The Tommy gun was designed as a military weapon, but as organized crime grew during Prohibition and the Great Depression, criminals like Al Capone began to use it as their go-to weapon.
The Tommy gun has been extensively shown in vintage gangster films from Hollywood and has been the subject of songs by punk rock bands for decades, but it is more than simply a relic of bygone pop culture.
It was created by a brigadier general in the United States Army and has been employed in interstate conflicts and gang battles. And although if the Thompson submachine gun, as it is officially named, is no longer popular, it remains a crucial component of both American culture and the development of weapons.
This is a real account of the development of the first semi-automatic firearm.
The Thompson Submachine Gun’s Wartime Origins
Son of a renowned general, John Taliaferro Thompson was a native of Kentucky. He grew up shifting between military bases before graduating from West Point, joining the army, and finally rising to the rank of brigadier general.
Thompson spent a large portion of his time in the Army working in the Ordnance Department. He oversaw the distribution of ammunition to Cuban forces during the Spanish-American War. After 32 years of service, he left the military and started working as the Remington Arms Company’s top engineer.
As the First World War broke out in Europe, Thompson saw the demand for compact, automatic weapons. At the time, machine guns were cumbersome to handle and operated by multiple personnel. Thompson believed that he could completely alter combat if he could create an automatic weapon that was simple to use and could be carried by one person.
According to the Auto-Ordnance Company, Thompson discovered a patent for an automated firing mechanism that might be utilized in portable guns filed in 1915 by U.S. Navy Commander John Bell Blish. Additionally, Thomas Fortune Ryan, a tobacco tycoon, provided financial support for Thompson’s establishment of the Auto-Ordnance Company in 1916.
Thompson was ordered back to active duty after the United States entered the war in 1917. After coordinating the supply of weapons to France with success and receiving a Distinguished Service Medal, he once more retired in 1918 but was still motivated to create a weapon that would be useful in upcoming conflicts.
The first Tommy gun, often known as a Thompson submachine gun, was patented and sold by 1920. Thompson had hoped that a sizable order for the firearms would be placed by the military soon. But it didn’t go like that.
Instead, the weapon made its way into the public eye—and into infamy—slowly but steadily.
The First Applications Of The Tommy Gun
The Auto-Ordnance Company’s official motto was “On the Side of Law and Order,” and Thompson had intended for his creation to be employed by the military and law enforcement.
The USPS Inspection Service purchased some of the first Tommy guns, according to the Postal Times, to guard against frequent mail train robberies. Additionally, they were helpful to American Marines engaged in the Nicaraguan Banana Wars.
The Tommy Gun is Fired by Winston Churchill
According to History Ireland, the Irish Republican Army even placed an order for the weaponry. Due to Ryan’s connections to Irish rebel Michael Collins—whom he had helped finance—the two arranged for members to receive Tommy guns. Unknown how many of the weapons ever made it to Ireland, but they were used in an IRA attack in Dublin’s Drumcondra in June 1921.
The Thompson submachine gun was first marketed as a “anti-bandit” weapon for law enforcement in 1922 by the Auto-Ordnance Company. The Tommy gun, however, was out of reach for the typical person or the police force due to its high cost. The gun originally cost $200, or almost $3,000 in today’s dollars. In contrast, the typical Ford automobile at the time cost about $400.
However, the weapon quickly gained enormous popularity in the criminal underworld. The Tommy gun was intrinsically tied to the American mafia once Prohibition came into effect and organized crime increased.
The Tommy Gun’s Rise to Fame as “The Gun That Made the ’20s Roar”
On September 25, 1925, Chicago bootlegger Frank McErlane utilized the weapon for the first time in front of the general public while attempting to take down a rival. Newspaper accounts of the incident, according to Brown University, stated that the Tommy gun had become a popular new weapon among gang members all around the nation.
However, the Tommy gun cemented its legacy by becoming a key component of one of the most notorious organized crime killings in American history.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which happened on February 14, 1929, is said to have involved “thousands” of bullets fired from Tommy guns. However, the actual number of shots fired by the men who fired the weapons—who did so on orders from famed mobster Al Capone—was only about 70, which resulted in the deaths of seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side gang.
The Tommy gun’s popularity grew during the coming years. A mob hitman killed a baby and injured four children in a drive-by shooting in Harlem in 1931, which caused a public uproar for gun prohibition.
As time went on, the weapon was linked to an increasing number of notorious people. Big-time criminals favored them because they could conceal them in their overcoats and use one hand to shoot them by removing the buttstock and substituting the drum magazine with a 20-round clip.
“Machine Gun” George Kelly’s nickname came from his preference for the Thompson submachine gun as a weapon. When he abducted wealthy oilman Charles Urschel from his Oklahoma City house in 1933, he utilized one.
When Pretty Boy Floyd and his gang murdered four police officers at a Kansas City, Missouri railroad station in 1933, they also used a Tommy gun. On November 27, 1934, Baby Face Nelson used one to kill two FBI agents, but he was also struck by a Tommy gun bullet that day.
Even John Dillinger posed for a picture holding his favorite Tommy gun and the pistol he claims to have used to escape from prison in 1934.
John Thompson passed away in 1940, preventing him from witnessing the application of his innovation during World War II. He expressed regret for the way his weapon had been used before he passed away. In a letter to his chief engineer, he declared, “I have given my valedictory to guns, as I want to concentrate more attention now to saving human life than destroying it.”
Thompson said, “May the lethal T.S.M.G. always’speak for’ God & Country.” I was concerned that the pistol had been taken by wicked people and used against the spirit of our organization’s motto, “On the side of law & order.”
As the war erupted after Thompson’s passing, demand for the Thompson submachine gun increased. In 1939, the French ordered 3,750 of these weapons, but by the war’s end, approximately two million had been created. The Tommy gun was superseded in 1944 by the M3 submachine gun, also known as the “Grease Gun,” and manufacturing was then stopped.
Because of the high level of craftsmanship, the Tommy gun is now a prized collectible among gun lovers. One can cost up to $30,000 to purchase from a store, and if you want a collector’s item, it will cost much more. According to Reuters, the Bonnie and Clyde Tommy gun sold for $130,000 at auction in 2012.
Replicas can be bought for just a few hundred dollars, so individuals who don’t have that amount of cash should feel better. You could also just watch The Untouchables to see how the Tommy gun works.
- “Thompson “Tommy Gun” SMG… .30 Carbine Version -“. 20 October 2016.
- “Submachine guns of UK – BSA Thompson 1926 – Thompson 1928A1 – Lanchester – Sten and Sterling”. Gotavapen.se. 2010-09-08. Retrieved 2011-12-25.