10 Facts About the American Thompson Submachine Gun

When it comes to firearms of the 20th century, perhaps only the AK-47, M-16, and Uzi are better known than the Thompson submachine gun. First introduced more than a century ago, the “Tommy Gun” has become legendary. Arguably, the Thompson is infamous thanks to its use by organized crime during prohibition. At least that’s the story we’ve been told; the truth is a bit more complicated.

Here are a number of key facts about the Thompson submachine gun to set the record straight.

1) The Gun’s designer, John Thompson, was a career military officer

The gun’s creator, John Taliaferro Thompson, served in the United States Army as chief ordnance officer during the Spanish-American War. He was later appointed chief of the Small Arms Division for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. While there, he supervised the development of the M1903 Springfield rifle and chaired the board that approved the M1911 .45 caliber pistol.

John Thompson
John Thompson initially envisioned a one-handed “machine gun” that could be used to clear enemy trenches. (Public Domain)

During the First World War, Thompson sought to design a new firearm to break the stalemate from trench warfare. Since America was neutral at the time, Thompson resigned his commission and took a position with Remington Arms Company as chief engineer. He went on to form Auto-Ordnance Company to produce his “trench broom” concept.

Though the Thompson was primarily developed in Cleveland, Ohio; the Auto-Ordnance Corporation had offices and a showroom at 302 Broadway in New York City. In addition, the M1921 Thompson, which was the first major production model, was produced by Colt Manufacturing in Connecticut.

2) The Thompson Submachine Gun was arguably the first “Black Gun”

The Model 1921 Thompson wasn’t the first submachine gun – even if it was the first small arm labeled and marketed as such. The German-made Bergman MP18 preceded it as the first purpose-built submachine gun. Meanwhile, the Italian Pistola Mitragliatrice Fiat Mod. 1915 (Villar Perosa) was modified from an aircraft gun for infantry use during the First World War. All three weapons were developed at roughly the same time with the Thompson just a bit late in arriving.

Moreover, the MP18 was arguably an attempt to create a carbine-style weapon that employed a rifle stock. In contrast, the Thompson offered features common with modern “black guns” — notably a select fire weapon with pistol-style grip and bottom-fed magazine at the center of the weapon.

3) The Thompson had a number of nicknames which weren’t as common as we’ve come to believe

The Thompson’s designer came up with the monikers “trench sweeper” and “trench broom”. While the project was developed under the name “Annihilator I”, it has numerous other nicknames. The more colorful nicknames, such as the “Chicago typewriter” and “Chicago piano”, probably weren’t all that commonly used. Gangsters of the era may have seen themselves as “businessmen” but these weren’t exactly educated men spending their days in offices. The nicknames more than likely originated with early gangster films and sensationalist reporting in the newspapers.

The more common nickname of the day is one we all know today: “Tommy Gun.” Thompson even trademarked the nickname. A small run of M1928 and M1928A1 models produced by Savage Arms were actually stamped “TOMMY GUN.”

4) Few Americans likely ever heard of the Thompson in the 1920s

Few Americans ever heard of the Thompson, or “Tommy Gun”, until the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It wasn’t that ubiquitous of a firearm — at least not yet. The initial mass production run in the early 1920s only amounted to around 15,000 units. By contrast, some 1.7 million were manufactured during the Second World War.

St. Valentine's Day Massacre Tommy Guns
These are purported to be the pair of Thompson submachine guns used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – at the Michigan Antique Arms Show in 2019. (Photo by the Author)

Though gangland violence was an issue throughout the 1920s, the Thompson wasn’t nearly as prolific a firearm as movies and TV shows suggested. Most gangsters carried handguns or sawed-off shotguns to keep a low profile.

In February 1929, four men with two armed with Thompsons (the rest used handguns) murdered seven members of the North Side Gang at a warehouse in Chicago’s Lincoln Park district. The fact that submachine guns — legal to own at the time — were used in the crime caused public outrage across the country. This ultimately led to the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934.

5) The Thompson Submachine Gun was widely marketed to civilians

Although most Americans initially weren’t familiar with the Thompson, Auto Ordnance actively marketed it to civilians. One famous ad from the time featured a rancher fending off rustlers – with the tagline “The Most Effective Portable Fire Arm in Existence”. The ad also suggested the Thompson was an “ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations.”

