Hi-Power Shootings

By Massad Ayoob

Situation: Designed by and for good guys, the masterpiece jointly created by John Moses Browning and Dieudonne Saive continues to serve to this day.

Lesson: Firepower counts. Ballistic potency counts. Ergonomics and “shootability” may count even more.

In the first quarter of 2017, a source at Browning confirmed the rumor the company was discontinuing their Hi-Power pistol, a flagship of the Browning/FN marques since 1935. In discussing this with editor Huntington, we decided a homage to this classic pistol’s time “in action” would be appropriate for the Ayoob Files section.

Blake Hubbard

In 1996, Blake Hubbard was a young officer with the Grand Prairie, Texas Police Department. GPPD had a broad personal weapons policy, and Blake had chosen to buy his own Browning Hi-Power. Col. Jeff Cooper had once said of the Hi-Power that no pistol had ever fit his hand better, but it was a shame it wasn’t made in a more consequential caliber than 9mm or .30 Luger. Browning had brought out a beefed-up version with a heavier slide and chambered it in .40 S&W, and that’s what Blake was carrying.

The day came when Blake had to back up a brother officer, Barry Fletcher, in response to a man who had been menacing people with a big Buck folding knife. The cops’ shouts of “Drop the knife, drop the knife” had failed. So had Fletcher’s pepper spray and blows to the knife-wielder’s thigh with his ASP baton.

When the man let out a wordless roar of rage, brought the knife to stabbing position, and lunged at Officer Fletcher, Officer Hubbard fired a “double tap” from his Browning. The assailant instantly collapsed. Both 180-gr. .40 Hydra-Shoks had struck center chest and expanded, destroying the heart.

The shooting was cross-racial. The two officers were the only white people on the scene. It was instantly spun into a cause celebre of racially motivated murder, with Johnny Cochran flying in from Los Angeles to lead marches in the streets in Texas. Blake Hubbard was indicted for murder.

I was on the defense team led by Attorney John Read of Dallas. Gary Goudge, Blake’s tactics and SWAT instructor, testified his actions were exactly in keeping with his training under state standards. My testimony was the same from the national standards perspective, and Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the leading authority on gunshot wounds, testified both wound tracks were exactly consistent with the decedent’s assaultive posture toward Fletcher when shot by Hubbard.

I was able to show, given the short distance between the assailant and Fletcher, he could have stabbed the officer in three-quarters of one second if Hubbard had held his fire, as the prosecutors insisted he should have. Instead, Hubbard had delivered two center hits in two shots in approximately half a second. At the end of three-quarters of a second, the attacker was collapsing to the ground at the officer’s feet, not stabbing him in the throat as he likely would have been if Hubbard had not fired. As I said when I first wrote about this case (Ayoob Files, American Handgunner, Jan/Feb 1998), “The jury was out for about an hour and 40 minutes before they returned their verdict and found Blake Hubbard not guilty. One juror said later they’d reached the acquittal verdict unanimously during the first five minutes of deliberation.”

In 1996, Blake Hubbard was a young officer with the Grand Prairie, Texas Police Department. GPPD had a broad personal weapons policy, and Blake had chosen to buy his own Browning Hi-Power. Col. Jeff Cooper had once said of the Hi-Power that no pistol had ever fit his hand better, but it was a shame it wasn’t made in a more consequential caliber than 9mm or .30 Luger. Browning had brought out a beefed-up version with a heavier slide and chambered it in .40 S&W, and that’s what Blake was carrying.

The day came when Blake had to back up a brother officer, Barry Fletcher, in response to a man who had been menacing people with a big Buck folding knife. The cops’ shouts of “Drop the knife, drop the knife” had failed. So had Fletcher’s pepper spray and blows to the knife-wielder’s thigh with his ASP baton.

When the man let out a wordless roar of rage, brought the knife to stabbing position, and lunged at Officer Fletcher, Officer Hubbard fired a “double tap” from his Browning. The assailant instantly collapsed. Both 180-gr. .40 Hydra-Shoks had struck center chest and expanded, destroying the heart.

The shooting was cross-racial. The two officers were the only white people on the scene. It was instantly spun into a cause celebre of racially motivated murder, with Johnny Cochran flying in from Los Angeles to lead marches in the streets in Texas. Blake Hubbard was indicted for murder.

