John Browning’s last design and I have a long history, one going back to 1989 when I purchased my first Browning Hi-Power. Throughout the next four years of high school, my Hi-Power and I ran hand in hand through the sunny, verdant, fields of youth. It was a joyous time for us both; together we struck down target after target on the range, and the Hi-Power was on my hip as I traveled through unknown deserts and forests. We were together more than we were apart.
In the summer of ’93, I left for One Station Unit Training, Ft Benning, GA. My teenage love and I were separated by space and time. In the intervening years, I was to gain experience and knowledge with a large spectrum of weapons of all types. Like the storybook sweetheart at home waiting for her soldier to return, the Hi-Power laid in a drawer, well oiled and wrapped in a sock. Untouched by the hands of another man, unlike the flesh and blood type of sweethearts most Soldiers are familiar with.
What happened was that I was lured away.
In the foolishness of my youth, my covetous thoughts turned to the voluptuous magazine capacity of the… Glock 21.
Allow me to explain. I was born a .45 fanboy and my heart is always looking for The Ultimate .45. A key component of The Ultimate .45 is magazine capacity. The Glock 21 had it in a package that was “space gun” looking (my favorite film is ‘Blade Runner’ so use that as a baseline for my aesthetics). However, just the way I lusted after Anna Nicole Smith I had no practical experience with the Glock 21. I hadn’t even seen one outside of print, let alone handled one. But, unlike Anna Nicole Smith, the Glock 21 showed up one day behind the glass in Jim’s Pawn Shop on Yadkin Rd in Fayetteville, N.C. The guy behind the counter pretended to not be annoyed as I handled the weapon, gripping, aiming, re-gripping, dropping the magazine then slamming it home. The entire time a queer feeling was building in my stomach. I tried to ignore it but finally, it was too much. I didn’t like the 21.
The grip was too fat and the angle was off. Furthermore, it lacked features that, without me even being fully aware of, had become requirements for a pistol. Those being an external safety and hammer and the reassurance — perhaps a crutch — that both of those obvious indicators of my weapon’s status gave me with the brush of my fingers could not be denied. The Glock gave me none of that.
Disappointed and with an aching heart, I walked away from that crushing — hurt, yet wiser. Now I had a clearer picture of what I truly wanted.
The Second Love
Flash-forward to early 1995; I’m back at Jim’s on a rainy Saturday with Timmy and Weird-Nuts. All three of us have our noses pressed to the gun cabinet glass. Weird-Nuts was a Desert Storm vet. He was with the 101st before coming to the 82nd. Both Timmy and I looked up to him. Later, Weird-Nuts began banging Timmy’s sister and that made things… tense.
“Hey, look at this,” says Weird-Nuts. He points to a blocky, slab-sided, beast of a pistol. It’s big and black and has all the elegance of the beefy local in a small, remote town that watches you from across the lot as the numbers on the gas pump increase, and you wish you were back on the interstate. This pistol does one thing; throw copper jacketed lead at its target until the target stops. That’s it. There are no art deco or artisan curves on this weapon, and that is just what it is — a weapon. This is no gun. A gun can belong to a gentleman who hands it off to a lackey to be reloaded. A gun can have intricate engravings of foliage, animals, and flowers. With a gun, one can find gold filigree and mother of pearl. With a weapon one gets death.
With a weapon, there is a coldness that speaks of a business deal. A gun will sit with you, play a hand of poker, drink whiskey, and smoke a cigar. A weapon puts all matters to a conclusion without the foreplay.
Personally, I prefer the latter.
When I handled it the clouds parted and a beam of warm yellow light split the warehouse ceiling of Jim’s, bathing me and the weapon in a perfect light. The pistol and I existed outside normal space, and time was a forgotten concept. It was as if Ares himself had awakened upon distant Mount Olympus with this weapon made especially for my hands, the way the Gods had crafted weapons to Perseus.
“Heed thy words, mortal; before thee lay ‘The Ultimate .45.’ Wield it with honor.”
With that, the God was gone and, in my hands, lay the Heckler & Koch USP .45.
