THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN - 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)

50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)


This is the semi-auto version of the Auto-Ordnance Model 1927, with legal 18-inch barrel.

The Auto-Ordnance semi-automatic version of the military M1A1.

In spite of its singular persona, the Thompson submachine gun is a dichotomy of characteristics. Conceived to help our doughboys clear the trenches during the close combat tactics of World War I, unfortunately, it wasn’t perfected until after the armistice. Consequently, the Thompson was repositioned as a Roaring ’20s peacekeeper. However, its greatest imagery was as a gangster weapon, during the crime-ridden Prohibition years. Movies like James Cagney’s Public Enemy, and Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, heightened this image, making the finned-barreled, pistol-gripped M1921A1 famous as “The Gun that Made the Twenties Roar.” Other Thompson monikers were “The Chicago Typewriter,” and “Chopper,” both inspired by its 800 rounds-per-minute rate of fire.

The Thompson Submachine Gun was the inspiration of U.S. Army Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson. As a respected firearms expert and the youngest colonel in the U.S. Army during the Spanish American War, Thompson realized the need for what he called, “a one man, handheld machine gun.” Later, as chief of the Small Arms Division for the Ordnance Department, Thompson was involved with the government’s adoption of John Browning’s Model 1911 pistol. He was impressed with Browning’s .45 ACP cartridge and ordered extensive testing of the round on human cadavers and cattle. He became convinced the .45 ACP would be ideal for what he had come to refer to as a submachine gun—a fully automatic weapon chambered for a pistol round, rather than a rifle cartridge.

The Army was slow to take up his cause. Frustrated with President Woodrow Wilson’s hesitation to enter the First World War, Thompson resigned his commission and joined Remington as its Chief Arms Engineer, while continuing his submachine gun research. He discovered a patent for a unique, delayed-action blowback receiver designed by a retired U.S. Navy captain named John Bell Blish. Realizing this could be the key to his handheld machine gun, in 1916, Thompson sought the financial help of a Wall Street investor appropriately named Thomas Fortune Ryan. Thompson then contacted Blish and offered him a partnership is his fledgling New York firm, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation. Blish assigned his patent to Auto-Ordnance in exchange for company stock. When the U.S. finally entered WWI, in 1917, Thompson rejoined the army, was promoted to Brigadier General, and made Director of Arsenals.

This Thompson could literally light up the room. It was offered as a limited edition a few years ago by WETA, the imaginative workshop created by Peter Jackson, award-winning New Zealand director of films such as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Conceived in WETA’s prop department by John Harvey and Callum Lingard, it completely sold out within a few weeks.

By 1919, with the war over, Thompson returned as president of Auto-Ordnance. Working with two other talented individuals, Theodore Eickhoff and Oscar Payne, their first product, the Model of 1919, was aptly dubbed The Annihilator. Equipped with either 20 or 30-round stick magazines, or optional 50 or 100-round drum magazines, it was capable of firing 1,500 rounds per minute. The initial Annihilator was actually an automatic pistol, as it had no buttstock, but featured a pistol grip trigger and fore-end, along with a finned barrel. Later, a detachable stock was added.

This, in turn, evolved into the most recognized Thompson today, the Model of 1921, which soon became known as the “Tommy Gun.” It was initially produced for Auto-Ordnance by Colt’s and featured extremely well-finished and -fitted parts. Outfitted with a 1012-inch barrel and a Cutts Compensator, a rounded charging knob on top of the receiver, adjustable rear sights, and a fixed blade front sight, it was capable of semi-automatic or fully automatic fire, the latter of which could eat up rounds at a rate of 800 shots per minute. It has been reported that General Thompson had his personal Model 1921 fine-tuned to fire bursts in cadence to one of his favorite military marches.

More than 15,000 Model 1921s were produced for the U.S. Post Office, the Navy and Coast Guard, the U.S. Treasury Department, the Northwest Mounted Police, and law enforcement organizations as diverse as the New York and San Francisco Police Departments and the Texas Rangers. “Here’s the Gun that Bandits Fear Most!” proclaimed one 1920s ad, “That’s why bandits surrender to the man with the Thompson Gun … they know, ‘There’s no getaway against a Thompson!’”

Indeed there wasn’t. Uncannily accurate, even in full auto, a trained marksman could write his name with a Tommy gun. Moreover, the .45 ACP round was capable of 100-yard knockdown accuracy on man-sized targets, and, with its hefty 13 pounds of weight, recoil was practically nonexistent. Speaking from experience, the gun rarely jams when using ball ammunition (hollowpoint .45 ACPs did not exist during the Thompson’s era, and, consequently, the gun was not designed for them).

Unfortunately, for all its attributes, the Thompson was a prohibitively expensive gun, retailing for $225, a lofty price at the time. As desirable as the Thompson was, many law enforcement agencies simply could not afford one. Sales soon dropped to a point where, in 1928, Thompson was ousted as president of the company that bore his name.

A semi-automatic-only version, the Model of 1927, was produced to increase sales, but nothing really happened until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thus catapulting the U.S. into World War II. The Thompson, now under ownership of an entrepreneur named Russell Maguire, was suddenly in demand and its production was subcontracted out to Savage Arms. Thus evolved the Model of 1928 and 1928A1, which were really nothing more than the Model of 1921 outfitted with a wooden horizontal fore-end instead of a pistol grip, a change of sights, omission of the compensator, and fitted with sling swivels. This then became the M1, with a reduced 650-rpm rate of fire, a simplified “L”-shaped rear peep sight, and a side-mounted charging handle. The M1A1 was even more simplified, omitting the finned barrel. With a war-time manufacturing price of $45 each, the M1A1 went on to win acclaim in WWII and numerous other conflicts, including Korea and Vietnam.

The ultimate Tommy Gun, as seen at the 2014 Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade (SHOT) show, in Las Vegas. What better city to sport a golden Tommy?

Today, more than 1,700,000 Tommy Guns have been built, with originals now costing more than most mid-range automobiles. In 1951, Auto-Ordnance was purchased by George Numrich, of Numrich Arms, and, in 1999, was bought by Kahr Arms. Unfortunately, John Thompson died on June 21, 1940, seven months before the U.S. entered World War II. He never got to see his Tommy Gun finally get to play the role for which it was created.

Of course, as spelled out in The National Firearms Act of 1934 and as further defined by the more recent Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of May 19, 1986, it is illegal for private citizens to own a fully automatic weapon (that is, one that fires multiple shots with a single pull of the trigger), unless one has a Class III license, pays a registration fee per gun, and is able to jump through a maze of background checks and legal hoops. However, Kahr’s Auto-Ordnance Corporation does offer semi-automatic versions of the .45 ACP Thompson 1927A and the M1. That is, these guns can only fire a single shot with each pull of the trigger. But even they are expensive, and, in some states like California, are illegal to own simply because they “look bad.” Their high-capacity magazines bar them from many other states, as well.

If you really must have a Tommy gun—or at least a gun that looks like a Tommy—another alternative is to buy one of the aircraft-grade aluminum and steel drop-in kits from Scottwerx ( that transforms your Ruger 10/22 rifle into a semi-automatic .22 rimfire look-alike Thompson. The Squad Leader kit makes a 10/22 look like an M1, while the Chicago gives it a Thompson 1927A appearance. Both guns are still semi-automatic Ruger 10/22 and can only fire .22 rimfire ammunition, but that’s a lot cheaper than .45 ACP. Either way, the Tommy gun belongs on our bucket list, as a tribute to the gun that kept gangsters at bay and helped win a war.