The timing could not have been worse -- or better, as the case may be. In 1920, the same year
that Prohibition became the law of the land, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation of New York
contracted with the Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, to
produce 15,000 Thompson Submachine Guns. At the time no one knew what a "submachine" gun
was, but five years later it would become a world-recognized symbol of American gangland
violence -- the criminal equivalent of the cowboy's six-shooter.
Intended for the Army, the Tommygun was the brainchild of Brigadier-General John Taliaferro
Thompson, a retired Ordnance Department officer with an inventive streak who believed that
Allied infantrymen needed more individual firepower in the European war. After a false start on an
automatic rifle in 1916, he produced the first "submachine" gun -- a term he coined to describe a
small, fully automatic weapon that used pistol instead of rifle ammunition and could be fired from
the hip by a soldier on the run. It was an odd-looking weapon, weighing only ten pounds, with pistol
grips front and rear, and it fired the army's standard .45-caliber Automatic Colt Pistol cartridge at
a rate of 800 per minute from twenty-shot straight magazines or circular drums holding fifty or 100
rounds. Thompson called it his "trench broom," and had completed a working prototype just as the
war ended. That was only the start of the Auto-Ordnance Corporation's long run of bad luck.
With a small fortune already invested in the project, Auto-Ordnance tried to market the gun
commercially. At demonstrations in 1920, weapons experts acclaimed its revolutionary design,
reliability and enormous firepower, and one dazzled police official predicted it would either kill or
cure the country's gunmen, rioters and "motorized bandits." But that early enthusiasm never
translated into sales, and the gun slipped back into obscurity until 1926, when a Collier’s writer
described it less approvingly:
The reason for that outburst was the machine-gun murder of an assistant state's attorney in
Cicero and the otherwise increasing use of Thompsons by Chicago's bootleggers, for whom
subtlety and public image were never major considerations. In 1929, the St. Valentine’s Day
Massacre sealed Chicago's reputation as gangster capital of the world, and the gun's reputation
as a gangster weapon. Called in to work on the Massacre, ballistics expert Col. Calvin Goddard
wrote that the Thompson was being used in eleven percent of gangland killings, meaning that "the
usefulness of such weapons in gang warfare has been grasped by the lower element, which has
put them to extremely practical use during the past few years."
The "beer wars" that broke out following the "handshake" murder of North Side gang leader Dean
O'Banion in December 1924 already were attracting national attention because many of the
killings and gun battles were taking place in broad daylight on the city's busiest streets. But what
secured Chicago's notoriety was the introduction of the Thompson submachine gun, which
signaled a major escalation in the fighting.
Ironically, the gun had been discovered by Dean O'Banion himself on his last vacation trip to
Colorado, where he and his men regularly amused themselves with rodeos and other horseplay at
the "Diamond D" Ranch of fellow mobster Louie "Two-Gun" Alterie. While a handheld machine
gun seemed mainly a novelty to both the police and the peacetime military when first
demonstrated, it had found a market among private security guards and agencies hired by certain
large industries, including Colorado mining companies, to deal with labor violence. On his return
to Chicago, O'Banion and his entourage stopped in Denver to stock up on weapons which, a local
paper reported, included three "baby" machine guns.
A few days later the city's then-most-colorful gangster was murdered in his flower shop on North
State Street. In reporting on his lavish funeral, Chicago papers published rumors that the South
Side gang of Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane had drifted away from the Torrio-Capone outfit to
form a secret alliance with O'Banion, and a few months later they would be the first to thrill and chill
America with a revolutionary weapon that would soon become known as the "Chicago Typewriter."
Saltis and McErlane probably obtained their Thompson from the North Siders to use on Spike
O'Donnell, a dapper but particularly pesky poacher whose fainthearted brothers had allowed
themselves to be gerrymandered out of their rightful South Side territory while Spike was cooling
his heels in prison. Unintimidated by McErlane's threats, O'Donnell was standing at the busy
northwest comer of 63rd Street and Western Avenue on the evening of September 25 when a
barrage of bullets from a passing car missed him and took out the plate-glass windows of a large
drugstore (now a currency exchange). With typical savoir faire, Spike went inside to the soda
fountain and asked for a drink of water, and had nothing to say to the police. Newspapers duly
recorded another skirmish in the South Side beer war and ascribed the unusually large number of
bullet holes to "shotguns and repeating rifles."
