The Thompson Submachine Gun: Eleven Pounds of Pure Cool


M1A1 Thompson
The WW2-vintage M1A1 Thompson was simplified for ease of manufacture. Will Dabbs MD Photo

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How far will the typical American male go to look cool? Well, nowadays he will buy sports cars he can’t afford, put Lord-only-knows what kind of muscle-building supplements into his body, spend countless agonizing hours in the gym and waste money on tattoos he will invariably someday regret. His forebears who successfully fought World War 2 went one step farther. They willingly carried an 11-pound submachine gun all the way across Europe…just because they thought it made them look like James Cagney in the movie Public Enemy.

Gangster with Thompson Machine Gun
A handful of flamboyant gangsters had an impact on American society beyond their true numbers. Will Dabbs MD Photo


The Thompson SMG was an American icon. Heavy, awkward, expensive and complicated, the very first prototypes were ready for operational testing the day after World War 1 ended. There the design would have otherwise languished and died had it not been for a surprisingly small number of very flashy criminals. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, psychopaths like John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd blazed their way onto Saturday afternoon matinee screens across the country.

Then as now, politicians and media personalities never missed an opportunity to weaponize a crisis, so the American people came to believe that there were motorized bandits hiding behind every roadside hickory. Reality is that there never was more than a few dozen real players. Regardless, in 1934 Congress taxed machine guns into oblivion along with sound suppressors and sawed-off long guns. We are all of us still languishing underneath that ill-conceived bit of legislation today. However, the cumulative effect was to make American males absolutely rabid to get their hands on a Chicago Typewriter of their own.

M1921 Thompson
The M1921 Thompson missed seeing action in World War 1 by mere days. Will Dabbs MD Photo

Ballistic Evolution

They only made 15,000 original M1921 Thompsons. They all fired big honking .45 ACP rounds the size of your thumb. John Taliaferro Thompson did not actually design the gun that bore his name, but he did successfully market it. Those 15,000 copies were all built under contract by Colt. Beautifully blued and magnificently executed, they were things of mechanical beauty.

The basic gun sold for $200 with a Cutts compensator. That would be about $3,300 today. The same gun without the compensator was $175. The M1921 came with a 20-round box magazine and could accept 50 and 100-round drums. It cycled at around 900 rounds per minute.

The M1928 was exactly the same weapon with a redesigned heavier bolt actuator that slowed the rate of fire down to a more manageable 675 rpm. The earliest M1928 versions came from that same 15,000-gun lot and had an “8” scratched over the “1” in 1921 on the side. Uncle Sam bought a few thousand slightly modified M1928A1 versions during the interwar years, but the Auto Ordnance Company that originally pushed the weapon eventually folded. Had it not been for WW2, the Thompson would have simply faded into obscurity.

American GIs during WW2 scrambled to get their mitts on a Thompson because it hit like a freight train downrange and just looked so darn cool. Will Dabbs MD Photo

The Industrial Engine of Total War

There is nothing like global war to energize a nation’s industrial base. The Thompson was ludicrously heavy, insanely expensive and sinfully awkward in action. However, with the outset of war, the U.S. and the UK just couldn’t get enough of them. In short order, the design was simplified to better facilitate mass production. The resulting M1A1 Thompson employed a more basic open-bolt system that did away with the floating firing pin and controversial Blish lock. It also dispensed with the Cutts compensator and moved the actuator from the top of the receiver to the right side. As the drums were noisy, heavy and expensive, the M1A1 receivers were not cut to accept them. Where the buttstock on the M1928 was removable, that of the M1A1 was fixed. By war’s end we had produced 1.5 million copies.

American GI’s just couldn’t get enough Thompsons. Friends who were there said they were always in short supply. One grunt buddy heading out for a night patrol in Europe actually traded his M1 rifle out to a 37mm antitank gunner for an M1A1 Thompson and five 20-round magazines. The following day he just made a point to avoid the antitank section and never gave the gun back. He humped that boat anchor of a weapon for the rest of the war.

The line of recoil on the Thompson was markedly higher than the buttstock, necessitating attention to technique manage muzzle climb. It also weighed twice what a comparable M1 carbine might. However, American dogfaces willingly humped these gosh awful-huge SMGs all across Europe and the Pacific just because they looked so darn cool.

The distinctive Cutts compensator was a $25 upgrade on early Thompson guns. Will Dabbs MD Photo

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used in our pictures.

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