Winchester’s Liberator Shotguns (Video)

In the early 1960s, an influential but little-known (today) firearms designer by the name of Robert Hillberg came up with an idea for a cheap-but-effective armament for the masses. With encouragement from DARPA, the Winchester company took up manufacture and development of the design, under the name “Liberator”.

The guns were initially planned to be made almost entirely as magnesium castings, with steel liners in the barrels, with a total cost of about $20 per gun. They would use prepackaged 4-round ammunition packets as well, rather than standard individual shotgun shells. By the time production was actually begun, however, the design had been altered to a break-action system using regular shells – the prepackaged quad-cartridges proved too difficult to perfect. So the production Mark II guns used conventional shells with a break-open action.

As it turned out, casting the frames over the steel barrel inserts was a quite difficult process, and Winchester soon moved to a MkIII design which replace the barrel casting with 4 independent all-steel barrels fixed at the muzzles by a stamped plate. By this time, however, military interest in the guns had fallen away and Winchester was left to try to market them commercially. They attempted to interest both police and civilian markets (although with 13 inch barrels, the guns were regulated by the NFA). None of these marketing attempts succeeded, and major production never began. The design was too impractical and guerrilla-oriented to really appeal to anyone with a more ordinary use (like recreational shooting, sport shooting, or security/law enforcement) in mind.

Thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum for allowing me access to film these!

45 Comments

  1. Good grief. This looks like another fancy gun to hand over to Hollywood as a science-fiction prop. Four shots, no stock, and the Liberator shotguns look too difficult to hide in one’s home (though it would certainly be handy for police squad cars). Can anyone think of a good use for such a weapon that isn’t related to an armed uprising?

  2. The name said it all. The Liberator shotgun was intended to be delivered to indigenous forces fighting Communist governments, for the same mission as the original FP 45 Liberator .45 pistol; killing a government soldier and taking his weapon. Except of course that a 4-shot 16-gauge shotgun could take out half an infantry section at one go.

    The fact that it was a 16-gauge rather than the more common 12-gauge betray its purpose; the 16 was a very common shotgun bore in “underdeveloped” countries at that time, notably in the Far East.

    The bottom line is that the specially-built Liberator was no more effective than any other 16-gauge shotgun, and frankly a break-open single-shot or double was easier and cheaper to make.

    For that matter, why Winchester didn’t simply make a cheap, short-barreled “coach gun” version of their regular side-by-side or single-shot break-open shotgun for the job is hard to understand. Something like the Rossi Overland would have been more to the point, as well as less readily identifiable as a purpose-designed “guerrilla warfare” weapon, and therefore much more easily “deniable”.

    A similar fate was accorded to the CIA’s 9mm “Deer Gun” about the same time. In many ways it was both an updated FP 45, and a precursor to the modern-day 3D “printed” single-shot;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deer_gun

    Oddly enough, the Liberator shotgun attained a sort of cinematic glory a decade after its official demise. A four-barrel short-barrelled shotgun, very obviously patterned on the Liberator, was used by the main character in the movie They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, made in the Philippines in 1978;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/They_Call_Her_Cleopatra_Wong

    http://girlswithguns.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Cleopatra-Wong.jpg

    cheers

    eon

    • “single-shot or double”
      In Germany there are used various multiple barrel hunting weapons.
      3-barreled weapon is called Drilling
      4-barreled weapon is called Vierling
      5-barreled weapon is called Fünfling
      However most commonly there are at least 2 different calibers in one weapon
      for examples of various multi-barreled (and not only) see:
      http://www.hoferwaffen.com/hofer_52.php?lang=de

    • Well, you got it. If you DON’T want to get arrested and charged with treason for this gun, make the gun more of a “customizable fowling piece” already available on the commercial market. Interchangeable barrels and butt-stocks would be the only requirements to turn the meal-bringer into a war winner. After all, sporting weapons and large caliber hunting weapons are usually dismissed as useless against a squad of modern infantry (especially if they bring an armored support vehicle). I suppose a more alarming toy would have been a Mauser rifle chambered in 9.3×64 Brenneke… Or am I wrong?

      • Using firearms of any kind to fight an occupying army (in a highly asymmetric matchup) has proven to be a relatively poor choice. In Iraq, for instance, planting explosives was proven to be far more effective strategy in taking out soldiers, by a nearly 5:1 ratio (Icasualties.org has a breakdown) and at obviously far less risk to the attackers.

