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July 6, 2023

The Liberator Pistol: A World War 2 One-Shot Wonder

By Kurt Allemeier

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One million single-shot Liberator pistols were the answer to a problem that didn’t seem relevant to the American war effort in World War 2 when they were manufactured by a headlight maker in just three months. After the war, hundreds of thousands of the clandestine weapon were destroyed or simply dumped in the ocean.

Here are a couple of different perspectives of the Tower of Liberators. The tower includes one of a kind prototypes, a Liberator pistol in an unopened box and the CIA successor, the Deer Gun.

These crudely-made guns were intended to be dropped behind enemy lines for resistance fighters. Rock Island Auction Company is proud to offer a collection of 10 Liberator pistols that range from prototypes to the last one off the production line and even its CIA successor, the Deer Gun, in the August 25-27 Premier Auction.

A Literal Tower of Liberator Pistols

The collection of Liberators is displayed in a rotating circular platform with three columns of acrylic, allowing the guns to be viewed from all angles. Among the collection are an incredibly rare first prototype and the 1 millionth and last made, as well as rare pre-production and production models.

This collection was once part of author Ralph Hagan’s collection, assembled by him, earning a “One of the Ten Best Arms Exhibits” and the NRA silver medal that is included. Among Hagan’s works is “The Liberator Pistol” written in 1996. Hagan, who passed away in 2006, tracked down his first Liberator pistol in 1975.

This is easily the finest collection of FP-45 Liberator pistols that has ever come through our doors. From prototypes and cut-aways, to the last example produced, and one STILL unopened in its original box, this is supremely impressive grouping years in the making.

The Start of the Liberator Pistol

The Liberator’s name didn’t come until after the guns were manufactured. The gun’s government-assigned name was the FP-45, or Flare Projector 45 as it was conceived by the U.S. Joint Psychological Warfare Committee in 1942. The committee thought the idea of a single-shot pistol that could be dropped behind enemy lines and be used to eliminate an enemy and take their rifle was a good one. Of course, the committee didn’t consult with anyone in the U.S. military about this concept.

The name was a bit of misinformation for what would be a secret project since it wasn’t intended as a flare gun. As it was designed, parts also received obfuscating names. The barrel was a “tube” and the trigger was a “Yolk,” while the cocking knob was “a control handle,” and a trigger guard was listed as a “spanner.” The Liberator was also called the “Woolworth Gun” after the dime store.

Inland Corporation was initially contacted about designing the .45 ACP gun and George Hyde, who would design the M-3 submachine gun, was among fewer than 10 people involved in the design. Hyde, Inland’s gunsmith, made the first Liberator prototype by hand. Because of Inland’s production of the M-1 Carbine, the project was passed along to Guide Lamp, another division of GM, that made head lamps for vehicles.  Contracted to manufacture 1 million pistols, production began at a walled-off part of Guide Lamp’s Andersonville, Ind., plant and the employees were sworn to secrecy.

This standard production Liberator pistol from the Tower of Liberators has an inspection stamp on barrel strap just before the loading gate.

The first pistols misfired in live fire tests. The cocking knob could get out of alignment with the firing pin causing it to fail. A guide pin was added to the cocking knob to keep it in place in what was called the Model 2 pistol. The guide pin needed to be stronger so the cocking knob was made of cast zinc as the Model 3 came to be. Model 3 production began the second week of June 1942 and ran until the last of the 1 million Liberators came off the line on Aug. 21, 1942.

Parts for the Liberator were made at a number of plants. Frigidaire chambered the gun, reaming 600 barrels per hour. Saginaw Steering Gear Division made barrel bushings, Detroit Transmission made barrel collars, and Moraine Products Division built the barrel and trigger guard assembly for Guide Lamp.

Since the gun was intended to be clandestine, none of the Liberator’s 23 parts were serial numbered nor the Liberator marked – except for the 1 millionth gun that was marked “1,000,000 LIBERATOR/1942 GUIDE LAMP GMC/Fred B. Thacker/US ARMY 0360133.” Thacker was the U.S. Army liaison for the project.

This Liberator Model 3 is likely a "show and tell" model painted with aluminum paint and has an enlarged hole on the right side to show the sear operation and it has the number "3" stamped on the front of the trigger guard. It appears to have been fired a number of times. This exact pistol is photographed and described on page 63 of Ralph Hagan's book, "The Liberator Pistol".

The Liberator Pistol: The Basics

Let’s take a moment to consider this easily concealable gun. The Liberator was five inches long and weighed about 1 lb., with a smooth bored barrel meaning bullets would tumble after leaving the barrel and keyhole a target. The pistol’s effective range was about 25-50 feet and had significant recoil because of how light the gun was.

The muzzle velocity for the Liberator was 730-740 feet per second, while an M1911 had a muzzle velocity of about 850 feet per second.

The Tower of Liberators includes an unopened waxed box containing a liberator, instructions, a dowel to remove the spent casings and 10 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition.

Reloading of the one-shot gun was expected to take about 10 seconds and they were made to be fired only once or twice. The Liberator was a fragile pistol that was found to split at its welded seams. Its maximum life expectancy was, at most, about 50 rounds.

