The Thompson submachine gun, more commonly known as the Tommy Gun, was one of the most revolutionary firearms ever manufactured. It let gangsters flood the dry streets of Chicago with beautiful alcohol, enabled our troops to kick ass all over the world, and actually helped our mailmen deliver our cable bills. For better or worse, it changed the way we shoot stuff. But aside from the fact that it fits perfectly into a violin case, how much do you know about it?
Here's a primer on one of the 1920s' most terrifying icons.
1. Before it was officially called the Thompson submachine gun, it was "The Annihilator"
Because it, well, annihilated everything. It utilized a 20- to 30-round magazine that would feed ammunition directly into the gun’s chamber at a rate of roughly 600-725 rounds per minute. Another early model, known as "The Persuader," utilized a belt-feed system, which delivered 50+ rounds at the same firing rate.
2. It had even cooler nicknames
As if its official names weren’t awesome enough, the Tommy Gun’s unofficial monikers included gems like, “The Trench Broom,” “The Chopper,” and our personal favorite, “The Chicago Organ Grinder.”
3. It saw action in almost every war until Vietnam
It was on the beaches of Normandy in WWII, the jungles of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, and even helped us sort things out in Korea in between. Yet, it was absent from the very war for which it was invented—WWI.
4. It completely changed the way our soldiers fought
The first ever “submachine gun,” the Thompson was invented to be small, lightweight, and deadly. It replaced the slower bolt-action rifles our soldiers had previously carried. Until the Thompson came along, a soldier’s best friend in close quarters was his bayonet.
5. The first batch of “Persuaders” for WWI was ready on Armistice Day
Those Austro-Hungarians got lucky!
6. The Thompson was publicly available but sales were miserable because it cost $200
At the time (1921), a new Ford automobile cost about $400. Turns out, the only people who could afford Tommy Guns were criminals.
7. It was marketed to police as the “Anti-Bandit Gun,” and “the safest gun to shoot in city streets”
Marketing sure has changed, hasn’t it?
8. Besides the cops, one of the Thompson’s biggest fans early on was the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Back before the term “going postal” was a thing, the postal service routinely armed its personnel to help prevent against attacks and robberies.
9. The Thompson went into commercial production the same year America adopted Prohibition
Its versatility, accuracy, and astoundingly fast firing rate made it as famous an accessory to prohibition-era gangsters as a three-piece pinstripe suit and goofy accent. Those same great features also made it a favorite among police and federal agents. Unfortunately, the whole “great gun for close-quarters shootouts in the streets” thing was true for everyone—bad guys included.
10. You could walk into any Chicago hardware store and buy or rent one
This was because police didn’t immediately notice the Thompson’s popularity among Chicago’s most nefarious crime bosses. What a time to be alive!
11. It was responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
While rumors that thousands of rounds were used in the massacre were heavily circulated among the public, in reality, only 70 rounds were fired (a 50-round drum and 20-round mag, along with two shotgun blasts). Yet, so much damage was done that the coroner basically reported that the victims were ripped apart by the bullets.
(Fun Fact: Frank Gusenberg, the only member who survived the massacre long enough to make it to the hospital, when questioned by the police about who shot him, said “Nobody shot me,” despite having 14 bullet holes in his body. It’s hard not to admire his omertà.)
12. The Thompson was bred to be the middle ground between a standard pistol and a full-on machine gun
It came with pistol grips and took standard .45 ACP bullets, but fired with the ferocity and accuracy of a machine gun. And, just like a machine gun, it scared the crap out of anyone who it was aimed at.
13. You’ll probably never own one
If you thought the $200 price tag for one of these bad boys in the 1920s was bad, you should hear what real ones go for these days. For a real, fully-automatic M1 Thompson, you can expect to pay anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, depending on condition, year, and documentation. And that’s before all the insane taxes and paperwork to be paid and filed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (Thanks NFA Act!).