His second time out, McErlane at least managed to score with his new gun and get it mentioned
in the papers. On the Saturday night of October 4 the headquarters of the Ralph Sheldon gang
was strafed with .45 bullets that killed one Charles Kelly (presumably the Thompson's first
gangland victim) and wounded a Thomas Hart. This time the police figured out what all the bullet
holes meant, as reported in the Chicago Daily News:
Despite the machine gun, the story was buried on an inside page. The wire services picked it up
as a short human-interest item -- the latest wrinkle in Chicago gangland warfare, but that was all.
Finally, Chicago's Tommygun pioneer made the front page. Despite the usual poor
marksmanship, it rated a banner headline in the Chicago Tribune for February 10, 1926:
MACHINE GUN GANG SHOOTS 2
The story reported an attack on the speakeasy of Martin “Buff” Costello, 4127 South Halsted,
which had left two men wounded. This caused Chicago Police Captain John Stege to grump that
"McErlane and Saltis have one of these guns" and therefore "It is imperative that [the police] be
Not to lag behind in the underworld arms race, the South Siders (now led by Al Capone) quickly
obtained Thompsons of their own and so did other gangs, and they started using them against
one another in spectacular shootouts. Their open warfare culminated in the grandest bloodfest of
all -- the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, which took out seven men in a garage at 2122
North Clark Street.
By this time, the Thompson's worldwide notoriety had inspired rumors that the Auto-Ordnance
Corporation was giving them free to gangsters for promotional purposes. In fact, the company
was nearly bankrupt, with most of its guns still stacked in a Colt’s warehouse.
Repeal ended the Chicago beer wars, but not the gun's evil reputation. By 1933, Machine Gun
Kelly, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and other Depression outlaws were either buying
submachine guns on the black market or stealing them from police stations, and using them to
drive the last few nails in the Auto-Ordnance coffin. In 1939, the nearly defunct company was
forced to sell to a shady Connecticut industrialist named Russell Maguire for only $529,000 --
about the wholesale value of the 4,700 guns still in inventory, with manufacturing equipment thrown
in. Before he died in 1940 at the age of 79, General Thompson wrote a last melancholy note to
one of the young engineers who had helped design the submachine gun in the closing days of the
Great War. It said, in part,
That note was received on August 1, 1939, after Thompson had lost the company to Maguire.
Exactly a month later, the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland behind their version of the
submachine gun, the 9mm MP-40, popularly called the "Schmeisser.” Suddenly, every Allied army
was clamoring for submachine guns, and the only one ready for mass production was the
Thompson. Maguire sold over two million in both commercial and military models before the end
of World War II, becoming wealthy and famous as America's "Tommygun Tycoon."
Adapted from The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar.
...A machine gun, a new note of efficiency in gangland assassinations, was
used to fire the volley from the black touring car, killing one man and
wounding another in front of the Ragen Athletic club...at 5142 South Halsted
St. last Saturday night. Captain John Enright of the stockyards police said
today his investigation satisfied him that a machine gun had been used, and
that the same gun had been used in an attack on Spike O'Donnell at 63rd St.
and South Western Ave.....
I have given my valedictory to arms, as I want to pay more attention now to saving
human life than destroying it. May the deadly T.S.M.G. always "speak for” God
and Country. It has worried me that the gun has been so stolen by evil men and used
for purposes outside our motto, "On the side of law and order."
...This Thompson submachine gun is nothing less than a diabolical engine of
death...the paramount example of peace-time barbarism [and] the diabolical
acme of human ingenuity in man's effort to devise a mechanical contrivance
with which to murder his neighbor....
Gen. John T. Thompson
Liberty, October 24, 1931