By: Friedrich Seiltgen

While the Thompson Submachinegun was originally designed for the trench warfare of WWI, the “Tommy Gun” became best known throughout the world as the weapon of choice for every gangster, thanks to Hollywood.

I remember the gangster movies of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, as well as Robert Stack portraying Elliot Ness with his crew of Untouchables battling it out with prohibition-era gangsters who carried their Tommy Guns around in violin cases. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre also helped give the Tommy Gun its reputation.

Invented by an Army General
Much like Union General Ambrose Burnside and his Burnside rifle, the Tommy Gun was invented by a U.S. Army General, John Taliaferro Thompson. General Thompson graduated from West Point in 1882 and was the Chief Ordnance Officer for U.S. forces during the Spanish American war.

Upon his retirement in 1914, Thompson went to work as a weapons designer for Remington Arms. War came to Europe, and Thompson believed the army needed firepower to be mobile and allow soldiers to move quickly and mow down enemy soldiers with a lightweight, hard-hitting weapon. He wanted a smaller, lighter, close-quarters gun instead of the rifles of the time that, with attached bayonets, were usually more than five feet long. So, Thompson set out to build a compact “Trench Sweeper.”

Thompson was a key figure in the selection of the .45 acp round used in the government model 1911, so it was no surprise the round ended up in his Tommy gun design. Thompson was recalled to duty in 1917 as the Director of Arsenals, which made him the supervisor of all small arms production for the Army. Unfortunately, his masterpiece would not be finished before the war’s end.

A Wartime Staple
The Thompson was designed using the friction delayed blowback action designed by John Blish. Weighing about 10 pounds empty, it was equipped with a 20 or 30-round stick magazine or a drum magazine holding 50 or 100 rounds. The production Thompsons had a rate of fire of between 600 and 800 rounds per minute, but the earliest model 1919 had a rate of fire of 1,500 rpm!

While it was too late for WWI, the Tommy gun would go on to take part in WWII, Korea, and even Vietnam! Even some Viet Cong carried captured Thompsons as well and produced them in their weapons shops. The Thompson has been, or is currently, carried by virtually every army in the world.

After WWI, the Model 1921 Thompson was available for civilian purchase for $200. The high price (about $2,800 today), however, resulted in poor sales. The Thompson was sold to the U.S. Marine Corps, police departments, and some South American countries. The FBI was behind the times and didn’t get their Thompsons until 1935. The Tommy Gun even saw service with the U.S. Postal Service for protection against robberies!

By War Office official photographer, Horton (Cpt) – is photograph H 36960 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Even with these sales, though, Auto Ordnance (AO), the original manufacturer of the Tommy Gun, was on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1929, the company was in debt to the tune of $2.2 million. AO managed to scrape by until the outbreak of WWII, which saw production skyrocket. Total production of Thompsons was more than 2 million!

I think the Thompson had more nicknames than any other gun around, having been called: The Tommy Gun, Chicago Typewriter, Persuader, Chicago Organ Grinder, Trench Broom, Annihilator, Chicago Piano, and The Chopper, among, probably, other things.

If you’re looking for a semi-auto version of the Tommy gun, look no further than Auto Ordnance, which is still around and produces the Thompson, the drum magazine, and a replica FBI hardcase or violin case to go along with it!

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He currently conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, First Aid, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. His writing has appeared in The Counter Terrorist Magazine, Homeland Security Today and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons