February 12, 2024
Things You Didn't Know About The Tommy Gun
Originally designed as a military weapon, the Tommy gun saw a dramatic shift in its usage during the Prohibition and the Great Depression. It swiftly became the firearm of choice for notorious gangsters like Al Capone, and while it remains an iconic symbol in Hollywood's classic gangster films, it holds a significant place in history.
Conceived by a United States Army brigadier general, the Thompson submachine gun, as it's formally known, served in international conflicts and gangland conflicts. Although it has lost its favor in modern times, it remains deeply embedded in American culture and the history of weaponry.
This is the true account of the inception of the first semi-automatic weapon.
The Wartime Origins of the Thompson Submachine Gun
John Taliaferro Thompson, a native of Kentucky and the son of a distinguished general, embarked on a military career that led him to the rank of brigadier general after graduating from West Point. Much of his military service involved the Ordnance Department, where he oversaw the supply of munitions during the Spanish-American War. After 32 years of military service, he retired in 1914 and assumed the role of chief engineer for the Remington Arms Company.
As World War I engulfed Europe, Thompson recognized the need for compact, automatic firearms. The existing machine guns were cumbersome and required multiple personnel to operate. Thompson envisioned a game-changing automatic weapon that was lightweight and operable by a single individual.
In 1915, Thompson discovered a patent by U.S. Navy Commander John Bell Blish for an automatic firing mechanism suitable for handheld firearms. With financial backing from tobacco magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan, Thompson founded the Auto-Ordnance Company in 1916.
Upon the United States' entry into World War I in 1917, Thompson was called back to active duty and earned a Distinguished Service Medal for efficiently managing arms supplies to France. He retired again in 1918, more determined than ever to create a weapon that would reshape the course of future wars.
By 1920, the first Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy gun, was patented and available for purchase. Thompson had hoped for a substantial military order for the weapons, but this didn't materialize. Instead, the Tommy gun gradually found its way into the civilian sector and into a notorious reputation.
The Earliest Uses of the Tommy Gun
The Auto-Ordnance Company's official motto was "On the Side of Law and Order," and Thompson initially intended his invention for military and law enforcement purposes. Some of the earliest Tommy guns were procured by the United States Postal Inspection Service to combat frequent mail train robberies. They were also valuable to U.S. Marines involved in the Banana Wars of Nicaragua.
According to History Ireland, the Irish Republican Army also placed an order for these weapons, facilitated by Thomas Fortune Ryan's connections to Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. The extent to which these guns reached Ireland remains uncertain, but they were reportedly used in an IRA attack in Drumcondra, Dublin, in June 1921.
In 1922, the Auto-Ordnance Company began marketing the Thompson submachine gun as an "anti-bandit" weapon for law enforcement. However, its high cost made it inaccessible for both ordinary citizens and police departments, priced at $200 (equivalent to around $3,000 today), while the average Ford car cost about $400 at the time.
Despite its intended purpose, the Tommy gun gained popularity in the criminal underworld as Prohibition fueled organized crime. It soon became synonymous with the American mafia.
The Rise of the Tommy Gun as "The Gun That Made the '20s Roar"
The Tommy gun's public debut in the hands of a gangster occurred on September 25, 1925, when Chicago bootlegger Frank McErlane used it in an attempt to eliminate a rival. This event, as documented by Brown University, marked the Tommy gun as the new weapon of choice for gang members across the country.
The Tommy gun solidified its place in history during one of the most infamous organized crime incidents in U.S. history – the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of February 14, 1929. While legends claimed that "thousands" of Tommy gun bullets were fired, the actual count was closer to about 70 rounds, resulting in the deaths of seven members of Bugs Moran's North Side gang. This event elevated the notoriety of the Tommy gun further.
In the following years, the Tommy gun continued to gain infamy. In 1931, a mob hitman using the gun for a drive-by shooting in Harlem injured four children and killed an infant, sparking public calls for gun control.
As time passed, more infamous figures became associated with the Tommy gun. The weapon was favored by major criminals who could modify it for concealment and one-handed use by removing the buttstock and using a 20-round clip. George "Machine Gun" Kelly, for instance, earned his moniker due to his preference for the Thompson submachine gun, which he used during the 1933 kidnapping of wealthy oilman Charles Urschel in Oklahoma City.
In 1933, Pretty Boy Floyd and his gang used a Tommy gun when they killed four law enforcement officers at a Kansas City, Missouri train station. Baby Face Nelson also utilized one to fatally shoot two FBI agents on November 27, 1934. He himself was killed by a Tommy gun bullet that day.
John Dillinger, the infamous criminal, even posed for a photo with his beloved Tommy gun, along with the pistol he claimed to have used during his 1934 prison break.
John Thompson passed away in 1940 before witnessing his invention used in World War II. Before his death, he expressed regret over how his weapon had been misused and hoped for a shift towards saving human lives rather than taking them.
After Thompson's passing, demand for the Thompson submachine gun surged during wartime. In 1939, the French placed an order for 3,750 of these weapons, and by the war's final years, almost two million were produced. In 1944, the M3 submachine gun, known as the "Grease Gun," replaced the Tommy gun, and production ceased.
Due to its craftsmanship and historical significance, the Tommy gun remains a prized collector's item among firearm enthusiasts. Purchasing one from a store can cost up to $30,000, with collector's items fetching even higher prices. In 2012, a Tommy gun used by Bonnie and Clyde was sold at auction for $130,000.
For those without the means to acquire such a piece, replicas can be obtained for a more affordable price. Alternatively, one can simply watch the Tommy gun in action on films like "The Untouchables."