This is one of the most iconic firearms in American history. In 1919, Colonel John T. Thompson began producing a .45-caliber submachine gun that was a cross between a standard pistol and a fully automatic machine gun. It was designed to be small, lightweight and lethal.
The Thompson was popular with both law enforcement and gangsters. Photo by Michael Ives
The manufacture of these Thompson firearms coincided with the beginning of Prohibition in America. They quickly became popular with law enforcement, who appreciated the gun’s versatility and accuracy—attributes that would also make the Thompson gun a favorite among gangsters. At a cost of $200—compared to a new Ford automobile at $400—perhaps criminals were the only civilians who could afford them.
The “gun that made the ‘20s roar” is often referred to as the “Tommy Gun.” Other nicknames have included “Chicago Typewriter,” “Annihilator,” “Trench Broom” and “Chicago Organ Grinder.”
This particular Thompson submachine gun is a Colt Model 1921 that was donated by George Whitehead, a 25-year law-enforcement veteran. This gun and many others and can be seen at the NRA National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va.