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.