Springfield SA-35: A Modernized Classic By: David Higginbotham

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The SA-35 from Springfield Armory is one of a long line of P35 variants made over the years. This new spin on the Hi-Power is meant to look like a classic military issue sidearm, but the gun has enough updates to make it a unique branch of the Browning family tree. And it isn’t a gun meant to be tucked up in the safe—the Springfield SA-35 is at its best on the range.

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The SA-35 is perfectly in tune with Springfield Armory's tradition of making functional historical homages.
The SA-35 is perfectly in tune with Springfield Armory’s tradition of making functional historical homages.

Springfield’s Wide-Ranging Identities

No one can pin down Springfield Armory. Their production line of 1911s set the single-action bar pretty high. Yet they also have a reputation for reliable concealed carry that stems from a constant evolution of polymer-framed imports.

Springfield SA-35
The stainless barrel fits tightly in the lug. It moves like many of Springfield’s high-end 1911s.

Their historical homages, though, are also worth noting. Springfield goes to great lengths to make guns that are close, but not actual copies, of originals. Their Mil-Spec 1911 would be ideal for any living historian to wear with a vintage WWII uniform, yet it has some updates, too, that stray from the historical originals—updated sights, for one.

And their M1A line of .308s take the martial version of the M-14 to new levels with updated optics mounts, stock materials, and barrel lengths…, but there’s always the classic walnut and steel option, too, for the purists.

Enter the SA-35

At launch in October of 2021, the Springfield SA-35 caught some by surprise. It shouldn’t. I’d like to see Springfield take on more mid-century classics.

Both the lines and the movement of the Springfield SA-35 action are reminiscent of a good 1911. Even racking the slide is smooth--an oddity for an older design with an external hammer.
Both the lines and the movement of the action are reminiscent of a good 1911. Even racking the slide is smooth—an oddity for an older design with an external hammer.

I’m not a historian, though I do get into the minutia of some guns’ histories. Following the history of the Hi-Power is even more complicated as there were several people involved in its original design, across a couple of decades. And then, during World War II, the design changed, even more, when it was produced by multiple companies around the world.

It began as a contract request by the French military. They wanted a gun that could do what the 1911 did, only with more rounds in the magazine. The initial request was for more than 10, and this was easy enough to do with the 9mm cartridge.

John Moses Browning and Dieudonné Saive

John Browning got the nod to build the prototypes. Much of what he wanted to do with the design was complicated by his own 1911 patents, which he no longer owned. He had the successful model to replicate, but couldn’t, and so some of his early designs would be hard to recognize in the P35, which is how many around the world know the Hi-Power.

two pistols
The family resemblance is easy to see. This wasn’t always the case with the Hi-Power design. But once 1911 patents expired, Browning, and later the crew at FN, could take the parts that worked well from that build and mix them back into what would become the P35. Some 90 years later, we have the Springfield SA-35.

We’re simplifying a lot here, but so be it. Browning died before the design was truly finished. Dieudonné Saive at Fabrique Nationale picked it up. The process drug out long enough that many of the patents on the 1911 expired, so more of that gun’s influence worked its way back in.

The ghost of Browning and FN produced a really compelling gun, but France went with another competitor. Still, the P35 had promise.

Springfield SA-35
The safety on the Springfield SA-35 is only on the left side, for traditional right-handed thumb deployment.

FN put it in the catalog and shopped the gun around to various countries. 1935 was a pretty contentious time. Some of the first adoptions came from Belgium, but the Germans wanted them, too, and they were basically taking everything they wanted during that time.

High Power production continued under German occupation, but also moved to Canada where the name was shortened to Hi-Power. And, for the period, 13 rounds in a magazine was Hi-Power.

The gun would stay in production for a long, long time. FN produced the gun from 1935 to 2018, and they’re back at it in 2022. Others picked up the slack, like Springfield. The SA-35 is one in a long line of variations, but it is one that stands out.

And it has to be daunting as hell to work on design upgrades on a Browning-inspired classic. It is one thing to take the 1911 and add some new slide serrations or some extra textures to a front strap, but something altogether different to go back and fix some of the issues that defined the original.

