The Thompson submachine gun. It was associated with thugs like Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson, but also with stalwart figures like J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis, and Chesty Puller.  Sir Winston Churchill was photographed with one, reportedly kept one in his limo during WWII, and was called a gangster by the Nazis for doing so.  In fiction, it was the primary weapon of Sergeant Rock in the comic books, and of Mike Hammer in Mickey Spillane’s “One Lonely Night.”

Now comes the book “Tommy Gun” by historian Bill Yenne. There are many books on this classic American firearm and my favorite has always been Bill Helmer’s “The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar,” but I have to say “Tommy Gun” ties the Helmer book in that respect.

Subtitled “How General Thompson’s Submachine Gun Wrote History,” the book proceeds to go into that history. The development, the financing, the byzantine workings of military ordnance adoption, and the instrument’s use in many countries and many wars, its use on both sides of the law in the USA, and more.

Yenne doesn’t seem to have been into this sort of thing until he started the book, but I give him credit for getting out there and shooting the damn thing, and rather accurately describing its handling characteristics. He dug deep into the gun’s history with surviving people who used it – with numerous accounts from American (and other) soldiers whose bacon it saved, and also the few surviving people who had been part of its manufacture and sale. He pays homage to Helmer, who decades ago wrote his definitive book after interviewing way more of those prime movers who were then alive.

I like Yenne’s writing style. My only beef is in “combat semantics”: he frequently refers to the Thompson’s “.45 caliber ACP” cartridge, when all of us in my world call it simply “.45 ACP” (Automatic Colt Pistol) and having established that, simply say “.45” thereafter. But that’s a picayune criticism for an author who can write such evocative and insightful sentences as “The tommy gun is not just a gun, it is an enduring artifact of American culture, with an image that has been crafted and massaged by popular culture for nearly a century.”

I particularly liked his positive portrayal of law-abiding American citizens who own and shoot Thompson submachine guns and similar full auto weapons. An old friend of mine who occasionally comments here is an ex-military man who paid $45,000 for his mint 1928 Thompson with all the trimmings.  I love America.

And I love the book “Tommy Gun” by Bill Yenne. Published in 2009 by Thomas Dunne Books, it should be available on Amazon and is worth way more than the $8 I was fortunate enough to pay for my second-hand copy at Half Price Books in San Antonio a few weeks ago. This book could be the foundation for an MBA thesis at Harvard Business School, a primer for young American soldiers preparing to go to war, or a topic for a writers’ seminar on how to make a topic of interest only to specialists and hobbyists appealing and usefully informative to the general public.


  1. I recall decades ago that someone figured out the most recognized firearm shapes world wide. IIRC, they were the Thompson, the MP40, the Luger P08, the 1911 and the Colt Single Action.

    Decades later, while I expect there’d be a few changes, the Thompson-in some configuration-would still be in there.

    Question: since the Thompson wasn’t exactly a commercial success until WWII, what’s the basis for the earlier book being a good subject for the Harvard Business School? Or are we talking about the book itself?

  2. I have been fortunate enough to fire a couple of Tommy Guns – one owned by a friend who used it and a bunch of other full auto guns (Sten, BAR, M1919, M60, MP5, etc.) to make another friend’s son’s 12th birthday a very memorable experience! The other one is one we have at our range in the rental inventory. As long as I pay for ammo, I can shoot it…

    And you mentioned Melvin Purvis – the Camden, SC, city museum has a couple of his guns (Colt snubbie and the 1911 that he accidentally killed himself with) as well as some of Dillinger’s guns, including his Tommy gun and a Parker sawed off double 12 ga. There are a lot of other very interesting firearms at the museum, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in guns and history visit it.

  3. I could draw any weapon from our arms room except one of the two Thompsons in there. They were scheduled for depot level demill. Such a sad waste.

  4. An old friend of mine who occasionally comments here is an ex-military man who paid $45,000 for his mint 1928 Thompson with all the trimmings. I love America.
    And it still resides safely here in the front range of Colorado. Have added extra spare barrels and various key parts… just in case. Mare’s Sterling MKIV has a suppressor now and is fun to shoot also. I remember your M3A1 at LFI-III back in the day and imagine you have cared for it over the decades and it is still running. Lots of books on TSMG here Mas including the late Gordon Herigstad’s massive book of their serial numbers. Be safe.

