December 31, 2020

tommy gun

December 31 (1860) is the birthday of John Taliaferro Thompson, co-inventor of the infamous Prohibition-era firearm.

n. a Thompson submachine gun
n. loosely, any machine gun
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The 1920s provided dark fodder for the introduction of new words into our lexicon. The gangster era “hijacked” us, took us “for a ride,” and served us “bathtub gin.” But the “gun that made the twenties roar” was the invention of a World War I general and one-time bovine executioner who wanted a compact “trench sweeper” for close-quarter encounters.

Born into a military family in 1860, John T. Thompson quickly distinguished himself as a soldier and, during the Spanish American War in 1898, became the youngest colonel appointed in the Army. He became a munitions expert and even helped form a Gatling gun unit (see Gatling gun) that supported then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s bloody charge at San Juan Hill. Three years later, then-President Roosevelt requested ordnance tests that would eventually bring Thompson to the Chicago stockyards in 1904 to fire different handguns, calibers, and bullet styles at live cattle (in fairness to the steers, Thompson also used human cadavers to assess various ammunitions). Thompson would have an on-again, off-again relationship with the military forever after.

Thompson retired from the Army in 1914 and became a chief engineer for Remington. As World War I was marching along without involvement from the U.S. Armed Forces, Thompson became fascinated by the increased use of trench warfare and convinced that troops could really use a handheld, one-man machine gun that could clear out an enemy’s position. Working with the designer of a similar weapon, he began work on a prototype for a charming, new, compact, large-caliber submachine gun called “The Annihilator.” Thompson briefly returned to the military after the United States joined the fight and was a brigadier general in charge of small-arms production before retiring at the war’s end in 1918.

Though The Annihilator arrived too late to be used by the military, post-war marketing meetings led its manufacturers to rename it the “Thompson submachine gun” and "Thompson Anti-Bandit Gun" for civilian sales. Costing nearly the half the price of a new car, the Thompson soon experienced illicit distribution into the Prohibition-era underworld where it acquired its street names of “tommy gun,” “Chicago Typewriter,” and “Chopper.” Gangsters loved it, and it achieved peak notoriety in 1929 following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which Al Capone’s henchmen delivered seventy machine-gun bullets and two shotgun blasts into seven of “Bugs” Moran’s gang.

It was not until after Thompson’s death at the age of seventy-nine in 1940 that the U.S. military bought substantial numbers of the weapon for eventual use in World War II, the Korean War, and even Vietnam. Thompson was buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Though his namesake was eventually embraced by gangsters and generals alike, its earliest proponent was an unlikely customer—The United States Postal Service—which purchased the first tommy guns in 1921 following a rash of mail robberies. Decades later, the now-infamous “going postal” madness of the early 1990s led to the eventual prohibition of firearms in all mail facilities.