by Robert M. Hausman
An outstanding exhibit tracing the history and evolution of the Thompson Submachine Gun and its variants is available for public viewing
The William B. Ruger Gallery of the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia is playing host to a magnificent collection of Thompson submachine guns and related firearms and accessories entitled “On The Side of Law & Order” through March 15, 2005. The exhibit features the personally owned firearms and accessories of members of The Thompson Collectors Association, an NRA-affiliated club. As one of the most recognizable firearms in modern history, the Thompson exhibit accomplishes the task of identifying for the viewer the many models and types of Thompsons produced from 1919 through the present day and the role they played in national defense as well as the preservation of “law and order.”
The Thompson SMG Background
The story of the Thompson submachine gun begins with it’s namesake, Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson, as detailed by Tom Woods, president of the Thompson Collectors Association. John Thompson was born in Newport, Kentucky, on December 31, 1860 and graduated from West Point in 1882. He rose through the ranks in the ensuing years and in 1916, while holding the rank of Brigadier General, he decided to enter into a business enterprise to produce arms for the U.S. military.
With financial backing from the Wall Street tycoon, Thomas Fortune Ryan, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation was established with the idea of creating a new automatic rifle for the military. The design incorporated a new principle for locking the bolt and breech of a rifle, based on the “Blish principle of metallic adhesion.” An engineering team led by two young men, Theodore Eickhoff and Oscar Payne, was established in Cleveland, Ohio to work with the Warner-Swasey Co. to develop an automatic rifle. After two years of limited success, it was found that the then new .45 ACP cartridge functioned flawlessly with the Blish locking system.
This led to the development of a series of submachine guns (the “sub” indicating a lesser [non-rifle] caliber, in this case, the .45 ACP pistol round), known as the Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1919. From these early prototypes came the famed Colt produced Model of 1921. The Colt, Model of 1921, is considered the “crown jewel” of submachine guns by collectors. Colt produced 15,000 Model of 1921 Thompsons. With this new firearm, Auto-Ordnance adopted its motto: “On The Side of Law and Order.” The company had limited success in selling its designs to the military and slightly greater success in selling to police agencies. While far too expensive in price for most civilians to own, the notoriety the design received in its use by Prohibition-era gangsters ultimately led to the severe federal restrictions imposed on civilian ownership of automatic arms under the National Firearms Act of 1934.
On July 3, 1939, the Auto-Ordnance Company was purchased by the newly established “Thompson Automatic Arms Corp.”, which was owned by Russell Maguire. His purchase brought him a company with large debt, few assets, no production facilities and a small inventory. However, with the possibility of world war on the horizon, Maguire saw potential.
In the spring of 1940, with the U.S. involvement in the war raging in Europe an ever-greater possibility, Maguire contracted with the Savage Arms Corp. to get the Thompson gun back into production. In August 1940, Maguire established Auto-Ordnance’s first factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was in full production a year later. By February of the next year, Savage was producing 10,000 guns per month. In October 1941 alone, Auto-Ordnance was able to deliver almost 43,000 Thompsons. In February 1942, Auto-Ordnance delivered its 500,000th Thompson to the U.S. Ordnance Dept. By 1944, when Thompson submachine gun production ceased, over 1,750,000 complete guns had been produced with the spare parts equivalent of another 250,000.
Auto-Ordnance also produced other gun parts for the U.S. government during the war. These included receivers, bolts and slides for the M1 Carbine under the IBM contract; barrels and bolt carriers for the Browning Automatic Rifle Model of 1918A2 under the New England Small Arms Corp. contract; and various small parts for the Browning Machine Gun Model of 1919A4.
At the end of World War Two, the Auto-Ordnance Division of Maguire Industries was closed. In the early 1950’s, the remains of Auto-Ordnance were purchased by George Numrich of Numrich Arms Corp., which is today known as Gun Parts Corp. of West Hurley, New York.
Numrich believed there was interest in the Thompson gun on the part of police departments and private collectors and thus began producing guns again. At first, he made up guns from the old parts he had purchased. When these were sold out, he began producing new guns in both full and semiautomatic versions.
In January of 1999, the Auto-Ordnance Corp. was sold to Kahr Arms of Blauvelt, New York that continues to produce the semiautomatic versions.
A VIRTUAL TOUR Prototype and Early Thompsons
The exhibition contains many rare examples of the Thompson Submachine Gun and allows the viewer to trace its development from its inception to the modern versions produced today.
To start, there is the original patent model of the Blish pistol built by Capt. John Blish, inventor of the “Blish principle,” upon which the Thompson gun was designed. This pistol was awarded an NRA Silver Medal for Best Arm in 2003. Simply stated, the principle is based upon the idea that two different metals will adhere to one another under high pressure, but will move against each other (i.e. slide) when pressure ceases.
