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An Icon of Warfare – General Thompson’s Magnificent Trench-Clearing Invention

July 14, 2010

I haven’t written much lately, either here or for my PhD. I blame this accursed heatwave we’re having here in the UK. It’s most unnatural for this time of year. I mean, in July we British should be drowning in rain, not living with wall to wall sunshine! Disgraceful.

The focus of today’s post is again another weapon that I’ve recently purchased for re-enactment events. I don’t normally like to say that I have a “favourite” gun, as its a little silly and one can never like one firearm alone. However, one particular weapon of World War II has always held a particular fascination for me ever since I first saw it on a grainy piece of war footage – the American M1 Thompson sub-machine gun.

The “Tommy gun” was a giant among sub-machine guns, both in weight and calibre. Its .45-calibre ammunition gave it a punch that was not matched by the 9mm of the German MP40 and British Sten (although you would still not want to be shot by any of them!). Bulky and heavy to carry, it was nevertheless loved by shock troops throughout the Allied armies, as well as being purloined by infantry wherever possible.

The brainchild of Major-General John T. Thompson, a veteran of the Spanish-American and Great Wars, the Thompson was envisaged as a “Trench Broom” ,designed for close-quarters combat. Thompson was unable to produce went through a number of variants during its lifetime. The initial model, 1921, was fitted with a wooden forgrip and operated from a 50-round drum magazine. This and the later M1928 were the model beloved by Chicago gangsters and put to good (or rather, bad) use by them in the Prohibition. When the military adopted the Thompson, the model was simplifed to the M1928 model which had a stick magazine and which eliminated the forgrip. The drum magazine was found to jam easily, especially if it had been heavily handled, so the 20-round stick magazine was seen as more efficient. To compensate for the barrel lift during sustained firing, a Cutts Compensator could be fitted to expel gases and keep the barrel steady.

An M1928 Thompson fitted with a 50-round drum magazine, the type beloved by Chicago gangsters

However, the Thompson was still an expensive weapon to produce, and when the US Army began to order the Thompsons in bulk upon the outbreak of World War II, the design was further simplified, leading to the produciton of the M1 Thompson. The ribbed barrel of earlier models was replaced with a flat barrel and flatter foregrip. The rear sight on this model was little more than a single piece of steel jutting up from the rear of the weapon. This was vulnerable to damage, and the bolt mechanism remained expensive and complex in comparison to German and British designs, so the M1A1 was produced with a better-protected sight and simpler design. It is the M1A1 variant that I really love, though I can’t say why, it’s just a beautifully designed gun.

I have a family link to the Thompson – in the late stages of the Italian campaign my grandfather was issued an M1A1 Thompson in place of his Short Magazine Lee-Enfield. Quite why he isn’t sure, given that he was a gunner and was unlikely to have to engage targets with such a weapon. To compound the matter, he was never issued any .45 ammunition for it, so rather than lug around an empty gun, he shoved it in an empty 3.7 tin and bunged it in the back of one of his troop’s Bedfords, where it presumably remained until the end of the war!

An M1A1 Thompson - the type issued to my grandfather

65 years on, I now own a delightful airsoft M1A1 Thompson, after being unable to resist the lure any longer. It is a superb piece of design, but is in many ways over-engineered, and lacks the simplicity of similar weapons. I find the M1A1 cumbersome to sight in comparsion to the MP40 or the Sten (although they are not exactly perfect), and the magazine release lever is way too fiddly. Why the Thompson needed to be fitted with a lever instead of a simple push button release like on most other weapons I don’t know. That said, it makes up for these small defecits with the simple punch it provides. No-one would get back up after being hit with a burst from a Thompson. I suppose, ultimately, that was why it was so damned popular.

My airsoft M1A1, an obvious replica but a lovely my (completely unbiased) opinion.


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