Irish Swords: How The Thompson SMG Came To Ireland

‘And we’re off to Dublin in the green, in the green

Where the helmets glisten in the sun

Where the bayonets flash and the rifles crash

To the echo of the Thompson Gun.’

-‘The Merry Ploughboy’ (Traditional)

The Thompson submachine gun must have more nicknames than any other firearm: ‘Trench Broom’, ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘Chicago Typewriter’, ‘Chopper’, ‘Chicago Piano’ – but today we’d like to talk about a pair of ‘Irish Swords’ from  the National Firearms Centre at the Royal Armouries in the UK.

When General John Thompson completed his iconic submachine gun design in 1919, the world’s governments were weary of war and strapped for cash. With millions of rifles and pistols in their inventories and surplus, there was little room for an unproven, expensive, and distinctly short-range weapon like the ‘Tommy’. British impressions in June 1921 were favourable, but aside from economic considerations, existing doctrine prevented the issue of automatic personal weapons (ironic considering the existence of an 1894 British patent for an automatic rifle).

Instead, one of their enemies stepped in to fill the gap, and the order books of Auto-Ordnance; Michael Collins’ Irish Republican Army. Initial small orders were supplied via Irish-Americans in Spring 1921, before the IRA had even expressed official interest, so strong was U.S. support for the republican cause. Auto-Ordnance, the company set up to market and sell the Colt-manufactured gun, had itself been established with Irish-American money, making Ireland an obvious market for the gun.

At around the same time, the IRA itself had obtained two guns for evaluation. Though Michael Collins himself was allegedly wary of firing the new gun, it made quite an impression on him and other members of the IRA General Headquarters (GHQ). The Thompson’s close quarters firepower appeared well suited to their guerrilla tactics, and whereas it was too expensive to arm a conventional army, relatively few guns would act as a force-multiplier for their small and mobile ‘flying columns’.  Though heavy, it was controllable from the hip in fully automatic fire despite a withering cyclic rate (900 rpm), and with the stock easily removed, could be concealed under an overcoat for clandestine attacks. The demonstration in a Dublin basement further convinced the IRA to procure the weapon in numbers, but in fact a large order of 500 guns had by this time already been placed. The guns, ordered via Auto-Ordnance agent George Gordon Rorke, were intended to resupply beleaguered IRA fighters in the south of the country. The British government was tracking IRA attempts to acquire arms overseas and protested the sale of Thompsons from the officially neutral United States. Even as the 500 guns were being delivered ready for export, Auto-Ordnance Vice-President Marcellus Thompson denied that any substantial orders had been made. Which compared to the wild press claim that 15,000 guns had been ordered by the IRA, was arguably true!

Markings on Thompson M1921 serial # 1234 (PR.7398), including obliterated serial number. © Royal Armouries

Markings on Thompson M1921 serial # 1234 (PR.7398), including obliterated serial number. © Royal Armouries

Nearly all of the 500 guns were smuggled aboard a collier ship, the East Side as ‘engine room supplies’, their serial numbers obliterated to prevent trace. The ship, stuck in New Jersey as part of a worker’s strike, was supplied with a fresh Irish crew to get it underway. However, on June 15 1921, it was raided and the guns seized under the authority of none other than future FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. There had been no tip-off from British authorities, no elaborate Bureau investigation; the ship’s captain had simply become suspicious of the activity on the collier. A court case ensued, focused on Rorke and later Marcellus Thompson himself, but this collapsed. Contributing factors included lack of evidence, the death of a key witness, and reduced British interest in pursuing prosecution following the peace treaty of 1922. More importantly however, the export of arms to Ireland from the US wasn’t actually illegal! Even the legislation used to seize the guns turned out to have been enacted for the duration of the First World War only, and had since been repealed. Amazingly therefore, the guns had to be released into Irish hands. They arrived in 1925, too late for the Irish War of Independence, but saw use during the Irish Civil War that followed, and would cause trouble for the British authorities for decades to come.

Given their acquisition by the former British Ministry of Defence Pattern Room, Irish history was a given for our two M1921s. Because their serials had been removed, the details weren’t known. Forensic recovery would have been a possibility to allow further research, but in the event this wasn’t necessary. Colt applied an extra serial number to early examples that can only be seen when the barrel is removed using special tools. Like the American gangsters, those smuggling the guns for Ireland either weren’t aware, or lacked the tools to access this vital piece of information.

Thanks to authors Gordon Herigstad and Patrick Jung, it was possible to confirm that that one of these guns, serial number 212, was an original 1920s IRA purchase. Not only that, it was one of those smuggled on board the ‘East Side’ itself.  212 was one of thirty guns shipped on 6th May 1921 to George Gordon Rorke, N.Y.C. c/o American Railway Express Company, 46th Street New York, N.Y. That company was established to be a fictional front for Rorke’s arms dealing operation.

Our other Irish gun is serial 1235, a later purchase, being one of 300 shipped on the 24th of August 1923 to M.Fitzgerald Co. New York City, N.Y. (thanks again to Mr Herigstad). Though not quite as historic as 212, it is the more original example of the iconic Model of 1921, featuring the original selector markings, knurled controls, and the correct working parts.

Thompson M1921 serial # 212 (PR.7704) with Type C (100 round) and Type L (50 round) drum magazines. © Royal Armouries

Thompson M1921 serial # 212 (PR.7704) with Type C (100 round) and Type L (50 round) drum magazines. © Royal Armouries

Post-Second World War, Thompson guns became prized trophies of the early days of Irish independence, but remained viable terror weapons as the ‘The Troubles’ wore on into the 1980s. We don’t know exactly when, but our two guns were captured by Irish or British forces from the terrorist Provisional IRA and were transferred to the Pattern Room at Enfield near London (now the UK National Firearms Centre in Leeds). They may have formed part of a large cache of 100 Thompsons discovered in County Mayo during the Second World War.

Either in service with the PIRA or later on (see below), gun #212 received modifications to keep it functioning as the decades wore on. It now sports an M1928 lower receiver/grip frame which has also had its serial tampered with – milled away, another number stamped, and then this too partially obliterated. Traditional collectors might view this as affecting its value, but as a museum object it simply adds more history. Some or all of these changes might have been made by the British, as after the Irish Peace Process began in 1997, the gun was once again prepared for firing. When the barrel was pulled, its true serial number was revealed, but it had one more part to play in Irish and British history. In 1998, the ‘echo of a Thompson gun’ was heard again, peacefully this time. Having been purchased during the original War of Independence, the gun was fired as part of a demonstration to assist those sitting in judgement for Bloody Sunday Inquiry into the 1972 killings of Irish civilians by British soldiers. The Inquiry finally reported in 2012, by which time an independent Republic of Ireland had been in existence for 80 years, and even troubled Northern Ireland had become used to relative peace as political efforts took over from bombs and guns.

These Thompson guns, therefore, span the story of the struggle between the emergent Irish state and the British authorities. One that is, we hope, on its way to becoming as much a part of history as these two ‘Irish Swords’.

Jonathan Ferguson

Curator of Firearms

(Title Image: Thompson M1921 serial # 1234 (PR.7398) fitted with Type C drum magazine. © Royal Armouries)

Sources/further reading:

The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar: William J. Helmer – Ch.3 ‘The Irish Sword’

B. Bell, ‘The Thompson submachine gun in Ireland, 1921’, The Irish Sword VIII, no. 31 (Winter 1967).

P. Hart, ‘The Thompson submachine gun in Ireland revisited’, The Irish Sword XIX, no. 77 (Summer 1995).

P. Jung, ‘The Thompson submachine gun during and after the Anglo-Irish war—new evidence’, The Irish Sword XXI, no. 84 (Winter 1998).

