June 02, 2022
By Keith Wood
It’s difficult for me to be excited about a new handgun design. Don’t get me wrong, the semiautos being produced today are the finest defensive and competitive handguns ever devised. Most of them, though, are tools, and they lack any soul from my perspective. To me, a firearm is more than the functional sum of its parts; it is the history, engineering and craftsmanship that make it special.
Imagine my joy when I received word that Springfield Armory was redesigning one of the greatest handguns of all time — the Browning Hi Power/FN P-35. Springfield Armory’s new SA-35 combines the best qualities of this combat classic with some modern improvements to keep it relevant in the 21st century. Why is this such a big deal? Allow me to put things into perspective.
Just after the First World War, the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale (FN) commissioned none other than John Moses Browning to design a handgun to meet the French military’s criteria for a new service handgun. Browning worked on the pistol until his death in 1929, and the project was completed by FN’s Dieudonné Saive. The gun that emerged from this meeting of two brilliant minds was decades ahead of its time. The P-35’s staggered, dual-column magazine, developed by Saive, gave it nearly double the capacity of the 1911 and the Luger.
Production began in 1935, hence the P-35 designation. Thanks to Browning’s role in the project, the P-35 was better known as the Browning Hi Power in the United States. More than 1.5 million were produced over a period of 82 years, and FN discontinued production in 2018.
Though it may seem like just a footnote today, the Browning P-35 was arguably the most successful combat handgun of the 20th century. The P-35 was issued to both Axis and Allied troops during World War II, and it was used by the militaries of more than 50 nations throughout the world for several decades.
Its users included some extremely elite units. The British Special Air Service, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and members of the CIA’s clandestine service were all issued P-35s. The design was popular in competitive circles as well. In 1977, future Olympian Dave Westerhout won the IPSC world championship shooting a P-35, besting a field of 1911 shooters in the process.
Beyond its historical significance, this handgun holds a special place in my heart. My first centerfire pistol was a Browning Hi Power Mk III P-35, purchased new around 1993. When I received my concealed-carry permit five years later, the P-35 was the pistol I carried. I didn’t feel handicapped by the aging design then, and I wouldn’t today.
In the age of polymer frames, metal-injection-molding (MIM) parts and other cost-saving production elements, Springfield Armory went in the opposite direction and built a gun worthy of the P-35’s legacy. Like the company’s 1911s, both the slides and frames of the SA-35 are built from forgings to maximize strength and durability. The forged parts are machined on CNC equipment that is capable of far greater precision than the machinery the original guns were built.
MIM has become a staple of the modern firearms industry. It is a cost-effective way to produce parts that are, for the most part, perfectly serviceable. Just as with polymer, guns engineered with MIM in mind do well, but trouble often arises when manufacturers introduce MIM parts to firearms that were not designed for them. Springfield Armory strove to maintain parts interchangeability with the original, but it reduced many of the tolerances for a more precise fit. The SA-35 is an all-steel construction except for the grips, and each part is heat-treated using modern techniques that far exceed the standards of the original. In short, the SA-35 is a faithful interpretation of its predecessor but built on better machines from better steels and with tighter tolerances.
The original P-35 was relatively light and concealable and had enormous capacity for its era, but it did have shortcomings. As a result of the original French military criteria, it had a magazine disconnect feature, meaning it could not be fired without a magazine inserted. Not only was this a potential liability in a gunfight, it had a negative effect on the P-35’s trigger and made improving the trigger a tricky proposition for a gunsmith. Most magazines did not drop free when released, and the hammer spur often bit shooters painfully on the web of the hand, something I have experienced on many occasions. Finally, depending on the vintage and variant, the manual thumb safety needed improvement.
To address these issues and to enhance overall performance, many of the nation’s great pistolsmiths began customizing P-35s. Wayne Novak, the late Jim Garthwaite and Ted Yost all did work on P-35s along with larger shops, including Cylinder & Slide and Nighthawk Custom
The custom work varied, but the common thread was improving the sights, cleaning up the trigger and preventing hammer bite by either shortening the hammer spur or welding on an extended beavertail. My own P-35 received the latter treatment when it spent a few months with the guys at Nighthawk.
Springfield Armory Enhancements
The SA-35 is a single-action semiautomatic with a manual thumb safety. Like the original, it feeds 9mm Luger cartridges from a staggered dual-column steel magazine, though capacity has been increased to 15 rounds. The bushing-less, stainless steel, hammer-forged barrel is ramped and fully supported. It locks into battery via two locking lugs on the hood as well a recess machined into the barrel’s bottom lug that engages with the slide stop. The spring-loaded extractor is external, and the ejector is fixed and made of steel.
