“On The Side of Law and Order.”
-Motto of the Auto-Ordnance company.
This is a timeline of the Tommy Gun’s history from 1914 to 1944. I attempted to find a balance between what was absolutely necessary and extraneous but interesting or insightful part of the history, although I might’ve gone a tad overboard. (Just a tad!) Although my later discussions lean towards the philosophic rather than the historical nature of the Tommy Gun, I believe the intricacies of the Tommy Gun’s history will help give context to my more general exploration.
- November 1914: John T. Thomspon, a General and renowned small arms expert in the United States military, retires from the Army to take the position of chief consulting engineer for the Remington Arms Corporation.
- 1914 and 1915: Thompson uses his spare time to study automatic mechanisms for guns, and finds a patent by John Blish for an automatic firing mechanism to be used in hand held guns.
- 1915: Thompson contacts Blish about the patent, negotiates rights to the patent and begins to seek financing for the development of an automatic rifle based on Blish’s model.
- 1916: Thompson, after getting monetary backing from the military and private individuals, creates the Auto-Ordnance company in order to privately develop small arms. Theodore H. Eickhoff is named chief engineer, and would be one of the main players in the creation of the Tommy Gun.
- 1917: Thompson goes back into the military in Washington to serve active duty in World War I. Eickhoff is left to develop Thompson’s automatic rifle. Later in 1917 he realizes that Blish’s mechanism is fatally flawed, and would require costly and deficient changes to the “autorifle.”
- September 1917: Eickhoff breaks the news to Thompson, who oddly enough seems pleased. Thompson exclaims:
“’Very well. We shall put aside the rifle for now and instead build a little machine gun. A one-man, hand-held machine gun. A trench broom!’
At once Thomspon rose from his chair and sprayed the room with imaginary bullets; he fired from the hip, like a movie gangster of the future.” (Helmer 1969 p. 25)
Development and Production: 1917-1921
- Pre-1917: Before Eickhoff’s news Thompson had been watching the war intently. He got the idea for the new gun model because he saw the need for a new, very powerful gun to tip the scale for the United States in trench warfare.
- 1917-1918: Work on the new submachine gun begins. Oscar Payne is hired to design the gun. He quickly draws up and begins prototyping the new gun. It goes through a few models in the next year, namely, “The Persuader” and “The Annihilator.” Payne had a thing for flair.
- November 11th, 1918: The armistice is signed, ending World War I. Auto-Ordnance employees and Thompson slow down development a bit. The submachine gun was developed with world war I use in mind, so the sales pitch and model for the gun would have to be altered—they still hoped to sell to the military, but now the gun had to have other uses besides trench warfare, and would have to be sold as such.
- 1919: The gun is named the Thompson Submachine Gun. Thompson actually wanted it to be named Payne Machine Gun, but Thompson’s military prestige made for a better brand name.
- 1919-1920: The gun goes through various prototype models and testing. In 1920 the Marines are the first branch of the military to officially test the gun. They give it high marks but do not order any more besides the testing batch for a few reasons. This combination of praise and denial would be standard practice with the military for many years until World War II.
- March 1921: The Thompson Submachine Gun is finally put into production, and the sales pitch begins.
The Sales Pitch: 1921-1922
- 1921: Very few Thompsons are sold, almost none to the military. However, a few made it to Ireland...
- 1922: Auto-Ordnance, having trouble with selling to the military, begins to pitch the gun as an “gun for the home” for common use by citizens, and as an “antibandit” gun for policemen. Neither pitch takes off especially well, though the police do buy the gun in small amounts.
“On The Side of Law and Order:” 1922-1936
- 1923-1925: Organized Crime and Gangsters begin to appear mainly in Chicago, and thus the gang wars begin. The police have trouble because of “motorized bandits”—criminals that can commit a crime and then quickly run away in a getaway car.
- September 25th, 1925: The Tommy Gun first publicly appears in the hands of a gangster as gang battles becomes more and more commonplace. The first mentioning of the Tommy Gun as a gangland weapon materialize in newspaper reports on the crime.
- 1925-1929: The Tommy Gun is used more and more by gangsters as they realize its potential in organized crime, and the gun is associated more and more strongly with gangsters. The addition of the Tommy Gun confounds policemen, who begin to have serious trouble keeping the criminals in check. (If you’re wondering why the police didn’t fight gunfire with gunfire and adopt the Tommy Gun as well, we’ll get to that in a bit.)