I was on the defense team led by Attorney John Read of Dallas. Gary Goudge, Blake’s tactics and SWAT instructor, testified his actions were exactly in keeping with his training under state standards. My testimony was the same from the national standards perspective, and Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the leading authority on gunshot wounds, testified both wound tracks were exactly consistent with the decedent’s assaultive posture toward Fletcher when shot by Hubbard.

I was able to show, given the short distance between the assailant and Fletcher, he could have stabbed the officer in three-quarters of one second if Hubbard had held his fire, as the prosecutors insisted he should have. Instead, Hubbard had delivered two center hits in two shots in approximately half a second. At the end of three-quarters of a second, the attacker was collapsing to the ground at the officer’s feet, not stabbing him in the throat as he likely would have been if Hubbard had not fired. As I said when I first wrote about this case (Ayoob Files, American Handgunner, Jan/Feb 1998), “The jury was out for about an hour and 40 minutes before they returned their verdict and found Blake Hubbard not guilty. One juror said later they’d reached the acquittal verdict unanimously during the first five minutes of deliberation.”

And what does all this have to do with the Browning Hi-Power? Only this: Blake didn’t see himself as a “gun guy,” just a cop who took pride in being skilled with all his tools, of which the pistol was one. His skill, built by fine instructors like Gary Goudge, got him through. But it certainly helps to have an extremely pointable, extremely controllable pistol when you have to fire two shots perfectly to save a brother’s life in one-half of one second. The Browning had definitely come through for Blake Hubbard.

Tony Long

In 1987 I met Tony Long for a chat in a pub in London. Tony worked for the London Metropolitan Police in their armed unit. England had evolved two types of armed police. AFO’s, Authorized Firearms Officers, would be issued a Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 Special revolver drawn from the armory as the need arose, and were trained with guns roughly on a par with American patrolmen. The firearms unit — which switched its designation from D11 to PT17 in 1987, and would soon have its name changed again to SO19 — at the time used the 9mm Browning Hi-Power as its standard sidearm. Issue ammo, as I recall, was a 100-gr. jacketed softnose, because hollow points were seen as politically incorrect “dum-dum bullets.” This is not a dig against the Brits: In the year 1987, neither NYPD nor LAPD had hollow points yet, either.

Receiving a tip of an armored car robbery planned to take place when it delivered a payroll to a meat-packing plant in South London, the Met sent Tony and other officers there to stake it out. Perhaps there weren’t enough personnel, but when it went down Tony was the only one in position to see it happen. Three armed robbers in effect had a security man hostage. And the thugs were well armed. Two had semiautomatic shotguns, a Remington and a Browning as I recall, and the other a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum.
Long raised his Browning 9mm and snapped, “Armed Police!” The gunmen spun on him.
Long was faster than they were.

His first double tap caught one of the shotgunners in the thorax before he completed his turn and sent him to the ground, dying. The second pair of 9mm’s hit the second shotgunner in the chest and arm, and he too dropped his weapon and collapsed.

Long swung the Browning to the third man, cracked his first shot, and amazingly was able to stop before firing the second half of the double-tap when he saw his target duck behind the guard. Wounded and having just seen his two friends killed, the third man released his weapon and surrendered. He was the only criminal of the trio who would survive.

Jeff Cooper would have called it a Feat of Arms. Outnumbered by three-to-one odds, armed with the least powerful weapon at the scene, Long had scored with each of the five rounds he fired. Perhaps most incredibly, he had the reflexes and control to hold the second shot of his last double tap as he saw the situation change in front of the gunsights.

The man, not the gun? This is just about always true, but Tony Long left me with the impression he felt the ergonomics and “shootability” of his Browning Hi-Power were working in his favor in those short but savage moments.

Fernando Arcaya

When teaching in Caracas with Ray Chapman at host Freddy Boulton’s fabulous Galleria Magnum range, I met and worked with Fernando Arcaya. Fernando was a most memorable individual. Well over 6′, about 220 lbs. of solid muscle, and reportedly the highest ranked Shotokan karate black belt in Venezuela, he was a man you wanted to have on your side of the fight. The gun he chose to have on his side of a fight was — you guessed it — the Browning P35.

