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Two enthusiasts build a custom defensive 
handgun for a wife and a friend.

By Wiley Clapp
Photography By Lynn Pedigo

When my longtime shooting buddy, Chris Weare, convinced his wife that she needed to know how to defend herself with a handgun, it was a foregone conclusion that she would attend one of the week-long basic courses at the Gunsite Academy, Inc.  Maureen(Mo) Weare is an open-minded woman with the self-assurance that comes from her life experience and from being in excellent physical condition.  She is approaching the upcoming Gunsite #250 with great anticipation, and I am betting that she will do extremely well.  Part of my confidence stems from the pistol we put together for her, which is the subject of this story.  

      Before she headed to Arizona, we needed to equip her with the best in the way of a shooting rig.  Her pistol was particularly important.  Having stood on the firing line at a number of shooting schools and watched women shooters struggle with pistols or revolvers obviously not suited for them, I wanted to be sure that Mo's gun fit her needs.  While selecting a gun for a woman gets some amount of ink in the firearms press, I hold the opinion that most writers miss a very important point on this subject.

      In my view, the only factor that seriously impacts the handgun selection press is the size of the woman's hand.  There's a marked tendency for men to suggest small, light pistols that the "...little lady can really handle."  But there's an even greater tendency for women to resent being patronized in this-or any other-way.  With exceptions, women are shorter, lighter and have hands that are narrower, with shorter fingers.  Traditionally, women have a greater degree of fine motor skills than their male counterparts.  The implication of all of this is simply to choose a handgun that the woman shooter can get her hand around and work the controls without shifting her grip.  Thus suitably equipped, start training.  If the training is of good quality, women learn very quickly.

      There are a few handguns that fall easily into the category of being at home in a smaller hand.  Because of its established reputation as an utterly reliable automatic, as well as one that's very good in smaller hands, we decided to have a custom Browning Hi-Power built for Mo's use.  It is conventional wisdom to describe the Hi-Power as John Browning's last design, but most gun historians give the great Belgian designer Dieudonne Saive most of the credit.  It is a beautifully designed and crafted single-action automatic pistol.  Hi-Powers have the world's first successful high-capacity magazine, which holds 13 rounds of 9mm ammunition (current guns come with 10-rounders).  After almost 65 consecutive years of production, the Hi-Power serves around the world.  That's a remarkable achievement in a time of polymer and aluminum high capacity pistols with advanced trigger systems and every other gee-whiz feature imaginable.  Arguably outdated with that plain, ole-fashioned single-action trigger, the Hi-Power remains just as arguably efficient a pistol as the world has ever seen.  


      Hi-Power pistols are no strangers to Bill Laughridge's pistolsmiths.  From his well-equipped shop in Fremont, Nebraska, he runs the well-known custom gunsmithing operation called Cylinder & Slide.  That's an appropriate name, as Laughridge and his guys work on just about every kind of handgun imaginable.  Their specialty remains the Colt M1911 and Browning Hi-Power pistols.  Laughridge has one of the few shops around the country that does full custom work with the durable Belgian pistols.  After a short consultation with him, Bill agreed to take on the responsibility of building Mo's pistol for her beginning training at Gunsite.  I specified only one item as mandatory on the gun-Novak Lo-Mount sights.  They are the best to be had.  The rest of the custom modifications were left to Bill Laughridge and his crew.

      We sent Cylinder & Slide a new unfired 9mm Hi-Power of current production.  It was the so-called "Standard Model" with a polished blue finish and fixed sights.  This version came with very thick grip plates of checkered walnut.  Out of the box, this Hi-Power was a handsome gun that had been carefully polished before it went into the bluing tanks.  Still, there were many things about the gun that could be improved for hard use in a defensive pistol role.  Some of them were associated with handling, aiming and firing the pistol-its actual shootability quotient first.

      The part of the pistol that a shooter actually touches when the gun is in a shooting grip is the receiver.  Hi-Powers are ergonomically way ahead of the curve in that the designers built a pistol that even small hands could manage well.  But the current production pistol came with good-looking, but unnecessarily thick, grip plates that didn't help.  While I have seen these stock grips modified with the aid of a slack belt sander, aftermarket grips from the master, Craig Spegel, were a better solution.  With a pair of his fine-line checkered grips in place, our project pistol was almost 3/8-inch slimmer than the original.  Spegel's Hi-Power design incorporates a very slight palm swell that tapers to the frontstrap of the gun.  I have never seen a shooter at any level of experience who did not instantly like the hand-to-gun feel of a Spegel-gripped Hi-Power.

      Checkering on the wooden pistol grips helps anchor the pistol in one's part of defensive handgunning is changing magazines.  Under stress, some shooters have trouble doing this as fast as their instructors want them to do it or as actual circumstances might force them to do it.  In either a tactical reload or a speed reload, the shooter must learn to get a fresh magazine into the gun pronto.  Laughridge added a magazine well of his own design to the pistol.  Welded onto the frame, it flares out to form a funneled opening that accepts a magazine in the hurried hands of the shooter.  The opening seems huge, and it helps accelerate this critical technique.  Another bit of welding makes sense to keep the pistol from doing one of the famous Hi-Power tricks.  Stock guns have a grip tang that does not protect the shooter's hand from hammer bite.  Laughridge uses a chunk of steel and welds it into place on the tang, final-shaping it to form a graceful beavertail that completely protects the hand.  This is an ergonomic improvement that I feel is essential to the combat Hi-Power.


