A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

KY History: Newport’s John T. Thompson was renown firearms inventor; have you heard of ‘Tommy gun’?


By Jacob Koch
Special to KyForward

The Thompson Submachine Gun, also known colloquially as the “Tommy Gun,” is perhaps one of the most recognizable weapons in pop culture. From its use by the mob in the 1920s to the battlefields of Europe in World War II, this firearm has made an enormous impact in history.

The man behind the gun, however, is perhaps equally interesting. He not only made significant contributions to automatic weapons -— he also promulgated many of the changes that would shape modern military technology and firearms for decades.

John T. Thompson, photo courtesy of Auto Ordinance.


Born December 31, 1860, in Newport, Kentucky, John Taliaferro Thompson was the son of a Union Civil War Colonel and career Army Officer, James Thompson. The young Thompson would spend much of his early life on military bases. In 1876, at 16 years old, he attended Indiana University for a year, however in 1877, John received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Upon graduation in 1882, Thompson was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and was assigned to the 2nd Artillery at the Newport Barracks in Newport, Kentucky. He would eventually attend engineering and artillery school, following which he was assigned to the Army Ordnance Department in 1890. Little did Thompson know that this assignment would lead to his future accomplishments with the US Army, as well as with firearms technology.

At the onset of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Thompson was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and was sent to Tampa, Florida as chief ordnance officer for the Cuban campaign. Additionally, he served the same role in the 4th Army Corps, commanded by General William R. Shafter, in charge of the campaign against Santiago de Cuba. From this conflict, Thompson gained experience with camp placement management, ordnance depot placement, and maintaining a constant supply line, gaining him the attention of his superiors. He would go on to become senior assistant to the Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier in 1907. Great trust placed in Thompson often allowed him to be treated as if he were acting Chief of Ordnance.

From the Cuban campaign, Thompson had gained two things. First, he was intrigued by automatic weapons through exposure to a Gatling Gun unit he had commissioned during the campaign. This unit played a large part in the Battle of San Juan Hill. Second, he had garnered an interest in the small arms of the military used by the average soldier. These interests were only deepened by his stationing at the Springfield and Rock Island Arsenals. Upon Thompson’s promotion to Chief of Small Arms for the Ordnance Department, he had a chance to indulge his interests.

M1903 Rifle with stripper clips chambered in .30-06, primary U.S. weapon in WWI


Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the US military realized the shortcomings of the then-current US rifle, the Springfield Model 1892–99 Krag–Jørgensen. Particularly during the Battle of San Juan Hill, nearly 750 Spanish soldiers equipped with the more advanced 1893 Mauser managed to stall the advance of 12,000 US troops, resulting in 1,400 causalities in a matter of minutes. The slower reload time of the Krag, and the inferior ammo in contrast to the Mauser led the US Army back to the drawing board when considering the US service rifle. Thompson would supervise the research and implementation of the successor to the Krag.

The rifle chosen would be the M1903 which would be used extensively in WWI. The US Army disassembled and examined features of the Mauser rifle. Ultimately, they chose the M1903 rifle made by Springfield, featuring a shorter and lighter, 20-inch barrel with a 30-06 round. With a powerful extended range and faster loading ability, it outperformed the old Krag. The implementation of the more powerful 30-06 round allowed extended range and more stopping power. Finally, the faster loading ability of the M1903, with a similar magazine to the Mauser, allowed it to outperform the Krag.

In a similar matter, Thompson supervised the development of a newly issued US military sidearm. However, his testing of this firearm was more extensive and involved than that of the M1903. Following the Spanish-American War, the .38 Long Colt round issued to soldiers had failed greatly in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. In an anecdote from Col. Louis A. LaGarde, an Army Medical Corp officer, it was recounted how an escaped prisoner was shot four times and kept running, only to be stopped after being hit with the stock of a rifle. Clearly, there was a need for a weapon with a more effective round.

