Nighthawk Hi Power: back to the future.
I'M IN LUST AGAIN, and Nighthawk is to blame. I've always had a strong compulsion for the Browning Hi Power (BHP), even after the first one treated me the same way as my first redheaded girlfriend. The proud owner of the BHP in question, a factory-polished, tangent-sighted model with Nazi proofs, handed it to me when a bunch of us from the gun shop were taking a day off at the range.
As I shot it, I thought to myself, The recoil is a little sharp, it being a 9mm and all. Once I finished, I looked at my hand and the Hi Power only to see that I was bleeding profusely. The owner, in horror, asked, "What did you do?" My reply was simple: "I got bit."
You see, the Hi Power, John M. Browning's last design, was designed in an era when one-handed shooting was the norm. Shooters shot with their thumb clamped down, not riding high. Thumb-high means the web of my hand was in the path of the hammer, and that meant blood.
Browning started designing the Hi Power when the French army, looking to upgrade their arms after The Great War, asked for a 9mm pistol. What Browning produced would have been a real head-turner. He came up with a 15 (or 17, I've seen both cited) round magazine, in a full-size pistol, that used an interesting firing mechanism. The hammer, sear and associated parts were all contained in an assembled block in the rear of the slide. The block was installed through an interrupted lug design, like an artillery breechblock. Or, for those who have seen one, exactly like the Savage pistol.
One advantage to that design is that it kept the hammer and sear relationship under tight control, like modem "packet" trigger designs for the AR-15. Another is that you could change a pistol from a service trigger to a match trigger in a few seconds by swapping hammer block assemblies. It is also notable that in this project, Browning had to work around some of his own patents, as he sold them to Colt for the 1911.
Alas, Browning died in 1926, with his last pistol unfinished. Dieudonne Saive, a designer in Liege, Belgium, who had worked on the double-stack magazine, finished the work. The Colt patents expired, he simplified the pistol to a standard hammer-fired design and, at the urging of the French to make it even lighter and more compact, shortened the magazine to 13 rounds.
The French kept jerking everyone around, and so FN built and sold it in 1935 as its own pistol, the P.35. Not one was adopted by any army. (As an aside, the French adopted their own Modele 1935, an eight-round .32. What can I say?)
In an era when revolvers were common and standard self-loading pistols would have had a seven or eight round capacity, the 13 rounds the R35 magazine held was sensational. With war looming, the plant in Liege got busy making pistols for customers. When war came, the biggest customer, unfortunately, became the German army, and hundreds of thousands of R35 pistols were shipped (mostly) to the Eastern Front. However, before the Germans occupied Liege, FN shipped the drawings and technical specifications to Canada, and there John Inglis and Company manufactured these pistols for Allied use. After World War II, FN sold Hi Powers to the free world. Even UK and Australian forces were seen carrying Hi Powers during the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Early in the IPSC era, we saw lots of Hi Powers. While Ray Chapman won the first IPSC World Shoot with a 1911 in .45, the next three were won by pistol shooters using 9mm--and two of those were P35s. But, and this is important, pre-MKIII guns are not durable high-volume pistols. We shot them loose in the volume of IPSC competition. The FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) shot their custom R35s to pieces, and they didn't even use +P ammo to do it! (If you have an old Browning or Inglis, don't plan to build your skills to win matches with one. It won't survive, and you'll beat up a nice old pistol.) The MKIII is easy to spot; look for striations on the bottom of the frame, at the back of the magwell. If it has them, it is a MKIII. If not, it isn't, and shouldn't be abused.
Nighthawk's Entry Which brings us to Nighthawk's Browning Hi Power. When FN began making the R35 in .40 S&W, they found that test pistols quickly fell apart. They began an improvement program, and the MKIII was the result. Nighthawk is building its custom pistols on brand-new FN MKIII pistols in 9mm.
