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Cold War Espionage - by the Covert Spy Shop

During the Cold War, the invisible troops of the intelligence agencies carried out a variety of tasks at the bidding of their political masters. These jobs included assassination and destabilizing unfriendly regimes. But the core of espionage is gathering information and by definition, that goal must be accomplished in secret. 

Some tools and missions could be concealed simply by placing them far away from the target -- the approach taken by surveillance planes and satellites. 

But satellites can only go so far, and old-fashioned human intelligence must come into play. Like "Q," the master engineer in the James Bond films, engineers at every spy agency labored to produce tools for their spies in the field -- devices that could escape detection or, if they could not be hidden, looked like anything but what they were. 

Some of their inventions seem almost quaint today: A two-way radio that could fit in a briefcase! A tape recorder that could be concealed under clothing! Throughout the Cold War, the demands of espionage helped drive familiar trends in technology -- making both exotic and everyday items more sophisticated, smaller, and more concealable. 

Silenced firearms 

Silencers work by suppressing the gases that leave a gun barrel when it is fired. Special ammunition used with silencers travels slower than the speed of sound, avoiding the sonic boom caused by ordinary bullets. 

Silenced firearms are not entirely silent -- they do not muffle the mechanical sounds of a gun's moving parts -- but they do reduce the sound to a level that is not noticeable in a crowd or from far away. The silencer also hides the bright muzzle flash that usually appears when a gun is fired. 

The miniature gun pictured was in the possession of KGB assassin Nikolai Khokhlov, who opted to defect to West Germany in 1954 rather than kill Georgi Okolovich, an anti-communist emigre in Frankfurt. The gun -- one of two issued to Khokhlov -- could fire poisoned bullets to make sure of a kill. The collapsible barrel had a built-in silencer, and the gun when fired made "a sound less than the snap of a finger," according to press accounts at the time. 

Because of the slower bullet speed, guns with silencers are most effective at close range. 

Cigarette case weapon 

A cigarette case provided an excellent cover for this weapon, surrendered by KGB assassin Nikolai Khokhlov when he defected to West Germany in 1954. The device fired hollow-point bullets filled with poison through the false cigarettes at the opening of the case. 

Khokhlov, sent to assassinate anti-Soviet emigre Georgi Sergeyvich Okolovich, defected rather than carry out his mission. Also in his possession were two miniature silenced pistols. 

Keychain guns 

Designed to fire gas cylinders, these tiny Bulgarian-made weapons can also fire .32 caliber bullets. Once the arming ring is locked, the buttons on top of the device can fire one round from each of its two barrels. 

At just one inch wide and three inches long, they are easily concealable and will not set off most airport metal detectors. 

Because of their small size and short barrel, the devices have a great deal of recoil, are extremely loud and are not very accurate. They are described by some experts as a "last resort" weapon. 

Since the end of the Cold War, these weapons have become readily available in southern Europe for as little as $20, Interpol officials say. The FAA issued a warning in May for airports to be on the lookout for the "keychain guns." 

Suicide weapons 

Throughout the Cold War, interrogation techniques reached ever-increasing heights of psychological, physiological and pharmaceutical sophistication. Despite the Hollywood fantasy of a heroic agent stoically refusing to answer questions under torture, it quickly became clear that no one could long withstand a technically skilled and ruthless interrogator. 

Spies operating behind enemy lines might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice and kill themselves to avoid giving up vital information or compromising the safety of fellow agents. 

Suicide weapons, easily concealable and quickly lethal, were developed as a last resort should capture become inevitable. Fast-acting poisons that killed within seconds could be delivered in the form of a capsule, a glass ampule full of liquid poison, or a poison-tipped pin. 

Suicide weapons are a less-than-perfect defense and are only as effective as the resolve of the operative; at the show trial of downed U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, his poison pin was on display, debunking the U.S. claim that his was a weather flight. 

Hidden knives 

As anyone who carries a pocket knife can attest, a sharp knife is often a useful thing to have. This is certainly true for people in the shadowy world of espionage. 

Tiny knives, with blades less than an inch long, are primarily intended as escape tools, to cut bonds or loosen doors or windows. But they can also be used as a weapon in extremely close quarters, used to threaten the eyes or throat of a hostage. 

The classic thumb knife, a tiny blade that can be hidden in a shoe heel, has been in use for decades; the more sophisticated version shown here is a coin with a hinged blade that could pass undetected in a pocketful of change. 

Poison-pellet weapons 

Designed by the KGB, the poison-pellet umbrella was used in the assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London. A jab with an umbrella at a bus stop -- easily dismissed as a meaningless accident -- delivered a pellet of ricin, a poison derived from castor-oil seeds. Markov was dead soon after. 

Ricin is an extremely toxic poison; Scotland Yard estimated that only 425 micrograms of the poison killed Markov. It is also extremely difficult to detect in the bloodstream. Markov's assassination was detected only because the pellet carrying the ricin had not dissolved as expected. 

The KGB also designed a pen-sized assassination weapon to deliver ricin pellets, one of a family of poison assassination pens that delivered gas or liquid poisons. 

The 'Stinger' 

The Stinger was the Western equivalent of the KGB single-shot pistol. A reloadable .22 caliber weapon, it came with a spare barrel strapped to the back with a plastic sheath. It was issued with seven rounds of ammunition and concealed in a lead-foil tube similar to ones used for a variety of consumer products. 

Single-shot pistol 

This 4.5mm single-shot pistol, designed by the KGB, is surrounded by a rubber case. This allows it to be hidden in bodily orifices, making it easy to smuggle past all but the most dedicated search. 

The device would be fired by twisting the knurled ring at the muzzle end a quarter turn. The small size of the weapon limited its range. 

Similar KGB guns found by Western intelligence were disguised as lipstick or a pocket flashlight. 

Assassination gun 

This silenced weapon was designed to be folded in a newspaper and fired from that concealment. The effect of its silencer is heightened by the fact that it is designed to be fired while pressed against the victim's body. 

The KGB built both conventional and gas-firing versions of this weapon, which is similar to concealed and silenced weapons built during World War II. 

Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife 

Designed by two British officers based on their experience in close-quarters combat with the Shanghai police, the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife was a standard commando weapon in World War II and throughout the postwar years. 

Originally deployed in 1941, the knife was designed to allow a trained commando to strike accurately at a target's vital organs. It remained in use, with various revisions, into the 1990s. 

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