A HI'er Power

Browning's sexy, iconic pistol undergoes some enhancement and comes out even more desirable.

We like to think of the Hi Power as the last design of John Moses Browning. Close, but no cigar. The one he was working on when he died had some things in common with the Hi Power we know today, but it was the FN engineer Dieudonne Saive who finished that design and saw it offered to the French Army.

The Browning prototype held 17 rounds, and you could disassemble it in a few seconds. What the French wanted was a lightweight and slightly more compact hi-cap 9mm, which is what Saive had made. The French rejected the design, but it was plenty good enough for others--even the German army when it occupied the FN plant in World War II. After the war, FN armed the free world with FAL rifles and Hi Power pistols. The pistols were everywhere.

We like to think of the Hi Power as a tough little gun like the 1911. Sorry, but it's not, or at least it hasn't been for a long time. Back when IPSC was getting off the ground, a bunch of us shot the Hi Power a lot, and we found it didn't last. The FBI HRT tried it and found the same thing.

Generally, after 15,000 rounds or so it was done. "Done" as in barrels that were shot-out or beaten out of shape, slide-to-frame fits that were embarrassingly loose and various small parts that were simply falling off.

What it was, and still is, is the sexiest gun you can lay hands on. The grip shape, especially with custom grips (and not the FN "two-by-four" grips), is so seductive, so appealing, so comfortable, that it takes a Trappist monk not to smile while holding one.

The Hi Power has always been an "enthusiast's gun," a pistol you carried because it felt good, because it looks good and because no one else had one--not because you appreciated the thunderous impact of a 9mm bullet or wanted a ready supply of cheap surplus magazines. No, you got a Hi Power because you had to have it.

And now we can have them durable, too. The change came with the advent of the .40 S&W. Originally frames were forged and then machined. But to machine that much metal away from the forged lump of steel meant FN had to use, in the words of Bruce Gray, "the finest Velveeta steel." It was either that or prematurely wear and break tools, which costs money.

The .40 prototypes didn't last the 15,000 rounds we expected from the 9mms. The word I heard was it was more like 2,500 before the hand-built prototypes were just so much scrap steel. So FN changed from a forged to a cast frame. Casting allowed them to make the alloy tougher, a lot tougher--so much so that the guns now last a long time.

Enter Ted Yost (yost-bonitz.com, 408-804-1911). A custom gunsmith, he at one time ran the gunsmithy at Gunsite. There he learned a lot of things about how to keep guns running day after day. He also brought with him a sharp eye and a taste for clean lines and understated enhancements.

I recently came across this gun for sale, a .40 Hi Power with the Yost-Bonitz SRT package done to it. The owner was letting go of it at a bargain for some reason, and I figured if there was anything wrong with it Ted would be able to fix it. But Ted will not have to fix this pistol because, lucky for me, there's nothing wrong with it.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the author's modified Hi Power enabled him to hit pop-up targets out to 300 yards.

The first thing you notice about the .40 is that the slide is thicker. FN had to make it heavier to tame the recoil of .40 S&W ammo, and it had to install a heavier recoil spring for the same reason. It is possible to fit a 9mm barrel to the .40 Hi Power and have a dual-caliber pistol--or a 9mm that will withstand the hottest loads--but only Bar-Sto makes such barrels, which sell for $200.

Why isn't this option more popular? Because a hot 9mm +P+ load in a .40 Hi Power feels like a .40 Hi Power. So why bother? If you want a standard 9mm, modern, high-quality pistols can handle 9mm and 9mm +P ammo without problem.

One problem that many of us have faced, me in particular, is that the Hi Power was designed for a different era. Back when the design was being finalized, shooters shot one-handed and folded their shooting thumb down. Hammer bite was not a problem back then.

Today, with two-handed shooting and a high thumb hold, it can get interesting. For me it can get messy. An unmodified Hi Power will bite the web of my hand so severely that I'll bleed before the magazine is done. Ted solves that problem by modifying the hammer.

No more bite.

He also adds his own larger thumb safety. The original thumb safety is about as large as a parking brake in a compact car and often easy to miss. With the Yost thumb safety you can treat the Hi Power like a 1911 and be sure of hitting the safety on the draw.

The Hi Power can have a heavy trigger because of the trigger linkage used to accommodate the hi-cap magazine. Ted's triggers range from four to five pounds pull weight, and this one came through on the low end of that range and is perhaps the nicest Hi Power trigger I've ever felt.

Ted "lifted" the frontstrap, for a higher hold, and then did his sharkskin stippling front and rear.

Up top, the slide has been flattened just enough to accept 50 lpi serrations, leading your eye from the Yost-Bonitz rear to the ramped front with a gold inlay line down the middle.

The rear sight at first appears to be blocky, not as sleek as other designs. It's that way for a reason. In the training circles I'm in, we've recently been using alternate slide-racking methods. If we need to do a one-handed slide actuation, we can do it on a belt, holster or other common object--but only if the rear sight allows it. The abrupt front face of the Yost-Bonitz rear sight gives you purchase on the holster for one-handed manipulations. Elsewhere the Yost SRT has the edges broken so you won't tear your hands up just from handling and shooting it.

