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From the streets of Chicago to the battlefields

The Thompson submachine gun

A U.S. Marine on Okinawa with his Thompson submachine gun (Photo: public domain)

Few American firearms are as culturally emblematic as the Thompson submachine gun, the famous Tommy gun. Today's article is dedicated to the firearm that was late for the Great War, but more than made up for it between the World Wars and during World War II. The gun's inventor was Brigadier General John Taliaferro (later anglicized to Toliver) Thompson (1860-1940). Thompson grew up in a military family and chose to serve his country at the age of 16, spending most of his career in the Army's Ordnance Department. One of his earliest accomplishments was to keep American troops in Cuba well-supplied with ammunition during the Spanish-American War in 1898. He also discovered an interest in automatic weapons at the time, and even arranged for an informal unit of Gatling guns to be sent to Cuba. The unit was put to good use at the Battle of San Juan Hill, the battle that established the reputation of Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. After the war, Thompson was involved in supervising the development of the M1903 Springfield rifle and another iconic American small arm, the M1911 pistol.

John Thompson with a stockless M1921 Thompson SMG in 1922 (Photo: historynet.com)
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World War I broke out in 1914, but it was clear that the United States were in no hurry to join in. Thompson retired from his Army position and went into the private sector (Though he temporarily returned to service in 1917, when America entered the war.). He first worked for the Remington Arms Company, than founded his own Auto-Ordnance Company. Initially, the company was very small and didn't even have its own production facilities. The first production runs of the Thompson were actually made by Colt.

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Part of Auto-Ordnance's testing room (left) and machine shop (right), 1918 (Photo: auto-ordnance.com)

The company had a single goal: to develop an automatic weapon that could clear enemy trenches in Europe. Such a weapon needed to have a high rate of fire, but range and accuracy were not important factors, since you were never going to shoot very far inside a trench, anyway. While tackling the engineering challenges of such a weapon, he came upon the work of U.S. Navy commander John Bell Blish. Blish was studying naval guns and discovered that two different metals (such as, say, steel and brass) pressed together by an extreme force (such as the explosion of gunpowder) would have a greater amount of friction than could be traditionally expected. This was named the Blish Effect, and modern engineers will recognize it as an extreme manifestation of static friction. Modern engineers will also recognize that it can't be put to good use in a small arm, but neither Blish nor Thompson knew that back in the 1910s. Consequently, the Blish lock, a small and ultimately not very useful piece of brass designed to take advantage of the effect in regulating the weapon's automatic fire became a distinctive feature of the Thompson gun's inner works.

John Bell Blish, inventor of the Blish lock (Photo: public domain)

Thompson originally set out to create an automatic rifle, but he just couldn't make the Blish lock work well enough with it. It was realized that the lesser power of pistol-caliber ammunition was more suited for the gun's design, and thus the .45 caliber ACP was eventually adopted. Two initial designs were considered: the “Persuader” was a belt-fed and quickly abandoned version, while the magazine-fed “Annihilator” became the prototype of the Tommy gun. Though it was not the first pistol-caliber automatic weapon, it was the first one to be actually called "submachine gun" (SMG), the phrase being Thompson's invention. In most languages other than English, such weapons have been and are still called "machine pistols". Another phrase coined by Thompson was the "Trench Broom", an apt reference to the gun's purpose.

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The “Persuader” prototype (Photo: guns.fandom.com)
The gun probably would have been terrifying in trench combat, but it came just a bit too late to serve: the war ended two days before prototypes could be shipped to Europe. This left Auto-Ordnance in a quandary: they had an excellent military weapon, but it was peacetime.
They did the best they could and started selling to peacetime users, including the civilian population at large. One of the first adopters was the United States Postal Inspection Service, which gave the guns to the U.S. Marines charged with protecting mail transports from robberies. The Marines also made heavy use of the gun during the series of conflicts known as the Banana Wars, which saw them participate in numerous occupations, interventions and police actions in the Caribbean and Central America. Various police forces across the U.S. also adopted the Thompson gun. It was even bought by corporations for use against union strikers and rioters. Such use (along with police use) was widespread enough that a special non-lethal round was developed. This bullet was made of compressed paper with a tiny shot inside. It was supposed to be aimed at the ground so the shot would ricochet off it and hit the crowd with relatively little (but still painful) energy. The most unlikely use of the gun, however, must be the one connected to the great writer Ernest Hemingway, who used it to hunt sharks.
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Policemen with their Tommy guns (Photo: National Public Radio)

While World War I was over, there were still opportunities for international sales. In fact, some of the first buyers were Irish agents, who wanted to use the guns in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Most of the 653 guns they bought were seized by U.S. customs, but the rest made it across the Atlantic and saw use in the last months of the war. These guns, along with later shipments, eventually ended up in the hands of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish Civil War which closely followed Ireland's independence.

An IRA gunman in Belfast, 1972, with a Thompson (Photo: artic.edu)

The most iconic Thompson users of the era, however, were American gangsters, who were delighted to find such a powerful gun commercially available to the public. Some of the gun's nicknames referred their widespread use by organized crime during the Prohibition, and later the Great Depression:  the "Chicago Typewriter", the "Chicago Organ Grinder" and the "Chopper". Even "Tommy gun" is a reference to the gun's gangster-like image.

Gangster John Dillinger posing with a Tommy gun and a pistol, 1934 (Photo: Associated Press)

This association became so strong that when Winston Churchill's famous photograph with a drum-fed Tommy gun was published during World War II, the Nazis themselves used is part of their propaganda to vilify the British Prime Minister holding a "gangster's weapon".

