The Terrific, Terrible Thompson


The M1921AC Thompson was the archetypal gangster gun. It spawned a genre.

Young men are hopelessly impressionable. It is this odd mystical combination of fitness, psychological malleability, and rank stupidity that makes 19-year-olds the best soldiers. With age comes wisdom. Wise men could not be cajoled into taking hills or clearing bombed-out buildings. Only young people do that.

One curious aspect of this bizarre character flaw was manifested during World War II. The kids who fought this unprecedented war were drawn predominantly from a few discrete year groups. Most of the American combatants were born between 1923 and 1925 inclusively. This generation was raised on Saturday afternoon movie serials.

While Hollywood offered the expected variety of Westerns, dramas, love stories and pirates, one of the most commercially reliable movie genres was that of the gangster. When the aforementioned generation piled into theaters, the nation was still reeling from the Great Depression. Watching James Cagney unlimber his Tommy gun kept young men enthralled.

When these young men answered their nation’s call and donned the uniform, they were trained on a variety of infantry weapons. One of these was the Thompson submachine gun. At 10 pounds empty and 32 inches long, the Thompson was ridiculously heavy in either of its major guises. Additionally, the design put the center of gravity much too far to the rear, while the ammo was both bulky and massive. Regardless, young soldiers coveted the things in a manner that, at times, approached unseemly.

he M1928A1 Thompson looked just like the previous M1921 but differed in its internals.

he M1A1 Thompson was the simplified military version used throughout World War II.

Practical Details

I had two buddies who did their time as grunts in Europe who said they never encountered a Thompson in the field. By contrast, one old hero I met in my medical clinic carried one for almost eight months at the very tip of the spear in Europe. He had originally been issued an M1 Garand. His Thompson was technically stolen.

My buddy got tagged for a night patrol and traded his M1 rifle out for an M1A1 Thompson from one of the gunners for the 37mm anti-tank gun that was attached to his infantry battalion. He said the 37mm gun was worthless against the advanced German tanks they faced, so the gun and its gunners spent all their time in the rear. When the patrol was complete, he just never gave it back.

The gun came with five 20-round magazines and no web gear. My buddy carried the magazines in the pockets of his field jacket along with a bunch of loose rounds. Whenever there was a lull in the action, he thumbed big fat .45 ACP cartridges into his magazines.

One of the more compelling anecdotes the man related was running his Thompson out of a moving half-track as his unit pushed through an occupied town. The engagement sounded strangely reminiscent of a similar scene in the epic war comedy movie “Kelly’s Heroes.” However, in my friend’s case, he was actually shooting people. He said the big stutter gun hit like a freight train downrange.

In one case, a German Landser rose from the rubble to draw a bead on the passing Americans. My friend said he triggered a burst that caught the man solidly amidship, throwing him backward like a rag doll. He said the German soldier was dead where he fell. They came back through the town the following day and passed by his corpse. He related this very matter-of-factly. This man helped liberate the death camps. He had very little use for Germans.

Young American men gravitated toward the Thompson for its sex appeal.

The Gun

John Taliaferro Thompson was the youngest full Colonel in the U.S. Army at the time of his promotion. While in uniform, he spearheaded the development of the .45 ACP cartridge, the M1903 Springfield rifle and the M1911 pistol. His initials, “JTT,” adorn the sides of many period military weapons dating back to his time as a military acceptance inspector.

Thompson led a team that designed the submachine gun that bore his name in response to the exigencies of trench warfare during WWI. The initial trade name was the Annihilator. The Auto-Ordnance Company later christened the gun the Thompson as a marketing gimmick.

The M1921 version was produced in a single lot of 15,000 by Colt’s Manufacturing. This was the classic gangster version with the top-mounted actuator, finned barrel, blued finish, detachable buttstock, vertical foregrip, and Cutts compensator. The subsequent M1928 looked exactly the same but ran a bit more slowly. The definitive military version was adopted in April of 1942 as the M1.

The M1 Thompson had a fixed buttstock, horizontal foregrip, fixed sights, and a smooth barrel. It also lacked the compensator, would not accept a drum magazine, and sported a right-sided charging handle. The subsequent M1A1 was slightly simplified with a fixed firing pin milled into the bolt face for ease of manufacture. All Thompsons fired .45 ACP rounds from the open bolt.

American dogfaces willingly humped these monstrous things across Europe and the Pacific, using them to clean out derelict buildings, hostile caves and deadly pillboxes. In so doing, these young men helped free the planet. It was such a privilege to call a few of these old heroes friends.

Special thanks to World War Supply for the cool replica gear used by our reenactor.

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