Classic Handguns: The Browning Hi Power

The Browning Hi Power pistol has been in continuous production for more than eighty years. During that time it has been used by military and law enforcement agencies in more than eighty countries and by both sides in World War Two, various Arab- Israeli wars, the Falklands War and the First Gulf War. No-one is certain precisely how many have been produced (especially if you include clones and copies) but there must certainly be an awful lot of Hi Powers out there. By any measure, this is a classic handgun.

What’s in a name?

Before we start talking about the Hi Power, I do want to quickly clarify what it’s actually called. Some people seem certain that it’s “Hi Power” while others are equally vehement that it’s “High Power”. In fact, both are correct. When this pistol was first offered by FN in 1935, it was sold as the “High Power”. When it was first imported into the US in 1954, it carried “Browning Arms Company” markings and was sold as the “Hi Power” to avoid confusion with the “High-Power” hunting rifle also sold in the US at that time. Since then, this pistol has been generally known as the “Hi Power” and that’s how I’ll refer to it here.  Though it has  also known by a bewildering array of other names: versions of the Hi Power have been identified as the P35, HP-35, FN Model 1935, GP35, Pistole 640(b), BAP (Browning Automatic Pistol) and L9A1 depending on which country they were being used by.

Development

John Moses Browning with another of his creations: the M1917 machine gun

Prolific US gun designer John Moses Browning began work on the design of what would become the Hi Power in the early 1920s. This work was undertaken in response to a French military requirement for a new service pistol, the Grand Rendement (“High Yield”) or Grande Puissance (“High Power”) pistol. This referred not to the shooting power of the pistol but to its magazine capacity – the French requirement specified a pistol with a magazine capacity of at least ten rounds of 9mm ammunition, a higher capacity than that offered by any contemporary semi-automatic pistol. Browning’s intention was to design a full-size military sidearm that would replicate the rugged reliability of the Colt 1911 whilst addressing that pistol’s most serious shortcoming – a magazine capacity of just seven rounds. Browning died in 1926 before completing the design, but a US patent for the new pistol was applied for in 1923 and registered in 1927. The rights to the design were passed to the state-owned Belgian firearms manufacturer FN Herstal who used their Chief Designer, Dieudonné Saive, to refine and complete Browning’s initial work.

Dieudonné Saive with another of his creations: the FN-FAL Battle Rifle

The first prototype of the new pistol featured a locked-breech recoil system and a double column, sixteen round magazine. Saive continued to work on the design in the early 1930s, paying particular attention to making the grip as slim as possible. By 1931 the revised design incorporated a thirteen round, double-stacked magazine and a trigger mechanism which ran up into the slide area in order to avoid increasing the width of the grip. Ironically, the pistol was not adopted by the French Army whose requirement had first inspired the new design but, in 1935, when it was finally completed, the pistol was adopted as the principal sidearm of the Belgian Army as the FN Model 1935 Pistol.

An early Hi Power with tangent rear sight

The first production model of the Hi Power had a 4.65” barrel, weighed 35 ounces, was 7.75 inches in overall length and had a magazine capacity of 13, 9mm rounds. A small manual thumb safety was provided on the left side of the frame and a lightweight ring hammer was fitted. The pistol was single-action only and there was no grip safety as seen on the 1911, but there was a magazine disconnect safety – the pistol could not be fired if the magazine was removed. Grips were checkered wood and the rear of the frame was slotted to accept a detachable wooden shoulder stock. The front sight was a standard blade but the rear was an adjustable tangent type with graduations to allow shooting to a range of 500 meters (the very first models had graduations to 1000metres!). Many of these early Hi Powers were produced with a distinctive and attractive glossy black corrosion-resistant finish which involved applying black enamel paint over a phosphate base finish.

Early Hi Power tangent sight graduated to 500 metres. Which seems more than a little optimistic. I don’t know about you, but I can barely see a target at 500 metres, let alone hit attempt one with a handgun.

For a pistol which has proved so popular over the years, the original version of the Hi Power had a number of serious flaws. First, the trigger action: due partly to the magazine disconnect safety, the trigger was nasty. It was heavy, the release point was indistinct and there were pronounced stages to the pull. The magazine disconnect safety also meant that on many Hi Power pistols the magazine would not drop free cleanly when the release was pressed. Reliability wasn’t great either. Until 1962, the Hi Power was produced with a tiny internal cartridge extractor which was prone to breakage. In fact, when subjected to the pressures of military grade ammunition, both the slide and frame of early Hi Powers were prone to cracking. The thirteen round magazine was one of the main selling points for the Hi Power, but users quickly came to realise that fully loading the magazine could lead to jamming and that it was actually better to load just twelve rounds.

Hi Power with shoulder stock

Add to this a hammer that was so light that it had difficulty in firing some military cartridge types, a short tang which could lead to hammer bite, a small, imprecise and difficult to operate manual safety and fixed sights which were small and difficult to read and you may be wondering why this design has lasted so long? There are probably two main answers to this. The first is obvious: magazine capacity. Compare the thirteen rounds available in a Hi Power magazine to other World War Two era service pistols. You got just six rounds in the British Webley Revolver, seven in the US Colt 1911A1 and eight in the Russian Tokarev TT-33, the German P-08 (Luger), its replacement the Walther P-38 and the Japanese Nambu. That gave the Hi Power a distinct firepower advantage over most comparable service pistols in the 1930s and 1940s and it wasn’t until the 1970s/80s that other semi-automatic pistols began to catch up in terms of magazine capacity.

The other reason that the original Hi Power proved so popular is a little more difficult to define: Feel. The word “ergonomics” wasn’t being commonly used when John Moses Browning was designing handguns, but he and Dieudonné Saive certainly understood what it meant. Pick up a Hi Power (or a decent replica) and I think you’ll see what I mean. It feels perfectly balanced and the grip will comfortably fit almost anyone with average-sized hands. Because of this, the Hi Power is generally recognised as one of the easiest to control semi-automatic 9mm pistols. It’s also one of the only true single action 9mm semi- automatic pistols available and field stripping and re-assembly are as simple as they are on the 1911.

Hi Power Mark III

Despite its shortcomings, production of the original Hi Power continued up the early 1980s. However, there were numerous minor changes during that time – the ridiculous tangent rear sight and the slot in the frame to take a shoulder stock were dropped as standard fitment immediately after World War Two (though Hi Powers with tangent rear sights were still available up to the 1980s). From 1962 the fragile internal extractor was replaced with a more robust external unit and from around 1965 the ring hammer was replaced by a heavier, conventional spur hammer. In the early 80s the Mark II version appeared which had polymer grips, a larger, ambidextrous manual safety and easier to read three-dot sights. In 1988 the Mark III was released which also had a distinctive glossy black, epoxy finish and a firing pin safety.

If you want a little more bling, what about a Hi Power Renaissance, hand-engraved in the FN Factory

There have been a number of variations on the basic Hi Power design over the years including the HP-DA which shoots in double as well as single action, versions chambered for .30” Luger and .40” S&W rounds and a lightweight version with an aluminum alloy frame. However, only the standard steel framed Mark III in 9mm is still being manufactured and it continues to sell more than eighty years after this pistol was first introduced.

Production

Initial production of the Hi Power was done at the FN factory in Herstal from 1935 and around 35,000 were produced by the time World War Two began in September 1939. In 1940, Belgium was over-run by German forces and more than 300,000 Hi Powers were manufactured while the Herstal plant was under German control.

An Inglis Hi Power with fixed sights – note the “hump-backed” slide

In 1940 licensed production of the Hi Power also began in Canada at the John Inglis and Company plant in Toronto. Inglis produced two versions of the Hi Power: one with the tangent rear sight and shoulder stock mounting (mainly for a contract to supply Nationalist Chinese forces) and one with more conventional rear sights and without the shoulder stock slot. The latter version of the Inglis Hi Power incorporated a distinctive (and ugly) hump-backed slide, the only version of the Hi Power to have this feature. More than 150,000 Hi Powers were produced by Inglis in 1944 and 1945.

Assembly of Hi Powers at the Inglis plant

After the end of World War Two, production continued at the FN works in Herstal in addition to licensed production in Argentina and unlicensed copies were produced in a number of other countries including Hungary, Israel and Indonesia. No- one is quite certain how many have been manufactured over the years – most estimates suggest the FN factory alone produced over 1.5 million Hi Powers with unknown numbers of copies and clones being produced elsewhere.

An FEG Model PJK-9HP, a Hungarian copy of the original Hi Power

The Hi Power is still being manufactured and sold by Browning in the US. Two versions are currently available: the Mark III with black epoxy finish and plastic grips and the Standard with a polished, blued finish and walnut grips. The Standard is available with either fixed sights or that 500m tangent sight.

Use

Waffen-SS Panzergrenadiers in 1944. The soldier second from the right is holding a Pistole 640(b)

The first use of the Hi Power as a military sidearm was by the Belgian Army in 1935. German airborne and Waffen-SS forces also used Hi Powers manufactured while the Herstal plant was under German control as the Pistole 640(b) during World War Two (though it was also known in German service as the P35). British airborne forces used Inglis Hi Powers in 1944/1945 as did special forces units such as the British SAS and the American OSS.

Even Russian forces used the Hi Power during World War Two. Here a group of partisans are being trained in the use of the Hi Power.

In 1954 the Hi Power was adopted as the standard sidearm of the British Army (as the L9A1) and by the army of the Republic of Ireland (as the BAP). Many more countries began to adopt the Hi Power during the 50s until it became virtually the standard sidearm of European NATO forces. By the sixties it was easier to highlight armies which didn’t use the Hi Power – more than eighty (some sources say ninety) countries officially adopted this pistol during this time.

A soldier of the Parachute Regiment holding an L9A1 around 1960

It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that use of the Hi Power began to decline as newer semi-automatic pistol designs finally began to adopt high capacity, double column magazines as standard. Even then, the Hi Power remained in use in some parts of the world, as it still does.

