Dozens of films have been made that show the Thompson submachine gun in use all over the world. It’s one of the most famous modern guns ever—Warren Zevon even wrote a song, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” in which the gun figures. As a submachine gun (a gun that fires a pistol cartridge; a machine gun fires a rifle cartridge), the Thompson is on the National Firearms Act list as a restricted firearm, so it isn’t likely that many people have had the opportunity to actually fire one. But nearly a century after it was introduced, few shooters really know much about gun itself. A Colt Connection

Thompson Submachine Gun
Brigadier General John T. Thompson, circa 1915. photo from the Library of Congress

A Colt Connection

John T. Thompson (1860-1940) was born in Kentucky and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy West Point in 1882. He worked in the Ordinance Department of the U.S. Army and was instrumental in organizing the Gatling Gun Detachment and Machine Guns that Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders used so effectively during the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba on July 1, 1898. In the years after the Spanish American War, he developed the .45 ACP cartridge and sought to find a suitable firearm for the U.S. Army that would handle the round. The resulting search led to the establishment of the Army’s 1907 Pistol Trials where the Colt 1911 was selected to become the new official sidearm of the U.S. military.

During the first World War, Thompson began to work on a full-automatic firearm that would fire the .45 ACP cartridge, giving its user a distinct advantage in firepower within the close confines of the trench war that had been churning up Europe since 1914.

His first effort was called “The Annihilator.” It was a fast-shooting (1,200 rounds per minute) trench broom that wasn’t production-ready until 1919, some months after the Armistice was signed. The Italians and then the Germans were first in the field with sub-machine guns during the war, but the Thompson packed more punch with its .45 than the Italian Villar Perosa and the German Bergmann’s could with their 9mm rounds.

By 1921, Thompson and his Auto Ordinance Company contracted with Colt Firearms to manufacture 15,000 of the perfected guns for sale to the U.S. military and civilian law-enforcement markets.

Sadly, for Thompson and the stockholders of Auto Ordinance, the gun was a slow seller. Priced at $200 each–half the cost of a new Ford Model T automobile–the Thompson did not find the hoped-for military contracts in the post-war environment. A few sales to the U.S. Marine Corps and Postal Service were made, but for the most part, sales languished throughout the 1920s and 30s.

Front-Page Notoriety

On February 14, 1929 two men from the South Side Gang of Chicago walked into the garage frequented by Bugs Moran’s North Side gang and opened up with two Thompsons, dispensing 70 rounds and death to seven men within a matter of seconds. The Saint Valentine’s Day massacre, as it became known, put the “Tommy Gun” on the front page of every newspaper and on every newsreel in the country.

Auto Ordinance had tried to stem the flow of Thompsons to the criminal underworld by insisting that gun would be sold only to the military or legitimate law-enforcement officers. Bootlegging money, however, flowed freely as each gang tried to get the upper hand in firepower over the other. Fake letters from non-existent police chiefs were hard to discern from genuine ones, and Thompsons entered the gang wars that plagued large cities during the prohibition era.

It wasn’t long before Hollywood got in on the act and soon began churning out films starring Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson that had the familiar rat-a-tat-tat of a Tommy Gun in numerous action scenes. Soon the public was swept up in Tommy Gun fever and of course, not far behind, those who wished to rid them from the streets passed the National Firearms Act in 1934. The Act required the approval of the local chief of police, a set of fingerprints and a $200 tax stamp to allow the private purchase of any type of automatic firearm. Never mind that prohibition had ended two years earlier and Capone and his likes were locked away or dead already. Hollywood would take its license for dramatic effect and even put Tommy Guns in the hands of Bonnie and Clyde in more than one film, when in fact the duo preferred stolen BARs–Browning Automatic Rifles–for bank work. Even modern Hollywood has featured Thompsons. Albert Finney handles a Model 1928 Thompson in the Coen Brothers riveting 1990 film “Miller’s Crossing.”

Thompson Submachine Gun
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives a Thompson a try in 1940. photo courtesy of the National Firearms Museum

Tommy Goes to War

World War II broke out in September 1939, and Allied nations sought out arms to equip their armies as fast as they could purchase them. Regardless of the cost, arms and munitions were bought and sold at break-neck speed in an effort to stem the tide of fascism. Thompsons were quickly sold to the British and Russians, while mass-producing the Thompson became a priority for the newly reorganized Auto Ordinance Company. The company was soon producing and sub-contracting the production of the Model of 1928A1, which had a top-frame-mounted bolt handle and accepted both stick magazines and the classic 50 or 100 round drum magazines.

After a few engineering changes later, Auto Ordinance introduced the M1 Model that was not only a bit lighter than the standard 10-pound Model 1928, but also was also cheaper, at $70 each. By the war’s end, 1.5 million Thompsons had been manufactured and put into service in every corner of the globe.

Thompson Submachine Gun
A WW II veteran who served with the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, Edson’s Raiders, fires a Thompson M1 at a reunion at Quantico, Va. in 2011. photo by Philip Schreier

Pound for pound, the Thompson is the finest submachine gun ever made. And pound for pound, the Thompson’s main problem has always been its weight. There is no question that the Thompsons made by Colt in 1921 were the finest shooting instruments of their class. The machining, finish, and fitting of the gun was second to none, which turned out to be the biggest impediment to military sales. The associated cost for producing the gun with a high-polish blue was seen as unnecessary by the military. It was very effective at close ranges and packed the desired wallop with the .45 ACP round, but the M3 Grease Gun accomplished the same tasks for around $12 per unit.

Today, the Thompson is still a head-turner on the range, and there are two collectors’ associations dedicated to preserving the history of Thompsons, whose members shoot them on a regular basis. For civilians interested in owning one, the NFA tax stamp is still only $200, but the cost of a Tommy Gun has risen to $15,000- $30,000–if you can find one for sale.

Visit the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia to see some great examples of early and WW II era Thompsons.

Thompson Submachine Gun
A Marine fires on a Japanese position using an M1 Thompson during an advance on Okinawa in 1945. photo from

For a deeper dive into the history of the Thompson Submachine gun, here’s Ian from Forgotten Weapons with all you need: