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Man and the Gun: Dieudonne Saive
By Bart Herr
When the West needed a weapon to face the Kalashnikov in proxy wars throughout Asia and Africa, they, with the exception of the United States, turned to Fabrique Nationale and their master designer, Dieudonne’ Joseph Saive (“dYou Don Save”). His designs, and collaborative efforts, helped make FN one of the most prolific firearms manufacturers in the world.
Saive is most famously associated with the Fusil Automatique Leger, the famous FN FAL rifle that served NATO and other free world forces for more than fifty years and is still in military service. Its use became so common in Western armies it became known as “The Right Arm of the Free World.” As successful as this single design has been, it was by no means his only accomplishment.
When France approached FN to design a new type of semi-automatic pistol with a 15-round capacity, the request initially fell on deaf ears. Their chief designer, John M. Browning, declined to respond to the contract, unimpressed with the potential of higher capacity pistols. It was Saive who designed an experimental double stack magazine, mated to an FN 1903 pistol, that was provided to Browning when he finally accept the French call for a different combat pistol design.
Two designs, one direct blowback and one locked breech were designed using the new magazine, with a patent being granted for the latter in February of 1927, four months after Browning’s death. The result was the 13-round Grand Rendement pistol. After patents on key designs used in Colt’s 1911 (also a Browning design) expired, Saive further modified the Rendement incorporating these features.
These modifications led to a design that was finally submitted to the French military under the designation Grande Puissance 1935 which was turned down by their government. They chose instead the M1935 pistol in
7.65 Longue, a cartridge that was derived from the American Pederson device from World War 1. No slouch either, this single stack pistol (despite the initial demand from France for a double stack which started FN’s contract work) was eventually licensed by the Swiss firm SIG and used as the basis of their P210 pistol.
With an obvious winner on their hands FN marketed their new pistol as the Browning Hi-Power to the world market, just in time for World War II. By 1940, FN had sold more than 56,000 Hi-Powers, most of which went to the Belgian military. German forces captured Belgium in May of 1940 and occupied FN’s production plant in Liege. The plant was then pressed into service by the Nazi’s who used the Hi-Power under their designation Pistole 640(b).
Saive fled to London along with his designs. By 1944, England and the Common Wealth were busily making copies of the P35 designated as the Pistol No. 2 Mk 1. Hi-Powers were built by John Inglis and Company in Toronto in two basic designs. One used fixed sights. The other used a tangent sight and was cut for use with a detachable shoulder stock. Many of these were sent to China. Those that didn’t were taken by the Canadian Army and designated Pistol No. 1 Mk1.
At its peak, after the war ended, Browning and Saive’s pistol eventually served as the standard military issue pistol for 93 nations and is still in production. It was the right pistol at the right time and its double stack magazine changed the handgun world.
Saive’s rifle designs are based around his patented gas operated tilting breechblock. This design allows
the bolt to tip downward within its carrier, unlocking the action. It is a rugged and efficient system the first debuted with the FN Model 1949, which eventually served with a handful of smaller armies. The design was quickly supplanted the first wave of modern assault rifles including the HK G3 and the FN FAL.
Saive’s FAL was prototyped in the 8mm Kurz cartridge (the STG 44’s round) and then in the experimental .280 British. To conform with the US led NATO ammunition selection, it was redesigned to handle the considerably more powerful 7.62X51 NATO cartridge. While the Americans eventually chose the T44 rifle which became the M14, most of the European allies chose variants of the FAL. See this video for action functioning:
With a short-stroke gas piston, the rifle has a reputation for reliability that has been well earned around the world. The gas system uses a simple regulator that can be dialed by the user to control how much gas drives the piston. The piston may also be turned off for throwing grenades or for use as a manually operated rifle. This feature endeared the rifle to trainers of ill-prepared indigenous troops during the many African brushfire wars.
The FAL design has been used by more than 90 countries with more than two million produced worldwide. The design, much like the Hi-Power, has been so common among military forces that soldiers from opposing armies have both carried FAL variants. This was especially true of the Falkland’s conflict, where the British L1A1 variant was pitted against the Argentine FAL built under license from FN.
Dieudonne Saive contribution to military firearms extends well beyond these two well-known examples. His works and designs came at a time when the Democratic nations needed weapons to defeat Nazi Germany and later the frequently hot Cold War battles with Communism. He was one of the truly great firearm’s designers, perhaps the greatest you’ve never heard of. When he died in 1973, his firearms were still protecting the Western World.