The Browning High Power
By R.K.Campbell

The Browning High Power pistol is among the most readily recognized and highly respected handguns in the world. Of all of the military handguns designed between 1900 and 1935, including the Luger, the 1911, Walther P 38 and Soviet Tokarev, the Browning High Power is easily the single most commercially successful pistol. The High Power has been in continuous service since 1935 and is still the standard service pistol of a number of our Allies. The High Power is also a popular sporting pistol. Quite a few experienced personal defense shooters prefer the High Power as well. When it comes to the development of the High Power, there are numerous opinions as to Browning's motivations. Though quite a few of these opinions do not appear to be supported by fact.

Some have stated that Browning felt the High Power was an improvement over his 1911 GI .45 design. But what would Browning profit by creating a competitor to his own 1911 handgun? It stands to reason the 1922 design would be more mature than his 1911 design, but the requirements for the two handguns were different. Browning did not 'reduce the caliber' in this High Power as some have stated. Rather, he designed a pistol for the French specification of a 9mm Luger caliber handgun. A .45 caliber service gun would have been unthinkable in continental Europe.

There is probably some truth to the claim that Browning had to avoid infringing upon his own patents. These patents had been sold to Colt along with the 1911 handgun. Browning was now working with Fabrique Nationale in Belgium, a company with which he had shared a long and profitable association. So, Browning used angled camming surfaces in his new pistol rather than the swinging link used in the 1911. The grip safety was also not used. These 1911 related patents expired during the development of the High Power and certain features of the 1911 did find their way into the final product. The High Power is similar to the 1911 most strikingly in that Browning was a master of human engineering. Hand fit and access to controls were foremost in his designs. The location of the safety and the hand fit and trigger reach were important features of the High Power. In the end Browning created a good handgun, one designed to sell. Whether he improved upon earlier designs is a moot point.

The name High Power stems from the French term Grande Pruissance, literally, High Power. Grande Rendement or High Yield was another term used during the development of the pistol. The French Army demanded at least a ten round magazine capacity and the ability to strike and kill a man at 50 meters. Obviously, the previous .32 ACP Ruby pistol was not adequate. The French were relying upon World War One experience when they wrote these specifications. The German 9mm Luger cartridge had impressed the French. The 9mm is a powerful cartridge for its size and excellent penetration and accuracy potential are possible with this caliber. In 1922 Browning worked up his first design. In 1926 a pistol very much like the original High Power was in tool room form. However, Browning passed away in 1926. Noted designer Dieudonne Saive took up Browning's work at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. A pistol much like the High Power was finished in 1931 and the High Power took final form in 1934. The pistol was adopted by Belgian services in 1935.

Strangely, the French abrogated the search for a superior service pistol and adopted a rather strange handgun chambered for an odd 7.65mm cartridge. The French 1935 is light and handy and most are well made. The pistol is a basic Browning type with a swinging link and locked breech. However, the cartridge is not much more powerful than the .32 ACP. French rejection of the High Power, as it turned out, meant little. Browning's last pistol would be well received commercially.

The High Power has many good features and few drawbacks. The sights are small by modern standards but were as good as most of the day. The single action trigger had the potential for smoothness but the French insistence upon a magazine safety caused the trigger to be unnecessarily heavy. The magazine safety operates by use of a plunger that keeps the trigger inoperable when the magazine is removed. When a magazine is inserted, the plunger is depressed and the pistol may fire. This extra complication makes for a heavy trigger action. Another criticism is that the hammer spring or main spring is quite heavy. There is a reason for the heavy hammer spring. Even in 1935, 9mm Luger ammunition was produced in many different nations. The ammunition was not always uniform and many types of primers were used. It is not unusual for 9mm Luger cartridge cases to run from .730 to .750 inch. This is a reason for the perceived inaccuracy of military 9mm pistols. When the case is too short in length, the cartridge head spaced on the extractor rather than the case mouth. The P 35 hammer always fell with sufficient force to ignite a primer. However, the hammer spring is so strong it is best to cock the hammer before racking the slide. As a result of this design the High Power is reliable with a wide range of ammunition.

Another advantage is that the tapered high capacity magazine is very fast to reload, funneling itself into the grip during speed loads. The pistol was in production in 1939 and saw service in World War Two earning a good reputation during the war. The pistol was used by special units on both sides. Several engineers escaped Belgium ahead of the Germans and helped set up High Power pistol production at the John Inglis factory in Canada. The Germans, meantime, used High Powers produced in the FN plant in occupied Belgium. After the war the British adopted the pistol as their standard issue. In time, over one hundred nations adopted the High Power as their service pistol. The High Power is easily the most successful military pistol of all time.

Among the more interesting variants are the license built FM pistols of Argentina. The pistol was purchased for use by the Buenos Ares police and the Argentine Military secured a license to build the High Power. The pistol was used by the Argentine Military eventually replacing the Modelo 1927 .45 caliber service pistol. The FM pistols differ from the original in current production. While first produced as a straight up clone of the High Power, the FM pistols were changed to a monolithic slide without the characteristic step in the slide. There are those who claim that high round count High Power pistols sometimes broke the slide at this point. In theory, the FM pistol is stronger than the original but it would take a tremendous amount of ammunition to test this theory. I have fired a personal MK II Browning 9mm to just over 20,000 rounds. While the pistol was still reliable, it was looser than when issued and the edge in accuracy was gone - but it was serviceable.

FEG of Hungary produces an unlicensed clone. Other clones have been produced in Israel. About 1962, the original internal extractor of the High Power was changed to an external design. High Power pistols have been criticized due to the small safety lever. The lever is small but with practice it may be manipulated with some speed, contrary to popular opinion. Modern High Power pistols feature a larger lever. MK II production, introduced in the early 1980s, also incorporated high visibility sights into the design. The High Power has also been modified to use a positive firing pin block or drop safety. This safety blocks the firing pin until the trigger is pressed completely to the rear. These improvements have not affected the clean lines and compact dimensions of the High Power. The High Power is appreciated for its thin lines and compact frame compared to other high capacity pistols. The pistol is among the thinnest of service pistols for concealed carry use.

In our experience the average High Power will place five rounds of service ammunition into three inches at 25 yards. The firing test of three diverse High Power pistols confirms this average.

Groups fired with Winchester 115 grain ‘White Box’ USA ball ammunition produced the following results:
25 yard five shot group
Browning Practical: 2.0 inches
FEG High Power: 4.0 inches
FM High Power: 3.0 inches

The High Power continues in production and continues to be appreciated by those who prefer an all steel pistol with a reputable history. The pistol is presently in front line use in Mexico and has seen service with our allies in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The High Power is an important fixture in the world of small arms as seen and is also an important sport shooter world wide.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (April 2012)
and was posted online on February 3, 2012


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