December 05, 2022
This article originally appeared in the January 2022, Issue No. 1 print edition of Firearms News.
When a gun company brings out a gun, they can do focus groups and market research, read tea leaves, or roll some chicken bones, but to some extent whether or not that pistol will be a hit or a dud is always going to be a big question mark. Ruger was shocked at how huge a success their oddball Ruger-57 pistol was. Mossberg had no clue how profitable and influential their Shockwave would be. The astronomical sales of the Taurus Judge kept that company afloat during rocky times.
Springfield Armory had the same questions upon introduction of the SA-35. Sure, it’s a new pistol for them…but it’s not a new design. Far from it. The Browning/Saive designed P-35 Grande Puissance “Hi-Power” has been around since 1935. Millions of them have been made…and just a few years ago, Browning discontinued the pistol, in part due to very poor sales.
However, someone knowledgeable about pistols and the firearms marketplace could see that the fall of the P-35 in the American consumer marketplace wasn’t due to a problem with the design itself, but rather the failure to perform just a few small tweaks to modernize the pistol, much has been done with the 1911, John Browning’s other, older, and more successful design. And the folks at Springfield have shown themselves to be very canny when it comes to Browning’s pistol designs.
As a result, the SA-35 has only been out a week as I write this, and Springfield can’t keep up with demand. They are backordered until next year, so the problem isn’t/wasn’t the design. The problem was that Browning didn’t do what it should have to keep the design modern, in addition to producing guns that were sub-par in terms of fit, finish, and performance. The Turkish P-35 clones actually have better fit and finish than the last Browning guns, but do not feature any of the tweaks I, and many other people, felt the design needed to keep in relevant in today’s market. The tweaks done to the SA-35.
The Springfield Armory SA-35, a Browning Hi-Power by any other name, is just as sweet.
Let’s take a look at the specs of this pistol and then what Springfield has done to make it a viable choice for carry and self-defense in the 21st Century:
As you might expect from a pistol that first debuted in 1935, this is an all-steel pistol. It has a forged carbon steel frame and slide, both of which have been treated to a nice, old-school matte blue finish. This is a single-action semi-automatic, which means the hammer needs to be cocked for the pistol to fire, just like John Browning’s other, more famous design, the 1911.
FYI — while our military never issued them, these guns were issued around the world, and have seen combat in all corners of the globe. This design is as proven in combat as “proven in combat” gets. I personally know two people who used them in combat—one in Vietnam, one in Iraq.
The SA-35 is chambered in 9mm, and is fed by a double-column 15-round magazine. It sports a 4.7-inch barrel, is 7.8-inches long, 4.8-inches tall, and weighs 32 ounces unloaded. In appearance and feel, it is very old-school and classic. The slide-to-frame fit on my sample was very good, with just a little bit of play. Overall, the pistol was very tight and seemed very well made, and in that it was far different from the last models Browning was producing, which displayed shockingly poor fit and finish.
This pistol has a manual thumb safety, a checkered steel magazine release in the traditional American location that does not protrude further than the grips, a rounded trigger guard, and generally elegant, classical lines.
Since I mentioned the 1911, let’s look at a few ways this gun is different from Browning’s earlier design: the 1911 has a grip safety, this does not (but the original P-35 has a magazine disconnect safety). The 1911 has a barrel bushing, that’s been done away with on this gun. The 1911’s barrel had a swinging link; this gun has a simpler tilting barrel design. The 1911 has a tuned, tensioned (notoriously problematic) extractor, this gun like most modern pistols has a pivoting extractor with a spring. The 1911 has a trigger that slides straight back, the P-35 has a pivoting trigger. The P-35 is quick and easy to take apart and reassemble. The 1911…not so much. Most people think the P-35 is, design-wise, an improvement over the 1911, and it was hugely influential on pistol design when it was introduced.
Size- and weight-wise this would be considered a full-size pistol, similar in size to most old-school “duty” guns like the CZ 75/SIG P226, but thinner than most, which makes it more concealable. Many 1911 fans were/are fans of the Hi-Power, as it was a single-action pistol like the 1911, with the same grip angle, roughly the size and weight of a Colt Lightweight Commander, while holding (with original magazine capacity) six more rounds.
