Modernizing the Browning High Power: Teaching an Old Dog Some New Tricks

By Alton P. Chiu

The Browning High Power (hereafter BHP) is a venerable design with a proven record that is worthy of a place in any collection.

However, its excellent performance belies its 80 years of age evident in its ergonomics. Following up the author’s observations in The Sun Never Sets on the Browning High Power, Part 1 (see this issue), this article examines how the shortfalls can be addressed with user-changeable parts from Cylinder & Slide (http://www.cylinder-slide.com/) on a surplus MkII BHP.


On a BHP, it is difficult to achieve a thumbs-high, thumbs-forward grip. This is in part due to the lack of a shelf to ride on the original thumb safety and is addressed by Cylinder & Slide’s extended ambidextrous safety (CS0034). The sharp corners of the abbreviated beavertail can also cause discomfort during a high grip for some hands but is difficult for the typical user to remedy at home.

The single-action trigger system of the BHP, while not a deficiency, can discourage those weary of a “cocked and locked” pistol. The Safe Fast Shooting (SFS) system, available from Cylinder & Slide (CS0115), decocks the hammer and adds a firing pin block. The safety lever of the SFS acts as a recocker which releases the hammer back to cocked state and allows the transmission of spring energy to the primer. The kit also contains an improved slide stop, ambidextrous thumb safety and an abbreviated hammer that will alleviate any hammer bite problems.

The BHP is also not too left-hand friendly. The right side of the axial pin on the original safety extended past the lever just enough to irritate the thumb, and the aforementioned Cylinder & Slide extended safety removed that annoyance. The ambidextrous magazine release (CS0117) also significantly helps left-handed users because the magazines do not drop freely and require a positive removal. The original release forces left-handers to use the trigger finger which may require a shift in grip and can slow the reloading process. The slide release itself cannot be made ambidextrous because it must be removed for field stripping. However, the author found that disengaging the release via trigger finger to be satisfactory, as the sling-shot method where the user pulls back and releases the slide.


To the user, the Safety Fast Shooting (SFS) system handles the same as the original single-action system with a minor exception while providing an extra safety margin.

To engage the safety, one pushes forward on the hammer. This decocks the hammer and engages the safety in the up position, preventing the slide from cycling. To ready the pistol, one presses down the safety just like the original design, and the hammer springs back into the cocked position. Although the SFS safety lever acts like a recocker and cannot be engaged with the hammer cocked for a “cocked and locked” state, it will still be referenced as the safety in this article.

It is important to note that with the hammer decocked, the tension of the hammer spring is not released like in a true double-action system (e.g., Beretta 92, Sig P-series). Instead, the SFS is more akin in concept to HK’s LEM system without the double-action element. In fact, the operating principle of the SFS is just like the double-action plus function of the Daewoo K5 (marketed in the United States as the Lionheart LH9) except the Daewoo uses the trigger to recock the hammer. If the hammer spring was to be released with the hammer decocked due to a malfunction, the spring should reach the hammer with insufficient energy to detonate the primer. This, combined with the hammer block built into the SFS system, provides an extra safety margin.

The SFS system also adds a number of features: hammer block, replacement safety lever and an extended slide release. The SFS hammer block resides on the hammer assembly and rotates on a different axis than the hammer. When the slide is cycled, the block is pushed flush against the hammer. After decocking and subsequent recocking, the block rests against the slide. In either state, it would prevent the hammer from reaching the firing pin if the sear was not tripped. If it were, the tail of the sear would move up and sweep the hammer block out from the path of the hammer, thus allowing the primer to be detonated.

The extended slide features a serrated surface slopping away from the frame for better contact with the finger. It is also extended towards to rear, making it easier to reach with the right-hand thumb, and allows users with smaller hands to release the slide without a shift in grip while increasing leverage. Despite the closer distance between the slide release and safety lever, the fact that the SFS safety cannot be engaged upwards with the hammer cocked eliminates the possibility of inadvertently disabling the firearm during a slide-lock reload. The ergonomic improvement extends to left-handed users as well if they use the trigger finger to release the slide. The extended slide release markedly improves ergonomics and is available separately from the SFS kit as part CS0036.

The SFS system comes with its own ambidextrous safety lever that is not interchangeable with levers meant for the original single-action system because of the extra pin in the sear engagement area. When the hammer is decocked, a spring in the hammer assembly is compressed. With the safety is depressed, the aforementioned pin releases an internal hook and allows the hammer to spring back into the cocked state. The SFS safety itself is also spring loaded to the up position, with some of that spring and associated hole in the lever being exposed outside the frame like the detent in the original safety.

As previously mentioned, the SFS safety cannot be engaged with the hammer cocked. This presents a predicament in field stripping as the safety now cannot be engaged into the disassembly notch so as to hold back the slide while the slide release is removed. Although this is no different than field stripping a CZ75 pistol, the slide on the BHP must be retracted much further and consequently requires more arm strength and dexterity. The author was able to field strip the pistol with some practice, but users with low arm strength such as the young or elderly should take care during the procedure.

The author found the SFS safety to have a distinctly different feel than the original safety when disengaging. The first part of the depression required little strength and performed no function (analogous to the takeup portion of a two-stage trigger).

The second part required noticeably more strength to fully depress and recock the pistol. The process felt less crisp and required more strength than the original single-action system.

