By Robert Campbell
The Browning High Power was made by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium, and was designed by John Moses Browning like like the Colt 1911. But unlike the 1911, the High Power has always stayed under the Browning name and it is still manufactured today by Miroku in Japan. It can be carried with the simple manual safety engaged, hammer back in single action (holstered of course). There have been several copies of the Browning FN high power over the years, but the original High Power is made today for Browning in Belgium. Examples of the original Belgian made High Powers are thought to be the original classic guns, and are sought by both collectors and shooters today.
The High Power design is thought of as a well-balanced handgun and one of the finest service pistols of all time. It has been in continuous production since 1934 and though it has waned in popularity today, it is still carried by several police forces across the globe, and even here in America the pistol still has its devotees, and is valued for its history, performance and collector interest. With the German Luger, the High Power is one of the original guns that fire the readily obtainable 9mm cartridge. The High Power has been issued to the armed services of more than fifty nations, including Canada, where it still serves as a battle pistol. A generation ago, the High Power was issued to elite units in the United States, including the New Jersey State Police Fugitive Squad and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. It is among the most recognizable handguns worldwide; if you scan the news, you may see a High Power in the hands of Indian police or waved by a woman during a street battle in Iraq.
The High Power was developed by John Moses Browning, a great inventor and among the greatest gun salesmen of all time, who filed for the first patent 1923. It was initially designed to meet the French military’s demand for a compact service pistol weighing no more than 2.2 pounds with a capacity of at least 10 rounds that could be produced economically. It had to be robust, easily assembled and disassembled, and have a positive safety, an external hammer, and a magazine disconnect device. It also had to be capable of killing a person at 50 meters, which required 9mm or larger. Browning died before the pistol was finalized, and work was continued by Dieudonne Saive, a respected inventor in his own right who incorporated some features of the 1911 after that patent expired in 1928.
The French did not adopt the High Power, but the pistol was an immense commercial success regardless and has the distinction of serving on both sides of practically every conflict since 1939. After World War I, the Allies had great respect for 9mm pistols because they offered a good level of power for their compact size. Early variants were also shipped to China and South America, among other nations. During World War II, the Germans took over the Fabrique Nationale plant and turned out the High Power for the Wermacht. John Inglis, a respected maker of armaments including ship’s boilers, took up production of the High Power for the allies.
A look at the specifications of the High Power shows that it is ideally proportioned for the cartridge it chambers. There is enough weight to absorb the recoil of the 9mm cartridge but the pistol is light enough for daily carry. The grip fits most hands well. The trigger press is straight to the rear and the pistol is flat enough for concealed carry.
High Power dimensions –
Barrel length 4 5/8
Sight Radius 6 ½
Overall length 7 ¾ inch
Weight 34 ounces
The pistol is all steel and well made of good material. The Browning design has gone through several generations, but each is recognizable as a High Power and the changes have been minor, usually limited to differences in the sights and the manual safety. The early versions feature a slide lock safety that is smaller than many competing types, but with practice the safety isn’t as difficult to manipulate as some would have us believe. The original safety is positive in operation and unlikely to be inadvertently moved to the off safe position. However, in a dedicated defensive handgun, the Cylinder and Slide Shop Inc. extended safety is an aid in speed and positive function. The slide stop and magazine release are easily reached and manipulated. Most High Power pistols feature a magazine disconnect that prevents the pistol from firing if the magazine is not in place.
The High Power is smaller and lighter than the 1911 .45, and handles quickly. With the greatest respect for the 1911 and its speed into action, if there is a handgun faster to an accurate first shot than the 1911, it is the Browning High Power. However, while the intrinsic accuracy of the High Power is often very good, the practical accuracy is limited by sometimes heavy trigger actions. Over the years, the RCBS trigger pull gauge has measured High Power triggers in a range that varies between five and eleven pounds. The tangent action isn’t easily improved, although gunsmiths such as Wayne Novak and Don Williams are able to produce a safe and usable action. It is a shame that the heavy trigger action limits accuracy potential in many variants, but then the piece was made for short range combat. Practiced marksmen will make good hits in spite of the trigger action as long as the trigger is consistent.