When I heard that Springfield Armory was going to be bringing back the Hi-Power, I knew there were several things they absolutely needed to do for it to be a success, and several things they probably should do but weren’t as imperative. Let me go over them, in order of importance:
1. A proper, modern, 1911-style thumb safety. The Hi-Power is a single-action pistol, which means when the hammer is down it is little more than a stylish paperweight. It was introduced in an era decades before anyone had ever heard of the term “condition one,” or “cocked-and-locked” carry. The pistol was carried with the hammer down, sometimes with an empty chamber, and when you needed it you either cocked the hammer or racked the slide. The small, original thumb safety on the pistol worked, but not in conjunction with modern cocked-and-locked carry, where you deactivate the safety with your thumb as part of the natural draw stroke.
Browning, with the latter versions of their Hi-Power, introduced a model with a longer, bilateral manual safety lever, but it still was too narrow to reliably deactivate with your thumb at speed and under stress. Most serious Hi-Power aficionados had to replace the factory thumb safety with an aftermarket model, likely the piece from Cylinder and Slide (C&S), which resembles a slightly reduced-in-size 1911 thumb safety. The thumb safety on Springfield’s SA-35 is very similar to the C&S safety, and allows for true cocked-and-locked, 1911-style carry. It is the only version of the Hi-Power which comes from the factory with a suitable thumb safety.
2. Ditching the magazine disconnect safety. The original design had a magazine disconnect safety inside the frame. Removing the magazine meant that the pistol would not fire, even with a round in the chamber. As a safety device, this works. I have heard many good arguments for these types of safeties on duty guns carried openly by police officers, but if that’s not you, you don’t want this safety.
Providing an additional mechanical safety, that’s what this intentionally does. What does the magazine disconnect safety unintentionally do? First, it interferes with magazine travel, and hitting the magazine release might not send the magazine out of the gun. Secondly, it interferes with the quality of the trigger pull. This is a single-action pistol, which means it should have a relatively crisp, light trigger pull. Nope. At least, not when there is a magazine disconnect safety, as it works by interfering with trigger travel, and even with a magazine in makes the trigger pull chunky and mushy. Browning never took this out of their pistols, and you can also find it in all the Turkish clones (which also sport too-tiny thumb safeties). The Springfield SA-35 has no magazine disconnect safety, and as a result, magazines drop free, and the trigger pull is a crisp 4.75-lbs. (in my sample).
3. Magazines with maximum, modern capacity. This isn’t such a big deal with me, but I suspect it would be with the average consumer. The original capacity of the Hi-Power was 13+1 rounds, making it one of if not the original “high capacity” wonder-nines. For 1935, that was a huge amount of ammo in-hand. For today, not so much. I knew that in order not to be immediately disregarded by a large chunk of the gun-buying public, Springfield needed to equip the SA-35 with the newer 15-round magazines, and they have. The magazines are made by Mec-Gar, the kings of OEM magazines, and to fit those two extra rounds in there they slightly modified the internals to allow for more follower travel while keeping the magazines just as reliable. Some of the Turkish clones come with 15-round magazines, but at the time they discontinued it, Browning still was only offering 13-round magazines. There are extended 20-round magazines available, and with the success of this pistol expect to see added capacity basepads from various aftermarket manufacturers shortly, increasing your options.
4. Thin grips. Compared to the SIG P226 or the Beretta 92, the grip of the Hi-Power is not especially large. However, compared to Browning’s most popular pistol design, the 1911, the Hi-Power is, as my kids would say, a “chonky boy.” And the rest of the gun is very slender, as John Moses Browning excelled at designing size-efficient firearms.