Churchill's famous photo with a Thompson, 1940 (Photo: IWM)

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At the time, the Thompson came with different types of magazines. The two main alternatives were a 20-round stick magazine, and the easily recognizable 50-round drum magazine. A similar but larger drum magazine capable of holding 100 rounds was also developed, but it proved to be very bulky and heavy – the empty magazine itself weighed about as much as the rest of the gun.
 
By 1928, Auto-Ordnance was facing dire straits. Thompson retired from running the company, and there was no longer a strong sense of leadership and direction. The company's primary investor, tobacco, insurance and transportation magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan, died the same year, while gun sales have been lagging. Nevertheless, the company managed to hang on and avoid liquidation for another decade, when a momentous event gave the Thompson gun a new lease on life: World War II. With Nazi Germany on the warpath, France and Britain were desperate to get new guns as quickly as possible. Auto-Ordnance contracted Savage Arms to start making large batches of the gun, using the same manufacturing equipment that Colt used in the 20s and which were afterward handed over to Auto-Ordnance. In fact, most of the World War II Thompsons were made by Savage Arms, only neither their name nor their logos was featured on the guns for contractual reasons.

A jubilant Chinese soldier with a Thompson gun in Burma, 1944 (Photo: Pinterest)

The guns made for and sold to Britain and France were of the Model 1928, which, as the designation suggests, was about a decade old at the time. The Thompson was a good weapon, but it was still getting a bit long in the tooth, and British use in North Africa quickly uncovered some shortcomings. The drum magazine was too large, too heavy, and rattled when you moved with it, which is not something you want while ambushing the enemy. They were also needlessly complicated to swap during combat, and took a long time to reload outside it. The stick magazines were superior in every aspect except the number of rounds. This drawback was overcome by ingenuity on the field: "jungle style" magazines, also used in the Pacific, consisted of two magazines taped to each other side-by-side, facing opposite ways. Once your first magazine was empty, you quickly pulled it out, turned it upside down, pushed it in, and you were good to go.

U.S. soldier in Europe with an M3 Grease Gun and a triple "jungle style" magazine rig (Photo: firearmstalk.com)

African sand was also a problem, causing jams. Many British armorers simply removed the Blish lock and replaced it with a bolt to reduce the chance of jamming. The so-called peep-holes on the stick magazines also had to be welded shut to prevent sand from getting inside. Another problem was that many of the Thompson guns sent to France got mixed in with the British ones during the fall of France, and some men ended up with French manuals for the weapon.

A Commonwealth soldier of the 4th Indian Division using a Thompson in North Africa, 1941 (Photo: IWM)

The gun was redesigned, partially based on feedback from the front, and partially to reduce its very high per-unit price. The M1928A1 entered production before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was eventually superseded by the M1 in early 1942, and the definitive version, the M1A1, in the autumn of the same year. It was a greatly simplified gun. The Blish lock was completely done away with; it had fewer moving parts and a much simpler sight; lacked a compensator, barrel cooling fins and removable butt stock; and the front grip was replaced by a horizontal grip. Newer versions could no longer accept drum magazines, but a new, 30-round stick magazine was introduced. Between 1939 and 1944, the price of a single gun dropped from $209 to $45 as a result of these changes.

U.S. Marines on Okinawa, 1945. The Marine on the left has an M1 or M1A1 Thompson (Photo: Americanrifleman.org)

The Thompson SMG was a highly-produced gun, but not quite as highly produced as one would think based on classic war movies. 70s and 80s films often show almost every G.I. carrying one. In actual fact, it was mainly carried by commissioned and non-commissioned officers, tank crews (who needed small guns inside their cramped vehicles), patrol leaders and soldiers sent on raids. It also saw heavy use by U.S. Army Rangers, paratroopers (who often "borrowed" Thompsons from mortar crews), and British and Canadian commandos. Lend Lease Thompsons were also used by the Soviets, though they rarely had enough ammunition for them.

Soviet Naval Infantry with Thompson SMGs (Photo: militaryhistorynow.com)

Despite its modernization, the Thompson was definitely getting old, and this became evident in the jungles of Asia and the Pacific. The ability to spray an enemy hiding in thick vegetation was a welcome asset, but the rounds didn't have the power to reliably penetrate relatively thin trees or armored vests. U.S. Army jungle patrols eventually started carrying Browning Automatic Rifles, whose more powerful rounds didn't have this problem. The military planned to start replacing the Thompson with a newer and even cheaper weapon, the M3 "Grease Gun", in 1943. Delays in the production of the M3, however, meant that the Thompson SMG continued to see service until the end of the war.

A sentry of the 1st Marine Division standing guard with his Thompson SMG at Da Nang, Vietnam, 1967 (Photo: americanrifleman.com)

And, in fact, for much longer. The gun continued to be used in numerous conflicts around the world, including the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, the Cuban Revolution, and even the Vietnam War. All in all, about 1.75 million Tommy guns were produced over its long history, not counting various copies and replicas. Younger generations got to know this iconic gun also from popular first-person shooter video games such as Medal of Honor, or Call of Duty.
 
In 2012, two guns, including a Thompson SMG, seized from infamous gangsters Bonnie and Clyde in 1933 after a deadly shootout with police in Joplin, Missouri were sold in an auction in Kansas City. The bidder, millionaire Bruce McMahan, paid $130,000 for the Thompson.

The Thompson of Bonnie and Clyde sold at an auction in 2012 (Photo: Mayo Auction and Realty)

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