Thompson Submachine Gun ad
It would be hard to market any firearm today as they did with the Thompson in the 1920s! (Public Domain)

The Thompson’s original price was $200, and that included a 20-shot “stick” magazine. However, that price was beyond what most Americans — even those with large ranches or estates — could afford. For comparison, a new car in the early 1920s cost around $600.

6) The United States Postal Service adopted the Thompson before the U.S. Military

After the First World War ended, the U.S. Military wasn’t initially interested in the Thompson. The Thompson was adopted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and issued to agents to protected mail on trains and trucks.

A few years later, the United States Marine Corps became the first U.S. Military branch to adopt the weapon. The Corps considered the benefits of how an automatic, close-quarters weapon could be employed as part of a nine-man rifle squad. Subsequently, the weapon saw service in China, Central America, and the Caribbean.

7) The Thompson Submachine Gun’s film debut was the 1931 film “Little Caesar” 

The Thompson’s connection to gangland isn’t fiction; but thanks to numerous movies and TV shows over the past 90 years, it has been greatly overstated. Yet, it’s ironic that despite movies creating the Thompson gangland myth, it made its big screen debut in the 1931 film “Little Caesar” starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

It’s also notable the Thompson’s next movie appearance was in the comedy “Pardon Us,” starring the legendary comic duo of Laurel and Hardy. The film is remembered for being the duo’s first starring feature-length film. The film features the pair as bootleggers sent to prison during Prohibition. It’s hardly a shining example of gun safety to say the least!

Laurel and Hardy with a Thompson Submachine Gun
Laurel and Hardy in the 1931 film “Pardon Us” – not exactly showing trigger discipline! (Public Domain)

8) The Thompson was first used in combat against the British Army

J.T. Thompson developed his weapon for use in the First World War only for it to arrive too late. However, it didn’t take long for it to have its baptism of fire in “combat” against an American ally!

During Ireland’s war for independence in June 1921, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) wielded Thompson submachine guns against the British Army.  The IRA used them to shoot up railway cars carrying a detachment of the British Army’s Royal West Kent Regiment. The effectiveness of the weapons was more propaganda for the Thompson. The use of the Thompsons in the subsequent fighting shocked the British Occupation Forces — even though the Irish volunteers had inadequate training.

The IRA went to great lengths to acquire a cache of Thompsons. They saw use in the country’s subsequent counterrevolutionary Civil War of 1922-23 where it was employed by both the IRA and its breakaway rival, the Irish National Army. A fictionalized account of the first cache of Thompsons being sold to the IRA was an early plot point in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”

9) Miners, not gangsters (or ranchers), acquired large numbers of Thompsons

Just months after the IRA first used the Thompson, it was used in the final stages of the West Virginia Coal Wars (1912-1921). The Coal Wars involved local mine owners and the “Logan Country Defenders” squaring off against the “Marching Miners.”

Both sides — including the West Virginia State Police —  acquired the newly produced M1921 Thompsons prior to the late August/early September Battle of Blair Mountain. These events remain the largest labor uprising in our nation’s history and largest armed uprising since the Civil War.

That “battle” — or at least the sight of Tommy Guns used alongside lever action rifles in contemporary photos —  certainly served as inspiration for the inclusion of the Thompson in the “Yellowstone” spinoff series “1923”. In the series, villain Banner Creighton is armed with such a weapon while working for a mining magnet.

Still from "1923" of villain Banner Creighton
Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn) in “1923” armed with a Thompson. (Photo credit: Paramount+)

10) The Thompson was partially responsible for the National Firearms Act

The use of the Thompson in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, bank robberies in the early 1930s, and the 1933 Kansas City Massacre that left four law enforcement officers dead ultimately resulted in our nation’s first gun control laws. This included passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, requiring automatic weapons be registered and taxed. The tax stamp to transfer such a firearm was set at $200. Ironically, this was the original price of the Thompson and remains unchanged today.

Following the Kansas City Massacre, the FBI also first adopted the Thompson!

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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