The Browning Hi Power: The Superlative WWII Combat Handgun That Played Both Sides

The Browning Hi-Power was one of the most influential handgun designs ever contrived. Aspects of this gun influenced every subsequent combat pistol on the planet to one degree or another. An Inglis Hi Power is shown on the left, while the gun on the right was produced in Belgium for the Germans during the occupation.

Author’s note—This article is part of an ongoing series on Allied small arms of World War II. In each installment, we will endeavor to explore the humanity behind the firearms with which Allied combatants defeated the Axis powers. General George Patton once opined, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” In this series, we will investigate both the guns and the men behind them in the context of the planet’s bloodiest conflict. While today’s anecdote is taken from a more recent struggle, the weapon in question draws from a deep historical well.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, much of Africa burned. Sundry populist uprisings supported by distant communist benefactors strived to nip at the forces and institutions of the European colonial powers long enough to draw blood. With small arms, mortars, and artillery of predominantly Russian and Chinese origin, guerrilla fighters in places like the Congo and Mozambique engaged in pitiless unconventional warfare that saw widespread atrocities.

European colonial powers like Belgium and Portugal fought to defend their interests, but the rebels had little to lose and everything to gain. In the chaotic maelstrom that swallowed up untold treasure and an entire generation of people, soldiers of fortune found employment opportunities on a previously unprecedented scale. In a veritable ocean of blood, one otherwise trivial engagement gained lasting notoriety.

Guns produced in occupied Belgium for use by the Germans were festooned with waffenamt acceptance marks and designated the Pistole 640(b). The “b” stands for “Belgium.” The Waffen SS and Fallschirmjagers consumed most of these guns.

Mike Rousseau was a white Rhodesian mercenary engaged in combat against FRELIMO guerillas in and around the Mozambique capital of Maputo. FRELIMO was the dominant political party in Mozambique fighting for independence from Portugal. FRELIMO’s Marxist underpinnings earned it support from Russia and China. Portugal had ruled Mozambique for four hundred years, had subsequent deep roots in the country, and was not leaving without a fight.

Rousseau and his mates were in action clearing the airport in what was then known as Lourenco Marques, the Maputo appellation came later. Most of the mercenary soldiers carried FN FAL or HK G3 rifles. However, for reasons lost to history Rousseau was reduced to his sidearm, a GP35 Browning Hi-Power in 9mm.

Rounding a corner Rousseau found himself unexpectedly face to face with a FRELIMO guerilla armed with an AK47 at a range of about ten paces. Mike Rousseau was a trained soldier so he instinctively presented his handgun and shot the guerilla twice in the chest, launching both rounds in quick succession. The young African not only failed to fall, but he advanced toward Rousseau with murderous intent. Taken aback by the failure of his double tap to stop the threat, Rousseau took a moment, leveled his pistol at the charging man’s face, and fired a third round. This bullet struck a bit low, entering the man’s neck and severing his spinal cord, effectively ending the fight.

Rousseau eventually related the experience to Jeff Cooper, a visionary whose influence is felt on modern tactical training even today. Cooper incorporated the three-shot drill of two to the chest and one to the head into his curriculum at the Gunsite Academy. From there the drill made its way throughout the tactical community as well as into several gun-heavy action movies. The exercise has ever since been known as the Mozambique Drill in honor of its origins that sordid day in the Lourenco Marques Airport in the war-torn capital of Mozambique.

John Inglis and Company of Toronto, Canada, began producing Hi-Power pistols for use by Commonwealth forces in late 1944. This particular gun was intended for shipment to Nationalist Chinese troops fighting the Japanese but was ultimately diverted.

The Gun

The pistol that Mike Rousseau used in the airport that day was a collaborative effort of two of the world’s greatest gun designers. John Moses Browning began the project but died in 1926 before it was completed. Dieudonne Saive completed work on the gun in 1935. Browning was the most prolific gun designer in human history, holding 128 patents at the time of his death. Saive went on to design the FN FAL rifle as well.

The most common detachable shoulder stock issued with Hi-Power pistols doubled as a holster. Period guns combined with period stocks do not require NFA registration as short-barreled rifles.

The Hi Power has the dubious distinction of being the only production firearm to see general issue among both Allied and Axis forces during World War II. When the Nazis overran Belgium they converted FN arms production over for use by the German war machine. The Hi Power pistols accepted for German use bear waffenamt acceptance stamps and the designation Pistole 640(b). Most of the German Hi Powers were issued to Waffen SS and Fallschirmjager troops.

