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The Hi-Power – A legendary handgun

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In the United States, we seem to have this love affair with the M1911A1 pistol. This John Browning design served our country from 1911 til 1985 and to this day serves in limited numbers. While the United States might adore the M1911A1, the rest of the world, or a good chunk of it, adores a different Browning design. Specifically, the Browning Hi-Power.

The Browning Hi-Power came to life in 1935. FN produced the weapon for over 80 years. It’s served in the military forces of dozen of countries across every continent. From the United Kingdom to Tanzania, the Hi-Power found its way into the holsters of hundreds of different military and police forces.

Browning Hi-Power pistol

To this day, it continues to serve, and while it’s a little dated, it’s still a very competent fighting pistol. The Hi-Power gained a much-deserved reputation as a legend in the handgun world.

The early days of the Hi-Power

FN commissioned John Browning to produce the Hi-Power based on the French’s need for a new handgun. FN handed him a simple set of requirements that sent him to the design bench. However, since he had sold the M1911 pattern to Colt, he had to produce the Hi-Power without running afoul of those patents.

Browning designed two prototype:. One was a simple blowback design. Another utilized a locked-breech recoil system. The locked breech model was selected for further improvement and the weapon at the time featured a striker-fired design instead of a hammer-fired design.

A Canadian soldier firing the Browning Hi-Power pistol

Sadly, in 1926 John Browning passed away before the Hi-Power’s development had finished. FN tasked Belgian firearms designer Dieudonne Saive with finishing the design. By 1928, several M1911 patents expired allowing Saive to implement several notable features from the M1911 into the Hi-Power. Saive also designed a staggered magazine that offered 16 rounds.

By 1934 the Hi-Power was finished. The final weapon would use a single action, hammer-fired design with a 13-round magazine that chambered 9mm Parabellum and used a short-recoil action. The 16-round magazine was dropped to shorten the grip and overall size and weight of the platform. The French requirement was that the pistol weigh 2.2 pounds or less. The Hi-Power weighed exactly 2.2 pounds in this configuration.

Nevertheless, the French foolishly decided not to adopt the Hi-Power. However, with WWII around the corner, it wouldn’t be long until the Hi-Power saw action.

Related: Nobuo Fujita: The only Japanese pilot to bomb mainland America during WWII

In hands and holsters

The Browning Hi-Power eventually found its way into the hands of both Axis and Allied forces. The Belgian military adopted it first, and shortly after that, Canada licensed the design for its military.

After Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Belgium, it took over the FN factory and began producing and issuing the Hi-Power to German soldiers. As such, the Hi-power was one of the rare weapons to find itself being used on both sides of WWII.

A German WWII soldier carrying the Browning Hi-Power pistol.

Canada began production of the Hi-Power in 1940. With Canada being part of the commonwealth, it wasn’t long until the Brits got their hands on Hi-Powers. The Brits wielded Webley revolvers for their general armed forces, but the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and multiple Airborne units wielded the gun.

The Hi-Power got around. While it’s tough to confirm, some sources say Americans with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) also used Hi-powers. This is plausible when you consider the joint operations they must’ve run with the British SOE. The Hi-Power also popped up in the hands of Russian partisans, possibly taken from dead Nazis or supplied by Allied forces.

During Operation Market Garden, British Paratroopers faced off with Waffen-SS units. This battle could have seen two forces wielding the same gun.

Related: How the largest airborne operation in history went wrong

In a post-war world, the Hi-Power exploded in popularity, with 93 countries adopting the pistol. Some imported pistols, others licensed and produced their own Hi-Powers. China cloned but never licensed the design. In the Falkands War, the British and Argentine Army both used the handgun, which allowed the weapon to face itself once more.

Hi-Power? High power? What’s the name?

Hi-Power is a bit of an odd name for a 9mm pistol, right? When you think of powerful handgun rounds, the term magnum likely springs to mind. Well, the Hi-Power wasn’t named for its cartridge but rather its ammo capacity.

Browning Hi-Power pistol

Remember, the gun was designed for a French contract, and part of that contract called for a magazine of at least 10 rounds. In 1914 when the call went out, 10 rounds was a lot of ammo. The French called the project Grand Rendement or Grande Puissance. Grande Puissance translates to High Power.

So why Hi-power? Well, FN owns Browning Arms Company, and in the United States, the Browning Arms Company produced a High Power rifle. Thus, the name was shortened to Hi-Power to avoid confusion. Ever since then, it’s just been the Hi-Power.

The big picture

The Hi-Power has armed Nazis, partisans, freedom fighters, spies, soldiers, Marines, sailors, and more. In fact, it was a favorite of Middle Eastern dictators, with both Saddam and Gaddafi favoring Hi-Powers.

In 2021 and 2022, the little handgun received a resurgence with FN, Springfield, Girsan, and Tisas producing their own models and even improving on some of the design issues with the weapon. Like the M1911, it’s a pistol not likely to die and one that’s earned its place in the fictional gun Hall of Fame I just made up.

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.