The Thompson Submachine Gun in Pop Culture and Movies

It is one of the most iconic and recognizable firearms in history, and that has a lot to do with the fact that is has been a darling of pop culture and the silver screen since it was introduced a century ago.

mobsters movie tommy gun
The Thompson, seen here in the film Mobsters is as recognizable as the stars who carried it!imfdb.org

While the AR family of firearms gets most of the bad press about guns, 90 years ago, what you could call the original "black gun" had the attention of the media, legislators, and—of course—filmmakers.

It was the Thompson Submachine Gun, which was developed during WWI by General John T. Thompson. The original concept was an automatic rifle that would provide more firepower than the bolt action Springfield Model 1903 rifle in use by the U.S. Army and United States Marine Corps.

Thompson acquired a patent issued to John Bell Blish, for a friction-delayed blowback action, but the .30-06 round was too powerful for Thompson's design, so he opted to use the smaller and far lower pressure .45 ACP pistol round. A similar design had already proved effective with the German MP-18, the world's first successful submachine gun, which fired the 9mm parabellum round designed by Georg Luger for his semi-automatic pistol.

Thompson's full auto "Trench Broom" design soon evolved into a weapon he dubbed the "Annihilator," but the first prototypes weren't ready until early 1919—by which time the fighting in France had mercifully ended. In 1921, the gun was marketed commercially as the Thompson Submachine Gun, but it was far from a hit with consumers. Ironically, the gun was even marketed to ranchers, but at $200, it was very expensive at the time and few needed a handheld machine gun.

St. Valentine's Day Massacre movie
It was the very real "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" that led to restrictions on civilian ownership. Here George Segal carries a "Tommy Gun" in the movie version of the infamous murder, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967).imfdb.org

While the "Tommy Gun" did end up in the hands of gangsters during the prohibition gang wars in New York and Chicago, it was still too expensive for most gangsters! However, a few high profile shootings – notably the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 – led Congress to adopt the National Firearms Act of 1934, which put restrictions on civilian ownership on such firearms and others. This included an extensive background check and a $200 tax transfer, both of which have remained in effect to this day.

When you realize the price of the tax stamp is the same as the retail cost of an exorbitant Tommy Gun at the time, you understand how restrictive it was at the time.

Over the past 100 years, the Thompson has been used by gangsters, lawmen, and, of course, soldiers in the real world, but also in gangster films, war movies and even a few comedies! Along the way it has been seen in the hands of the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Nicholas Cage, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and even Michael Jackson. Simply put: the Thompson has credits longer than any of those stars.

Thompsons in the Movies – The Gangster Gun

Just two years after real life gangsters used the Thompson in Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre the weapon made its big screen debut fittingly enough in the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson in his breakthrough role that made him a major film star. It was also among the first full-fledged gangster films and set the tone for similar crime dramas to come.

little caesar movie gangster film
"Top of the World, Ma!" – a scene from Little Caesar (1931) – one of the first full-fledged gangster films.imfdb.org

Throughout the 1930s, the M1921/M1928 Thompson appeared in several gangster films including Scarface, G Men, San Quentin and High Sierra with its distinctive vertical foregrip and drum magazine. After World War II the Thompson became the "go to" example of a gangster's weapon – even if the $200 price was rather high for most of their real world counterparts.

al capone in the movie scarface
The Thompson appeared in the original version of Scarface (1932)—loosely based on the life of Al Capone and titled after his nickname.imfdb.org

The Thompson was seen in such serious gangster films as the The Godfather, where several of them were used to great effect to take out Sonny Corleone in one of the film's most iconic moments at the toll plaza. Director Francis Ford Coppola staged the scene to be reminiscent of the death of bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

Though in some ways, the choice of Tommy Guns here is interesting and a bit out of date considering the scene takes place in 1951. So does this mean Barsini's men had been using the same Thompsons since the 1930s? The examples in the movie are the commercial versions from the 1920s/30s, and can't be explained away as being military surplus. But when making a gangster movie, what else would a director choose?

the godfather movie
Hot-head Sonny Corleone was taken out by rival gangsters wielding Tommy Guns at the toll plaza in the most graphic sequence from the 1972 landmark mob epic The Godfather .imfdb.org

Other directors clearly thought the gun was iconic enough that it simply looked the part.