Traditionally, factory grips found on this pistol are thick, either wood, plastic, or rubber. They make a slightly thick grip even thicker and rounder, which is not what you want. When I owned my Browning Hi-Power (the gun that I most regret selling), I did three things to it to make it ready for prime time — installed a C&S thumb safety, removed the magazine disconnect safety, and swapped out the thick black rubber grips with thin checkered hardwood grip panels from Ahrens. Springfield has done the same with the SA-35, as it comes from the factory with slender, fully checkered walnut grips. They are maybe not quite as thin as some aftermarket grips, but they’re a definite improvement over all previous factory grips.
5. Sights. The sights found on the last generation of Browning Hi-Powers and the modern Turkish clones are very workable, and far better than the original sights on the gun which, just like the original 1911 sights, were very minimal. But there’s good and then there’s great, and Springfield has equipped this pistol with excellent defensive sights.
The front sight is a steel post dovetailed into the slide, with a white dot. The rear sight is plain black and serrated, with a generous U-shaped notch. These are Springfield’s “Tactical Rack” sights, which means the front of the rear sight is flat, so you can rack the pistol one-handed off a hard surface if necessary.
Like the 1911, I’ve found that the Hi-Power points rather naturally for me, so both guns are quite shootable even with the original tiny “hump and a bump” sights, but modern sights are a definite and appreciated upgrade. These are the best sights found on any factory Hi-Power.
6. The Browning Hi-Power was boringly reliable with FMJ ammo, more reliable than the 1911. The barrel has an integral feed ramp, as opposed to the 1911’s two-part frame/barrel chamber mouth feeding path, making it more consistently reliable. However, it didn’t necessarily like hollow-point ammunition. JHPs with bullet profiles close to that of FMJ ammo worked the best. A friend of mine bought a Hi-Power in the early 1990s, and his carry ammo of choice was Federal 9BP, a jacketed hollow-point with an FMJ profile. When it came to Hi-Powers and various hollowpoints, if it would run them it would run them forever and perfectly…but it wouldn’t run everything. In the modern era where you can find hollow-points with every kind of silhouette under the sun (including some, like Federal’s Guard Dog, which have FMJ profiles but expand on impact) this isn’t as much of an issue, but still I hoped Springfield would improve the design’s reliability with hollow points.
On Springfield’s website, they state the SA-35 sports an “improved feed ramp design.” I didn’t have an old-school P-35 on hand to compare it to, but the barrel’s feed ramp of the SA-35 didn’t look noticeably different. I reached out to Springfield and was told, “Subtle changes in barrel feed ramp design and extractor geometry have aided in the performance with modern defensive ammo. ”
Words are cheap, so to test this I headed to the range with eleven different kinds of ammo from six different manufacturers — FMJ (Norma) FMJFP (Winchester), polymer-coated flat points (Federal Syntech), and JHPs in every bullet weight from 115 to 147 grains (check out the accompanying photo). I chose several of the loads specifically because they had large cavities (Black Hills’ 115-grain TAC-XP+P, SIG’s 147-grain V-Crown). I fired over 200 rounds through the pistol simply for function testing, and never experienced a single malfunction or jam.
7. Beveled magazine well. The P-35, just like the 1911, came with sharp-edged magazine well openings in the frame that made reloading at speed quite a chore as they were barely larger than the magazine. And reloading a steel gun with a steel magazine is always slower and rougher than polymer on polymer. With 15+1 rounds on board the chances of you needing to reload under duress are very low, but a beveled magazine well opening sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?
The folks at Springfield Armory felt the same way, and the magazine well opening on the SA-35 is nicely beveled. I believe this is the only Hi-Power on the market that comes with a beveled magazine well opening…as it is the only one that comes with a proper thumb safety, no magazine disconnect safety, and thin grips.
