By Justin Black of Spycraft101
Among intelligence agencies and clandestine organizations, the High Standard Model HD Military Silencer (MS) is the standard for suppressed pistols by which all others are judged. First adopted by the famed Office of Strategic Services in early 1944, it saw service in all theaters of World War II. The pistol was so effective that it remained in the inventory of the Central Intelligence Agency as late as the 1990s and possibly beyond.
Throughout its short lifespan, the OSS worked tirelessly to develop the best possible silent weapons for field use. A variety of initiatives were implemented, ranging from the creative to the downright bizarre (see this post for some examples). Among these were the Bigot system, which was a conversion of the standard government issue 1911 to allow it to fire a heavy steel dart using a captive .25 ACP blank round.
Several crossbows were developed as well, most famously the Little Joe, which made its way into the hands of the Alamo Scouts in the Pacific Theater for operational testing. There was even a CO2 dart gun known as the SAC-46 Flying Dragon, which was envisioned with poison-tipped darts for instantaneous takedowns of sentries or assassination targets.
But none of these amazing projects offered a significant advantage over the High Standard Model HD MS (sometimes written as HDM/S). Lightweight, reliable, quiet, and accurate, it was hard to beat.
With the integrated suppressor and proper ammunition, the pistol produced a mere 20 decibels of sound, approximately the same noise level as a person’s muffled cough. Stanley Lovell, the head of research and development for the OSS, reported in his biography that Wild Bill Donovan smuggled a Model HD MS into the Oval Office in 1942 and fired it into a sandbag while President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke on the phone, oblivious to what was occurring just a few feet away.
Lovell’s penchant for hyperbole must be taken into account here, and the story is likely apocryphal. But the Model HD MS was without question a quiet and effective killing tool.
Prototypes and Variants
A single prototype .380 ACP caliber model was built, known as the P-380. It was both louder and heavier than the .22 long caliber Model HD MS, but these were initially considered acceptable compromises considering the much-improved ballistic performance of the .380 ACP round.
Production of the P-380 was initially halted in October 1943 when Colt refused to manufacture barrels in either .32 or .380 caliber. Negotiations eventually moved forward and a manufacturing run of 1,000 pistols was scheduled to begin in August 1945. However, delays lead to the date being pushed back to September 15th, 1945, and by that time the war was over, and the contract was canceled. Only one suppressed .380 ACP High Standard Model P-380 was ever delivered to the OSS.
A .25 ACP caliber variant was also tested by High Standard in the early 1940s, but information on this prototype is extremely limited.
In 1944, the Infantry Board conducted tests on the HD MS which included the manufacture and use of a folding wire shoulder stock. The stock was a simplistic design. A 0.4” steel wire with a single bend and an adaptor for quick attachment and detachment from the base of the pistol grip.
The stock provided an improvement in overall stability when firing but was far from ideal. There was no cheek rest, and the rear sights were just nine inches from the shooter’s face. When the slide recoiled during firing it tended to induce a flinch reflex during testing. The Infantry Board’s report published in December 1944 did not recommend adoption of the Model HD MS with wire stock as a useful weapon for infantry units.
The OSS initially requisitioned 500 of the wire stocks, but eventually backtracked because the pistols they’d already issued had made their way to various field locations around the world, and mating the stocks with the pistols would prove to be a challenging logistical issue.
However, years later the Office of Technical Services within the CIA would test and adapt shoulder stocks for the Model HD MS once again. Army Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Parr worked as an engineer for OTS in the 1950s and 1960s.
In his interview for Robert Wallace’s book “Spycraft” he recalled that OTS worked with U-2 pilots to determine the best way for them to carry a Model HD MS with shoulder stock and holster in the cockpit. OTS engineers even converted some Model HD MS pistols to fully automatic fire. They were capable of firing 10 rounds in less than 1.5 seconds, after modification to the sear and magazine spring. Unfortunately, no photos of the CIA’s shoulder stocks are currently known to exist.
Service During World War II
By July 1944 nearly 1,400 Model HD MS pistols had been delivered to the European, Mediterranean, and Far East Theaters of Operation. The British Special Operations Executive also issued them to their own operatives.
Several of the new pistols were presented to high-ranking OSS officials and other dignitaries, including Admiral Chester Nimitz. This led to the inadvertent leak of the weapon’s existence and deployment when a photograph of Admiral Nimitz and his son Chester Jr. firing the pistol was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper on November 12th, 1944.
In the Pacific Theater of Operations, six Model HD MS pistols made their way into the hands of the famed Alamo Scouts. They used it primarily for the killing of sentries and foraging for food during long missions with little chance of resupply. The Alamo Scouts also tested another OSS weapon, the Little Joe crossbow, but found the High Standard to be the superior choice for their purposes.
It was also supplied to guerrilla organizations such as the French Resistance, who needed to be able to execute enemy troops and quickly disappear into the population at large without being detected or captured. In urban operations, the Model HD MS also proved valuable for surreptitiously disabling streetlights to provide the cover of darkness.
In the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, OSS Captain Lewis Allison reported that the HD MS was receiving high praise and were used constantly. The modus operandi there was to use the pistol for close-range sniping from windows, and against sentries as well. A 1945 report cited seven specific instances of successful use of the Model HD MS in field operations.
After the end of World War II (and the end of the OSS as well), High Standard pistols were transferred into the inventory of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA began issuing the Model HD MS with an additional .22 Short magazine as well as the standard .22 Long Rifle magazine. Once again it would find itself in the far-flung reaches of the world.
