The Sun Never Sets on the Browning High Power

By Alton P. Chiu

To most American readers, the most influential pistol of John Moses Browning is likely the M1911 that has served the US military in various capacities since the early 20th century. Readers in other parts of the world may instead point to the Browning High Power (BHP) that has served over 90 nations and is still in active service today. Lately, surplus BHPs have been coming to the American market, and this article examines the MkII version as purchased from AIM Surplus, a retailer. The follow-on article will focus on various aftermarket parts to bring the BHP into the 21st century.

The BHP was born of a French military service pistol requirement that asked for a magazine disconnect to prevent discharge when the magazine is not inserted, external hammer, positive safety and a capacity of at least 10 rounds. Fabrique Nationale (FN), having a long and prosperous history with John Browning (“FN: The First 125 Years,” American Rifleman, National Rifle Association, Dec. 23, 2014), commissioned a design from him for the contract. Dieudonné Saive, later known for the FAL, developed the double-row magazine containing 13 rounds of 9x19 mm for the pistol. After Browning’s 1926 death at the FN plant in Belgium, Saive incorporated improvements from the now-expired M1911 patents and offered the pistol for sale as the Browning High Power. Although the French failed to adopt the BHP in favor of the SACM 1935 in 7.65 Longue, it was nevertheless adopted by over 90 nations. Alongside the FAL, another FN product, the BHP equipped most of NATO at one point as well as numerous other non-aligned nations such as Argentina, Finland, Nigeria and Singapore.

The BHP had the distinction of being produced and used by both the Allies and Axis in World War II. The Germans took over the FN plant after occupying Belgium in 1940, and they continued production with the addition of Waffenamts inspection marks. Across the Atlantic, John Inglis and Company of Toronto, Canada, received six Belgian-made pistols from China and reverse-engineered them for Allied use (Stevens, R. Blake, The Inglis-Browning Hi-power Pistol, Ottawa: Museum Restoration Service, 1974, Print), primarily with the Commonwealth forces. A version, with an adjustable rear sight mounted on a hump plus a detachable shoulder stock, was produced for the Nationalist Chinese (marked on the slide with chinese characters which translates to Republic of China Government Owned). Commonwealth pistols lacked the shoulder stock and had fixed sights but retained the rear-sight hump characteristic of the Inglis production. These pistols featured a ring hammer, slab-side grips and a lanyard loop.

Post WWII, the British retained the Inglis BHPs and adopted them for general issue in 1954; these pistols served until the 1980s. The inventory was expanded after 1962 with the new pistols being marked L9A1 which served until 2013; this was the pistol Prince Harry sported on his plate carrier during an ITV interview. (“My Mother Would Be Proud,’ Says Harry as MoD Prepares to Bring Him Back Home,” Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 2008, Online,) Along the way, many countries across all continents also adopted the firearm.

The MkII, subject of this article, was introduced in the 1980s and added an ambidextrous thumb safety, nylon grips, spur hammer, external extractor and a straight feed-ramp vice, the “humped” ramp seen on the original version.

This improved feeding reliability with ammunition that does not conform to the typical round-nose profile of the FMJ/ball ammunition. In addition, the MkII featured a rib along the top of the slide. While the front sight was integral to the slide, the rear sight was set into a dovetail. It also featured a water drain hole at the front of the slide below the barrel bushing.

The MkIII added a firing pin safety (as did late production MkIIs), differently shaped ejection port and larger sights. The firing pin safety imparted an additional load on the trigger pull, and the trigger return spring was accordingly lightened. This was identified by the three-loop spring (thinner wire) in contrast to the two-loop spring used in the MkII (thicker wire). A version chambered in 40 S&W was also offered but has since ceased production.

Such is the popularity of the BHP that many copies were manufactured around the world. Fabricaciones Militares (FM) of Argentina manufactured the Rosario which duplicated the MkII and the FM90, which featured a M1911-style slide without the thinning profile near the muzzle. Ishapore of India also produced a copy of the Inglis BHP with fixed rear sights as Pistol Auto 9 mm 1A. FEG of Hungary also fabricated a copy of the “classic” BHP as the PJK-9HP. Arcus of Hungary produced a copy as the 94 but with the external shape modified to have a notably angular appearance. Perhaps the most famous BHP inspired pistol is the CZ 75, which also spawned its own derivatives. With legions of BHP descendents, one can almost say it is the Genghis Khan of the handgun world.