  5. It would be righteous if those who’ve lost a loved one/child due to a school shooting could remember/ use the shooter’s name instead of “… killed by that horrible weapon” …

    • I’d prefer that those who have committed horrible acts of violence never had their name spoken again – they are often seeking fame and recognition, and I do not want to oblige them in that regard. But yes, no need to mention the type of gun in an effort to push an anti-gun agenda.

      • Spot on in the matter of NOT mentioning the perp’s name. Let him be referred to as the killer at _________, or whatever. This is one place where “cancel culture” is justly applied.

        Deny them the “glory” of being mentioned.

      • If memory serves, the Romans called the practice “Damnatio Memoriae,” and it served them well.

    • I agree with Tom – those who commit heinous acts should be erased from history as quickly as is possible . But I certainly agree with the point you are making. If guns kill people, do pencils misspell words?

  6. Thanks for the writeup, Mas. I’ve been a fan of Bill Yenne ever since he partnered with Robert Redding on “Boeing: Planemaker to the World” when I was a boy almost 40 years ago, and it’s good to see that all these years later he still had the touch. (And a fan of the Thompson almost as long; spending most of my formative years with my veteran grandfather meant a steady diet of the “Three G’s” (Gangsters, G-men and GI’s) of the TSMG–it is rather telling that while the White House was being renovated and Truman was crashing at Blair House, the very first words of the USSS Special Agent in Charge upon notification of the Nov 1, 1950 attack were “Where’s my Thompson?”

    I’ve had the privilege of handling a couple Thompsons back in college thanks to an 07/SOT gunsmith friend, and a drum dump… well it’s the kind of thing everybody should have the chance to experience once in your life; there aren’t words to describe the feeling of history in your hands when the Chicago Piano clatters out its lead concerto. (There actually is something musical in the sound of the mechanism of an old 1921 or 1928…)

    As an aside, have you ever considered doing historical writing yourself? The bits you’ve woven into your various “practical” books tying then and now together make me believe you’d have the skills to make a History course Not Suck, maybe if a community college offered an LE History course as part of a Criminal Justice program.

    • Diamondback, most of my historical writing has been in the Ayoob Files series in American Handgunner magazine. There’s also some in my book “Massad Ayoob Combat Shooting” from the Gun Digest folks, should be available on Amazon. I did the community college thing in the 1970s (teaching weapons and chemical agents in the Advanced Police Training Program at Nashua Vo-Tech, but travel schedule eventually made that impossible. I could do the part-time cop thing working around the travel schedule, but not regular weekly classes.

      • I know the column well, sir; regular reader, even used it to help turn some mild anti-gunners in college so long ago. 🙂 “Combat Shooting” is alongside “Book of Combat Handgunnery” and “Book of Concealed Carry” in my “Always Keep Two Copies” list, though I’ve evolved over these 15-20 years to “hardcopy for loaner, digital on a USB for me.”

        I also remember a couple collected “Ayoob Files: The Book” volumes, and was thinking something in the vein of your take on Wyatt Earp as “the first modern LEO” might be interesting to explore how LE evolved into what it is today. Might even help those outside the community understand the LEO world a little better, like the “ride-along” you did where you took us through a match in Book of Combat Handgunnery. (While my discipline is Military History, I also have to credit you for influence on my own teaching styles and philosophies.)

    • Chicago Piano? I’ve heard the Thompson referred to as the Chicago Typewriter, but never the Chicago Piano.
      John Mohan
      Chicago, Illinois

  7. Went to a LE firearms instructor school back in 1997. We had a half day shooting nothing but various full auto shoulder guns for general familiarity. UZI, MAC-10, MP-5, etc… By far the most popular with the student candidates was the opportunity to shoot the Tommy gun. They had the drum magazine and stick magazines. What surprised me the most was how HEAVY the gun was compared to the other full autos firearms we shot. Of course, the advantage to all that weight was easy recoil management by the shooter.

  8. My granddad who was a WW 1 veteran worked as an armored car courier in Canada for a period after the war before becoming a career railroad man with the CNR. They had a Tommy gun assigned to each car and would periodically go to shoot at an old gravel pit for proficiency. One day a Mountie pulled up and quizzed them about what they were doing there (Canada was fine then re: gun laws) but when offered the chance to fire the beast the lawman declined and made a quick exit!

