“Over the past 90 years, it’s been used in both war and peace in just about ever corner of the globe.”
By Matthew Moss
THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN, better known as the Tommy gun, is famous and infamous in equal measures.
As part of the Allied arsenal, it helped liberate the world from tyranny; yet in the hands of gangsters and criminals, it became a symbol of the rampant crime and lawlessness of Prohibition America.
Nearly 3 million Thompsons have been produced since the weapon was first patented after World War One. Over the past 90 years, it’s been used in both war and peace in just about ever corner of the globe.
Here are some fascinating facts about this iconic firearm.
Enter the ‘Trench Broom’
A Kentucky gunsmith by the name of John Taliaferro Thompson first tinkered with the idea of a portable hand-held machine gun as early as 1915. The 56-year-old inventor and veteran of America’s war with Spain founded the Auto-Ordnance Corporation the following year to explore the concept further. Following America’s declaration of war on Germany in 1917, Thompson reenlisted and served as the Director of Arsenals for the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Corps. Seeing the deadlock on the Western Front, he envisioned a gun that could act as a ‘trench broom’– one that would enable a lone infantryman to clear whole dugouts of enemy troops in mere seconds. Following the war, Thompson retired from the service and continued working on his idea. By 1920, he patented a .45 calibre machine pistol. At first, he considered calling his invention the Persuader or even the Annihilator, but eventually settled on the eponymous Thompson submachine gun.
The Thompson weighed in at more than 10 pounds. It could fire .45 ACP pistol bullets from 20-round vertical stick magazines or larger 50 and 100-round drums. Each gun was hand-assembled with precision-machined parts. Yet despite the fine craftsman ship, the weapon’s 10-inch barrel and heavy ammunition limited its effective range to just over 150 feet.
The Thompson Family
Initial production began with the Model 1921. Later variants (there were at least a dozen) included a heavier ‘squad support’ version that was equipped with a longer barrel and a bi-pod. Known as the Model 1923, it fired a more substantial .45 Remington round. Conversely, the 1927AC3 was chambered for lighter .22 calibre ammunition. Then there were later models like the M1 and M1A1 that were simplified for cheap and speedy wartime production.
Blistering Rate of Fire
In 1939 Time magazine described the Thompson as “the deadliest weapon, pound for pound, ever devised by man.” The earliest models were capable of an astounding 1,500 rounds per minute. A Tommy gun could go through a 100-round drum magazine in 1.5 seconds. Later versions fired 600 to 700 rounds per minute.
In 1921, Auto-Ordnance began marketing the Thompson to private citizens as an ‘anti-bandit’ weapon. But with a price tag $200 each (equivalent of about $3,500 today), there were few takers. Interestingly, the first large-scale order came from the U.S. Postal Service. The United States Marines were also early adopters. Regional police departments and even Latin American governments also bought Thompsons. Other customers included both Chinese and Irish nationalist movements. And of course, there was the criminal element.
A Gangster Gun
Thompsons are perhaps best known for their use by crooks and thugs during the Roaring Twenties. Gangsters famously dubbed the weapons ‘Chicago Typewriters’. Two Thompsons were used during the infamous 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to pump 70 rounds into seven members of the Moran Gang in a Windy City parking garage. Tommy guns were also used by the likes of John Dillinger, ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, the Barker gang and ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd.
John Law’s Tommy Guns
Although regional police departments had been buying Thompsons for years, it was not until much later that the FBI finally ordered the notorious firearm. In 1935, the bureau acquired 115 Thompsons in custom carrying cases. Ironically by that point, the vast majority of outlaws that the G-Men had initially bought the Thompson to combat were already dead or behind bars.
Lighting Up the Silver Screen
Tommy guns were hugely popular in films of the era. Audiences packed movie houses each week to see their favourite stars decked out in fedoras and pinstripes let loose with their trusty Thompsons. The same year the FBI began fielding the weapons, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code. The landmark movie industry guideline specified, among other things, that only law enforcement officers could be shown on-screen with machine guns. Almost overnight, the Thompson became Tinsel Town’s gun-of-choice for cinema flatfoots. Tommy guns would go on to help glamorize G-Men rather than crooks. Since the 1930s, the Thompson has appeared in over a thousand films and TV shows.
The Thompson is partly responsible for one of the United States’ first gun laws. The 1934 National Firearms Act was passed to regulate the sale of sawed-off shotguns, suppressors and machine guns, all of which were more likely to be used by criminals. The new law meant that sales of Thompsons were recorded and taxed with a whopping $200 tariff.
In 1925, Auto-Ordnance approached Britain’s Birmingham Small Arms Company to produce Thompson’s under license for sale in Europe. Despite successful demonstrations in the U.K., France and Belgium, no orders were forthcoming for the British Thompson. Production was halted in 1930.
In 1929, Auto-Ordnance was on the brink of liquidation. The company had sold just 10,300 guns and was more than $2 million in debt. The business was only saved by Thompson’s son’s stubborn refusal to shutter the plant. The firm struggled for years until the outbreak of World War Two, at which point new orders poured in.
Tommy Goes to War
John Thompson died on June 21, 1940. Just weeks later, the U.S. government placed the largest orders on record for the Tommy gun. With Europe already at war and America’s entry into the conflict seen as increasingly likely, Washington needed tens of thousands of firearms for its growing legions of GIs. Eventually, more than 2 million Thompsons rolled off assembly lines. It was soon on the frontlines in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.
The original Thompson design featured the complex and expensive Blish lock – a friction-delayed blowback action. In 1941, the Savage Arms Company simplified the design by removing the Blish lock and giving the gun a less complicated blowback action. This allowed production to be sped up considerably and cut the price of a Thompson from $225 to $44.
After the famous PPSh-41 and PPs-43, the Thompson was one of Soviet Russia’s most widely issued submachine guns. Under the U.S. Lend-Lease program, almost 140,000 Thompsons were exported to the U.S.S.R. But compared to the 6 million PPSh-41s produced during the war, this was a drop in the ocean.
Surplus Thompsons remained in the arsenals of dozens of nations for years after World War Two. The weapons served with UN armies in Korea, while American Special Forces and South Vietnamese troops used it in South East Asia into the 1970s. Thompsons were even seen as recently as the 1990s in the war former Yugoslavia. Today, the Tommy gun is much sought after by firearms collectors.
Matthew Moss is a British postgraduate student specializing in military history and small arms. He also runs historicalfirearms.info, a site that looks at the history, development and use of firearms as well as wider military history. Follow him on twitter.
The Thompson Submachine Gun, M. Pegler (2013)
Military Small Arms, I. Hogg & J. Weeks, (1985)
Soviet Submachine Guns of World War II, C McNab, (2014)