Military-Grade Awesome, Moments in History

Tommy’s Gun: Both Sides Of The Law

When you think of the Tommy Gun (aka, the Thompson Submachine Gun) you probably think of Prohibition-era gangsters hanging off a Ford V8 and blowing away the law, the competition and/or Sean Connery. Well, that’s only part of the story of this interesting gun.

General John T. Thompson conceived of a semi-automatic rifle in the early 1910s that he hoped would help end WW1 by acting as a “trench broom”. He wanted it to operate without the complexity of a gas recoil system, and in 1915 he saw a patent for a system that would use pressure against inclined metal surfaces to accomplish the task. He organized the Auto-Ordinance Company and began development.

The limits of Blish Principle were soon found and the only cartridge suitable for use in the US was the .45 ACP. The Thompson submachine gun was born, but the war had ended. No worries. Police and military groups still wanted it, and there was a civilian market out there.

The first buyers were the US Postal Inspection Service and the Marines. The Marines used it in the Banana Wars and in China where they found they could replace the firepower of a 9-man rifle squad with a 4-man machine gun squad. Their big complaints were a lack of accuracy beyond 50 yards and the lack of penetrating power of the .45 ACP round.

Soon after the Marines and postal inspectors took delivery of their Tommy guns, several police agencies and South American militaries put in orders. Then the IRA came knocking at the doors of Auto-Ordinance, though about 2/3 of their weapons would be seized by Customs before they made it into the hands of Irish freedom fighters.

Another group of civilians started taking a liking to the Tommy at the same time. Prohibition in the US gave rise to powerful men backed by gangs that controlled the flow of black market liquor into cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago. Operating outside the law meant there were few laws to follow and no police protection (unless you bought some). Personal security was a high priority for these cats, and the Tommy gun provided it. They weren’t cheap, with a cost of around $200, but can you put a price on security?

When WW2 started the Tommy was still a reliable weapon and was used extensively by US forces. The major complaint they had was the 50-round round drum was too slow to load and often jammed, and the 20-round box magazine was too limited in capacity. After some testing, an extended 30-round box magazine was released and made standard issue.

After the war, the Tommy became the favorite of guerilla groups. Fidel Castro’s boys in Cuba cherished their Thompson SMGs. During the Greek civil war, both sides used the trench broom. The US supplied Chiang Kai Shek’s troops with Tommies to try to ward off the ChiComs. Even though the Tommy was starting to fall out of favor by US troops by Vietnam, some were still using them. And they faced them, as the North Vietnamese loved the Tommy and were manufacturing copies of it. Finally, during The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s, the IRA returned to their Tommy gun roots.

Today, Tommy guns are mostly collected and displayed in museums. And occasionally fired for a gangster flick.

[Image Credit: C. Corleis]

  • schigleymischke

    The Postal Service?

    • OA5599

      In case someone goes postal…

    • Actually it was for guarding mail trains. Apparently in the 1920s it was not unheard of to rob a train carrying mail.

  • Since I'm too lazy to actually write articles, I'll just expand on yours a little here. The original batch of 15,000 or so Tommy guns was made in 1921-1922 by Colt for Thompson/Auto Ordanance. When the Navy finally got around to ordering a few for the Marines these were modified (mainly internal modifications to change the fire rate) and restamped/over stamped from Model 1921 to Model 1928. Up until 1940 they were still selling guns from the original production batch of 1921. Up until 1934 civilians in the US could by machine guns with ease. The National Firearms Act added a $200 tax (on what at the time was a $200 gun) and a bunch of paperwork and red tape to machine gun purchases. In 1940 the British decided the American "Gangster Gun" might not be so bad, so they got production up and rolling on the Model 1928A1 at Savage Arms in the US. It was a slightly simplified version that still had the Blish lock.

    The Thompson was really obsolete at the beginning of World War II, especially when compared to designs like the German MP40 (light-weight stamped steel, easily mass produced). The Thompson is HEAVY, with a 50 round drum it weighs as much as a BAR full-size automatic rifle. The US Army finally got around to getting serious about buying submachine guns and modified the Thompson to the M1 and finally the M1A. The M1A got rid of all the fancy bits that make a Thompson so elegant. The 600 yard Lyman sight was gone, the cooling fins were gone, the Cutts compensator was gone, the Blish lock was gone (it never really worked anyways in the field it was sometimes replaced with just a nut and bolt) , the drum magazines were gone, the vertical grip was gone, the removable stock was gone, and it went from a hammer hitting the firing pin to a fixed firing pin (most machine guns fire from an open bolt and the firing pin hits the cartridge when the bolt slams home). The US military started replacing the Thompson in 1943 with the M3 "Grease Gun". But, as engineerd said, some stuck around until the Vietnam war. The M3 stuck around until 1991 or so with it being issued to armored vehicle crews in the first Gulf War.

    If you want a Thompson today you have a couple of options. Prices for real full auto Thompsons start at about $15,000 for a M1A and go up to the low six figure range for rare and pristine early 1921 models. Thanks to a 1986 law there can be no more manufacture or importation of fully automatic guns for sale to US civilians, even with the $200 tax. There is a VERY set supply of machine guns and demand is growing, prices are going up accordingly. Or you can buy a brand new semi-automatic for about $1,500 from Auto-Ordnance in either 1928 (minus the Blish lock) or M1A1 style, both of these will have a longer 16" barrel (unless you pay a $200 tax and go through the red tape to get a short barrel rifle (less than 16") or you can get a pistol version that looks like the one in the above photo, but you can't attach the stock.

    A few years back I got the chance to shoot a M1A Thompson at a local range that rents machine guns. That was a lot of fun, but you can really only keep the first 4 or 5 rounds on target when shooting full auto, short bursts are the key.

    There's a great article on the Thompson in the March 20 issue of Shotgun News, which was my source for most of this. After seeing this posted last night I re-read that article during my morning constitution today.

    Here's a vintage Thompson ad:
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  • PrawoJazdy

    As soon as I you're a dead man.

  • coupeZ600

    I remember several Vietnam Vets coming home and saying they would only carry the Thompson. The .45 went through the trees better, and the M-16 was a nightmare, jamming all the time if it saw a piece of dirt or drop of water. Plus, they said, .45 ammo was usually only issued to Officers for their sidearm, so there was normally a lot of it around.

  • Bud Short

    One of my Vietnam buddies loved his Thompson. When in a firefight with the other guys using M-16's, his bullets would get more kills. The M-16 muzzle velocity was over 3000 fps where the Tommy gun muzzle velocity was around 900 fps. The enemy would pop up after the firing stopped and the M-16 bullets had passed, his bullets were just getting there