The Thompson Gun: From gangland weapon to military icon

The Thompson submachine gun, also known as the "Tommy Gun," is a historical firearm with an interesting and lengthy history.
Interesting Engineering

More commonly known as the “Tommy Gun,” the Thompson submachine gun was developed in the late 1910s and early 1920s by John T. Thompson. Made famous for its use by gangsters and law enforcement during the 1920s and 1930s, it was more important (historically speaking) for its use by military forces during World War II.

The Thompson gun was known for its high rate of fire, portability, and large .45 caliber bullet. It was also considered a powerful weapon, as it could fire up to 600 rounds per minute. Another major feature was its use of a drum magazine that could hold around 50 rounds. It can also be loaded with a 20-round conventional magazine.

It is also widely recognized for its iconic role in many gangster movies and TV series.

Also nicknamed the "Chicago Typewriter," "Chicago Piano," "Trench Sweeper," or "Trench Broom," the gun was first developed by American Army Brigadier General John T. Thompson in 1918.

It has a blowback mechanism, an air cooling system, and a magazine-fed selective fire capability. The “Tommy Gun” was initially intended to halt the trench combat during World Conflict I, but it was only completed once the war was over.

The Auto-Ordnance Corporation hired the Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, to produce the inaugural mass production of 15,000 Thompson Submachine Guns in 1920. Auto-Ordnance and Savage Arms produced over 1,700,000 Thompson submachine guns for WWII, of which 1,387,134 were the more straightforward M1 and M1A1 versions (without the Blish lock and oiling system).

The FBI, the Irish Republican Army, the Republic of China, the United States Postal Inspection Service, and the United States Marine Corps all used the Thompson in its early stages during the Banana Wars (following the Kansas City Massacre).

But, its legacy would be cemented when the general public was also sold the firearm.

For example, the Thompson gained notoriety during the Prohibition era as the go-to firearm for numerous organized crime syndicates in the United States in the 1920s because it was so simple to obtain. Both law enforcement officials and criminals employed it at the time, and it was a familiar sight in the media.

The American armed forces widely adopted the Thompson during World War II, and other Allied armies also heavily used it during the conflict. The M1928A1, M1, and M1A1 were its three primary models at the time.

During World War II, more than 1.5 million Thompson submachine guns were created. It was also the first firearm to bear the term "submachine gun" and be sold as such.

Although the original selective-fire Thompson variants are no longer manufactured, Auto-Ordnance makes many semi-automatic civilian versions. Although they have undergone several modifications to comply with US weapon restrictions, these models resemble the original models in terms of look.

Today, partly due to its infamy, Thompsons are prized as collectibles because of their excellence, craftsmanship, and ties to the gangster era and World War II.

Depending on condition and extras, a genuine Colt Model 1921 A or AC, Model 1927 A or AC, or Model 1928 Navy A or AC, correctly registered in functional order with original components, can easily bring from $25,000 to more than $45,000.

For example, on January 21, 2012, a Model 1921A, thought to have belonged to Bonnie and Clyde, sold at auction in Kansas City for $130,000 without supporting historical records.

The “Tommy Gun” is no longer in widespread use today as it has since been largely replaced by more modern firearms. But, some police and military units may still use the “Tommy Gun” in specialized roles.