The USGI Thompson: A Gangster Goes To War (Friday Field Strip)

Welcome to another Friday Field Strip. Watch the Field Strip video below, then read the article below…

The Thompson submachine gun is perhaps one of the most recognizable and important American firearms of all time. Most people in the United States could recognize the “Tommy Gun” if shown a picture of the distinctive earlier models, equipped with their large drum magazines, foregrip, and compensator. It’s a notorious firearm, closely associated with gangsters, crime, and Prohibition which carries a reputation as “the gun that made the Twenties roar”. It was designed by a team assembled by then-Colonel John T. Thompson as a trench clearing weapon for World War I, but was finished just days too late for that conflict. In fact, it was used during the 1920s and early 1930s by both gangsters and police alike, and offered a degree of handheld firepower that was unmatched by any contemporary weapon, although its high price tag (about half the cost of an automobile at the time) made it less popular than is usually depicted in films and television shows. The use of Thompson submachine guns by criminals in fact helped lead to the 1934 National Firearms Act, which heavily regulated the sale and transfer of fully automatic weapons in civilian hands. The Thompson was the first US submachine gun, arguably the first true submachine gun, and the first weapon actually called a “submachine gun” (in fact, as point of trivia, it was the early Auto-Ordnance advertisements that established the style “submachine gun”, rather than “sub-machine gun” or “sub-machinegun”).

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The M1A1 Thompson, 30 round magazine inserted, is a very large, very heavy weapon for its class. Fully loaded, like this, it weighs about twelve and a half pounds. Image courtesy of Alex C.

The early history of the Thompson and its use as a gangster and police weapon will not be the central focus of this article. Rather, we will focus on the Thompson’s history in uniform, as a weapon of war. The first postwar attempt to interest war-weary military customers in the new submachine gun was the Model of 1923. This “military model” was similar to the Model of 1921, but also sported a bipod for prone use. Two variants of the military model apparently exist, a 14.5″ finless heavy-barreled model with both bipod and bayonet lug, and a variant with a simplified 10.5″ finned barrel, similar to the Model of 1921’s. This variant was also offered in a new round, the .45 Remington-Thompson, which used a longer .998″ case, and fired a 250gr bullet at 1,450 ft/s. None of the 1923 military models found military orders, although what appears to be one has made its way to China, where it apparently served with Communist forces.

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Far right: The .45 Remington-Thompson. Second from right is a .45 ACP shot load designed for riot control. Image source: oldammo.com

 

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The 1923 Thompson military model, in .45 ACP with an L-drum. Note the bipod. Image source: rubej.at.ua

 

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A Thompson submachine gun in the Beijing Military Museum. It bears markings indicating its use by the Chinese Communists, and resembles the 1923 Military Model closely. However, it may be a Chinese invention. Image source: usmilitariaforum.com

 

By the second half of the 1920s, the Thompson found purchase with military forces. In 1926, at the height of Prohibition, the Marine Corps was ordered to guard the U.S. Mail service after a series of violent mail hijackings. The presence of Marines armed in part with Colt-made Model of 1921 Thompsons quickly made the Mail service too hard a target for outlaws and would-be criminals. By 1928, the Thompson was seeing use in Central America with US Marines fighting the EDSNN rebels of Augusto Sandino; future Medal of Honor recipient Merritt “Red Mike” Edson and five-time Navy Cross recipient Lewis “Chesty” Puller both used Thompsons in Nicaragua before the end of US involvement there in 1933. From 1926-1928, the US Marine Corps bought 671 Thompson Submachine Guns from Auto Ordnance.

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US Marines, one with a Model of 1921 Thompson, guard a US Mail plane, while goods are loaded into the Curtiss Model 40 Carrier Pidgeon. Image source: hickeysite.blogspot.com

 

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US Marines in Nicaragua, one of which has a Model of 1921 Thompson Submachine Gun. Image source: sandinorebellion.com

 

During this period, Colt modified a large number of Model of 1921 guns with Cutts compensators, improved spring and spring guide assemblies, and heavier actuators (cocking handles) to slow the firing rate from 800 to 600 rounds per minute. Striking out earlier markings, Colt created this model at the request of the Navy, therefore the new markings read “U.S. NAVY MODEL OF 19218″, and are commonly called the Model of 1928 Navy. These represent one of the first modifications made for a military customer, and would be the pattern for the military Thompson until the M1928A1, as well as being Colt’s most produced variant. Some Model of 1928 Navys did go to the United States Navy, but most were actually sold abroad to foreign governments and police departments. It was this model that would interest the U.S. Army for the first time as well, being procured in 1932; these first Army Thompsons were ironically also the last U.S. Army weapon type to be designated according to the old Model-Year system; all subsequent weapons, including the later simplified Thompsons would use the M-Number system still in use today.

