Nighthawk Custom Browning Hi Power

A Splendid Iteration Of A Classic 9mm

By Massad Ayoob
Photos: Chuck Pittman, inc.

A classic since its introduction in the year 1935, it’s known in Europe as the GP for Grande Puissance and in the USA by the English translation, High Power or more commonly, Hi Power. The Browning 9mm remains popular among the cognoscenti for its slender slide packing comfortably inside the waistband and a fit to the hand that may be unparalleled.

For a very long time, the Hi Power was the most common military sidearm of the NATO countries, and was hugely popular among both the police and military in South America. It earned a reputation for reliability and was the first successful “high capacity” (i.e., double-stack magazine) semi-auto pistol. Now comes a new variation, with DNA traced to four distinct places: Belgium, where the parts are made; Portugal, where they are assembled; Ogden, Utah where they are imported by Browning’s USA arm; and finally, Berryville, Arkansas, where Nighthawk Custom crafts them into the topic of this article, the Nighthawk Browning.

First Impressions

A drastic change from the familiar, iconic silhouette of the Hi Power is the first thing you notice — a beavertail grip tang. For decades, the original burr hammer of the Browning bit hands of most sizes, and did so tortuously to those with big hands. In the latter part of the 20th Century, the manufacturers changed this and went to a spur hammer biting only the fleshiest paws. Now, thanks to Nighthawk Custom, the beavertail on the test pistol is amenable to virtually all hands.

And it allows a Garthwaite hammer, which on the outside has a rowel shape reasonably close to the burr of the original Browning’s, but more to the point, has other advantages we’ll get to shortly. This surgery is done at the Nighthawk plant and it’s superb. Looking at the gun, you’d think it was born with the improved grip-tang in Belgium.

Next, you notice the trigger. Flatter and a bit straighter than classic. You think it’s changed in looks? Wait ’til you try its feel.

Sights are Heinie. Serrated across the part of the rear sight facing the eye, a notch big enough to see through and shaped so you can catch it on belt or holster to rack the slide in an emergency. The front is a “just-right-sizes” post with an old-school “gold bead” catching the eye reasonably well in daylight.

Finish is flat dark gray Ceracote on our test sample, serial number NHCB160801, and had what Nighthawk calls “matte stipple” on the front and backstraps of the grip-frame and the top of the slide. Stocks on our sample were thick, handsome and appeared to be Cocobolo, complete with the Nighthawk logo. The pistol came with two standard 13-round magazines, with the modification dating back to the 1990’s ending decades of complaints about the Hi Power. All thanks to a little spring on the lower spine of the magazine. You can turn the empty pistol upside down, butt to the sky, press the mag release button and watch the empty mag fly completely up and out of the gun.

The Nighthawk Mods

The Nighthawk Browning project was ramrodded primarily by Shawn Armstrong when he was with the company and Allen Wyatt in Nighthawk’s Research and Development section. Allen told American Handgunner, “The first thing we do is change out stock Hi Power parts with fully-machined hammer, sear, trigger and sear bar lever. The flatter, straighter trigger is sourced from Jim Garthwaite, as are the hammer and sear. We also change the hole location on the sear bar lever to improve the geometry of the pull, rather like Cylinder & Slide does. We go back and fill in the previous hole and blend it in.”

He adds, “We are taking the trigger down to a four-pound pull leaving the shop, weighed from the center of the trigger. We are in the 500–600 production range (as of March 1, 2017). After the first 50 we have our own custom serial numbers. It’s a limited run, probably around a thousand. We also put in a heavier trigger return spring and eliminate the magazine disconnect here in Berryville because it is incompatible with the design of the trigger we install.”

To minimize bulk in the grip-frame around the magazine, John Browning and Dieudonné Saive crafted a complicated trigger linkage for this pistol going up into the slide. This gave us the Hi Power’s beloved slim grip, but also created enough friction points to make the trigger pull heavy and “draggy.”

The result is a trigger pull you’ll never feel on a Browning unless you pay one of the best pistolsmiths to rework it for you. On my Lyman digital trigger pull weight scale, pull weight measured at the middle of the trigger (where most fingers land) averaged 3.37 pounds pull weight. Personally, I’d have been more comfortable with at least four. And keep in mind at the very tip (bottom) lip of a pivoting trigger like the Browning has, the weight can be lighter due to leverage.

Ultra-light trigger pulls on guns of this type are associated with hammer follow. It speaks well for both Browning and Nighthawk this pistol passed the hammer-follow test and held at full-cock position every time.

The shooter’s finger feels a very slight take-up, a smooth, clean release, followed by a tiny bit of backlash, all but imperceptible to any but the most educated trigger finger. Reset was not particularly distinct, but for those of us who let the trigger return fully forward to guarantee reset anyway, this becomes irrelevant. Overall, several people on the test crew thought the Nighthawk Browning’s trigger was one of its best features.

Accuracy And Reliability

Lots of shooters wanted to shoot the Nighthawk Browning. I cheerfully obliged. Between us, several hundred rounds of ball and assorted JHP went downrange. There were no malfunctions of any kind. The Browning Hi Power always had a solid rep for reliability, but accuracy was not its long suit, so we went to the bench with the improved Nighthawk version.

I tested the Handgunner sample hand-held from a Caldwell Matrix rest on a concrete bench at a measured 25 yards. Each group was measured twice: for the whole 5-shot group, and again for the best three hits, all measurements being center-to-center between the farthest holes in question, to the nearest 0.05″. Federal 9BPLE, a long-street-proven 115-gr. JHP rated for 1,300 fps of +P+ velocity, took top accuracy honors with all five shots into 2.25″, and the best three in 7/10″. The 124-gr. Black Hills standard pressure JHP went 4.6″ for all five, but a pleasing 1.5″ for best three. In the same 124-gr. weight, SIG’s V-Crown JHP produced a 3.1″ 5-shot cluster, and a 1.05″ “best three.” The 147-gr. Winchester WinClean 9mm training ammo delivered a 3″ five shot group, the best three in 1.15″.

Why the two measurements of each group? I discovered a long time ago when you didn’t have a machine rest, but had an experienced shooter properly benched and no “called flyers,” the “best-three” measurement was generally about the same as all five with the same gun and ammo from the machine rest. This was verified in a feature in Handgunner in 2002, testing against a Ransom Rest.

However, neither the bench rest nor the Ransom Rest encompass the factors of human stress. That’s why I like to test a handgun, if possible, under some kind of pressure.

Shooting Under Pressure

Yes, a pistol match is not a gunfight — but a gunfight is a pistol match. With the peer pressure, performance anxiety and the inexorable dual concerns of the target score and the clock, this sort of thing is a good test of how a gun will perform if you have to shoot, reload and shoot some more with trembling hands and pumping lungs.

I didn’t have a match compatible with my schedule, so I used the Nighthawk Browning at a MAG-40 class I taught in Live Oak, FL in February of 2017. The staff shoots a pace-setter drill, demonstrating the qualification course before the students do, as they must to pass the course. We had 36 students and 17 staff not counting me, and for incentive I promise an autographed $5 bill to anyone who beats my score. Ego and about $255 to lose deliver a reasonable dose of adrenaline.

Left hand only, right hand only, shooting from cover positions and from two-hand standing, all 60 shots went into the center zone for a perfect score. The Nighthawk Custom turned in the best score and tightest group out of 54 that day. I think it passed the test.

Bottom Line

The custom grips were a little too thick for my average-sized hand and made it hard for the right thumb to always hit the mag release button; and the trigger was lighter than I’m used to or care to carry. That said, I honestly couldn’t find anything else I didn’t like about the Nighthawk Browning, and consider it in a class with custom Brownings I’ve shot built by Jim Garthwaite, Bill Laughridge at Cylinder & Slide and Wayne Novak. The MSRP lists at $3,195 and for a person who loves this classic pistol and seeks top performance, I can’t say this is out of line. It’s also very in-line with what even an entry-level custom 1911 can cost.

Indeed, it might be an investment. There’s a rumor going around at this writing Browning may, after 82 years of uninterrupted production, discontinue the Hi Power. If this happens collectors are likely to prize not only the Hi Power’s last significant variation, but one of its finest, thanks to Nighthawk Custom.

For more info: https://americanhandgunner.com/company/nighthawk-custom/; Nighthawk Custom, Ph: (870) 423-4867


The Mongoose Strikes .357/9mm Combo

.357/9mm Combo
By Massad Ayoob

If the Colt Python was the Cadillac of revolvers as Colt advertised, the Korth is pretty much the Rolls-Royce. No expense spared in the manufacture, hand fitted by master craftsmen at the German plant and a price definitely proportional to a Rolls.
The folks at Nighthawk Custom in Berryville, Arkansas feel there’s still a strong niche market for a performance-built, super high quality double-action revolver. Rather than reinvent the wheel, they went to Germany, toured the plant and decided to collaborate with Korth on a top-of-the-line 6-shooter for the American market. The result is the Nighthawk Korth Mongoose, tested here.

This gun is definitely “Python-esque,” its silhouette and overall feel and balance is essentially the same as the iconic Colt. If you’ve shot a 6″ S&W L-Frame or Ruger GP100, you have a good idea how the Mongoose will fit in your hand. In the past, befitting the prestige marque, Korths have come with finely polished bright blue finishes but this one is built for shooting and has more of a matte blue finish. Korth went with an “Americanized” cylinder latch as opposed to their conventional one. It’s vaguely similar to an S&W’s, but the Korth’s goes forward and upward at about a 45 degree angle. It works fine.

Previous Korths I’ve seen have had fancy wooden Nill grips, but built for constant shooting by American gun enthusiasts, the Nighthawk Mongoose comes with finger-grooved rubber Hogues. They proved to be comfortable and solid in the hand.

Design Points

Our test sample locked up and timed perfectly, coming with a .357 Magnum cylinder and a 9mm cylinder assembly as well. Both would accept a 0.003″ gauge between cylinder and barrel, but not a 0.004″ gauge — exactly in spec with what Korth and Nighthawk had agreed upon for this dimension on the Mongoose. An ingenious extractor design plucks the “rimless” 9mm brass out of the six chambers quite effectively when you depress the ejector rod.

