By Tom Davis, Jr.
Arizona Class Three dealer Tom Stewart had always wanted a Colt Thompson submachine gun. Unfortunately, this “trench broom” envisioned by General John T. Thompson in 1917 and later invented by Auto-Ordnance Corporation engineers Theodore H. Eickhoff and Oscar V. Payne has become one expensive piece of weaponry. Tom decided to take the plunge in late 2006 when he answered an advertisement on Subguns.com concerning a Colt Thompson. Tom was just like many other Thompson enthusiasts; he was familiar with the history of this famous American invention and he wanted one. The story of Tom’s purchase has uncovered for Thompson collector’s around the world a piece of Thompson history that has been heretofore unknown – a Colt Thompson with a 15,000 serial number. Only 41 Colt production Thompsons bear a serial number in the 15,000 serial number range.
The Model of 1921 Thompson submachine gun was manufactured by the Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company and was the first commercial production of this now classic firearm. The initial production run by Colt, under contract to the Auto-Ordnance Corporation, New York City, was for 15,000 Thompson Submachine Guns.
The first serial number used when manufacturing began was No. 41 and this first Colt Thompson was delivered to the Auto-Ordnance Corporation in March 1921. The last serial number used on this initial production run was No. 15040 manufactured in July 1922. Tom’s Thompson, No. 15025, was not the last Colt Thompson as fifteen other Colt Thompson submachine guns have a higher serial number – but none are currently known to be on National Firearms Act (NFA) Registry. However, it is the highest serial numbered Colt Thompson known to exist in the United States at this time.
The original 15,000 Thompsons manufactured by Colt were all Model of 1921. The commercial marketing of these firearms was less than successful. In the ensuring years, Auto-Ordnance modified the Model of 1921 Thompson in hopes of finding something that would be more marketable. The Model of 1923 Thompson was the first modification – an attempt to make the Thompson into something similar to the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Several variations of this Model of 1923 Thompson were built, but in the end this effort was a complete failure. Only a handful of authentic Model of 1923 Thompsons exist today and all retain the original Model of 1921 markings.
The adoption of the Cutts Compensator for the Thompson in 1926 could also be termed a modification. Even with the added cost, the compensator was a very popular accessory when offered on the Model of 1921 Thompson.
The next modification was the Model of 1927, converting the Thompson submachine gun into a semiautomatic carbine. This met with some limited success in that a small number of these Thompson carbines were built from existing stocks of Model of 1921 Thompsons and sold mostly to prisons as guard guns. These are easy to distinguish because the “Model of 1921” and “Thompson Submachine Gun” markings were removed and re-stamped “Model of 1927” and “Thompson Semi-Automatic Carbine.”
In 1928, the most popular Thompson modification was adopted by Auto-Ordnance and resulted in the best selling Thompson to date. This modification is known as the Model of 1928 Thompson, commonly referred to by collectors as the Navy model or the 28 overstamp. At the request of a good customer, the United States Marine Corps, Auto-Ordnance designed a heavier actuator that resulted in a slower rate of fire. During this same time period, the U.S. Navy took note of the Marines effective use of the Thompson in the jungles of Nicaragua in 1926 and began procurement of the Thompson. This heavier actuator along with a new recoil spring and guide, horizontal forearm, sling and Cutts Compensator later became the U.S. Navy, Model of 1928. Thompsons were taken from inventory and the 1921 markings were changed with the stamping of the number 8 over the number 1. This overstamping appears to many as the letter B, but it signifies a Model of 1928 Thompson. The words “U.S. Navy” were not added to every Model of 1928 Thompson. No. 15025 is a Model of 1928 Thompson; the number 8 stamp over the number 1 is very distinct but there are no US Navy markings present on No. 15025.
No. 15025 has a unique marking on the receiver. The letter “A” is stamped beside the overstamped 8 thereby making the model nomenclature read Model of 1928 A. The purpose or reason for this “A” marking and who applied it to No. 15025 is unknown. Gordon Hergistad, renowned Thompson researcher and author of the excellent reference book, Colt Thompson Serial Numbers, reported that he has never seen a Colt Thompson with only the “A” marking after the model nomenclature. Mr. Hergistad has observed five Colt Thompsons with “U.S.” markings before and “A1” markings following the model nomenclature. These markings were applied by the United States military when the Army adopted and procured this gun in very limited quantity.
An examination of No. 15025 reveals the upper receiver and lower frame have matching serial numbers. The first noticeable exception to No. 15025 is the misalignment of barrel alignment markings. This is because No. 15025 was dewated (deactivated) in the past and later activated with another Colt barrel. A close inspection of this replacement barrel reveals the letter “H” to the right of the barrel alignment marking. This “H” marking makes for the second unusual letter stamping on No. 15025. The replacement barrel appears to have a modern Auto-Ordnance Corporation, West Hurley, New York, compensator that has been pinned. Fortunately, Tom has acquired the original dewat barrel, and more importantly, the original Cutts Compensator. The buttstock has the upside down anchor marking indicative of the correct buttstock, but the pistol grip and vertical foregrip may not be original to this Thompson. Tom has reported all the internal components appear to be original Colt parts. The rear sight is of special interest as it has the very rare “METER” markings, an indication No. 15025 may have been originally prepared for sale to a foreign government or customer. The right side receiver markings show the 1922 patent dates, something only found on Colt Thompsons with serial numbers over 14500. Aside from the past dewat/rewat and re-barrel procedures, this Thompson only shows the normal signs of scratches and wear. Tom believes No. 15025 still retains the original finish.
Tom filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on No. 15025 to learn more about the history of this historic Thompson. From the redacted documents provided by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, we learn No. 15025 began life on the National Firearms Act (NFA) Registry via a Form 2 (Notice of Firearms Manufactured or Imported) dated June 30, 1939. It appears No. 15025 was one of the last Colt Thompsons sold by General Thompson’s Auto-Ordnance Corporation. On July 21, 1939, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Thompson Automatic Arms Corporation with J. Russell Maguire firmly in control of the Thompson.
Deciphering redacted government forms is at best a guessing game. However, it appears No. 15025 may have belonged to a governmental agency until 1969 or 1971 when it was acquired by a Class III dealer in Michigan. It was deactivated sometime in 1971 or 1972 and then transferred to a private individual on September 1, 1972. It remained with this individual until February 2006 when it was sold to another Class III dealer. It was re-activated in August 2006. The transfer of No. 15025 to Tom Stewart was approved on January 12, 2007.
Recently, Gordon Hergistad discovered another Colt Thompson with a slightly higher serial number than No. 15025, outside the United States. Gordon will report on this discovery in the next edition of his book.
Many years ago the author was talking to then noted Thompson expert Roger A. Cox about Colt Thompsons with serial numbers in the 15,000 range. Roger told the author that his examination of some very poor condition Auto-Ordnance sales records revealed only one in the United States. Roger would not reveal the location because he was going to attempt to acquire this Thompson. In Roger’s now classic book, The Thompson Submachine Gun, he references No. 15036 as being sold in the United States by Federal Laboratories. Is it possible No. 15036 never made it on to the NFA Registry? Could No. 15025 be the only 15,000 serial numbered Colt Thompson in the United States on the Registry? Or could another one or two be hidden away in a police department gun vault or private collection? Only time will tell.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V11N8 (May 2008)|