High Standard Guns of WWII

Gus Swebilius at work.

On April 19, 1879 Carl Gustave Swebilius was born in Vingaker, Sweden, one of five children of the town watch maker.  He grew up working with his father and learning his love of precision machinery.  At age 18, Gus immigrated to the United States and lived with his eldest sister in New Haven, Connecticut.

His first job in the U.S. was making barrels for Marlin firearms company where he was quickly promoted to foreman of that department.  He continued to attract notice and was promoted to the tool room and after three years he was transferred to gun design where he was working at the outbreak of World War I.

While there he modified the Browning .30 caliber machine gun for use on aircraft by lightening it from 35 to around 19 pounds and increasing the rate for fire from 400 to 900 rounds per minute.  He finished that task in less than a month.

Swebilius was the first American to perfect the cam system sending bullets between spinning propeller blades and the first to synchronize a gas operated machine gun.  His design was used on propeller aircraft through World War Two.

Major George Chinn, author of the classic tome The Machine Gun, recognizes Swebilius as second only to John Browning in early design of machine guns.  Coincidentally, Swebilius worked with Browning during World War I.  Following World War I, Swebilius worked as chief designer at Marlin and then at Winchester until 1939.

Swebilius worked not only at Marlin and Winchester, but also on a side venture producing high quality barrels and barrel drilling equipment.  In 1932, Swebilius, Gustave Beck (a partner in the barrel drilling business) and three other investors bought the defunct Hartford Arms company lock, stock, barrel and manufacturing tools for $800.

OSS officer John Brunner with HD-MS.

The deal included enough partially assembled pistols and parts to complete around 800 pistols.  George Wilson, Sr. was hired as foreman to assemble the pistols.  Swebilius sold them to Galefs Hardware and Sporting Goods stores and they made enough money on the deal to pay off the note and they had the equipment to produce more pistols.  This was the way Swebilius did business.

After some modifications by Wilson, the Hartford semiautomatic became the High Standard Model B starting with serial number 5000.  As the business became even more successful, Swebilius hired new Swedish immigrants whenever possible.  When the United States entered World War II business skyrocketed.  Initially, the military used the model B for a machine gun sub-caliber firing device.

Pistols: Model B and Model B-US
From the beginning of the war there was a demand for .22 caliber pistols to train new recruits in marksmanship.  The .22 was cheaper to shoot and had less recoil and report than the standard issue .45 caliber M1911.

In 1942, the War Department purchased Model Bs in mass quantity with deliveries beginning in May and June.  Every model Swebilius had in inventory regardless of model or barrel length went to the military.  The first pistol, a Model E serial number 95215, was shipped on March 10, 1942.  Model B, Model A, Model D, Model E, Model H-B, Model H-A Model H-D and Model H-E pistols all went to the War Department.

Most early pistols were commercial Model Bs though many survivors have the US Ordnance acceptance markings.  At the request of the military, the Model B was modified to become the Model B-US and all barrels were cut to 4.5 inches to conserve steel and the frame was modified to more closely resemble the 1911 Colt in the web space of the hand.  “Property of US” was roll stamped along the top of the barrel and on the right side of the frame over the trigger guard.  A crossed cannon ordnance acceptance cartouche is also found on the right side of the frame.  All had the standard ten round magazines.  14,000 Model B-US pistols were produced between 1942 and June 1943.  Model Bs were also exported to England under Lend Lease.  Several were silenced.  One is in the Imperial War Museum in London and others have been located in Scandinavia.

UD Model 42.

Model H-D and USA Model H-D
The Model B-US was supplanted by a George Wilson designed exposed hammer Model H-D, which was further modified into the USA Model H-D.  The commercial Model H-D had the adjustable rear sight replaced by a fixed sight and the addition of an external safety.  All barrels were 4.5 inches and US Property and ordnance marks were stamped like the B-US.  This modified pistol was dubbed the USA Model H-D.  About 34,000 were produced between 1943 and 1945.  Early guns had the typical High Standard deep blue luster finish while later ones were Parkerized to save money.  All grips were plastic.

USA Model H-D M/S
While the USA Model H-D was being produced for the military, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had need for a silenced pistol for use on clandestine missions.

They contracted with Western Electric Bell Laboratories for the suppressor design and Bell chose the Kulikowski (Polish) silencer as its model.  Several pistols including the Colt Woodsman, High Standard Model B, C, D, E and USA Model H-D were tested at Aberdeen and the USA H-D was selected.  High Standard assembled and delivered 2,620 pistols to the War Department during World War II.

The classified pistol was officially named the USA Model H-D M(ilitary)/S(ilenced).  Its code production name was the “Impact Testing Machine.”

The first batch of around 1,400 had blued frames with Parkerized suppressors.  The second order came out with both frame and suppressor Parkerized.  These were all shipped in black High Standard boxes.  There were several additional runs since then.  One Parkerized batch was delivered to the CIA in plain brown Kraft boxes.

