Nighthawk: Custom’s Browning Hi Power

By Todd Burgreen

There is a reason why classic firearms hold a special place in our psyche. This is because firearms labeled as classics have heralded a transition in form and/or function.

No matter how many years and other models that transpired since, classics are accepted as such because they set the standard since their appearance that all other firearms strive to match or improve upon.

The Hi Power is such a weapon; its pedigree is unmatchable considering John Browning’s involvement in the project. Many pundits will claim the Hi Power was Browning’s refinement to his legendary 1911.

The Hi Power was the original “Wonder Nine” and existed well before the 1980s when the term first became popular. Research indicates the term “Wonder Nine” initially was a derisive term; however, it soon became accepted and embraced. The Glock 9 mm G17 is considered the current poster child of the Wonder Nine genre. The nebulous nature of the Wonder Nine categorization is evident as the Glock’s singular style of trigger pull resorts back to the Hi Power’s own single-action trigger and is different from the DA/SA triggers that typified the class, beginning with the Walter P38 transitioning through the Smith & Wesson, CZ, SIG SAUER, et al., 9-mm double-stack models.

The Hi Power can be thought of as the blending of American and European handgun design concepts. It took someone of Browning’s stature to pull this feat off and have it accepted on both sides of the Atlantic. The Browning Hi Power was conceived in response to a 1921 French military requirement for a new service pistol. The French requirements were that the pistol should have a capacity of at least 10 rounds, a magazine disconnect device, an external hammer, a positive safety and be simple to disassemble and re-assemble. The 9-mm cartridge was seen as natural selection based on WW I experiences. With Colt holding the patents to his 1911, Browning had to create a different pistol so as not to infringe on these 1911 patents. Colt was not interested in pursuing the potential French contract so Browning turned to Fabrique Nationale (FN) with his initial two prototypes. FN was definitely interested and submitted one of Browning’s prototypes to the 1922 French pistol trials. Based on French trials, Browning prepared two more prototypes and submitted them to the French Army in 1923. Browning died November 1926. Browning was awarded a patent for the Hi-Power base design posthumously in 1927.

After Browning’s death, the Hi-Power design was taken over by FN designer and Browning’s friend Dieudonné Saive. With no market interest for a new service handgun in the late 1920s, Saive was able to continually refine Browning’s base design.

By 1928, many of Browning’s previous patents for the 1911 were expiring. The Browning Hi Power version featured the removable barrel bushing and take-down sequence of the 1911. By 1931, the Browning-Saive Hi-Power design incorporated a 13-round magazine, a curved rear grip strap and a barrel bushing that was integral to the slide versus removable barrel bushing. The Hi Power, like many other Browning designs, operates on the short-recoil principle, where the barrel and slide initially recoil together until the barrel is unlocked from the slide by a cam arrangement. Unlike Browning’s earlier 1911 pistol, the Hi-Power barrel is not moved vertically by a toggling link, but instead by a hardened bar which crosses the frame under the barrel and contacts a slot under the chamber, at the rear-most part of the barrel. The barrel and slide recoil together for a short distance, but as the bar and slot engage, the chamber and the rear of the barrel are drawn downward and stopped. By 1934, the Hi-Power design was complete and ready to be produced. The Hi Power was first adopted by Belgium for military service in 1935 as the Browning P-35. Ironically, France decided not to adopt the Hi Power.

The Hi Power is one of those rare weapons that served on both sides’ militaries in WWII. In 1954, the British military adopted the Hi Power as its first standard semi-automatic pistol. Fifty more armies also adopted it after WWII. Interestingly, the Hi Power was also the choice of such elite units as the British SAS, SBS and Royal Marines. The FBI HRT and various intelligence agency direct action units utilized the Hi Power until the late 1980s. It is impressive indeed that after more than 50 years since its introduction, the Hi Power was still the “go-to” sidearm for elite LE and military operators.

While the upsides of the Hi Power, such as capacity and ergonomics, obviously outweighed its negatives, the Hi Power had issues that could be improved upon—the trigger pull, especially heavy for a single action, minimalist sights, weak internal extractor and slide/hammer bite of a shooter’s hand come to mind. Various Hi-Power model upgrades over the years have addressed these issues. The culmination of this Hi-Power evolution is now represented by the Nighthawk Custom Hi Power evaluated in this article.

It is only fitting that one of the elite 1911 custom shops have now turned its attention to Browning’s “other” handgun. Nighthawk’s own literature states its thought process in choosing to offer the Hi Power in its stable. Nighthawk decided back in early 2015 not to try to re-invent the perfect double stack, but to improve upon the one that already existed. For Nighthawk Custom, the classic Hi-Power design offers ideal balance, size and fire power. Nighthawk’s approach with the Hi Power is extensive with the following items completed: 1) hand-textured/stippled frame, trigger guard, top and rear of the slide; 2) custom-extended beavertail (eliminating slide/hammer bite); 3) contoured magwell; 4) French border; 5) Heinie Slant Pro Black Rear Sight and Nighthawk (14K) Gold Bead Front Sight; 6) crowned barrel; 7) 25 LPI serrated mag release; 8) competition steel hammer, improved sear lever and trigger; 9) custom 4# crisp trigger job (magazine disconnect discarded); 10) Cera Kote Satin Rust Resistant Finish; 11) Custom Select Cocobolo Checkered Grips with Nighthawk Logo; and 12) ambidextrous safety.