The SA-35 doesn't have a decocker. It does have a half-cock position for those who don't want to carry cocked and locked.
The Springfield SA-35 doesn’t have a decocker. It does have a half-cock position for those who don’t want to carry cocked and locked.

Springfield SA-35 Specs

  • Caliber: 9mm
  • Color: Black
  • Barrel: 4.7” Cold Hammer Forged, 1:10
  • Slide: Forged Carbon Steel, Blued
  • Frame: Forged Carbon Steel, Blued
  • Sights: White Dot Front, Serrated Tactical Rack Rear
  • Recoil System: SA-35™ Recoil Spring & Guide Rod
  • Grips: Checkered Walnut
  • Magazines: (1) 15-Round
  • Weight: 31.5 oz
  • Length: 7.8”
  • Height:4.8″

Some elements of the design have been kept the same. The SA-35 still uses a locked-breech action. The slide and barrel both move rearward before the barrel’s travel is interrupted, allowing the slide to continue to the rear.

This motion kicks out the empty brass and re-cocks the hammer. While some mods of the P35 have a decocker, this version doesn’t. The safety is a true safety. Treat it like the single action it is if you need to drop the hammer without firing.

There is a half-cocked position. Some are still uncomfortable carrying a pistol cocked and locked (don’t explain to them what’s going on inside a Glock—they’d never sleep again). For them, the half-cocked position might be an option.

closeup view of 1911 and SA-35 barrels
The Hi-Power design is not a 9mm 1911, as I’ve heard it described. The SA-35 may look somewhat like a Springfield Mil-Spec, but both have nuances that make them unique.

Unlike the 1911, there’s no grip safety. As such, holstering the Springfield SA-35 should be done with concentration—even when the safety is engaged. I tend to keep my thumb under the safety, just to ensure there’s no chance of it getting pushed down (as is technically possible with some snug-fitting leather holsters, especially).

SA-35 Updates

Let’s start at the top. The big one. The one that has generated the most buzz.

The Springfield SA-35 eliminates the magazine disconnect. This has been a hot topic for many companies for a long time, including Browning. Most P35s have a magazine disconnect built in a most intrusive way. It prevents the gun from firing without a magazine inserted, and it keeps the magazine from dropping free of the mag well, and some complain that the apparatus adds grit to the trigger.

9mm pistol
While the SA-35 is smaller, nominally, than a 1911, it still weighs in at almost 32 ounces.

I’ve never been fond of guns that won’t fire without a magazine inserted. This is purportedly a safety issue, and I get it, but I only own one (a Browning Buckmark). We all need to be safe and practice compulsive clearing drills, even if the gun won’t fire without a mag.

The mag dropping free issue is different. The story on the older Hi-Powers suggests that this drop-free obstacle prevented magazines from being accidentally lost in the field. True enough. But it slows things down and most folks have to get the support hand into the mag-change act with either multiple movements or complex gymnastics.

The Trigger

I can’t say what an SA-35 trigger would be like with a mag catch. As is, this is a fine trigger. Springfield tunes them before sending them out into the wild.

barrel bushing
The barrel bushing, such as it is, looks nothing like those of the 1911s. This is part of the slide.

It is reminiscent of the better Beretta or Sig triggers I’ve used. I miss the straight-back motion of the 1911, but this is familiar enough that the arc (and the highly curved trigger shoe) don’t feel foreign. And the break is clean and consistent.

I’ve talked to a lot of other writers about this gun. We’re all fixated on it for different reasons. And the only thing I’ve heard that comes close to being a criticism is that the reset can be hard to feel during rapid fire.

The SA-35, like other Hi-Powers, is big enough to hold. It fills the hand, and thins out toward the barrel.
The SA-35, like other Hi-Powers, is big enough to hold. It fills the hand and thins out toward the barrel.

I’m not having the problem. This trigger breaks above five pounds. The reset distance is super short, but I can feel the pressure return. It isn’t as defined as some of Springfield’s 1911 triggers, but it is there.

