The Browning Hi Power pistol is one of the most popular and effective handguns in the history of modern firearms. Based on a design by John Browning, and completed by Dieudonné Saive at Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium, the Browning Hi Power is a single-action, semi-automatic handgun has been used by the armed forces of over 50 countries.
The gun has seen action in several wars since its release in 1935, and it’s of such high quality, that there have even been times when armies on both sides of a conflict have used the pistol against each other.
If you’re interested in the rich history behind the Browning Hi Power, we’ve got you covered. The story begins with a request from the French military and a legendary firearms designer who already had the creation of several excellent weapons under his belt.
In France, a Call For Arms
In the early 20th century, the French military wanted a new service pistol for its troops to carry as a sidearm. It listed several requirements that this pistol would need to fulfill.
Since it was intended to be a sidearm, the French military wanted a handgun that was compact and easy to carry.
It wanted a gun that was durable enough to withstand the elements, while also having a simple disassembly and assembly process, allowing soldiers to field strip their guns when necessary.
It wanted the gun to feature an external safety, an external hammer and a magazine disconnect device.
It wanted the gun to be accurate and capable of inflicting lethal wounds at a range of 50 meters, which is about 55 yards.
Finally, the French military wanted a handgun with a greater ammo capacity than the other service pistols in use at the time.
American troops carried 1911s with seven-round magazines, German troops carried P08s and later P38s which both had eight-round magazines, and British troops carried revolvers with the standard six rounds.
The French military stipulated that its next sidearm must hold at least 10 rounds and to top it all off, the gun had to weigh 1 kilogram or less (2.2 pounds, for those of us who don’t use the metric system).
Now, accomplishing this feat is obviously nothing with today’s technology, but in 1914, it was much more of a challenge. Armies across the world had just begun the transition from revolvers to auto pistols.
Although the French military didn’t specify a caliber, it was generally assumed that with those criteria, the gun would need to fire 9mm bullets. Estimated bullet mass was about 8 grams, and the required muzzle velocity for that bullet to be lethal at 50 meters was 1,148 feet per second.
Fabrique Nationale (FN), a firearms manufacturer headquartered in Belgium, got in touch with its chief firearms designer, John Moses Browning, to design a handgun for them that met the above specifications. Browning as he had been designing firearms for FN since the end of the 19th century. But how did an American designer end up working with a manufacturer in Belgium?
John Browning’s Road to Designing the Browning Hi Power
This certainly wasn’t Browning’s first rodeo. His Model 1885 Single Shot Rifle got him noticed by Winchester, which not only purchased the design, but also began a working relationship with him. For over a decade, Browning designed quite a few rifles and shotguns for the manufacturer.
Browning and Winchester eventually had a falling out in 1898. The designer had created a new semi-auto shotgun, and the standard agreement he had with Winchester was a one-time payment upon purchase of the design.
This time around, Browning wanted royalties so he would continue making money based on the gun’s sales. Winchester refused and let Browning walk. He talked to Remington and was going to offer his shotgun design to them, but then the company’s president suffered a fatal heart attack, ending that idea.
With Winchester and Remington off the table, Browning took his talents internationally and set up an agreement with FN. FN manufactured and released Browning’s shotgun, and it even named the gun after him, calling it the Browning Auto-5.
So, it made sense that when FN needed someone to design a service pistol meeting the French military’s stringent requirements, it would turn to John Browning. There was one issue that would prove to be quite challenging for Browning – he had already designed a very successful service pistol to the U.S. military with the M1911. He had designed the M1911 for Colt when the U.S. military began its search for a new semi-auto pistol that could replace its revolvers.
You’d think that having experience designing a handgun that was similar to what the French military wanted would have been helpful for Browning. The problem was that Browning sold the pistol design to Colt, which meant that he couldn’t use any of the same design elements. Instead, he had to come up with new ideas that were different from all the M1911 patents.
Imagine designing something brilliant, then getting hired to design a similar type of item, only to be told that you can’t use any of the elements that you were so successful with in the first place. That’s what Browning had to deal with. Design a completely new service pistol, and if he didn’t, he risked getting sued.
Browning’s Design Process for the Browning Hi Power
Browning didn’t even accept the job the first time that FN asked him about it in 1921. He didn’t see the need for designing a magazine that held more than seven or eight rounds. In his opinion, the capacity of his M1911 was more than enough.
Another firearms designer at FN who also happened to be Browning’s assistant, Dieudonne Saive, created a new double-row magazine capable of holding far more rounds than a single-row magazine, without increasing the length of the magazine past the handgrip. Saive showed this magazine design to Browning, who decided he would create the service pistol for FN. He started work in Utah, where he developed two prototypes. On June 28, 1923, he filed patents for his pistol design. Despite the fact that conventional wisdom said the gun would need to be 9mm, one of Browning’s prototypes was a .380 with a blowback design. As expected, this prototype lacked the stopping power that the French military wanted.
The other prototype was a striker-fired 9mm that had a locked-breech recoil system. This had some similarities with the M1911, but Browning adjusted it enough to avoid legal trouble and had to modify it so it could handle high-pressure 9mm ammunition. One feature both prototypes had in common was Saive’s high-capacity magazine with a staggered design.
