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Thompson Submachine Gun: The Original Black Gun

Today because of media hype, an M-16 or AK-47 is probably what most people – at least those who don’t know firearms – think about when an automatic weapon is mentioned. The AK-47 may be the world’s “most popular” firearm, but it’s likely neither it nor the M-16/AR-15 would be around today had it not been for John Taliaferro Thompson. J.T. Thompson, of course, was the inventor the submachine gun that bears his name.

Thompson served in the Spanish-American War as Chief Ordnance Officer, and was so successful in running the supply operations to Cuba that he was the youngest officer to be promoted to the rank of colonel at the time. It was during this brief war he saw the effects of automatic weapons on the battlefield. Following the war Thompson was appointed chief of the Small Arms Division for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. There he supervised the development of the M1903 Springfield rifle. He also chaired the board that approved the M1911 .45 caliber pistol.

For many career officers that could have capped a successful career, but when World War I broke out in 1914 and reached its trench warfare stalemate, Thompson began to consider how an automatic weapon could be employed. With the U.S. Army on the sidelines, he actually retired from the military and took a position with Remington Arms Company as chief engineer. There he oversaw production of the Pattern 1914 Enfield rifles for the British and the Mosin-Nagant rifles for Russia. Today Remington versions of either of those fine weapons are sought after by collectors.

While working at Remington, Thompson devised a “trench broom” concept to clear enemy trenches. He studied a number of weapons of the era and, together with John Blish, a commander in the U.S. Navy, formed the Auto-Ordnance Company.

When the United States finally entered the war in the spring of 1917, Thompson returned to active duty and was promoted to Brigadier General, serving as Director of Arsenals. His “trench broom” concept arrived too late for the war, but it is likely it could have made a difference for allied forces if it had.

Tracie L. Hill, Thompson submachine collector and author, explains.

“It depends if the U.S. military would have allowed it be used. The U.S. was a little afraid of using our advances. One example is the Pedersen Device, which was a highly classified program in the U.S. military at the time. But had Thompson’s trench broom arrived in time, and more importantly been applied correctly, it could have done a lot of good. However, that is the biggest bugaboo – military thinkers really didn’t know what to do with a submachine gun.”

Hill points to the German’s use of the MP-18, a small arm that was indeed revolutionary, but only issued in limited numbers and primarily to the so-called “storm troopers.”

“It was used by those shock troops, but once the allies wiped them out the following wave was again equipped with bolt action rifles. The tactics needed to catch up with technology.”

Thomspon Rockisland 5
The Thompson prototype at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. This is one of only a handful of the original prototypes to survive. As noted it is above a modern black gun, suggesting its importance in the development of the firearms to come. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

There was also the fact that other automatic weapons didn’t fare so well in the trenches, notably the French Chauchat and even the British Lewis Gun. Thompson’s prototype – then known as the “Annihilator I” – was actually set to ship to Europe but the war ended before any were actually field tested.

Says Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret.),

“The mud and dirt that had been a problem with the Chauchat and Lewis Gun would have been a problem for Thompson’s prototypes. Bolt action rifles were just easier to keep clean, so it is hard to say if the Thompson in its early stages could have survived trench warfare. It could have been a problem or at least problematic. It wouldn’t have been a war winning gun immediately.”

The First Submachine Gun

In fact the war did come to an end before any Thompson prototype had a chance to be tested. The future of the project was also very much put in question, but it was decided at an Auto-Ordnance meeting in early 1919 to rebrand the Annihilator as the “Thompson Submachine Gun,” making it the first weapon to actually bear the moniker of “submachine gun,” even if the MP-18 had already undergone its baptism of fire.

GeneralThompson 6
General John Taliaferro Thompson holding the Thompson Sub Machine Gun M1921 (Photo: Creative Commons)

The Thompson entered production as the M1921, and while it may be difficult to comprehend today, it was actually marketed to civilians with a 20 shot “stick” magazine. The original price was around $200.00, which was a considerable amount of money in that day and age. One now famous ad from the time showed a rancher fending off rustlers with a Thompson with the tag line “The Most Effective Portable Fire Arm In Existence.” The ad further suggested it was an “ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.”

Thompson submachine gun advertisements

Even more shocking is the fact that Auto-Ordnance Corporation had offices at 302 Broadway in New York City! Clearly it was a very different time.

The Thompson was not a hit with civilians however. The cost was simply too high, and for most people there was no need for an automatic weapon. However, the M1921 was sold to the United States Postal Inspection Service and was carried by agents to protect mail on trains and in trucks. The weapon had arrived too late for the U.S. military in World War I, but in the 1920s the United States Marine Corps was among the early adopters of the Thompson, putting the weapon to use in China, Central America and the Caribbean. The USMC was the first to consider how an automatic, close-quarters weapon could be employed as part of a nine-man rifle squad.

It was also used in by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against the British in the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and then by both sides in the subsequent Irish Civil War. However, despite the fact that several hundred were likely smuggled into Ireland the actual body count from the weapon – death or serious injury – was relatively small.