As the Wehrmacht closed in on the FN plant in Belgium workers at the facility smuggled the plans for the Hi-Power out of Western Europe and into the UK. From there they made their way to Canada. John Inglis and Company of Toronto then tooled up to produce the gun for use by Commonwealth troops. Production began in late 1944, and the guns were in service in time for Operation Varsity, the airborne assault over the Rhine.

The adjustable rear sight on stocked Hi-Power pistols is calibrated out to five hundred meters, a fairly ludicrous distance for a 9mm handgun.

The Hi-Power carried several designations throughout its long service life to include the P35, GP35, Grand Rendement, Grande Puissance, and High Power. The gun was produced in two broad variants. The simpler of the two sported fixed sights. The more complex had a complicated adjustable rear sight and a slot in the grip to accept a detachable shoulder stock. Some shoulder stocks were of a simple board sort, while the more common incorporated a holster feature and web belt hanger as well. Most of the Inglis guns cut for shoulder stocks were intended for use by the Nationalist Chinese. A great many of these weapons were not delivered in time to see service in Asia and were subsequently absorbed into use elsewhere.

The Hi-Power, shown on the right, was itself an evolutionary development of the 1911 pistol. Employing a simplified locking mechanism and a larger capacity magazine, the Hi-Power has proven to be a remarkably enduring design.

The Hi-Power was an evolutionary development of Browning’s recoil-operated system manifest in the earlier 1911 pistol. Unlike the 1911 the Hi-Power employed a cam system to lock the barrel into the slide rather than a pivoting link. The trigger was single action, as was that of the 1911, but it was not without its problems. Most Hi-Power pistols included a magazine safety that had a deleterious effect on the gun’s trigger pull. This effect can be negated by removing the magazine disconnect parts. German guns did not typically include this feature.

Arguably the most revolutionary aspect of the Hi-Power pistol was its double column, single feed 13-round magazine, a Saive contribution. Modern iterations of this magazine feed almost all of the world’s combat handguns today. This remarkable contrivance initially arose in response to a request from the French military for a pistol with a magazine capacity of at least ten rounds. While the French handgun trials initially shaped the Hi-Power’s design, France ultimately selected the Modele 1935 pistol for their service use.

Trigger Time

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the Hi-Power design was its double column, single feed 13-round magazine, shown on the left alongside a standard seven-round 1911 magazine. Most of today’s modern combat handguns employ a similar magazine.

We evaluated a pair of wartime Hi-Powers, one produced by FN during the German occupation and the other made by Inglis originally for use by the Chinese. The German gun has fixed sights, while the Canadian version accepts a shoulder stock and includes the adjustable rear sight. The Belgian/German pistol is a thing of beauty and pure joy on the range. The Canadian version is a bit past its prime and rattles slightly when shaken.

The lack of a magazine disconnect on the German gun makes a palpable difference, but both triggers remain quite nice. So long as it is combined with a period original shoulder stock the wartime stocked Hi Power is exempted from the short-barreled rifle restrictions of the National Firearms Act. The shoulder stock on my gun locks up fairly tightly and makes for a nice shooting platform. However, with the stock installed I cannot quite reach the slide release. The rear sight is graduated out to five hundred meters, a fairly ridiculous range for a 9mm handgun round.

The Hi-Power was a coveted combat handgun among Waffen SS troops who appreciated the weapon’s smooth trigger and impressive capacity.

The magazines do not fall free, but both guns run quickly and well. The beavertail is a bit abbreviated, and hammer bite is a legitimate concern as a result. The ringed hammer does not reach back quite as far as the conventional spurred hammer found on most civilian guns, and this minimizes the possibility of pinching the web space of the firing hand.

In my experience, the Hi-Power is the most pleasant combat pistol of the WW2 era on the range. The grip fills the hand nicely, and the single action trigger, even on the Inglis gun, is light years ahead of any domestic German design. I would prefer a 1911 had I need to use a handgun for real, but the Hi-Power would be a close second.

Ruminations

The Hi-Power was the most common handgun used by NATO countries. Here it is shown in Canadian service. On a relatively recent trip to Israel, I encountered a surprising number of Hi-Power pistols in service even today.

The Hi-Power was ultimately adopted as the standard service pistol by more than fifty armies. It has seen widespread service among military and Law Enforcement agencies in ninety-three nations. Mehmet Ali Agca used a Hi-Power when he attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. Saddam Hussein was an unapologetic proponent of the gun. At the time of his gory death, Muammar Gaddafi was in possession of a gold-plated Hi Power that sported his own likeness on the grips.

As an aside, at the apogee of his greatness, Gaddafi was the 8th richest person in all of human history. When he met his demise he was dragged out of a drainage culvert and shot down like a dog. That just goes to show that one should not aspire to become a despotic dictator solely for the retirement plan.

The Hi-Power was one of the most advanced combat pistols in the world during WW2, and it was not inconceivable that troops on both sides of the line could have faced each other wielding identical weapons. The product of two of the greatest gun designers who ever lived, the Hi-Power influenced the design in one way or another of literally every combat pistol subsequently developed. Inspired, respected, and effective, the Hi-Power is one of the most enduring small arms designs of the war.

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the replica gear we used to outfit our Waffen SS reenactor.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your Browning Hi-Power***

About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Tom Strickland November 14, 2018, 5:51 am

    After really looking over my Hi power, this is what is stamped on the side of the gun: “FABRIQUE NATIONALE D’ARMES DE GUERRE” “HERSTAL BELGIQUE”
    Does anyone know what the significance of this is? Again, my father got this gun from a WWII returning serviceman back at the end of the war. Thanks.

  • Bill Delahousaye November 13, 2018, 10:49 am

    Thanks Will for continuing our history!!! As I have a small WW2 collection it is greatly appreciated the work you do!!!

  • Ral November 13, 2018, 10:45 am

    In 35+ yrs of reading about WW2, Ive also come across that HiPowers were occasionally possessed by Luftwaffe pilots, in addition to the usual P38s, Lugers, Walther PPs, and occasional Beretta. HiPowers were a widely coveted gun, still are.

  • Ral November 13, 2018, 10:38 am

    Thank you for a great article on a remarkable gun! I remember prior to buying my first HiPower, I recall just not quite being able to thumb-press the mag release button on a Colt 1911 .45, so I bought an cheap(er) Argentine HiPower copy with enameled finish. I later traded that off, & now own a Browning/FN ambidextrous safety model that is 100% parkerized (except bbl), and a second one (BelgianFN) with orig gloss blue, single safety. One of THE most comfortable handguns to hold & shoot.
    Of course as we get older, shoe size, hand size slightly increases (can reach button without canting the frame)…so I proudly also own a ssteel 1911 longslide (7“ bbl) in 10mm, by IAI, a round that is beyond a .357mag. Took the compensator off, since I shoot 44mag SA Vaqueros (big). Fave handguns of all time: Sam Colt‘s 1861/open-top conversions/1873 .45 family of revolvers, Navy Lugers (6“bbl), and HiPwr. Just say no to ugly guns!

    Finally, it doesn’t take away from the HiPower‘s status to incidentally note that Kaddafi & Saddam owned one, as I consider that a who-cares fact. And I wouldnt call it a “dubious” distinction at all that both the Allies and the Germans used the HiPwr. The Germans (or any nation) recognized a fine qualty pistol when they saw it. I’ll make the point that the first rate German arms industry existed long before the awful hitler/nazi era of ‘33-45. So, to actually show a reenactor in SS camo (since the SS got most of the HiPowers) is historically correct, although its also a PERFECT illustration of the fact that guns aren’t evil (only a tool)- its what people do with guns that is the judgeable act: (criminal?/atrocities?/act of valor?/self defense?).

  • Marlon Knighton November 12, 2018, 11:42 pm

    I would never carry this gun in a survival/self defense situation. Loose your magazine and you have a paperweight. At least with the colt 1911 you still have hand frrd single shot capabilities.

  • walter slizofski November 12, 2018, 7:44 pm

    You say that you feel the Hi Power is the most pleasant pistol of WWII era. Have you ever had the opportunity to handle/fire a Polish Vis 35 pistol. This is also felt by some to be the best pistol of WWII era.

    • Will Dabbs November 13, 2018, 3:43 pm

      I have a Vis 35, and it is a nice gun. However, I still prefer the hand-filling grip of the Hi-Power.