The interesting Thompson Auto-Rifle, “Style D” on display is the oldest known example of a unique series of firearms. Built in 1919, it is a selective firearm. It incorporates the Blish Locking System in the form of a series of interrupted threads around the bolt that act as a delay system and keep the chamber closed during firing.
There is a rare Thompson Auto-Rifle, Model PC on display. This semi-automatic rifle was built circa 1920 as a joint venture between Auto-Ordnance and Colt. The model designation “PC” stands for both the Auto-Ordnance engineer in charge of production, Oscar Payne, and the contractor, Colt.
The first prototype Thompson Submachine Guns were called the Model of 1919s, of which forty examples are believed to have been produced. The Annihilator III, Model C, Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1919, serial number 7, on display is believed to be the oldest American-made submachine gun in private hands today. This gun was not designed to have either front or rear sights or a buttstock. Its rate of fire is in excess of 1,500 rpm and it is capable of firing only in the full-automatic mode.
The Annihilator III, Model E, Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1919, bearing serial number 17 on display in the exhibit, was sent in early 1920 with an Auto-Ordnance salesman to Warsaw, Poland in hopes of garnering sales between the warring factions of Poles, Ukrainians and Bolsheviks. As the war closed in on him, he abandoned the gun to the U.S. Military Attaché to Poland.
Early Thompsons were designed to be belt fed, due to the rapid rate of fire (1,500 rpm). When this design failed, engineers designed a simple box magazine of twenty rounds capacity. Prototype second and third model Type XX patent box magazines are on display.
Golden Era of Tommy Guns
Once the design was set, production was undertaken by Colt. The first Model of 1921A was delivered to Auto-Ordnance in April 1921. Some of these guns were created as presentation arms. Two Thompsons were presented to the two principle engineers responsible for the design and production of the gun are on display. The Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1921A, serial number 1887, is one of only three known factory engraved Thompsons. It was presented to the chief engineer of the Thompson, Theodore H. Eickhoff, in 1922. In 2001, it was awarded an NRA Best Arms Medallion award.
Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1921A, bearing serial number 1921, was presented to Oscar Payne, upon his leaving the company in 1922. Payne was a self-taught practical engineer and is additionally credited with the design of the drum and box magazines. The gun was awarded an NRA Best Arms Silver Medallion in 2001.
The Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1921 on display with serial number 2059 is one of two custom produced guns. It was the personal firearm of General John T. Thompson and is said to have been tuned to fire in rhythm to a piece of recorded music the General enjoyed. The gun was later given to Col. Richard M. Cutts to develop the Cutts Compensator for the Thompson line. A prototype compensator is still attached to the muzzle. This particular example was awarded an NRA Silver Medallion for one of the Best Arms at the 1998 NRA show.
A .45 ACP Maxim suppressor is also on display designed for use by law enforcement to make shooting from a vehicle practical. In use, a barrel with a threaded muzzle was required.
The Thompson Submachine Gun Model of 1923 were converted Model of 1921s with a longer barrel chambered for the .45 Remington-Thompson cartridge. This was a .45 caliber cartridge with a 1/10-inch longer case than a standard .45 ACP, allowing a larger powder charge to propel a 250-grain bullet. The idea was to give the Thompson a greater range and hitting power. Several variations were produced with bipod, bayonet, Maxim suppressor and Cutts Compensator. The cartridge and firearm never became a successful combination.
The rare Thompson Model of 1927 was created due to requests from some police departments for a semiautomatic only Thompson. This model was the first to come equipped with the Cutts Compensator as a standard feature. It is believed that fewer than 50 were produced.
Thompson collectors often encounter “28 overstamp” examples. These are Colt Model of 1921 Thompsons that were converted by Auto-Ordnance to the Model 1928 configuration. One of the museum’s examples was originally purchased by the City of Circleville, Ohio Police Dept. The markings for the Model of 1921 have been factory overstamped with the number “8” over the number “1”.
The Thompson Submachine Gun, Model of 1928 Navy with serial number 12086, was originally purchased by the city police of Charleston, South Carolina. The Model of 1928 Navy is a Model of 1921 Thompson that was modified by changing the recoil system and actuator to reduce the rate of fire from 800 rpm (1921) to 600 rpm (1928). The Model 1928, produced by Savage and Auto-Ordnance, was produced in the largest production quantity of any Thompson variation.
An interesting Thompson Submachine Gun manufactured by Birmingham Small Arms (B.S.A.), Model of 1926, can be seen. Chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum, the internal mechanism in the upper receiver is very similar to the American Thompsons, but the lower trigger frame and parts are fewer and simplified. It can fire from a box magazine and/or a drum magazine. The tests of this design were very encouraging, but due to the world wide depression of the 1920’s, production orders never materialized.
