By Frank Iannamico
The FP-45 Liberator
World War II was a desperate time that often called for desperate measures. Democracy and the American way of life were being seriously threatened, and anything less than total victory was unthinkable. This situation led to some peculiar inventions and weapons on both sides.
One of the more intriguing devices to emerge from the war was a small, single shot .45 caliber pistol. This pistol was unlike any ever produced before. Its purpose, development and manufacture were kept top secret.
In 1939 the German Army began to systematically conquer most of the countries in Europe. After occupying a defeated country, one of the Nazi’s first priorities was to seize all of the weapons that were in the hands of civilians. This was done to prevent any resistance groups from being established within the occupied areas. Many people placed under the Nazi yoke were eager to revolt against the Germans who had enslaved them.
In 1942 the Polish attaché (in exile) sent a memo to the Allied Chief of the European Section suggesting that weapons, explosives and supplies be airdropped to partisans in the occupied countries in order to begin an internal revolt against the Germans. This request was forwarded to the U.S Joint Psychological Warfare Committee.
The U.S Joint Psychological Warfare Committee, was a component of the War Department. The committee theorized that if a substantial amount of cheap, large caliber pistols could be secretly supplied to people in the German occupied countries, their will to revolt would be increased. The committee’s basic idea was to supply a small easily concealed weapon that could be used to liberate a better one. Sabotage and guerrilla activities conducted by the civilian population in the occupied countries would demoralize the Germans and help the allied cause. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agreed with the plan, but wanted to carefully control distribution of the weapons. It was also thought that a weapon of this type would be ideal to airdrop behind enemy lines just prior to a large-scale invasion. The pistols would help in arming the local resistance groups in order to disrupt enemy communications and cause diversions.
It was proposed that the weapon have the following characteristics:
*a. Inexpensive. To cost no more than one or two dollars.
*b. To be small and compact, weighing about 1 pound.
*c. To fire a standard, large caliber cartridge readily obtainable in large quantities.
*d. To be of a design easily produced within short period of time.
*e. To be packed singly in moisture proof containers with ammunition and easily understandable instructions for use.
The project was presented to the U.S. Ordnance Department in April 1942. The Ordnance Department proposed a simple single shot pistol that could be made from inexpensive sheet steel stampings. A design was submitted to the Joint Psychological Warfare Committee and an order was immediately placed for 1 million pistols. To conceal its true purpose the weapon was manufactured under the guise of “Flare Projector FP-45”. The Ordnance Department in concert with the General Motors Corporation decided that the Guide Lamp Division of GM would be the ideal facility to manufacture the new secret weapon. Guide Lamp had a lot of experience with stamped sheet metal products. George Hyde, a weapons developer and gunsmith at GM was assigned to the FP-45 project. Mr. Hyde hand built the first FP-45 prototype. George Hyde along with the Guide Lamp Division were also involved in the development and manufacture of the U.S. M3 submachine gun.
Due to reliability problems there were several minor design changes. The first model had a misfiring problem that was caused by the cocking handle turning slightly when the trigger was pulled. This would cause a misalignment of the firing pin with the firing pin hole in the breechblock. The second model was designed with a guide pin intended to keep the firing pin aligned with the breechblock. There were problems with this design as well. After firing the weapon a few times the alignment pin would come loose or break. This led to a third model. The third model utilized a U shaped piece of steel that served as a combination firing and guide pin. This U shaped pin was then cast inside a cocking knob made of a zinc alloy. The third model accounted for the majority of the FP45s produced and is the version most commonly encountered today.
Mass production of the FP45 began in June of 1942 and ran briefly until August of 1942. The Guide Lamp Division manufactured the small pistols 24 hours a day 7 days a week. An amazing 1 million weapons were turned out in this short time period. The pistols were manufactured and tested secretly in an isolated part of the Guide Lamp factory. The FP-45 was manufactured from 23 individual parts. The barrel was made from a piece of tubular steel and was 4 inches in length. The bore was unrifled. The unloaded weight of the weapon was 15.7 ounces. The pistol grip was hollow with a sliding floor plate for storing up to 10 rounds of spare .45 caliber service ammunition. The pistol was stamped and spot welded together and not able to be easily disassembled. The total cost of the pistol, ten rounds of ammunition and packaging was $2.10. The total weight of the packaged weapon with ammunition was 1lb. 11oz.
From the Guide Lamp factory the FP-45s were shipped to Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia were they were packaged as requested by the British. This packaging consisted of: the pistol, 10 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition, a wooden dowel rod for extracting spent cartridge cases and a pictorial instruction sheet. These items were packaged in a 5 1/4”x 5 1/4” card board box that was sealed then dipped in hot wax to make it water proof.
Once the pistols were ready to be shipped to Europe it was decided by the Allied Command that only 500,000 units would be needed in the ETO. This was a due in part to an unforeseen problem with distribution. After a study of the problem it was determined that proper distribution would be logistics nightmare.
This sudden change in plans left a surplus of 500,000 FP45 weapons at the Frankford Arsenal. Other organizations were asked if they had any need for such a weapon. General MacArthur requested 50,000 for the Pacific Theater, but there were few other takers on the offer. This left the Frankford Arsenal with 450,000 surplus FP45 pistols that nobody wanted. The amount of space required to store these guns was the equivalent of 50 railroad boxcars. This space was badly needed for the storage of other more critical supplies. It was suggested that the remaining pistols be scrapped. The thought of destroying such a large number of serviceable weapons in wartime was very upsetting to some folks, plus the remaining weapons had cost the army over a million dollars to manufacture. Eventually the FP45 pistols were given to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS.) The army wasn’t very happy with giving the OSS million dollars worth of equipment at no cost, but there was little choice.
The OSS distributed them in China, Italy, Greece, Burma and other places where they felt they would be put to good use. The army’s program for a cheap clandestine pistol was for the most part a failure.
The OSS gave the name “Liberator” to the pistol when they listed it in their 1944-supply catalog under that nomenclature. The small pistol was known by many nicknames such as: the Woolworth special, the Kangaroo gun and others equally unflattering. There where several experimental variants of the Liberator, including a two shot model, and a 1911 pistol made from sheet metal stampings. A large number of the FP45 Liberators were destroyed after the end of WWII.
In the 1960s an “improved” model of the Liberator was manufactured for clandestine use by the CIA. The new variant known as the “Deer Gun” was also single shot, but chambered in 9mm Parabellum. The Deer gun had a 2” blued steel barrel and a cast aluminum body. There was no trigger guard or any type of sights. Total weight of the weapon was 12 ounces. Like the Liberator the Deer gun was packaged with pictorial instructions, spare ammunition (3 rounds) and was packaged for dropping by air.
To operate the Liberator: grasp the cocking handle, pull it rearward and rotate it 90 degrees. Slide the breechblock upward and insert a round into the chamber. Lower the breechblock back into place. Turn the cocking handle back 90 degrees. The weapon is now ready to fire. CAUTION: These pistols can be very dangerous to fire due to their age and dubious construction.
Collectors of WWII militaria eagerly seek the Liberators. The rare little guns command a premium price today, especially when accompanied by the original box, ammo and instruction sheet. The smooth bore single shot pistols are listed on the BATF’s Curio and Relics list.
Specifications of FP-45 Liberator
Weight: 15.7 ounces
Width: 1 1/4 inches
Height: 4 5/8 inches
Action: Single shot
Caliber: .45 ACP
Barrel: 4” smooth bore
Record of Army Ordnance Research and Development, Volume 2.
The Liberator Pistol, Ralph Hagan
OSS Weapons, John Brunner
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V2N12 (September 1999)