This Weapons Designer Was a Real Life Man of Mystery
Paris Theodore was the CIA’s ‘Q’
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 6, 1975, an individual walked into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York Field Office to make a statement. He was agreeing not to talk about the work of Paris Theodore, one particularly colorful and mysterious weapons designer.
“The undersigned agrees that he has no intention of using any information he gained through his association with Paris Theodore in any article or book,” the handwritten note explained. Censors redacted the names of the individual and the FBI special agent who witnessed the moment.
War Is Boring obtained this page — along with three administrative cover sheets — in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for details about Theodore’s work for the Bureau. Four other pages are currently being reviewed by “another agency.”
The Central Intelligence Agency is still working its way through a similar request.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise. Nearly a decade after his death, and despite several interviews during his life, this sort of secrecy and mystery continues to follow Theodore and his work. He was in many ways a real life counterpart to the famous fictional gadget maker for James Bond, the Quartermaster, more commonly known simply as Q.
Born in New York City in 1943, Theodore’s personal life would fit well in a Hollywood movie. His father John Theodore was a sculptor and art professor. His mother Nenette Charisse was a vaudevillian performer and ballet instructor.
Briefly a child actor, Theodore played the role of “Nibs” in NBC’s 1955 television production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. At the age of 19, he married dancer and choreographer Lee Becker, who would later go on to found American Dance Machine.
Somewhere along the line, the CIA recruited Theodore as a courier, according to his 2006 obituary in the New York Sun. “Stories from ensuing years link him to violent encounters in Greece, Africa and Vietnam, although nothing can be verified.”
What we do know is that Theodore opened a small company called Seventrees, Limited in New York’s garment district in 1966. Ostensibly the firm offered a wide assortment of hand made gun holsters specifically for anyone looking to carry a concealed weapon. Seventrees’ slogan was “Unseen in the Best Places.”
But the shop was actually turning out special guns for the CIA, the FBI and possibly other similar agencies. “Government documents show that he was specially exempted from all provisions of the National Firearms Act,” the New York Sun reported.
Signed into law in 1934, the National Firearms Act — generally referred to as the NFA — requires manufacturers and owners to register short-barrel rifles and shotguns, machine guns, sound suppressors and more with federal authorities. The legislation also carves out a catchall category for so-called “any-other weapons” that covers things like pen guns and other oddities.
Released from the requirements of the NFA, Theodore could build all sorts of top-secret weaponry. From a workshop hidden in a walk-in safe at Seventrees, he built a briefcase with an Uzi inside and a cigarette lighter that could fire .22 caliber bullets, his obituary claimed. The FBI reportedly ordered up a 12-shot clip board that undercover cops could use to take out hostage takers.
With so much of his job a state secret, Theodore is probably best known today for a more traditional looking gun. In 1970, he founded a new company called Armament Systems Procedures Corporation to build a super small nine-millimeter handgun.
Dubbed the ASP after the firm’s initials, the pistol was a highly modified Smith and Wesson 39. Already popular with the U.S. Navy SEALs and other elite military units, Theodore supposedly made over 200 individual changes before settling on his final design.
Where weight could be easily cut, he cut it. Where length could be quickly trimmed, he trimmed it. Theodore smoothed out its edges and coated the whole thing in Teflon to keep the gun from snagging on its holster, clothing or anything else if the shooter had to draw in hurry.
The pistols were just shy of seven inches long — about a half inch shorter than the original gun. Smith and Wesson would later make their own versions with similar dimensions. While handgun makers around the world offer compact guns today, Theodore’s weapon was uncommon at the time.
Most notably, the ASP did not have traditional sights. Instead, Theodore installed a patented metal channel he called the Guttersnipe.
The vast majority of manual “iron sights” on guns to this day require the shooter to line up a post or blade of metal at the front end of the weapon with another piece of metal or a peephole closer to their eyes. In principle, the Guttersnipe was faster and easier to use since the shooter only had to get their eyes to align the channel on the target.
“The ASP was a handgun that really was built around a whole system of close range practical shooting knowledge,” firearms expert Ian McCollum explains in a video for his website, Forgotten Weapons. “What Theodore was looking for was a gun that wasn’t going to snag on its way out, a gun that would be very quick to bring into action.”
This meant Theodore wasn’t really worried about his gun being accurate over long distances. That wasn’t the point.
“The goal was to be able to shoot effectively, very fast and at very close range” McCollum noted. “That’s the sort of confrontation the gun was designed for.”
Every ASP was custom-made for the buyer. Anyone wanting one of bespoke pistols had to supply their own Smith and Wesson as the starting point.
With an exorbitant price tag for the time of $475 dollars — more than $2,000 today — Theodore’s company had trouble selling the conversions on the open market. In the 1980s, a group of private investors bought out Armament Systems Procedures and started building complete ASPs instead.
In keeping with the general image of the gun as a weapon for spies and undercover types, this new iteration of the firm offered a special edition that came inside a case hidden within a fake, hollow book. The package also came with two spare magazines for the pistol, a letter opener shaped like a lightweight dagger and a tie pin with the ASP logo.
No doubt inspired by his work on the ASP, in 1985 Theodore cooked up his own patented two-handed shooting technique called Quell. In total, he had claim to more than a dozen patents.
“He was essentially an artist,” Michael Hershman, president of the Virginia-based security company the Fairfax Group, told New York Sun. “That gave him a perspective that others didn’t have.”
Unfortunately, much of Theodore’s art apparently remains a state secret and something people have literally been sworn to secrecy over. Hopefully, as time goes on, more of his career will squeak out into the public domain.
Originally published on May 2, 2015.
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