Belgium –-(Ammoland.com)- On October 12, 1970, Dieudonne Saive passed away at the age of 82. His most famous legacy is that of the Fusil Automatique Leger, or FAL, which is a rifle that served NATO and other free world forces for more than fifty years and is still in military service in certain places. Because of its widespread use by NATO and others, the FAL became known as “The Right Arm of the Free World.”
Born on May 23, 1888, Saive went to work for FN shortly after high school. It was here that he would cross paths repeatedly with the 20th century’s most prolific arms designer: John Moses Browning.
When France approached FN to design a new type of semi-automatic pistol in 1921 with a 15-round capacity, their chief designer, John M. Browning, declined, unimpressed with the potential of higher capacity pistols. It was Saive who designed an experimental double-stack magazine, mated to an FN 1903 pistol (chambered in 9x20mm), that was provided to Browning when he finally accepted the French call for a different combat pistol design.
One locked-breech option was designed using the new magazine, with a patent being granted in February 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 those now-free-to-use features.
The late 1920s kept him quite busy. In 1928, Saive traveled to Yugoslavia to set up the state arsenal in Kragujevac. The following year, in 1929, he returned to Belgium where he oversaw the manufacture of the commercial version of the Browning Automatic Rifle, more commonly known as the BAR.
By 1930, Saive had been promoted to become FN’s chief weapons designer, now occupying the position vacated a few years earlier by Browning.
Transitioning back to the pistols in this story, the French term Grande Puissance (“Hi-Power”) was first applied to the design which became the French GP-35 self-loading pistol, or FN Browning Hi-Power, in 1934. The Hi-Power was the first 9×19mm handgun to utilize a true staggered-column magazine, and despite Browning’s name being associated with the gun, the Hi-Power design is essentially Saive’s – not Browning’s.
When Saive’s native Belgium was invaded during WWII, he fled to the UK and did work for Enfield.
After WWII ended, Saive continued to create, and one of his rifle designs was based around his patented gas-operated tilting breechblock, which first debuted with the FN Model 1949. Too late for WWII, it was quickly supplanted by modern assault rifles including the HK G3 and (somewhat ironically) the FN FAL.
To conform with the US-led NATO ammunition selection, the FAL was redesigned to handle the 7.62×51 NATO cartridge. While the United States eventually chose the T44 rifle, which became the M14, most of the European allies chose variants of the FAL.
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 in the field at the same time.
Dieudonne Saive contribution to military firearms extends well beyond these two well-known examples. For example, the FN Baby Browning in .25 ACP was much more his design than Browning’s. His life’s work is a series of remarkable achievements in the arms world at the exact moment when they were needed most. When he died in 1970, his firearms were still protecting the Western World.
He was, without a doubt, one of the best arms designers in history. That fact alone makes it all the more sad that most people have never heard of him.
About Logan Metesh
Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.