For those not familiar with them the Helwan is a license-built Berretta M1951 Brigadier manufactured in Egypt by Maadi, where it served as the standard side-arm of their military and police for a number of years. A number of middle-eastern militaries, including Israel, adopted the Beretta M1951 and most Italian police forces also used it at one time or another. It had a reputation for uncanny reliability in desert conditions. It is the predecessor of the Model 92, also called the Brigadier.
Known in Egypt as the Helwan, it was imported to the US as the Helwan Brigadier- presumably so that Americans would associate it with the Beretta. The quality of these imports has been variable; the gun that I had a couple decades ago was pretty crude, with a very heavy trigger pull. I described the finish as ‘looking like it had been applied with a rake.’ It worked, but was unattractive and unpleasant to shoot owing to the poor trigger. I didn’t keep it. But I knew there were good ones out there, so I always half-heartedly kept an eye out for one. A couple of years ago my wife was running a 9mm, and suggested that I should have one too so we’d be shooting the same caliber. At this point in my life I am more interested in ‘interesting’ guns than buying for pure efficiency, so I thought of a Helwan, or perhaps a CZ52 re-barreled in 9mm.
Saturday we had just picked up Linda’s anniversary present– I finally got her a diamond– and stopped by Pinto’s guns in Renton to make a payment on a revolver we had on layaway for her. They were busy, and while we waited I spotted a Helwan in the case and asked to see it. It was one of the early Interarms imports- one of the good ones. Nice, even finish, mechanically smooth with good trigger, and in nearly pristine condition. It came with the original box and a spare magazine. The price was quite reasonable, but we really couldn’t afford it…
So when we finally got helped to my surprise Linda converted her credit on the lay-away revolver and applied it to the Helwan! I protested, but she said I had plenty of guns she could shoot, and I’d already put together a lovely revolver for her. Besides, she still hadn’t gotten me an anniversary present. Gotta love that woman. We picked up some ammo and took the Helwan home.
Yesterday was Range-day, and I was meeting Buck13 (from an internet forum) at the Issaquah Sportsman’s Club for a range day, and naturally I took the Helwan. I had examined it when I got home, and it was as nice inside and out. Hollow points cycled easily from the magazines, so I had high hopes. The gun functioned flawlessly, was accurate and a pleasure to shoot. I love a good work-horse gun, and this one ticks all the boxes.Best anniversary present ever!
So, about the Helwan. As mentioned it is a steel-frame, single-action semi auto that uses an 8-round single-stack magazine. The first run of Berettas had alloy frames, but these were found to be too frail, and from the second run onwards they had steel frames. It uses the same locking-block system as the German P-38 and the later Model 92 and its variants. It also shares the P-38’s open-top slide, which may be one of the things that accounts for its legendary reliability.
The controls are unusual; the safety is a cross-bolt type that blocks the hammer. The slide can be operated with the safety on, which is a plus. Typically I’ll cock the hammer, apply the safety and then operate the slide to load the weapon. Works a treat, and is a nice safety feature.
About that safety- it seems like it would be awkward to operate. You need to push it from left to right to fire the gun, and it’s location is not ideal- or so it seems. But when I assume a firing grip it is very easy to exert a little pressure on the side of my right thumb, and the safety pops off. Very easy and intuitive; this gun could be carried ‘cocked and locked.’ This safety would be a deal-breaker for someone who is left-handed, but I’m not. I actually like it.
Then there is the magazine release. It’s a pretty standard button-type release, but it’s located on the lower rear of the left-side of the grip. This is not as convenient as the more conventional location at the back of the trigger-guard, but it works well enough. With a little training it’s easy to hold the spare magazine in the left hand, trigger the release with the left thumb, drop the magazine (which falls free) and insert another. Not quite as convenient as a 1911-style release, but better than a heel-release. It has the arguable advantage that you do not shift your firing grip at all to change magazines. It is possible to shift you grip to actuate the release one-handed, so one-handed mag changes are really no more awkward than with any other pistol.
The slide release is conventional and in the expected location. Anyone familiar with the Walther P-38 or Beretta 92 will find it quite familiar in appearance too. What else can I say? It works and it’s easy to operate.
Other notes- the sights, while not as nice as modern combat sights, are quite good for a service pistol from this era. The grips are ribbed plastic and provide a pretty secure hold. The gun is robustly built, and has a proven track record in military service. The trigger is service grade- mine breaks at about six pounds, but it is crisp and breaks cleanly. Even though it’s rather heavy neither I nor my wife had any issues with it; Linda described it as ‘nice,’ and I agree. Accuracy is good and the gun is reliable and pleasant to shoot. It’s about 1911-sized, a bit lighter and has a shorter grip. Being a single-stack the gun is pretty flat and would work well for concealed-carry in an IWB holster.
The cons are that it makes no accommodation for left-handed shooting or shooters, it is (by modern standards) large and heavy for a single-stack 9mm and the unconventional controls make for a different manual of arms than modern automatics. Many people choose to overcome both this and its lack of handiness for left-handed shooting by carrying it with he hammer down (there is a safety position for this,) but this will not suit every user. Another disadvantage is that not all of these guns handle hollow points as well as this one does; they were designed for ball ammunition and that is their preference. For a range-toy this is not an issue, but for self-defense use it’s a deal-killer. Hornady does offer their Critical Defense/Critical Duty ammunition that seems quite effective and has a ball-like profile, but you would really need to insure it works before trusting it.
Typically these guns run around $200-$300 retail, but finish quality can vary. I’ve seen a number of these guns, and some (like my earlier gun) are pretty crude. On the other hand I haven’t seen one that didn’t work, at least with ball ammunition. If you are on a limited budget, want a recreational 9mm or are a die-hard Beretta fan you could do a lot worse than giving the Helwan a good look.