A Blast From the Past: Browning FN High Power Bolt-Action

“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…*” and another of those rifles that are just now being fully appreciated by the public.

In 1960, Browning introduced the FN High Power bolt-action, made in Belgium along distinctly American lines. It was based on a commercial FN claw-extractor action and came in three grades: Safari, Medallion, and Olympian. The first is plain vanilla; the second considerably fancier, and the third is a vision of firearm magnificence which you are probably not worthy to behold.

The High Power saga is so complex that you're advised to rush right out and buy a copy of The Blue Book of Gun Values, which offers the most lucid account of the whole business. However, here's a brief summation: Simultaneous with the FN-action rifles, Browning built High Powers in the smaller calibers on Sako actions. The FN rifles ran from 1960 to 1974, at which time Sako actions were used exclusively. During the FN era, the guns were available in calibers from .222 to .458, the aforementioned three grades, long- and short-extractor actions, standard or optional medium-weight barrels, and God knows what else. The price in 1960 for a Safari Grade High Power was $200 or thereabouts, which was a lot of money back then.

The High Power was a distinctive-looking rifle. The bolt-handles were matt-chromed, the stocks were shiny, and were of either plain European walnut or very showy claro walnut from America. The barrels used a stepped taper and were fitted with unusually fine iron sights. Triggers were non-adjustable and, as I recall, very good. (This was before the era when lawyers designed triggers.) The metalwork was immaculate. FN used a bright blue, and the polishing was flawless. The FN Mauser actions that went into Brownings are a perfect illustration of why people get all misty-eyed about Mausers.

But the High Powers were not perfect. In fact, very far from it.

The barrels, in the smaller bore sizes, were too skinny. “Pencil barrels,” Browning collectors call them. I don’t recall High Powers as being accurate, although I’d like to see what they can do with modern bullets.

High Powers kicked. Part of this was stock design, and partly because on the non-magnum rifles, Browning used a cheesy plastic buttplate that accentuated recoil when it was not busy slipping off your shoulder. The magnum guns were equipped with ventilated recoil pads with whiteline spacers, which were fashionable at the time, but are now held in the same regard as whitewall tires.

The stock finish, in addition to being shiny, did not hold up well, and you see High Powers today whose finish has cracked, crazed, and chipped. The checkering was OK by ’60s standards, but it is pretty sad by today’s. The diamonds were small, and were simply squares turned on their sides. This was largely moot because the checkering was filled up by the stock finish, which was probably sprayed on. (Proper checkering demands that diamonds be three times as long as they are wide. Modern, machine-cut checkering is as good as a lot of the custom checkering you could get in the 60s.)

The real problem with the High Power woodwork is the salt-stock curse. This deserves a digression, and the following comes from Ned Schwing’s book Browning Superposed: John M. Browning’s Last Legacy via Shotgunreport.com, by Bruce Buck, a person of the very highest literary and moral worth.

In the mid-1960s, Browning needed a bigger supply of high-grade walnut, and came across a California contractor who had oodles of claro walnut that had been cut from powerline right of ways. However, it had been salt-cured rather than by the slower kiln-drying or air-drying processes.

According to Mr. Buck: “Morton Salt had developed a salt-solution drying process that had been successfully used in the furniture industry. ...Browning tested it and there were no problems, so Browning bought the process in 1965.

“[According to Schwing] ‘In an area roughly the size of a football field, five-foot-by five-foot by eight-foot stacks of stock blanks were covered with salt. The salt was supposed to leach out the moisture and dry the wood quickly. The process did accomplish its purpose but the moisture that was drawn out of the blanks on top of the stacks ran down into the blanks below, resulting in a brine solution that soaked the lower wood blanks.’”

Bruce Buck continues: “...According to Schwing’s interviews…all the salt curing was done in the U.S. and affected at least 90% of all Browning stocks made from 1967 to 1969. The problem continued to show up until 1972, but in smaller numbers. It was then that the entire supply of walnut blanks was burned and replaced with traditional kiln-dried wood.”

It was not only Browning that got hold of this salty claro; Winchester and Ruger were also recipients. In the late 1970s, I bought a 6mm Ruger Number One that almost immediately began rusting where the buttstock joined the receiver. I gave the rifle to gunsmith Creighton Audette, who chiseled away some of the tainted wood and rebedded the receiver in epoxy so that there was no wood to metal contact. It didn’t help. The receiver rusted again and I sold the rifle for a song. I think the song was, “There’s No Reason to Laugh at the Average Giraffe.”

If you’re contemplating the purchase of a High Power, your very first step must be to take all the metal, down even to the buttplate screws, out of the stock, and check for rust. If you see it, here’s what you do:

1. Point out to the seller that you will have to pay big bucks to a gunsmith to have the rifle re-polished and blued; that it has no value to a collector, and that the stock is worthless except as firewood (It will burn with blue and green flames, like ocean driftwood), and that you will be glad to take it off his hands for $184.39, and not a cent more.
2. Buy it and burn the stock.
3. Pass the whole deal up.

Indeed, if I were to buy a High Power in good shape with an unpolluted stock, I’d probably get a synthetic stock for it and put the wood handle in a closet. Fiberglass or Kevlar, with a nice, thick recoil pad and pillar bedding, can work wonders for a rifle.

So, why all the fuss? Because the High Power is still one of the best of the innumerable Mauser-actioned sporters. At its time, it was one of the two best production rifles around; I think that only the J.P Sauer-built Weatherby Mark Vs were in a league with it. It was a rifle built by people who gave a damn about what they were doing.

It’s also an artifact of the past, the relic of an era, like the AC Cobra, which, by today’s standards, is painfully primitive, but which, in its original form, sells for $500,000 to $1,000,000 simply because it was once the baddest thing on the road, and even today, if you have the nerve to drive something that valuable, is a guaranteed near-death experience.

At Kittery Trading Post, Home of All Things Desirable, there is currently a High Power in .300 H&H. That cartridge was hot stuff in the 60s, but no longer, and the rifle itself is only in NRA Good condition. (The metal is nice, but the stock looks like it was used to paddle the Allagash on a regular basis.) It’s mounted with a scope of no particular distinction and is going for $1,095. This is right in line with the Blue Book value. It’s worth noting that Kittery keeps the High Power behind the counter with the rest of the Good Stuff rather than in the floor racks where the peasants can grope.

Howell’s, in Gray, Maine, has a Safari Grade in .30/06, no rust that I can see, nearly perfect metal, but some gouges in the stock. The price is $750 or so, and this one is a bargain. I believe the stock is not so banged up that it couldn’t be restored. If it were left handed, I would own it.

If you’re after a Safari Grade High Power in 80 percent condition and without toxic wood, the price is about $1,000, give or take $100.

A Medallion Grade in really nice shape is around $3,000.

The Olympian, of which I’ve seen very, very few in 50-plus years, is bringing $9,000 in pristine condition. Sell your Powerful Assault Rifles, which Hillary won’t let you keep anyway, and get one.

If I were right-handed would I own a High Power? In a heartbeat.

*Where did this come from? And stay the hell off Google. If you can’t remember you’re disqualified.