Documentation is Everything: Rediscovering a Notorious Gangster’s Tommy Gun

With more than 18,000 members and 81 years of history behind it, the Ohio Gun Collectors Association is one of – if not the – oldest and largest gun collector groups in the United States. Every year, they host an Annual Display Show and their members bring out the big guns (figuratively and literally) for some remarkable displays. This year, I was honored to serve as one of the display judges.

One of the display took up 20 feet of table space but displayed only one gun: a Colt Model 1921 Thompson submachine gun in great shape except for two spots on the side and bottom of the gun where someone had taken a grinder and removed the serial number. In its place on the side is a crudely stamped new serial number assigned to the gun during the 1968 amnesty period.

The current owner purchased it as a shooter rather than a collector piece because of its condition. On a whim, however, he took the barrel off to check for a serial number in the 3rd place where they’re marked, which is not as readily accessible.

There, he found the original serial number: 5487.

That began a long, multi-year search involving original shipping records, newspapers from the 1930s, copies of police interviews, and a FOIA request.

What emerged was nothing short of remarkable. The current owner was now in possession of no mere “shooter grade” gun. Instead, he had documented proof that the gun had been part of a shipment that ended up in the hands of notorious gangster “Baby Face” Nelson. (The entire story is too long to re-tell here.)

Too damn cool.

(Note: photography is heavily restricted at OGCA shows. The above photograph of me and the gun was taken by the owner of that remarkable piece of gangster history.)

comments

  1. avatar Ogre says:

    Very cool, indeed! Hope you enjoyed holding “Baby Face” Nelson’s Tommy gun. When I was in Vietnam, I had a little experience with the 1940 Thompson SMG, so I can relate. It also reminds me of the time I was visiting the U.S. Marine Band (The President’s Own) in Washington DC to donate an historical piece of music, and the Band Historian opened the safe and took out John Philip Sousa’s silver baton (given him by the Band when he retired from the Marine Corps in 1892) and let me hold it. So I can understand the big smile on Mr. Metesh’s face as he hold’s Nelson’s SMG.

  2. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    That is way too cool.
    If you can, you should write up the long version.

  3. It’s a shame all the Model 1921 and 1928 Thompson sub-machineguns of pre-World
    War II (1939-1945) vintage didn’t instead end up in the hands of the Allied nations in the
    aforementioned conflict. Whether carried by a U.S. Army or Marine Corp. infantryman,
    Navy or Coast Guard Seaman, or even a British or Canadian Army solider or commando,
    these Thompsons would have served with valor against the Axis forces. Even for the
    Korean War (1950-1953), and early stages of the Vietnam War (1961-1975). Only with the advent of the M-14 and later M-16 rifle did the Thompson sub-machinegun become
    obsolete in the U.S. Armed Forces. It’s a pity the gangster use of the Thompson is what history remembers. Bear in mind too the vast preponderance of Model 1921 and 1928 Thompsons were not in the hands of gangsters, criminals, and mobsters. Aside from the military most were utilized by the FBI, U.S.Secret Service, Customs, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Border Patrol, not to mention various state police and highway patrolmen, deputy sheriffs, and city police officers.

    1. avatar barnbwt says:

      It was probably less than a dozen high profile incidents that earned the guns their notoriety (no different than ‘assault weapons’ of today). Same with silencers. Then as now, cheap & concealable ruled the day; a Thompson is neither, but is a cool status symbol for guys like Capone to show off to their buddies.

      (and the St V Day Massacre was totally perpetrated with police weapons & likely by police officers, you gotta be a fool to buy the official storyline for a good number of reasons)

    2. avatar Richard says:

      It’s also a shame that U.S. citizens donated their own personal Thompson’s (and other guns) to the British to use in defense of dear old England and, after the War, instead of returning the guns to their owners, the Brits destroyed the guns.

      I am glad to see that this historic firearm has survived, to be enjoyed by its current owner.

      1. Thanks Richard for reminding us of this damnable anti-gun injustice. After Dunkirk the Brits lost a large
        supply of weapons. This led to the development of the 9mm Sten sub-machinegun. On a related note
        too bear in mind the 900 day German siege of Leningrad from September 1941 to January 1944. Despite
        the deaths of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants inside and around the city situated on Lake Lagoda,
        there was spirited resistance against the occupying Axis forces. Thus the PPs-43 sub-machinegun
        (Soviet) chambered in 7.62mm/.30 caliber Tokarev. Unfortunately the PPs-43, along with the PPsh-41,
        in the hands of the murderous Soviet NKVD became a weapon of mass execution, including against
        innocent Russian civilians and Red Army Soldiers: the latter if they were caught defecting or deserting.
        The NKVD were as bad, if not worse, than Nazi Germany’s dreaded SS and Gestapo!

  4. avatar Delmar O'Donnell says:

    “Oh, George… not the livestock!”

    1. avatar Rusty Chains says:

      Loved the movie, but he didn’t live to “ride the lightning!”

  5. avatar ironicatbest says:

    My how times have changed, my great uncle owned a Tommy gun, all he did was go to some store and buy it, no paper work, no regs. Dad said he got it because of the riots n Chicago and he was a scab( didn’t belong to union) truck driver. Ironically when great uncle Joe was once blockaded he just ran them over with his truck, so I was told.

  6. avatar Nanashi says:

    A remarkable piece of gangster history Wayne LaPierre doesn’t want you to have.

    1. avatar Chris T from KY says:

      You are so correct. Unfortunately there are many so called “people of the gun”, who agree with Wayne.

      The bump stock issue is a perfect example. Rich white guys will always have a rapid fire gun. But the regular person can’t afford a real machine gun.
      The bump stock ban will not disarm rich machine gun owners.

      The Machine Gun Act was passed in a voice vote only. The democrat controlled congress lied and said it passed. I watched the released video of the vote. It was a fraud.

  7. avatar Geoff PR says:

    “In its place on the side is a crudely stamped new serial number assigned to the gun during the 1968 amnesty period.”

    What a *marvelous* idea!

    (Paging John Boch. John Boch to the white TTAG courtesy phone, please. We have a proposal for your 2A legislative committee…)

  8. avatar John J. M says:

    I don’t know very much about this Nelson guy, I’ll bet though he was just a low-life scumbag who needed to be locked up and kept away from normal people.

  9. avatar Gun Owning American says:

    Awesome, please do write up the long version.

  10. avatar Glen says:

    I too have a Thompson with the original
    Serial number ground off when the Navy
    Auctioned it and a few more, the Chicago
    Police Department I was told bought all of them. I think one of the Gun Magazines
    Did an article on these guns in the early 1980’s
    I think it was Guns and Ammo magazine.
    Does anyone know anything about these
    1928 Thompson’s ? Thanks Glen

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