October 25, 2021
Widely copied and broadly issued, the Browning P.35 High Power (Hi-Power) — and its variants — saw more action in more countries around the world than any other military pistol in history. From battlefields in World War II to the Global War on Terror, the P.35 was revered. It is considered John M. Browning’s last design, and it was actually finished by Browning’s protégé in Belgium, Dieudonné Saive, who is credited with developing its double-stack, 9mm, 13-round magazine.
Through the years, the High Power never lost its affection. Always a respected pistol, FN finally ceased production of the “Hi-Power” in 2018. (The nickname changed when Browning Arms Company imported commercial guns.) Despite years of relatively low-volume sales, there was a loud and immediate cry from consumers to restart the production line.
Enter Springfield Armory of Geneseo, Illinois, a company that built its reputation by bringing two sought-after classics to market, the M1911A1 and M1A. In 1974, Springfield introduced the “M1A” as a civilian version of the M14. And, through the 1980s, its M1911A1 pistols were the only factory alternatives to Colt’s.
As we’ve seen with M1911A1-pattern pistols, all-metal defensive 9mm handguns are “in.” The SA-35 offers all the benefits, great handling and reliability of a 9mm 1911, plus additional capacity. Though Saive’s magazine only carried 13 rounds, Springfield Armory went ahead with 15-round mags for the SA-35. Given that a micro-compact pistol such as Springfield’s popular Hellcat can carry 15 rounds in its extended magazine, it makes sense that the larger SA-35 should at least hold the same.
To build the SA-35, Springfield Armory starts with forgings for both the lower receiver and the slide. While original FN-built P.35 High Powers had forged frames, the company eventually moved to cast-steel frames. Even though cast frames were developed to be stronger than the forged frames (they were built to withstand the .40 S&W cartridge), there was always a stigma attached to the later models. Springfield Armory’s solution was to forge the frame and slide, and apply modern heat-treating methods to make its SA-35 incredibly tough. Forging, precision machining and modern heat-treating are recurring descriptions I noted while examining the parts of this pistol. There are no metal-injection-molded (MIM) parts anywhere on the SA-35. Another nod to old-world manufacturing is its cold-hammer-forged barrel.
Collectively, you can feel the balance, fit and finish of the SA-35 while holding it in your hand. It feels as familiar as holding an early “High Power” (sans tangent sight and backstrap slot for attaching a shoulder stock).
During my evaluation of the SA-35, I confirmed that it is backwards compatible with original P.35 holsters. Even grip panels are interchangeable, as well as many small parts. During my testing of the pistol, I scrounged several surplus 13-round magazines and used them interchangeably with the two provided mags. All of them functioned perfectly. As mentioned, the SA-35 will ship with 15-round magazines. They’re made by Mec-Gar (mec-gar.com).
The walnut stocks are beautiful. They are thin and comfortably checkered. In fact, they make older High Power grips feel chunky. They hug the frame as if they were carved and shrunk to fit. The stocks visually complement the history of the P.35, as does the matte blue finish of the slide and frame.
Inside the slide, you’ll find that the barrel is hammer-forged, and the muzzle fits snug. Like the original design that inspired so many pistols after it, the breech is based on Browning’s redesign of the locking system. The bottom of the barrel features an integral cam that allows the barrel to disengage from battery and unlock the barrel and slide lugs to permit the slide to cycle. There was no swinging barrel link as was used in the M1911 Government design.
As a point of modern practicality, Springfield Armory decided to install a ledge-type sight featuring a U-notch at the rear. A white dot post is at the front. The rear is also serrated and completely black — just as it should be, in my opinion. Both sights are made of steel.
Springfield subtly improved some of the small parts. The safety being the most obvious recipient of Springfield’s facelift. The SA-35 safety is larger than the original’s for more positive engagement. The serrated ledge of the lever is better for thumb placement, too. When utilizing a thumb-forward grip with the primary hand’s thumb riding atop the safety, it’s firmly planted.
The hammer looks similar to an old-school ring hammer, but even that part was subtly recontoured. Springfield Armory calls it the “NoBite” hammer, and from my few range sessions, it seems to work as described.