        That’s a significant statistic in a country where civilian-owned (fully-automatic) Kalashnikov rifles are widespread. Though Guy Fawkes might well have preferred to die with a gun in his hand than suffering his eventual fate after being caught in the 17th century Gunpowder Plot.

        And especially in a locked-down gun-free society, IEDs can be built-from-scratch out of common household materials (as long as they don’t try to follow those bogus MacGyver recipes)

        • True, but many IED’s will backfire if made WRONG. As one Apache pilot put it, “Requesting permission to-!” [terrorists get blown up by their own IED] “Oh wait, never mind.”

          And if your aim is discretely getting better weapons for your eventual uprising as opposed to waiting for enemy soldiers to walk in this direction and get blown to bits (assuming that ONLY enemy soldiers will traverse this path), the best thing you can do is likely. Death traps are meant for mass casualties and harassment of occupiers whereas “toy coupons” like the Liberator were meant for increasing your arsenal at your enemy’s expense. Let’s not confuse apples and pomegranates.

          • road side bombs, including those with “self-forging projectiles” and so on are highly effective and are emblematic of modern insurgencies fighting highly effective militaries. In Iraq there were tons and tons of mortar bombs and artillery shells from the long war with Iran and the attempt to annex Kuwait. Wire the artillery shells together, and the explosives can be delivered via emplacing them rather than firing them.

            One USMC bomb defuser I read about mentioned that the bombs he’d encountered in Iraq were crude compared to Afghanistan.

            Hezbollah harried the IDF and SLA with roadside bombs. Eventually the IDF had to take to helicopters rather than APCs or vehicles. Tactics of the helicopters to avoid MANPADs, in turn, led to some serious high-casualty accidents. In more recent IDF incursions Hezbollah used Russian-made and French-made anti-tank missiles as mentioned by allan with the comment about TOWs.

            Car bombs are utterly indiscriminate, but widely available as the “poor man’s air force.”

          • “In Iraq there were tons and tons of mortar bombs and artillery shells from the long war with Iran and the attempt to annex Kuwait. “

            And in what seemed like an astounding display of incompetence, American war planners failed to see the need to secure the abandoned bases when Iraqi troops fled, allowing looters to come in and carry off munitions by the truckload. Another mistake was failing to identify and police the public markets, where for a long time these looted weapons were openly sold.

            “One USMC bomb defuser I read about mentioned that the bombs he’d encountered in Iraq were crude compared to Afghanistan.”

            That would not be surprising, since the CIA (via Pakistani intelligence) presumably was teaching the Afghans IED bomb-making skills and other insurgency tactics during the 1980s Soviet occupation — only to have those same skills used against them two decades later.

          • Sorry about the mis-attribution, aa! I wrote “allan” thinking you, aa, and he were the same comentator…

            Very important points.
            In Vietnam, the NLF/VC used mines and booby-traps. In El Salvador, the FMLN eventually settled on land mines. In most “hot wars” during the Cold War a similar mentality prevailed: No one wants to be around when the U.S.-supplied or direct U.S. armed forces bring the pain. Hence the reliance on mines. IEDs is simply a “rebranding” of the old concept. To the degree that once cleaning land mines and defusing bombs is now described in current jargon as “IED remediation.” I am not kidding.

            Lacking artillery, different insurgencies have had to figure out methods of delivering explosives against their foes… One of the cruelest, most indiscriminate, and frequent is the car bomb. The FMLN copied the NLF/VC in using specialized “sappers” as “tubeless artillery.” A highly-trained group would creep through barbed wire fences and so on to emplace explosive charges. With night vision devices now ubiquitous, I’m not sure if such things remain viable in the “asymmetric war arsenal.”

      • “Mauser rifle chambered in 9.3×64 Brenneke”
        Notice that various sporting/hunting rifle use cartridges ballistic-wise superior to that of standard military rifle, most notably (but not only) dangerous-game or safari rifles. That might give two-fold advantage: negating body-armor which resist standard rifle, possible out-range opponents (however, not in every environment)

    • eon and Daweo: “Why Vierling and not Double gun?”

      Swearengen, p. 101 discusses at one point the development of a special 2-in. 16-ga. shell. The weapon would have the benefits of double-barrel’s simplicity of operation, with two more cartridges on tap. Importantly, firing all four barrels suggested to the “bean counters”–in this case the projectile counters–an improved hit probability:
      “The 2-inch (5.1cm) shell produced an average of five hits on the [man-size torso] target[at 30yds/27.4m range]per shot, with never less than three. Shells loaded without Mark 5 components achieved an average of less than three hits per shot, but always managed to get at least one buckshot into a vital area of the torso. In addition, the Mark 5 loaded shell had a chronographed velocity of some 100-foot-per-second (30.5 meters per second) greater muzzle velocity than that of its non-Mark 5 component-loaded counterpart. … However, the 1,112-foot-per-second (339) meters per second) average muzzle velocity was nearly 200 feet per second (61 meters per second) less than that of standard-production 2.75-inch (7cm0 16-gauge shells.”

      Moving to p. 109, “Winchester was impressed by the prospects of the gun delivering forty-eight .30 caliber (7.62mm) projectiles in less than three seconds, even in the hands of a small woman. This firepower, in rate of missiles fired, was greater than that of a standard submachine gun. Each missile fired from the shotgun possessed a muzzle velocity in excess of 1,200 feet per second (366 meters per second), which is nominally greater than that of a standard submachine gun [sic! Of course, the buckshot loses velocity much, much more rapidly…a bit of hyperbole there!] Tests showed that each of the .30 caliber projectiles could penetrate two 0.75-inch (19.1mm) thick pine boards, spaced 1 inch apart at 65 yards (59.4 meters). When Mark 5 buckshot ammunition was fired from the full-choke barrels of the Mark II Liberator, 80-percent patterns were achieved in a 30-inch (76.2cm) circle at 32.7 yards (30 meters). This performance permitted the gun-ammunition combination to have an effective range of 65 yards (59.4 meters.)”

    • It’s kind of funny to see the evolution of arming insurgencies. Back then, weapons like the Liberator pistol were as crude and cheap as possible (as well as militarily insignificant) while these days we are passing out $100,000 TOW missiles almost as if they were candy, as if no lessons were ever learned about the wisdom of supplying Bin Ladin with truckloads of Stinger Missiles and other high-tech weapons when he was on “our” side.

    • “The Liberator shotgun was intended to be delivered to indigenous forces fighting Communist governments, for the same mission as the original FP 45 Liberator .45 pistol; killing a government soldier and taking his weapon.”

      You gave me chuckles….. and good ones! This is one of those dreamy assumptions which characterizes American wishful thinking of old times.

      But I tell you what; at time of Prague spring 1968 (before invasion), powerful interests (guess who …) were about to create impression of REAL counter-revolution just about to take place. They created “secret” small arms cache in a location in West of country and then lead police to “discover” it. The weapons were mostly old vintage Thompsons. I still must wonder over stupidity of such undertaking. But, it served the purpose – official news were full of it.

      • Well, AFAIK the only place the FP 45 ever showed up as intended was the Philippines. Brought in by submarine along with everything else, the FRP made decent use of the stamped-metal .45 “Derringer” in offing Japanese soldiers and Filipino collaborators and expropriating their equipment.

        However, the main thing the U.S. Navy’s “guerrilla subs” delivered there was ammunition. There were plenty of guns in the Philippines already, the crying need was ammo to feed them. .30-06 and 12-gauge buckshot were the main need, as most rifles there were M1917 Enfields or M1903A1 Springfields, and shotguns were mainly American-made 12s.

        Contrary to what you might think, the preferred pistol calibers were .38 S&W and .38 Special, as both calibers used by the Philippine Constabulary before the war. There were probably four or five .38 revolvers of one type or the other for every ex-military M1911 in the islands, and .38s proved perfectly effective at killing the enemy. Unlike the .38 Colt vs. the Moros a generation earlier.

        The gun everybody really wanted, however, was the M1 .30 carbine. It was accurate, reliable, compact, lightweight, high firepower, and at the usual combat ranges (under 250 yards) hit as hard at maximum effective range as a 9mm or .45 submachine gun did at the muzzle. Plus, the ammunition was lighter and more compact than any other rifle round, so more could be packed into a sub for delivery, as well as being carried by a soldier in the field.

        The resistance got a considerable number of M1 and M1A1 Thompsons, plus .45 ammo for them, but the carbine was the gun they really lusted after. They finally got some in mid-’43.

        Postwar, the carbine became a standard weapon of the Philippine Constabulary, much as it was with the French police, and for pretty much the same reason. A lot of ex-Resistance fighters in both organizations.

        cheers

        eon

        • We have some time and place shift in our perceptions. Oh yes, when you talk Philippines, you are right. Their resistance against invaders was brave and effective; U.S. owes them respect and thanks to this day (irrespective to current presidents).

