John Moses Browning was a Mormon gun designer born five years before the American Civil War. Browning ultimately died of heart failure sitting at his work-bench in Liege, Belgium. At the time of his death the man held 128 patents. There has never been another gun designer that even came close to his genius.
The path that took Browning from Utah to Belgium is fascinating. Browning’s earliest ventures were with Winchester. His familiar lever action rifles and slide action shotguns made Winchester a great deal of money. However, in his Auto-5 Browning knew he had something special.
The hump-backed Auto-5 was Browning’s favorite design and ultimately became the world’s first successful autoloading shotgun. When he presented the gun to Winchester, however, they balked at his terms. In frustration Browning took the gun to Remington only to have the CEO of Remington suffer a sudden heart attack before negotiations were complete. In frustration Browning took his design to Fabrique Nationale in Belgium.
Most of us red-blooded American gunmen would view the classic 1911 as John Browning’s masterwork. Designed specifically to kill the radical Muslim terrorists of the day, the 1911 fired a bullet that weighed fully twice what the European-standard 115-grain 9mm did. For all of its justifiable merits, however, the 1911 has a few shortcomings.
The single-stack 7-round magazine was designed to improve upon the contemporary 6-shot revolver. Additionally, the swinging-link barrel locking mechanism could be simpler. FN needed a pistol to answer a French call for a new service sidearm. As Colt held the patents on his 1911, Browning had to design this new gun from scratch. The result was the most capable combat handgun in the world.
Browning died before he could complete the P35 Grande Puissance or Hi-Power. A Belgian colleague at FN named Dieudonne Saive finished the project. The Hi-Power action went on to drive most of the world’s combat handguns. Interestingly, the French ultimately rejected the Browning design.
The Hi-Power sports a pivoting single action trigger utterly unlike that of the 1911 though offering a comparably crisp character. The magazine holds 13 rounds was designed by Saive and paved the way for today’s high-capacity autoloading handguns. In place of the swinging link on the 1911 the Hi-Power employs a remarkably effective cam-locking system. If you have never seen one just crack open your favorite Glock, Smith and Wesson, HK, or Ruger pistol. They all run on Browning’s Hi-Power action.
An Unfortunate Turn of Events
FN launched the Hi-Power in 1935. In 1939 the Germans debuted Blitzkrieg to an unsuspecting planet and overran mainland Europe in fairly short order. By 1940 they occupied Belgium. The Germans needed weapons in massive quantities with which to prosecute their ongoing military expeditions. Domestic German pro-duction was woefully inadequate to feed the monster that was total war so the Nazis turned to their occupied territories for additional armaments.
The Hi-Power’s inimitable single action trigger handily bests that of the Walther P38 and the P08 Parabellum. The P08 sports a single action trigger as well and should have given the Hi-Power a run for its money. However, the trigger on Georg Luger’s masterpiece is inexplicably spongy. Combine the Hi-Power trigger with its rugged reliable action and a greater magazine capacity than any other handgun then in service and you get a desirable sidearm for elite Nazi formations. These guns were subsequently designated the Pistole 640(b) and went preferentially to the Fallschirmjägers as well as the Waffen SS.
The Fallschirmjägers were the German paratroop arm and they answered to the Luftwaffe or German Air Force. The Schutzstaffel or SS spawned from Hitler’s personal bodyguard and represented some of the most committed warriors fielded by any combatant of the war. That the SS also became synonymous with atrocities and death camps has forever tainted their reputation and justifiably overshadowed their conventional battlefield prowess.
The Hi-Power holds its own on the range against pistol designs 80 years younger. Recoil is a joy, the trigger is indeed divine, and the 13-round box keeps the gun running long after lesser pistols would have packed it in. Additionally, the magazine release is easily accessed while the magazines drop away cleanly, making for rapid magazine changes. The sights are too small but everybody’s sights were too small.
The FN Hi-Power was a coveted sidearm on both sides of the lines. The Canadians fielded the gun as well, and there were never enough to satisfy the Germans’ voracious wartime appetite. Amidst their many well-documented examples of self-worshipping malevolence, the Nazis did indeed steal from Belgium the finest combat pistol of World War 2.
Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used in the production of this article.