The British Army recently chose the Glock 17 Gen 4 as its new service pistol – a decision that wasn’t without controversy. Many soldiers had assumed that the excellent SIG-Sauer P226 would be selected, as it had already been in use with specialist units for years and became more widely used in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the P226 is very expensive and arguably not quite as safe as the Glock for troops who don’t train on their pistol regularly and intensively. Supporters of both pistols have good arguments.
Then again, whatever one the Army chose, it was inevitable that a lot of soldiers would shed a tear for the weapon that was being replaced. The L9A1 Self-Loading pistol has served well as the standard service pistol for over 60 years since being adopted in 1953, and had already been in limited use since 1944.
The L9A1 name isn’t familiar outside the UK’s armed forces, and in fact even most British soldiers wouldn’t know what it meant. The weapon was almost always referred to as the Browning 9mm, or simply the nine-milly. What it is, in fact, is the famous Browning Hi-Power.
Most small-arms experts would agree that the Browning Hi-Power, also called the GP-35, was the first truly modern semiauto pistol. Almost every successful pistol developed since has used its basic operating principles and layout, and it was the first major handgun design to offer a high-capacity double stack magazine.
What inspired the Hi-Power was a request from the French army for a new pistol, capable of holding at least ten rounds and weighing no more than 1kg. One of the companies that took up the challenge was Belgium’s FN; they asked John Browning, who spent much of his career working for them, to come up with a design. Browning’s problem was that he’d sold the patents for his M1911 design to Colt, and had to work around the patents on his own inventions.
Doing his best to avoid legal issues, Browning came up with two designs; one was a blowback in .380, which wasn’t really powerful enough (the French wanted a pistol that would kill reliably at 55 yards) and the other a recoil-operated model in 9mm Parabellum. This followed the basic 1911 design, but uprated to handle the high-pressure 9mm cartridge and with some refinements made to get around the patents.
Sadly, Browning died in 1926 and that slowed the project. Then, in 1928, the patents on the 1911 expired. Saive took elements of the Colt pistol, elements of Browning’s 9mm version and his own magazine, and spent seven years putting them together into what became the Hi-Power.
Compared with every other military pistol at the time it was revolutionary. The German Army’s P08 held eight rounds of 9mm (and so did the P38 they adopted three years after the Hi-Power went on sale), while the M1911 packed seven rounds of .45 ACP. The British were still using six-shot revolvers in either .38 Webley or the terrifying .455. Meanwhile the Hi-Power had a 13-round capacity. It was also powerful, compact, accurate, very reliable and easy to maintain. Ironically, Browning’s efforts to circumvent his 1911 patents had helped to radically simplify the design. The Colt’s swinging link was replaced by a ramp machined as part of the barrel, and the barrel bushing is integrated with the slide; these two changes made the pistol both easier to make and simpler to strip.
During WWII, the Hi-Power was highly sought after by both sides. The Germans captured the FN factory in 1940 and kept producing the pistols, which were mostly issued to paratroopers and the Waffen-SS. Meanwhile FN, just before the factory was overrun, sent a bundle of plans to the UK. The British in turn sent the Hi-Power plans to John Inglis & Co in Canada; Inglis-made Hi-Powers were issued to the SAS and Airborne Forces, and were popular with the Special Operations Executive and the US Office of Strategic Services. They also began replacing revolvers in the Canadian Army.
After the war, most countries decided to replace their old revolvers and low-capacity semiautos, and the Hi-Power snapped up a lot of those orders. It became the standard pistol of the British Commonwealth, and was bought by more than 50 other countries. US Special Forces in Vietnam often carried Hi-Powers, either obtained from Australian troops or bought privately, as they prized its large magazine capacity.
Even today, more than 30 countries still issue the Hi-Power as their standard service pistol. Modern designs outperform it, of course, but unlike with rifles and support weapons the difference isn’t that great. An HK417 will give you a decisive advantage over an opponent with an M1 Garand or SVT40, but a P226 against a Hi-Power is a much closer race. The SIG is better, but it’s not much better. Even by modern standards, the Hi-Power is good enough that many militaries have no plans to replace it. It might be an early 20th century design, but two of that era’s greatest gun designers created it – and their work has stood the test of time.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.