By Joseph E. Cates, Curator of Education and Public Programs
Perhaps no other handgun in U.S. history has been burdened with as many misconceptions about its post-production history as the World War II era Model FP-45 Liberator. Conceived by the U.S. Joint Psychological Warfare Committee in early 1942 as a way to quickly arm resistance fighters behind enemy lines, the FP-45 was mass produced by the Guide Lamp Divisions of General Motors. One million of the guns were produced under code names, such as “flare projector” and “flare signal pistol,” to throw off enemy spies who could report back to their homeland that pistols were going to be air-dropped to resistance fighters. For distribution purposes, it was packaged in a box with 10 rounds of ammunition, a rod for ejecting fired cartridge cases from the chamber, and a pictorial instruction sheet. The FP-45 Liberator was designed to be made quickly and simply with a useful range of less than 50 feet. It took longer to load one than to make one.
Originally produced for the European theater, a large portion of the production ended up with General William Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.). While production was a great success, distribution was a disaster. The majority appear to have been distributed to friendly civilians in China, South East Asia, and Pacific theatres of operations. Very few of the guns ever made it into Europe; certainly, they were never air-dropped in quantity—if at all. Gen. MacArthur committed to 50,000 pistols, most of which were shipped to Australia in 1943 for redistribution to occupied islands. This left approximately 450,000 handguns which the Army no longer wanted. The rest fell into the hands of General Donovan at O.S.S.
The fate of nearly half of the produced Liberators is unknown though it is thought more than half a million were melted or dumped into the oceans after the war. Very few G.I.s or allies in any World War II theater ever saw a Liberator; those who did encounter the model could easily have mistaken it for a cheap Japanese “suicide special” since it was unmarked and not part of standard U.S. ordnance.