It has long been acknowledged that John Browning is one of – if not the – greatest American firearms designer of all time. Indeed, his Winchester 1894 – the venerable “.30-30” – with over six million units produced, is the most numerous sporting rifle ever made. Browning’s designs have lasted well over one hundred years; in fact, variations of his M1911A1 pistol and M2HB heavy machine gun are still in service in the United States Armed Forces, at least in some capacity, despite both being over a century old.
At the end of World War One, however, Browning did not rest on his laurels after a sixty-year career of designing weapons for both civilians and military forces. As he was no longer offering his designs exclusively to Winchester, after the war was over, Browning began working with the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale (FN). One of the final designs Browning was working on, a French military requirement for a new service pistol, the “Grand Rendement” (French for “high efficiency“), would never be completed, as Browning would die suddenly of heart failure, on the floor of his son and co-designer’s shop November 26, 1926, at the age of 71.
The service pistol design, while not complete, had advanced far enough that it could be completed by Browning’s assistant, designer Dieudonné Saive, a tremendously talented designer in his own right, who would go on to design many legendary firearms, including the FAL (Fusil Automatique Leger or Light Automatic Rifle), which would become known as the “Right Arm of the Free World.”
The pistol for the French contract was a “game-changer” design. Browning had been one of the first designers of practical and reliable semi-automatic pistols, as far back as 1899, and the French pistol built on from everything he had learned to that point. The task, however, was not simple, as Browning had to compete with himself — he had previously sold his patent on the M1911 to Colt Manufacturing; as a result, Browning was unable to directly copy that design. The new pistol used a 13-round, detachable box magazine (designed by Saive), the first true ‘staggered-stack’ design that allowed a near-doubling of ammunition capacity, without overly-enlarging the grip.
Due to the French commission’s wandering requirements (something all to common in the weapons design world, being one of the chief reasons for mindless cost overruns in defense products), the design was unable to mature until 1931, when the Belgian Army ordered 1,000 units of the early design, and was finally completed in 1934…Which was, of course, when the French chose another pistol, that went on to become barely a footnote in history.
The Belgian Army, however, had been following the pistol’s development, and were highly impressed with the small sample that they had purchased three years earlier. The French competition was barely over, when the Belgians formally adopted the pistol, as the “HP-35“, as their national sidearm, which would become known as the “High Power“.
World War 2 saw Nazi Germany swallow Belgium whole, and with it, the FN factories. When it became clear that Belgium would fall, Saive and other FN engineers fled to England, and carried the designs of many weapons, including the High Power, with them. The High Power’s plans were handed over to John Inglis and Company, of Toronto, Canada, who rapidly tooled up lines to produce two versions of the design: the standard model with fixed sights, and a version with an adjustable rear sight and a detachable shoulder stock (primarily for a Nationalist Chinese contract). From there, the High Power took off to became the primary sidearm of the armies of 93 nations, as well as many special operations forces, most famously, Great Britain’s SAS, and remains in service with many of those militaries to this day.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end – or seem to. After 82 years of continuous production, FN Herstal announced that the production of the Hi-Power would end, and it was discontinued in early 2018 by Browning Arms. From 2019 to 2022, with no new Belgian Hi-Powers being built, clones were designed by various firearm companies around the world, including Springfield Armory, as the “SA-35.” These new Hi-Power clones began competing with each other by offering new finishes, enhanced sights, redesigned hammers, beveled magazine wells, improved trigger, and increased magazine capacity.
However, in 2022, presumably to compete with the sudden surge in Hi-Power popularity, FN announced they would resume production of the Browning Hi-Power. The 2022 “FN High Power” incorporated a number of entirely new features such as a fully ambidextrous slide lock, simplified takedown method, enlarged ejection port, reversible magazine release, wider slide serrations, different colored finish offerings, and 17-round magazines.
As of the end of 2022, the eighty-seven year old design has suddenly found new life, and will likely continue in service well past its 100-year design mark…
…Like many other models of its designer.