The follow-on series of B.S.A. Thompsons are called the Model of 1929. These were built in several different calibers including .45 ACP, 9mm Bergman, .30 Mauser, 7.62 Mauser and .38 Super. Only six B.S.A. Thompsons are known to exist.
In the Service
Probably the section of the exhibit entitled, “In the Service,” will be of greatest interest to SAR readers as there are numerous examples of Thompson firearms with a connection to the military on display.
The museum displays a rare example of a Savage-made Model of 1928 Thompson that has been converted and re-stamped as a Model of 1921 by Auto-Ordnance. During the war years, when a police department requested a Model 1921, Auto-Ordnance would fill the order with this conversion.
With the prospects of war, Auto-Ordnance had contracted with Savage Arms to produce Thompsons. The firearms produced by Savage usually have an “S” prefix to the serial number. It was not until1940 that Auto-Ordnance began production of the Model of 1928 in their own factory. The museum’s example bears serial number AO 150739X. The “AO” serial number prefix indicates Auto-Ordnance production.
With production of Thompson Submachine Guns under full swing, it began to be necessary to experiment to create the next generation of arms. For example, there is a Thompson Submachine Gun Model of 1929 with serial number “4X” made by Auto-Ordnance in 1941. It was produced to interest the military in a simpler design and in a gun chambered for the 9mm cartridge. The idea was a failure, particularly in light of the introduction of the Model M1, of which tens of thousands were produced. This Model of 1929 was awarded an NRA Silver Medal for Best Arm at the 2004 NRA Annual Meetings.
Eighteen-round shot shell magazines were introduced in the mid 1920s for police riot control work. During World War Two, some experimentation took place with the creation of a thirty-round shot shell magazine, which can be seen in the exhibit. The magazine was created by widening a production magazine.
In 1943, Savage Arms was contracted to produce Thompsons made from a new grade of aluminum. Lighter and easier to produce than steel, the aluminum receivers were later found to stretch and could break or shatter during use. All of the guns were ordered to be destroyed. Only five are known to exist, including the example displayed in the museum’s collection. The museum also displays a Thompson Model of 1928 made during World War Two with a stainless steel prototype receiver.
The Thompson Submachine Gun Model T2 was built as a series of prototypes in response to the U.S. military’s request for an inexpensive design that could be chambered in either 9mm or .45 ACP with just the changing of a few parts. Three T2s are known to have been built, two in .45 ACP and the museum’s example in 9mm. This firearm was awarded an NRA Silver Medal for Best Arm at the 2004 NRA Annual Meetings.
The .30 caliber Thompson Submachine Gun prototype on display was made in response to the military’s call for a “light rifle” in 1938, chambered in the new caliber of “.30 Short Rifle” (.30 Carbine). Auto-Ordnance simply modified a standard Thompson to accept the new caliber. The design was good, but it could not compete with the Winchester prototype, now known as the “M1 Carbine.”
Auto-Ordnance got the opportunity to produce M1 carbines for the military. In 1943, under the IBM production contract, Auto-Ordnance became one of the suppliers to this production. The firm produced the receivers, and several smaller parts. The museum displays one of the IBM/AO produced carbines.
A New Era
Films such as “Dillinger,” produced in 1972, have increased awareness of the lore of the Thompsons and have resulted in the production of various firing and non-firing modern examples.
There is a prop non-gun on display in the museum that was used in the movie “Dillinger,” John Milius’ directorial debut. His friends, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, presented him this gun as a tribute to his first film. Since that time, Milius has made receiving a gun of his choice as a condition of many of his directing jobs.
There is also a rubber Hollywood prop 1928A1 Thompson with drum magazine on display. The rubber construction allowed the guns to be dropped and thrown on the movie set without incurring any damage. The museum’s example was used in the making of the film “Saving Private Ryan.”
The Thompson Hop Up 8mm Model Gun is an electrically powered M1 Thompson made by Marui of Japan. It fires a plastic 8mm projectile at about 900 fps. It fires from either the full- or semi-automatic mode and feeds from a box magazine. It can also be fitted with a light unit that allows the firing of glow-in-the-dark projectiles that resemble tracers being fired at night.
Also on display is an AIRSOFT 8mm single shot “Chicago Typewriter.” These Thompson look-alike pellet guns were first introduced in the 1960s and reintroduced in 2000. This all-plastic Korean-made Thompson fires a plastic 8mm diameter ball. It has a removable buttstock and functioning Type L drum magazine.
Besides the “non-guns” in this display, is an impressive collection of the modern Thompson firearms. In the early 1950s, George Numrich of Numrich Arms Corp. of West Hurley, NY, purchased Auto-Ordnance. The first Thompsons sold by Numrich were made up from the parts of Thompsons left over from World War Two. In 1975, he began production of the “new” full-automatic 1928 Model Thompson. These guns were in production until 1986 when the federal ban was enacted on sales of newly made machine guns to the public. A total of 3,360 guns were produced.
