by Bruce Canfield - Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Early 1942 was a time of crisis for the Allies. The Japanese had dealt America’s Pacific fleet a crippling blow on Dec. 7, 1941, and just a few months later would force the surrender of the Philippines. On the other side of the world, most of Western Europe was under the heel of the Nazi jackboot, and the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht was sweeping across the steppes of the Soviet Union. Against that bleak backdrop, Allied planners were tirelessly exploring ways to stem the Axis aggression and take the fight to the enemy.
In March 1942, a Polish military attaché requested that the Allies provide arms to the populations of German-occupied countries. The U.S. Army’s Joint Psychological Warfare Committee was tasked with devising a plan to develop such arms. Any firearm destined for the purpose of arming civilians in occupied countries must be able to be manufactured quickly and cheaply so as not to take away from the resources needed for the production of conventional military small arms that were still in short supply. To this end, it was proposed that a pistol be developed from stamped steel with a rudimentary unrifled (smoothbore) barrel of common steel tubing. Large numbers of the inexpensive guns could be air-dropped in occupied territories to partisans or other civilians with a desire to fight their oppressors, but who otherwise may have only been armed with only a knife or club. While obviously not an optimum military arm, the crude handguns could be used to dispatch enemy soldiers and take their more effective rifles or submachine guns. Also, it was believed that morale problems would arise when the enemy military command realized that thousands of firearms were ending up in the hands of previously unarmed civilians.
The Army contacted the Inland Manufacturing Division of General Motors to develop the new pistol, and Inland’s chief designer, George Hyde, was assigned the project. The gun was given the purposely misleading name of “Flare Projector” to disguise its true purpose and designated as the “FP-45” (Flare Projector-.45 caliber). To further conceal the nature of the project, the engineering drawings referred to the barrel as the “tube” and the trigger and related parts as the “yoke.” Hyde and his team hand-fabricated several samples to evaluate the suitability of their design. The work was carried on in a very small room (about 25 square-feet) at the Inland facility and only those personnel with direct involvement with the project were permitted entry. Five prototypes were submitted to Ordnance, and the design was approved in early May 1942.
By this time, Inland was heavily involved in the manufacture of the M1 Carbine, so further development and eventual production of the FP-45 were transferred to GM’s Guide Lamp Division in Anderson, Ind. Guide Lamp had extensive experience in the fabrication of stamped metal automotive components, thus had the machinery and expertise required to manufacture a firearm constructed primarily of stamped sheet metal.
On May 15, 1942, Guide Lamp was granted a contract for the manufacture of 1 million guns. While officially designated as the FP-45, the single-shot was known by other monikers including the “Woolworth Gun” and, more commonly, the “Liberator.” Some 300 workers, sworn to secrecy, were assigned to the project. Guide Lamp began production during the second week of June 1942. The work force labored 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the million pistols were completed on Aug. 21, 1942, just more than 10 weeks later. It has been calculated that the average assembly time per pistol was 6.6 seconds. This gives the Liberator the somewhat dubious distinction that it is likely the only gun manufactured in less time than it took to load. There was at least one experimental double-barrel version fabricated, but that variant was never put into production.
Each Liberator had to be fired at least once after manufacture to satisfy inspection requirements with a few random samples being fired as many as 50 times for more extensive testing. That resulted in more than 1.5 million rounds of .45 ACP ammunition being expended during the course of manufacture. Obviously, it didn’t take long for the workers to conclude that they weren’t really making flare projectors. A foreman was killed when he accidently shot himself in the abdomen with a FP-45 although the “official” story was that he was injured due to a malfunctioning piece of equipment.
As the guns were test-fired, the relative fragility of the design became apparent. Some examples revealed that damage, primarily splitting of the welded seams, could occur after as few as 10 or 15 rounds. Reportedly none could continue being safely fired after 50 rounds. Accuracy from the 4-inch, smooth-bore barrel was, predictably, quite problematic at anything but close distances. The 230-grain bullets would typically begin to tumble or keyhole soon after leaving the muzzle. This obviously was detrimental to accuracy but could produce rather gruesome wounds. None of those seemingly negative aspects were viewed as troublesome for a gun that was only intended to be fired one or two times at very close range before being discarded.
As would be expected given their clandestine nature, the pistols were not stamped with serial numbers or manufacturer’s markings. Most were completely unmarked, but some had a very inconspicuous single letter stamped inside the grip while a few others had a small one- or two-digit-mold number embossed on the cocking-knob. The Liberator pistol weighed about 1 pound (unloaded) with an overall length of 6 inches. The guns were not blued or Parkerized in the traditional manner but were “bonderized,” a procedure commonly applied to galvanized steel and similar metals prior to painting. Since the gun was intended to be more or less a disposable and not designed for long-term survivability, a durable finish was not necessary. Indeed, that was viewed as an advantage.
As stated in a late 1942 government report: “This weapon recommended itself … as a way of arming friendly subjugated peoples of the Far East. Here it has a value because it could be useful only for a short period before the humidity of the tropics would rust it away. In this way, it would be safe to arm people for the purpose of fighting the Japs, while at the same time not giving them weapons which would later be an embarrassment for the allies.”