The locked-breech, 9mm prototype was chosen moving forward, and the Versailles Trial Commission put the design through multiple trials to improve it. The project hit a tragic snag on November 26, 1926 – Browning’s heart failed and he died while working on the pistol that would become the Browning Hi Power. He was 71 years old and left behind one of the greatest legacies in the history of firearms design.
The Project Carried On
Val Allen Browning was 31 years old when his father died, and after serving in the U.S. military, he worked with his father and manufactured guns. With John Browning gone, responsibility for his projects fell to Val.Fortunately, Val would have some help as he worked on the Browning Hi Power. Saive worked with him on the design of the pistol.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted John Browning’s patent request for his pistol design posthumously on February 22, 1927. Although the passing of John Browning certainly impacted the project, there was good news in 1928, as the M1911’s patents expired. With all the M1911’s design features being fair game, Saive used several of them in the next version of the Browning Hi Power. This version became known as the Grand Rendement design, although it has also been referred to as the Saive-Browning Model of 1928.
Two features of the M1911 that this model used were its takedown sequence and removable barrel bushing.Development on the gun continued and Saive moved up the ranks at FN, where he took the position of chief firearms designer which had once been occupied by Browning.
The gun had a few design changes in 1931. The magazine had been shortened a small amount, cutting the capacity to 13 rounds, still above the French military’s requirement. Another new element was its curved rear grip strap.
After a lengthy design process, Saive and Val Browning finished the Browning Hi Power in 1934. It was known by three different names: the Browning Hi Power, the French GP-35 and the Browning P-35.
It made history as the first 9mm handgun that had a staggered-column magazine.
It fulfilled all the requirements of the French military.
And the French military decided to choose a different gun.
Early Military Use of the Browning Hi Power
After all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the Browning Hi Power, the French military went with the Modele 1935 pistol instead. Apparently the country changed its mind on those requirements, because the Modele 1935 had a capacity of just eight rounds. The good news was that France wasn’t the only nation looking for a sidearm for its troops.
The Belgian military, in particular, appreciated the design of the Browning Hi Power and purchased thousands of them. By May of 1940, FN had manufactured over 56,000 of the pistol, and the majority of those were going to the Belgian military.
As Germany captured Belgium in 1940, Saive fled and would end up going to London. The FN manufacturing plant sent information on producing the Browning Hi Power to Britain, which then sent the plans to Canada. World War II had led to multiple versions of the Browning Hi Power being produced, and by those on both sides.
The Germans took full advantage of having the FN plant in their possession, using it to produce more of the pistol, although they renamed it the Pistole 640(b), with the letter “b” indicating that it was made in Belgium.
In Canada, John Inglis and Company began producing Browning Hi Powers of their own using the plans sent from the FN plant. Inglis chose to go with two variations on the sidearm. The first featured an adjustable rear site, plus a detachable shoulder stock that the Chinese military wanted. The second featured a fixed rear sight.
Militaries to use the pistol on the Allied side included the United States, Britain and China. However, China eventually decided to cancel their contract with John Inglis and Company, and all the undelivered pistols went to Canada’s military.
Use of the Browning Hi Power After World War II
After the Allies won World War II and reclaimed the nations Germany had conquered, FN went back to manufacturing the Browning Hi Power at its factory in Belgium.
The gun would become even more popular over the years, to the point where more than 50 armies have used it as a service pistol at one point or another.
Besides World War II, the Browning Hi Power also saw action in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, to name just a few.
Although it’s an excellent handgun, especially considering when it was made, there are some drawbacks to the Browning Hi Power. Chief among these is its heavy trigger pull, which is caused by the magazine disconnect safety. This can slow down firing the gun quite a bit. Hammer bite, when the hammer of the gun pinches the web of the user’s hand, is common with both the Browning Hi Power and the M1911.
Of course, firearms technology improves quickly, and many militaries have moved on to more advanced service pistols. There are still militaries that use the Browning Hi Power, though. As of 2017, that includes the Canadian Armed Forces and the Belgian Army. The British military stuck with it until 2013.
Variations on the Browning Hi Power
Over the years, many manufacturers have made their own adjustments to the Browning Hi Power. The P35 is the original model used by the Belgian military and later the Germans.
The British came up with their own take on it after 1962 with the L9A1. The United States had the Mark I, the hard-to-find Mark I Lightweight, the Mark II and the Mark III, although with other variations.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Browning Hi Power. There have also been many clones of the gun released.
Like the M1911, the Browning Hi Power is popular among firearm enthusiasts, and there are many manufacturers that produce their own takes on the gun.
There’s also the option to customize the gun, making your very own build.
Getting Your Hands on a Browning Hi Power
Now that you know the entire history of the Browning Hi Power, you may want to get your very own. Fortunately, there are quite a few options out there.
You could shop for one of the many used models on the market, or get one new. To grab your very own, brand-new Hi Power, just head over to Browning’s website here. Used models are also available on GunBroker.com
Once you have one, all the customization options mean that the sky’s the limit.