Most of the early guns were serial numbered and entered into the shipping books, although there were some missed numbers and blanks in the records.  The OSS/CIA reportedly had a special batch made without any markings and were referred to as “sterile.”

Swebilius and his 10,000th .50 caliber M2.

The M/S had an exciting career.  Soon after the first run production was completed, the head of the OSS “Wild Bill” Donovan took a sand bag and an M/S into the Oval Office.  The story goes that upon his arrival President Roosevelt was doing some dictation.  Reportedly, Donovan emptied the ten-round magazine into the sand bag in a trash can unnoticed by either the President or the guard outside the door.  Donovan offered the empty gun to the President with an explanation of what had just transpired.  Roosevelt reportedly said, “Donovan, you are the only (expletive deleted) Republican I would trust to do such a thing.”  Roosevelt kept the pistol on display at Hyde Park until it was discovered that it was a classified weapon, whereupon it was promptly returned to Donovan’s aide.

That is a charming story and something like it probably did happen.  But even a slightly hard of hearing sixty plus year old man can hear a suppressed pistol go off in a closed room at close range.  The firearm reports are suppressed – not entirely and completely silenced.  ALL guns make noise: The break of the trigger, fall of the hammer, movement and impact of the slide all make sounds.  The escape of burning propellant gases into the atmosphere and the crack of a bullet breaking the speed of sound make even louder noises.

How are they suppressed?  On the M/S, the slide can be locked in place by a disabled slide safety.  The sound of the trigger break and hammer fall, while unavoidable, are fortunately negligible.  The last and greatest problem is the escaping burning propellants.  In the M/S, most of the expanding gases are vented and captured in the first stage of the suppressor.  The barrel has been turned down to 0.406 inch diameter and ported with four rows of eight perpendicularly oriented holes in the early versions and eleven holes in the final model.  Gases behind the bullet escape through the ports and are captured in a roll of zinc plated bronze mesh.  The mesh acts as a heat sink that cools and slows the gases before they escape.

The suppressor is divided into a first and then a second chamber by a brass washer.  The front chamber is beyond the muzzle of the barrel and is filled with stacked brass or bronze wire doughnuts, which capture gases escaping the muzzle.

For optimal results the weapon is prepared in advance.  A liquid such as oil, water, insect repellant or optimally Burma-Shave is introduced into and allowed to fill the suppressor through the muzzle opening.  Excess fluid is drained by gravity to prevent barrel blockage.  A loaded magazine is inserted and the gun is then fired.

The muzzle end is then quickly sealed with a piece of masking or cello tape while the chamber end is sealed by the next bullet.  This excludes oxygen from the tube thus preventing combustion of any propellant trapped in the tube.  The liquid serves the same purpose and also acts as a heat sink absorbing energy while passing from liquid into a gas phase.  The tape on the muzzle acts as a wipe making maximum contact with the bullet and thereby impeding remaining gas escape.

World War II plant.

To maximize effect, the muzzle should be in direct contact with the target.  In that fashion, the inevitable escaping gases will follow the tract of the bullet penetrating the skin (and hopefully the skull contents).  The cavitation and tissue disruption of the bullet will be multiplied by the expanding gases trapped inside the closed container.

There was little worry of fouling the rolled mesh in the M/S suppressor as it was meant to be replaced every couple of hundred rounds.  Extra rolls were included in the box along with assembly instructions and a special wire brush meant for use in cleaning the weapon.  The brush was usually discarded.

There was a glitch with the M/S ammunition.  Standard .22 caliber bullets were in contravention to the Hague convention as they were not jacketed ammunition and, as such, they were not supposed to be used in war time.  A communiqué was sent out to all troops to stop use of the M/S until proper ammunition in the form of the T-42 could be supplied.  The order was of course ignored.

High Standard wasn’t alone in making the M/S.  Armorers in Viet Nam reverse engineered the pistol and produced an untold number of copies for use by troops and Special Ops teams.  What better way to silence watchdogs when entering a village in the middle of the night?

During World War II, the Russians became aware of the M/S and requested samples.  As we were at that time fighting a common enemy the request could not be ignored.  Churchill suggested however, that the guns be shipped without the screens – which is what happened.

The Soviets had more experience with the M/S later when they shot down a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers over Sverdlovsk on the First of May 1960.  Powers was on what was already scheduled to be the last U-2 reconnaissance flight over Russia.  The integrity of his plane was disrupted when a surface to air missile exploded in his immediate vicinity.  He ejected from the aircraft at high altitude carrying several survival items including a sheath knife, suicide device disguised as an American silver dollar and a High Standard USA M/S serial number 120046.

Much to the chagrin of the Eisenhower White House, Powers was captured intact and alive.  The pistol, items listed and parts of the U-2 were paraded through a propaganda trial meant to embarrass the USA.  The M/S has since been known as the “Powers Pistol.”

The Powers Pistol along with other evidence is still on display in the KGB Museum in Lubyanka Prison on Lubyanka Square in Moscow.  The Lubyanka Prison is notorious in Russia as it was KGB headquarters where people were taken for interrogation, torture and execution.