One thing Ted hasn't changed are the magazines, but he doesn't need to because Hi Power magazines (at least the good ones) have a reputation for reliable function. The .40 S&W was unveiled just before the assault weapons ban, and by the time FN and Browning had the .40 Hi Power ready, 10-round m

agazines were the legal limit. So FN added a novel feature: an ejector spring.

In the bottom of the magazine is a mousetrap-type spring that presses against the frame. The spring is so stout that if you have an empty magazine in the pistol and turn it upside down, the spring will hurl the magazine clear of the frame. With the .40 Hi Power you never need worry about getting an empty magazine out. Knowing Ted, he could probably remove that and rebuild the magazine to gain you a round or two, but what for?

The Yost-Bonitz rear sight is designed so it can be used in a one-hand cocking scenario.

Curiously, this Hi Power retains its factory barrel. For many Hi Power fans, replacing the factory barrel with a new Bar-Sto barrel is a "required" step right behind removing the magazine disconnector. This one, judging from my accuracy testing, was deemed accurate enough by Ted to be left in place.

Ditto the magazine disconnector. As light and crisp as the trigger is, I was surprised to see the Ted had left the magazine disconnector in place.

A classic like this needs appropriate accessories. Were I going to subject this Hi Power to the rigors of a shooting class or competitions, I'd put it in a Kydex holster like a Blade Tech or Cen-Dex. For daily carry, leather would be my first choice, and Galco makes both holsters and mag pouches fro the Hi Power. The best part of any or all is that you simple ask for a "Hi Power" holster.

The magazines are identical in exterior dimensions, and the holsters are close enough that you can make a .40 fit a 9mm holster. Just a quick note: Mec-Gar magazines are just as good as factory (and factory magazines often are Mec-Gars) and a lot cheaper.

As you would expect, the Yost SRT runs flawlessly. I haven't fed it any reloaded ammo, but I have not yet found a factory load, nor a commercial reload, that it doesn't function 100 percent with.

As with other handguns, it does have its preferences. So far, 180-grain bullets seem not to be its thing.

I took the Hi Power to a law enforcement class and let the other instructors use it so they could hark back to the days of their youth. It seems many of them owned and even carried a Hi Power in the days before polymer. With the Yost SRT we were able to ring the 65-yard steel plates with a satisfactory percentage of our shots, but switching to 165s brought much more success.

With factory 180s and the milder 165s the steel-framed Hi Power is sedate in recoil. Move up to the more robust 165s, or use the lighter, faster bullets, and the recoil can become interesting. Still accurate, but interesting.

I did a little stunt shooting and tried the Yost SRT on a computer pop-up rifle course: 20 targets, from 50 to 300 meters. With a rifle I can do 20 hits in my sleep. With a handgun the best I've ever done is 11. With the Yost SRT I managed seven from standing.

Springs and Such
When requesting pistols for their 1930s trials, the French wanted lightweight ones. The slide of the Hi Power is lighter than that of a 1911, and to control it and keep it from battering you need to use a full-power spring. In competition circles it is common to be running a 1911 with a very light recoil spring. You can't do that on the Hi Power.

In endurance testing of a 9mm Hi Power, I found the extra-power recoil spring had been stressed enough at the 4,000-round mark that it was then only as strong as a standard spring. So my plan for the .40 is to assume that the spring will last only as long as its 9mm brother, and I will replace it every 4,000 rounds or sooner.

The eyes follow 50 lpi serrations to the handsome, serrated front sight with gold inlay.

And it will see those rounds. The first thing I have to do is send it back to Ted--not because something is wrong but because I find I've become something of a show-off. I've become enamored with French borders on slide flats, and this Hi Power doesn't have them. So I'm going ask Ted to mill them in. And while a blue finish is nice, this gun deserves something showy but understated--and maybe more durable.

Why do all this? you might ask. Why find a relatively rare pistol and then spend a bunch of money to make it look nice? For the cost of a .40 Hi Power (probably around $500) and the SRT package ($1,295) and the waiting, you could have bought three polymer pistols and not have had to do anything to them.

True, but when was the last time you were looking forward to showing the guys at your gun club your brand-new polymer pistol?

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9mm LugerBullet Weight (gr.)Avg. Velocity (fps)Avg. Group (in.)
Black Hills (blue) FMJ180 9672.5
Magtech SCHP1301,1813.0
Corbon JHP1351,3673.0
Corbon JHP1651,1093.0
Hornandy TAP1809292.0
Hornandy TAP1551,1712.0
Velocity recorded 15 feet from the muzzle with a PACT chronograph. Group size is an average of three five-shot groups fired at 25 yards from a sandbag rest. Abbreviations: FMJ, full metal jacket; SCHP. solid copper hollowpoint; JHP, jacketed hollowpoint.
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