There are many Thompson submachine guns that have become actual parts of history, whether it be because of their wartime service or their heavy use on both sides of the law during Prohibition and the gang wars. Recently, at the Michigan Antique Arms Show, a number of historical, rare, and experimental Thompsons were on display. Range365 sent photographer Peter Suciu to get a look at some of the most interesting examples.


“Dunrite” Bulletproof Vest made by the Detective Publishing Company of Chicago, IL. – Recovered at the home of Frederick R. Burke.

This vest is one of three vests pictured in photographs taken at the time of the recovery of the weapons used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Recovered Dec.14 in Stevensville, MI at the home of Frederick R. Burke, after the killing of St. Joseph Police Officer Charles Skelly—this vest is one of three vests pictured in photographs taken at the time of the recovery of the weapons used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It is one of two vests still in possession of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Police Department.

This is the same type of vest pictured in Peter Von Frantzius’ Sporting Goods Catalogue from the period. Vests of this type were recovered from Von Frantzius’ shop during the Cook County Coroner’s Investigation into the Massacre.


Prototype Thompson Magazines

Prototypes of an XX Box Magazine, a Type L 50-Round Drum Magazine, and a Type C 100-Round Drum Magazine.

While it was nice to have a gun capable of firing 1500 rounds per minute, you must have a means of supplying the firearm with ammo. Here are some of the early prototype designed for the type XX (20 round) box magazine, the type L (50 round) drum magazine, and the type C (100 round) drum magazines.

XX Box Magazine – All of the prototype magazines were serial numbered, however never to a particular gun. The prototypes are also shorter in length and have a one piece formed follower.

Type L 50-Round Drum – These are very early prototypes for the 50-round drum magazines. The drums were wound up, like a toy, before the cartridges were loaded. When the cover was closed, the spring tension was released to feed the ammo.

Type C 100-Round Drum – This is an early prototype of Colt’s production 100-round drums. Notice there’re no loading instructions on the front face as there are on the production models and there is no detent on the winding key face, which is typical of the production drums.


Salesman’s Kit Thompson

This submachine gun went to the Polish Revolution and back again.

This is a well traveled Thompson Submachine Gun. Built in Cleveland, Ohio in 1919, it was assembled into a complete salesman’s kit. This kit included the Type C and Type L prototype drums and prototype type XX 20-round box magazines, and all of the canvas equipment—five cell single flap pouch, Model 1919 gun case, Mills-made L drum and C drum pouches.

The package was then sent with an Auto-Ordnance salesman to Warsaw, Poland—the country at the time was in the middle of a revolution, fighting with the Ukrainians against the Bolshevik Army. The salesman had hoped to sell some Thompsons to the Poles and the Ukrainians. In August, 1920, when it looked like the revolution was failing, the salesman panicked and gave the kit to Col. Elbert E. Farman, Jr., who was the U.S. Military Attaches to Poland.

Col. Farman passed down the kit through his family to a nephew Brig. gen. Robert Richardson III. Gen. Richardson is said to have used the Thompson as a boy, borrowing it from his uncle to go squirrel hunting on various military posts.

The gun was registered in 1968 by Gen. Richardson and remained in his possession until 2002.


The Models of 1919 – Evolution of the Perfect Submachine Gun

The “Models of 1919” represents a period of refinement and changes to the Thompson design. No two are the same.

After a series of tests, it was determined that .45 ACP was the caliber best suited for use with the Blish Locking System. A series of 40 guns were manufactured, known collectively as the Models of 1919. This “family” of guns represents a series of ongoing design changes, so no two guns were exactly the same. The guns were manufactured at the Auto-Ordnance Engineering facilities in Cleveland, Ohio. The three guns pictured here, along with six other guns housed int he West Point Museum, are the only known surviving examples of the original 40 prototypes.

models of 1919 thommy guns
Another angle of the Models of 1919 guns. Peter Suciu

Serial No. 7: Manufactured as a “Pocket Machine Gun,” this gun was meant to be in the hands of a soldier or police officer so as to “out shoot the bad guys.” This gun has a rate of fire of 1500 rpm. The gun fires in full-auto mode only.