The real life "Bonnie and Clyde" mostly used Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) that were stolen from a National Guard Armory and cut down for their full auto firepower—but in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway used the more familiar Thompsons in their portrayals of the infamous outlaws, though the more recent The Highwaymen used more accurate guns.

bonnie and clyde tommy gun
No BAR's for this Bonnie and Clyde – instead the crime duo, played by Warren Beatty (seen here) and Faye Dunaway, were seen carrying Thompsons in Bonnie and Clyde (1967).imfdb.org

It is easy to see why the Thompson continued to be the choice of onscreen gangsters and hoodlums—it's just so distinctive and mean. It was seen in The Untouchables (1987), Public Enemies (2009), Miller's Crossing (1990), Road to Perdition (2002), and Gangster Squad (2013) – the latter of which is notable for featuring vocally anti-gun actor Sean Penn wielding a Thompson.

various actors and tommy guns in films
(top) Brian De Palama directed the big screen version of The Untouchables (1987), with the screenplay by David Mamet, and the Thompson was carried by both G-Men and gangsters in this one. (middle) Johnny Depp rocking a Tommy Gun as John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009). (bottom) Sean Penn has become an outspoken supporter of gun control, but he looked comfortable with a Thompson in Gangster Squad (2013).imfdb.org

The gun also appeared in campy gangster films and even quirky comedies such as Dick Tracy (1990), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and in the series of low budget gangster films from Roger Corman including Bloody Mama (1970) and Big Bad Mama (1974). One notable low budget film, 1960's Pretty Boy Floyd, mocked up the later M1 version of the Thompson (see below) to appear to be the M1928A1.

tommy guns in various movies
(top) While most gangsters would have used the M1928A1 in the low budget 1960's film Pretty Boy Floyd, an M1 version was modified to look like the earlier version. (bottom) The Thompson in the technicolor adaptation of a popular comic strip Dick Tracy (1990), again wielded by Warren Beatty as the titular character.imfdb.org
ma barker holding tommy guns
Inspired by the success of Bonnie and Clyde in the 60s, B-movie director Roger Corman directed Bloody Mama(1970), very loosing based on the true story of Ma Barker and her sons. The titular "Mama" (Shelley Winters) carries an M1928 Thompson. • Another of Corman's cheapo gangster films was Big Bad Mama (1974)— this one starred Angie Dickinson and a post-Star Trek William Shatner, along with Tom Skerritt, who played a bank robber armed with a Thompson M1921AC.imfdb.org

Surprisingly, the Thompson even appeared in the Macaulay Culkin film Home Alone (1990), but no, Kevin McCallister didn't blast away at the bandits trying to break in while he was in fact "home alone." Rather Kevin watched a fictional gangster film titled "Angels with Filthy Souls" whereby the onscreen Johnny blasts away at another character with one, and Kevin uses the dialog along with some firecrackers in a metal pot to give one of the robbers a good scare.

movie still from gangster film featured in home alone
While not a "gangster" film, in the movie within a movie – Angels with Filthy Souls – the gangster heavy does use a Colt 1921AC Thompson as Kevin McCallister watches in Home Alone (1990).imfdb.org

There is also one almost "forgotten" gangster film that has a Thompson-like gun that is crucial to the plot. This is the 1976 musical gangster comedy Bugsy Malone, which featured a cast of child actors including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, and features a rapid-fire whipped cream-shooting "splurge gun" that closely resembles the M1928 Thompson.

While characters don't technically get killed, they get "finished" by the whipped cream guns, in true gangster movie fashion.

bugsy malone movie tommy guns
These aren't technically Tommy Guns, but the "splurge guns" in the 1976 musical Bugsy Malone were inspired by the M1928 Thompson.Allstar/Tristar

The Thompson in War Movies

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the U.S. Army and USMC were using the M1928A1 version of the Thompson, but it was replaced in April 1942 with the M1/M1A1 versions, which featured a simplified rear sight and employed a straight blowback to reduce the rate of fire.

It also featured a barrel without cooling fins, and had the charging handle on the side of the receiver. More than 1.5 million M1/M1A1 models were produced.

Bataan film
One of the earliest war films to feature the Thompson was the 1943 film Bataan, which told the story of 13 men who tried to hold off the Japanese invasion of the Bataan peninsula.imfdb.org

However many of the early WWII films, including Bataan (1943), Back to Bataan (1945) and Guadalcanal Diary (1943) all featured the M1928/M1928A1 versions – the reason is simple however, the military couldn't afford to supply Hollywood with guns that they needed for actual combat.

back to bataan movie still
Back to Bataan, the 1945 World War II film that told of the raid on the Cabanatuan POW camp, starred John Wayne and Antony Quinn – and might be the first time The Duke carried a Tommy Gun on screen.imfdb.org

The first actual "war" film to feature a Thompson was interestingly 1941's Sundown, which is set in British East Africa just after the outbreak of World War II. More of a spy drama than action film, Sundown was a rather subtle introduction for the Thompson as a weapon of war.

