profile thumb safety difficult to manipulate, while those on the other two worked easily.
Trigger pulls ranged from excellent on my custom Browning Hi-Power, to acceptable on the No. 2 but the Mark III's was heavy and gritty. As it was a new, out-of-the-box pistol, it will smooth out with use. As can be seen in the photos, out of a total of 150 rounds fired, only five of them wandered outside of the targets' respective A or X zones. I considered this more than adequate for service type-pistols.
It should also be noted that I did not experience a single failure to feed, fire or eject out of the hundreds of rounds I fired through these three pistols of widely varying vintages.
The Browning Hi-Power is truly one of the most influential handguns of the 20th century. It not only introduced the high capacity magazine — a feature common to the vast majority of service-type pistols produced today — but I believe the case can be made that the HP was the driving force behind today's universal popularity of the 9mm Parabellum cartridge, a trend that shows no sign of slacking off. All in all I believe that Monsieur Saive deserves a heartfelt "Le bon travail mon ami!"
I would like to thank the following for providing materials used to prepare this report: Michael Jon Littman, Butch Simpson, Grant Rombough, Amoskeag Auction Company, www.imcollector.com, Browning Firearms and Remington Arms Company.