May Day, 1960
The Model HD MS’s greatest claim to fame (or infamy) is its fateful journey on May 1st, 1960 as the sidearm of choice for CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers on his doomed reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. Powers was piloting a high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft at the time, photographing suspected Soviet nuclear testing facilities. When the Soviets detected his aircraft on radar they sent aloft a barrage of SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. Powers’ aircraft was hit, as was a Soviet MiG-21 that was pursuing him.
Powers survived the crash, parachuting to the earth. He was immediately surrounded by unarmed Russian civilians who were drawn by the spectacle of the crash and downed pilot. When Russian authorities arrived and detained him, his survival kit proved to be a treasure trove of intelligence and publicity value to the Soviets.
Not only was he carrying the suppressed High Standard, but also a silver dollar coin on a necklace. The coin held a hidden needle coated in saxitoxin, which Powers had been provided as a suicide implement if he feared for his life.
Now, more than 60 years later, that Model HD MS, serial no. 120046, resides in the KGB’s official museum in Lubyanka, home to their infamous headquarters which also served as an interrogation and execution facility.
Service in Vietnam
The Model HD MS also saw service in Vietnam with several organizations. Pilots employed by Air America, the CIA’s clandestine airline, were often equipped with the High Standard in shoulder holsters. It was equally popular with the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam’s Studies and Observations Group, or MACV-SOG.
MACV-SOG warriors carried an incredible variety of both US-manufactured and foreign weapons on their covert missions, and the High Standard was a mainstay of their arsenal.
One of the most difficult but valuable mission sets belonging to MACV-SOG was prisoner snatches. The exact methodology was a subject of endless debate among the teams, and constant experimentation on real-world missions.
One tactic the team used was to identify a VC or NVA courier with a formation of bodyguards and set an ambush. The ambush would be initiated by deliberately wounding the courier with the Model HD MS, while the rest of the squad was killed. The wounded courier could then be interrogated on site or extracted back to base.
On at least one occasion in Vietnam, the Model HD MS was used for a purpose for which it was completely unsuited. Army Green Beret Robert Castillo was on a five-day reconnaissance mission in 1971 deep inside enemy territory. Overnight he rested with his back against a tree and the Model HD MS in his lap.
In the middle of the night he was approached by a tiger smelling a potential meal. Castillo remained silent for as long as possible until the tiger was just a few feet away. He then raised the .22 pistol and emptied the magazine directly into the tiger, certain he was about to be eaten. The .22 rounds were not enough to kill the massive predator immediately but it drove it away, and Castillo survived to complete the mission.
In the fall of 1969, a Vietnamese agent of the Central Intelligence Agency used a model HD MS to assassinate a People’s Minister of Mobilization in a public park in broad daylight. The suppressor was so effective that witnesses did not realize that the Minister had been killed initially and thought that he had died of a sudden heart attack. The assassin was able to slip away in the confusion unnoticed.
The following year, a combined team of Army Special Forces Soldiers, CIA personnel, and South Vietnamese partners were able to capture a Viet Cong general officer by silently killing his security detail as the general slept in a remote plantation house. He was then awoken and informed of his own capture by the South Vietnamese.
One use of the Model HD MS lead to a major scandal which played out in the American news media in 1971. Two years prior, eight Army Special Forces Soldiers led by Captain Robert Marasco had identified a double agent among their Vietnamese partners. Thai Khac Chuyen was being paid by the CIA to develop a network inside Cambodia but was also working at the behest of General Duong Van Minh, who himself was working with communist forces to unify South and North Vietnam.
Chuyen’s betrayal of his US partners was uncovered when a Viet Cong camp was raided, and the ensuing site exploitation turned up a photograph of Chuyen with a high-ranking Viet Cong official.
Captain Marasco claimed he had received oblique instructions from his CIA partners to eliminate Chuyen “with extreme prejudice.” The eight Soldiers told Chuyen they had another mission for him, but detained and interrogated him using sodium pentothal, which elicited a confession. They then took him on a boat out into the South China Sea and killed him with a Model HD MS. His body was never recovered.
Although the eight Soldiers were eventually charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they were never arrested or convicted due to an (unsurprising) lack of cooperation from the Central Intelligence Agency.
It is difficult to say where most of the approximately 2,600 original High Standard Model HD MS pistols are now, more 75 years after they first appeared. A few are in private collections, a few more in various museums. Some were certainly lost, or deliberately destroyed. As late as the year 2000, the USMC 1st Force Reconnaissance Company had ten Model HD MS pistols in their armory.
Author Gene Williams says he personally saw one in the hands of a “special forces contractor” in Afghanistan after 9/11. And a few more are undoubtedly in the inventory of some clandestine organization, or buried in a secret cache, awaiting their return to action.
- Wallace, R. and Melton, H. (2008) Spycraft. Penguin Group.
- Miller, J. (1998). The High Standard USA HD MS. Small Arms Review.
- Miller, J. (2000). Infantry Board Test of the High Standard USA Model HD MS and Wire Shoulder Stock. Small Arms Review.
- Brunner, J. (2005). OSS Weapons – 2nd Edition. 2005. Phillips Publications
- Philadelphia Inquirer. (1944).
- Conboy, K, The History of Halo Operations: Vietnam 1970-1971.
- Williams, G. (2017). The High Standard Model HDMS: A Silent Pistol Used by MACV-SOG. Southern California Sentinel.
- Paulsen, A. (2002). HDMS Silenced .22 Pistols in Vietnam, Small Arms Review.
- Darnton, J. (1971) Ex-Beret Says He Killed Agent on Orders of CIA. New York Times.
- Rogers, P. (2000). Strong Men Armed: The Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Company. ForceRecon.com.