By Rose Durand, Assistant Registrar

One of only two firearms in the Museum’s collection, the FP-45 Liberator has a fascinating and unique history. The pistol was a project proposed by the newly formed U.S. Joint Psychological Warfare Committee in 1942. This committee quickly dissolved into the Office of Strategic Services, which coordinated espionage and allied propaganda in axis territory. It may seem odd that an agency like this may be involved in the production of a firearm for the U.S. military. The name “Liberator” provides us with a clue to its intended use by resistance groups during World War II. “FP” in the name stands for “Flare Projector” or “Flare Pistol,” an attempt to hide the truth from enemy espionage.

Liberator Pistol
FP-45 Liberator pistol, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kahn

The original plan for these tiny firearms was to parachute them into axis territory, primarily Europe. While it was expected that many of these air drops would be found and disposed of by enemy troops, the hope was that at least some of them could be found and utilized by resistance fighters. The Liberator plan was approved and put into production, a process that took only 11 weeks. Only 5 inches long and weighing in at 1 pound, the Liberator is an extremely small pistol. This was very deliberate, as members of resistance groups could easily conceal it in their clothing in order to incapacitate the enemy and take their superior weapon instead.

Despite this design, the Liberator would have been very dangerous to use. The pistol was single shot and would have taken at least 10 seconds to load, meaning that the resistance fighter would have likely had only one attempt to use it. In addition to this hindrance, it also had an unrifled barrel. Rifling in the inside of a firearm’s barrel, the bore, essentially acts like a corkscrew, spinning the bullet to create a more accurate line of fire. A majority of modern pistols are rifled for increased accuracy and distance. Due to its smooth bore, the Liberator would have only been effective at extremely close range.

A Liberator pistol and accessories in its original box.
A Liberator pistol and accessories in its original box. Source: Worthpoint

The Liberator would come packed in a small cardboard box, with an illustration of the firearm on the outside. Inside the box would be a Liberator, a box of ammunition, a wooden dowel for extracting the spent cartridge case once the Liberator was fired, and instructions for use. The grip of the Liberator opens on the bottom, allowing the ammunition to be stored inside of it. The instructions that came in the box were in comic strip form, with no written instructions. This allowed anyone, regardless of what language they spoke, to understand how to use the Liberator.

The instructions for use that came in the box.
The instructions for use that came in the box.

Despite very fast production, the plan to drop Liberators all over Europe was never fully realized. By August 1942, an estimated one million Liberators had been manufactured and were ready to be dropped. The plan quickly fell apart when General Eisenhower declined the proposed use of the firearms, believing that they were not a good use of military aircraft resources. As a result, there is little record of wide distribution in Europe. Some may have been used by resistance fighters in Greece, while a small number were sent to Sweden. Overall, their use in Europe was likely very minimal. General MacArthur was more interested in the potential of the Liberator, and requested for 50,000 of them to be sent to the Pacific Theater. Records exist of them being sent to China, the Philippines, and Guadalcanal, but exact numbers and information about their use is difficult to come by.

After the end of World War II, it’s believed that a majority of the Liberators that had been produced in 1942 were destroyed by the military. While the story of the Liberator pistol can easily be viewed as a failure, it nevertheless remains a strange and intriguing piece of military history.