Serial No. 11: This was the first of the Model of 1919 guns to have at truly functioning select-fir mechanism. This gun’s rate of fire is around 1200 rpm. The rear sight and the buttstock attachment assemblies were added much later to finalize the designs prior to the Colt’s production contract.

Serial Number None: This gun has no factory serial number, which raises the question of just how many of these guns were produced. However, this gun is the near-final design configuration, both internally and externally. This gun was carried by two different police officers in their patrol cars in the Cleveland area. This prototype has never failed to fire or function.


The Blish Pistol and the Blish Principle

The Blish Principle says that certain metals, set at particular angles, of themselves and without mechanical aids of any kind, become alternatively adhesive and repellant under alternating high and low pressures.

The pistol shown here is the “Blish Pistol.” It’s the working prototype used by Capt. John Blish to demonstrate the “Blish Principle,” to the U.S. Patent Office and later to the engineers for Auto-Ordnance. The photo to the right shows Blish pointing to the “Blish Lock” used in the Thompson Submachine Gun.

The Blish Principle says that certain metals, set at particular angles, of themselves and without mechanical aids of any kind, become alternatively adhesive and repellant under alternating high and low pressures.

When the Blish Pistol is fired, the bronze wedge is held firmly in place by the high chamber pressures. When the chamber pressures drop enough, the wedge releases, allowing the lock to be pushed downwards. The spent shell is then ejected rearward out of the chamber by residual pressure and then deflected to the right by the ramp. As the lock is lowered, the energy is used to cock the mechanism to fire the next shot. The gun uses a Luger barrel and is chambered in .30 Luger (7.65mm).


The First Colt Made Thompson

This Thompson was brought home by a young paratrooper, assigned to the 511th Airborne at Fort Benning.

Auto-Ordnance and Colt’s Patent Firearms entered into a contract to build 15,000 Thompson Submachine Guns on Aug. 18, 1920. These guns were all to be built in the Model of 1921A configuration. Originally, this design did not have a buttstock, front or rear sights included.

By march of 1921, production of the new guns was nearing completion of the first finished guns. Last minute changes to the design had required retooling and handwritten changes to the original contract. These changes included the addition of front and rear sights and a removable buttstock and frame attachment. Production was far enough along that receivers and trigger frames were made prior to these contract changes. The trigger frame for Serial No. 41 was completed without a buttstock attachment and was scrapped out due to the design changes. A new trigger frame was then created, incorporating the buttstock attachment, similar to the trigger frame on Serial No. 44.

On March 30, 1921, the first two Thompsons were shipped from the Auto-Ordnance offices at Colt’s factory in Hartford, Connecticut. These two Thompsons, serial numbers 41 and 44, were shipped to Camp Benning, Georgia to the U.S. Army Infantry School, Dept. of Experiment.

In 1951, a young paratrooper, assigned to the 511th Airborne at Fort Benning, does a favor for the unit armorer by putting back together several M1911 pistols for inspection. The armorer returns the favor by giving the paratrooper choice of some Thompson submachine gun receivers. These receivers were set to be destroyed .The Thompson by this time was bing phased out of “Substitute Standard” and being destroyed.

The paratrooper picked out Serial No. 41 at random and took it home with him. The only parts to Serial No. 41 were the receiver, fore grip mount, barrel, and rear sight. The barrel and fore grip mount were already torch cut. The rear sight was replaced later with a better looking WWII Lyman sight by the paratrooper. The receiver was registered during the 1968 amnesty.

The gun then somehow made its way to Mexico, where its receiver was destroyed and the remaining parts were sold int he U.S. as a parts kit. The trigger frame to 44 has many interesting features similar to that of the Model of 1919. Many of the internal parts have “Prussian bluing” on them. This is a machinist “paint” used to make scribe lines on metal more visible. These lines and bluing are still visible.


Thompson Accessories

In this case are examples of the 100-round and 50-round drum magazines for the Thompson, a Colt era blank adapter made for the Thompson (the only known example) and a Maxim Silencer made for the Thompson SMG along with four BSA box magazines.

The Birmingham Small Arms Thompsons

These examples show changes requested by the Belgian army before adopting the Thompson in 1926.