On the Outside

The frame is the same. This holds true to Springfield’s aesthetic. Start with the classic, then—if there’s demand—run through some radical design revisions. Here I’m thinking about the difference between the new Emissary and the classic Mil-Spec 1911 A1 knock-offs.

The SA-35 grips have been thinned out and some of the angular lines of some P35 grips have been softened. This grip is exceptionally comfortable.
The grips have been thinned out and some of the angular lines of some P35 grips have been softened. This grip is exceptionally comfortable.

The grips have been smoothed out to remove some of the hard edges that are familiar to Hi-Power fans. All told, these have been rounded, thinned a bit, and contoured in such a way that the SA-35 feels incredible in the hand. If a 1911, or even a traditional Hi-Power feels large, this may be an excellent fit.

The Little Things

Another notable improvement in the design is the reduction of Hammer bite. 1911s have those monster beaver-tails added. They’re less common on this variety of gun, and wouldn’t be in keeping with the classic military-issue look of the SA-35.

Springfield re-designed the SA-35 hammer to prevent the P35's hammer bite.
Springfield re-designed the hammer to prevent the P35’s hammer bite. This one is much less likely to pinch, even for those with big mitts.

Springfield took an aggressive approach and modified the hammer dimensions to allow more clearance between the end of the frame and the hammer. Now, if the web of your hand does go over the spur, the hammer won’t snap all the way down on it during recoil. There’s a good .25 inch between the hammer and the spur when it is cocked.

Springfield SA-35 barrel
This is the modified ramp on the SA-35’s barrel. Note the longer, much more modern, feed ramp. This closes off the gap that would prevent some types of ammo from feeding fluidly in the older P35s.

In 1935, there were few options for 9mm ammo. Over the years, the P35 has not kept pace with ammo development. This one has a feed ramp that extends farther down from the breech. Nose dives are far less likely.

external extractor on SA-35
The extractor is external. Ejection is clean and consistent.

During the test, I ran a variety of 9mm ammo. I had some copper hollow points from Norma, some ball from Remington, Hornady Critical Duty, and a mass of mixed-up leftovers that included some steel-cased Tula and all of the other random rounds that get tossed in the 9mm bucket at the end of a range trip.

Over the last six months or so, I’m nearing 1,000 rounds and have yet to have a hiccup. Ejection is clean with everything.

The SA-35 U-notch rear sight.
Like some of Springfield’s other designs, the SA-35 uses a U-notch rear sight. This is a fast design, and another departure from tradition.

Bigger things

With nine decades of development, the P35 has seen a wide variety of sights. The SA-35 has a mix between carry sights and target sights. The U-notch on the rear sight is a theme that Springfield is using on many of its more recent builds.

The rear sight has a shelf built into the design.
The rear sight has a shelf built into the design. This is another feature Springfield is adopting that is a practical approach to truly multi-functional sights.

The back of the sight, though, is flat-black. There’s a slight shelf on the front side that allows for the steel sight itself to be used in emergency situations for the extra leverage needed to cock the pistol.

Another change on the SA-35 is a dot front sight. It is a wide front sight.
Another change on the SA-35 is a dot front sight. It is a wide front sight.

The front sight is not a thin blade. Its white dot fits in the rear U-notch for fast accuracy. While this is the one clear departure from the aesthetics of the older service P35s, it is a subtle element that makes shooting the SA-35 a bit more rewarding.

Where GunMag Warehouse Comes In

The SA-35 ships with one mag. Only one mag. Wait—what?

15-round Springfield SA-35 magazine
Springfield bulked up the SA-35’s mag capacity. The new mag (only one ships with each gun) holds 15 rounds.

True. As these are steel, and special, they’ll require some love. I don’t own any gun for which I don’t have at least 10 mags. That’s my standard, and that’s just for my range guns. If I’m going to carry and train with something, I like to have even more.

GunMag Warehouse has mags, but the Springfield 15 round mags sell out crazy fast. We’re doing what we can to get more. In the meantime, other Hi-Power mags work, you just miss out on capacity.