Hi Power replicas

WE 6mm Inglis Hi Power

Given how popular the cartridge firing version is, it’s surprising that there aren’t more replicas of the Hi Power. WE make a 6mm, gas powered, blowback replica of an Inglis Hi Power, complete with hump-backed slide, 500 yard tangent sight, imitation wood grips and a frame slotted to take a shoulder stock. This does seem to be a surprising subject for a replica – Inglis Hi Powers with tangent sights and shoulder stock slots were produced in limited numbers and mainly for China. If you’re going to the time and trouble to produce a Hi Power replica, why not go for one of the far more common later FN versions? The WE Hi Power is a functionally and visually faithful replica, but it has been around for some time now and it isn’t as accurate a shooter or as reliable as more modern WE replicas. I owned a WE Hi Power many year ago and it didn’t shoot particularly well and was prone to both leaking and jamming.

Tanaka 6mm Hi Power Mark III. Looks superb and is a great functional replica but not such a good shooter.

I also owned a beautiful Tanaka 6mm, gas powered, blowback replica of a Mark III Hi Power which was visually and functionally spot-on, but was constructed mainly of plastic and shot with little power and indifferent accuracy (the same as most of the Tanaka replicas I have owned in fact). Given Tanaka’s somewhat haphazard approach to production, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s also very difficult to find one of their Hi Power replicas. Tanaka also produce a blowback replica of an original Hi Power complete with tangent sights and imitation wood grips, but I have never actually seen one of these so I can’t say if it’s any better as a shooter.

Umarex Hi Power Mark III. A powerful and accurate 4.5mm steel BB shooter but it’s mainly plastic, the slide is fixed and that CO2 loading tab is pretty ugly

If you fancy a 4.5mm Hi Power the most popular option is the CO2 powered Umarex Hi Power Mark III. This has pros and cons. It’s a licensed replica which includes Browning Arms Company markings, it’s a decent visual replica and the ambidextrous manual safety works as per the original. It’s also fairly powerful (over 400fps is claimed) and very accurate for a BB shooter. However, construction is mainly plastic so it’s rather light, the slide does not move and the slide release is moulded in place and has no function. The look of this replica is also spoiled somewhat by the large plastic CO2 loading tab in the base of the grip.

Chrome version of the EKOL ES66

If you’re lucky (or unlucky) you may be able to find an EKOL ES66. This is (or was – I don’t know if these are still made) a Turkish manufactured, CO2 powered replica which shoots 4.5mm steel BBs and looks a little like the Hi Power, though it’s not a precise replica and like the Umarex version it has a visible CO2 loading tab in the base of the magazine. The ES66 is available in chrome and black finish, is of mainly metal construction and has good weight and balance. The slide moves (though only with the magazine removed) but this isn’t a blowback replica and the slide release catch is non-functional. Another notable feature of the ES66 is that it doesn’t have a manual safety – what looks like an ambidextrous safety is actually just a de-cocker. And as a shooter, it isn’t very nice at all. Claimed power is around 350fps but accuracy is truly awful – groups of 10”and over at 6m are not unknown.

Conclusion

Once again, we have a popular and influential handgun which is very poorly represented in terms of replicas. All of the Hi Power replicas mentioned above have issues and we lack any good, recent blowback replicas of the later versions of this pistol. Given how many replicas there are of various iterations of the 1911 and Beretta 92, it seems very surprising that there aren’t more Hi Power replicas around.

Another view of my Tanaka Mark III – a blowback Hi Power replica as good as this that also shot well would do very nicely, thank you.

So, come on someone (KWC, I’m looking at you!), what about giving us a decent, reliable, accurate, blowback replica of this popular and long-lived handgun. I know I’d want one!

Related pages

WE 6mm Browning Hi Power

The semi-automatic handgun designs of John Moses Browning – Part 3: 1910 – 1926

Classic Handguns; The Colt Single Action Army Revolver

The Colt Single Action Army is indelibly associated with the romance and adventure of the Wild West.  Sitting through countless cowboy themed television shows and Saturday afternoon matinees in the 1950s and 60s meant that every small boy (and even some discerning small girls) became familiar with the SAA, even if most of us didn’t know what it actually was.  Whether we called it a “Peacemaker”, “Colt 45” or just a “six-shooter”, for a whole generation, the SAA was simply the “cowboy gun”.  It somehow looked right and the evocative and distinctive click, clack, click, clack of the hammer being cocked became a kind of aural shorthand for manliness, excitement and danger.  Sadly, the idea that every cowboy carried a Colt SAA is not historically accurate – S&W top-break revolvers for example, were more numerous on the frontiers of America in the late 1800s.  However, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when many cowboy movies and television programmes were being made, Colt SAAs were more readily and cheaply available than most other guns of the frontier period and so were most often used as props. For this reason the Colt SAA will always be the pistol most people associate with the Wild West.

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The cast of the Maverick television show demonstrate their Colt SAAs, circa 1957

However, in addition to fuelling adolescent cowboy fantasies, the Colt SAA was also an important handgun.  It may not have been the first revolver or even the first handgun to use a self-contained cartridge but it combined these things in a simple, rugged and enduring design which provided reliable firepower to very large numbers of people.  Few would argue that this handgun, which has remained in production almost continuously for over 140 years, is worthy of the title “classic“.

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Who was that masked stranger?  It was Clayton Moore actually, wearing unfeasibly tight trousers and dual-wielding a pair of 7½” Colt SAAs in the 1955 Lone Ranger television show.

