Brownells 75th Anniversary - A Shooting Heritage

High Powered Alterations - Part I

By: Steve Ostrem

The Browning High Power is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest handguns ever produced. Designed by John Browning and later refined by Dieudonne Saive of Fabrique National (FN) in Belgium, the Model 1935 has seen extensive use around the world. With its simple and robust construction and generous magazine capacity, the High Power was quickly adopted by the armed forces of several countries where it earned a reputation for reliability in all types of conditions. In fact, the High Power was actually used by opposing forces during the Second World War after the Germans overran Belgium and captured the factory. It was also the first centerfire pistol I ever owned, acquired almost 30 years ago while stationed in West Germany. (There were still two Germanys then.) Since then I have owned, borrowed, or shot almost everything out there and have yet to find anything that fits or feels better than my original choice. The CZ 75 comes close but, it is for me, a distant second. I also have to say, and I am quite biased, that the High Power is also the best looking pistol out there with its classic lines that combine sheer elegance with functionality. I can think of very few other designs that look so good and work so well.

Authors original High Power.

Having said all that, my favorite autoloader has some major shortcomings that cannot be ignored. Like its predecessor, the 1911, the High Power comes from the factory with a terrible trigger and lackluster sighting equipment. With the exception of doing a trigger job, I haven’t been able to make myself do any major alterations on my original gun from the 70’s. It has that incredibly tall and ugly adjustable rear sight that makes you wonder what got lost in the translation when they came up with it. It also has the old checkered walnut grips with the red interiors that look proper but feel a little blocky in the hand. To top it all off, it has that wonderful Browning high-polished blue that really makes me hesitate to do anything that might mar the finish, including using it in a holster or shooting it too much. This sad combination of good and bad attributes leaves me with a pistol that is not quite the way I would like it to be, but still too nice to mess with. Having done a lot of custom work on these guns over the years, I had a pretty good idea of what my ideal High Power would be like. I wanted great sights, comfortable grips, and an attractive but hardwearing finish, and a few other custom touches to make it truly mine. When I finally found a Belgian-made pistol for sale at a reasonable price, I knew the time had finally come to build one the way I wanted.

Slide and frame after removing old finish.
The gun I found was a 1978 vintage fixed sight model. The finish was almost gone but there was surprisingly little rust or pitting. Perfect! The first thing I did was to completely disassemble it and run it through the bead blast cabinet to remove what little bluing remained. All the parts seemed to be in pretty good shape with a few exceptions. I decided to replace the firing pin with a new Browning Firing Pin (#149-201-545), and installed new set of Wolff Pro-Springs (#080-665-501).
I also had a barrel in my miscellaneous parts box that looked better than the original so that was swapped out as well. Brownells carries two barrels for the 9mm High Power, the Browning (#149-201-520) and one from Olympic Arms (#795-035-001). With new parts in place, a quick trip to the range was made to see if any major problems would surface. Almost 100 rounds of Winchester white box (cheap) ammo were run through the gun in short order. There were no failures of any kind. The gun fed, extracted, and ejected perfectly. The accuracy wasn’t bad either, considering all shooting was done offhand. So far things were looking good! Now, with a working gun, the main work could begin.

Those factory sights have got to go!

The first thing needed was a set of sights that I could actually see. I considered the offerings from Millett, and Novak, and even toyed with the idea of putting in a low-mounted Bo-Mar adjustable. Then I took a good look at the Heine Slant Pro sight set (#394-000-011), and knew immediately that they were the ones for me. They do, however, require a good deal of machining, as do most low mount sights. There was also the matter of blending the rear of the slide to mate it to the sight blade and make it look like the sight belongs there. The sights came with good instructions and a nice drawing that made it much easier to get it right the first time. There is also a statement from Richard Heine who provides his e-mail address if you have any doubts or questions about the installation. As Heine says in the instructions,” It could save you the cost of a new slide.” I’ll just add that anyone who has machined slides for a Bo-Mar or Novak installation should have no problems with this sight. Still, it’s good to know that help is only a few clicks away.

Major slide cuts are complete.

With sight in place the extra metal behind the blade stands out.

The actual milling process was fairly straightforward. First, the rear of the slide was milled flat to a depth of .140”, removing the original rear dovetail. The dovetail portion was then cut using the 65° x .370” Carbide Cutter (#080-621-371) made specifically for the Heine sights. The slide was not very hard and the cutter went through it easily. Then the rear relief for the sight blade was cut to the same depth as the dovetail. By going slow and making repeated passes to gradually open up the cuts, I was able to get a nice, tight fit. The back of the slide was then milled partially flat with a 60° cutter as Mr. Heine suggests. One could stop at this point and leave the flats in place if desired. In fact, these flats could be cut to match the serrations of the sight and would result in a very attractive transition. I decided that I would rather round and radius this area to blend everything together. It only took about an hour and I like the way it turned out.

Flats milled for transition area. We could stop here.

Rear radiused and blended to match sight.

The front sight was much easier of course. A small flat about .010” deep was milled on top where the blade meets the slide and the dovetail was milled with a .330”x 60 degree cutter. The sight was slid into place and that’s all there was to it. The sight picture is nice and sharp and the overall appearance of the pistol is greatly enhanced. The Heines may be a little more difficult to install than some other brands but the final result is definitely worth it. To me they look better than anything else on a High Power. With the sights in place it was time to do something about that trigger.

Heine front installed.

The rear sight sits low and blends in well.