The Thompson platform was tested by several European nations early in 1922 and 1923. The only country interesting in buying a production run was Belgium. The Belgian Army was interested only if some “minor” changed could be made. These included the requirement for the gun ob chambered in 9mm Luger and to by styled more like a rifle.

Auto-Ordnance turned to Birmingham Small Arms, an English arms company, and this new style of Thompson was created: the Model of 1926 in 9mm.

BSA went on to created several variants of the Model 1926 in several different calibers including .45 ACP, .38 Super, 9mm Bergman, 7.63 Mauser, and .30 Mauser.


Prototype Plastic Thompson Type L Drum Mag

During WWII, designers experimented with Thompson magazines made from Bakelite plastic and hemp fibers.

During WWII the U.S Military spent a lot of resources tying to increase production and to utilize newer and less critical materials.

One of these experiments resulting in an L type drum produced from an early Bakelite plastic reinforced with hemp rope. U.S. Army Ordnance contracted with the Prophylactic Brush Company to produce 50 such drums for experimental purposes. The company made plastic toothbrushes and hairbrushes before the war, but didn’t have the expertise to make a polymer Thompson drum mag.

The result used a redesigned rotor and ramp system that resembled some of the earliest magazine prototypes. The early plastic was very brittle and fragile, plus it tended to crack after being exposed to the sun. The hemp reinforcement helped, but made the material heavier. Things were over before they got started when it was realized the Bakelite and hemp mags were heavier than the metal drum mags. The project was abandoned.


WWII Experimental Thompsons

Designers experimented during WWII with various ways of making the Thompson lighter and/or easier to produce.

Here are some experimental Thompson Submachine guns made during WWII, including a model chambered in .30 Cal., an A.O. Prototype Model T2 in 9mm, and a rifle-length A.O. BSA variant with a more traditional buttstock.

In 1941, the U.S. Ordnance department began looking fora less expensive submachine gun that was capable of bing chambered in both 9mm and .45 ACP by the substitution of as few parts as possible.

Auto-Ordnance submitted the T2 Thompson designed by engineer Douglas Hammond. One model of the T2 was chambered in .45 ACP, the other in 9mm. These guns were simple blowback designs with very ore parts and wood stocks. However, when the guns were compared against competitors’ entries, they were found to be overly complex and the M3 “Grease Gun” was eventually chosen to fill the role and replace the Thompson.


Cutaway Tommy Gun

This cutaway Model of 1928 Thompson Submachine Gun was used for training purposes and exposed the inner workings of the firearm so its function could be visualized.

Baby Face Nelson

The Baby Face Nelson display at the 2019 Michigan Antique Arms Show.

A display featuring a Thompson Submachine Gun, with drum magazine, once used by notorious Depression era outlaw Baby Face Nelson. His real named was Lester Joseph Gillis and went by the alias of George Nelson, though the media and the public knew him better as Baby Face Nelson, a moniker given to him due to his youthful appearance and small stature. He was known to hate the nickname.

He was a noted bank robber in the 1930s and entered into a partnership with John Dillinger, helping him escape from prison in Crown Point, Indiana. He was later labeled, along with the rest of the Dillinger gang, as “public enemy number one.” Nelson killed more FBI agents than any other person. He was fatally shot by FBI agents during the famous shootout known as The Battle of Barrington.

The Stainless Steel Thompson Little is know about this unique Thompson with a stainless steel receiver and trigger frame. There were two different variations produced, one styled as a Model of 1928 and the other as an M1A1. The guns were likely intended for use by amphibious units to reduce corrosion from salt spray and moisture during naval operations.

The Savage Aluminum Thompson Early in 1943, Savage Arms produced 40 prototype Thompson which had upper and lower receivers made from a new grade of aluminum. The goal was to reduce both weight and manufacturing time for the Thompson. Some of the guns were also made with stocks and forearms of early plastic. The plastic was too fragile and weighed more than the wooden components.

The Savage Model of 1921 While not truly a prototype, this variant was made when an order was received by Auto-Ordnance after all the Colt produced Model of 1921s were sold. AO would take a Savage produced model of 1928 and insert the appropriate internal parts to create a Model of 1921. Then the markings were re stamped not he outside of the receiver.