By Charles E. Petty 

Originally published in
American HandgunnerŠ November/December 2001 Issue
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Whenever anyone asks about custom gunsmithing on the Browning Hi-Power, they are sure to be told of Bill Laughridge's shop Cylinder & Slide. The folks at Cylinder & Slide are best known for working on HI Powers and 1911 Government Model pistols, but they also work on Ruger, H&K, Para-Ordnanece, Colt Mustangs, Kahr, SIG and Smith & Wesson pistols, plus Colt, Ruger and S&W revolvers.

But when they're not doing normal stuff, Laughridge likes to turn big guns into little ones. The latest in that line is called the Pathfinder. It is a seriously chopped version of the Browning. We need to remember that Cylinder & Slide is a true custom shop. The customer has lots of choices to make too, so the two guns you see here are just examples of what can be done.

There were two Hi-Powers used in the test:  A Hungarian Clone (left) and a Browning Original (right)

One is built on a genuine browning, the other on a clone from FEG in Hungary. The seriousness of the chop -job can be told with just a few measurements.

This is about a 10 percent reduction in every dimension, These numbers are taken from actual measurement in comparison with a full-size Hi-Power.

Such metal reduction amounts a huge amount of work. Removing that half-inch from the grip requires that a Section be removed from the middle. They can't simply take some off the bottom, because the grip feel would be altered and there wouldn't be anyplace lo put the mainspring. Once the section is removed, the two pieces have to be welded back together in perfect alignment.

Unless you look real hard, you won't even see where the welding was done, The area of the frame where this work is done is a virtually stress-free zone so strength is not compromised at all.

Shortening the slides did not require welding There was enough metal to simply remove some off the front and relocate the front sight. The clone had enough metal at the front to allow the original press fit bushing to be used, but the Browning did not. Laughridge had to install a screw-in bushing of his own manufacture.

Reliable Functioning

Compact and lightweight handguns are quite the rage right now and public demand is for ever smaller and lighter guns. But every time you chop a pistol, the whole dynamic of the gun changes- sometimes to the point where operation becomes problematic. So the pistolsmith must walk a tightrope between reliable function and giving the customer what he wants.

Sadly the customer often wants something be just can't have, The geometry of any tilting barrel imposes limits on how short the barrel can be while still functioning.

The guns you see here are Laughridge's first two of the Pathfinder design. In the past other gunsmiths have offered shortened Hi-Powers, but not very many have been done. These are very much works in progress. And, yes, there are a couple of bumps in the road we'll talk about later but once those were ironed out, both ran and ran well.

Even though they look very much alike at first glance, there are many differences in features. The Browning gun seems to have everything you can do to a Hi-Power, in addition to the shortening. The first thing you'll see is he mirror blue on the slide, matte finish on the frame, and tasteful stippling on front and back straps. The top of the slide is grooved and the rear is checkered. It sports an ambi safety, Novak night sights and a very comfortable beavertail.

Beavertails on Hi-Powers aren't the same things we're used to on Government Models Hi-Powers do not have grip safeties. So a blank must be welded or silver brazed onto the frame and then finished by hand. It is an expensive modification, but one that makes the grip feel even better.

Internally, there's more of Laughridge's flawless craftsmanship. A BarSto barrel is fitted to the slide. The shortening necessitates a screw-in barrel bushing, which also aids accuracy. The trigger is great. It breaks crisply at 4 3/4lbs and the overtravel stop is a real asset to accuracy. All the trigger parts are replaced. Other than being a pretty expensive job, there's nothing to criticize.

The FEC clone is a much plainer Jane- but no less interesting. Gone are the purely cosmetic features. There is no checkering, stippling or grooving. Sightsare Novak, minus the tritium. The barrel is the original. The most radical feature is the trigger which is a "Safety Fast Shooting" kit (SFS) imported and distributed exclusively by Cylinder & Slide.

One of the pistols tested had the SFS Conversion, which allows a single-action 
to be "cocked" by the safety after pressing forward on the hammer.

The SFS kit allows you to push forward gently on the cocked hammer. It will move down to look like it's in an uncocked position, but when you push it forward, the ambi safety is automatically engaged. Then, when you push the safety down, the hammer hops back to the cocked position, and the gun is ready to fire in the normal single-action mode.

The SFS adds a mechanical! hammer block to prevent the hammer from hitting the firing pin unless the trigger is pulled. It also locks both the sear and hammer.

The use of the FEG clone can save you money because the cost of a new gun is considerably less than current prices for a Browning- when you can find one. Laughridge will perform the work on a customers gun as long as it passes his inspection.

Why Browning has never offered a mini version of the Hi-Power is beyond us. Custom is the only way to get one.

Custom touches include tasteful stippling of the front strap and a custom BarSto barrel.  Of course the most radical work is the shortening of the grip.

Down To Business

Over the years, I've adopted a test procedure that is comprehensive and lets me really get to know the gun. If possible, each gun goes to the range at least three times. The first is for a break-in and function test with 50 to 100 rounds of generic ammo. The gun is cleaned and inspected for wear.

The next trip is dedicated to group shooting and chronographing. Again, the gun is cleaned and inspected. The final run is a longer function test with a variety of different loads. When all is done, the total number of rounds fired is 300 to 400, sometimes more.

That was the procedure I followed with the two Pathfinder pistols. The Browning gun had a stoppage about halfway through the first test that was found to be caused by a tiny piece of bullet jacket metal getting wedged between the top barrel lugs and the corresponding cut in the slide. It prevented the pistol from going into battery. It took awhile to figure that one out. The FEG gun had no stoppages. Both shot to point of aim at 25 yards.

Cleaning and inspection showed some tiny bits of Jacket metal in both guns, but nothing that seemed to be particularly significant. About halfway through the accuracy testing on my next trip to the range, the Browning began to need a tiny nudge, now and then, to go into battery. This got progressively worse, and by the time chronograph measurements were done. the slide just wouldn't close without help.

Testing of the FEG pistol was largely uneventful until near the end when it, too, began to be reluctant to go fully into battery. By then it was clear that we were suffering from worn-out recoil springs.

Back home it was a two-man job to fieldstrip the Browning because the battered, collapsed recoil spring prevented the slide from retracting to the point where the slide stop pin could be pushed out. Fieldstripping any Hi-Power is something of a pain unless you use the thoughtfully provided second safety notch that will hold the slide in the proper position. Couldn't do that either.

The FEG fieldstripped without difficulty, but there was virtually no tension left on the recoil spring. Remember that chopping changes the whole dynamic of the pistol? The spring situation is a perfect example. Any time you reduce the weight of the recoiling mass (slide and barrel), the recoiling velocity of the slide is increased considerably. And that is hard on springs. To the phone!

As soon as I began to describe the problem to Laughridge, he exclaimed "That's my fault! I should have mentioned that spring life is short and sent along some spares." Our discussion revealed that, between the two of us, the pistol had fired over 400 rounds before the spring failed. As a result, Laughridge will ship each gun with a good supply of springs and instructions to change them every 300 rounds.

Next, we talked about the little bits of jacket metal. Again Laughridge knew what I was talking about. A small rough spot on the feed ramp of the FEC was visible and easily fixed. The Browning was another story altogether. There were no visible sharp edges, but some small pieces were visible In the chamber.

A look through a bore scope gave the answer The chamber had a very sharp shoulder, which was brightly marked with jacket metal scrubbing around the entire circumference. The possibilities were either a chamber that was just a little too short, or an improperly cut throat that was tight and scraped off some jacket. In any case, this had to go back.

Parts flew to Nebraska. Laughridge found that the chamber needed to be slightly deeper. Parts flew back, along with a supply of new recoil springs. And, sure enough, a cure was wrought. With new recoil springs installed, both guns ran flawlessly with a good assortment of ammo. This time I wanted to measure the rate of shortening of the recoil spring. Exactly 100 rounds were fired, Measurements showed:

Spring Length
New 3 1/2"
After 100 rds. 3 1/4"
Failed At 400rds 2 1/8"

We know that the initial collapse of any spring happens very quickly, but they will then normally operate for some time before showing much more shortening. Laughridge's suggestion of 300-round replacement seems wise here.

Work In Progress

Now you see why I called this a "work in progress," because it turned into a great problem-solving exercise. And because of that, I find it hard to judge the guns too harshly. If these were production guns, that would be different, but these are the first two mini-Brownings Laughridge ever made.

Back to the range for a brief function test. Now we have guns that run just great and I'm confident that the next ones Laughridge builds will just get better with experience. And with problems solved, the mini-Brownings were cleaned and inspected yet again. Both went to the range for a fourth time.

As you can see from the table, accuracy was good, so the Browning, and my trigger control, were put to a test. There are some famous (or infamous) gongs at our range: 12" diameter steel plates located a measured 72 yards from the firing line. Using 124 gr. Speer Gold Dot ammo, the Browning's first 10 shots at the gong gave nine tremendously satisfying clangs. One of the other valuable lessons I've learned over many years is to quit while you're ahead.