Just Call This Submachine Gun ‘The Annihilator’
The Thompson wasn’t the first weapon of its kind, but it was the best
On Jan. 29, 1945, First Sgt. Leonard Funk, Jr. faced a determined German army officer ready to kill him with a pistol.
Armed with a Thompson M1A1 submachine gun, the U.S. Army paratrooper had just led an assault against 15 houses occupied by German troops in Holzheim, Belgium. It was part of an operation by the 82nd Airborne Division to clear German soldiers from the area following the Battle of the Bulge.
Leading a makeshift headquarters platoon of clerks, Funk and his unit captured 30 prisoners. He left them with several dozen more prisoners—under guard—and returned to the fight.
While he was away, the German prisoners overpowered their guards and seized their weapons.
When Funk returned to seek more men for the battle, the Wehrmacht officer pulled his sidearm and ordered Funk to surrender.
Facing at least 100 German soldiers, Funk pretended to give up. Then he whipped his Tommy Gun into firing position, emptied his magazine into the officer, reloaded, and continued to fire while the American soldiers grabbed what weapons they could.
When it was over, Funk and his men killed 21 Germans and wounded 24 more. For his actions, Funk later received the Medal of Honor. His bravery was undeniable. But his weapon’s firepower was flat-out devastating.
Despite the popular assumption, the Thompson was not the first submachine gun. But many will argue it was the best submachine gun—one rightly adored by soldiers, gangsters, commandos and Chinese warlords.
Well-made, robust, capable of firing more than 800 rounds a minute—in some models—and chambered for the man-stopping .45-caliber ACP round, the gun lived up to one of its original names, the Annihilator.
The weapon was the brainchild of Gen. John Thompson, a firearms designer and the former chief of small arms for the Army’s Ordnance Department. The stalemate on the Western Front during World War I convinced him the ordinary infantryman needed a new weapon.
Thompson wanted something he called “a trench broom.”
“Our boys in the infantry, now in the trenches, need a small machine gun, a gun that will fire 50 to 100 rounds, so light that he can drag it with him as he crawls on his belly from trench to trench, and wipe out a whole company single-handed,” Thompson wrote in a 1918 memo to firearms designers.
“I want a little machine gun you can hold in your hands, fire from the hip and reload in the dark. You must use ammunition now available and I want it right away.”
Designers produced a prototype by 1919, but this came far too late for the war. Still, he convinced Colt to produce 15,000 M1921 submachine guns—the weapon’s first major production run.
The problem was that Thompson had no steady stream of customers for his stubby weapon. This remained true even when his company, Auto-Ordnance Corp., released the M1928—widely considered as the definitive Tommy Gun model.
True—there were a few buyers. The U.S. Marine Corps purchased Thompsons and used them effectively in China, and during the Latin American “banana wars” of the 1920s. The Postal Service armed its security personnel with Thompsons, as well.
But the weapon was very expensive. Adjusted for inflation, its $200 price tag is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today.
Besides, the Thompson gained a “bad boy” reputation during the 1920s and ’30s. A handful of criminals such as John Dillinger and George “Machine Gun” Kelly gave the weapon an ugly name.
At first, potential customers such as the British government considered the Thompson “gangster weapons” and refused to buy them. But by 1939, that began to change—and fast.
The United Kingdom entered World War II starved for armaments. The War Office eagerly purchased every M1928 it could.
The weapon’s reliability, impressive cyclic rate and ability to bring automatic fire to close-quarters combat made the Thompson a British Commando favorite. They even honored the weapon on their insignia—a stylized Tommy gun superimposed on an anchor below an eagle.
There were also many American G.I.s who relished the gangster panache of the Tommy Gun.
“It was often seen in gangster films that were watched by impressionable young men who came of age during World War II,” Alan Archambault, former supervisory curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History said. “So, even before its use in World War II, it was an iconic weapon.”
The M-1 Garand rifle remained the basic weapon for the American infantry soldier. But the Thompson found its way into the hands of officers, squad leaders, paratroopers, Marines and any soldier lucky enough to grab one.
G.I.s and Marines were fighting across the globe in battlefield environments that included deserts, jungles and snow. The sheer reliability of the Thompson, particularly in its less-expensive—but equally deadly—M1A1 model, made it the perfect weapon to endure the lousiest battlefield conditions.
The high cost of the Thompson prompted development of the M-3 “Grease Gun,” which the Army could produce in greater quantities for less money than even the M1A1.
By the Korean War, the Army relegated the Thompson to a secondary role.
But there were plenty of soldiers who found a way to hold onto Tommy Guns well into the Vietnam War. “I knew several soldiers who used Thompsons for special operations in Vietnam,” said Archambault, a former U.S. Army officer.
“Even in the 1960s, the Thompson was still an iconic weapon for U.S. soldiers,” he added. “Often when one soldier would rotate to the U.S., he would pass the Thompson on to another soldier in theater.”
That’s nearly a half-century after its developer envisioned a gun for clearing trenches.