Time is a flat circle, and what is old will invariably be new again, especially if it didn’t suck the first time. It seems the wheel has come around for the Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol. Born from a John M. Browning pistol design created not long after he finished changing gun history with the 1911, it was the first successful “high-capacity” semi-auto handgun that was produced constantly for about 80 years. Now, at the dawn of the 2020s, at least three gunmakers have revived the Hi-Power with modernized takes on the full-size, steel-framed, single-action semi-auto with a double-stack magazine.
Are these firearm companies testing the waters to gauge the gun buying public’s appetite for nostalgia in their new-handgun diet? Are people getting sick of an endless parade of polymer-framed 9mm pistols optimized for concealed carry? All the many fans of CZ’s steel-framed handguns and the still loyal legions of 1911 devotees might say so.
Whatever is inspiring this renaissance for the Hi-Power, gun buyers who have always wanted one, especially since 2018 when FN (Fabrique Nationale) ceased producing the last iteration of the Hi-Power under its Browning Arms brand, now have choices to make.
The Belgian gun giant is back in the Hi-Power business with the revamped FN High Power handgun introduced this week at the 2022 SHOT Show. A few months ago, Springfield Armory announced its updated version of the pistol in the form of the SA-35, and in the lead-up to SHOT, European American Armory (EAA) announced its take on the handgun with the Girsan MC P35.
Let’s take a look at each and see if they are true updates that hold to Browning’s original design with needed improvements (it’s a legendary pistol, but it wasn’t perfect), or if these are just replicas of a discontinued firearm that aren’t really made to be run hard.
Since they announced their gun first, and since Free Range American contributor and gun historian T. Logan Metesh got some recent trigger time with it, we’ll look at the SA-35 at the top — but first, a little bit of info download on the original Hi-Power. — David Maccar
Browning Hi-Power History
Browning worked on the design for what became the Hi-Power pistol after his military and commercial success with the 1911. For all intents and purposes, the Hi-Power was an evolution of the 1911. It had similar stylings visually and was a locked-breech, single-action semi-auto that incorporated a manual thumb safety. At the same time, it was a decidedly different gun, for legal reasons.
When Browning was working on the Hi-Power, Colt owned the rights to the 1911’s design elements. So, he had to work around his own patent to create this new 9mm pistol.
Let’s talk about that first — the chambering. The Hi-Power was designed for the 9mm Luger cartridge, which was quite a bit narrower than the fat .45 ACP, which allowed for a higher capacity, double-stack magazine in a similarly sized handgun. It held nearly twice as many rounds with a 13+1-round capacity compared to the 1911’s 7+1 capacity. This was a crucial part of the French military’s design requirements for a new sidearm, which was the impetus for the gun’s creation in the first place, though it would never fill that role. The “high” capacity magazine is what the gun’s name refers to.
The Hi-Power also lacked the 1911’s grip safety, but it had a magazine disconnect safety that the 1911 did not have — another French stipulation.
While the eminent gun designer rightly deserves a great deal of credit for the Hi-Power, the credit for the gun’s final form does not all belong to him. Browning died in 1926, a decade before the gun hit the market.
An FN Herstal employee named Dieudonne Saive saw the Hi-Power through to completion. The 1911 patents held by Colt expired in 1928, so Saive was permitted to make some changes and improvements to Browning’s initial design.
In 1935, the gun was finally released and it was adopted by the Belgian military as the P-35. Over the following decades, the Hi-Power was adopted as the official sidearm of military and law enforcement agencies in dozens of countries, including NATO. Ironically, France was not among them.
Interestingly, FN continued manufacturing the pistol during WWII after Belgium was taken by the Germans. At the same time, it was being produced in Canada for the Allies, making it the only service pistol to be used by both sides in the European Theater.
The Hi-Power set the standard for high-capacity 9mm pistols for many years. In the mid-80s, Beretta’s 92 series in 9mm was adopted by the US military with standard mags that held 15 rounds (mags for the Hi-Power with the same capacity were eventually available). SIG Sauer introduced its 9mm P226 around the same time in 1985 with the same capacity. Then, the polymer-framed Glock came along with its 17-round mags and ushered in the era of “wonder nines.”
By 2018, the winds of change had blown strong enough for FN to cease production of the Browning Hi-Power models still in its catalog. While the gun was no longer available, there was still considerable demand for the pistol, and it seems to have grown. The price of used and old-stock Hi-Powers went up and up over the past few years and a few clones made by various companies overseas tried to fill the gap, but it just wasn’t the same — kind of like the Italian-made replicas of Colt Peacemakers. Sure, it looks the same and essentially functions the same, but it is not the same. We still don’t have a true blue Hi-Power that can be bought new, but we have some really great modernized options in its place. — T. Logan Metesh
Springfield Armory SA-35
Ambidextrous Controls: No
Weight: 31.5 ounces
Special Features: Proprietary recoil system and guide rod
When Springfield Armory announced the SA-35 in October 2021, shooters and gun collectors alike rejoiced. In fact, they rejoiced so loudly and fervently that demand far outpaced production. When I asked Springfield if I could get my hands on one, I was told the wait would be “quite a while” and when I picked the gun up from my gun shop, the guy at the counter wouldn’t even say the make and model out loud. Apparently, they had quite the waitlist for it at the shop, and whenever someone mentions the SA-35, it “causes a swarm at the counter.”
So how does this re-release of an 80-year-old handgun design from Springfield that was last produced by a different company measure up?
This is not a Browning Hi-Power. Let’s get that straight. Also, let’s understand that there’s nothing wrong with that. Springfield is not trying to gaslight anyone into thinking that it is. I think that’s exactly why it’s been so popular.
Springfield has created an evolved pistol with features that OG Hi-Power owners often added as aftermarket alterations, like eliminating the magazine disconnect safety (which leads to a better trigger pull), using a rounded hammer that’s less likely to cause hammer bite, a re-profiled beavertail, bevels on the magwell, and a flush-fit magazine that holds 15 rounds instead of the original 13 rounds. It also comes in at an attractive price point for an all-steel gun.
Another big difference, which has garnered some complaints online since the gun’s release, is the finish. The SA-35 sports a matte carbon steel finish on the frame and slide, which is visually quite different from the polished blueing found on many Hi-Powers. The sample gun I received had a uniform finish that is attractively executed.
On to the nuts and bolts: It’s just as easy to disassemble the SA-35 as it is to break down an original Hi-Power since much of the gun’s design is exactly the same. The SA-35 comes with checkered walnut grips, much like early versions of the Hi-Power. The SA-35 isn’t made in Belgium like the original pistol was or in Croatia like many of Springfield’s firearms are, but right here in the United States.
Since Springfield deleted the magazine disconnect, which caused the famous grittiness in Hi-Power triggers even though they were single-action, the trigger on the SA-35 is really nice and crisp. This is perhaps the best update they made to the original design.
I ran 150 rounds through the gun that were a mix of factory ammo and reloads — with ammo availability and prices these days, that was about all I could manage.
The 15-round magazine functioned flawlessly, but notice that’s a singular “magazine.” It only comes with one. That’s annoying for any firearm, let alone a gun that uses mags retailing for $38.99 each from SA. But…the SA-35 can use old Hi-Power mags if you happen to have some.
The SA-35 ran perfectly for my grandfather, who was with me at the range that day, but I was having some trouble with my high, thumbs-forward grip — I kept partially engaging th thumb safety under recoil every few rounds. Gramps tucks his thumb, so he wasn’t having that problem. I had to alter my grip and ride the safety with my thumb like a 1911. The safety itself was a little mushy and would benefit from a more pronounced detent.
That aside, during my limited time with the SA-35, I loved it. I particularly liked the Springfield “Tactical Rack” U-notch rear sight, which can also be found on the company’s popular Hellcat pistols. It’s an outstanding reinterpretation of the Hi-Power that’s well made and that a lot of people can actually afford. — TLM
FN High Power
Capacity: 17+1 or 10+1
Ambidextrous Controls: Yes
Weight: 40 ounces
Special Features: FN 509-style takedown, black, FDE, and stainless finishes available
MSRP: $1,269 – $1,369
While Springfield was conservative with its update of the Hi-Power and stayed fairly true to the original design, FN brought the pistol back to its roots while going all out to deliver what could be called a thoroughly modernized version with the new High Power pistols — short of giving it a plastic frame.
First off, it came out of the gate with options: the new High Power is available with three frame colors and seven G10 and wooden grip options — and each pistol comes with two different sets of grips. You can rock the classic black slide and frame with brown wooden grips for the throwback look, or go with a more modern all-FDE gun with green G10 grips. Plus there’s the stainless model — but a dual-toned stainless slide on a black frame option is absent at the moment.
The contours and shape of those grips are unmistakably FN. Like the SA-35, the original design’s magazine disconnect has been deleted, so the single-action trigger should be pretty sweet.
The High Power features updated ergonomics and a new fire control design, making this a lot more than a Hi-Power clone. FN also gave the pistol a capacity boost — it ships with two 17-round magazines.
The gun is a little heftier than the Springfield (40 ounces), but lightweight isn’t exactly the goal here. Additional ounces will just make this pistol more of a pleasure to shoot. One of the biggest changes FN made was to the gun’s takedown process. An old Hi-Power, and the SA-35, tear down a lot like a 1911 does, just without a barrel bushing.
The FN High Power comes apart just like the company’s striker-fired FN509 series of pistols, with no pin to remove. When field stripped, the parts consist of a slide, barrel, recoil spring, and frame just like most modern handguns, making the learning curve for those born and raised on striker guns less steep.
It also features full ambidextrous controls (the magazine release is reversible for lefties), an extended beavertail, a raised hammer, oversized ejection port, a polished feed ramp and chamber, and a cold hammer forged barrel. The slide comes topped with driftable steel blackout sights set in the FN 509 dovetail pattern and the frame and slide sport a PVD finish.
People who have been drooling over the SA-35 must have passed out when they saw this gun — or when they saw that it costs twice as much as the Springfield, one or the other. — DM
EAA Girsan MC P35
Ambidextrous Controls: Thumb safety only
Special Features: External extractor, polymer grip panels
This Turkish-made Hi-Power clone is the budget gun of the bunch, coming in with a retail price that’s roughly $170 less than the SA-35, and about $740 less than the High Power. The MC P35 is extremely faithful to the original pistol’s design. It even includes the magazine disconnect that was omitted by Springfield and FN, but Girsan chose to go with expanded 15-round magazines and not the original 13.
The all-steel pistol comes in three matte finishes (black, FDE, and two-toned stainless and black) and includes a driftable rear sight and the traditional slim trigger found on the Hi-Power. This allows for more room inside the trigger guard, so it’s easier to fire the pistol while wearing gloves without having an oversized guard.
While the magazine release and slide stop are set up for righties, the MC P35 comes with an ambidextrous thumb safety. This offering may seem a little plain, but consider that i has a lower price point than the Springfield, it’s available in a variety of colors like the much more expensive FN, while the SA-35 comes with a blued carbon steel finish and walnut grips only — for now.
When and if Springfield expands the line to include a few more options, it will be kind of tough to justify going with an MC P35, unless its real world price is considerably lower and range tests prove it to be reliable. It certainly looks the part of a faithful Hi-Power reproduction that doesn’t offer many modern features — and that may very well be exactly what you’re looking for in a gun like this. —DM