  9. For one reason or another the Thompson was pretty much a Cadillac-level SMG that was superseded by the more pedestrian M3 “Grease Gun.” The Thompson seems often to have remained the weapon of choice, though, for close combat or guarding groups of prisoners. The M3 was very popular with GI’s in places like the Korean DMZ. The side-loading SMG’s like the Sterling, Sten, and especially the Steyr-Solothern M-34 have always been intriguing to me. Maybe somewhat more conducive to shooting from prone than the vertical-mag guns. One of these days I will find a range with all kinds of SMG types and spend a payday trying out the different types.

  10. The first time I held a Thompson was at a friend’s gun shop. He had a semiauto version complete with a drum magazine a few stick magazines in a case that resembled a fiddle case. Always enjoy your articles.

  11. I have several books written by Bill Yenne in the aviation category and enjoyed all of them and will probably get his book on the Thompson SMG mentioned here.

    Back in the early 1980’s when I lived in Colorado, the was a gun store called the Foothills Shooting Center in Denver which had a modest inventory of class 3 firearms. Among those was an excellent condition 1928 Thompson SMG in a FBI hard case with two type L magazines and three 20 round box magazines. The asking price was $7,000. I had considered buying it but $7K was a lot of money back then. Looking back now, I should have borrowed the money and gotten that Thompson which should be worth over $50K now in that condition.

    • Don’t we all, sir; don’t we all. If five-year-old me had known what was coming, I would’ve asked Grandpa to buy one, even a crappy Numrich West Hurley, and put it in a family trust.

  12. I had the pleasure of shooting a full auto Tommy gun, many years ago. I found it easier to control than than the UZI or the S&W 76, undoubtedly because it heavier. The Thompson was a joy to shoot, and much easier for a full-auto novice to shoot accurately.

    • That they are, sir–in semi, they might as well be just a very big, very heavy, more docile 1911. With a few rounds of practice, it doesn’t take long to learn to squeeze off single rounds even with the selector on Full Auto. (I was a complete Long Gun virgin when I had my shoot, which I still consider “best Christmas present ever.”)

      Sorry, Mas, don’t mean to crap up your comment thread but you flipped the Nerd Switch to Full Auto here… 🙂

  13. As an aside, just to open up a spitball… if we were going to try to design a “Thompson 21” update, given that the TSMG is as much a psychological weapon for its fearsome reputation as for its terminal-ballistics performance, how would we modernize the old warhorse to incorporate new technology while still keeping classic lines?

    An obvious start point would be move to the T-shaped ambi charging handle planned for the unbuilt M3 TSMG concept making way for a rail-mount optic on top, maybe redesign the handguard to use polymer and incorporate a couple M-LOK or 1913 sections to mount light and laser. Maybe beef up the mechanism to handle modern +P, or the hotter loads like .45 Super/.450 SMC–if memory serves, one of the last full-auto runs in 1986 was chambered for 10mm, so it might just be a matter of “stick to steel receivers” there. (Then again, IIRC those 10mm’s were intended for the FBI MINUS-P load, not full-power Norma spec.)

    • The first thing I would do is redesign the buttstock which has too much drop for the sights and it also makes the gun climb more than necessary when firing full auto. The model 1923 version’s stock is much better. I would also make both grips smaller for average sized hands. The designer of the Thompson SMG Oscar Payne must have had hands the size of a NBA player. Making the original wooden parts out of carbon fiber with a wood finish would reduce a lot of unnecessary weight. A titanium receiver would be nice too, but add a lot of cost to the gun. The Thompson SMG made in 10mm or 9X25 Dillon would be very effective.

  14. Mine was made in June of 1921, I will do a c drum dump in a couple of days to commemorate. Thank 6ou General Thompson.

    • Do it again on July 4, 2021, although our battered country is not what it used to be since it’s now run by Communist friendly swamp creatures in D.C.

  15. Had an M1928 Thompson in my armory on the ship I served on, fired it many times, and even carried it, minus the removable buttstock, on a little “clandestine” mission we went on.

  16. I finally bought the semi auto version just after Newtown, CT incident. NFA items (including suppressors) were not available to this mere mortal in my then Happy Blue State of residence.