The Browning High Power is a locked-breech, recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistol. The force of launching the projectile also acts upon the pistol and user; and since the frame is held mostly fixed, the slide constitutes the principle reciprocating mass. For the first four millimeters of travel, the slide and barrel are locked together via lugs in front of the chamber. As the barrel moves rearward, the barrel cam-track (engaging the cam in the frame) tilts the barrel down and unlocks it from the slide. It then continues rearwards, cocking the hammer and ejecting the spent casing via a frame mounted fixed ejector. When returning to battery, a fresh round of ammunition is stripped from the double-column, single-feed magazine, and the rim slips under the extractor in the same manner as a control-feed rifle.

To field strip the pistol, the slide is first pulled to the rear and safety engaged into the disassembly notch. The slide catch is then pushed up and out while overcoming the ball detent in the guide rod, before being removed from the fame. The safety is disengaged, and slide eased off the frame. The guide rod and barrel can then be removed for maintenance. Assembly is a reverse of the procedure above, but special attention should be placed to the orientation of the guide rod. If the slide refuses to cycle fully to the rear which prevents the insertion of the slide stop, check that the guide rod was not inserted upside-down.

One readily apparent feature of the BHP is that magazines do not drop freely due to the friction between the magazine body and the magazine disconnect. The disconnect takes the form of a plunger depressed by the front of the magazine body, and it moves the trigger lever rearward along the longitudinal axis so that it can engage the transfer bar in the slide and trip the sear. While this side effect of the original French requirement may annoy the modern user, one must note that other contemporary designs (e.g., Walther P38) also required a positive removal of the spent magazine. While the diminutive shelf at the front part of the magazine floor plate helped with the removal, the author would have preferred a longer shelf for a more authoritative grip.

With the disconnect equipped, magazines would not drop freely even after the application of Pistol Pro Mag Slick by Krunch Products. Removing the magazine disconnect usually allows the magazine to drop freely, but that was hampered by the sear spring contacting the rear of the magazine in one of the author’s examples. Another effect of removing the disconnect is elimination of the grittiness (from the plunger rubbing against the magazine body) during the take-up portion of the trigger pull. However, one should note that the disconnect spring helps with the trigger reset, and its removal reduces the authority of the reset.

The astute reader will notice several features of the BHP that are distinct from current design trends. As previously mentioned, the BHP locks the barrel and slide via cuts inside the slide and atop the barrel, whereas current designs utilize the ejection port hood for the same purpose. Another difference is the BHP transfer bar is on the slide while modern designs have transfer bars in the frame with a dog-leg shape on both sides to work around the magazine. Like the original M1911, the BHP guide rod is not full length, and the slide rails do not run the full length of the frame. In addition, modern designs usually use an existing pin such as the slide release (e.g., CZ 75, Sig SP2022) or the disassembly lever (HK VP9) to cam the barrel downwards in contrast to the dedicated pin of the BHP or the barrel link-up of the M1911 (recall that Browning had to work around the M1911 patents held by Colt at the time). During the examination, the author was struck by the simplicity of the BHP mechanics in comparison to double action designs.

The author received the featured examples from AIM Surplus in good condition. Both pistols showed wear from handling and holster. The paint finish, similar to that found on the FN49 and FAL, was worn to bare steel near the edges. The grip area showed the most wear as well as rust. Minor marks and scratches were evident. Lanyard loops were present and functional on both examples. However, the white paint for the three-dot sights was faded. These cosmetic issues were expected on a surplus arm and could easily be corrected.

