There are very few truly iconic firearms, ones that the lay public as well as gun nuts can identify at first sight. Not only are those instantly recognizable guns a perfect representation of the era in which they were designed and first used, but they have a look and feel all their own that sets them apart from the rest of the firearms world. They’re ambassadors for their era, giving us a unique insight into the mindset and the technology of their time. And in my opinion, only four firearms make the cut: the M16, the Glock, the AK-47, and the Thompson SMG. Until recently, I had never fired the last one on that list. But thanks to Kevin Brittingham, that oversight has recently been corrected . . .
To understand the Thompson SMG, you need to start at the beginning of the story.
The realities of trench warfare during World War I were simply too much for the technology of the time. Guns had developed based on the idea of the traditional European battlefield, with tightly choreographed regiments of soldiers marching in formation, all firing in unison. Firing faster was an interesting concept, but even though Maxim’s machine guns had been around since 1889, it was only very recently that they had been adopted in large numbers by the armies of the world.
Even then, they were more like fixed artillery pieces instead of portable force multipliers. So when a single round from an FN Model 1910 touched off the powder-keg of Europe, the primary weapon in the hands of the average soldier was still a bolt action rifle designed for pitched battles in open fields. What they found instead was that their accurate long-range rifles were simply too big and too slow to be an effective weapon in the confines of an enemy trench.
General John T. Thompson recognized the issue immediately. The average soldier needed a weapon that was compact enough to not get tangled up when fighting in a trench, but accurate enough to hit targets some distance away. It needed to fire multiple rounds of ammunition in quick succession, but be simple enough that the average soldier could clean it and disassemble it without losing the important parts in the mud of France. It needed to have as little recoil as possible, but project enough lead to kill the enemy. It needed to be perfect, and Thompson had a solution.
The first version of the Thompson Submachine Gun didn’t have a stock. While gun control advocates of today wrongly claim that the AR-15 was designed to be fired from the hip, the Thompson SMG actually was. It could be fired while aiming down the sights, but when clearing a trench “point shooting” from the hip was a more effective method.
For the ammunition, Thompson chose the .45 ACP cartridge. The U.S. Army had recently adopted John Browning’s Model 1911 handgun as the replacement for their Single Action Army models, and since Thompson envisioned his gun being used at the same distances as the M1911 was intended to be used it only made sense that they used the same ammunition. At the time, shoulder fired firearms were almost always chambered in a full size rifle cartridge of some sort, with an emphasis on long range “stopping power” being a key requirement in the design. But Thompson understood that in order to keep the gun controllable in such tight quarters, he needed to use a cartridge with much less recoil. And the .45 ACP was an existing and accepted design already in the arsenal of the U.S. Government.
The operating mechanism was the final link in the chain that made the gun ideal for the conditions in France, and made it possible for the average soldier to use it. Instead of adapting one of Browning or Thompson’s gas piston systems to make the firearm automatically reload the firearm while firing, Thompson showed his true genius by adapting the recently discovered Blish principle to make the first blowback operated firearm.
John Blish’s discovery that two dissimilar metals would create an abnormal amount of friction when under pressure allowed Thompson to design a gun where the friction between the brass case of the cartridge and the steel of the chamber would keep the barrel sealed long enough for the projectile to exit the barrel, and then that pressure from the barrel would provide the rearward force required to cycle the bolt. It was a genius concept on par with any of Browning’s designs.
The only problem was that by the time the gun was ready, the war was over. Peace had broken out all across the world, and there was no need to clear any more trenches. So Thompson did what any self respecting capitalist would do: he threw a stock on it and sold it to the American public.
This is where the Thompson SMG starts to influence history in more ways that one. Throughout the 1920’s and the prohibition era, the Thompson was the weapon of choice for gangsters. The ease with which one could be concealed and the firepower it wielded was previously impossible to accomplish. As a result, gangsters and law enforcement officers bought the guns in droves. The gun’s identity as the weapon of gangsters was cemented in history after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre near Chicago where it was used to gun down five rival mobsters. That event was the tipping point in the politics of the day, and would eventually lead to the 1934 National Firearms Act which would kick off the drive for gun control in the United States.
The Thompson SMG had already earned its place in history as the firearm that caused the first national gun control legislation to be passed, but the story doesn’t end there.
In many ways, the Thompson and its history reflects the character of the boys sent overseas to fight in World War II — scrappy dogfaces with lots of fight and some mischief in their background who were shipped out to do a job and do it well. That interesting parallel alone is enough to give it its iconic status, but the gun’s performance in combat leaves no doubt.
The Marine Corps had been using the Thompson SMG for years before WWII started, but after the United States entered the war, the Thompson finally was placed in full production to stock the arsenals of the United States. While it may have come along too late for the first great war, the Thompson SMG proved to be one of the most effective and desired firearms in the hands of U.S. soldiers around the world. Some even argue that had the Thompson not been in the hands of American soldiers, we might not have won the war.