Each pistol was packed in a cardboard box along with 10 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition (manufactured in 1942 by Frankford Arsenal), a wooden dowel (necessary to punch out the fired cartridge case from the chamber) and a sheet of cartoon-like illustrations showing how to operate the pistol. The wordless instructions could be used in spite of language barriers or even illiteracy. A crude drawing of the gun with smoke billowing from the muzzle was stamped on top of the packing box. After packing, the boxes were dipped in hot paraffin to provide some measure of protection from moisture until the guns were to be used. The hollow butt of the pistol—designed to store the 10 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition—could be accessed by a sliding sheet metal cover. The cost of the gun and packaging was $2.10 which, adjusted for inflation, equates to about $32 today.
It is nothing short of amazing that the time period from the conception of the idea through the production of 1 million guns was less than six months. Today, it would likely take longer than that to file the necessary federal government environmental impact study paperwork. Nevertheless, the Army had its 1 million “Liberator” pistols and plans to distribute them were implemented. As is often the case with hastily conceived ideas, however, things did not go quite as planned.
The initial focus of the Joint Psychological Warfare Committee was to air-drop large numbers of the pistols to partisans and members of the Resistance in occupied Europe. To this end, 500,000 FP-45s were shipped to Great Britain for subsequent distribution to the French Maquis and other Resistance groups. However, Gen. Eisenhower’s command was not particularly enamored with the whole idea and stated that only about 25,000 might be acceptable for “possible emergency use” and that the remainder of production should be released for use elsewhere. It was also recommended that no more guns of the type be manufactured. With the rebuff by Eisenhower, the Army sought to send the balance to the Pacific for possible use in China or the Philippines. As was the case in Europe, Gen. Stillwell was not interested in them and Gen. MacArthur was, at best, lukewarm to the idea. Clearly, the Liberator wasn’t going to be the “game changer” that the Army had hoped for.
By that time, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) became aware of the Liberator project and Col. William Donovan sought to have the remaining pistols transferred to the OSS. The Army notified the OSS that the 450,000 or so Liberator pistols not sent to Great Britain were in storage at Frankford Arsenal and would be destroyed to save storage space unless a use could be found for the guns. The OSS wanted them to arm irregular forces fighting the Japanese. On Jan. 21, 1943, an OSS officer wrote the following in a letter to a colleague: “To think that some brass hats want to sabotage half a million shootable firearms when people are fighting the Japs with jungle traps, poison and wire is … nothing short of criminal stupidity.” Most of the remaining Liberator pistols were eventually transferred to the OSS although it is reported that some within the Army were upset that OSS did not have to pay for the guns.
Actual use of the Liberator pistols is shrouded in uncertainty and many unproven, if not totally untrue, statements have been widely disseminated regarding them. They include assertions that the OSS was the entity that conceived the pistol when, in fact, it was the later recipient of the guns after the Army couldn’t decide what to do with them. Another widespread misconception is that large numbers of the guns were air-dropped into France during World War II. It has not been positively proven that any Liberator pistols were supplied to the French Resistance fighters, although it is possible that a small number may have been utilized. As events transpired, the Allies were able to supply the French resistance with much more effective arms, such as British Sten submachine guns and American M1 Carbines (just to name two), so the throw-away pistols simply weren’t needed. There were some Liberator pistols supplied by the OSS to Greek Resistance forces in 1944, but the actual number has not been confirmed and was likely rather nominal.
They saw more use in the Pacific and China-Burma-India (CBI) Theaters than the ETO. It is reported that as many as 100,000 of the guns were sent to China in late 1943 although the actual number used in hostile action is not known. A number were also supplied to Filipino guerilla units beginning in late 1943. Those guns were used against the Japanese out of necessity but, as intended, the Liberators were ditched when other, more effective, arms became available. It is impossible to accurately state how many FP-45s were employed in hostile action against enemy forces, but it is certain that only a relatively small fraction of the 1 million guns were actually used against the enemy.
After the war, the bulk of the FP-45s were destroyed—cut up for scrap metal or, more commonly, unopened boxes were dumped, by the thousands, into the ocean. While surviving Liberator pistols are somewhat uncommon, they are not exceedingly rare. Most examples seen today are not accompanied by the original boxing and accessories, which would add a significant premium if present. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) has given the Liberator pistol “Curio and Relic” status, which makes it as legal to own as any other cartridge handgun even though it has a smoothbore barrel. While some current owners have fired their Liberator pistols, this practice should be approached with caution as hidden corrosion or previous shooting could have possibly weakened the already flimsy guns. Newly made replicas of the Liberator pistol have appeared on the market in the last couple of years, and the manufacturer, Vintage Ordnance, also cautions against shooting the guns even though they are made of modern materials. In order to comply with current Federal firearm statutes, the newly made replica Liberator pistols have rifled barrels and are serially numbered and marked with the name of the manufacturer.
The noble idea behind the “two buck” pistol was to provide assistance to the brave individuals in occupied countries who wanted to fight back against the German and Japanese oppressors. Even though it turned out that the Liberator pistols saw only a modicum of actual combat use, the guns are interesting relics of World War II, and genuine examples are prized collectibles today.
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