By Todd Burgreen
There’s a reason why iconic firearms hold a special place in our psyche. The Hi Power is just such a firearm. This is because the Hi Power heralded a transition in form and function from the handguns that preceded it. The Hi Power set the standard that descendent designs strove to match or improve on. The Hi Power pedigree is unmatchable considering John Browning’s involvement in the project. Many pundits will claim the Hi Power was Browning’s refinement to his legendary 1911.
When word spread that Springfield Armory was offering its own rendition of the Hi Power in the form of the SA-35, many wondered what market sector they were going after. It didn’t seem natural to offer a high-end customized version of the Hi Power. This niche was already filled by companies specializing in perfecting the Hi Power. Springfield Armory decided to take advantage of its manufacturing experience and offer an improved Hi Power with its SA-35 model with a price well below $1,000 — brilliant. A similar pattern of behavior is evident with Springfield Armory AR rifles that have knocked the AR market on its ear as well as with Springfield Armory 1911s, M1As, and polymer framed XDs and Hellcats. So why not do the same with the Hi Power. After all, Browning discontinued Hi Power production in early 2018.
Classic is another word for the Hi Power—though Springfield Armory literature insists in not using this term. This is because its SA-35 offers more than just curio and relic-like qualities. The Springfield Armory SA-35 takes advantage of forging technology for strength and durability in the frame and slide along with barrel. Tweaks have been made in ergonomics, extended the thumb safety lever, along with modern sights with tactical ledge-type rear sight and a white dot front sight, improved feed ramp design, and an increased capacity, 15-round magazine. The much complained-about magazine disconnect from the original Hi Power design was abandoned in the SA-35, enabling both a magazine that drops free and an improved factory-tuned trigger. An integral, beveled magazine well speeds reloads and a recontoured exposed hammer prevents hammer bite during slide cycling. A matte blue finish and checkered walnut grips complete the steel and wood aesthetic, so familiar to the Hi Power design.
The Hi Power was the original Wonder Nine, existing well before the 1980s when the term first became popular. The original Hi Power can be thought of as the blending of American and European handgun design concepts. It took someone of Browning’s stature to pull this feat off and have it accepted on both sides of the Atlantic. The Browning Hi Power was conceived in response to a 1921 French military requirement for a new service pistol. The French requirement called for the pistol to have a capacity of at least 10 rounds, a magazine disconnect device, an external hammer, a positive safety, and easy disassembly and re-assembly. The 9mm cartridge was seen as the natural selection based on WWI experiences. With Colt holding the patents to Browning’s 1911 design, Browning had to create a different pistol so as not to infringe on the original 1911 patents. Colt wasn’t interested in pursuing the potential French contract, so Browning turned to Fabrique Nationale (FN) with his initial two prototypes. FN was interested and submitted one of Browning’s prototypes to the 1922 French pistol trials. Based on French trials, Browning prepared two more prototypes and submitted them to the French Army in 1923. Browning died November 1926, but was awarded a patent for the Hi Power base design posthumously in 1927.
After Browning’s death, the Hi Power design was taken over by FN designer and Browning’s friend Dieudonné Saive. With no market interest for a new service handgun in the late 1920s, Saive was able to continually refine Browning’s design. By 1928, many of Browning’s previous patents for the 1911 were expiring. The Browning Hi Power version featured the removable barrel bushing and take down sequence of the 1911. By 1931, the Browning-Saive Hi Power design incorporated a 13-round magazine, a curved rear grip strap, and a barrel bushing that was integral to the slide versus a removable barrel bushing.
The Hi Power, like many other Browning designs, operates on the short-recoil principle, where the barrel and slide initially recoil together until the barrel is unlocked from the slide by a cam arrangement. Unlike Browning’s earlier 1911 pistol, the Hi Power barrel is not moved vertically by a toggling link, but instead by a hardened bar which crosses the frame under the barrel and contacts a slot under the chamber, at the rearmost part of the barrel. The barrel and slide recoil together for a short distance but, as the bar and slot engage, the chamber and the rear of the barrel are drawn downward and stopped. By 1934, the Hi-Power design was complete and ready to be produced. The Hi Power was first adopted by Belgium for military service in 1935 as the Browning P-35. Ironically, France decided not to adopt the Hi Power.
The Hi Power is one of those rare weapons that served on both sides’ militaries in WWII. In 1954, the British military adopted the Hi Power as its first standard semi-automatic pistol. 50 more armies also adopted it after WWII. Interestingly, the Hi Power was also the choice of such elite units as the British SAS, SBS, and Royal Marines. The FBI HRT and various intelligence agency direct action units utilized the Hi Power until the late 1980s. Impressive, indeed, that after more than 60 years since its introduction, the Hi Power was still the go to sidearm for elite LE and military operators.