For the trigger job I went to the Tech Room and hauled out the stoning fixture from Power Custom, along with the proper adapter for the Browning Stoning Fixture (#713-070-001). I really like this fixture because I can get consistent results with it quickly and easily. With the sear clamped into the adapter and the height adjusted according to the instructions, I began to run a Medium India Stone (#657-246-146) across the sear to true up the engagement surface. This area had been blackened with a marker, and as I began to work the stone over it I could see that one side was much higher than the other. No wonder the trigger pull was so heavy! The medium stone is perfect for this type of metal removal and after a minute or two the sear was evened up.

The Power Custom Stoning Fixture takes the guesswork out of trigger jobs.
The trick to keeping things square is to put downward pressure on the stone back where it rides over the hardened dowel pin that acts as a roller. This keeps the stone aligned with the jig. If you put all the pressure above the sear the stone will simply follow whatever angle exists there already and give poor results.

Once the sear surface was trued, a fine Arkansas Stone (#657-300-650) was used to smooth it to a higher finish. Then the sear was taken out of the fixture and a small breakaway angle was put in. Basically, I just broke the trailing edge on the engagement surface to help it slide smoothly out of the hammer notch. Then the pistol was reassembled and tested. Still heavy and gritty! Time to check the hammer. (Actually it should have been checked at the very beginning!) Sure enough, there was a burr built up on the edge of the hammer notch had to be dealt with. I removed this roughness with the medium stone first and then followed up with the fine Arkansas all by hand, keeping the engagement surface flat against the stones to avoid rounding or unevenness. For this step, I find it easier to move the part over the stone rather than the other way around. It only took a few passes as the area in question is very small and no need to get carried away. When I finished, the notch looked smooth and square, so I put everything back together to try again. What a difference! The pull was right at four pounds with a nice, clean break. This brought it down from seven pounds, still using full strength springs and full engagement between hammer and sear. This is what I prefer for a service-type pistol; no cut or altered springs, and no sacrifices to affect reliability, yet light and crisp enough to make shooting a pleasure.

By this time I was ready to pack up and head back to the range to do some serious shooting. However, with the new sights and improved trigger, those old plastic grips were starting to look like a real liability. Brownells has a number of grips for the Browning in wood, plastic, and rubber from some great names like Hogue and Pachmayr, not to mention the offerings from the Browning factory. In the end though, it was the Dymondwood Palmswell Grips from Navidrex, (#647-035-008) that caught my eye and felt best in the hand. With these checkered panels in place the gun feels like it was made for me, with its contours seeming to exactly match the form of my hand. Perhaps one day I’ll make a set of custom grips for the gun, just to say I did it. For the time being however, these will do nicely.

At this point I was pretty pleased with the way this project was coming along. All that remained was to sight it in and refinish the metal. Then one morning, without any warning, Tony, one of the other Techs here at Brownells, showed up with a slide for a Colt Officers Model into which he had cut serrations along the top. As I examined it I could not believe how much it added to the appearance of an ordinary slide. The Vs weren’t cut into a rib or a flat but rather followed the contour of the slide top in an arc. Not only did it look good, but those grooves looked like they belonged there! Needless to say, I knew at that point that my pistol would be forever incomplete until it had received the same treatment. I also knew that it would take a good deal of work to make it happen.

To put the slide between centers I would need to make plugs for the front and rear that would ride in the firing pin channel and the barrel bushing. This, however, was a little more complicated than it seems. The top contour of a Browning slide is about a ½” radius, but I found that neither the center of the firing pin hole nor that of the barrel bushing were the proper distance from the top of the slide to be the pivot points. To make things even more interesting, the top of the slide and the bottom are not parallel. The top slopes down toward the front. This means that the bushing and the firing pin channel are parallel with the rails but not with the top where the cutting would take place. Brass plugs were made, and center holes were drilled off center so the pivot point would be ½” from the top of the slide. The holes were also drilled at a slight angle so the centers would seat properly in line with the top of the slide. If this is beginning to sound a little complicated, it is… at least for me. Figuring the offsets and trying to keep those angles straight made my head hurt. Once I had the plugs in the slide, however, things got much easier. Like most custom machining, setup is the biggest part of the job.

Slide in the indexing fixture.

A closer look at the cuts.

Freshly machined slide with sights installed.
The slide was set up between centers with a dividing head and indicated into line. Most slides are fairly irregular along the top, so if the indicator reads the same at the beginning and the end of the cut I’m satisfied and leave the middle ground to take care of itself. Tony was kind enough to tell me that using a 60 degree cutter at a depth of .015” meant that the slide had to rotate 3 degrees between cuts. With a generous patch of layout fluid applied ahead of the rear sight, I scribed a line down the center. When the cutter touched the line, I knew it was on center and ready to go.
With one last check to make sure everything was tightened down, I dialed in .015” and started the first line. Then the slide was rotated 3 degrees and another groove cut, and so it went. When there were enough grooves on one side of the centerline the slide was brought back to center and the other side was completed.

All done and ready for refinishing.

I decided to stop before the lines reached the ejection port which produced a grooved sighting surface about 3/8” wide and perfectly centered on the top. The Vs were not completely consistent at this point due to the unevenness of the slide surface, but that can be corrected by hand with a 60° Bent Needle File (#080-648-602). Once again, it appears that all of the hard work is behind us. For a while there it looked as though it would never end. In next months WebBench we’ll refinish the metal and bring this project in for a landing. You know, I wonder how some matching serrations on the backstrap would look …

High Powered Alterations - Part II