The decade following World War I was one of unprecedented prosperity that saw the nation’s wealth nearly double. For the first time, more Americans were living in urban areas than on farms. The Roaring Twenties gave birth to the age of jazz and new independence for women. It was also a decade spent under Prohibition, through which speakeasies and organized crime thrived. In the ’20s, the gun of choice for both officers and criminals alike was the Thompson submachine gun.
This is perhaps one of the most iconic firearms of American history. The Thompson had acquired the nickname “Tommy Gun” early on, and the name stuck. Auto-Ordnance recognized the value of the nickname and soon patented it. Thompsons were referred to as Tommy Guns both in and out of military service, and the term became almost generic for all submachine guns.
The Thompson was the only submachine gun in mass production in any of the allied nations during the early days of World War II. In 1938, the Thompson submachine gun was adopted by the U.S. military and was used by Allied troops as a weapon for scouts, non-commissioned officers (corporal, sergeant and higher), and patrol leaders, as well as commissioned officers, tank crewmen, and soldiers performing raids on German positions.
The Tommy Gun was the ideal firearm for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc. It was a compact, tremendously powerful yet simply operated machine gun that weighed only seven pounds and had only 30 parts. The full automatic could be fired from the hip and was capable of dispensing 1,500 shots per minute.
This particular Tommy Gun was donated to the National Firearms Museum by George Whitehead, a 25-year law enforcement veteran. It’s a Colt Model 1921 with a Type L 50-round drum magazine and four 20-round box magazines. Billed by the manufacturer as “the most effective portable firearm in existence,” this firearm is in mint condition, fresh off the factory lines, and has been preserved and displayed in the law enforcement case.
Following a military career, Brigadier General John T. Thompson became president of the Auto Ordnance Corporation in 1920, and was in charge of engineering for the invention, manufacture and inspection of his gun. In 1921, on order from the Auto Ordnance Corporation, 15,000 Thompson submachine guns were manufactured by Colt’s Patent Fire Army Manufacturing Company.