While the upside of the Hi Power such as capacity, reliability and ergonomics obviously outweighed its negatives, especially compared to contemporary designs, the Hi Power had features that could be improved upon. The trigger pull, especially heavy for a single action, minimalist sights, weak internal extractor and slide/hammer bite of a shooters hand come to mind. Various Hi Power upgrades and cloned models over the years have addressed these issues. Custom gunsmiths also created a cottage industry of offering services to improve upon base Hi Power models. Browning’s (Belgium-based FN is the parent company of Browning) decision to discontinue Hi Power production in 2018 opened the door for a company like Springfield Armory to offers its SA-35 Hi Power version.
One immediate concern any time a double stack magazine is used is how it effects grip and trigger manipulation. Browning and Saive made sure the Hi Power frame did not sacrifice ergonomics in the quest for capacity. Even average size hands have no issue working the trigger or other controls on the Hi Power. Still today, the Hi Power grip feels smaller in the hand compared to other double stack designs. This is attributed to the way that the top of the grip reduces inward near the slide, thus moving the hand closer to the trigger and shortening the trigger reach.
The SA-35 tale of the tape is a barrel length of 4.7 inches with an overall length of 7.8 inches. Slide width is .9 inches, 1.4 inches at the controls and weight is 31.5 ounces. The Springfield Armory SA-35 represents portability, capacity, reliability, controllability and lethality comparable to more current designs, including polymer striker fired handguns. No one can argue against the Hi Power being an instinctive handling weapon. The trigger and grip size and angle cause it to be one of the most accurate handguns in most arsenals. Why do you think hostage rescue units and other special purpose military/LE teams use it? It’s accurate and conducive to precise shot placement. Springfield Armory’s SA-35 maintains these characteristics.
The Hi Power’s trigger mechanism has an arrangement of springs and levers that limit what can be done to it in terms of improving it. A magazine disconnect safety further compounds the problem. The single action trigger on the Hi Power will never be confused with the trigger found on the 1911. Springfield Armory’s tuning of the Hi Power trigger produces a 4.5 pound break; removal of the magazine disconnect safety was a no brainer, as well.
The SA-35 was evaluated using Black Hills Ammunition, Speer, Hornady, and Federal/American Eagle premium ammunition. 9mm loads fired ranged from 115- to 147- grain with both hollow points and FMJ bullet types tested. Early production Hi Powers were designed to function with FMJ bullets. This changed as time passed and JHP bullets became more common with Hi Powers receiving throated chambers and polished feed ramps. The SA-35 is well done in this area with a straight polished feed ramp. Approximately 350 rounds were fired while compiling this article. An ammunition can with assortment of steel, aluminum, and brass cased 9mm loads that were consolidated from partially used boxes was purposely used in conjunction with the brands listed previously.
The SA-35 was tested at the range first by verifying sight zero and then firing multiple round bursts at various steel man-size targets. This quickly shows if any reliability issues exist. Reports of weak extraction were borne out during my tests with one stoppage for every two magazines fired was typical. Tiger McKee has produced an excellent summary of the issue tracing it back to a shorter than typical Hi Power extractor spring. Knowing Springfield Armory, they will take care of any issues. Not every review is reporting this issue, which is good news.
Further testing consisted of strings of fire against steel plate racks and popper targets at 7, 15, and 25 yards. The sights were zeroed out of the box for 25 yards using the classic 6 o’clock hold. The thin SA-35 front sight and Tactical Rack rear sight proved advantageous for both accurate and rapid shot placement. The benefits of the SA-35’s tuned single action trigger proved evident during range evaluation. Groups fired from standing or kneeling positions were impressive with bullets unerringly hitting their mark. The tapered double-column magazine is easy to fit into the magazine well with Springfield Armory further improving this by beveling the grip bottom. The magazine is vigorously ejected when the mag-catch is depressed. Bench testing could not be resisted after witnessing the unsupported accuracy results. 2.5-inch groups at 25 yards were not unusual.
The natural pointability of the Springfield Armory SA-35 was confirmed along with speed getting it into action. The extended thumb safety was positive and easy to manipulate. Drills included working around vehicles and CQB activities typified by experiences encountered in shoot house environments. The slight beavertail frame settles the weapon naturally into your hand and provides a point of reference when drawing the pistol. No hammer or slide bite was experienced, even when drawing quickly from the Galco Avenger belt and Summer Comfort IWB holsters that were used on the range. The double column grip tapering up to the thin slide sits the SA-35 in your hand in such a way that eliminates any front-heavy sensation that some handguns exhibit. Successful handgun designs constantly evolve. Based on the above, the SA-35 is still a valid choice for real world use.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V26N5 (May 2022)|