8. A beavertail. Springfield has slightly redesigned the hammer on the SA-35 to reduce hammer bite, the pinching of your hand between the hammer and frame. Unless you have large hands (and you’re properly choked up on this gun, shooting it with a thumb over the safety as is correct) this won’t be an issue for most people, but still it would have been nice. And Hi-Powers with properly executed beavertails (curving up to cup the hammer, not sticking straight back as I’ve seen on some recent overpriced custom Hi-Powers) look gorgeous. This was my only disappointment with this gun, but the fact that Springfield went with this round hammer, instead of a spur one, makes me hope that they’ll follow this base model up with a higher-end custom one, with a proper beavertail and checkering on the front- and backstrap. I don’t know anything, but considering that’s the path Springfield has taken with every one of their 1911s…
All of the above would be moot if Springfield priced the SA-35 too high, but the MSRP is just $699, making it very competitive. Normally that would mean it could be found for a price less than the MSRP, but currently these pistols are in such high demand that they’re going for more than the sticker price, to use some automotive lingo.
A brief time-out for my usual rant about carrying a 1911 for defensive purposes, modified for the SA-35/Browning Hi-Power. I recommend it, in fact I’ve done it (the above-mentioned customized Browning) but…
This is a single-action pistol. If the hammer is down, the pistol will not fire. Period. If you’re going to carry a pistol for self-defense, it should be carried in such a manner that you can draw and fire it with one hand, just in case, because excrement happens. This means if you’re carrying an SA-35, you should be carrying it cocked-and-locked, the hammer cocked and the thumb safety engaged. That’s why they frickin’ put this improved thumb safety on the gun! Seriously. Leave condition three carry (chamber empty, hammer down) to the Israelis in the 1980s, who were stuck using Hi-Powers with the original tiny thumb safeties.
If you don’t feel safe carrying a pistol with a cocked hammer, carry a different gun. But there’s no reason not to feel safe. That cocked hammer looks scary, but an SA-35 in condition one (cocked and locked) is no less safe than the average striker-fired gun.
To get a cocked-and-locked SA-35 ready to fire, you have to push down the manual safety lever with your thumb, and then pull the trigger. Most striker-fired pistols have a small safety lever on their trigger, and that’s it. If something simply gets wedged inside the trigger of your Glock/M&P/whatever, it’s likely to go bang. Part of the manual of arms of a 1911/Hi-Power is to have that thumb safety engaged whenever that pistol isn’t up, so that physically can’t happen while reholstering.
I repeat — if you’re not willing to carry this pistol with the hammer cocked, carry a different gun, for your safety and the safety of those around you. Do not carry this gun with the hammer down. That is what’s unsafe.
Many older pistol designs are just a pain to take apart for cleaning. Not the P-35. Remove the magazine, and pull the slide back until you can flick the thumb safety up into the forward of the two angled slots in the slide (that at rest is above the rear of the slide stop). Doing so will hold the slide back. At this point push out the slide stop from right to left.
The slide assembly will then come off the front of the frame, and you can pluck out the recoil spring and barrel for cleaning. Reassembly is just as quick and easy.
At the range this pistol was just a joy to shoot. It is a full-size, all-steel pistol with a relatively low bore, chambered in 9mm, which means that even with +P ammo it is very comfortable to shoot. The sights are excellent, and the crisp trigger pull will allow you to shoot up to your potential. This is one reason the Hi-Power was prized as a carry gun back in the day by people comfortable with single-action guns and who weren’t dismissive of the effectiveness of the 9mm cartridge (which admittedly back in the 1980s was lacking, but no longer).
The thumb safety of the SA-35 did not have the loud, positive clicks up and down that I prefer in a 1911 safety, but I’m reminded slightly mushy thumb safety action is typical with this design.
I found the pistol was very accurate, and the nice trigger helped me to realize that accuracy. When you can reliably hammer fist-sized rocks on the berm twenty-five yards away, offhand, you know you’ve got a pistol in your hand that is capable of doing anything you ask of it. I did a few speed drills on cardboard silhouettes, as well as knocking down a lot of my club’s steel, basically as fast as I could pull the trigger. If you track down the video Pat Sweeney and I did of this pistol, posted to the Firearms News website, you’ll see me hammering down a dozen pieces of steel, in about eight seconds, without a miss. Truthfully, that was the first time I fired the gun, that was literally the first magazine of ammo put through that pistol. Which shows just how shootable it is.