Development

Up to the late 1700s and early 1800s, most handguns were single-shot, muzzle loading designs which used sparks from a piece of flint to ignite black powder.  There were multi-barrel pistols, but on most, pulling the trigger fired all the barrels simultaneously.  Reloading was slow and cumbersome and even a light shower of rain could render a pistol incapable of firing.  However, in 1807 a patent was accepted for the percussion cap.  This was a small copper cap filled with percussion sensitive material such as mercury fulminate or potassium chlorate.  If the percussion cap was struck by the hammer of a pistol, it produced a small explosion which was then used to fire the main charge.  Percussion caps were reliable and less prone to failure due to damp than the flint/black powder system.  A number of muzzle loading pistols were produced which used percussion caps, but most were still single-shot designs.

In 1830, a young American, Samuel Colt, was sent to spend some time as begin a seafarer.  The 16-year-old lad was interested in firearms and pyrotechnics (one of his most prized possessions was his Grandfather’s flintlock pistol).  His ability to produce spectacular explosions and fireworks had made him very popular with his friends at school, until one of his experiments led to a fire which resulted in his expulsion.  Looking for a suitable career for his son (and presumably one which would keep him as far as possible for explosives), Samuel’s father decided that seafaring might provide a safe outlet for his son’s interests and enthusiasm.  Samuel joined the small brig Corvo, sailing between the US and Calcutta.  Legend has it that Colt spent time during the voyage examining the ratchet and pawl mechanism used to control the ship’s steering gear and pondering whether a similar mechanism could be used to index multiple barrels in a handgun?  He later claimed that he whittled a prototype pistol with revolving barrels from wood while on the ship to confirm that this was possible.

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Colt Paterson revolver

Colt returned to the US in 1832 and began refining his design.  In 1836 he registered a patent for a “revolving gun”.  This incorporated a revolving cylinder (rather than the rotating barrels of his first prototype) and used percussion caps to ignite the powder charge in each chamber of the cylinder.  In 1836 Colt formed the Patent Arms Manufacturing company in Paterson, New Jersey and began manufacture and sale of the five-shot Colt Paterson pistol, which is claimed to be the first practical revolver.  Initially the Colt Paterson was offered in .28″ calibre though it was later upgraded to .36″.  Sadly, it didn’t prove very popular in any calibre.  Each pistol was hand-made, which meant it was expensive compared to other contemporary handguns and it proved to be fragile and unreliable in use.  Colt was forced to sell the company and abandon manufacture of this revolver in 1842.

However, some people saw the possibilities inherent in the concept of a revolver.  Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers was one of these.  He contacted Colt to discuss ways of improving the Colt Paterson design (one of his suggestions was that a larger projectile would make the pistol capable of killing not just people, but horses too, an important consideration for the Rangers who often found themselves fighting mounted opponents).  In 1846, the Walker Colt appeared.  This massive (it weighed four and a half pounds) six-shot pistol was a clear improvement on the first revolver.  The design of the internal mechanism was simplified to make it more reliable and the new pistol was chambered for a .454″ (11.5mm) bullet. This was still a percussion cap design where black powder, a percussion cap and a bullet had to be separately loaded into each cylinder. When it appeared, the Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun available, and it would remain so until the introduction of the .357 round in the 1930s.  The Walker Colt also used a number of machine-made parts (an innovation in 1846) which meant that parts were more uniform and could safely be interchanged between pistols.  The Walker Colt proved to be much more reliable and its use by the Texas Rangers provided positive publicity.  Commercial success followed and Colt was able to build his own firearms manufacturing plant.

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Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales with a pair of Walker Colt revolvers

Colt continued to evolve and refine his designs, supervising the production of a number of percussion cap revolvers up to his death in 1862.  However, another important innovation appeared in the early 1860s: the centre-fire cartridge.  This was a self-contained cartridge where a charge of gunpowder and a bullet were mounted in a brass casing which also incorporated a percussion cap in its base.  The centre-fire cartridge allowed much faster reloading and was virtually impervious to rain and damp.  Unfortunately for the Colt company, Smith & Wesson held the patent for the bored-through revolver cylinders required to use this new cartridge, and Colt wasn’t willing to pay royalties to a competitor.  However, the S&W patent expired in 1869 and the Colt company immediately began work on the design of a new revolver using the .45″ centre-fire cartridge which could be offered to the US Army.

Like all previous Colt revolvers, the new design was single action only but it allowed the loading of up to six centre-fire cartridges via a loading gate on the right side of the frame.  It also incorporated an ejector under the 7½” barrel to remove spent cartridge casings (early cartridge cases were prone to distort on firing, often jamming them in the chamber).  For the first time on a Colt revolver, the SAA included a top-strap on the frame to provide additional strength to deal with the power of the .45″ round (the new pistol was originally to be called the “Colt Strap Pistol“).  Colt entered the new design into the US Army trials in 1873 and it was adopted as the M1873 and used as the main US military sidearm until its replacement in 1891 by a Colt double-action revolver.