Both pistols were mechanically excellent. Although the springs appear to be in good working order, the author obtained a complete set of Wolff springs as insurance for an aged pistol with an indeterminate number of rounds fired through it. Barrels in both examples had strong rifling and excellent crowns. There were no signs of corrosion either in the barrel, chamber or breech, likely indicating good cleaning practice of the former user or the use of non-corrosive ammunition. The pistols were also internally and externally clean when received. However, there was minor carbon buildup in the trigger area and underneath the extractor.

The author noted the initially poor trigger pull with much grittiness, creep and heavy pull weight. After removing the carbon deposit in the trigger area, the grittiness was much reduced although it was still present due to the magazine disconnect. Oiling the hammer/sear engagement area and some dry firing also produced minor improvements. Further oiling throughout an extended live fire session produced a marked improvement in trigger feel of both examples.

The author found one example to feature a hammer spring with thicker gauge wire and consequently heavier trigger pull. He surmised the heavier spring was used to ensure detonation of hard primers commonly found on military ammunition meant for open-bolt submachine guns. This practice was also found in the German police Sig P6 (1.15 mm) in contrast to the civilian P225 model (1.1 mm).

It was difficult to achieve the modern thumb-high, thumbs-forward grip on the BHP. The contoured grip placed the thumb below the safety, and, while comfortable for one-handed shooting, it did not fit the modern two-handed grip.

The author felt more natural when placing the thumb underneath the safety on both the thumb-shelf and slab-side grips, especially given that the safeties do not have a shelf to “ride” like in the M1911. In addition, the small beavertail and sharp corners also conspired against a comfortable high grip. This prevents the support hand from filling the grip panel and adding stability, leading the author to experience more muzzle flip than modern designs. However, one must consider the historical context where one-handed point shooting was the standard technique (Combat Firing with Hand Guns. F. B. No. 152, Prod. Army Pictorial Service, War Department, Film, Online) until the advent of Weaver and Isosceles stance in the 1950s and 1980s respectively.

As previously mentioned, the as-received, poor trigger improved to be rather good after oiling and working the sear/hammer engagement. Some grittiness in the take-up was inherent with the magazine disconnect while the creep, with some halting and grinding, was only noticeable when doing precision shooting such as metallic silhouette. However, the author was disappointed with the trigger reset because the shoe was not propelled forward with authority, and the reset was imperceptible as well as being too far forward. The author adopted the policy of fully releasing the trigger after each shot in fear of short stroking.

As a left-handed user, the author found the axial pin of the right side safety to protrude slightly further than the left side, with the consequence of irritating the thumb when adopting a left-handed thumb-high grip. To avoid this, the author settled on a “Sig style” grip where the strong-hand thumb was placed outside the weak-hand thumb; this grip was so named because it was used by some right-handed shooters to avoid riding the Sig slide release. The right facing ejection port also ejected carbon specks onto the author’s weak-hand thumb. Lastly, the magazine release was not reversible, forcing the left-handed shooter to use the trigger finger to depress the magazine release while extracting the spent magazine. In addition, the thumb-shelf grip panel impeded the trigger finger from fully depressing the magazine release while the slab-side grips did not. While the BHP was workable for a left-handed user, its ergonomics were clearly not designed for southpaws.

Both pistols were found to be very accurate, despite the rattle heard when shaking them. The play between slide and frame was minute and did not appear any more severe than other pistols in the author’s collection. The small sights (by modern standards) assisted in precision shooting. At a distance of 15 m, impacts for one example was 8 cm left of the point of aim, and the other example was 30 cm high when using 147-gr-plated projectiles from X-Treme Bullets launched at 290 m/s. Throughout the shooting session, the author was struck by the degree of accuracy afforded by an extra inch of sight radius in comparison with the compact-sized pistols. Overall, the author was impressed with the accuracy of these surplus firearms.

The Browning High Power is a venerable design by a master gunsmith and has withstood the test of time. It was innovative for its day and provided excellent service throughout its career. Although its features seem dated, it continues to impress in the mechanical area and is worthy of a place in the collection of any enthusiast. And at the price of about $450 at the time of writing, these surplus BHPs warrant serious consideration for defensive use given the wide availability of parts and a long, proven record.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N2 (March 2017)
and was posted online on January 27, 2017


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