Web: – Article by National Museum of Ireland Keeper Lar Joye – Best online resource on the background to these guns – Gordon Herigstad’s site – Article by Richard Maclean on discovery and tracing of Thompson serial numbers


Jonathan Ferguson

Jonathan Ferguson is Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK. He is based at the National Firearms Centre, one of the most comprehensive firearms collections in the world and successor to the MoD Pattern Room. His research interests include the use and effect of weapons, and their depiction in folklore and popular culture.


  • Mr. Fahrenheit

    Heck of an interesting write-up, Mr. Ferguson. Thank you.

  • Steve (TFB Editor)

    Visiting the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds is on my bucket list. Jonathan has shown me photos of their gun collection, it is AMAZING.

    • FourString

      Leeds, Northern(ish) England?

  • Mad Yank

    Once talked to a New Zealander who claimed to have been offered an illegal Thompson (In NZ) that had the serial number removed. He said the seller was claiming that it was an ex IRA weapon that they had sold to buy more modern arms. Never asked what year he was offered the gun. If true shows how arms can get around the place.

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      Jonathan (the author) mentioned that to me when we were discussing the article. They did indeed export them over there:

      • Mad Yank

        Thanks for the reply didn’t know about ex IRA guns being legally imported into NZ. This gun was not one of the 8 Thompson’s that were legally imported into New Zealand, unless it was stolen from a legal collector and the seller then lied about it (Given he was a crook that may well be the case) but I believe I would have heard about a Thompson being stolen in NZ as thief of legally owned fun guns in NZ is pretty rear (NZ’s version of COPS still asked for info on a .50 browning that was stolen in the 80’s). Also if legally owned a new “serial number” would have had to be added. If you want to be put in contact with one of the current owners of the legal nz ira guns flick me an email and I’ll find out.

  • clinton notestine

    I visited the Royal Armories just a couple years ago… very cool

  • Thanks for posting this; great article. Just got back from a week in Ireland!

  • bazza 888

    The museum in The Curragh Camp CoKildare Ireland has a tommy gun I wonder is it from a shipment described above

  • Simon_the_Brit

    Me, 1979 Northern Ireland with a captured Thompson 1921.

    • bazza 888

      did you get to shoot it?

    • Simon_the_Brit

      Yes, I got to shoot it, 5 x 20 rd mags. Good fun .

      • bazza 888

        nice one,any idea where it ended up?

        • Simon_the_Brit

          It would have been, destroyed or deactivated and mounted in the Officers or Sgt’s Mess.

          The NI training team would have a couple to shoot over your heads to get you used to the noise.

          • bazza 888

            did you come across anymore or just that one?

          • Simon_the_Brit

            I only saw 2.

            The one in the photo was found with an M1.30-06 Garand.

          • bazza 888

            there was/is some serious firepower around the place

          • Simon_the_Brit

            You’re right, if a .45 ACP or .30-06 rd was coming your way, you knew you were going to have a bad, bad day. Getting hit by one would make your eyes water…….

          • bazza 888

            .45 .30-06 big rounds,if your eyes were still watering you would be very lucky!

    • Jonathan Ferguson

      Simon, I’d very much like to use this image in an exhibition here at the Armouries. Could you contact me via please? Many thanks.

  • Mazryonh

    The IRA (and its remaining “descendant” groups such as the Continuity IRA and the “Real” IRA) was very adept at smuggling in weaponry during the troubles and at making home-made bombs. There was even the “South Armagh Sniper” who used a .50 BMG M90 Barrett Rifle smuggled from Libya, which you can read about here:

    I’m surprised that the IRA campaigns aren’t brought up as an example of armed interest groups trying to affect sea-changes with respect to governments they disapproved of, via shootings and bombings, when people talk about needing military-grade weaponry to guard against the possibility of governments becoming tyrannical. Well, despite all this weaponry and all the bombs, the IRA failed to achieve its objectives–the British and Loyalists did not leave or give up, uninvolved people grew sick of the decades-long spate of relentless bloodshed, and the remaining IRA “descendant” organizations are treated as pariahs and terrorist organizations (as they well should be). But no one talks about this part of history when they fantasize about overthrowing tyrannical governments in America. Perhaps they should take heed of what happened in (North) Ireland during the Troubles.