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7½” Colt SAA from 1875

The Colt Single Action Army revolver also proved massively popular as a civilian weapon.  It was rugged, reliable, easy to repair if it did fail and its machine-made internal parts could be interchanged between weapons.  Best of all, Colt’s hi-tech manufacturing process meant that it was also cheap: the SAA cost just $17 when it was launched on the civilian market.  This compared very favourably to the $40 – $50 asked for the Colt Paterson pistol in 1836, though the US Army paid just $13.50 for each of their first batch of SAAs.

Other versions followed including the Flat-top Target with a decent notch rear sight and the Bisley Target Model with a longer grip, wider hammer and trigger and a rear sight which was adjustable for windage.  However, although these later developments were in many ways more practical, especially as target shooters, none could match the rugged simplicity of the original SAA.

Use

Between 1873 and 1941 (when production of what became known as the “first generation” SAA finally ended) more than 350,000 Colt SAAs were produced in more than thirty different calibres, though .45″ was the most popular.  In addition to the 7½” “Cavalry” version, two other barrel lengths were commonly offered: The 4¾” “Civilian” and the 5½” “Artillery”, though numbers of SAAs with different barrel lengths were also produced including a compact version (known as the Banker, or Storekeeper) with a 4″ barrel and without the under-barrel ejector rod.  A number of finishes were offered including blued and colour case hardened though limited numbers with nickel, gold or silver plating or other unusual finishes were also produced.  Standard grips were either black hard rubber or walnut though other exotic woods, ivory, mother of pearl and staghorn were also used for grips on special models.  The huge interest in the Wild West promoted by movies and television led to Colt re-introducing the SAA in 1956 (the “second generation”).  In 1975 the third generation SAA was introduced, and this version remains in production to the present day.

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All versions of the SAA are single action only and all have a delightfully light (around 3lbs) pull and a crisp and consistent release.  When you compare the profile of the SAA to any modern handgun, it looks kind of odd.  The grip has an elegant if rather unusual curve.  Sit it beside almost any modern semi-auto pistol and it just doesn’t look as if it will fit your hand.  And yet it does.  Perfectly.  The SAA will comfortably fit most hand sizes and it’s a natural pointer with great balance.  Hold an SAA, look at the target and you’ll find that the pistol just naturally follows.  Which is lucky, because the sights (especially on first generation models) are rudimentary.  The tall foresight is lined up with a V shaped groove in the top of the frame.  Windage adjustment is done by bending the foresight in the required direction.  Elevation adjustment is done by either filing down the foresight, or squeezing it in a vice to make it taller.  Not that the lack of accurate sights was a major issue – this isn’t a target pistol, it’s a hard-working, blue-collar gun designed to hurl a large bullet in the approximate direction in which it’s pointed.  The SAA is also lefty-friendly.  Because there is no manual safety or cylinder release on the left side of the pistol, it can be used comfortably in either hand.  And the loading gate on the right is especially easy to use for lefties.

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But though it may not have provided pinpoint accuracy, if you did hit something with a Colt SAA you were going to do some serious damage.  Those soft, .45″ bullets travelling at over 900fps caused horrific injuries.  Remember all those movies and television shows where the good guy would get shot in the left arm?  And he would either ignore this or perhaps pause briefly while he or his adoring girlfriend tied a handkerchief round the wound before he continued to battle the bad guys?  Well, I’m afraid you can forget about that.  Getting hit in the arm with a round from a Colt SAA might tear the arm off altogether or at least shatter the bone so comprehensively that you’d be left permanently disabled.  If you got hit in the body or chest, you’d be left with a baseball-sized exit wound and very little time to explain that you’d come for the man who shot your Pa.  This gun had stopping power long before that term was invented.

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Of course the SAA wasn’t perfect.  The sights were basically useless and accuracy (especially with early cartridges) was poor.  Adequate if you were trying to shoot the hombre with aces up his sleeve on the other side of a poker table, less so if you were trying to hit a man-sized target at anything over 20 feet.  One story, apparently true, describes two cowboys, both armed with Colt SAA’s who got into a heated argument while standing on opposite sides of a double bed. Both emptied their revolvers at each other from a range of a few feet. When the smoke cleared, it became clear that both had missed with all their shots so they went for a drink instead.

Distorted cartridge cases were difficult to remove, even using the ejector rod; you might wonder about that given that cowboys in movies and television shows from the 50s and 60s never had any trouble emptying out their used cartridge cases – this was because the reduced charge used in blank shells didn’t tend to distort the cases.  The SAA had no manual safety and no drop safety, but it was provided with a half-cock position for the trigger, which allowed the gun to be carried safely.  Sort of.  After a number of US Cavalry troopers and civilians shot themselves or their horses while galloping with a half-cocked SAA, it was decided that it was safer to load with just five cartridges and keep an empty cylinder under the hammer.

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Jessie James’ Colt SAA

The Colt SAA has become one of the most collectible handguns from the Wild West period.  Very large sums indeed are paid for examples with well-documented provenance.  A Colt SAA with the serial number 1 was sold at auction in 2009 for $862,500 (at the time this was the highest price ever paid for a historic handgun).  Another SAA which belonged to outlaw Jessie James went to auction in 2013 with a starting price of $400,000.  Even first-generation SAAs in only fair condition and with no particular history sell for $3000 – $5000.  So, for many people, replicas are the only way to enjoy the SAA experience without spending a great deal of money.

