F.M. Argentine “Hi-Power” Pistol
By David Tong
This article explores whether a very low cost semi-automatic handgun is worthy of consideration for general shooting purposes or self-defense. Most people have the impression, whether informed or not, that only a $400+ handgun should be considered for general recreation or protection and there is merit to this line of reasoning. Typically this means that the (new) pistol is manufactured by a reputable manufacturer, comes with a reasonable warranty, decent customer service and is supported by the aftermarket when it comes to spare parts, magazines and holster makers. Are there exceptions?
Probably anyone recognizes the Browning “Hi-Power.” While the design was John Browning’s last while working at Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre in Liege, Belgium the design was actually completed and perfected by M. Dieudonne Saive in 1935, hence it’s official name of “P-35.” Until the advent of the Glock pistol, it was the most prevalent military and police sidearm in the world, adopted or produced by over 40 countries. No less than the British Special Air Service (S.A.S.) Commando unit famously carried it Condition Zero (cocked, safety OFF) for decades with no negligent discharges, but they of course are among the best and most highly trained personnel in the world. In addition, the famous New York police officer Frank Serpico carried one in his detective stake-out work.
Of traditional all steel construction and single-action design, it is a conventional tilting-barrel design with annular locking lugs that engage similar recesses in the inside top of the slide, just ahead of the ejection port. M. Saive and Mr. Browning dispensed with the barrel bushing and swinging link of the 1911 and reduced its caliber to increase its magazine capacity. The P-35 can be considered the first “high capacity” detachable magazine fed semi-automatic pistol, excepting such comparatively rare oddities as Broomhandle Mauser variants or Savage 1907s.
One of the countries licensed by F.N. was Argentina, who built their own semi-automatic F.A.L. rifles and the Hi-Power pistol well into the 1980s at their national armory, “F.M.” After their license expired in 1989, a firm known as Industria Argentina produced various versions of the pistol for commercial sale, the most recent examples including the M95 and “Detective,” which is some ¾” shorter than standard, leaving the barrel at just under four inches.
During this time, whenever F.N. made engineering changes, the Argentine company incorporated the same changes and in the mid-1980s, the frames and slides became precision investment castings, replacing the previous drop forgings. While most might intuitively argue that this is a step backward, it has been found that the current cast guns are actually made of harder metal and, ultimately, are more durable over a higher round count.
The test pistol is very much a replica of what the Argentine military might have carried. Not only is the pistol cast, but also very little exterior finish machining was done and it is finished in baked black enamel over manganese phosphate, or “Parkerizing.” This is evidenced by the roughness of the slide’s recoil spring tunnel, the lack of removal of casting mold marks on the inside and outside of the trigger guard and what appears to be, “finishing by bench grinder” marks on the receiver itself.
The parallel pistol made by the Belgians at the time was commercially marketed as a military version of their “Mark II” Hi-Power here in the U.S. and featured a integrally-machined larger front sight, a full length sight rib machined onto the slide at the same time, the same exterior paint over Parkerizing and plastic grips instead of walnut. All other usual features, including the “humped” barrel ramp (more on that later), no firing pin drop safety, small original thumb safety, two-piece silver-soldered barrel in 9mm caliber and magazine disconnector, were present.
In addition, the Argentine concern also eliminated the machined slimming of the front 1.5” of the slide and one can see this in the photos provided, in that the receiver’s dust cover rails now engage the slide fully upon recoil. It is not nearly as elegant or pretty as a real Hi-Power, but the additional muzzle weight means that the pistol is easier to hold steady and recoils a tad less.
As is typical for a military-grade arm, the slide to frame fit had relaxed tolerances compared to a civilian model. One of the oddities of the Hi-Power design is a slide mounted trigger bar whose front end is pushed up by a trigger lever. This then pivots about a cross pin on the slide and depresses the sear to trip the hammer to fire the piece. Due to the looser slide fit, one can feel and watch the slide rocking about its long axis while dry firing the pistol without a loaded magazine in place to put upward tension on the slide. This isn’t a factor, obviously, when it is loaded.
The trigger on the test pistol breaks at 5 pounds and is crisp. The prior owner had removed the magazine disconnector plunger located on the trigger, as so many do, to improve the trigger pull, but fortunately did not alter either the sear engagement or springs. Apparently, there was no need to as the trigger is manageable for a weapon of this type.
While it will never be confused with a good 1911 trigger, with that system’s straight rearward press (as opposed to pivoting about a pin) and very short travel and reset stroke, it is far more manageable that many modern designs which feature ¼” or more of creepy, springy travel. The pistol’s serial number is stamped on the right side of the slide and frame, as well as on the barrel (visible through the ejection port).
This pistol would not function with anything except military ball ammunition when it arrived on my work bench. A mere 20 minutes with a Dremel tool and some cleaning rod backed aluminum oxide paper was all it took to remove the feed ramp “hump” and provide a nice, straight ramp to guide the cartridges into the chamber and I did not remove any material from the chamber edge transition from the ramp itself. Typically this is called “throating,” and it is where many hobbyists get into trouble, as too much material removal can cause a lack of case head support and subsequent head failures.
So long as one is using quality late-model magazines from the Italian Mec-Gar company which provide the proper “nose-up” feed attitude, throating, as opposed to “ramping” the Hi-Power, is not really necessary. The magazine that came with the test pistol, however, was equipped with a follower of poor design that allowed the rounds to rattle loosely in the magazine body with only 10 of the 13-round capacity filled, so I did not use it for this review.
One “factory” parkerized Mec-Gar subcontracted “Browning” magazine of standard 13-round capacity, one blued flush-fitting Mec-Gar 15-round extra capacity and one Mec-Gar blued 20-round high-capacity were used for the firing test. The rounds used were Winchester white box 115 grain FMJ, Winchester WCC ’99 115 grain +P+ JHPs and Winchester 115 grain Silvertip JHPs.
Approximately 120 rounds were fired at an Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) silhouette target at 10 yards at the Albany Rifle and Pistol Club range. These targets resemble the standard IPSC cardboard item with a somewhat more generous center zone. My shooting consisted of “hammers” (one aimed shot, followed by second non-aimed, as fast as possible fired pairs of rounds), as well as single precision head shots to give a rough idea of practical accuracy. I also shot some steel falling plates at ten yards.
Recoil, as with practically any all steel pistol firing the 9x19 P round, was fairly inconsequential. I probably wouldn’t fire thousands of +P or +P+ rounds through this pistol without upgrading the recoil spring from the stock 16 pounds to a Wolff 18.5 pound spring, to reduce slide battering of the frame, and I would leave the full power main or hammer spring in place as the Hi-Power design is happier with the slight slide velocity attenuation as it overrides the hammer on recoil and re-cocks it. While the test was short, there were no malfunctions of any kind.
Some shooters have reported that the large ring hammer so prevalent among military versions of the pistol can bite the web of your hand, but my small size 9 hands had no issue with it. I also changed the original grips to a set of old Pachmayr rubber stocks and put a piece of skateboard tape over the backstrap to provide a bit of cheap, non-slip grip surface, in keeping with the cost factor of the pistol.
At the end of the day, these pistols can be had for under $300 and in this day and age that represents quite a deal for the shooter or homeowner on a strict budget. For that money, he or she gets a very-well-proven pistol of mild recoil that is accurate and has broad support by outside vendors, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. One can’t do much better than that.
Copyright 2008 by David Tong. All rights reserved.