What is notable is that some of these films had the M1928A1 Thompsons stand in for enemy guns. This was the case in Guadalcanal Diary, where Japanese Imperial Army soldiers are armed with Thompson, and in other cases Thompsons were mocked up to resemble enemy guns.

guadalcanal diary tommy gun
The Thompson was seen as both the gun of friend and foe in the 1942 film Guadalcanal Diary, where it was carried by Captain Cross (Roy Roberts) as well as seen being used by the Japanese.imfdb.org

The most notable example of the Thompson being modified to resemble another gun was the 1943 Fritz Lang film Hangmen Also Die!, which chronicled the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

In this one the Thompsons were mocked up to resemble the German MP-40. (As a sidenote it is worth noting that Lang's work, notably his silent sci-fi epic Metropolis, had impressed Nazi leaders and he was even asked to make official German propaganda films. Instead Lang left for Paris, then immigrated to the United States, where he made the first film to chronicle Operation Anthropoid about the assassination of Heydrich).

german mp40 in the film hangmen also die
That isn't a German MP40 in the 1943 war film Hangmen Also Die! Rather it is a mocked up Thompson made to resemble the German submachine gun.imfdb.org

Most of the films made since World War II have included the appropriate model of the Thompson. As an example, the M1921 Thompson was appropriate in the 1996 film Michael Collins, which chronicled the Irish Civil War following the First World War; while Nicholas Cage was carrying the M1928A1 version at the beginning of the film Windtalkers (2002) before changing to the M1A1 version later in the film (though there are a lot of things wrong with this John Woo war movie).

tommy guns featured in michael collins movie and windtalkers
The actual IRA did use the M1921 Thompson, as seen in the 1996 film Michael Collins about the Irish Civil War. • Nicholas Cage carried two different versions of the Thompson in John Woo's Windtalkers, which correctly notes how the USMC used the M1928 Thompson in the early stages of World War II before adopting the M1928A1.imfdb.org

The M1/M1A1 version has been the "go to" gun in numerous WWII films – so much that some viewers might have expected that most soldiers carried Thompsons and not the M1 Garand!

In reality it was mostly issued to scouts, non-commissioned officers, and patrol leaders. While some commissioned officers, and even tank crewmen, did carry the gun, it wasn't issued in the numbers that films such as Kelly's Heroes (1970) and the more recent Hacksaw Ridge (2016) might suggest!

movie still from kelly's heroes
World War wasn't fought by middle aged men who all carried Thompsons, but the 1970 action comedy Kelly's Heroes might have you believe otherwise!imfdb.org

Still, it is nice to see that the appropriate models were used in such films as The Longest Day (1962), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Fury (2014), and many others.

collage of military movies with tommy guns
Clockwise from top-left: Both M1 (above) and M1A1 Thompsons were seen in the World War II epic The Longest Day (1962); Oscar winner Tom Hanks looked rather series with his M1A1 Thompson in Saving Private Ryan (1998); Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is another example of a film that correctly features both M1 and M1A1 (above) Thompsons; Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal) carries an M1A1 Thompson in the film Fury (2014). By the end of the war typically tankers in WWII were issued with the M3 "Grease Gun" but Thompsons were also issued.imfdb.org

The Thompson for Spies and Sci-Fi

The Thompson has truly crossed genres like almost no other small arm. It has been seen in numerous spy films, modern gangster films such as 1971's Shaft, and even has made the jump to science fiction. It appeared in not only the original Star Trek TV series in the episode "Piece of the Action," but was used in the film Star Trek: First Contact (1996)—albeit in the latter example it is a hologram that can somehow still kill the Borg!

stills from the movie shaft
The bad guys in the 1971 Blaxploitatino film Shaft rely on vintage M1928 Thompsons. While the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks doesn't carry a Thompson, some of Ben Buford's friendly gang members do carry a Thompson as well in Shaft.imfdb.org
image stills frm the star trek series featuring characters holding tommy guns
In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "A Piece of the Action" aliens on the planet Sigma Iotia have styled their entire culture on a book about Chicago gangsters. Somehow from this book they recreated the cars, clothes and notably the Colt 1921AC Thompsons! Apparently the book incorrectly suggested that every gangster had a Thompson. • It would seem there would be easier ways for Captain Picard to take out some Borg, but in the film Star Trek: First Contact, he goes to the holodeck and retrieves an M1928 Thompson.imfdb.org

However, one place where the Thompson might have been unexpected was fight the xenomorphs in the 1986 film Aliens. In this example it is even more modified than it was in Hangmen Also Die! becoming the M41A pulse rifle, which was described as having a capacity of 99 rounds of 10mm caseless armor-piercing ammunition along with a pump-action 30mm grenade launcher mounted underneath the barrel.

The weapon was constructed from an M1A1 Thompson fitted with a cut-down Remington 870 shotgun under the barrel as a grenade launcher and the foregrip of a Franchi SPAS-12 as a cover. Following the end of the film's production all but one of the weapons were broken down, and the sole surviving example used in the making of Alien³. For more about the guns of the Alien movies, go here.

sigourney weaver holding a tommy gun in Aliens
The M41A Pulse Rifle is really an M1A1 Thompson in the 1986 sci-fi classic Aliens.imfdb.org

When General Thompson designed the weapon to be the ultimate trench sweeper it is doubtful he could have expected this weapon to become so iconic – to be as famous as the movie stars who held it, to boldly go to fight enemies and aliens alike. This is why the Thompson submachine gun has become a star in its own right.

For more on the history and the variants of the Thompson Submachine Gun, check out these Rare and Historical Thompson Submachine Guns and Gun History: The Thompson Submachine Gun.