One of the worlds most instantly recognizable guns has to be the Thompson Submachine gun. Also known as The Tommy Gun, The Chicago Piano, The Chicago Typewriter, The Chopper and The Trench Broom.
Devised in 1919 by General John T Thompson, who was seeking to create a suitable weapon for any future trench warfare, the Thompson Submachine was devised.
It was originally manufactured by the Auto Ordnance Corporation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, U.S.A and was released in 1921 as the M1921. (several other variations later appeared) It was an expensive gun to manufacture and this was reflected in the price as it retailed for 200 dollars, at a time when Fords Model T cars were sold for 400 dollars. It would be the equivalent of buying a Tommy Gun today for about eight thousand dollars.
However, because of the excellent build quality, fit and finish not to mention the awesome firepower, quite a lot were actually sold. More notably to the U.S Post Office, several police departments and the F.B.I. The U.S Marines also became interested and it was later adopted by them. Even though the fifty round drum was available to them, as seen below, they initially only adopted the twenty round box magazine.
Perhaps though, the most notorious use of the Tommy Gun was in the hands of the Chicago gangsters such as Bugs Moran, Machinegun Kelly, Al Capone and desperado John Dillinger. Pictured below at the height of his power, Capone with his trademark white fedora, silk tie and cigar.
In the 1930's during prohibition the gangsters needed a powerful weapon to fight their enemies and to protect themselves with. The M1928 Tommy Gun was the gun of choice, with its ferocious firepower. But weighing just under eleven pounds empty or nearly twenty pounds with a full hundred round drum magazine, it was a big and hefty gun to tote around.
As the picture below testifies though, it was possible to fit a Tommy Gun into a violin case when the gun was disassembled into its main components of receiver, stock, fore grip and magazine. And this is the way that the gun was first secretly transported around by the mobsters, until the police got wise to it and consequently searched everyone with a violin case there after!
" Hey cop!...what gives here?...I'm just a musician already ! " and I could imagine the policeman's reply..." Yeah, yeah, sure ya are Bugsy...and waddya play?..the Chicago piano? "
Big Tom and Lil Tom
Field stripping the Tommy gun into its main components is a relatively simple procedure, and like all other guns no screw drivers or other tools are required to do so, as it all just slides and locks together. It can be assembled in under a minute, ready to make the roaring twenties really roar.
With its high rate of fire, of between eight hundred and nine hundred rounds per minute depending on model and its large .45 caliber bullet, the Tommy Gun soon earned its respect wherever it was employed. Improved in 1926 with a Cutts compensator on the end of the muzzle to reduce recoil.
The compensator worked by allowing the propelling gases to emit out of the slots in it before the bullet exited the muzzle, in so doing it prevented the muzzle from climbing as the recoil was greatly reduced...
...thus the Tommy Gun was very controllable to fire on full auto. Firing exactly the same bullets as the .45 Colt automatic pistol as seen below, there was never any trouble in sourcing ammunition for it, as the .45 ACP was a widely used and common cartridge at that time, it still is today.
The Tommy gun also had a wide variety of magazine choices, with the twenty and thirty round box magazine or the fifty and one hundred round drum magazine. It has to be said though that the drum magazines with their higher round capacity were the much more favored option.
The Tommy gun had an effective accurate range of about fifty yards, this was more than adequate for the gangsters who would fire at close range anyway, from car windows into buildings, into other cars and into guys on street corners.
For firing indoors or confined spaces, such as clubs, small rooms and from inside a car, the Tommy gun was perfectly suited. The hundred round drum meant that you could fire off a large amount of "slugs" before having to change magazines.
The tremendous rate of fire also meant that a large area would be covered by a single gangster firing a single Tommy gun.
Two Tommy Guns however, serial numbers 2347 and 7580, were used in the infamous St Valentines Day Massacre, on February 14th, 1929. Six members of Bugs Moran's gang and a mechanic were lined up against a wall in a garage of the SMC Cartage Company at 2122 North Clark Street, Lincoln Park of Chicago's North Side and executed by affiliates of Al Capone's gang.
The gangsters of the day ruled the roost with the Tommy Gun, but to even the score, the law enforcement agencies also used them, more notably the F.B.I. The F.B.I actually utilized the Tommy Gun right up until 1976, when they declared it obsolete in favor of newer and more modern guns like the Heckler & Koch.
Below a good angled photo of the Tommy gun, its quite an imposing and intimidating weapon, especially when one peers down the business end of it with its wide .45 caliber muzzle with Cuts compensator.