The grip area of the SFS safety is similar to the extended slide release with a serrated face slopping away from the frame. The protruding pin of the original safety that so irked the author is not present in the SFS version. However, a thumb-high, thumb-forward grip is still not comfortable or practical for the author when presenting from holster because of the extra finger strength required to recock the hammer and the lack of thumb-shelf on the SFS safety lever. Instead, the author found it more convenient and consistent to use the tip of his thumb to depress the safety for maximum leverage and then to slip his thumb under the safety. The design of the SFS system, along with the incompatibility of the safety lever, provided some ergonomic challenges for the author during disassembly and when presenting the pistol from holster.

The author noted that the hammer spring could be discharged with the hammer decocked if the sear was tripped while the safety was partially depressed but not far enough to release the hammer. This pushed the hammer lightly into the firing pin and slightly dimpled but did not ignite a CCI 500 primer. For proper function, the user must ensure the safety is fully depressed, and the hammer is recocked before pulling the trigger.

The installation of the SFS kit was easily accomplished, and the author felt that users comfortable with detail disassembly of their BHP should have no trouble installing the kit at home.

Cylinder & Slide also offers an installation service. The instructions came with detailed illustrations which immensely helped comprehension as the English instruction set seemed to be written by a nonfluent speaker. No special tools were needed for the installation; the punches and such used for detail disassembly were sufficient to the task. The hammer assembly came assembled in the kit, although instructions for its assembly were also included. The major difference between reassembly of the original single-action system and the SFS system was that the latter had the sear and hook installed prior to the insertion of the hammer assembly. Overall, the author found the installation process straightforward and easily completed with some patience.

The SFS system exhibited a very good trigger. The “mushiness” during takeup was inherent in the transfer bar design and the magazine disconnect. The “wall” was well-defined, and the pull weight felt just right to the author with no creep. However, the reset was not improved over the original.

The extended ambidextrous safety offers great ergonomic improvements in providing a more positive engagement / disengagement feel as well as promoting a firm thumbs-high grip. The design of the safety was similar to the original but the side-to-side slop of the right side lever was eliminated. In addition, the axial pin did not extend past the levers and dug into the thumb like the original. Whereas the original safety relied on friction for the thumb to work the lever, the extended safety incorporated a grooved perpendicular shelf that provided a positive and confidence-inspiring feel. However, it extended out further from the frame (0.3 inches) in comparison to the original safety (0.2 inches). The overall fit and finish was excellent and well matched the paint of the MkII.

From the instructions, the extended safety required some fitting by design in order to give a custom fit due to manufacturing tolerances of each pistol. On the author’s example, the detent was originally too long and ground down. The bottom edge of the detent had a small ridge that was perhaps a leftover flash from manufacturing, and it was given a chamfer to ensure free movement. The instructions noted that the detent was not retained by a pin in the safety like the original in order to provide a more positive feel. The engagement area between the sear and the safety also needed to be fitted per the instructions which recommended the detent be first removed. However, the author found the safety to function properly sans detent but will not engage safe with the detent installed. Careful file work on the sear engagement area allowed proper functioning.

The installation required simple tools such as roll pin punches and files. While the process was somewhat involved, it was within reach for a mechanically inclined user at home with the proper tools. However, due diligence must be emphasized in performing function checks and following instructions as the parts being worked are safety-critical. When assembling, the author found an extra pair of hands to be useful although not required.

This safety was much more conducive to a high grip, and the author appreciated the ability to ride the safety when shooting right-handed. However, the left-hand ergonomics still irked the author some. The extra length of the shelf forced the thumb into a less natural angle than that on a modern M1911 safety. This put the author’s metacarpophalangeal joint in danger of contact with the reciprocating slide. Moving the thumb out further on the shelf reduced that problem, but the author did not find that adjustment to be consistently repeatable when drawing from holster. It also focused the force originally spread along the shelf onto the edge which caused discomfort. Although the lever for right-handed users provided a marked ergonomic improvement over the original, the lever for left-handed users still left something to be desired.


The ambidextrous magazine release allows left-handed users to release the magazine with their thumb. Because the BHP magazine catch notch is only cut into the right side of the body, the magazine release must move laterally right in order to release it. Modern handguns designed with reversible releases incorporate two notches on both sides of the body so the releases can be pushed in either direction.

To remedy this, the BHP ambidextrous release adds a shelf on the right side that is pushed down. It then pulls the magazine release to the right via a cam. The lever protrudes noticeably from the frame in order to provide adequate leverage. This caused discomfort when holstered and dug into the author’s palm when he tried to better manage recoil with an aggressive thumbs-forward grip. The installation was simple and easy; the original release was removed, and the new one inserted in its place. The release functioned well and the action felt natural.


The Browning High Power was designed in the early 20th century when shooting techniques were different, and support for left-hand users was practically nonexistent. This article examined three items that address safety (SFS) and left-hand user support (ambidextrous safety and magazine release). The SFS made safe the pistol in a decocked state and provided an extra level of protection. It also afforded an excellent trigger as well as other improvements. The ambidextrous safety enhanced the ergonomics of a thumbs-high grip and provided a positive engagement/disengagement feel. However, the awkward thumb angle required of a left-hand user to ride the safety can be improved upon. Likewise, the ambidextrous magazine release worked well but dug into the author’s palm when using a thumbs-forward grip as well as the author’s waist when holstered. Given that the designers had to work around a design nearly 80 years old, they did an excellent job of providing new capabilities that the average user can install at home.

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


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