In 1904 at Nelson Morris Company Union Stock Yards in Chicago, Illinois, Thompson and Col. Louis A. LaGarde performed testing regarding the most effective handgun caliber. Utilizing human cadavers and live animals as targets, the Thompson–LaGarde Tests resulted in a new industry standard—that nothing less than a .45 caliber round would suffice, leading to the development of the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round.

Coupled with the development of the .45 caliber round for the military sidearm, Thompson oversaw the development of the firearm to use this round. The firearm chosen to serve as the US army sidearm would be the M1911, developed by John Browning, renowned as one of the most influential firearm designers of the 19th and 20th centuries for his pioneering work in semiautomatic and automatic firearms. The 7-round capacity of this firearm, coupled with the ability for soldiers to carry multiple magazines and the reliability of the firearm, led to it remaining the preferred US sidearm until the adoption of the M9 Berretta in 1986. Meanwhile, this firearm continues to be one of the most popular choices among private citizens.

Original WWI model 1911

At the onset of WWI in 1914, the United States remained neutral. Thompson, who viewed the allied cause sympathetically, saw an opportunity to apply his talent with firearm design and make a lucrative profit. To this end, he retired from service in November of that year and received a position with Remington Arms as chief engineer. While with Remington, he supervised the construction of the Eddystone Arsenal in Chester, Pennsylvania, which at that time was the largest small-arms manufacturing plant in the world. It would become a major producer of the Pattern 1914 Enfield rifles for British forces, and the Mosin–Nagant rifles for Russia in WWI.

As WWI progressed, the type of warfare experienced changed. The movement towards heavily fortified entrenchment led to a need for weaponry suitable for this type of combat. Thompson’s proposed idea to combat heavily entrenched enemies would be the “trench broom.” While the idea of a “trench broom” wasn’t necessarily new, previously it had been used to refer to shotguns. Thompson’s trench broom would be to allow a single soldier in WWI a high volume of firepower to clear enemy trenches using an automatic weapon. Thompson would team up with John Blish, a commander in the Navy, to acquire funding from Auto Ordinance, following which they began development on what would become the Thompson Submachine Gun.

John T. Thompson demonstrating the M1921, Thompson Submachine Gun, (Photo courtesy of Auto Ordinance)

However, following the United States’ entrance into WWI, Thompson would return to the US Army, being commissioned as a Brigadier General, and assigned as the Director of Arsenals, responsible for all small-arms production for the military, and receiving the Distinguished Service Medal. In December 1918, Thompson would again retire from the Army, continuing to work on the Thompson Submachine Gun. Initially, the .30-06 rifle round was tested as a round to be used in this firearm. However, it was deemed too powerful to ultimately work with Thompson’s machine gun. Upon further testing, the reliability of the .45 ACP cartridge, its wide availability, and Thompson’s testing with the round, led to the chambering of his machine gun in .45 ACP.

With the Armistice of WWI being signed in 1918, Thompson had to market the weapon to a different audience rather than as a trench broom. The first working model of his firearm was not completed until 1919, and not officially patented until 1920. However, two groups found regular use out of his firearms. Law enforcement and bank security were often prime customers, as the Thompson gun was able to quickly lay down a large amount of fire. The other group would, unfortunately, be that of organized crime. Criminal use of the firearm through the 1920’s and 1930’s led to lawmakers pushing the National Firearms Act of 1934, a bill which placed certain registration requirements on certain classes of weapons, as well as a $200 tax on the purchase and transfer of these firearms, which was the price of the Thompson Submachine gun.

John T. Thompson died at the age of 79 on June 21, 1940, in Long Island, New York and was buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Though he did not live to see the redemption of his creation, the Thompson Submachine Gun was extensively used by the US Army in WWII, helping to turn the tide of war in America’s favor. Thompson’s house in Newport is marked as an historical site by the Kentucky Historical Society.

Jacob Koch is a researcher at Heritage Village Museum. He received his BA in History from the University of Cincinnati and is currently a graduate student at Northern Kentucky University.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment