The Saga of a Rare, Alloy-Framed Hi Power
February 22, 2018
My introduction to the Hi Power came at The Gun Room, a store that used to be in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. We had a shop party at the boss' country home one weekend. We were, of course, shooting everything imaginable because we were all into not-the-usual firearms. I was eventually handed a Hi Power.
To give you the full impact of that moment, it was a commercial-blued, tangent-sighted Browning and slotted for a stock. It wore Nazi proofs and was pristine. I loaded it up and hammered away.
Hmm, I thought to myself. The recoil seems a bit sharper than I'd expect from a 9mm.
When I was done, the owner looked over in horror, and asked, "What are you doing?"
I looked down and remarked, "Bleeding, I think."
Hammer bite was the cause of that "sharp" sensation, and the web of my hand was now wet with blood. You could say that I learned to keep my hand out of the way of that hammer, at least until I met a few gunsmiths who could trim its spur.
Gunsmiths like Bill Laughridge, Ted Yost, Wayne Novak and others could do the job. Still, other 'smiths would build up the tang, if you wished. In my opinion, Hi Power perfection looks like this: a thumb safety you can use on a de-horned Hi Power and a set of either Navidrex or Spegel grips. There, you have a comfortable, reliable and accurate 9mm — a classic for the ages.
The FBI even adopted the Hi Power for its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) in the 1980s. And back when the FBI treated its agents like adults, the Hi Power was even an option for agents not on the HRT. I know this from an incident at The Gun Room, when we thought the florists shop next door was being robbed. I went out the back to cover the exit, and Dave, the shop manager, and one of our customers, an FBI agent, went out the front with his personal Hi Power to see what was up.
From its introduction in 1935 through 1971, the Hi Power was the only large-capacity 9mm to be had. The year 1971 saw the introduction of the Smith & Wesson's Model 59, but that was a double-action (DA)/single-action (SA) pistol that wasn't much loved by shooters used to SA pistols.
Speaking of the 1970s, here's a bit of trivia. We all "know" that IPSC was a .45-only activity, right? Well, of the first four IPSC World Shoots, the World Championships, two were actually won with 9mm pistols — a SIG Sauer P210 and a Browning Hi Power. Internationally, the Hi Power held on for a number of years in IPSC circles.
But what kept the Hi Power from being a consistent winner in IPSC wasn't the 9mm chambering, and not even the not-easy-to-gunsmith trigger pull. You could shoot a 9mm enough faster back then that you could beat a .45 shooter if you worked at it. Unfortunately, it wasn't heavy-duty enough.
Our club treasurer, who lived and worked in Detroit, packed a pair of Hi Powers. He'd shot them enough to have compressed the action springs down from their 17-pound standard weight to 10 and 11 pounds. His pair still worked fine, but Novak — who built the Hi Powers for the HRT — told me the FBI had problems with longevity.
"After 10,000 rounds, these parts started breaking, then at 20 they fell off." Even back then a club shooter could put 20,000 rounds through a pistol, a year, so it fell out of favor. Why rebuild a Hi Power when the Colt 1911 was indestructible?
FN faced that problem square-on when they chambered the Hi Power in .40 S&W. The recoil was so violent, even with a heavier recoil spring — 20 pounds versus 17 — and an extra-mass slide. During its development, .40-caliber Hi Powers just up and died. The number I heard was "2,500" rounds to expiration.
FN solved that by transitioning to a cast frame, which allowed them to use a much tougher alloy. I have a .40-caliber Hi Power that was a range rental at Double Action in Madison Heights. It's still doing just fine, so they clearly solved the problem. My Novak-built 9mm Hi Power went 23,000 rounds during a test and only produced two malfunctions: one was with the magazine and another was ammo related. There were no part breakages.
But there's a rare Hi Power, one you probably have never seen. No, not a Nazi-proofed one, and not the mythical "personal sidearm of Hitler." Rather, it's the Lightweight Hi Power.
You see, despite its not-considerable 35 ounces, for a lot of users, there is no such thing as a pistol that is too light. So, for some police departments in Europe, FN made an aluminum-framed Hi Power. The frame is aluminum, but the barrel seat, the crossways part in the frame that the barrel cams up against, is steel, because aluminum just couldn't take the abuse. Everything else about it appears normal. FN used the same slide and barrel as the Hi Power in all of its single-stage variants, and the same magazine that they all benefited from. These were made, as far as I can tell, for a few police agencies in Europe and (allegedly) for an Austrian border agency. Total number for all alloy-framed Hi Powers was probably less than a few thousand.
I have one that came to me through pistolsmith Bill Laughridge of Cylinder & Slide (cylinder-slide.com). It has mysterious markings, which led me to contact the Belgian Military Museum in Brussels to parse out.
The slide and frame are marked "GVB 876 84". The museum confirmed that this was made for the Belgian gendarmerie, and was No. 86 purchased in 1984. That's Interesting because the FN serial number code suggests that it was made in 1981. Did it take three years to do paperwork?
It came to me already overhauled, the work done by Laughridge. In addition to a new recoil spring and hammer spring, it was coated, throated, tested and had new grips installed. Why the refinish? Because, in his words, "They were too rugged, as-is, to do anything else with."
I can believe that. I've been to Europe enough times to have seen a good number of police officers wearing pistols. Before 9/11, they were more accustomed to thumping miscreants with a baton rather than drawing a sidearm. It was not unusual to see a holstered pistol used so much and for so long as an arm rest that it canted out at a 45 degree angle from the wearer's hip.
Those that stayed in the station's armory were no-doubt pristine, but those that got issued — ouch.
Why is an alloy Hi Power so rare in the U.S.? As I understand it, when it came time to upgrade departmental sidearms in Germany and Belgium, the departments were given a choice: send in the old pistols to be replaced one-for-one or order new ones from FN. If they didn't send them in, officers had to pay for their new guns and lawfully dispose of the old ones. Few departments wanted the hassle of selling sidearms to a licensed exporter in hopes they'd get enough to cover the cost of replacing them.
But this Hi Power — and a few others like it — did make it here. Do I shoot it much? No. It is a rare piece of handgunning history that was subjected to a limited service life. The few times I've shot it, I've used the mildest 9mm ammunition on the shelf. It hits to the sights, and like all of its brethren, it can bite if you aren't careful.
Could the Hi Power have been made more durable? Probably. Could FN have made them all less painful to shoot? Yes. Alas, they were not.
And the shop next door? Just bad situational awareness on the part of the florist. They had a delivery, but hadn't thought to put the sign up that no-one was at the counter due to a delivery. In those days, if you walked into a shop that close to Detroit, and heard voices in the back with nobody attending the counter, you rightly thought bad things were happening. That's exactly what the elderly customer who had gone in had suspected, and she had come next door to us for help. When I popped out the back, I found a delivery truck, and an otherwise empty parking lot. It was a misunderstanding, but one I learned from.