          • The SOE of the UK and the OSS of the USA did supply partisans against the Germans and the Japanese… And after the two occupiers intervened against many of the same elements, witness the Greek Civil War, the electoral chicanery and union busting in France and Italy, the counterinsurgency against the “Huks” aka. the People’s Army against the Japanese/Hukbalahap and the MRLA in Malaya…

            So you might contextualize the late 1950s and early 1960s perceptions of the “need” for such a weapon in light of the transition from the early post Cold War era (Chinese Civil War, Korean War, French Indochina War), and the U.S. “advisory period” in Vietnam, the Cuban Revolution, the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba, the onset of “wars of national liberation” in Africa, etc. etc.

      • Adolf Hitler’s armed forces murdered some KZ inmates and draped them in Polish uniforms to proclaim that Poland had been the aggressor prior to 1 Sep. 1939… 1964 OPLAN 34/Gulf of Tonkin incidents …Some Latin American militaries would claim murdered non-combatants as “guerrillas” killed in battle… History is full of such pre-emptive “justifications” to cloak predetermined policies.

  3. Best. Forgotten Weapons. Ever. Well, one of them anyway!

    Thanks very, very much Ian!

    I’ve long been very interested in the Robt. Hillberg Liberator project. There’s a lot of info about the concept in Swearingen’s 1970s book on “fighting shotguns.” Personally, I think that if one went with the Mk.III, put a Ruger LCR trigger and Hogue monogrip on it, had a simple side-folding stock like, say, that of the FN SCAR, and put those au courant du jour “picatinny rails” on the tops, sides, and underside of the 20-gauge barrels, it would sell like hotcakes as a dedicated HD type scattergun. In fact, if I had the start-up capital and some polymer machinery, I’d throw ’em out there. Most gun people want an AR these days, but I’d think the original Liberator concept of using 20-gauge, combined with modern ammunition, would appeal to non-gun people interested in self-protection or HD.

    In a world awash with WWII SMGs, M1 carbines, and ultimately Kalashnikovs, the Liberator didn’t stand a chance of arming various Cold War-era proxy armies. Trying to “up gun” the thing to 12-ga. for LE sales was, as you indicate, a desperate marketing measure, and eroded the initial concept from an intuitive and easy-to-use-with-limited-training-concept.

    Ian, excuse the neck bearded pedantry about the wooden mock-up: Believe it or not, the hole in the right side of the “receiver” was for the finger to poke out the packet of cartridges, which could then be reloaded with simple tools. There was no “button” per se. I can rifle through my notes here, but I do believe that some of the prototypes had full chokes in an attempt to increase the range, again maybe not the best idea.

  4. The original 4-barrel design is particularly interesting, with its cast light-alloy barrels with thin steel liners, a classic weight saving strategy that in other (non-firearms) high-temp applications can present significant engineering challenges, mostly due to the material’s different thermal expansion rates. However they were installed –press-fit, cast-in-place, or more loosely attached — I’m not surprised that this early idea was abandoned in favor of more traditional all-steel barrels.

  5. Hammer with rotating firing pin is same as on Sharps 4-barrel derringers, except on those firing pin was fixed to hammer and rotated with it.

  6. German names of multi-barrel guns are based on German numbers: ein = 1, zwei = 2, drei = 3, vier = 4, etc.

    Good point about Liberators competing (in price) with war-surplus weapons. So that liberators are only cost-effective if they cost less to manufacture.

    As for manufacturing methods, they use the latest and cheapest available during that decade. WW2 liberator pistols were stamped from sheet steel similar to automobile body panels.
    VN era liberators were investment cast (semi-permanent mold) from soft metals.
    A few sporting shotguns were manufactured with steel barrel liners wrapped in fibreglas.
    Modern liberators contain steel barrels 3D milled from stock rod sizes, while stocks are 3D printed. CNC fabricating voids the risks of smuggling obvious weapons across borders.
    Just look at all the “garage-built” sub machine guns recently seized in Palestine.

    Another reason for issuing low-tech “ambush” weapons to third-world guerillas is a fear that they will out-gun First-World armies (major corporations) who eventually want to control that country.
    As for giving modern missiles (Stinger, Milan, TOW. etc.) to guerilla X includes long and fragile supply networks that only work as long as geurillas are helpful to suppliers. As soon as geurillas get uppity, they run out of specialized batteries.
    It is even easier to disarm guerillas of their first-world weapons if those weapons contain specialized software. First off, developers can program software (date stamps) to ignore the USAF’s favourite fighter. Secondly, without expensive software updates, fancy weapons go silent. Even easier to die-arm guerilla if fancy weapons can communicate with the Internet, which allows first-world armies to silence weapons with a mere tap on a cell phone.