"We've had customers asking for a Nighthawk high-cap for quite some time," said Mark Stone, president of Nighthawk Custom. "If we were going to build a high-cap custom, the first one should be on a pistol as equally classic as the 1911. We get all of our pistols directly from Browning. We wanted to keep the supply process simple and maintain consistency in the guns we're building on. We're also looking into accepting customer-sourced MKIII Hi Powers for builds later in 2016."
I asked Stone, "Only MKIIIs?"
Stone replied, "Yes. We're building on MKIIIs because they are the toughest version of the Hi Power, and there's no point in wrestling with the design variations of some earlier models."
Each pistol is disassembled and inspected, then refitted by hand. The top and rear of the slide gets hand-stippled, and the edges get French borders. The slide is machined for a Heinie SlantPro rear sight, and the front dovetail has a Nighthawk gold bead front sight. Nighthawk is known for installing night sights on their 1911s including Heinie's Straight 8 and various Try icons. I asked Stone, "Why the departure on the Hi Power?"
"A classic pistol calls for a classic sight design," Stone said. "We're considering offering a Trijicon option, but that will depend on customer demand."
The frame is stippled on the front (around the serial number), at the backstrap and on the triggerguard. The magazine catch is also textured with 25 LPI serrations, and the inside edge of the magwell gets extra contouring to ease reloads.
The factory barrel fit is checked, improved/corrected if necessary, and the muzzle is given a new crown, before the slide, frame and barrel are re-mated, and the internals get fitted.
The factory fire control parts, except for the ambidextrous safety, are replaced with new tool steel parts, to include the hammer, trigger, sear and sear lever. The end result of the new parts, and the hand fitting that goes with them, is a 4-pound trigger pull. Now, the trigger design on the R35 is ... odd. On the 1911, you press on the trigger, and the pressure is transmitted directly back to the sear by means of the trigger bow. Well, the double-stack magazine of the E35 means there isn't room for a trigger bow. The P35 trigger pivots. The rear of it moves upward, where it presses against a lever in the slide, and that lever pivots to press down on the sear. This means that your traditional E35 trigger, while being entirely suitable for a service pistol, is not fun to improve. Back when IPSC was new, every gunsmith who worked on competition guns (which were pretty much real-life carry guns) took a stab at it, yours truly included. I decided that while the world might need an improved P35 trigger, I wasn't going to be the one who delivered it.
So, my hat is off to the wizards at Nighthawk for being able to produce a 4-pound, clean and crisp R35 trigger. To refresh my memory, I went into my shop and consulted the Hi Power shelf. Yep, the original Hi Power trigger pull, while good enough for duty use (and leaps and bounds better than your basic Glock trigger), is not a match trigger. The Nighthawk Hi Power is also better than the two other custom Hi Powers in the safe.
But the piece de resistance from Nighthawk is the tang. The reason that the World War 11-vintage P35 bit me so badly was that the tang was too short. When I shot with a high-thumb grip, the web of my hand rolled up over the edge. When the rotating hammer pinched the web between the frame and the hammer shank, pain and blood resulted. Nighthawk welds an extension onto the frame to keep our hand out of the way of the hammer. The extension is then blended into the frame such that you might think it was original, if you've never been bitten. This not only keeps the hammer shank away from the tender bits, but it also increases the contact area of the frame to our hand, increasing stability. Not that the 9mm recoils all that briskly, but with the tang, the frame is pretty much locked to our hand.
The finished pistol is treated to a satin black Cerakote finish, a set of Cocobolo custom grips, and is put into a Nighthawk softcase with a spare 13-round magazine.
I tested the Nighthawk with the 13-round magazines it was shipped with, my own flush-fit 15-round Mec-Gar mags and an assortment of 20-round magazines accumulated through the years. I used a wide variety of ammunition, both for accuracy and for defense. Just to make sure it performed, I dragged out some of my cast lead practice ammo from back in the days of Second Chance and the Steel Challenge and put a bunch downrange. At no time did Nighthawk's take on the Hi Power give me any grief.