Auto-Ordnance of West Hurley, NY also produced the Thompson Semi-Auto Model of 1927A5. This pistol version is identical to the 1927A1 except for the gun’s trigger frame that had been modified to prevent the mounting of a butt stock. The pistol entered production in 1977 and ended in 1995 with a total production of 3,346.
The Thompson Semiautomatic Model of 1927A3 is a West Hurley Auto-Ordnance Thompson in .22 caliber. The receiver is made of aluminum rather than steel. This model entered production in 1978 and ended in 1995 with a total production of 5,117. Numrich also produced a .22 caliber conversion unit to allow owners of the 1927A1 to convert to the .22 caliber.
In 1980, Auto-Ordnance, West Hurley, produced a fully automatic .22 caliber Thompson Model of 1928. Due to various production problems and reliability issues, the production was ended in 1981 with a total of 220 produced. However, 62 of these receivers were later converted back to .45 ACP.
The museum visitor can also see an example of a Numrich produced Thompson Submachine Gun Model M1. In 1986, a single production run of fully automatic Thompsons were made by Auto-Ordnance, West Hurley. Only 609 of these were produced.
Auto-Ordnance, West Hurley, also produced their 1927A1 and 1928 models in calibers other than .45 ACP. The museum displays an example chambered in 10mm. A few others were made in 9mm. Few of these examples still exist.
Since the beginning of production in 1975 by Auto-Ordnance, West Hurley, commemorative models were produced for the public. Most of these were commissioned by the American Historical Foundation to honor everything from the “Roaring Twenties” to Viet Nam veterans. The museum’s example was made for the Army Veterans of World War Two.
Kahr Arms purchased Auto-Ordnance and has continued the production of the Thompson semiautomatic carbines. The NRA museum displays an example of the “commando” model that is a parkerized finished M1927A1 with dark painted wood grips and stock. Auto-Ordnance/Kahr has also continued the production of the M1 semiautomatic carbine, the Lightweight Model of 1927A1 with aluminum receiver and trigger frame, and the M1927A1 with blued finish and steel receiver. All of these models are part of the museum’s exhibit. Production of these firearms began in January 1999. These firearms allow re-enactors and collectors a chance to enjoy the ownership of a Thompson without the paperwork and expense necessary to own a full automatic firearm.
In 2003, Auto-Ordnance/Kahr Arms began producing the Model SBR (Short Barrel Rifle) built on a semiautomatic configuration. These guns still require federal registration as a short barreled rifle as the barrel length is less than 16 inches.
Still other cases display the many canvas accessories of the Thompson and modern miniature Thompsons created by several makers. Examples of the miniature Thompsons on display are a Model M1 and M1928 Thompson built by Edmond H. de la Garrigue in the 1960s, in one-half scale. Also displayed is a one-quarter scale Thompson by H. Khopp and, the finest of miniatures, a one-third scale Model of 1928 built by David Kucer. Both of these examples feed and extract a dummy cartridge.
In conclusion, “On the Side Of Law And Order” is a must see event. For not only are the numerous models of Thompsons mentioned in this article displayed, but every major accessory imaginable. This is truly the complete story of the Thompson. Originally scheduled to be open to the public until the end of December 2004, the exhibit has been extended to be open to the middle of March, 2005. The Thompson Collectors Association and the NRA both deserve high praise for the work and presentation of this landmark display.
If your can’t make it to the exhibit, you can get a full color, 36 page exhibit catalog that mixes historical images with lavish photography and descriptive text. There is also a handsome 18×24 inch poster commemorating the event. The poster is $10 plus $4.95 shipping and handling and the catalog is $10 plus $4.95 shipping and handling. Both are available through the NRA Foundation. To order a copy, contact the NRA Foundation (Dept. SAR), 11250 Waples Mill Road, Fairfax, VA 22030-7400 or phone (888) 467-2363 or http//:store.nrafoundation.org/foundation.
The museum, situated at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association of America at 11250 Waples Mill Road in Fairfax, Virginia, has made the exhibit possible through funding from the William B. Ruger Endowment, the National Firearms Museum Endowment of the NRA Foundation and the James H. Woods Foundation.
For more information about the National Firearms Museum, call 703-267-1600 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on The NRA Foundation, call 800-423-6894 or visit their web site: www.nrafoundation.org
The Thompson Collectors Association, established in 1990, publishes a quarterly newsletter and holds two Thompson shows annually For more information, contact: The Thompson Collectors Association, P.O. Box 8710, Newark, OH 43055.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V8N1 (October 2004)