The collection in the “Tower of Liberators” include what is likely the very first Liberator prototype with a red-oxide finish, a second prototype from Inland, a Model 2 developed after the misfire issues of the Model 1, a Liberator with an unknown inspection stamp, an incredibly rare Liberator in its unopened box, the 1 millionth Liberator, a Liberator with “F” inspection stamps, a demonstration model, a cutaway Liberator, a Liberator with unique German proof marks, and a CIA Deer Gun.

This pistol from the Tower of Liberators is one of five pre-production prototype FP-45 pistols made at the Inland plant in Dayton, Ohio before production was moved to the Guide Lamp facility in Anderson, Indiana. This pistol is photographed in Ralph Hagan's "The Liberator Pistol" book on pages 54 and 55, in which it states this pistol was kept by Paul Hamisch, one of two skilled draftsmen involved with the FP-45 project at the Inland facility. An "H" inscribed on the right of the cocking knob was done by Hamisch.

Other prototypes that Hagan discovered in his research included a Liberator with a lever ejector, a model with a lever to hold the breech block open when loading, one with a breech block extractor, an experimental two-shot model with a sliding breech, and a sub-caliber barrel for .32 ACP.

What Next for the Liberator Pistol?

From concept to the manufacture of 1 million Liberators took less than six months – one Liberator manufactured every 6.6 seconds. The Liberators shipped in small waxed cardboard boxes with illustrated instructions in comic book form so that anyone could load and use it regardless of language barriers or literacy. Also included was a dowel for extracting a cartridge and a box of ammunition. The cost to make the Liberator was $1.73 per gun or $2.10 when the packaging was included. The cost to make an M1911 in 1942 was $15.

Great Britain requested 500,000 of the guns in October 1942 with the intention of dropping them in occupied parts of Europe. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower nixed the idea because it wasn’t a good use of Allied bombers to drop something other than bombs. British Whitley bombers could each carry about 600 guns per mission so more than 800 flights would have to be made to drop the guns leaving no way to effectively distribute them. About 450,000 were eventually melted down or dumped in the Irish Sea.

This pistol from the Tower of Liberators has the right side cut away to show the interior workings and construction of the gun. This exact pistol is photographed in Ralph Hagan's "The Liberator Pistol" book on page 88.

Gen. Douglas McArthur requested 50,000 Liberators that were distributed throughout the India-China-Burma Theater as well as the Pacific. About 200,000 guns were shipped to Calcutta, India of which about 115,000 met their end in the Indian Ocean.

The Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, received and distributed the Liberator, too.

Philippines Police did carry the Liberator as an issued weapon for a time after World War 2.

Illustrated instructions to use the Liberator pistol are shown on the left, while the photo on the right shows an insurgent armed with a Liberator pistol.

The Liberator Pistol Preceded the Deer Gun

The CIA has never acknowledged the existence of the Deer Gun, developed early in the Vietnam War when covert operations were anticipated. CIA officials approached American Machine & Foundry’s special firearms division. AMF made Harley-Davidson motorcycles, bicycles, snowmobiles, and pin-setting machines, but also low-key Cold War items like launch silos for Titan and Atlas ICBMs and nuclear reactors. The company added the covert Deer Gun to its portfolio.

The Liberator was constructed with 23 parts while the Deer Gun had 12. There wasn’t a trigger guard, and the Deer Gun was packaged in a cardboard box with a Styrofoam inset with three 9mm cartridges. The Deer Gun, like the Liberator wasn’t its original name. It was originally DEAR Pistol for “Denied Area” Pistol. How that came to be Deer Gun is unknown.

It is believed about 1,000 were produced under contract for $300,000 but became low priority as situations changed in Southeast Asia. About 200 were sent to Asia for field testing. A robbery suspect in New York City in 1975 reportedly was arrested with a Deer Gun and said he bought it from someone off the street who brought it back from Vietnam. The gun disappeared from its evidence locker. Another tale about the Deer Gun is that it was used in the 1970 assassination of a Cuban official in Mexico City. Only about 20 are known to be in circulation.

A CIA Deer Gun, the successor to the World War 2 Liberator pistol, is included in the Tower of Liberators, but one of these extremely rare guns -- possibly only 20 in circulation -- is also available as a separate lot in the August Premier Auction.

Liberator Pistol, a One-Shot Wonder

The Liberator was an idea hatched without considering the practicalities of waging a war. Once made, they had to overcome reluctant military commanders and the logistics of delivery when planes and pilots were already precious resources that could produce concrete results. Conceived in that American ideal of resistance, it was also a symbol of American ingenuity that was conceived, designed, and manufactured in less than six months in wartime.

Cheaply made with hopes of disposing of the enemy with a single, close-range shot, the Liberator is a piece of World War 2 history that considered the subterfuge without taking into account battle planning, logistics, and troop movements. By simply destroying most of these guns along with nearly all of the CIA’s Deer Guns, these firearms have become fascinating pieces for World War 2 military collectors and this “Tower of Liberators” is an amazing opportunity in RIAC's upcoming Premier Auction, Aug. 25-27.

Sources:

“The Liberator Pistol,” by Ralph Hagan

Resistance from Above: The Liberator Pistol, by Rose Durand, Museum of Jewish Heritage

World War II “Liberator” Pistol, American Rifleman

The CIA’s Deer Gun, by Scott Barbour, Small Arms Review

The CIA’s Deer Gun: Dirty Deeds, Done (Not So) Dirt Cheap, by Chris Eger, guns.com

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