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A British Army soldier tests a Model of 1928 Thompson with a purpose-built motorcycle mount. Image source: royalenfields.com

 

In 1939, the Savage Arms Company entered a contract with Auto Ordnance to begin producing Thompsons to fill the increasing demand for foreign military orders, chiefly an order placed by the British and French governments. Savage guns began rolling off the line in April of 1940, and while French capitulation would follow soon after, the British purchased 108,000 guns from 1940-1941, at an initial price of $175 a piece. During this period, the Model of 1928 Thompson underwent a few minor changes to the ejector and compensator, but would not undergo a major designation change until March of 1941, with the passage of the US Lend-Lease Act. This act essentially traded materiel and supplies for temporary use of foreign bases during wartime, and it also ended British orders for the Thompson. Instead, the US government assumed ownership of the guns going to foreign militaries, and provided by the Act was that the guns had to be marked as U.S. Property and U.S. Model of 1928 A1. So far as I know, the Lend-Lease Act was the only reason for the change to the A1 designation, though some minor changes to the weapon did occur throughout production thereafter.

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Soviet Naval Infantry with M1928A1 Thompsons during the Second World War. Image source: guerrayhistoria.wordpress.com

 

The demands of wartime production quickly made it obvious that the M1928A1 Thompson as it then existed was far too complicated and expensive to make to be a suitable arm for the wars of economy then raging in Europe and Japan. In November of 1941, Savage engineers studying the problem outlined the elements of the Thompson’s design that were most expensive to produce, chief among them being the rails in the receiver for the bronze Blish lock, and three-piece bolt assembly. The existence of successful blowback submachine gun designs in Europe made it clear that both of these elements could be dispensed with without sacrificing safe and reliable function of the gun. Savage engineers presented the simplified Thompson to Ordnance Department evaluation in February of 1942, which concluded soon thereafter. The Aberdeen report on the gun determined that it was as good a design as the original M1928A1, and suggested a few changes, which were then incorporated. Savage assured Auto-Ordnance that the redesigned Thompson was not an effort on their part to seek compensation or royalties, or more importantly, patents. In March of 1942, Ordnance recommended the adoption of the new design as the Submachine Gun, Cal. .45, M1, and the reclassification of the M1928A1 as Limited Standard. In late April, this recommendation was approved.

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Chinese soldiers, most likely Nationalists, with Thompson Submachine Guns. Image source: bbs.smilekrub.net

 

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A soldier from the 82nd Airborne fires his late-model M1928A1 Thompson in North Africa. He wears a jumpsuit in the M1942 camouflage pattern. Image source: mmzone.co.kr

 

Savage engineers continued work, however, creating a test model called the M42, which was modified from an M1 by the removal of the firing pin spring and hammer, with the firing pin fixed in the forward position. Less than a hundred M42s were made, when production was altered to a version with firing pin machined from the bolt face itself. This design was successful, and by September of 1942, Aberdeen Proving Grounds was given one of these guns for testing, finding it superior to the M1 in function, durability, and machining time. Further, the bolts of the M1 and the modified version were interchangeable between variants. As a result, two days before Halloween of 1942, Ordnance approved the new modifications as the Submachine Gun, Cal. 45, M1A1.

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Unlike all previous models, the M1 and M1A1 lack the ability to use drum magazines, and therefore feature a straight cutout for the magazine, without the horizontal T-slot for mounting L and C drums. Image courtesy of Alex C.

Concurrently, however, the US Army was working on another, even cheaper weapon to replace the still expensive M1 submachine gun. This would become the M3, and in January of 1943, the Ordnance Department told Auto-Ordnance that M1 production would be concluded by July of 1943. The orders currently placed were reduced, but by June authorization had been given for Ordnance to place an order for 60,000 more M1s before the end of August, which was then nearly doubled. Several thousand guns were then assembled from spare parts in early 1944, and production briefly restarted in February of that year to produce an additional 4,091 guns. The last M1A1 Thompson was produced on February 15, 1944, concluding the type’s production history. At the beginning of M1928A1 Thompson production, the weapon cost $205 to make, but by the end of M1A1 production, unit cost was down below $43 per unit. M1 Thompsons of both variants would serve the US and allies until the end of the war.