The challenge with .38 Special/.357 Magnum and 9mm Luger cylinder switching is, of course, the revolver is using the same barrel for both, and bore diameter is traditionally 0.355″ for 9mm and 0.357″ for .38/.357. Korth’s approach to this is to use a 0.355″ diameter bore and let the larger revolver bullets swage down on the way through, rather than having a narrower bullet rattle down a larger bore. Nighthawk tells me their testing does not show any dangerous pressure increase with the .38’s nor the Magnums.

To switch cylinders, swing out the cylinder. A silvery button on the forward right of the frame presents itself perfectly for a right-handed shooter’s index finger to press inward and the cylinder assembly slides out forward into your hand. Repeat in reverse, and the other cylinder is in place. Yes, it’s that easy.

Trigger pull averaged 10.69 pounds in DA and 4.16 pounds in single action. If this sounds heavy, don’t worry about it. Given the Mongoose’s mission of consuming .357 ammo (magnum primers) and perhaps even some foreign 9mm ammo seeming to sometimes have firing pin-proof primers, the mainspring has to have some smack to it. The length of the DA pull spreads out the force required and most seasoned wheel-gunners who tried the Mongoose considered it wonderfully light.

From The Bench

Dubious about accuracy, I tried the 9mm cylinder on the bench first in hopes of getting any bad experiences out of the way early and was pleasantly surprised. The 115-gr. Nosler Match Grade jacketed hollow point punched five holes into a 1.9″ group, with the “best three” cluster measuring 0.80″.

The 124-gr. standard pressure Black Hills virgin ammo delivered all five JHP’s into 2.45″ with the best three measuring 1″ on the nose.

The 147-gr. Winchester WinClean is the most accurate low-toxicity 9mm round I’ve ever shot. Here, the jacketed truncated cone bullets formed a 2.” group for all five shots, and — you guessed it! — four of them were in a much more satisfactory 1.25″, with the best three in 0.7″.

Cylinders were swapped, and we had a go with the .38 Special/.357 Magnum. Using Black Hills virgin (red box) 148-gr. mid-range wadcutter Match .38 Special, this famously soft-kicking load shot the most uniform group of the test from 25 yards: 1.3″ center-to-center. All bullets were so evenly distributed in the center 10-X ring of the Shoot-n-C bullseye the best three were only fifteen-hundredths of an inch tighter at 1.15″.

Next up was the Speer Lawman .38 Special training load, a 158-gr. total metal jacket flat-nose at +P velocity. The group went a little high from point of aim, and a tad left, with the 5-round group at 2.05″. All the rest of the Speers went into 1.2″ and the best three, an exact 1″.

The .357 Magnum load (snappy, but handled well by the big Mongoose) was the 125-gr. Guardian Gold jacketed hollow point from Magtech, loaded to full magnum velocity. The main group (with one round drifting) was 2.9″, but the other four were in less than half the size at 1.2″ and the best three — the tightest such cluster of the test — into 0.8″.

This revolver was wisely fitted with adjustable sights because of the wide range of ammo it would be firing. Someone had taken time to sight this revolver in before it began its journey to a customer. Score a point for the Korth/Nighthawk folks.

Word From The Insiders

American Handgunner threw its test questions to Nighthawk’s current research and development man, Allen Wyatt.

“The barrels used in the convertible 357-9mm revolvers uses a .355 diameter bore that is polygonal. In using this rifling they can achieve the accuracy needs of both calibers. For comparison the barrels we use in our (9mm) 1911’s are 0.356″ groove diameter/0.347″ bore diameter with a 1:16 LH twist.

“They are fully assembled and tuned in Germany, including proof testing and function firing, and when they arrive here in the US they are ready for targeting. As to the movement of the cylinder release, this was something already in the works. They implemented it on their pistols as it appeals more to US consumers who are familiar with S&W- and Colt-styled pistols having the release on the left hand side of the frame.”

And, for some “under stress” testing, shooting in a match against students showed the Korth held its own fine. Top revolver shooter Allen Davis ran a 60-round course, and even with some glitches due to high primers on reloads, still scored a blazing 99-percent with the big revolver.

Price And Value

MSRP on the Korth Nighthawk Mongoose is $3,499. An extra cylinder assembly is another $1,000. You can get the heavy-barrel Super Sport model, complete with accessory rails all around, plus sight rib, for $4,799. Is it worth the money?

That’s like asking “What’s an unfired Colt Python worth?” The answer is, “It’s worth what someone who wants it will pay for it.” A Rolls-Royce won’t necessarily get you where you’re going any faster than a Volkswagen Bug. In the same vein, a Nighthawk Korth Mongoose won’t necessarily give you a better score than a Smith & Wesson Model 686 or a Ruger GP100. What it does give you is personal pride of ownership and, yes, “prestige factor.”

Whether it’s worth it is up to you. That said, the Rolls-Royce is a helluva good automobile, and the Nighthawk Custom Korth Mongoose is one helluva of a good revolver.

For more info: https://americanhandgunner.com/company/nighthawk-custom/; Nighthawk Custom, Ph: (870) 423-4867

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