THE THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN
Thanks to movies and TV shows, it seemed every gangster during the era of Prohibition and the Great Depression wielded a “tommy gun.” The invention of John Taliaferro Thompson, the gun that bears his name could arguably be considered the grandfather of today’s “black guns.”
It was light, at least by the standards of the day, portable and deadly—which is fitting, in that the original design called for the gun to be dubbed the “Annihilator.” It was designed to provide mobility to soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I.
The weapon only entered production after the war ended, so its maker, Auto-ordnance, actually marketed it to the civilian market, even though its price tag of $200 was a lot of money at the time. One now-famous ad (on the right side of this page) from the time showed a rancher fending off rustlers with a Thompson. The tag line was,
“The Most Effective Portable Fire Arm In Existence.” The ad further suggested it was an “ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.”
The Thompson was not a hit with civilians. The cost was simply too high; and, for most people, there was no need for an automatic weapon. However, the M1921 was sold to the United States Postal Inspection Service and was carried by agents to protect mail on trains and in trucks. It was probably too expensive for most gangsters, too, but it was used by some of the era’s more-notorious bank robbers, such as John Dillinger, for instance.
However, the Thompson was used in the high-profile St. Valentine’s
Day Massacre, and that was enough to attract the attention of lawmakers, who took notice of its potential to outgun law enforcement.
That led to the National
Firearms Act of 1934, which has limited the availability of automatic weapons in civilian hands ever since.