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The fire control on the M1A1. The safety and selector both are late rod-type switches, which were cheaper than the early paddle-type switches. Image courtesy of Alex C.

Due to the extensive history of the Thompson Submachine Gun, this post must be limited in scope to the production history for the military until 1945. After the war, Auto Ordnance was sold several times, but eventually production of the fully automatic Thompson did start again, and semi-automatic variants are being made today. The type had a long and colorful service history with many nations after 1945, which deserves its own post, but which I am unable to include here as this article is already longer than it should be. Perhaps another day.

Much of the information in this article was gleaned from Frank Iannamico’s excellent series of articles on the weapon for Small Arms Review. I have done my best to present the history in my own words, while preserving the original quality of the information. If this article interested you, please head over to Small Arms Review via the links below to read those articles (the eighth part of which concerns production by Numrich Arms Corp in the 1970s, and is unfortunately missing):

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART I: THE THE COLT AND SAVAGE 1921-1928 MODELS

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART II: THE AUTO-ORDNANCE, BRIDGEPORT AND AUTO-ORDNANCE, WEST HURLEY 1928

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART III: THE COLT THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART IV: THE SAVAGE ARMS THOMPSON

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART V: THE AUTO-ORDNANCE, BRIDGEPORT U.S. 1928A1 THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART VI: THE M1 THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART VII: THE M1A1 THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART IX: THE MILITARY THOMPSON DRUM MAGAZINE

THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN ID GUIDE, PART X: THE THOMPSON DRUMS OF WEST HURLEY, AUTO-ORDNANCE

 

 



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Don Ward

    I give this article a hearty “Harumph” of approval.

    • jerry young

      this has to be one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever seen

      • DaveP.

        Trivia note: Both the Brits and the Germans used that exact same photo for propaganda purposes. The Brits used it as a symbol of Winnie’s combativeness and will to fight; the Germans published it as a claim that pro-war Brits were a “Gangster government”!

        • jerry young

          I have a book with the same picture as I said one of my favorite pictures

  • TheNotoriousIUD

    My father (USMC Ret) said he actually carried one of these for a time in Vietnam but gave it up because the ammo was too heavy.

    • Bal256

      A lot of the weight is in the bullet. 230 grain .45 is nearly twice as heavy round per round as .223 and is actually closer to 150gr .308

      • iksnilol

        The .45 acp bullet by itself weighs a bit more than the entire 5.56 cartridge :O

    • Boogur T. Wang

      Well, a little VN story. I was sent out to a Marine platoon (I was US Army Ranger) that got into some trouble and found a buddy, Marine E – 5 who was carrying an M1A1 Thompson, (He was a machine gunner and just wanted to try one out). I saw him unload a full magazine on a bush and then out popped a VC un-hit and unharmed. A Ranger with me took out the VC and later my Marine buddy had nothing good to say about the Thompson. I think it was just a combination of lack of familiarity with the piece and combat jitters that caused the miss. Although the Marine was no cherry to a fire fight.
      Anyway, when he returned to camp he got rid of the Thomson. He curiosity had been satisfied.

      Pardon the poor writing.

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Yeah my dad said he liked everything about it except humping the ammo. Especially at a time when confidence in the new M16’s was not high.

      • 11B

        Great story. While the Thompson is very cool, I wouldn’t want to hump one all day in the jungle (or anywhere for that matter) with all its associated magazines and ammo. All that for a sub 100 meter gun sound very impractical considering modern firearms advancements.

  • Wolfgar

    That is a beautiful Thompson SMG Alex has. What type of finish is on it ? It looks great.
    I also didn’t realize the price to manufacture the M1A1 was lowered to below $43 dollars during the war. Excellent review.,

    • It’s parkerized. If I had to guess, I’d say it was rearsenaled at some point.

    • nova3930

      Don’t mind me…I’ll just sit here and turn green for a bit lol
      I would absolutely love to have something like that in my collection.

  • Heretical Politik

    If they opened the machine gun registry for a day, this is what I’d buy. Cool video!

