A Really Cool — Bad Idea?

I recently had the great opportunity as a collector to see and handle a group of pistols so rare very few people have heard of them — let alone ever get the opportunity to see or hold them. The Gyrojet pistol, rifle and accessory collection of San Francisco attorney Laurence Jeffrey Lichter is clearly important. Mr. Lichter has assembled the most unusual collection of prototypes and one-off Gyrojet Rocket pistols most people will never see.

According to the inventor, Robert Mainhardt, a Gyrojet Rocket “is a solid propellant motor … burning chemicals producing hot gases inside the rocket casing. A solid propellant typically consists of a fuel (or reducing agent) and an oxidizer (or oxidizing agent). Normally, neither constituent will burn satisfactorily by itself, but in combination and at elevated pressure they burn rapidly and efficiently.

“The hot gases escape through nozzles at the rear of the rocket and the reacting force pushes the rocket forward. As the hot gases are ejected from the two or more nozzle parts they impart spin to the rocket, which provides gyroscopic stability in flight. Most of the energy from the burning propellant is used to thrust the rocket forward, but since the nozzle parts are canted, a certain amount of the energy is used to spin the rocket for stability.”


With its stamped construction and crude cast parts, the Gyrojet wasn’t
much to look at, and it was grossly inaccurate — but it was years ahead
in applying rocket technology to handguns! Photo: Jonathan Marmand



The actual ballistics are difficult to determine because they are expressed in rocketry equations. The gun has no recoil and is quiet. It actually sounds more like a fuse burning, sort of a “swish” sound. They are pretty inaccurate and that is what probably doomed them. According to people I interviewed, who wish to remain unnamed — and who have shot them terrestrially, not under water — there were several different types of charges, from launchers, to exploders, to bullets. Seems velocity was around the 1,000 fps range, but accuracy was something like 30″ at 35 yards. Hardly target-grade, and likely to actually miss a man-sized target at that distance.

Mr. Lichter allowed us to photograph some highly collectible Gyrojets in his collection. What struck me is the fact when you look at a Gyrojet pistol you think it’s a toy. They are lightweight, looking like cheap cap guns from the ’50’s. They are built lightweight because there is no recoil, so you don’t need any mass — it’s just a launch tube — and one of its features was its low manufacturing cost. It’s mostly just cheap castings and stampings.

Interestingly, some Gyrojet pistols were designed as underwater firearms. They shoot various types of ammunition, including exploding and penetrating munitions, grappling hooks and even spears. The rocket supplies it’s own fuel and oxygen so is unhampered by being fired under water. It seems that angle should have been explored further, if you ask me!

The gun is magazine-fed and since there is no case to eject it feeds reliably. The entire “rocket” leaves the muzzle. The hammer falls toward the rear of the pistol, striking the nose of the rocket, forcing it against the igniter and firing the rocket, which then pushes the hammer down as it passes, re-cocking the gun. The magazine then raises another round ready to be fired.

The inaccuracy may be attributed to erratic ammunition manufacturing. A roll crimp may have interfered with the gas leaving the venturi jets on the base of the “rocket.” But we’ll never know for sure as ammo is too rare and expensive to experiment with today.


This presentation Mark 1 Model B is not only gold-plated, but also has
a medallion honoring rocket pioneer Robert Goddard and dummy ammo included.


A range of underwater guns were produced, firing spears, explosives and
grappling hooks. Note the very crude aluminum casting, looking like a
cheap 1950’s cap pistol.

Collection History

Mr. Lichter acquired the collection when he represented the inventor and designer of the Gyrojet pistol, Robert Mainhardt. Mr. Lichter dealt personally with agents of the ATF and became one of the very few citizens to hold and collect some specimens of Gyrojet products, but he is also one of the only persons in the country (and few in the world) to posses prototype manuals and drawings, prototype pistols and rifles and various accesories.


A line-up from Mr. Lichter’s collection includes an underwater
gun, two presentation models and a very rare “rifle” model.
Note the very early Bushnell Phantom 1.5x scope attached!


The ammunition is extremely rare and most everyone who has some is known, so it is cost-prohibitive to shoot. Mr. Lichter assisted his client Robert Mainhardt and the special agents of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in cataloging and monitoring the universe of these rocket guns, which is very small, as you might imagine.

The Gyrojets were produced in 12mm and 13mm configuration. There is a dividing line between 12mm and 13mm ammo put forth by the BATF. For reasons that will likely baffle most of us, the 12mm is considered “controlled” and the 13mm is “without exemption” meaning you can’t have any, period.

Only the 12mm remain in private collections, and at the time the collection was aquired by Mr. Lichter, the BATF acquired all the live ammunition the inventor had. The Federal agents were kind and respectful of the elderly and frail inventor, according to Mr. Lichter, because of Mr. Mainhardt’s past assistance to some unnamed government agencies.

I was shown copies of correspondence between former President Ronald Reagan and the inventor, Mr. Mainhardt, where President Reagan was appreciative of the Gyrojets he was gifted, including “annual gifts” of some live ammunition for the President to enjoy. It seems, according to the letters, President Reagan enjoyed shooting his “rocket gun” recreationally.

Other notable Gyrojet owners included General LaMay, Barry Goldwater and others who, still living, shall remain nameless.

(Editor’s Note: Want to see a Gyrojet fired? Go to and search “Gyrojet” and you’ll find a few short videos.)
A special thanks to Laurence Jeffrey Lichter, Esq. for allowing us to take a peek at some of his collection. For more photos go to Web Blast.
By Dave Licht

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