- February 14th, 1929—Al Capone plots and carries out a Tommy Gun raid: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a major point in Tommy Gun history. This catapulted the submachine gun into infamy, resulted in the murder of six rival gangsters and one innocent optometrist, and as a result changed the police and public perception of gangsters and their guns. Suddenly gangsters were not merely killing each other but also citizens, and very violently at that. Civil order activists begin to drum up support to stop the gang wars because of the public nature of this momentous crime.
- 1929-1933: The gangland wars continue, and gun control laws begin to be advocated.
- July 28, 1931: A drive by with Tommy Guns in New York wounds four children and kills one baby, creating the infamous “Baby Massacre.” The public outcry against the incident is immense, and gun control advocates push for gun control more and with stronger public support.
- 1933: Franklin D. Roosevelt takes office and, unlike his Republican predecessor, takes crime control into his stable of issues and gets gun control legislation passed. This doesn’t help all that much due to the Tommy Guns still being on the black market and gun shops not enforcing the laws and limitations, but at least begins a trend of diminishing criminal use of the Tommy Gun.
- 1933-1936: Submachine guns begin to be used less in gang wars and more with specific and infamous criminals, as embodied on the government’s new “Top Ten Public Enemies” list. These criminals include “Machine Gun Kelly”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and John Dillinger, among others.
- Through 1938: Submachine gun crime persists but is very diminished in scope.
World War II: 1938-1945
- 1938: The US military finally adopts the Thompson Submachine Gun.
- 1939: Auto-Ordnance is controlled by the heir of one of the company’s original and most proligic benefactors, Thomas Fortune Ryan. Seeing that Europe is on the way to war, Marcellus Thompson (Thompson’s Son) and Thomas Kane, an employee, along with the help of an outside businessman named Russell Maguire, propose a plan to retake Auto-Ordnance from the heir, sell off Auto-Ordnance’s Tommy Guns, and get a contract for more guns to sell to the soon-to-be-warring European countries. The proposal leads to a dramatic sequence of events that eventually leaves Maguire in control of the company because of an eleventh-hour coercion of Marcellus and Kane. Right as the proposal was about to be fulfilled and Marcellus and Kane were to become the major stakeholders of the company, but Maguire said that in order to finish the deal Marcellus and Kane would have to sign off enough stock to him so that he would own a majority of the company. Marcellus and Kane reluctantly relented, and Maguire would control the company until it was finally liquidated.
- December 1939: The United States stops its policy of neutrality and begins to allow weapon production and exportation to the warring countries of World War II. The French order 3,000 Tommy Guns, which are sold and taken from the same original production batch that had been sitting in a warehouse since 1922. The guns are then delivered in 1940.
- October 1939: Marcellus Thompson dies of a stroke.
- June 1940: John T. Thompson dies of a heart attack, just as the first Tommy Guns made it into Europe. He seemed to have mixed feelings at the end of it all: Pride that his gun would be finally used on the side of law and order, but sadness because of how it was used so much in crime and rebellion. In a final letter to Eickhoff, he wrote:
"I have given my valedictory to arms, as I want to pay more attention now to saving human life than destroying it. May the deadly T.S.M.G. always 'speak for' God & Country. It has worried me that the gun has been so stolen by evil men & used for purposes outside our motto, 'On the side of law & order'...." (Helmer 179)
- 1940: The Army places orders for 20,450 Thompsons.
- 1941: The United States enters World War II, and as a result the Army places more orders totaling 319,000 Thompsons for itself and for other allied countries. The amount ordered and produced continues to grow, eventually to a staggering 1,750,000 submachine guns.
- 1944: The newly developed "Grease Gun" replaces the Tommy Gun, and the Tommy Gun ceases production.
- March 1944: Maguire downgrades Auto-Ordnance into just "Ordnance" under his new "Maguire, Incorporated" group of businesses. Thompsons are no longer produced, and the factories that used to produce them instead create various consumer items.
Note: Pretty much everything here besides my personal comments are from William Helmer's The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar. (1969)
From here, you can go to any of the three discussions. I recommend the following order:
Continuous Violence: Limitations, Adoption and Context
Social Acceptability: How Does Society React To Unqualified Violence?
Media: The Tommy Gun in Film