  • Bud Harton

    The M1A1 seemed to be the weapon of choice for many recipients of the Medal of Honor including Audie Murphy. I was there on January 8, 1968 when Specialist Gary Wetzel, a door gunner on a Huey slick troop transport earned the medal of Honor while holding off advancing NVA soldiers into a landing zone while using his M1A1. And he did it after losing his left arm to an RPG.

    http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3440/wetzel-gary-george.php

    • I think the MoH recipient gun of choice is probably the Model 1861 Rifle-Musket, actually. 😉

      • ostiariusalpha

        If you’d offered them the option, I think they would have been happier with the Thompson.

    • Don Ward

      Nope. I did the search of World War 2 MoH recipients and only 6 individuals were armed with a “tommygun” or “Thompson”. There were 30 other mentions of MoH recipients using a “submachine” gun which could be either M3s, Thompsons or even Reisings. A keyword search for “automatic rifle” meaning the BAR turned up at least 37 recipients. There were even more mentions of the word BAR. There were 29 recipients who used “carbines” by the way.
      Speaking of which, Audie Murphy used an M1 Carbine and a .50 Caliber M2 Browning on a knocked out M10 tank destroyer.

      • Bud Harton

        so, I shouldn’t have used the word “many”? What’s your suggestion, a few, a couple,? How many Korean War recipients were known to use the M1A1? How many in the VN war?

        BTW, if you go here:

        http://www.machinegunboards.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=13514

        You’ll find 23 US Army soldiers who were all awarded the MOH and their citations refer to the use of the Thompson by them during incident that earned the Medal. Al were during WW2

        But i am betting there were at least some Marines who also earned the medal while using a Thompson and again, how about Korea and VN?

        • Don Ward

          Nah. And I didn’t mean to come off harsh. It wasn’t the “many”. It was the term “weapon of choice” which seemed a bit flawed. Most soldiers are simply told what weapon they will use and there isn’t much choice about it. And in the MoH citations, much of the time the weapon they were using just happened to be whatever was at hand. As for the Thompson, from my search of the MoH citations (they’ve available online) it doesn’t really pop out with any great regularity. There are numerous citations of soldiers using “automatic rifles” or “carbines” and even “automatic pistols” (the Colt 1911 presumably). I don’t believe the Thompson was issued to soldiers in the Korean War and at any rate, no mention of it was found in the MoH citations and only a couple submachine gun references period. There were 18 mentions of the word “carbine” in the Korean War and 10 of “automatic rifle”. As for the M1 Garand, this was trickier because rifle is used a lot. However, I narrowed the search down to “his rifle” and found 19 Korean War recipients who engaged the enemy with “his rifle” – presumably the Garand.
          I could look again at the World War 2 totals of soldiers who used “his rifle” but that involves a bit more math than I care to do just at the moment. Something like 60-80. Maybe more. Maybe a lot more.
          I haven’t looked at Vietnam yet but that involves more time and a gin and tonic is awaiting instead.

          • Tom

            I think we should all agree that it was the men that won the MoH and not the guns.

      • Anonymoose

        M3s only came out in late 1944, iirc.

  • mosinman

    the USMC is still remembered in Nicaragua and so is the Thompson

  • Edeco

    That 45 Remington-Thompson cartridge is interesting. Makes sense that the gun could do more, would be more to my liking chambered in that. You know, I’m not a fiend for high muzzle-energy/weight, but the Thompson in 45 is really heavy for the output. Also I like long pipes for a given cartridge*, but 45 ACP has relatively little to gain.

    *To me 24″ is optimal for 5.56, 5+” for 9mm.

    • marathag

      “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”

      Supposedly a Thompson was tested in .351WSL.
      That would have been interesting

      • Edeco

        Wow, yep that would be nifty; fit more in mags, flatter trajectory, and ME about like a contemporary light rifle.

    • Rodford Smith

      “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”?

      • Edeco

        Yep! What a devastating loss of a cultural treasure when he left us.

    • Anonymoose

      I’d like to see a Thompson in .45 Win Mag. I’m pretty sure they made 10mm Thompsons at some point, and I know there were M1 Carbines in 10mm and .45 Win Mag…

  • mosinman

    what happened to my post?

  • jerry young

    I keep trying to talk my son into buying me a Thomson for my birthday, no luck so far, last year he got me a AR who knows maybe this year?

  • nova3930

    I’d trade certain body parts to have a REAL Thompson. Interesting design, piles of historical value and just a fantastic looker of a gun….