Whether used by hero or villain, this is one iconic, badass firearm, even the fictional Captain America partner Bucky Barnes used with great effect on the silver screen.
It doesn’t matter who is firing it or if it’s just on display, the Thompson submachine gun is one wicked cool piece of firearms history. From prohibition era gangsters and outlaws to cops and WWII heroes, the Thompson has become a legitimate icon of American firearms lore and even mythology.
I recently held a Thompson (but didn’t get to fire it) and I have to say, yes, I did feel pretty badass just holding it and getting my picture taken with it.
Invented by John T. Thompson in 1918, the Thompson submachine gun fires a .45 ACP cartridge and was favored by soldiers and police officers facing bad guys for its accuracy and high rate of fire. But these are the same reasons that the bad guys carried Thompsons as well.
Made famous during the prohibition era, the “Chicago Typewriter,” as it was also known, was a favored weapon of gangsters. Two “Tommy Guns” – another nickname – were used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and became known as “the most famous murder weapons in the world” and “the gun that made the 1920s roar.”
The gun continued to make its presence felt during WWII, where it was relied upon by paratroopers, ranger battalions, special operations troops, tank crews and anyone who could get their hands on one. It was affectionately also known as the “Trench Broom” or simply as the Thompson by WWII soldiers.
There were of course several variations of the Thompson submachine gun, and it was used in many conflicts throughout the world. It has become a highly collectable firearm, and the Thompson reportedly carried by infamous Prohibition era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde sold for $130,000 at a 2012 auction.
Few things you can do with a firearm make you feel more badass than hip-firing a fully-automatic thompson submachine gun. This example is an M1A1, a simplification of the M1, which was a simplification of the Blish Lock models.
The Thompsons you see in gangster movies used a complex operating method with an H-shaped translating piece of bronze, but also early Thompsons are beautifully-made firearms with magnificent bluing, complex rear sights, finned barrels, compensators, removable stocks, exquisite wood furniture. All things that could make them pass as an artwork. But that all came at a price. Using an inflation calculator from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in today’s dollars, Thompsons were $2500. Obviously during wartime; resources, time, and money need to be conserved; so M1A1s were production-simplified, and the price was–again in today’s dollars– $616 in 1944.
To put this in perspective, the cost of an M4 Carbine today, based on a 2013 govt. contract is $642 per gun. So the M1A1 make up the lowest rung of the Thompson hierarchy, but they’re still very neat firearms.
While simplified, they’re still very effective. One thing you can’t say about the Thompson is they’re ineffective as a combat weapon. The rear site features a peep and a notch on the top, for longer-distance shooting. The front site is a simple post that’s not very succeptible to bending. It’s very stout, and as you can see, reinforced on both sides.
The controls of the Thompson are actually quite good as well. You use your right thumb to actuate the magazine release. Magazines lock in positively, and it is easy to run a thompson all things considered. Charging handle is reciprocating, of course, and is located on the right side of the receiver, although it is located on the top in earlier models. To put the gun on safer fire, you can actuate it with your thumb as well. This is quite natural, and it does feel like an AR-15, although the fire selector for Safe and Semi is a different selector.
So let’s throw another mag in and get to shooting.
It’s always funny when that happens.
One of the Thompson’s positives, is that it does use a double-stack, double-feed magazine, as opposed to an M3 greasegun, which is a single-feed magazine. You can also see here how the bolt slams home, and then I switch to auto real quick, and it does have a last-round bolt holdopen. Which is great!
So at this point, I thought it might be good to do a quick accuracy test, while kneeling at about 40 yards. I set the gun on semi and fired two five-shot groups. This is where the thompson’s heavy weight of 12 lbs or 5.5 kilos loaded helps the gun a bit. The bolt slamming forward has less of an effect on accuracy due to the weight, compared to other SMGs in its class, and this resulted in a pair of two 2.5-inch groups. Not bad, all things considered.
The thompson is also quick to bring up to your shoulder and lay rounds on targets. Again the weight results in low recoil and great accuracy, but the stock’s aggressive downward slant makes it very odd to shoulder. Mind you I’ve got a lot of experience with thompsons, but most people I hand this gun off to find it quite awkward.
As for some final thoughts: The Thompson was showing its age in WWII. But even the war-production M1A1s were very well-made firearms that a soldier could rely on. While the soldiers may have dreaded marching with the 12lb amalgamation of milled steel and walnut, they knew that it was a weapon that wouldn’t let them down. This is Al with TFB TV, thank you very much for watching.