BROWNING HI POWER REDUX
Now, if you were a member of the cognoscenti there really was only one choice, the one which had been adopted by the armed forces of over 50 countries, the one gifted to the masses from the hands of the prophet John Moses (peace be upon him). The one, the only, GP35.
The Hi Power isn’t without its faults. Its trigger isn’t the finest example of an interface between man and machine, it has an appetite for the flesh and blood of its user’s hand, and given its size, 13-round magazines aren’t all that and a bag of chips. Unfortunately, FNH froze development of the Hi Power with the introduction of the Mk3 version in 1988, and there’s a strong case to be made that nothing of great significance happened to the design from 1982 onward. With increased competition from polymerframed, striker-fired handguns, sales slumped and parts production was halted in 2016, although the factory didn’t officially announce its death until two years later.
We were left to wonder what might have been, had FN continued to develop the pistol, rather than subject it to institutional indifference. After all, 1911s still have a cult following, and we can think of no one who car- ries the other iconic JMB pistol who elects to lug around an ’80s vintage version of that gun. Instead of just wondering about it, we chose to get off our arses and do something — as if we needed an excuse to start another gun project.
There’s no denying the elegance of the basic design. Even ratty, old military examples of the Hi Power are more aesthetically pleasing than most striker-fired pistols today. It’s like comparing Lana Turner to Lena Dunham — not all progress is forward. Could we keep the features that attract us, while dressing the shortcomings? We’ll leave that to you, dear reader, to judge.
Jodi Gritus took our beat-up sow’s ear and turned it into the silk purse you see on these pages. Follow her on Instagram @hipowerprincess.
Our project started with a surplus Hi Power with FNH, rather than Browning rollmarks. Part of a consignment of Mk3 variants, which ended up in Israeli service in the late ’80s, it landed on these shores a few years ago and was snapped up for the first issue of CONCEALMENT, where it was featured in an article on bargain handguns. It had the usual Mk3 refinements, but also that model’s drawbacks: hammer bite, 12-pound trigger (yes, that’s not a misprint), smallish sights and, due to being dropped by some careless conscript, a big ding in the barrel crown. It was finished in epoxy, which was showing signs of abuse, and while still a very viable defensive handgun, it wasn’t one which inspired pride of ownership.
Down to business. The first deficiency to be addressed was the lack of a beavertail. For those of us with man hands, the Hi Power hurts. Its hammer and frame tang combine to pinch the web between thumb and forefinger, and I can usually send about three rounds downrange before blood starts dripping. This has been a Hi Power feature since 1935, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t have been addressed from the get-go. To fix this chronic oversight, a chunk of steel is welded to the frame, then contoured and blended by hand until it looks like it came from the factory that way. Which it should have.
To fix the gratuitously bad trigger pull (not all of them suck — I have a nickel Mk3 with a crisp, 5-pound break from the factory) a Cylinder and Slide sear and hammer were installed and tuned, along with a Wolfe spring kit. These were teamed with a Garthwaite flat trigger, which allows for better finger placement and feel, as well as a stronger trigger return spring to increase reliability. As a rule of thumb, anything inflicted on weapons design by the French government is a bad a thing, so our magazine safety was consigned to the scrap pile.
These changes combined to make for a sweet, 4-pound trigger pull with about 1/8 inch of take-up, a short reset, and just a hint of overtravel.
The base gun arrived with an ambi safety, whose stock levers looked like dead slugs lying on the frame and weren’t too positive when it came to engagement. Unless you’re wronghanded, ambidextrous safeties on a single-action carry gun are a mixed blessing and we’ve experienced several instances when a 1911 wound up with the safety disengaged due to the right-side lever catching clothing or bumping against car seats. It’s not too much of a contortion to reach around the beavertail with your thumb if you have to sweep it off left-handed, so we spec’d out a Cylinder and Slide extended version, which snicks into place with an air of quality. To complement the safety, we picked a C&S slide stop.
It’s almost impossible to checker a Hi Power, as the front strap is paper thin and there’s an ever-present risk of cutting through into the magwell. In order to provide better traction, our ’smith stippled around the serial number, but before doing so she undercut the frame adjacent to the trigger guard, to allow a higher hold and greater control under recoil. The backstrap was treated to the same texturing, which was deliberately kept to the lower half so that the master hand could slide up under the beavertail without much friction, but once a firing grip was taken the pistol would stick like sh*t to an army blanket.
Our surplus pistola appeared as if it had been carried by indifferent recruits, who likely used it as a convenient combination door stop and gardening implement, but shot it perhaps once every couple of years, so the barrel was in good shape internally. We elected to keep it, but have it recrowned. The chamber end was throated and polished to aid with feeding hollow-point bullets, which were carried in a pair of updated
Mec Gar 15-round magazines. These are a big step up in quality from the standard, phosphated Mil-spec numbers, and allow for two more rounds, without increasing overall length. It was a no-brainer to swap out the original nylon grips for a pair of VZ’s palmswell G10 models, which were in keeping with the understated, professional look we were aiming for.
Once all the gunsmithing work had been decided on, it was time to pick a finish. One advantage of polymerframed guns is their resistance to corrosion — just don’t set them down too close to a fire — and we wanted something that would stand up to everyday carry. Traditional blueing, while attractive and fitting for a weapon designed in the 1930s, was considered then dismissed for practical reasons. As luck would have it, Robar was in the process of finishing up trials of a new surface treatment, which showed considerable promise. Lured by tales of its performance in salt spray tests, we signed on. Known as ArmorLube, it’s a specialist physical vapor deposition (PVD) process using a proprietary cocktail of exotic (and deadly) organic gases applied in a vacuum under high voltage. The result is very slippery, very hard, and available in any color, so long as it’s black.
While the two-tone look was all the rage in the ’80s, we didn’t want to go to the extreme of a silver slide on a black frame. So for contrast we chose Robar’s NP3 plus, electroless nickel for small parts, such as the controls, extractor, and grip screws, due to its lubricity and corrosion resistance.
The result is a nod to the Cocaine Cowboys era, while being relatively subtle and understated.
So did we achieve the goal of dragging the Hi Power into the 21st century? Yes and no. Despite our best efforts, there’s still no place to mount a light, which would require a whole new frame, or a lot of machine work and welding. Everything else has been reworked to address weaknesses. Sights are first class, reliability has been improved, ergonomic problems with the original are addressed, and there’s a night-and-day difference in terms of trigger quality. We think it’s the gun FN should’ve been selling during the Bush administration — done at the factory in a production environment, economies of scale kick in, and the cost of improvements is driven down. When you sit on them, laurels just don’t last too long.
Original gun is shown above, and wound up as you see here. Pretty isn’t she? With contrasting small par ts against the most advanced PVD coating we could find, our Hi Power MkIV stands out in a sea of drab plastic.
Custom guns are expensive, because just about ever y individual par t is reworked by a fellow American who actually gives a sh*t about why they show up for work. Want to save a few bucks? Learn to do it yourself (which is something we wholehear tedly endorse), or send it to China. Oh, wait ...
That beaver tail took several hours of welding, grinding and finishing by hand. It could have shipped from the factor y that way for a few pennies, but no.