Thompson SMG1 3
The receiver section close up – the Thompson features both single shot (semi-automatic) and fully automatic rate of fire, and it offers a thumb-activated safety. The magazine release is also located on the left side by the wooden grip and it is thumb-activated as well. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

During the 1920s and 1930s the firearm earned several other monikers including “the Chicago typewriter” and was once dubbed, “the gun that made the 1920s roar,” due to is early use by Prohibition and Depression-era gangsters. It is true that the Thompson was wielded by gangsters and bank robbers alike, and was used in such high profile events as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but the truth was that its cost – especially with added features such as the Cutts Compensator, which helped stabilize the weapon – made it cost prohibitive for even organized crime gangs.

Simply put, the Thompson was never used in such large numbers as Hollywood films would have you believe — but it looked the part.

“It is very iconic. It had a silhouette that was recognized by people for years. And anytime Hollywood did a period piece the gun was reintroduced to a new generation.” Hill

What the gangsters and other criminals did for the Thompson is what could be seen as “field testing” as they learned of its strengths and weaknesses. As Hill says,

“Gangsters were free thinkers. Thought outside the box and they pretty much taught the world how to use it in combat!”

The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934

The use of the Thompson, the BAR and other automatic weapons by bank robbers – including the 1933 Kansas City Massacre that left several FBI agents dead, and the attempted assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the same year – resulted in new laws that required automatic weapons to be registered and taxed.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 created a $200 tax, which was seen a prohibitive at the time, and covered machine guns, short-barreled rifles (SBR), short-barreled shotguns (SBS) as well as silencers. A later amendment to this law set the minimum barrel length at 16 inches, which remains the length for rimfire and centerfire rifles to this day. It is important to note that it was this law that categorized various weapons including machine guns.

World War II and Beyond

With the civilian market essentially a nonentity for the Thompson, it could have been the end of the line for it. However, in 1938, and despite the fact that its design was almost 20 years old, the U.S. military actually adopted the weapon.

The 1928A1 version was in use at the beginning of the Second World War. It was noted for having a Cutts compensator, cooling fins on the barrel and it employed a delayed blowback action, with a charging handle that was on the top of the receiver. It could be used with both box and drum magazines, with the latter proving to be unpopular.

Says Dye,

“It was heavy and slow to load. We sent a bunch as Lend-Lease the UK; that was the 1928 model with the drum magazine. But it was hard to manufacture and the British found them too finicky, something the Marines also found in the early days of WWII.”

There was little in the way of an alternative, as the M1 Garand was still being introduced and the BAR wasn’t available in large numbers. Besides the M1903 Springfield it was really up to the Thompson to do the job when America entered the Second World War.

USMC Okinawa Thomspson 1
USMC Sgt. John Wisbur Bartlett Sr. of the 1st Marine Division carrying an M1A1 Thompson on Okinawa in 1945. (Photo: USMC Photo – Public Domain)

“The Thompson was the only option at the beginning of the war. That is why it was the go to gun for the allies. Fortunately it was improved as the M1A1 version.” Hill

The M1 and M1A version was produced without cooling fins and it featured an improved rear sight. As the drum was disliked anyway, it had provisions for a box magazine. These models also employed a straight blowback while the charging handle was put on the side.

By war’s end more than 1.5 million military Thompson submachine guns were produced by Auto-Ordnance as well as by Savage Arms. It was widely used by scouts, non-commissioned officers, patrol leaders, commissioned officers and tank crews.

The biggest problem with the Thompson was its cost, and by 1943 the U.S. military began to replace the Thompson with the M3 and M3A1 submachine guns. However, production delays meant that the Thompson was never removed from service.

Thompson WWII Museum 2
The M1A1 Thompson (Below) was to be replaced by the M3 “Grease Gun” as a cost saving and production measure. These are in the collection of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

John Thompson passed away in 1940 before the United States entered the war and thus was unable to see the effect that his weapon would have on the battlefield. However, his legacy lived on with the gun that bears his name.

After the war the Thompson was used in a number of conflicts in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Greek Civil War, the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War and even into the Vietnam war.

“One thing that people forget is that it was a worldwide gun. It set the ground for all future guns, how to fire it, how to employ submachine guns. It could be argued that it was used as a test bed for what the M-16 as well. It had bolt in line with shoulder stock, sights that were above the action, and really the modern black rifle might not have looked the way it did if not for the Thompson.” Hill

The Thompson in Popular Culture

Few guns are as instantly recognizable in movies, TV shows and video games as the Thompson submachine gun. As Hill noted, it was iconic; a go to gun for directors looking to showcase a period weapon. The original M1921 version was seen as early as the 1931 gangland classic Little Caesar, while the M1928A1 version’s debut on the screen was in the espionage thriller Sundown in 1941. This model of the Thompson was seen in the 1943 film Gung Ho!

Says Dye, who never carried one on screen, but did carry one in training.

“It is a weapon that looks good on film. It is a solid gun, but it eats ammo like nothing else. You need to carry five or six extra mags of .45 ACP and that is heavy. The weapon itself is heavy, so when you’re not in situations where you’re using it in combat it loses a lot of its attraction. That said, I’m still glad we had it when we needed it.”

Thompson Submachine Gun: The Original Black Gun (Specs)

Type: Submachine Gun
Caliber: .45 ACP
Capacity: 20, 30 round box magazine; 50, 100 round drum magazine
Rate of Fire: 600-1200 RPM
Fire Modes: Semiautomatic/full-automatic


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