Whatever choice you make for mags, I’d suggest working on those mag changes. This isn’t being billed as a carry gun, though I do know some who are carrying it. But even on the range, you’ll need to change mags proficiently.

SA-35 magazine
The design of the SA-35’s mag should look very familiar. These are blued steel, made in Italy.

And because these mags drop free, you can run changes fast. The SA-35 has a beveled mag well. The detail is subtle, but the mag comes to a bit of a point as it transitions down from a double-stack to one round, so mag changes are easy to do at speed.

For those coming to the SA-35 from the 1911 (like many of those who got to see the original P35s way back in the day), this mag-capacity and mag change speed must have seemed like serious improvement.

Shooting the SA-35

As for the performance, I’ve got no complaints. I can shoot the gun in this configuration with about the same success I expect from some other contemporary designs.

shooting the Springfield SA-35
The force of the slide returning forward is well balanced and allows you to get back on target fast. I find the SA-35 to be a bit easier to control than a 1911 with similar frame textures.

There’s no checkering or lines on the front strap or the back strap, and no texture on the blued-steel frame. While the steel is not slick or overly glossy, I still have trouble keeping the grip I’d like.

shooting SA-35
The gun shoots flat. It is easy enough to hold down, even though my support hand slips from position. There’s nothing to anchor my left thumb on, as there is with so many polymer-framed pistols.

I’ve got two comparisons that may be apt, here. The first is to the other classic browning. This performs similarly to a 1911 without extra front strap texture. The designs are classic, but there’s room for improvement.

I’ve also got a ton of trigger time with two other 9mms that I consider to be descendants of the Hi-Power in many ways: the P226 and the 92FS. After years of working with and carrying both of those, I’m still faster and more accurate, but I can’t guess as to how much of that is muscle memory.

The 92FS was one of the first big 9mms I owned, and I really love the aesthetic. And Beretta has continued to clean up that gun, though it is beginning to feel more like a design that’s on life-support.

For performance and accuracy and split times, I would put the SA-35 up in that pantheon of metal-framed full-sized 9mms. If I were to be building a top-5 list, this one would be in there, for sure, and would displace any other Hi-Power, if only because of the elimination of the magazine disconnect.

muzzle rise
My son doesn’t have the muscle mass in his hands yet to clamp the SA-35 down, and this—his first shot—surprised him.

My son is six feet tall, but a bean-pole. he doesn’t have the muscle in his hands or forearms to hold the SA-35 flat through recoil. He’s getting there with 1911s, but I happened to capture the first time he pulled the trigger on the SA-35, and it is clear that he underestimated what it was going to do.

control over muzzle-flip
After practicing, he was able to exercise more control over the muzzle flip, but he has work to do.

One-shot accuracy, though, no problem. For those who shoot full-sized guns, this is an easy win. Follow-up shots are fast, and the trigger allows for impressive split times from a design that’s this old.

A friend—someone with a wealth of experience with historical guns—summed it up pretty well. The older Hi-Powers had always been an outdated design, something of a historical novelty, and not a gun that he would ever have considered carrying, despite his love of the platform’s history. Now, after getting some trigger time with the SA-35, he sees the platform for what it could be—a gun he’d carry everyday.

In the End

Springfield is asking $699 for the SA-35. I’ve yet to see one for sale in the wild. My FFL has run them through, but they hit the shop and are gone the same day.

Target from running 5-round strings from the SA-35.
Running 5-round strings from the SA-35. The consistency is solid from a gun that really lacks a lot of the texture most of us expect on our autos.

I’m eager to see where Springfield takes this. There’s no chance that this will spawn as many variants as their 1911s, but it should provide a framework for some more movement away from the military-issued look, at least.

And the SA-35’s success gives Springfield so much room to explore other classics. And this is the real appeal. This, like the Mil-Spec and others, is a gun that is meant to be used, not babied and oiled and treated like an investment that needs to be kept pristine, unfired, in its original box.