One immediate concern any time a double-stack magazine is utilized, is how it affects grip and trigger manipulation. The Hi-Power frame does not sacrifice this in its quest for capacity. Even average-size hands have no issue working the trigger or other controls on the Hi Power. The Hi-Power grip feels smaller in the hand compared to other double-stack designs. This is attributed to how the top of the grip reduces inward near the slide thus moving the hand closer to the trigger, shortening the trigger reach. The Hi-Power tale of the tape has a barrel length of 4 5/8 inches with an overall length of 7 3/4 inches. Width is 1 3/8 inches, and weight is 32 ounces. The Nighthawk Custom Hi Power has a custom-extended beavertail allowing the shooter’s hand to rest high on the frame without having to worry about slide/hammer bite.

The Nighthawk Hi Power represents portability, capacity, reliability, controllability and lethality. These are poster child traits for a personal defense handgun. No one can argue against the Hi Power being an instinctive handling weapon. The trigger and grip size/angle cause it to be one of the most accurate handguns in most arsenals. Why do you think hostage rescue units and other special-purpose military/LE teams use it? It is accurate and conducive to precise shot placement. Nighthawk’s work only enhances these characteristics.

The Hi Power’s trigger mechanism has an arrangement of springs and levers that limit what can be done to it in terms of improving it. A magazine disconnect safety further compounds the problem. The single-action trigger on the Hi Power will never be confused with the trigger found on the 1911.
Nighthawk’s tuning of the Hi-Power trigger produces a 4-pound pull thanks to a competition steel hammer, improved sear lever and trigger, plus meticulous fitting and polishing; removal of the magazine disconnect safety was a no brainer as well. Further accuracy is wrung out of the Hi Power by Nighthawk with Heinie Slant Pro Black Rear Sight and Nighthawk Gold Bead Front Sight plus crowning the barrel and hand fitting to the slide.

The Nighthawk Custom Hi Power was evaluated using Winchester, Black Hills Ammunition, Hornady and Federal/American Eagle ammunition. 9-mm loads fired ranged from 115 to 147 grain with both hollow points and FMJ bullet types tested. Early production Hi Powers were designed to function with FMJ bullets. This changed as time passed, and JHP bullets became more common with Hi Powers receiving throated chambers and polished feed ramps. The Nighthawk Custom Hi Power is well done in this area and exhibited no issues in terms of reliability with any ammunition used. Approximately 550 rounds were fired while compiling this article. An ammunition can full of an assortment of steel, aluminum and brass-case 9 mm loads that were consolidated from partially used boxes was purposely used. Magazines were loaded with these random loads and used for the majority of the range time.

The Nighthawk Custom Hi Power was tested at the range first by verifying sight zero and then firing several magazines rapidly at various steel man targets. This quickly shows if any reliability issues exist. Honestly, if a defensive pistol is not at the very least reliable what good is it? Further testing consisted of strings of fire against steel plate racks and popper targets at 7, 15 and 25 yards. The sights were zeroed out of the box for 25 yards using the classic 6 o’clock hold. The Nighthawk Gold Bead front sight and Heinie rear sight proved advantageous for both accurate and rapid shot placement. The benefits of the Nighthawk-tuned, single-action trigger proved evident during range evaluation. Groups fired from standing or kneeling positions were impressive with bullets unerringly hitting their mark. Rapid fire magazine dumps still found rounds clustered in the “A” zone of an IPSC target. Another advantage of the Hi Power is speed of loading. The tapered double-column magazine is a simple fit into the magazine well with Nighthawk further improving this by custom contouring. The magazines are vigorously ejected when the release is depressed. Even holding the Hi Power upside will not keep the empty magazine from clearing the grip when ejected. Bench testing could not be resisted after witnessing the unsupported accuracy results. Two-inch groups at 25 yards were not unusual. The Nighthawk Hi Power’s sights tracked smoothly during recoil when firing multiple rounds.

The natural pointability of the Nighthawk Hi Power was confirmed along with speed getting it into action. The ambidextrous safety was positive and easy to manipulate. Drills included working around vehicles and CQB activities typified by experiences encountered in shoot-house environments. The custom Nighthawk beavertail frame settles the weapon naturally into your hand and provides a point of reference when drawing the pistol from a holster. The Nighthawk Hi Power proved very capable of firing multiple shot strings with the utmost accuracy. The double-column grip tapering up to the thin slide sits the Hi Power in your hand in such a way that keeps Nighthawk’s Hi Power’s extended beavertail settled over the web of the shooter’s hand. This combined with the thin slide profile eliminates any front heavy sensation that some handguns exhibit.

The Nighthawk Hi Power performed at a level justifying Nighthawk Custom’s hard-earned reputation. Successful handgun designs constantly evolve. Based on the above, the Nighthawk Hi Power is still a valid choice for real-world use. It was a pleasant experience revisiting a classic handgun in the form of the Nighthawk Custom Hi Power which performed at a level justifying its reputation.


Nighthawk Custom

Federal Cartridge Company

Black Hills Ammunition

Winchester Ammunition

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


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