The French military exited World War I having just received a sobering reality check as to the nature of modern weaponry and the state of their own arsenal. Immediately following the war, the French army began to modernize its firearms as well as its larger weapons, and the old-style revolvers that had been standard sidearms (for officers, horsemen, drivers, etc.) were deemed out of date. The French put out a request for a new design handgun to replace it, with several notable characteristics.
The gun was to be an automatic pistol as opposed to a revolver, firing the 9x19mm Parabellum round. It was to have a 15 round capacity, graduated rear sights and mounts for a shoulder stock, and was to weigh no more than 2.2 pounds. These were fairly bold specifications given the state of the art; a weapon that light with that large a magazine capacity, at that caliber, would be a stretch. The two most widespread military automatics already in existence were the American Colt 1911 .45 and the German Luger P08, which also used the 9x19mm. The 1911 had a magazine capacity of only 7 rounds, and weighed over 2.4 pounds empty. The Luger weighed under 2 pounds, but only carried 8 of the lighter 9x19mm cartridges.
Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian armorers, received these specifications and decided to compete for the contract, which set a 1922 trials date for the proposed guns. They had an advantage up their sleeves; John Moses Browning, creator of the Colt 1911, had worked with the firm for years and was still very much in the business. Working with one of FN's star engineers, Dieudonne Saive, Mr. Browning designed a single action pistol with a 16 round capacity using a twin-stack high capacity magazine and a recoil action similar to that of the 1911. Two versions were tested; the internal winner had a locked (closed) breech and was striker-fired rather than having an external hammer.
Thus began a series of pistol designs that FN (and specifically Mr. Saive, following Browning's death in 1927) continued to evolve for over a decade. The gun submitted to the 1922 trials was still slightly overweight, and the striker design with its requirement for a larger internal mechanism contributed to that. The original gun was patented in 1927, Browning's last patent - but it continued to evolve. Mr. Saive removed the striker and added a more conventional external hammer as well as reducing the magazine capacity by three rounds, changing it to a staggered design; this brought the gun under the weight restrictions. When Browning's patents on the 1911 ran out, Saive brought over the 1911's bolt and barrel bushing, removing the breech bolt assembly which had contributed to size at the back and to weight as well.
At this point, the pistol was essentially similar to the final design. In 1931, the feature set was complete, and in 1934 went into production. In 1935, Belgium ordered 1000 pistols for military use, and the gun was designated the Model 1935, which would remain with it. Known as the 'Browning Hi-Power' due to the French specification for a 'large caliber' pistol with high muzzle energy, resulting in the French name 'Grand Puissance,' the Hi-Power was set to fight on all sides of World War II. Originally produced for Allied militaries, the FN factories were captured by Germany when Belgium was overrun. The gun was kept in production by the Third Reich and designated the 'Pistole 640(b)' ('b' for 'belgische', belgian). It was produced in Canada during the war by the John Inglis company. Popular with commando and special purpose units for its power and capacity during the war, it has continued in use - as of 2007, the Mk. 1 was still the standard issue firearm for Canadian forces. It looks a great deal like its spiritual parent the 1911, and for a non-gun-person the two are easy to confuse. It has been seen in all manner of films, from Beverly Hills Cop to American Gangster.
As a single action pistol, the Browning requires different safety procedures from double-action pistols. Since there is no firing pin safety, it should never be carried with the hammer down and a round in the chamber, since movement of the hammer could cause enough firing pin travel to fire the ready round. In a single action gun the trigger cannot be used to cock the hammer, only to release it - so in order to fire the first round the hammer must be cocked manually either by thumbing the hammer or by operating the slide. As a result, the gun is often carried with the hammer cocked and the safety engaged, locking the hammer; this allows for faster response times while preventing the hammer from contacting the firing pin. However, for maximum safety, the gun should be kept without a round in the chamber; the gun can be prepared for use by operating the slide, which will both chamber a round and cock the action.
13 rounds in magazine
Firing mode: Single action
50-60 meters effective