It was a…well, it was a blaster. You killed Replicants with this thing. The bore gaped from the business end, hexagon grooves twisting into the chamber, and an image of the Agro from Star Blazers, with its Wave Motion Gun, flashed into my head. The slide lacked the artist’s grace, but it had the engineer’s efficiency. It may have been a milled rectangle of metal but the sides were precisely beveled with an attractive flare where the slide met the rails of the polymer receiver. Inside the weapon lay a recoil reduction system that makes the HK USP .45 a smooth shooting pistol. A 1911 has a certain snap to it when it is fired. There is a flip that happens. It can be tamed, learned, compensated for; but it’s always there. The USP lacks that snap. It’s a gentle wave as opposed to a breaker. This blaster had a precision to it that outstripped Imperial Stormtroopers.
But the Gods of Olympus were not satisfied with that. No. The USP was, after all, The Ultimate .45. There, on the left side of the frame, was an easily accessible thumb-activated safety. On the back of the slide was a rubber-coated hammer. The weapon was single-action/double-action and had a twelve-round magazine. The grip was thinner with a paddle type mag release that, after getting used to, proved superior to the traditional type. Though top-heavy when empty, like all polymer-framed pistols, the USP balanced nicely when loaded.
It was all I wanted, but the time was not right and Ares, on Mount Olympus, wept as I left Jim’s Pawn Shop without my weapon of war.
I left Active Duty.
1996 found me at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, California. One block east of one of my classes was a gun store. Under the glass was a HK USP .45 Variant 3. It was a display model and was $650. Using my just issued G.I. Bill check I put down the initial payment during lunch and made the final payment and pick up during a break from drawing class with a girl named Kathy. She smoked cloves and was fond of bodysuits.
I had The Ultimate .45.
Ares smiled and lay down to his deserved slumber.
One winter’s day, in need of money, I sold the Hi-Power. It rained heavily and I felt as if I had betrayed a lifelong friend. The money felt dirty in the pocket of my jeans.
In between, I carried the USP professionally and personally. It never failed me once and was a trusted companion and friend in the way that only a weapon can be. Through strife and uncertainty, the USP was always there, my teeth when I was toothless, the roar of defiance when I could not make a sound. The comfort it gave during certain times cannot be understated. I feel a level of love for that pistol that the owner of a dog has for his animal.
A war began, then another one. I went to the second war.
I came back.
I started over.
I started over with the Browning Hi-Power.
In time came a replacement for the original USP. This one was extra space gun blaster-ish because it had night sights. The Hi-Power went back in the box. Then, several years ago, my fetching wife took an interest in shooting. She came under the spell of the USP’s smoothness and its blunt, mechanical, brutalism.
Lazarus-like, the Browning Hi-Power awakened from its slumber, and it has become my go-to ever since. Could I carry the USP again? Absolutely. Yet, it doesn’t feel like my pistol anymore. It’s foreign in an intrusive way that I cannot fully explain. It’s not a feeling I like.
But the Hi-Power is all comfort and warmth. The welcome arms of a loved one who’s been away for a time. The pistol feels different than the USP; the circumference of the grip being the most obvious.
When handling the Browning Hi-Power, it sits deeper into my hand, snug against the place where the meat of the thumb meets the palm. The weight of an added magazine combined with the all-metal construction pushes the grip down into the palm, not harshly, or violently, more of a settling. As if the pistol is finding its angle of repose. The hammer is still stiff but it’s breaking in. The safety, trigger, barrel, slide release, and sights are the same as the day I brought it home. (Even still has the magazine disconnect.) Any faults or issues with the pistol I either don’t notice or have grown so accustomed to over decades of experience that they are no longer issues. For me. This isn’t a pistol for everyone, and, no, I’m not being an effete, hipster gun snob. I mean that in a world of Glocks and whatnot, not everyone is going to like this throwback, no matter how en vogue vintage is. It’s heavy. Even empty and despite its slim lines the pistol has the aforementioned heft. It’s not a hammer down double action, the hammer must be manually cocked to fire the first round. It has exposed safeties. These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they might turn certain shooters off.
Me? I love all of it. I love my retro pistol. Other people like it too and will comment on it. Want to handle it. I don’t mind. It’s been through a lot, dust from the deserts of Nevada are ground into the grips and cling to the cracks and crevasses of the gun that no amount or intensity of cleaning seems to get rid of. The slide and barrel now rattle when the pistol is shaken. The finish is badly scratched and worn away on the edges. This Browning Hi-Power and I have been on some adventures. It’s been neglected and abused on more than one occasion but has always worked when I wanted or needed it to.
I trust it with my life.
Read Part One: The Browning Hi-Power | A Love Story.