  • Richie November 12, 2018, 4:39 pm

    I would rather carry a hi-power then any glock, except for the glock ten”

  • Vern November 12, 2018, 1:59 pm

    My father in law brought one back from taking it of a German Col. in WW2. I bought it from him so he could go back with his outfit to Eourpe. He said I seen it at night, and would like to see it in the daytime not all bombed up..lol

  • Norm Fishler November 12, 2018, 1:01 pm

    Love that Hi-Power. I’ve had several over the years, but today am reduced to one. I would be hard pressed to ever let it go. Once again Dr. Dabbs has outdone himself.Another excellent article on yesterday’s small arms that remain relevant unto this day.

  • Scott November 12, 2018, 12:56 pm

    Regarding the comment “The Hi Power has the dubious distinction of being the only production firearm to see general issue among both Allied and Axis forces during World War II.” the Nazis developed a similar situation in Norway. Pistole 657(n) was the Kongsberg 11.25 m/m AUT. PISTOL M/1914, a licensed copy of the Colt 1911 with a modified slide stop/release, pressed into service for the German forces occupying Norway. Produced under German control in 1940-42 and again in 1945 (seeing little if any action up north), several thousand were issued to the Germans but only the 1945 production run received the Waffenamt acceptance stamp.

  • Darrell Holland November 12, 2018, 12:53 pm

    Will,

    Great article. As Gunsite’s first gunsmith, Jeff and I haggled over the Hi-Power vs/ the 1911 on many occasions. I still carry one and have had a love affair with them for roughly 40 years. A tad better designed, and higher mag capacity, plus the improved ergonomics make for a pleasing handful in a pistol. Imagine a P-35/Sig 210 Neuhausen hybrid??? Wow!!!

    Keep up the good work, I enjoyed the article.

    Respectfully,

    Darrell Holland

    • Will Dabbs November 13, 2018, 10:18 pm

      Darrell-
      Thanks for the insight, bro. I\’d love to have been able to eavesdrop on those discussions.
      Will

  • Billy Buck November 12, 2018, 11:33 am

    What is it with you gun writers? Get a fucking dictionary to go with your Microsoft Word thesaurus. You’re trying too hard to sound smart.

    • Will Dabbs November 12, 2018, 6:24 pm

      Word has a thesaurus!?!

  • AK November 12, 2018, 10:53 am

    I bought an Israeli surplus T-series in 2012. Beat up but mechanically perfect. Replaced all springs, removed mag disconnect, polished the feed ramp, installed C&S safety and dovetailed Meprolight sights. It is a tack driver, feeds everything including my cast-bullet reloads. 4 Mec-gar magazines and a Fist leather IWB gives it new life as a CCW piece.

    I’ll take it over just about anything polymer…..

  • hillhunter November 12, 2018, 10:42 am

    nice article. still one of my top “go to” weapons. once it clears the leather my hits are faster and more accurate than with my glock 19 (another legend in it’s own right). i own several hi powers and i’ve never had a malfunction of any sort. with a light amount of work on the trigger the last generation was the best 9 mm sidearm in the world. too bad it’s run is over.
    good point about gadaffi. also note that saddam was a fan of the hi power and he lost his head at the end of his political career.

  • joefoam November 12, 2018, 8:40 am

    I love mine. Did have to pay quite a bit for it though it turns out it was worth it.

  • Tom Strickland November 12, 2018, 8:18 am

    I own this weapon. My father passed it on to me. He received this gun from a service member just after WWII ended. I didn’t know of it’s origin until I was using it during my conceal carry class. My spotter was impressed with the accuracy of my shooting and wanted to inspect my gun. He saw that it was a Belgium made but it has the rifle site which according to this article was a Canadian made gun. My gun has German stampings and was brought back to the US by the service member that gave it to my father. I would love to find the add on stock or at least the plans for it. BTW, this gun is really nice to shoot, but it does “stove-pipe” once in a while. Thanks for the article. Now I know more about my historic 9mm shooter.

    • Alan Robinson November 14, 2018, 12:53 pm

      Be advised, adding a stock to that gun without an ATF form 1 approval is unlawful, as it falls under the ’34 NFA.
      It effectively becomes a Short Barreled Rifle by doing so.
      Just sayin’.

  • Jon November 12, 2018, 8:02 am

    Excellent Article!! The Hi Power has always been a favorite of mine.

  • Steve in Detroit November 12, 2018, 6:09 am

    Nice Kit to go along with the Pistole 640 B.

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