This December marks the 154th anniversary of the birth of John T. Thompson, a U.S. Army officer best known as the inventor of the infamous Thompson submachine gun. Born December 31, 1860, he was too young to serve in the War Between the States but did serve in the Spanish-American War where he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and formed some of the first U.S. units specializing in the use of automatic weapons – namely the Gatling gun.
During the First World War, Thompson sought to capitalize on his experience with automatic weapons by creating a hand-held alternative. He retired from the Army’s Auto Ordinance organization to become the Chief Engineer at Remington Arms company. During his time with Remington, Thompson enjoyed the freedom to pursue innovative design concepts where he made significant strides toward what would become known to the world as the “Tommy Gun”.
In 1917, Thompson rejoined the U.S. Army and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General where he oversaw small-arms developments which won him the Distinguished Service Cross. The first working version of the Tommy Gun would not be patented until 1920, two years after the end of the Great War. With the war over, Thompson’s military contracts also ended forcing his Auto-Ordinance company to seek other buyers for the Tommy Gun.
While he marketed the weapon primarily to civilian law enforcement agencies, there was little demand for the kind of fire-power the Tommy Gun provided with early designs achieving a rate-of-fire of up to 1,500 round per minute. But the firepower offered by the Tommy Gun did not go unnoticed. During the Prohibition Era, the gun became the weapon of choice for criminal gangs making headlines in Al Capone’s Chicago earning the Thompson submachine gun a new moniker, “The Chicago Typewriter”.
It wasn’t until the 1930s when marauders of the Depression Era like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd began blasting their way across the Midwest that law enforcement recognized the value of automatic weaponry. The decision came when machine-gun wielding gangsters attempted to free Frank Nash, an Oklahoma outlaw who was being relocated to a new prison via Kansas City, Missouri. The gangsters ambushed a group of law men and FBI agents at the Kansas City train station intent on freeing their captured ally. It seems that even the gangsters were unaware at just how tremendous and devastating the Thompson’s firepower could be as they riddled several unintended victims with the .45ACP bullets, including Nash himself.
Immediately following the Kansas City Massacre, the previously unarmed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was supplied with and trained in the use of the Thompson submachine guns as part of their basic instruction. During this same year, John Dillinger became a media sensation as newspapers ran front page stories featuring photographs of the notorious bank robber brandishing one of his many Thompson guns.
Soon after the Public Enemy Era, the Thompson submachine gun reappeared, this time in its new adaptation for military service. The M1A1 Thompson was the same ferocious killing machine as its predecessors but with modifications to better suit infantry soldiers, including the removal of the fore grip as well as other design changes. World War II is perhaps the conflict in which the Thompson saw the most action but it continued to be the weapon of choice for American servicemen even into the 1960s where it made a limited appearance in Vietnam.
Beyond the battlefields of the 1960s, the Thompson also appeared on city streets both in the United States and overseas during periods of unrest. In the United States, National Guardsmen were equipped with Thompsons to confront anti-war protestors and civil rights demonstrators. In Europe, members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army adopted the Thompson to confront British occupation forces.
During the twentieth century, the Thompson submachine gun became perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of America overshadowed only by the Statue of Liberty. Its legacy is one of that has defined the American experience as it gained notoriety in Hollywood depictions of both gangsters and the G-men that tried to stop them. Young boys coveted them and toy manufactures capitalized on their desire to imitate Tommy gun wielding Hollywood stars like James Cagney. In war, the Thompson submachine gun served as an important weapon in the arsenals used against fascism. Later, in civilian life, it became a symbol in the controversies of the 1960s where both state agencies struggling to suppress popular uprisings and freedom-fighters alike relied on the Thompson’s simplicity. In 1978, the gun became the subject of the song “Rolland the Headless Thompson Gunner” by Warren Zevon, the last he ever performed in front of a live audience on The Late Show with David Letterman. Today, the gun still retains its mystique and fame and has become a much sought-after relic that defined one of the bloodiest centuries in human history.