December 05, 2022
This article originally appeared in the January 2022, Issue No. 1 print edition of Firearms News.
Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (FN), of Herstal, Belgium had been producing pistols designed by John Moses Browning since 1900. In 1921, they had him design a 9mm Parabellum pistol for upcoming French army trials and he presented them with two designs. Both were striker-fired pistols but the first was a blowback-operated design while the second utilized a variation of the locking system Browning had developed for Colt’s Model 1911 pistol.1
As on the 1911, two lugs on the top of the barrel mated with matching mortises in the interior of the slide, locking the two units together. The primary difference was that instead of the barrel articulating on a link, an angled lug on the bottom of the barrel pulled it down, disengaging it from the slide allowing it to recoil to the rear.
Despite his reported opposition to the concept, both pistols used a double-column, 16-round magazine designed by Browning’s head assistant, Dieudonné Saive.
After the French trials, which they did not win, Browning returned to work at FN — where the workers referred to him as le Maître (the Master) — until his untimely death in 1926.
In 1928, Saive was put in charge of the pistol program and he 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 striker was replaced with an external hammer, slide stop, magazine catch and thumb safety similar to the 1911. A magazine disconnect prevented the pistol from firing when the magazine is removed and the stirrup-type trigger of the 1911 was replaced by a connecting bar that released the hammer when activated by the trigger. Lastly, magazine capacity was lowered to 13 rounds.
In 1935, FN released the pistol on the market as the Pistolet Browning Grande Puissance (French for “Browning High Power Pistol”) which was often abbreviated to Hi-Power. Connecting Browning’s name to it was a wise marketing decision by FN.
Two versions were offered: one with fixed sights and another with a tangent rear sight adjustable from 50 to 500 meters and a detachable wooden shoulder stock.
The Hi-Power was purchased by the armies of Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Peru and Finland. When the Wehrmacht overran Belgium in 1939, production continued under German supervision as the 9mm Pistole 640(b).
Monsieur Saive escaped to England, and later to Canada where he assisted the John Inglis Company of Toronto, to produce Hi-Powers for the Allies. Inglis produced pistols with both adjustable (No. 1 Mark 1) and fixed (No. 2 Mark 1) sights. Several modifications in 1944 resulted in the No. 1 Mark 1* and No. 2 Mark 1* pistols.
In 1944, the Chinese placed an order with Inglis for Hi-Powers while the Pistol, 9mm, No. 2 Mark 1 and 1* with fixed rear sights were supplied to Canadian and British armies becoming favorites with Commando and airborne units.2 By 1945, Inglis had produced 153,000 pistols.
After the war, FN resumed production of the Hi-Power. In the 1950s it was taken into service by the British (Pistol L9A1) followed by most Commonwealth armies and numerous other countries. Many have credited it as the driving force behind the worldwide popularity of the 9mm Parabellum cartridge.
American Special Forces used them during the fighting in Vietnam while in the U.S., it was adopted by a number of U.S. law enforcement agencies (e.g. Las Vegas, Nevada PD and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team).
While FN ceased production of the Hi-Power in 2018 it is still the issue pistol of many armies and police forces around the world and remains popular with civilian shooters.
Read a full review of the Springfield Armory SA-35 9mm handgun by Firearms News Handguns Editor James Tarr.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the Author:
Paul Scarlata began writing articles for various gun magazines in the 1990s. Over the years he has contributed to firearms and military history publications in the U.S. and a number of foreign countries, has had three books on military firearms published and just finished writing a fourth. He became a regular contributor to Shotgun News, forerunner of the Firearms News, in 2010, eventually becoming a staff member where he specializes writing about military small arms from 1850s to present day. His wife Becky, an excellent photographer, has been a major plus to "their" careers.