    I was in a gun store and saw this absolutely beautiful Chicago Typewriter on the wall. I always, wanted one. The legislature was considering new laws that would make even the semi version a 10 year minimum mandatory sentence without possibility of parole. And it was a stunning modern semi auto incarnation of the gun I could not justify buying even if legally permitted. Or able to find one for sale. (And then there would have been the inevitable divorce …)

    I was triply (sic) motivated to own it. Amazing stock, bluing, detachable stock, 10, (20 or 30) and 50 round drum … perfect!.

    I asked to see it and handed over the plastic without even asking the price. A week later I picked it up. I wondered if I would ever shoot it, how I could display it safely, how to tell the wife (didn’t) and so on.

    Well …
    A week later I get a call from the son of the owner. He says there is a recall on the gun & I have to bring it back. He is rather intensely insistent. I finally get him to say it is a recall on the bolt. I say I will pull it and bring it in. He says no, must be the whole gun. I tell him I cannot bring it in until next week. “No. It MUST be today”. So an hour later I present at the store.he opens the case and his dad walks by … “Yup. SBR.”.

    They sold me a SBR version (14 inch barrel). No NFA paperwork, no BATFE involved.

    It broke my heart I could not even offer to go through the paperwork to keep it.

    I no longer live in such a Happy Blue State.

    • If I were to make a SBR version of the 1928 Thompson, I would make it with the original barrel length of around 10″. At one time, Auto Ordnance marketed a pistol version of the 1928 without a buttstock and no provision to mount one. They also catalogued a lightweight 1928 pistol version with an aluminum receiver and a M1 model with 16″ barrel too.

      • The original 1927A5 had a 13″ barrel so it would make the 26″ length to have a VFG option–today’s is IIRC the 10.5 of the SBR and WWII-style forearm-only on the same no-stock frame of the original.

  17. The best outcome of this weapon is the use of of musical instrument cases for transportation and storage. Embracing Ayoob’s ‘don’t spook the horses’ philosophy, what better way to deliver a Benelli M4 to the airline check-in than in a locked Fender Stratocaster hard case? A Glock 19 in a Buffet Crampon Bb clarinet case? Lots of possibilities considering those gnarly tactical black plastic cheese shredder boxes may send the wrong message.

    “There’s too much violins on TV”. -Emily Litella

  18. Back around 1980, I had a local gun store order me a semi-auto version of the 1928 Thompson from Auto Ordnance shortly after reading William J. Helmer’s book, The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar which I found for $7 at a used book store. I had high expectations for this rifle and was greatly disappointed by it’s low quality. The first indicator that I got a lemon was when I flipped up the rear sight and it wouldn’t stay up vertically, but drooped at a 45 degree angle and flopped around loosely. The rifle would not feed anything but ball ammo and was not accurate, producing 25 yard slow fire groups from a bench rest of 6″+ which was not helped by it’s over 10 lb gritty trigger pull. I tried handloaded ammo using hard cast round nosed lead bullets and Remington factory jacketed HP with a round nose profile, but these would not feed more than two consecutive rounds without jamming. I finally sold the rifle for 2/3 what I paid for it. Maybe I got the one bad gun out of thousands made by Auto Ordnance. I have not owned another since.

    Maybe one day when I win the Super Mega Powerball Jackpot Lottery, I may buy an actual 1928 Thompson SMG with type L magazine and a violin case to carry it in, just for the heck of it.

    • West Hurleys are almost universally disdained in the TSMG community, at least the guys I knew on the Iannamico board 20 years ago in college. Kahrs were not regarded much better, but if a gun can be made to work and they’re still around Paul Krogh (Diamond K; base gun), Dan Block (wood components) and Merle Bitikofer (Drum Doctor) were the three men you’d call to try to turn a sow’s-ear gun into a silk purse.

  19. Only had one opportunity to shoot one. Theoretically full auto but couldn’t get more than two rounds off before it malfed. Bad maintenance, I think. It was a FBI gun.

  20. One of the most iconic weapons every made. “A tommy gun” was at one time was a synonym for submachine gun.

    But, armchair general time, it was an overly complicated weapon to manufacture i.e. an Edwardian weapon in an age of mass production warfare. Apparently each Thompson the British Army took cost over four pounds sterling, the cheap n’ cheerful (or cheap n’ nasty) Sten gun cost thirty shillings, which meant you could get two or three Stens for the price of one Thompson.

    Still an iconic gun though.

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