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Thompson Submachine Gun – Tommy Boy

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From Dillinger to Omaha Beach, the Thompson Still Stands as an Ode to Firepower Innovation

Photos by Terra Piccirilli and 2ndAPhotography

General John Thompson worked diligently from 1915 to 1918 to create an automatic weapon that was small, ergonomic, and had a high rate of fire. There was certainly a market for it in Europe. The Western Front was awash in blood, grime, and destruction, and, worst of all, stalemate. The close-quarter fighting that occurred when one side actually made it to the enemy trenches was medieval; clubs and knives were often used more than long unwieldy rifles. John Thompson's compact automatic weapon would be perfect for this environment. Fortunately for the Central Powers, Thompson did not get his invention perfected in time.

Nor was Thompson's new weapon the first of its kind. The German MP18 was the first proper submachine gun to enter service in any numbers. However, the MP18 is now an obscurity. Few people know about it. The Thompson — or Tommy Gun, Chicago Typewriter, Trench Broom, or any number of other nicknames for the series of weapons — is legendary. It's one of the few firearms even the most junior aficionados can identify from a black silhouette.

The M1A's front sight is vastly simplified compared to the beautifully machined (though largely ineffectual) Cutts compensator found on the 1928 version.

The M1A's front sight is vastly simplified compared to the beautifully machined (though largely ineffectual) Cutts compensator found on the 1928 version.

The Thompson evolved over time. The 1919 Thompson (an extreme rarity on today's market) was produced in very limited numbers. The first production model Thompson, the 1921, established the Thompson's fearsome reputation. The 1921 and its extremely high rate of fire at 1,200 rpm was brutally effective at close range, even when saddled with the cumbersome 50- or 100-round drum.

In the 1920s and 1930s the world may no longer have been at war on a national level, but brushfire wars were rampant. The Thompson won its spurs in conflicts such as the Irish War of Independence and the Mine Wars in the United States (an excellent research topic for those of you concerned about your rights). The Prohibition Era filled in the blanks on its effectiveness and ultimately sealed its reputation.

By World War II, several countries, including the United States, Great Britain, and, believe it or not, France, used the Thompson. The 1928 Thompson was the most prevalent at the time with a slower rate of fire at about 800 rpm and a compensator fitted as standard. However, the 1928 was complicated and time consuming to build. The mechanical delayed blowback principle on which it operated was made possible by the Blish Block system. The 1921 and 1928 were products of their age when even military rifles looked opulent by our modern standards.

December 7, 1941, changed everything. The United States was at war and it needed to expand its military rapidly. The Thompson was highly desirable, but it was complicated and time consuming to build. The U.S. military wanted its firepower and effectiveness, but had to find a way to make it more efficient to build and field. The M1A1 Thompson was the ultimate result.

The M1A1 offered a number of simplifications over earlier models. Many of these are easy to see from the exterior. The finely machined Lyman rear sight was replaced with a simple “L” leaf protected by a set of “rabbit ears.” The charging handle was moved from the top of the receiver to the right side. The barrel fins were removed. The compensator was eliminated. The slots allowing the use of the drum magazine (which was questionably effective for combat use anyway) was removed. The buttstock was fixed.


The greatest changes were internal. The M1A1's bolt was far easier to machine, and was now a simple blowback design. The bolt on the M1A1 also had the firing pin permanently fixed to the bolt face. The resulting firearm was ubiquitous and served the United States throughout the remainder of World War II, alongside many 1928s, and a few 1921s converted to 1928 models, now generally referred to as, '21/28 overstamps.

The Thompson in all of its variants served on virtually every front during World War II. Large numbers of 1928 Thompsons were even sent to the Soviets and were used to some effect. However, many of these went unused and, about a decade ago, large numbers came into the U.S. as parts kits in mint condition except, of course, for the chopped receivers. I recently handled another one of these Soviet Thompsons in Slovenia, again in mint condition, except fully intact and operable with a $500 price tag compared to the $30,000 or so a transferable military 1928 will put you back on the current U.S. market.

The Thompson's reputation was furthered in British service. While only one Royal Marine Commando unit used the M1 Garand to any extent during World War II, virtually all of them used Thompsons. British infantry loved the Thompson, and it served everywhere they did, including north Africa and Italy. The Jewish Brigade was said to have fumed after they were told to turn in their Thompsons for STENs in Italy.

Although many machining steps had been eliminated by the time WWII rolled around, that receiver still started out as a 25-pound bar of SAE 1141 pre-hardened steel.

Although many machining steps had been eliminated by the time WWII rolled around, that receiver still started out as a 25-pound bar of SAE 1141 pre-hardened steel.

While shot placement was and is still the arbiter of effectiveness in incapacitating an enemy, the Thompson was slinging out 230-grain bullets, almost fully twice the mass of most period 9mm Parabellum bullets at 123 or 124 grains, at 800 rpm in the 1928 and about 650 rpm in the M1A1. In the jungles of the South Pacific and in street fights and wooded areas across Europe, the Thompson was a fearsome opponent.

Despite efforts to simplify its design, the Thompson was still a time-consuming gun to manufacture. During the course of World War II, additional research and development resulted in the M3 “Grease Gun” which, with little imagination, one might describe as an American STEN, being a mostly sheetmetal alternative to the primarily milled Thompson. By late 1944, the M3 and the Thompson were serving side by side.

World War II did not spell the end of the Thompson. Many U.S. units kept Thompsons in their TO&E for some time. The Thompson was used in decreasing numbers after World War II, but the USA and its allies fielded it to some extent through Vietnam and beyond. The U.S. Navy had some Thompsons aboard ships as late as the 1970s.

Hollywood loved the Thompson as well, and it still does. While Hollywood loves to tell us how evil guns are, and how we (the “lessers” in their eyes) should be happily disarmed, Hollywood has done nothing but increase the public's fascination with legendary guns, such as the Thompson. Films such as Road to Perdition, and The Untouchables showcased the Thompson in its Prohibition Era environment. Other films and series such as Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Saving Private Ryan, also prominently feature the Thompson.

While it is certainly debatable what the most “American” gun might be, the long rifle, the 73 Colt, the 73 Winchester, or the 1911, the Thompson certainly deserves a place on the ballot. Its dependability, durability, and brutal effectiveness in close quarters — from the streets of Chicago to the ruins of Cassino — earned it a place in firearms history. While more modern SMG/PDW designs, like the Uzi, MP5, and now MP7, have sprung up over the years, only a foolish man would consider turning down a Thompson for close-quarters fighting, and in the hands of a skilled opponent, only a complete idiot would disrespect it because of its age.


M1A1 Thompson
Caliber: .45 ACP
OAL 32 inches
Barrel Length: 10.5 inches
Action: Air-cooled blowback
Rate of Fire: 650 to 700 rpm
Weight: 10.6 pounds
Capacity: 20- or 30-round magazine
Effective range: Up to 150 m

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