The first Tommy gun to see military use was the Model 1928, used by the US navy during its expedition in Nicaragua. Called the "Navy" model 1928, it was fitted with a heavier bolt to bring the rate of fire down to six hundred rounds per minute.
With the start of World War Two, the U.S Army procured a large number of these Navy Tommy Guns, and marked them as U.S Model 1928A1.
The British Army, more notably the B.E.F - British Expeditionary Force - were apparently the first to utilize the Tommy Gun during combat in World War Two. The weapon was bought by the British Government, as their army was initially quite poorly equipped.
Great Britain was not actually prepared for the war that it declared on Germany, neither did it have the money or resources to wage war and consequently Great Britain loaned a lot of materials off the U.S.A, including ships, tanks, and munitions along with the guns to fire them.
Below we can see the famous 1940 photo of Sir Winston Churchill doing his pose with a M1928 Tommy Gun, with the pinstripe suit, hat and cigar, the Tommy Gun quite suited him! When Hitler called Churchill a gangster, he probably wasn't kidding.
The British commando's, paratroopers and many infantry outfits were equipped with the Tommy Gun, and it was issued with several thirty round box magazines as the drum magazines were too bulky for an infantryman to a carry.
The United States and Canadian forces also adopted the gun and it saw action in the Pacific and European conflicts right up to the end of the war. Over 1,700,000 of these guns were built by The Auto Ordnance Corporation, Savage Arms and Colt with another 1,400,000 being built by other companies for World War Two usage.
Below is a facsimile of a famous U.S.M.C photo of two marines seen fighting on Wana Ridge, Okinawa on May 18th, 1945. On the left is one Davis Hargraves as he provides covering fire with his M1 Tommy Gun whilst brother in arms, Gabriel Chavarria moves with his .30 cal BAR - Browning Automatic Rifle.
The Tommy Gun, although no longer produced for military application, can still be found today in collections, museums, history discussion groups and on the firing range. Insurgents and the odd soldier here and there around the world can still be noted carrying a Tommy Gun, as long as they can get the ammunition for it, they will use it.
Below a YouTube video gives some good live illustrations of the Tommy Gun...
Below a south paw (left handed) county Sheriff demonstrates how to shoulder and ready the Tommy Gun, it is still a formidable weapon...in anyone's hands!
Because of the guns notoriety with the gangster era and some of its historical usage in World War Two, a good working order original M1921 or M1928 Tommy Gun can fetch well over twenty thousand dollars in an auction.
Below is the M1A1 Thompson submachine gun, with the cocking lever now situated on the right-hand side of the receiver. This was the most popular model and was used extensively by the Marines, U.S Army and Commandos in World War Two.
Most, if not all of the military versions of this gun were not fitted with the Cutts compensator on the muzzle and were issued with the thirty round box magazine. Of course, soldiers carried several loaded magazines with them in specially adapted webbing belts.
It was a very popular gun and was well liked by all who utilized it, in combat it was an effective, accurate and reliable weapon. The M1A1 Thompson was not however the mainstay issued weapon of choice by the Government, this was reserved for the M3 "Grease Gun" as seen below, that was more widely issued.
The reason for the adoption of the M3 was down to the age old argument...the manufacturing cost. The M3 was made from pressed steel fittings and was infinitely cheaper to produce than the expensive and austere Tommy Gun. The old saying amongst military personnel " Your gun is made by the cheapest bidder " is often so very true.
The M3 used the same .45 caliber ammunition as the Tommy Gun but it had a much slower rate of fire at 450 rounds per minute. Those who were adept at firing this gun could shoulder it up, take aim and fire off only one round with the dexterity of a quick trigger pull...something not possible with the Tommy Gun, unless it was adapted for single and auto fire.
And weighing just over eight pounds, it was a lot lighter than the Tommy Gun too.
The M3 and M3A1 being a cheap and simple gun to manufacture saw action right up to the end of World War Two, plus later action in the Korean war, the Vietnam war and was still issued to U.S tank crews up to 1980-81 when it was decided that it would be retired for a more modern gun, I guess something like the Keckler and Koch MP5.
Overall though, the Thompson submachine gun is a weapon that has carved its name quite indelibly into American history and folklore. It is now quite impossible to imagine the 1930's Chicago gangster or U.S Marine fighting in World War Two, Okinawa or Iwo Jima without being equipped with this gun.
So in one way or another, the Tommy Gun will live on, forever ingrained in our history as a great gun if not the most famous of all time.
Page created May 3rd 2010. Updated May 11th 2013