Thompson submachine gun is one of the first weapons of the XX century that become a true mass culture icon. Even now very few weapons are as legendary as an old Tommy Gun (“Chicago Typewriter”, “Trench Broom” or any other nickname you want to use). It was developed for the trench warfare of the First World War but became famous in the 20s, gaining an undeserved reputation of “gangster weapon”.
Some people claim that Thompson SMG was, essentially, the main reason why NFA was created in 1934. Well, even if it is true, we can’t blame the gun for irrational politicians.
In the 30s, after Prohibition ended and the level of gang violence declined, it seemed that Thompson gun will fade into history. But history had another plan for this gun.
When WW2 started, it was the only submachine gun US army had at the time, and Thompson guns were used at every theater, from the Pacific to North Africa, from beaches of France to Eastern front, where Soviet soldiers developed whole mythology around a Tommy gun.
In fact, the history of Thompson gun in Russia predates WW2. I first realized that last year, when I came across a Tommy gun in the reference collection of Kalashnikov concern. When I found it on the list and asked if I can take a look, I expected to see M1 or M1A1, which were delivered to the Soviet Union via Lend-Lease program in large numbers, but instead, I got an early M1921 in incredible condition.
How did it end up in Russia? Lend-Lease included Thompson submachine guns, but mostly M1 and M1A1s version, and as far as I know, US Army never has a stockpile of original M1921 Thompsons, definitely not enough to go around. So it probably wasn’t Lend-Lease. So what was it? I did some research and the answer was pretty unexpected.
During the First World War and later, in the 20s, the Soviet Union had no submachineguns. And while at the time the Red Army did not really see a place for a submachinegun in an infantry squad, there was another very powerful customer that took a serious liking to the idea of SMGs. NKVD – Soviet secret police that later became KGB.
According to recently declassified documents, in 1924 NKVD purchased a large number of M1921 Thompsons through Mexico. They took the purchase very seriously – a special manual in Russian was written and distributed among troops, and special “display boards” were created for disassembled Thompson guns, so the soldiers could familiarise with the inner working of the weapon.
There is a lot of evidence that Thompson guns were used all the way through the 20s and 30s in several different departments of NKVD. There are unconfirmed reports that for some time Thompson SMGs were used by the personal security unit of Joseph Stalin… Tragic irony.
More information is available about the use of M1921 in Border Patrol troops. One of the documents had a very specific remark about Tommy gun, quote: Red Army soldiers maintaining Thompson submachineguns MUST be seasoned servicemen AND members of Communist Party or Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League).
In other words, you had to be a devoted communist in order to carry a Thompson. It is not a joke – in the Soviet Union, communist party members were traditionally considered to be more capable, more intelligent and better in everything. Often, actual technical knowledge was less important than “correct” political views and the fact that you coming from the oppressed social group.
The exact number of Thompsons purchased by NKVD is not known, but it most likely did not exceed a few hundred guns. The second coming of Thompson SMGs to Soviet Russia was considerably more substantial.
Not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of guns were delivered to the Soviet Union during WW2. There are several conflicting sources, but the number that seems to be the most credible is 137,729 (One Hundred Thirty-Seven Thousand Seven Hundred Twenty-Nine) – almost 8% of all the Thompsons produced.
Tommy guns were used in the different units in different theaters of the Eastern front. Russian battlefield archeologists are still finding Thompson guns, ammunition, and 45 ACP empty cases along with remains of Soviet soldiers in every major battlefield, proving that Tommy Guns were widely used among frontline troops.
Later in the war, when Soviet Arms production picked up, Thompsons were transferred to the rear echelon troops. There, they were used by security units, tank crews and even given to train drivers as personal defense weapons. One of those train drivers told his grandson an interesting story that he shared on the internet. According to this story, Thompson guns were “not powerful enough to penetrate Soviet winter sheepskin overcoat, so soldiers would often do it on a dare – put on a winter coat and shoot each other”.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but what is even more ridiculous is that the same story was told by another military veteran, Dmitry Loza, who wrote a really great book “Commanding the Red Army’s Sherman tanks”. In his interview, he said the following: Every Sherman tank came with two Thompson SMGs. Caliber as 11.43 mm – a huge freaking round. But it was a lousy gun. We had a few cases when guys would dare someone to shoot them with Thompson while they were wearing two winter jackets. And the bullet got stuck in the jackets! It was such a shitty gun!
Frankly, I have limited knowledge of terminal ballistics, but I don’t believe in magic capabilities of Soviet winter coats and can’t imagine a bullet failing to penetrate two jackets at close distance. The good thing is that you can always check.
So recently I bought two Soviet winter jackets, a magazine for MP38 (it was missing one), a magazine for M1921 and tested that myth. Unfortunately, I could not get my hands of 45 ACP ammo, so testing was limited to MP40 and a steel target wearing two winter jackets at a 100 meters distance.
Not surprisingly, all bullets went through winter coats without any problems and even though Thompson SMG has a slightly slower bullet, I don’t think it would have any problems penetrating any winter coat.
Perhaps it is just another example of weird and wonderful gun mythology that is born every time people prefer to believe an authority instead of having an educated opinion.
One thing is for certain – as a weapon, Thompson SMG had an incredibly interesting life that is still continuing. It was in movies, books, paintings, songs, seen combat everywhere from South-East Asia to Latin America, from Vietnam to Stalingrad. I wonder what John T. Thompson would have said if he knew how prolific his weapon will become. We would never know, but something tells me that he would be very proud of his creation.