Each of the major issues the original P-35 had was addressed by Springfield Armory on the SA-35. For starters, the SA-35 is built without a magazine disconnect, so it can be fired without a magazine inserted. Unlike the older guns, magazines on the SA-35 drop freely. Finally, the hammer geometry and ring-style hammer spur eliminate the painful bite from firing the pistol. The sights on the SA-35 are excellent. Both the front and rear sights are dovetailed into the slide. The fixed front sight is a simple steel blade with a white dot, while the Heinie-style rear with a U-shaped notch is drift-adjustable for windage. The rear sight is machined with a ledge on the front side so it can be used to rack the slide in an emergency. The rear face of the sight is serrated, and the sights on my test gun were zeroed appropriately from the factory.
The trigger on the SA-35 is vastly improved over the P-35. There is a bit of take-up before the trigger breaks at 5.25 pounds with zero creep. Trigger reset is a bit longer than you’d find on most of today’s striker-fired handguns, but it’s not excessive. The thumb safety is strong-side- only for a right-handed shooter, and it is well designed. The slightly extended safety lever strikes the perfect balance between accessibility and concealability and allows for a high thumb position when firing, with the right thumb riding comfortably on top of the lever. The magazine well on the SA-35 is beveled to aid in rapid reloads, another Springfield Armory improvement.
Ammunition has changed a great deal since Browning sat at his drawing board, and that was one of the factors that Springfield Armory considered when designing the SA-35. This led to a few additional departures from the original, particularly to accommodate today’s hollowpoint ammunition. Slight alterations were made to both the feed ramp and the extractor to improve reliability with modern defensive ammunition.
The checkered grips on the SA-35 are made from attractive hardwood, and the panels are thin, without any humps or ridges. For decades, the go-to grips for high-end custom P-35s have been made by custom grip maker Craig Spegel, and the factory grips on the SA-35 are no doubt inspired by his work. As a bonus, the SA-35’s frame was configured so that any grip panels designed for the P-35 will fit the SA-35.
With the exception of the stainless steel barrel, the entire handgun is finished in an attractive matte blue. Holistically, it is my opinion that Springfield Armory nailed it on the SA-35. This gun has everything it needs and nothing more. It maintains the graceful lines and style of the P-35 and makes functional changes where they were needed. I dare say that this gun is, in many ways, an improvement over the pistol that inspired it.
It is important to note that the SA-35 isn’t merely a tasteful retro tribute to a classic but a viable choice for self-defense. For an all-steel handgun, the SA-35 is lightweight thanks to its trim lines. Weighing 32 ounces unloaded, it is lighter than many comparable aluminum-framed handguns. For a full-size handgun, the SA-35 is concealable as well. In a well-designed holster such as my 55BHN made by Milt Sparks, the SA-35 virtually disappears under a coat or untucked shirt.
I’ve owned a P-35 since before I could drive, so shooting the SA-35 was a bit like visiting with an old friend. The gun pointed naturally, and thanks to a good trigger and excellent sights, putting rounds on target came without much in the way of conscious thought. The P-35’s reliability is legendary, and the SA-35 maintains that quality. My test sample was completely reliable with the three ammunition types used. Accuracy was excellent, and each load averaged well under 2 inches at 25 yards. I used all the remaining ammunition shooting various drills on a pair of steel targets placed at 10 yards, and I found the SA-35 to be controllable and comfortable to shoot.
Not only is the SA-35 design retro, so is the pricing. When Browning discontinued production of the Belgian/Portuguese P-35/Hi Power in 2018, the suggested retail for a standard model was $1,110. Despite the all-steel construction, the Springfield Armory SA-35 retails for $699. Adjusted for inflation, that is significantly less money than I paid for my Browning Mk III three decades ago.
Rumors of a new and updated Hi Power-style handgun have circled the firearm industry ever since FN stopped producing them. Though I was excited about the prospect of a company keeping the P-35 alive, I was nervous that someone would try to cheapen the gun to streamline production and increase profitability. Fortunately, this was not the case. Springfield Armory did it right with the SA-35, building an upgraded but otherwise faithful reproduction of the P-35 and doing it with materials worthy of the gun’s history. The SA-35 is a winner.
Springfield Armory SA-35 Specs
- Type: Single-action, semiautomatic
- Caliber: 9mm
- Capacity: 15+1 rds.
- Barrel: 4.6 in., hammer-forged, stainless steel
- Weight: 32 oz.
- Construction: Steel frame and slide, matte blue finish
- Grips: Checkered hardwood
- Trigger: 5.25 lbs. (tested)
- Sights: White dot front, drift-adjustable rear
- Safety: Manual thumb
- MSRP: $699
- Manufacturer: Springfield Armory, springfield-armory.com