Colt SAA Replicas

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Marushin removable shell 6mm SAA

There have been a number CO2 and gas-powered replicas of the Colt SAA over the years (there have also been several spring powered versions, but really?  Don’t bother!), but none have been ideal both as replicas and as shooters.  Hahn/Crosman produced a range of CO2 powered SAA replicas from the 1950s to the 1980s.  All shot pretty well, but they looked slightly odd due to the CO2 cartridge being located under the barrel.  Tanaka produced a beautiful gas-powered SAA replica using their Cassiopeia system in the early 2000s where compressed gas was stored in the removable shells. Unfortunately, these proved to be unreliable and shot with all the power and authority of a gnat breaking wind.  They were also discontinued fairly quickly due to concerns in Japan that they could be converted to fire real cartridges.  Tanaka responded with a redesigned SAA using their Pegasus system and Marushin have also produced a removable shell SAA replica. These are beautiful-looking replicas, though neither are particularly satisfactory shooters.

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Umarex Colt SAA

It wasn’t until 2015 that we finally got a decent Colt SAA replica which was also a reasonable shooter. Umarex released a CO2 powered Colt SAA with removable shells and a 5½” barrel. It’s generally a decent visual replica of the original and is now available in 4.5mm, 6mm and .177” pellet shooting versions and in a range of barrel lengths (though not, strangely, the popular 4¾”). If you want an SAA replica that you can also enjoy shooting, this is currently the only option.

Conclusion

For me, the Colt SAA is one of those replicas which no collection should be without.  Whether you are interested in the history of this iconic handgun or you just want to practice your quick-draw technique, the Colt SAA does it all. It’s surprising and perhaps a little disappointing that there is only one current SAA replica that both looks reasonably like the original and shoots well, but at least we do now have the Umarex Colt SAA. It’s not the perfect replica, but at least it does give those of us who are interested in handguns the opportunity to experience a little of that SAA magic.

Related Posts

Umarex Single Action Army revolver review

Links

Colt SAA on the Umarex website

Classic handguns – the Walther PPK

Classic is an overused and seldom defined term. What exactly is a “classic” handgun? Ask ten people and you’ll probably get ten different answers, and ten different lists of “classic” guns. However, there are a small number of handguns which I’m fairly confident would appear on most people’s list, including the one I want to talk about here: The Walther PPK. Although it was introduced almost eighty-five years ago, the PPK is still available, virtually unchanged from its original form. That in itself is testament to good basic design, but the PPK is also perfectly sized, a decent shooter and of course is has an association with a certain British secret agent…

Development

The pocket pistol (what we’d now call a compact or sub-compact design) wasn’t a new idea in the 1920s. A number of manufacturers including Colt, Mauser and Steyr all offered small, easily concealed semi-auto pistols. However, most were of a hammerless design and were intended to be carried with a round in the chamber. Manual safeties were provided, often of the cross-bolt type, but accidental discharges due to light, single action triggers were frighteningly common. Revolvers, which required a long, double action trigger pull were generally safer, but less popular for concealed carry due to their greater bulk. What the market wanted was a compact semi-auto pistol which incorporated a revolver style double-action trigger.

Fritz Walther, the eldest son of founder Carl had persuaded his father to enter the pistol market in 1908. Recognising the need for a safer pocket pistol, in 1924 Fritz registered a German patent for a “self-loading pistol with magazine and revolver self-cocking lock and double action trigger“. Development continued until 1929 when the Walther PP (Polizei-Pistole) was released. The PP was a mid-sized, blowback operated design with an external hammer and double and single action trigger. Additional safety elements included a manual safety which also locked the trigger and hammer, a de-cocker and a loaded chamber indicator. Another notable feature was the takedown system – rather than using a separate lever or catch, the trigger guard of the PP was hinged at the rear. Rotating the trigger guard down and letting it rest against the frame allowed the slide to be removed. Reliability, safety and a reasonable price ensured that the PP immediately became popular both as a police handgun in Germany and as a civilian weapon in that country and elsewhere.

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The Walther PP

However, though it was smaller than a full-size military pistol, the PP was still relatively large and was mainly used as a sidearm by uniformed police. Walther almost immediately began work on a more compact version suitable for use by undercover and plain-clothes officers. In 1931, the Walther PPK was released. Visually and mechanically similar to the PP, the PPK featured a shorter barrel and grip and a smaller capacity magazine, making it the perfect concealed carry weapon. Incidentally, the “K” in PPK stands for Kriminalmodell (Detective model) and not Kurtz (Short) as is sometimes claimed.

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Early Walther PPK produced in Zella-Mehlis

Use

The PPK was an instant success, being quickly adopted by police and civilian users in Germany and elsewhere. Both the PP and PPK also became very popular as German officer’s sidearms. In this period, German army and navy officers were given an allowance to select and purchase their own pistols, and very large numbers chose the small and light Walther pistols and not, as Hollywood would have us believe, the larger and heavier Luger.