  7. a single shot beretta in 12 or 16 gauge costed 41,95 dollar in 1962 according to vintageadbrowser.com, so it would have been lot cheaper and simpler to buy those, but hey the military!

    • In Peru the ronda campesina COIN village guards/militia set up by the armed forces against the PCP-Sendero Luminoso often had pump-action, or even single-barreled shotguns. Some were even basically extemporized “zip guns” like the Mau-mau Kenya Land and Freedom Army managed to contive…

      Reason no single shot was considered by Hillberg: 48x55gr. lead projectiles in 3 seconds…

  8. When this came out, I remember an article in “Shooting Times”, or maybe “Guns and Ammo” about it. the author said that with the addition of rock salt rounds, you could kill a deer, tenderize it, season it, and cook it with the incendiary round.

  9. The concept of a non-ferrous casting around steel liners was used in the 1980s, also. I now have in my hand a .32 ACP Davis derringer, patterned after the iconic 19th century Remington original.

    Though it is probably not magnesium, but zinc.

    The concept of a tactical 16 gauge shell makes sense. 16 gauge is large enough to efficiently use #1 buck, which offers decent penetration. I always thought those 4-packs of 16 gauge shells were like modern day full moon clips for .45 ACP revolvers. I now see I was wrong. (Won’t see that admission very often).

    The obviously atrocious trigger pull was a definite drawback. Otherwise, some thing similar would make a great deal of sense today. It needs a good trigger, not all of us are Conan the Barbarian.

  10. Speaking of weapons of revolutions/ counter-revolutions; depending on point of view and affiliation.

    It occurred to me to take notice of what “Barbudos” took up when going thru their humble beginnings in Sierra Maestra. They were almost all hunting rifles with optics. They were picking off government soldiers with then at safe range, one by one. When CIA tried to reverse the tide later with similar means, it never worked the same way however.

    • Trying to use the enemy’s preferred tactics against him rarely works. After all, if he knows how to do it, odds are he knows how to avoid being “done” by>/em> it, too.

      cheers

      eon

      • Eon, I read of those cases attempting to disrupt new way of life in Cuba shortly after revolution; it was hopeless. People in great majority had such a betterment there was not a chance to reverse the process. Mind you, I have on mind early stage of enthusiasm, not the following blues in 1990s.

        If someone attempted to do kind of foolishness still today, all the best. I have seen during may visit there in 2008 how it looks like in real. It was like state of permanent siege and response to it; security was heavy everywhere. They watch for all who can start trouble; even were giving me dirty looks at the airport, because of my country of birth.

  11. The original MK I would be a great basis for a sci fi astronaut/survival weapon. The big squeeze trigger and unitized loop trigger guard could work with space suit gloves. Hi/ low pressure shells launching Goddard tractor rocket projectiles , and standard shotgun shells for terrestrial survival gun use. Rocket Punk fiction!

    • “terrestrial survival”
      For cosmonaut revolver see ТОЗ-81 «Марс»: https://ok.ru/armsmuseum/topic/62521429161353 (scroll down for images)
      it was designed by Zhuk (author of Encyclopedia), it is upside-down revolver (firing from bottom chamber) with cylinder for 5 rounds of 5,45-mm cartridge (so far I know it is same in shape as standard Russian 5,45 but it was supposed to use with expanding bullets) and smooth bore .410 caliber. Never go beyond prototype stage.

      • Exactly! The old Cosmonaut drilling type guns have been retired, and the current options involve 9mm pistols ( though all recent flights have opted to go unarmed). This would make a great
        Rocket Punk fiction weapon!

    • “MK I would be a great basis for a sci fi astronaut/survival weapon”
      “Hi/ low pressure shells”
      Suddenly I now have a good mental image in place for the AP gun in Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur series.
      Absolutely awesome.

  12. Two thoughts: Build the Mark 3 with legal-length bbls and a fixed stock and sell it to homeowners who think they need a gun for family defense. Living as I do in a town over-supplied with pistols and assault rifles, I often reflect on how many walls a bullet will penetrate — something I don’t think Mr. Homeowner knows much about. Let my neighbors and others within a mile deploy shotguns like this one. I pray they only load birdshot, too.

    Second thought: Scale this iron up to shoot 40mm grenades. Four double-action boongs in say 1.5 seconds is quick response like mother used to make!

    Supply it with mortar-like sights too, and with observation you could quickly walk it onto a target that low-angle fire can’t reach.

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  1. Liberator Shotgun from the Early 1960’s: Government Sponsored Ghost Gun! – Gun Gazette
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