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The history of the CIA’s silenced pistol

Gary Powers & Kelly Johnson in 1966

They might not work exactly as they do in the films, but silencers, or suppressors as they are also known, do a job of making gunfire quieter. For this reason, silenced variations of guns are preferred by many organisations, including the CIA.

The suppressed pistol was issued to intelligence operatives as far back as World War II, but the story of the CIA’s pistol of choice begins on the 1st May 1960.

Spy Pistol

In the cockpit of a U-2 high altitude reconnaissance jet deep in Russian territory over the Ural Mountains, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers’ (pictured above, right) ears are ringing with the sounds from his missile warning system. His aircraft is being pursued by 14 Russian S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and there’s little he can do about it.

One of the SAMs makes contact with the tail of the U-2, shaving it off and sending the jet plummeting towards the ground. After a struggle to eject, Powers emerges from the downed plane with the realisation that his top-secret reconnaissance mission is a failure.

He found himself 1,300 miles deep into Soviet Russia after photographing some of Russia’s most secret installations, and with little hope of escaping. Upon landing, he is quickly captured and his survival kit was confiscated, which included a small yet deadly High Standard HD 22 pistol.

CIA employees were equipped with a survival kit in case of an emergency. Contained in this kit was a compass, map, money and a poison pin, alongside the High Standard HDM/S – a pistol packing a .22 calibre (the same calibre as many of our air pistols).

However, this pistol landed Powers in hot water, as after he was captured by Soviet authorities and they found the weapon, they called it a ‘spy pistol’, convicting him of espionage.

Note – Due to the super secretive nature, there aren’t any images of the early High Standard HD pistol described that we can use without getting a telling off (maybe from the CIA?!) but the picture below shows the 70s/80s model so you can get an idea of how the pistol looked.

High Standard 70s:80s

Origins

The story of the suppressed High Standard, as we stated, began in World War II when it was used by both the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

The British SOE had modified several High Standards for use by operatives in Nazi-occupied Europe, but when the United States entered the fray, their military quickly bought up all available .22LR target pistols for marksman training purposes.

The company which manufactured the favoured supressed pistol of the Western powers was founded by Carl Swebilius in 1932 as the High Standard Manufacturing Company. Swebilius, who was an experienced engineer and foreman, had also worked for both Marlin and Winchester.

Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, High Standard Model B pistols began to be exported to Britain, which were the first ones to be modified. In 1942, the U.S. War Department purchased the entire inventory of High Standard, regardless of model, to keep up with the demand of a simpler and faster to produce model. The Model HD became the most manufactured, with 34,000 by the end of the war.

Mix and Match

Initially, the OSS used .22LR Cold Woodsmen paired with old suppressors made in the 1920s by the Maxim Silencer Company, but the Woodsman’s long barrel and additional length of the suppressor were not suited to the covert warfare.

By 1942, the British had adapted Model B pistols by adding an integral suppressor which enclosed the entire barrel, which effectively halved the length of the weapon. In 1943, the OSS requested a similar weapon, which resulted in the creation of the Model H-D M(ilitary)/S(ilenced), or HDM/S. Created in complete secrecy, code-named ‘Impact Testing Machines’.

These Impact Testing Machines were 13.8 inches in length, weighed in at 48 ounces (1.4kg) unloaded and had a 10-round magazine. Unlike the stock High Standard pistols, the HDM/S had a slide lock used to prevent the gun from making a sound by locking its action closed, making it a near-silent single-shot weapon.

The barrel was also ported with four rows of eight (later 11) holes, which allowed the propellant gases from the fired cartridges to escape into a mesh which acted as a heat sink that slowed the exit of gases from the muzzle. Closer to the muzzle, a second chamber was filled with bronze wire screens which further slowed the exit of the gases.

A common OSS trick was to fill the second chamber with liquids such as oil, water, or even shaving cream, and seal the muzzle with tape. This helped to maximise the efficiency of the suppressor, meaning the only sound heard when the trigger was pulled was the mechanical function of the action. The suppressor could reduce the sound of the pistol to as little as 20 decibels, which is about as quiet as a whisper.

Post WWII

While the OSS was disbanded at the end of the war, the organisation passed on their inventory of suppressed High Standard pistols to its newly formed successor, the CIA, in 1947. The CIA issued these pistols to field operatives, as well as members of the Detachment 10-10 (the pilots), like Gary Powers. The High Standard captured with Powers is currently in a museum in Moscow, along with the wreckage of the plane.

The High Standard pistols also played a part in the Vietnam War, again being used by CIA operatives (including Air America pilots) and Special Forces members of the classified Studies and Observations Group, including the Army’s Green Berets and the Navy SEALs.

CIA agents in Vietnam, 1968 Participants of the inter-agency counterinsurgency Operation PHOENIX administered by the CIA, 1968

The pistols were used during a variety of operations, including long-range reconnaissance patrols, snatch missions, ambushes and assassinations. The pistol was also named as the one which killed a North Vietnamese People’s Minister of Mobilization, who was shot in a crowded Hanoi square, which helped the assassin escape unheard and undetected.

During the Vietnam War, the World War II pistols were joined by newly made pistols modified to use a new suppressor developed by Frankford Arsenal in 1967, but these proved to be less efficient and bulkier than the original designs. The suppressed High Standard HDM/S pistols remained in CIA and Special Force’s inventories well into the 1990s, and a number are probably still retained to this day!

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