The Auto-Ordnance Thompson Submachine Gun is a select-fire weapon chambered in .45 ACP. The gun was invented in 1919 and earned the nickname the “Tommy Gunn”. It gained massive notoriety due to its popularity among Prohibition era gangsters and criminals. It was also used by law enforcement. Today, the gun is a favorite of collectors for its historical significance.
The Thompson fires as semi-automatic or fully-automatic from an open bolt position. When the trigger is pulled, the bolt flies forward to chamber and begins to fire rounds until the trigger is released or the ammunition is finished. The gun’s cyclic rate of fire was high for its day: some models could fire 1,200 rounds per minute, with most law enforcement opting to go with a version that ranged from 720-600 rounds per minute.
The Thompson features a walnut stock that helped make it noticeably heavier than today’s guns with a weight of 10.6-10.8 lbs. The gun was originally meant to held 50-100 round drum magazines, but 20 and 30 round box magazines were soon adopted because they weren’t as loud and were more durable.
|Thompson Submachine Gun|
20, 30 and 50-round magazines
|Sights:||Adjustable rear sight with fixed blade front sight|
|Stock:||Walnut stock with vertical foregrip|
The Allure of Tommy
I’m a sucker for antiques. So when I walked into the Dominion Gun Range in Richmond, Virginia and saw a Thompson hanging on the wall, I really wanted to take it for a test drive.
And this is the real deal. A 1943 Auto Ordinance .45 ACP Thompson M1A1.
The Thompson is so iconic that I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start with the description. It’s a storied weapon, popular with writers, video gamers, movie makers and even song writers. Warren Zevon’s Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner is perhaps the best song ever about a Thompson wielding, revenge seeking zombie (whose brain can’t be destroyed as he has no head). But even Zevon couldn’t really capture the spirit of the gun.
The gun is heavy. It’s built from steel and wood. The barrel is relatively short, a bit over ten inches. And this is deceptive – it doesn’t feel that short. There’s lots of steel behind it. But it wasn’t built for long range fighting. This is the original trench broom.
The bolt on the Thompson is big. Unless it’s firing, it’s open. When the trigger is pulled, the bolt rockets forward, stripping a round off of the magazine. When the bolt hits home, it fires the round and bounces back. In single fire mode, it locks open and the barrel smokes from both ends. Shooting in full-auto mode, the bolt bounces back against the spring like a jackhammer.
If you have ever shot a flintlock, you know a little bit about how it feels to pull the trigger on a Thompson (if only in single fire mode). There is a distinct pause as that huge bolt shoots forward. Then the gun fires. To say it is a pause is even stretching it. Imagine releasing the slide on a 1911 and having a round go off when the slide hits home. The response is fast, but not as fast as most modern triggers. But forget about it – just open it up and let it go.
And it goes fast. Way too fast. The kick of the .45 ACP is pretty solid, but it isn’t felt in the shoulder. Instead, the muzzle flip brings the gun up and back. Where a shotgun will kick you once, the Thompson is more like a steady hard push. I had to lean in a little bit and shoot in bursts. Center in the target area and walk it up. When I felt like I was standing straight up again, I backed off the trigger and fell forward and went again. I weigh a good 240 pounds and it could stand me up.
Did I mention that it empties fast?
I have this distinct memory of Marines on some south pacific island, flushing out Japanese troops from caves. I should clarify. It isn’t my memory, but my memory of war footage. I always thought the Marines with the Thompsons were probably the most badass. Now I wonder if they weren’t also a little bit crazy.
The rate of fire not fast by modern standards, but it is still fast. The ammunition is very heavy. The gun itself is a beast of a thing. And when it is empty – when those Marines had run through all they could physically carry, then what did they have? An eleven-pound fighting stick. And these guys had to be uncomfortably close to their targets.
But let’s look back at its intended purpose. The Thompson was built for use in trench warfare. It didn’t make it into production in time to see action in the World War I. But it found a following in law enforcement. In an era when the cops were outgunned – or at least equaled – by their foes, the Thompson was a very effective tool. The cops and feds that carried these beasts were never far from their supply lines. They didn’t have to carry the guns on long marches through tropical terrain.
And it certainly does what it is intended to do. It would certainly sweep a trench clean (or get it really messy, actually). But take it out of the theater of war and there is potential for collateral damage. And then the criminals picked up Thompsons, too. This gun is not easy to control. But I hadn’t intended to open up a debate about gun control.
How Does it Shoot?
I think the word overkill might be the best adjective for the Thompson.
The Thompson’s mechanics are very straight forward. There are two toggle switches on the left side of the gun. One switches between full auto and single fire, and the other is the safety.
That’s it. Pulling the trigger releases the bolt. Releasing the bolt fires a round.
Hold on tight and don’t get distracted by the rainbow of brass spewing out of the chamber. Make sure the brass isn’t bouncing off the divider wall and into your shirt. I figured that one out quick.
I was surprised at how easily I could group shots at close range.
I shot 6 five round groups with groups ranging from 2.6” to 5.2” and had an average grouping of 3.42”.
But that isn’t really how this gun should be judged. After really getting a feel for the controls, I ran through several magazines on a silhouette. While the spread was tall, vertically, and tended to drift right, the bulk of the shots hit center-mass and all of them stayed on target.
And that’s what the gun was meant to do. It functions a bit like a buckshot from a scattergun. It puts lead in a predictable target area without the benefit of careful aim. It is meant to kill men. And it would do that exceptionally well.
I really liked working the Thompson. But at the same time I came away feeling really depressed. This gun was built in 1943 by Auto-Ordinance. It was meant to serve in our war efforts. As a rental at a gun range, it is a bit like an amusement park ride. And I’m still not sure how I feel about that. And I’m not sure how the staff at the Dominion Gun Range feel, either. They know the gun is special.
All of my reservations aside, I was really sad that I had to give the gun back. But I did. As I passed it back over the counter, I must have been wearing my mixed up emotions on my sleeve. The man behind the counter took the Thompson from me almost reverentially. “You know,” he said, “this Thompson gives us less trouble than any of the other machine guns we have in here.”
And that, I think, is saying something.