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The Gun That Sparked the 3D-Printed Weapons Debate Has an Unexpected WWII History

With a temporary restraining order issued Tuesday, a federal judge blocked the online publication of blueprints for do-it-yourself 3D-printed guns that are untraceable and undetectable, citing the “possibility of irreparable harm.” The move comes a month after the company behind the plans, Austin’s Defense Distributed, had reached a settlement with the federal government to make the plans downloadable.

Though the debate over 3D-printed guns has implications for any number of possible future firearms, one such weapon has found itself at the center of the debate: the plastic “Liberator” gun, the brainchild of Cody Wilson.

Though an 3D-printed plastic “Liberator” may sound like something out of a futuristic story, its name has a long history. The original Liberator that inspired the 3D-printed version was a little-known, little-used World War II-era sheet-metal pistol, the FP-45 Liberator.

The 5-inch-long, one-pound pistol was designed to fire a single 0.45-caliber round — with a range of about 25 feet. The ammunition was considered “an ideal cartridge for clandestine use with silenced weapons,” according to Leroy Thompson’s history of the Colt 1911 pistol, “for it was subsonic and did not create the resonant ‘crack’ in flight that gave away the firing.” (A quick look at photos of the original Liberator reveals that a name isn’t all it shares with the plastic version, as they have some design similarities too.)

In theory, the guns were supposed to be air-dropped to resistance fighters who would use them to kill German or Japanese soldiers so they could then take the enemies’ bigger, better weapons. The sight of scattered guns was also supposed to rattle the enemies, and make them worried that there was more where that came from.

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A Polish military attaché is thought to have come up with the idea for a weapon for resistance fighters, and a U.S. federal government committee on psychological warfare is thought to have ginned up the action plan, firearms expert Frank Jardim has written for the American Shooting Journal.

However, while it’s thought that about 50,000 were distributed, that probably didn’t actually happen via air-drops.

Some reports say the Liberators ended up in the Philippines, India, the Suez and Gibraltar, but it’s unclear how many were actually used. There was no mass distribution system for the weapons and most are believed to have been destroyed after the war. When the National Rifle Association took a look at the Liberator for its American Rifleman magazine a few years ago, its write-up noted that “few G.I.s or Allies in any World War II theater ever saw a Liberator” in action. One million of them were produced in 11 weeks, and it took about 6.6 seconds to produce each one, which led to the general criticism that, as the NRA put it, “it took longer to load one than to make it.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, far more were made than could be used — especially with the lack of a distribution system — and perhaps half of those created were dumped or destroyed at the war’s end.

Each FP-45 Liberator only cost the U.S. government about $2 per weapon, earning it the nickname the “Woolworth gun” or “Woolworth pistol,” with the implication that they could be sold at a five-and-dime. In part because so many were trashed rather than saved, they’re worth a lot more now.

“Ironically, an example in its original box with all accessories,” wrote Thompson in his book, “might fetch a thousand times that amount from a collector of U.S. World War II firearms.”

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