    • The Truth

      We overthrew one government by 1781, albeit with French help.

      A few Texans gave Mexico its walking papers in 1836.

      The Confederacy came perilously close to defeating in Union less than sixty years later.

      Many countries have overthrown existing governments, both good and bad.

      Comparing the few guns controlled by the IRA to the many millions in America is ludicrous.

      • Mazryonh

        I’m talking more about insurgency/terrorist movements in First World countries (and the Irish Troubles are the most modern case I can think of, whereas ongoing insurgencies like Colombia’s own FARC don’t count because they’re not quite a First World country). In such countries, people would much rather have a somewhat dissatisfying status quo and be allowed to go about their business than worry about whether a militia or group of thugs are going to kill you on the street with no one helping you since you belong to the “wrong group,” as was the case in the Irish Troubles, or to live with the possibility that a bomb will go off in a favourite drinking hole of theirs. Thus the IRA failed to gain enough public support to pull off a violent revolution and faded away into history.

        Because most people in America are satisfied with the status quo, people who want to take up their private arms and depose the government with them will certainly be very much in the minority. Furthermore, decades of dealing with criminal organizations have certainly honed law enforcement skills to the point that they have a better-than-ever chance of finding out about violent organizations. The more people involved in a criminal/terrororist organization or plan, the harder it is to keep its existence and its plans secret–the British even managed to litter the IRA’s “descendant” organizations with informants soon after they announced themselves. The British even sicced the SAS on the IRA on a few occasions; I have to wonder how well a small group of insurrectionists/violent secessionists in America would deal with America’s own counter-terror organizations.

        I’m not really interested in starting a political flamewar in this thread; I just think that the example of the IRA should give people with delusions of setting up a “truly free America” via force some pause. The IRA were nothing if not well-organized and supplied during the Troubles, and look what happened to them.

        • Sci

          I don’t think it’s correct to say that descendant IRA groups had no public support, the groups right up to the Provisional IRA had a lot of public support from many of the rural villages in the north and a lot of the Irish-identifying Northern citizens because much of their action was focused against loyalist paramilitaries such as the UVF and British army divisions like the Black and Tans who were murdering nationalist and Catholic innocents. I think the collapse of the conflict had more to do with public weariness after nearly 60 years of continuous conflict rather than a lack of support. After the beginning of the peace process any groups loyalist or nationalist still operating were met with outright public disdain but beforehand not so much.

          I agree that the idea of holding arms in order to participate in an uprising against your own first world government is a pretty silly idea but I don’t think the conflict in Northern Ireland is a good example of why.

  • Our PD had three Thompsons. Two were 1928’s and one that was brought back by a GI who was in WWII. He eventually donated his Thompson and a German MP 40.
    It took me some time but I found a mag for the MP. It wasn’t cheap but I wanted to shoot that gun!
    Since I was a range officer we would take those to Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, AR and shoot them for a couple of hours and just savor the history.
    In the late 80’s they traded them to buy MP 5’s. I was not happy about the trade since they were seriously taken for a ride on the price they got in trade.
    All of the range officers hated to see them go!

  • I’ve been to the Kilmainham gaol in Dublin (Where Michael Collins was held for a long time, and where the move was filmed)

    And they have a few Thompsons in the museum there, among other guns which was very cool.

  • Paul Taylor

    The Irish used various captured, imported (like the Thompsons) or locally owned guns to help win their freedom from the oppression of the British who kept tight control on the arms that they could own. Now that they have their freedom, their own government has tight control on what weapons they can own. Really doesn’t seem like much has changed, just a new set of task masters, only with Irish names this time who give them just enough slack on the leash to make them think they’re free! How sad, but that is the world we live in!