Why was the PPK so popular? The de-cocker and double action trigger certainly made it less prone to accidental discharge than some other pocket pistols and it was a reliable and effective shooter. It was also relatively cheap, being one of the first commercially produced handguns to use pressed steel parts. But most of all it was the perfect size. Very small handguns are difficult to grip and fire accurately. The PPK was just big enough to provide a good and comfortable grip while being small and light enough for concealed carry. Even more than the PP, the PPK was an instant commercial success.

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Post-war Walther PPK from Ulm, with “pinky rest” magazine extension

Initially, the PPK was manufactured at the Walther plant at Zella-Mehlis in Thuringia, Germany. Following World War Two the plant was relocated to Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, though for a number of years firearm manufacture was forbidden by the Allied powers. As a result, in 1952 Walther licensed production of PPK series pistols to Manufacure de Machines du Haut-Rhine, a French engineering company better known as Manurhin. Manurhin produced the PPK from 1952 until 1986, though their licensed versions continued to feature Walther markings. Production of the PPK at the new Walther plant in Ulm finally resumed in 1955, though early models utilised many parts manufactured by Manurhin. It wasn’t until 1986 that full manufacturing and production of the PPK was undertaken in Ulm and this continued until 1999. The only significant new version produced during the post-war period was the PPK/L, featuring a lightweight dural frame.

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Manurhin Walther PPK

In 1978, Walther also granted a manufacturing license to US company Ranger Manufacturing to produce both the PPK and the new PPK/S. These versions were distributed in the US by Interarms. The PPK/S was produced in response to the US Gun Control Act of 1968 which set minimum sizes and weights for imported handguns. The PPK was simply too small to comply with these new requirements, and the slightly larger PPK/S was produced by combining the slide and barrel of the PPK with the frame and grip of the original PP. From 2002 Smith & Wesson began production of a licensed version of the PPK/S in the US. S&W are now the only producers of the PPK and the pistol remains part of their current range.

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Interarms stainless steel Walther PPK/S

The PPK was produced in several calibres. The majority were 7.65mm, though a 6.35mm version was produced in relatively small numbers. The PPK was also available chambered for the .22LR round, principally to provide a police practice and training weapon which used much less expensive .22 rimfire ammunition. The PPK was also chambered for the 9mm short (9x17mm, also known as the .380 ACP) cartridge, but this was considered the limit for the strength of the slide, and no versions were produced using the more powerful 9mm Parabellum (9x19mm) cartridge.

Visual style

I don’t normally consider the appearance of a pistol separately. After all, a handgun is a functional piece of equipment which is principally designed to operate efficiently rather than to look good. However, there is something about the appearance of the PPK that I can’t entirely explain but which makes this pistol look as fresh now as it did in 1931. As is the way of things, I started to wonder why that might be…

The design of any item is inevitably influenced by events in the wider world. The Walther PP and PPK were designed at a time of political change and social turmoil in Germany. However, this period was also notable for the influence of the German Bauhaus art movement. Started in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius, Bauhaus took the concepts and philosophy of high art and translated them into the industrial production of everyday objects. Rejecting the ornate and ostentatious Art Nouveau which had gone before, Bauhaus stressed simplicity, functionality, unity and ease of use and manufacture. A Bauhaus artist had to be not just creative in an abstract sense, but also capable of translating this into functional and useful manufactured objects. Though it’s notable that many of the things created by Bauhaus artists also have a timeless and elegant aesthetic that makes them as visually appealing as they are functional.

“It is harder to design a first rate chair than to paint a second rate painting – and much more useful.”

Walter Gropius, the Bahaus Manifesto

cppk14Take a look at this “cesca” chair above, designed by Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer, a leading member of the Bauhaus movement. Look familiar? The chances are that if you visit any modern office or public space, you’ll see something very similar to this 1928 creation. Why has this design lasted so long? I suspect the answer is because it’s comfortable, practicable and simple to manufacture and yet it somehow manages to appear contemporary more than eighty years after it first appeared.

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Tokarev TT-33 (top), Walther PPK (centre), Enfield Number 2 (bottom)

I haven’t found any evidence that the engineers at Walther who created the PPK were directly influenced by Gropius or the philosophy of Bauhaus. But by the late 1920 the ideas inherent in the movement, that industrial production could and should generate objects which had artistic value, were prevalent in Germany and elsewhere. Take a look again at the PPK and consider the Bauhaus ideals of simplicity, unity and ease of use and manufacture within a visually pleasing whole. Is the PPK a Bauhaus pistol? I certainly think so. Also, try comparing the PPK to a couple of roughly contemporary handguns – the British Enfield Number 2 revolver and the Russian Tokarev TT-33 for example. Both were perfectly adequate handguns, but unlike the PPK both now look very dated and neither could be mistaken for a modern design. Somehow the PPK looks as good now as it did in 1931, which suggests a design which, in some indefinable way is “right“. Whether or not its designers were consciously influenced by Bauhaus, I believe that the PPK embodies the ethos of the movement perfectly.

James Bond and the PPK

However, one of the reasons the PPK is so well known has nothing to do with its abilities, design or appearance. The James Bond novels of Ian Fleming were hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Strangely however, for the first five novels Fleming provided his hero with a Beretta 418 in .25 calibre. Which is an ineffectual and rather rubbish gun for such a tough hero.

