by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
The Liberator pistol was a strange chapter of World War II.
This report covers:
- The idea
- Not well made
- Actual use
- How it works
- Buy one today
I have to punt today. A rifle I was trying to scope gave me fits for hours and I lost the window of opportunity for the test, the photos and the writeup. So I’m writing about a firearm that I have actually owned that many people don’t know about — the FP-45 Liberator pistol from World War II. The official title was “Flare Projector 45,” to disguise the real purpose of the gun. Bascially this is a zip gun for military use.
The Liberator is a single-shot pistol chambered in .45 ACP — the same cartridge that’s used in the M1911A1 pistol carried by many American forces during the war. It is a smoothbore, which raises a lot of questions that I will address in a moment. American troops were not issued this gun. A million of them were produced in 6 months, which tells you a lot about the lack of precision in the design.
The concept was to make a gun cheaply enough that it could be supplied to resistance fighters in countries occupied by (mostly) German and Japanese forces. Hitler’s Blitzkreig (lightning war) was so effective that most of Europe was under German control within months. There was very little the Allies could do about it, plus the people of England were fighting for their lives to keep the Germans from invading their island.
The hope was that if the Allies could supply this gun to the European resistance fighters, they could use it to get a better gun from a soldier. The Liberator was a “last chance” weapon. It was good out to 12-15 feet (the official distance was supposed to be 25 feet) but beyond that you were risking your life. Reloading for a second shot took the better part of half a minute. It took longer to reload the gun than it took to make it! The theory was you shot a soldier at close range and took his weapon and ammo.
Not well made
Liberators were not well made. They were just barely able to perform their mission . If you fire one repeatedly the barrel will come off the gun in less than 20 shots and the cocking piece will shatter. There is one for sale on Gun Broker rifle now that has a broken cocking knob. Someone fired it to see what it was like and they ruined it.
I doubt very seriously if this pistol was ever proof-tested. These were viewed as last-ditch weapons, and they weren’t going to be in American hands, so the same care that would be afforded to an arsenal-built firearm was not required.
Many armies made “last-ditch” weapons for their own people. But they were made when the tide of the war had turned against the country and they really were last ditch weapons. The Liberator was made in 1942, just after the U.S. entered the war. Since this gun wasn’t destined for American hands, the government didn’t overly concern itself with the user’s safety. It was made safe enough — just not rigorously inspected. It was a “dirty trick” gun, destined to wear down the enemy through constant surveilance.
The gun was made mostly from sheet steel stampings, with a cast zinc cocking knob. That’s right, a potmetal cocking knob that also contains the firing pin! The barrel was spot-welded to the frame. The grip was hollow and 10 cartridges could be stored inside because a sheetmetal floorplate slid out for access. The delivered cost of a gun in the box with everything was $2.10. The gun by itself sold for $1.73.
The Army saw little value in air-dropping the gun to French resistance fighters. Only about 25,000 were dropped. The OSS (the men who stare at goats) were responsible for distributing 450,000 pistols, mostly in Asia. I’m sure their stories are as crazy as they were! Of course, being the OSS (CIA today), everything is classified. Makes hiding all the embarrassments easier. I don’t believe there is a single recorded instance of the pistol being used for its intended purpose.
How it works
To load and cock the pistol pull back on the zinc cocking knob and rotate it to either side. The breech is closed by a sheet steel plate that is manually pulled up out of the way when the cocking knob is pulled back and rotated. The firing pin is permanently attached to the cocking knob. Drop a .45 ACP cartridge into the chamber and push the breech plate closed, then rotate the cocking knob to align with the breech again.
The cocking piece is pulled back and rotated to either side. Then the breech plate can be raised. The pin on top of the cocking piece is not the firing pin. It’s a guide pin that passes through the upper hole to keep the firing pin aligned with the lower hole in the breech plate.
The gun is now loaded and cocked. Simply pull the trigger to fire, and it’s not that hard! Recoil is a little stiff, and then it’s time to reload. Rotate the cocking knob out of the way and lift the breech plate. Use a wooden dowel or stick to push the fired cartridge out of the gun and then reload if you want to.
There are crude sights front and rear, but without rifling there is not much hope of hitting anything by using them. The ideal way to use this gun is to press the muzzle against the target and fire. As the distance from gun to target increases the hit probability drops.
A Liberator that’s still in the original paraffin-coated box with the original wooden dowel for extraction, 10 original brass-cased ’42 Frankford Arsenal rounds of ammo and the original paper graphic that explained the pistol’s use is worth whatever someone will pay for it today. Five to six thousand dollars isn’t too much to ask. It is estimated that fewer than 300 original boxes remain, which makes the box worth as much as the gun. A few unopened boxes do exist, and they change hands at even higher prices, when accompanied by an X-ray, to prove everything is in the box. An unfired gun by itself is a $2,500 item. The busted one on Gun Broker I just mentioned is listed for $1,250 with no takers.
Buy one today
To fill the hole in World War II collections, the Liberator is being reproduced today. The obscure single shot pistol that few have heard of is suddenly a popular gun and a reproduction is available for sale. For $680 you get everything in the box. They built these repro guns using the original drawings, but they used better steel and metallurgy and you can shoot these a few times safely.
I ran this story because we always talk about how airgun quality is not up to firearms standards. But, sometimes, it is even ahead of it, as we see today!