The Thompson SMG I fired was a later model, introduced for the soldiers in WWII and simplified to make the manufacturing process easier. Gone were the drum magazines and ladder sights of the earlier models. Instead, a fixed peep sight and straight 30-round magazines were introduced. The elaborate vertical foregrip was also removed and replaced with a more traditional handguard design. And while you may think that this makes the gun less controllable, you’re dead wrong.
The choice of caliber and the weight of the gun make this one of the lightest recoiling firearms I’ve ever fired. The gun just doesn’t move, even during sustained full-auto fire. The only time when there is any appreciable recoil, as evidenced by the video, is when the heavier modern loads slam the bolt all the way to the end of its travel and make it slam into the back of the receiver. Otherwise, the moving mass of the bolt keeps the recoil extremely light.
While the recoil is downright pleasant, the ergonomics aren’t so much. The gun was designed to be fired from the hip and you can feel it when you shoulder the gun. I’m a pretty big guy and the gun felt big and bulky in my hands. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like in the hands of my relatively malnourished and stunted grandparents when they shipped out. Plus, the angle of the stock compared to the action was extremely awkward and didn’t provide a good cheek weld at all.
Despite the poor ergos, the gun is amazingly accurate. In semi-auto mode, from 50 yards away, I was consistently nailing a B/C zone steel USPSA target, which is roughly the shape of the vital organs in a human. If you’re testing the combat effectiveness of a firearm, that’s the gold standard benchmark of combat effectiveness — the ability to put rounds in a vital area of a target.
The accuracy of the gun was exceptionally surprising given the operating mechanism. Open bolt guns are notoriously inaccurate, since the “lock time” from when you pull the trigger until when the gun goes off is many times longer than a closed bolt gun. There are a lot of moving parts acting on the gun to throw off your aim. But since all of the parts are in line with the bore of the gun, it all stays on target which is great for accuracy. It was a really pleasant surprise.
The controls of the firearm are primitive, but you can see the beginnings of the fire control system that we still use today. Simple switches control the functions of the firearm, much like the selector switch on the AR-15 platform. But while our selector performs multiple functions, the Thompson uses two different selector switches to control the SAFE/FIRE operation and the SEMI/FULL AUTO functions. The switches themselves are rather flimsy compared to other contemporary firearms of the day (such as the Browning Automatic Rifle and the second generation safety on the M1 carbine), but nearly a century after they were first manufactured they still work perfectly.
The most interesting thing is the position of the magazine release. Instead of placing it somewhere that the shooter can use their trigger finger to actuate it, it was designed to be used by the left hand when extracting the magazine. Even in 1928, John Thompson was trying to force soldiers to get the gun into their “workspace” (right in front of their face) during reloads to look at what they’re doing more closely.
Speaking of inserting a magazine, that’s one of the only things I didn’t like about the gun. Every other firearm from this period has a very clear tactile queue that you’ve inserted the magazine, from the very audible “click” on an M1 carbine to the reassuring “CHUNK” on a BAR. But with the Thompson you kinda just shove it in there and hope it stays. It’s slightly disconcerting, but after a while you get used to it and get a feel for when it’s in place properly.
Oh yeah, one last thing:
It has a reciprocating bolt handle. I know that’s kind of par for the course for things invented nearly a century ago, but the Browning Automatic Rifle had already figured out the non-recip charging handle for its design. That’s harder to pull off in such a small form factor, but hey, I have to find something to gripe about or else Robert starts cutting my pay.
Firing the Thompson SMG was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It’s such a beautiful gun aesthetically and when you throw in all the technological advances that it represents as well as the history of the gun, it’s simply a magical piece of art. Like I said, it truly is an iconic firearm. And I will never forget the afternoon I spent with it on the range.
Thompson Submachine Gun
Caliber: .45 ACP
Weight: 10.6 lbs. empty
Operation: friction delayed gas blowback
Capacity: 20 / 30 round stick magazine
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.
Accuracy: * * * * *
From a barrel nearly a century old and well past the replacement mark in terms of round count, it was still combat-effective even at 50 yards. And for an SMG of this era that’s all we care about.
Ergonomics: * *
Ambidextrous this thing is not. All of the controls are set up for right-handed shooters. Lefties just have to deal with it. Plus, the tacked-on stock makes the thing less than ideal for a weapons platform ergonomics-wise.
Ergonomics Firing: * * * * *
Oh man, it feels good. Like, really good.
If you even so much as suggest changing a single thing on the Thompson then I will personally come to your house and kick your ass. Red Jacket, I’m looking at you.
Overall Rating: * * * * *
Again, this is an iconic firearm. It has all the features that make a classic gun; a great history, it represents a giant leap forward in technology and it’s just a great-shooting firearm. For those with the cash, it’s the perfect addition to any collection.