In the 1940s, the United States military developed an ultra-cheap, ultra-simple single-shot .45 handgun stamped out of sheet metal. It was designed to be airdropped by the OSS to insurgents in Nazi-controlled Europe in vast numbers. Called the FP-45 Liberator, the pistol became one of the most curious-looking entries in the history of firearms. It’s also one of the most collectible firearms around, with pristine copies without the box and instructions run somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 nowadays, according to the latest issue of Guns & Ammo. Want one with the box? Expect to pay more.
But don’t fret! The selfsame article in G&A notifies me that Vintage Ordinance now offers an replica of the Liberator. Priced at just $599, the weapon will set you back a few dollars more than the original U.S. Army unit cost of $2.40 per Liberator (which is about $32 in today’s currency). The replica, like the original, loads .45 ACP ammunition, but you want to know the great part? You’re not supposed to fire it. No, seriously…Vintage Ordinance has created a firing replica of which they say the following:
Though our reproduction is sold as a firearm and exceeds the mechanical strength of the original through the use of superior materials and vastly tighter chamber and headspace tolerances, WE STRONGLY ADVISE CUSTOMERS NOT TO FIRE THE PISTOL. During production in 1942, several examples were taken from the assembly line to test under repetitive fire. Reports indicated that after 50 rounds of service ball ammunition the testers felt the weapons were no longer safe to fire. They were simply never designed handle a steady diet of powerful .45 ACP. They were made to fire ten rounds. They are what they are.
The original FP-45 is a clever and efficiently designed weapon but it has never received any accolades for operational safety. Once it is loaded, the only safe way to handle it is with the zinc cocking piece turned fully 90 degrees to the right or left so that the rear corner of the pistol’s grip frame will prevent it from rotating into firing position. If the cocking piece is re-aligned and the guide pin inserted through the hole in the cover slide as illustrated in the original instructions, THE PISTOL IS COCKED AND READY TO FIRE. IF DROPPED IN THIS STATE, IT COULD EASILY DISCHARGE CAUSING INJURY OR DEATH.
Just what I need in my cedar chest…a highly dangerous collectible that I’m advised not to load and fire because it will kill me. But then…if they’d made it a non-firing replica, like any sane person woulda, they couldn’t charge six Franklins for it. I think the subtext here is that, wink wink, you are going to fire it, but, wink wink, that’s very naughty of you, wink wink, and so don’t blame us when it kills you. Awesome! Needless to say, if you’re buying it for collector’s value, you’re better off not firing it anyway.
Given its single-shot nature, the Liberator is a derringer, with two r’s and a small d, by some definitions — as opposed to a Deringer, which was a trade name from which the generic term originated. Still, it doesn’t look a damn thing like what you’d expect Three-Card Zeke to sneak out of his vest pocket when he’s caught cheating at poker. It’s a curious and ugly device made to be created as cheaply as possible, representing the ingenious desperation of a nation at war.
Sadly, desperation and ingenuity may go well together in terms of economic firearm design, but when it comes to continent-wide strategy, they’re not the best bedfellows.
The Liberator was intended to be a weapon of psychological warfare and even terror, creating the sense in the occupying force that they might be killed at any moment by a civilian stashing an easy-to-conceal firearm. But while that might sound like a nice goal for a major country supporting an insurgent force, other U.S. strategies proved to be a hell of a lot scarier. What’s more, the OSS always thought it was a jackassed idea, and very few of the Liberators manufactured were distributed, mostly in China and the Philippines. There’s no recorded instance of a Liberator being successfully used in the field. It was as half-baked an idea then as it is now.
But who gives a damn? It’s a piece of history, and a great example of the many ways in which complex engineering can be reduced to its bare basics. Six Franklins?
Both the original and the replica come complete with a wax box and instructions on how the recipient could use the gun to kill a German guard and commandeer his rifle or submachine gun…and presumably accomplish this before ol’ Hans-Jürgen’s buddies hear the gunshot and get all Night of the Long Knives on your ass (the single-shot gun did not include a silencer).
The original also had a smoothbore barrel, which makes its claimed range of about 8 meters or 32 feet seem a little optimistic, especially since insurgents were likely to be doing their work at night. The replica has a rifled barrel, because federal firearms regulations in the U.S. make it illegal to sell smoothbore handguns.