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Beretta 418. James Bond gun? Really?

In 1957 while he was writing the sixth novel, Fleming received a letter from Bond fan and firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd who pointed out that the Beretta was “a lady’s gun – and not a very nice lady at that!” Boothroyd suggested that it would be much more appropriate to provide Bond with a Walther PPK in 7.65mm calibre. Fleming agreed and Boothroyd went on to provide advice about firearms for the following Bond novels. In recognition, a new character was introduced in Dr No; – Major Boothroyd, the MI6 armourer known as “Q” who is described as “the greatest small-arms expert in the world”.

cppk9When Albert “Cubby” Broccoli came to make the first movie based on a Bond novel in 1962, the screenplay was based on Dr No, and so the movie Bond (then played by Sean Connery) exchanged his Beretta for a PPK from the very start. The PPK continued to be 007’s screen sidearm for sixteen more films and 35 years, until in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997 it was swapped for a Walther P99. However, with the advent of Skyfall in 2012, the third film starring Daniel Craig as Bond, the character has once again reverted to using a PPK, albeit modified with a palmprint recognition system. The Bond connection gives the PPK additional cachet, and ensures that it is recognised by people who otherwise know very little about firearms.

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Walther PPK Replicas

Given the enduring appeal of the original plus the James Bond connection, there have been surprisingly few decent replica air pistols based on the PPK. Ignoring spring powered replicas, which are pretty dire, I’m aware of just two: The Umarex PPK/S in 4.5mm and the Umarex/Maruzen PPK in 6mm.

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The Umarex Walther PPK/S

The Umarex CO2 powered 4.5mm version was introduced back in 1999 and was the first Umarex blowback pistol. In some ways it’s a great replica – all metal, heavy with great fit and finish and strong and snappy blowback. Unfortunately in other ways it’s not so good. I don’t care for the moulded-in-place slide-mounted safety, or the actual safety which is a moving lever at the front of the right grip (though it’s similar to the safety fitted to some prototype PPKs). It’s also not terribly accurate compared to more modern BB shooters. However, the main issues for me are when I first bought one were the large and visible CO2 tightening tab at the base of the grip and the shape of the grip itself, which has been stretched to accommodate the CO2 cartridge. The tab has been replaced with a less obtrusive recessed allen screw, but there’s nothing you can do about the lengthened grip which, to me at least, completely loses the pleasingly squat profile of the original. However, this is overall a decent PPK/S replica and it does have the virtue of being readily available and relatively cheap.

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The Maruzen Walther PPK

The 6mm Walther PPK from Japanese manufacturer Maruzen is a much better visual and functional replica (it’s also licensed by Umarex, but for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to it as the Maruzen PPK here). It’s a gas powered blowback replica and the slide mounted safety, magazine release and takedown all work as they do on the original. It incorporates Walther markings and this version accurately replicates the short, squat grip of the original. Even the magazine incorporates a pinky rest, just like the original. The metal finish version looks particularly good and in 2011 a 125th Anniversary edition (celebrating 125 years of Walther) was released. However, this is an all plastic replica which is very light (around 375g) and it shoots only in the 220-240fps range, so it isn’t particularly powerful. It can also be very difficult to find new, and production seems to be sporadic.

Shooters Design (a company specialising in aftermarket parts for airsoft guns) produce a full metal kit for the Maruzen PPK, which replaces the plastic slide and frame with metal versions, though a heavyweight slide return spring is also required. I’m not sure if this kit is still in production and it is certainly hard to find. The Maruzen PPK has good functionality and looks good, but is too light to be an entirely convincing replica and it isn’t a particularly great shooter out of the box. Upgrading by using the Shooters Design kit is said to improve look, feel and function, but this is also a pretty expensive option. You can expect to pay around £125 ($200) for the basic pistol and over £200 ($325) for the upgrade kit, if you can find one. I have been looking for a Maruzen PPK and an upgrade kit for some time, and if anyone has either one they’d be willing to donate or sell for review, I’d be very happy to hear about it!

Conclusion

Whether you regard it as a piece of Bauhaus art, an industrial artefact from a significant historical era, a James Bond movie prop or simply a compact and pointable handgun, the Walther PPK doesn’t disappoint. It’s small, light, looks great, fits most hands and shoots better than its small size and relatively antiquated design would suggest. It’s no accident that in 2003, when Walther engineers set out to create a new compact pistol (the PPS), they used the weight and dimensions of the PPK as a guide to what looked and felt right. If ever a handgun deserved the “classic” label, it’s the Walther PPK.

It’s disappointing that the PPK is under-represented in the replica world. The Umarex and Maruzen versions both have good points, but neither is entirely satisfactory. We’re still waiting for a weighty PPK replica which is also a decent shooter and mirrors the functionality and distinctive look of the original.

Links:

The Walther PPK (on the Walther Arms website)

The Umarex Walther PPK/S

Shooters Design kit for the Maruzen PPK (on the redwolf airsoft site, but don’t get too excited because it’s currently out of stock)

The Bauhaus movement

Related pages:  

Umarex Walther PPK/S review

Modifying the CO2 tab on an Umarex Walther PPK/S

Classic Handguns – The Glock 17