I’ve had people tell me that the SA-35 is just a rebranded Turkish Hi-Power. This is not true. First off, there are small differences in those pistols, including subtly different contours on the frame. Any pistols made in Europe are subject to specific regulations, and one of those is marking the serial number on the frame, slide, and barrel. The only markings you’ll see on the SA-35 are the HP-prefix serial number on the frame, and Geneseo, IL marked on the frame and slide. Springfield Armory clearly states that the pistol is made in America.
However, at this excellent price point, it is likely that Springfield sourced the frame and slide forgings from elsewhere. I inquired, and was told that they wouldn’t disclose any information on their vendors. Does it matter if the forged steel out of which they machined the slide and frame came from another country? To be honest, almost every firearms manufacturer does this to a certain degree. Does it matter that your “Made in Austria” Glock has a slide machined from Italian steel? I bet you didn’t know that, did you? Glock buys slide blanks from a foundry in Italy, as does at least one other gun company. For all I know, that same foundry is making the SA-35 slides for Springfield. Sounds like a great unfounded rumor to float around the internet…
As this design has been around likely longer than anyone reading this article, you will have no shortage of holster options. An old-school blued pistol like this cries out for an old-school holster, something made out of animal flesh rather than plastic. Back when I carried my Hi-Power I had it stuffed into a horsehide IWB holster made by Kramer Leather. Horsehide looks like leather but resists wear almost like Kydex.
I like this gun, a lot. So, let me answer the cries of, “Sure, but is it a better carry gun than my X?”, ‘X’ usually being a Glock or some other modern polymer-framed striker-fired pistol. Well, first, the trigger pull is just better on the SA-35. The 1911 has the trigger pull against which all other pistols are judged, and they are all found wanting. The Hi-Power/SA-35 is a single-action pistol, but because of the pivoting bar between the trigger and sear the trigger pull just isn’t quite as crisp as that of a 1911. But it’s damn close. There will always be just the hint of mush/take-up before the crisp break (that honestly will go unnoticed by 97.2% of people), which means it is still better than any striker-fired pistol on the market.
Is the SA-35 better than a modern pistol for carry? No, but it’s just as good, and very different in appearance and feel. It is an old-school carry gun, and has been putting people in the ground all over the world for most of a century — using 13-round magazines and FMJ ammo, not the premium defensive hollowpoints you have access to, which make it even more effective. It is a piece of history, featuring minor but significant upgrades and improvements for the modern technique of the pistol, and the modern marketplace. Would I carry one? Heck, I have, I did. For several years, I trusted my life to a Hi-Power tricked out just like this pistol, stuffed with magazines “limited” to “just” 13 rounds. It was my regular off-duty carry back when I still wore a badge (as my on-duty Glock 21 was just too damn big to conceal).
The SA-35 is a new/old gun that has been maximized to meet both the needs and wants of modern consumers. It is accurate, fun to shoot, affordable, and damn good-looking. Springfield Armory did everything right with this pistol.
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:
James Tarr is a former police officer and private investigator, and is a nationally ranked competitive shooter. He has been writing professionally for 20 years, both magazine articles and books.
1 Browning’s semiauto pistols were so popular that in many parts of the world “Browning” became synonymous with “pistol.”
2 Despite ordering 180,000 pistols only about 45,000 made their way to China of which 28,000 were fitted with tangent rear sights and wooden holster/shoulder stocks.
Springfield Armory SA-35 Specifications
- Caliber: 9mm
- Capacity: 15+1
- Barrel Length: 4.7 in.
- Overall Length: 7.8 in.
- Height: 4.8 in.
- Width: 1.3 in.
- Weight: 32 ounces (unloaded, with magazine)
- Slide Material: Carbon steel
- Frame Material: Carbon steel
- Finish: Matte blued
- Grips: Checkered walnut
- Safeties: Extended thumb safety
- Sights: Tactical Rack white dot front/U-notch rear
- Trigger: 4.75 lbs. (as tested)
- Accessories: One 15-round magazine, cable lock, soft case
- MSRP: $699.00
- Contact: (800) 680-6866; Springfield-Armory.com