The slide-lock lever also is contoured to provide the shooter a generous ledge for pressing it down to release the slide. Honestly, it’s a nice change from some modern guns. Like it or not, pressing this lever is the fastest way to execute a slide-lock reload from a charged magazine.
The magazine well has been beveled — somewhat — at least by comparison to an original P.35. It’s beveled on the flats, but the front corners are not. It’s a definite improvement over the original, but if you’re spoiled by more modern designs, reloading quickly will take some diligence. The magazine can catch on the non-beveled area when reloading.
One of the most important upgrades Springfield Armory made was the deletion of the magazine disconnect. Allow me to explain: Originally placed in the pistol at the insistence of the French Army (by Saive, not Browning), the magazine disconnect prevented it from firing without a magazine inserted. Unfortunately, it also prevented the magazine from ejecting smoothly, and it interrupted the trigger. Deleting this part makes sense, and most traditionalists won’t care that it’s absent in the SA-35. In fact, most of us just had the ridiculous thing removed, anyway.
The absence of a magazine safety means that magazines drop free. More importantly, it means the SA-35 has a very nice trigger. Guns & Ammo’s samples were measured with a 4 1/2-pound trigger pull. I tested two guns; one averaged 4 pounds, 9 1/2 ounces, and the other testing at 4 pounds, 7 ounces. The trigger still presents a bit of grit and creep, but it bests the P.35 and factory striker-fired guns.
As Guns & Ammo’s Handgun Editor, I often test and shoot pre-production samples. Manufacturers usually send guns ahead of a public launch for our non-biased, professional feedback, and to allow time to research and prepare thoughtful content months ahead of other firearms media. Generally, the guns run as intended, but sometimes issues arise. We note the problem, consult with the manufacturer so they can address it, and we report on it. Even with pre-production prototypes, G&A’s staff considers itself honor-bound.
We received the first SA-35 in July 2021. It had a serial number in the 300 range. Unfortunately, it had reliability issues. There were four instances of a failure to extract in the first 200 rounds. I contacted Springfield Armory, documented the issue and returned the pistol. About a week later, I received a production-ready SA-35. I fired more than 800 rounds of various 9mm loads and weights through the second gun with no cleaning; just an initial lube of the barrel lugs and rails. There were no failures. Hence, G&A moved forward with this review and I’m confident in saying that production guns will run.
Shooting the SA-35 is unlike anything else. The nose of the slide is distinctive, which helps to make this pistol nimble. It’s not a soft-shooting gun, but with the right technique, it is a fast-shooting gun. The SA-35 crushes plate racks and makes any drill fun. Using an old belt slide holster, I managed sub-1-second hits and sub-2-second Bill Drills.
Not only is the SA-35 fast, it’s accurate. Shooting from a rest at 25 yards, not a single group exceeded 3 inches. In fact, most groups measured sub-2inches, including one incredible 1.2inch group using Federal Premium Punch 124-grainers. These are advertised at 1,150 feet-per-second (fps) at the muzzle, but clocked more than 1,200 fps from the SA-35.
Because of the prototype’s issues, I intentionally tried to induce a malfunction with the second pistol. I mixed ammunition types in the magazines, and even limp wristed the pistol. The SA-35 ran without a hitch. About the only negative observation I can say about the pistol is that if you shoot with high thumbs, the bottom edge of the slide could abrade the skin. I didn’t experience any hammer bite, but I did receive a faint track of slide bite.
The SA-35 is faithful to the original. We also know that Springfield Armory has continued evolving the M1911A1 design, so I’m sure they’ll figure out how to keep the Grande Puissance relevant for another 80 years.
Springfield Armory SA-35 Pistol Specs:
- Type: Single action, short recoil, semiautomatic pistol
- Cartridge: 9mm
- Capacity: 15+1 rds.
- Barrel: 4.625 in., CHF
- Overall length: 7.75 in.
- Width: .98 in.
- Height: 5.1 in.
- Weight: 1 lb., 15 oz.
- Finish Matte: blue (steel)
- Stocks: Walnut, checkered
- Sights: Fixed, U-notch (rear); white dot (front); steel
- Trigger: 4 lbs., 9.5 oz.
- MSRP: $696
- Manufacturer: Springfield Armory, springfield-armory.com
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