The Gun That Made the 20s Roar – A Brief History of the Tommy Gun

Despite advances in firearms design and technology, the Thompson sub-machine gun (TSMG) remains one of America’s most iconic firearms.

The Great War (WW1), 1914-1918  

In 1917, Brig. Gen. John T. Thompson (the man in charge of small arms production for the US Army), wanted to create a small machine gun that could be “fired from the hip and reloaded in the dark” — a gun designed to quickly clear enemy trenches.

The Thompson Gun Hits the Market, 1921 

Not in production until after the war, the fully-automatic Thompson M1921 was sold (in limited quantities) to the US Military, federal agencies, and police departments. Marketed as the “Anti-Bandit Gun,” the TSMG garnered a lot of press – but at $200 (a hefty price tag in 1921) sales were slow especially among civilians. 

The Gangster Years, 1920s-30s 

With its high rate of fire and large magazine capacity, the Thompson became the weapon of choice for the gangster set. Popularized by celebrities of organized crime like Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, and immortalized by shocking news stories of machine-gun-powered mob wars, the rat-a-tat-tat of the Tommy Gun became known as “The Chicago Typewriter.” Interestingly, the TSMG also became the favorite of the lawmen who brought the mob legends to justice.

The Tommies Go To War, 1939-1975 

 By the end of the 30s, the TSMG had been field-tested in several military skirmishes in Europe and Asia. But as WW2 heated up in Europe, orders for the TSMG exploded. With some modifications, the M1928 Thompson (along with the M1 and M1A1) was sold in massive numbers – initially to the French and British, then to American and other allied forces as the war expanded. After WW2, the next generation of automatic weapons gradually replaced the TSMG for military and law enforcement applications.

Present Day

The Thompson remains in limited production today. Popular with gun collectors and enthusiasts, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation offers several models — typically sold as a semi-auto, chambered in .45 cal and outfitted with the traditional large-capacity drum and stick magazines.

If you want to learn more about the Thompson Gun or other firearms-related info, give our experts at Compass Firearms Auctions a call. Compass Firearm Auctions 800-729-6466 or



Auto Ordnance 1927-A1 "Chicago Typewriter" 45 Auto
Auto Ordnance 1927-A1 "Chicago Typewriter" 45 Auto
Auto Ordnance 1927-A1 "Chicago Typewriter" 45 Auto
Auto Ordnance 1927-A1 "Chicago Typewriter" 45 Auto