Accuracy was eye-opening. In addition to the 25-yard groups on paper, 1 plinked at the 100-yard gongs on the club's rifle range and assured myself that I can still hammer the steel. At distance, the clean outline of the sights allows for a precise hold. At "normal" pistol distances, the gold bead works like a fiber optic sight, but with more class.
How much do I love this pistol? My job can be described as making once-fired brass out of factory ammo. 1 go to the range on a regular basis, almost always for work. On rare occasions, I go just for fun. While testing the Nighthawk, I had a chance to go just for fun. And fun I had.
I asked Stone if there was any hope for an aluminum-frame version in the future. He replied, "We're very interested in the alloy-framed model. However, the big question is flawlessly welding the tang extension. We have to look at the alloys involved, the process, and we'll only do it if we can maintain Nighthawk's quality standards. Once we've solved that problem, we'll have a long talk with Browning."
"What about a Commander-size Hi Power?" I followed.
"We're working on a Commander-size Hi Power," Stone indicated, "but the current custom has been such a big hit that well have to catch up before we can add more."
One detail I have to address is the price. Yes, $2,900 is a bunch. But you can get a fully custom BHP right now, instead of potentially waiting years from a one-or two-man shop. You also receive a brilliantly accurate, alluring to hold, classic pistol. And it will last. The pre-MKIII BHPs had service lives that could be measured in tens of thousands of rounds. And they needed regular service along the way. The last time I evaluated a Hi Power, it was a MKIII, and I put more than 23,000 rounds through it. There were two failures (one ammo related, the other magazine) and no breakages. In fact, if I took the time to scrub it up, you could not tell how many rounds that MKIII had consumed.
I have no doubt this one will do likewise, and I fully intend to see if I can manage just that.
PHOTOS BY SEAN UTLEY
Nighthawk Custom Hi Power Type: Recoil operated, semiautomatic Cartridge: 9mm, Capacity: 13+1 rds. Barrel: 4.63 in. Overall Length: 8.39 in. Width: 1.29 in. Height: 5 in. Weight: 2 lbs. Finish: Cerakote, satin black Grips: Custom Cocobolo w/ Nighawk logo Sights: Heinie Slant Pro (rear); gold bread (front) Trigger: 4 lbs., 15 oz. (tested) MSRP: $2,895 Manufacturer: Nighthawk Custom 877-268-4867 nighthawkcustom.com PERFORMANCE LOAD VEL. (FPS) ES SD Hornady Critical Duty 135 gr. 1,104 25 13 Hornady 124-gr. XTP 1,105 43 17 Remington 147-gr. HPR 937 26 12 Barnes 115-gr. TAC-XP 1,122 44 19 CCI Lawman 115-gr. TMJ 1,269 68 28 HPR 147-gr. JHP 908 22 9 Winchester Kinetic HE 115 gr. 1,315 35 13 Wilson Combat 115-gr. TAC-XP 1,272 23 10 Ruger 88-gr. ARX 1,479 33 13 Federal HST124 gr. 1,200 15 7 Hornady Crit. Def. 115-gr. FTX 1,142 30 12 BEST AVG. LOAD GROUP (IN.) GROUP (IN.) Hornady Critical Duty 135 gr. 1.55 2.5 Hornady 124-gr. XTP 1.65 2.8 Remington 147-gr. HPR 1.65 2.85 Barnes 115-gr. TAC-XP 1.7 2.11 CCI Lawman 115-gr. TMJ 1.7 3.18 HPR 147-gr. JHP 1.75 2.75 Winchester Kinetic HE 115 gr. 1.8 3 Wilson Combat 115-gr. TAC-XP 1.9 2.65 Ruger 88-gr. ARX 1.95 2.95 Federal HST124 gr. 2 3.15 Hornady Crit. Def. 115-gr. FTX 2.1 3.06 Notes: Accuracy is the average of five, five-shot groups fired at 25 yards from a sand-bagged rest. Velocity is the average of five shots, using a Labradar chronograph set to record velocity 15 feet from the muzzle.