Another advantage of the High Power is speed of loading. To replenish the ammunition supply, just quickly insert the tapered magazine into a generous magazine well. There is no need for a magazine chute with this pistol.
The High Power features a heavy hammer spring. This makes thumb cocking more difficult, but there is a reason for the heavy spring. 9mm Luger ammunition has been produced in many countries and quality is sometimes indifferent. The High Power had to function with every load and to handle variations in case length as well as hard primers. The hammer gives the primer a solid hit, and the pistol has excellent reliability. The extractor design changed about 1962 from internal to external.
Complaints about the longevity of the pistol and claims that some have soft steel may have little basis in reality. It seems unlikely that Fabrique Nationale would produce such fine shotguns and rifles and then use Basque steel in the High Power. Claims of cracked slides without photographic proof are common. I am certain High Powers have cracked slides, but so have the 1911, the Beretta, the P 38, the SIG and the Glock. I have examined well-used High Powers that rattled when shook. The barrel lugs were worn and the frame showed high wear spots, but the pistols functioned. My personal Action Works-modified High Power went well over 10,000 rounds, including performing as the test bed for +P+ 9mm ammunition, with no problems except a little loss of accuracy at the 10,000 round mark. Shooters need to understand that springs and magazines are a renewable resource and must be replaced. Guns sometimes wear out and need to be replaced or retired.
License-built pistols were produced in Argentina and clones and copies produced worldwide. The FM Argentine guns originally copied the High Power, while later versions deleted the step in the slide, producing a pistol with a different profile, probably to diminish machine work. The design may be stronger, but it would take a truck-load of ammunition to prove this out. The Hungarian FEG is a quality variant, with good finish and performance comparable to the original. Among the most interesting variants is the John Inglis-produced High Power. The pistol was sent to our Allies, including China, and was heavily used by the British. They liked the High Power, and while they used whatever was available during the war after World War II, the High Power became standard issue. The Inglis High Power is pleasant to fire and is among my favorite recreational shooters.
For a serious collector, it is important to note that Fabrique Nationale used the same blocks with different contracts, and thus it is possible that High Powers exist worldwide with the identical serial numbers. That has a serious collector searching for identifying proof marks. The Inglis Number 1 and Number 2, Mark * 1 differ. Marks indicate differences such as the ejector or extractor, while the numbers are more important. The Number 1 is the Chinese pistol with tangent rear sights and a slot for a shoulder stock. The Number 2 is the conventional sight version. Serial numbers were applied after finishing, and if the pistol were refinished the numbers no long appear ‘in the white’. Most are in well used condition. They were not as well finished as the Fabrique Nationale versions when new.
Parts interchangeability for the High Power seems excellent. Other than the change to a different extractor style, the only change to the pistol has been in different generations of sights. The original military sights are no better or worse than many of the day. The later MK II sights are much better combat sights, and so are those of the Browning Practical. The adjustable sights come in several variations, as did the tangent-style sights. The late-model Browning features variations on adjustable sights, including one type that seems to fit into the military dovetail. The adjustable-sighted commercial guns are fine sporting guns occasionally found in the used section at the shop with a sight leaf missing. These sights leafs are sometimes difficult to obtain. Magazines interchange in all models.
I have found that the High Power feeds modern JHP ammunition. When hollow points became common in the 1960s and 1970s, many featured a wide-mouth hollow nose not designed for feed reliability. As a result, these loads did not feed in military pistols without barrel polish or throating. Throating, once universally recommend in the popular press, isn’t the best course and is often improperly done. Modern loads such as the Hornady XTP and the Remington Golden Saber perform well and feed reliably. The average accuracy of the High Power is pretty consistent. Most examples may be counted upon for a five-shot group of two and one half to three inches at 25 yards with good ammunition and from a solid benchrest.