The history of Thompson “Tommy” guns at war

The trench sweeper has been around for over a hundred years.
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
Soldiers both past and present firing the Thompson submachine gun.
Soldiers both past and present have been trained on firing the Thompson submachine gun. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens. Task & Purpose composite image)

Tom Hanks famously depicted Captain John Miller in “Saving Private Ryan” toting his trusty Thompson submachine gun — “Tommy gun” — from the beaches of Normandy far into the interior of France in 1944. 

Though the history of the Thompson submachine gun predates World War II, it didn’t see significant use until then. It is a trailblazer for automatic firearms, which were sometimes avoided during World War I because of concerns that the rapid rate of fire would throw off accuracy. 

But, ask any WWII veteran who carried that submachine gun, and they’d likely argue it was an instrumental weapon of war that helped the Allied forces achieve victory. Unfortunately, it also gained fame as the preferred choice of gangsters and bank robbers in America. 

This firearm has a lot of history behind it, and it’s still around today in the U.S. military, local gun ranges, and auctions for historical items.

History of the ‘Tommy Gun’

The ‘Tommy Gun’ was not the first submachine gun or the first automatic weapon for that matter. The Germans invented the Bergman MP18, with a 32-round snail drum, in 1918. But the Thompson submachine gun followed shortly after.

Retired Army Ordnance officer Brig. Gen. John Taliaferro Thompson filed his patent on Dec. 2, 1920. Taliaferro received patent number US1425810A almost two years later. Thompson originally designed the firearm for WWI trench warfare, nicknaming it the trench broom or trench sweeper. But, militaries weren’t interested due to concerns about its range and accuracy. 

The Thompson submachine gun weighs over ten pounds when fully loaded. It came with straight box magazines with capacities of 20 or 30 .45 ACP ammunition. It also had 50 or 100-round drums available for the later models, though they did not work with the early M1A1 version. The first model was built and ready for battle by 1921.

A prototype belt-fed version of the Thompson submachine gun was worked on, but the belt’s bolt feed rate was too fast, and frequent stoppages occurred. So, the prototype known as the “Persuader” didn’t make the cut. 

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That didn’t stop gangsters in America from using it before WWII kicked off. It’s one of the primary firearms used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a vicious gang-related murder that left seven men dead. Al Capone’s men are believed to have carried out the attack, though it was never proven.  

Trench warfare often includes close-quarters fighting, and the Tommy gun was the perfect replacement for the old, longer rifles that stretched out five feet with the bayonet attached. Though the Tommy gun became infamous in the hands of both cops and gangsters, it saw action in the hands of U.S. Marines during the Banana Wars in Nicaragua and China before WWII.  

Hollywood’s depiction of the Thompson submachine gun

Michael Jackson rocked the Thompson submachine gun in the 1988 blockbuster movie “Moonwalker.” Gangsters toted the infamous firearm throughout the 2009 movie “Watchmen,” and you can’t watch a WWII movie or series without seeing at least one Tommy gun in action.

“Saving Private Ryan” is one of the most famous movies you’ll see the Thompson submachine gun in. Tom Hanks plays Capt. John Miller, who, in the movie, led Rangers from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day into the heart of France in search of a missing soldier.

Hanks totes his trusty Tommy gun, letting loose a burst of .45 ACP into armored vehicles, clearing bunkers, or leading a charge against an entrenched Nazi force. But it’s not the last time Hanks implemented the prop version of the Thompson submachine gun. 

In the 2002 movie “Road to Perdition,” Hanks plays the role of Mike Sullivan, a mob enforcer for the infamous John Looney. We won’t spoil the movie, but you can use your imagination on what a “mob enforcer” might need a Tommy gun for.

How has the Thompson submachine gun stayed relevant?

The short answer is that it’s no longer relevant after the advent of modern short-barrel semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles. But the Thompson submachine gun stuck around for much longer than anyone expected. 

Richard Cutts designed the muzzle brake, nicknamed the “Cutts Compensator,” that put the Thompson submachine gun on the map. The compensator was a cost-effective way to keep the barrel of the SMG from rising with a succession of rounds. This helped with the initial accuracy issues found in the prototype testing phase. 

But the relatively short and light build of the firearm itself enabled it to be the effective as the close-quarters combat weapon it was designed to be. The M3 submachine gun, known as the “grease gun,” was created to replace the Tommy gun, but service members were reluctant despite the new SMG weighing less.  

The U.S. military’s most significant issue with the Thompson submachine gun was the cost of building it, and the skilled craftsmen needed to machine it. So when the grease gun came around, it was a much cheaper and faster SMG to build and deliver to the front lines. 

The Tommy guns remained in service up until the 1970s. The U.S. Navy used them as a means to defend ships, while infantry forces carried them during both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Both American troops and their allies utilized the firearm. 

It was phased out as the M14 and M16 gained popularity. You won’t see many of them in use today, except for maybe as a tourist attraction at your local shooting range. But there’s no denying that the Thompson submachine gun impacted both the development of firearms and American culture during the 20th century.

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