Mexico might be 1911 country, but on the South American continent for a very long time, the Browning Hi-Power was the most popular overall choice of the good guys. Argentina made their own version of the P35, and it was popular among the country’s police and standard for its military. During the Falklands War of 1982, both sides fielded soldiers armed with Brownings. The Brits had gone to them at the end of World War II.

In Venezuela, the Browning was pretty much standard issue for most cops I saw there back then, including DISIP, the elite Internal Security Police. Standard issue was Venezuelan military CAVIM, loaded hot with steely jackets. The savvier cops didn’t like the icepick wounds the ball ammo produced, and during the time I was there elite units were issued Geco Action Safety rounds from Germany. These were solid copper cup-shaped bullets with plastic nose tips guiding them into the chambers of mil-spec Brownings and the popular open-bolt Uzis and Mini-Uzis proliferating in this country. This was the same high performance ammo Phil Engeldrum imported to the US under the BAT (Blitz Action Trauma) name.

Fernando and his Browning dominated more than one armed citizen shooting incident. One afternoon, going to his car in a parking lot, he was accosted by a knife-armed mugger who announced in Spanish, “This is a stickup!” Fernando’s response was swift and decisive. Drawing from appendix carry inside his waistband, he stitched three fast Geco rounds up the centerline of the blade man, who promptly toppled backward, probably dead before his back hit the asphalt.

On another occasion, Fernando and his lovely fiancée Elita were in a bank depositing their paychecks when a trio of armed robbers hit the place. They followed a typical pattern of terrorist robbery that had evolved during the period in Caracas: They fired shots into the ceiling to terrify the victims and gain compliance, and then often after the robbery, female victims were raped and males stomped and humiliated.

These three never even got as far as the robbery part, because after their explosive opening, Arcaya’s Browning was out and speaking for him. In seconds, two of the gunmen were down and dead, the third horizontal with empty hands and begging not to be shot again. The Geco Action Safety rounds had fulfilled expectations.

Elsewhere In Venezuela

Ray Chapman and I trained a lot of cops in Venezuela. The great majority carried the Browning, and swore by it. One such officer had reason to be grateful for his Browning and its large-capacity magazine, if not for the effectiveness of a 9mm hardball.

He was the first through the door on a raid, and was shot by the target offender, who had been waiting inside in ambush. The gunman’s Ruger .357 Magnum revolver was, fortunately, loaded only with round nose lead .38 Special, but when the bullet broke our officer’s hip it was still enough to drop him to the floor. As he fell, he saw the man look away from him toward the officers behind him as if to say, “This is it for you, who else can I shoot now?”

It was the gunman’s last mistake. From the floor, the downed Venezuelan cop opened fire with his Browning. He told us he saw the man shudder as the FMJ bullets hit him and look around as if to say, “Where is this coming from?” The man fell halfway through the fusillade, still trying to shoot, but the cop was still pumping bullets into him. When the bad guy realized who was shooting him and tried to swing his revolver to finish him, it was too late: our cop was still shooting, and by the time he went to slide-lock the gunman was dead, hit by every shot the wounded officer had fired from his 14-shot Browning. The cop recovered to return to full duty, with a slight limp.

And, Around The World …

In its time, the Browning was the most popular service pistol of the NATO/free world countries. Pictures show Britain’s Prince Harry during his combat tour with a 9mm Browning prominently affixed to his chest plate. Though more modern designs are supplanting it throughout the former British Empire, including Canada, Brownings remain in service with English and Canadian militaries alike.

The Hi-Power was the standard weapon of Britain’s fabled SAS, often carried with an extended 20-round magazine. These were seen in action in the many photos of the successful re-taking of the embassy at Prince’s Gate by SAS.

The FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team trained with SAS and modeled on them in some ways. One of those ways was their adoption of the Browning Hi-Power as the standard pistol of HRT for many years. The HRT Brownings were all customized by Wayne Novak, whose shop is still famous for its exquisite work on these pistols.

There were other American cops who carried Brownings, though I don’t know of any US law enforcement agencies which issued them as standard equipment to their armed rank and file. Departments with broad personal weapons policies, however, would generally see some Brownings here and there among the street cops.

One such was the late Steve Camp, the quintessential fan of this pistol. We lost him far too soon, but his treasure trove of experience with the P35 remains available online at his website www.hipowersandhandguns.com where you can also order his excellent book on the topic. Another authoritative text on the gun under discussion is The Browning Hi-Power Automatic Pistol by R. Blake Stevens. Each of these books have “must read” status among Hi-Power fans of today.

What Made It Better

John Browning’s original concept of the Hi-Power was an ungainly beast, and after his death it was largely Dieudonne Saive who shaped it into the sleek, ergonomic pistol it became. Both Saive and Browning apparently had access to the post-WWI surveys of American troops who used the 1911 .45 in battle that led to the 1911-A1 improvements of the 1920’s, and incorporated them into the Hi-Power. Trigger reach, for example, is ideal: short enough for short fingers, no impediment for longer digits.

The Browning evolved. The early versions with burred hammer tended to bite the web of all but the smallest hands in firing. The thumb safety was small and mushy, with no positive “click” to tell the thumb if it was on or off, and no ambidextrous lever. The sights were tiny and hard to aim with, particularly under stress and in poor light. To keep a reasonably sized grip frame wrapped around a 13-shot double stack 9mm magazine, Saive had to channel Rube Goldberg and design a trigger system that actually went up into the slide, creating so many contact points it earned a reputation for mediocre trigger pull among serious marksmen. And, it was not 100 percent safe to carry with a round in the chamber if dropped. From Britain to Venezuela, it was discovered lots of shooting with hot NATO ammo, such as Radway Green ZZ in England and Venezuela’s CAVIM, wore Brownings to the point of breakage.

By the end of the P35’s epoch, Browning/FN had fixed all those things. A recent Browning will have a very positive ambidextrous thumb safety, good sights, a workable trigger and a hammer that does not bite the hand that feeds (and shoots) it. Great pistolsmiths like the aforementioned Novak, Jim Garthwaite and Bill Laughridge at Cylinder & Slide Shop proved the Hi-Power’s trigger could be improved to satisfy the most serious real-world professionals.

And, through it all, the gun had its reputation for reliability, the perfect “feel” Jeff Cooper had spoken of, and good “pointability.”

Good Guns & Bad People

Unfortunately, the smarter bad guys of the world are savvy enough to pick up on the best weapons the good guys have created. There were Colt single-action revolvers on both sides of the O.K. Corral gunfight in 1881, and the bandits of the Depression years such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde favored Colt .45 and .38 Super pistols proportionally more than the G-Men who hunted them. So it was with the Browning Hi-Power.

Many pictures of the Nazi forces in WWII show them holding or wearing Brownings made at the Fabrique Nationale factory the Germans took over after their early conquest of Belgium. So many, in fact, one gets the impression many preferred this pistol to their own Walther P-38’s and Lugers.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be assassin who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, did it with a 9mm Hi-Power.

Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze, the leader of the terrorist bandit cult calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped Patty Hearst, used the 9mm Hi-Power as his trademark pistol.

Twymon Meyers, of the cop-killing Black Liberation Army, died with a 9mm Browning in his hand when a police task force cut him down in a wild gunfight on a city street. Ironically, the bullet that dropped him was a 158-grain .38 Special in the heart, fired from the snub-nosed revolver of an NYPD detective with a very steady hand.

In a 1986 shootout, a young NYPD officer named Scott Gadell emptied his 6-shot .38 revolver at a punk who had fired nine rounds of 9mm at him. He was reloading when the punk ran up and fatally shot him in the head. The cop-killer was said to be armed with a 14-shot Browning. This incident, perhaps more than any other, subsequently led to NYPD’s “better late than never” adoption of 16-shot 9mm’s.

For all this, though, history will see the Browning Hi-Power as much more a symbol of the good guys than of the bad guys they fought.

What Makes A Classic

Time has marched on. Tony Long has retired from the London Met, which now uses the GLOCK 9mm for armed work. The GLOCK has become predominant in Venezuela as well. Only a few years after we met, Fernando Arcaya had become an early adopter of the GLOCK 17. This said, the Browning Hi-Power remains a part of the Good Guys’ armory for the foreseeable future, long since proven on the street and the battlefield alike.

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One thought on “Hi-Power Shootings

  1. Paul

    But Browning is not discontinuing all Hi-Powers. According to Browning themselves they are discontinuing the Practical, 75th anniversary model, the digital camo and the Mk3’s in .40. The standard Mk3’s in 9mm will still be in production.

    Reply

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