      Here's another improvement to the well-dressed Hi-Power.  On the stock gun, the safety lever (or lock) has a very small contact surface and it's a little mushy in its application.  C&S added its own ambidextrous safety to this gun.  It has extended paddles on both sides and also has a more positive detent to tell the shooter that his safety is going on or off as the case may be.  Laughridge's company makes several parts (like the mag well), and that includes a special wide trigger.  This wider-than-standard trigger spreads the finger pressure over a larger surface and makes the trigger pull seem lighter.  He also installed a traditional round spur hammer of his own design.  It's a handsome touch, as is the carefully done beveling of every possible contact surface from one end of the gun to the other.

      Atop the slide, you can see the small Novak sight system.  Aside from the clear sharp sight picture, the Novak system has another important advantage.  In the course of shooting and practicing, a student handgunner learns to deal with malfunctions.  A part of this process involves racking the slide as fast as possible.  The racy-looking slope to the front of the Novak rear sight has the practical ability to keep a shooter's hand from being cut on the rear sight as it sweeps down the top of the slide to remove a stovepipe or otherwise move the slide.  It is both practical and attractive.


      With the exception of the Novices, no single visible alternation to the pistol makes the gun significantly better than a stock Browning pistol.  However, the sum of the gun's various custom touches combine to produce a pistol that is immeasurably better than the original.  While we have spent a good deal of time talking about the cosmetic and practical advantages of visible alterations, there is another aspect of the gun's quality.  Inside, there are a number of places where a little attention by a competent pistolsmith is useful.  For example, one of the more critical points in a Hi-Power is the extractor.  It has to have the right tension and the right contour.  A little work here pays big dividends in the reliability of the gun.       

      Browning triggers are not exactly a marvel of simplicity or match-grade performance.  But when Laughridge and his crew finish 'em, the result is a very good, crisp trigger pull.  I asked that the magazine safety be removed on this gun, and that alone helps the trigger pull.


      Other internal surfaces get a polish where needed, and nowhere is that as necessary as in the feed ramp of the barrel.  When he builds up a Hi-Power, Laughridge uses a special barrel made to his specifications by the famous Bar-Sto Precision Machine company.  Like the earliest Hi-Powers, this barrel incorporates a hood not found on current production guns.  Properly installed, this design feature contributes to a pistol that locks up in the same place time after time.  That is a key element in making it accurate.  I have had a number of different Hi-Powers pass through my hands over the years, and this one is probably the best in terms of pure accuracy.  I fired the gun in the Ransom Rest to get a better picture of the gun's potential that was suggested only by handheld shooting.  As tabulated nearby, the results proved that the gun was truly outstanding.  It average 1.19 inches per group, measured from the centers of the most widely spaced shot holes in a 10-shot series fired at 25 yards.  The average comes form 10 different commercial loads, and the largest of them was only 1.51 inches.  The smallest?  It was a one-hole cluster of 10 shots measuring .92 inch, fired with Federal 124-grain JHP.

      Truly, this is an elaborate, even elegant pistol.  Every one of the modifications and additions I have described added to the gun's shootability.  In handheld shooting, I found this 9mm Hi-Power pistol to be fast to get into action and easy to manage in multiple-shot drills.  It was clear that Laughridge and his crew put everything they could into the project.  That included test-firing the pistol with all of the five magazines I shipped with it.  Before they put a soft matte finish on the gun and blued it, they used a fine checkering file and serrated the rearmost surface of the slide.  When the sun is high in the sky, light reflecting off this surface can be annoying to the shooter.

            I am lucky enough to get to handle and work with all kinds of custom handguns.  To me, they are the most interesting aspects of the handgunning scene.  This Cylinder & Slide Hi-Power is one of the best guns of the breed.  Accuracy is outstanding, handling is superior and the overall aesthetics of the gun are absolutely first-class.  Most beginning shooters don't have a handgun as good as this one, so Mo is way ahead of the game.    

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Originally published in
Handguns 2000

  • Browning Hi Power from Wiley Clapp article "A Lady's Hi-Power"   
    (Listed below are the modifications done to the gun in the article.)

Bar-Sto Barrel Hood.....$165.00
Fit Bar-Sto Barrel/Machine Slide for Hood.....$75.00
Throat & Polish Feed Ramp.....$37.50
Polish & Deburr all Internal Surfaces.....$81.50
Radius & Tension Extractor.....$18.50
Stipple Front Strap.....$75.00
Stipple Back Strap.....$75.00
High Grip Modification.....$125.00
Modify High Cap Mags.....$13.50
Mag Funnel.....$149.95
Serate Back of Slide.....$35.00
Radius all External Corners and Edges w/ Reblue.....$100.00
Wolff 18.5lb Recoil Spring.....$7.89
Craig Spegel Grips.....$55.00
Ambi Safety.....$101.00
Install Beavertail Blank.....$145.00
Novak Low Mount Sites with Dots.....$135.85
C&S Wide Trigger.....$68.00
C&S Commander Hammer.....$56.95
C&S Machined Sear.....$39.85
Trigger Job 4.5lb.....$184.45
Test Fire.....$24.95
(You can add or subtract from these modifications for your gun.)

(Shipping , Handling and Insurance Extra)
(Pricing at time of modification, please visit our online store for the latest pricing.)