This is reference to the Auxiliary Units issue of the Thompson Sub Machine Gun before ANYONE else in Britain.
We (the British) have always called this type of firearm a Machine Carbine, the Germans, machine pistol and the Americans, the sub machine gun, a title we took on with the adoption of the Sterling L2A1 in 1953. We began the war with no M.C. because we looked upon them as gangster guns that had no practical/tactical use for our service. However, we quickly changed our minds after meeting Germans armed with the MP38. Of course, it takes a massive amount of time to design, produce samples for trials, tool up, manufacture, train and equipt armies, time that we didn't have. Our favourite, from the pre war trials carried out on such firearms favoured the Schmeisser MP28 (II), a German gun and several folk thought it might be difficult buying these from Germany. The only gun in production that was available was the American Thompson. Now, we need to look into detail to see what followed. John Taliaferro Thompson (born 1860) had tried to develop a full bore (.30.06) automatic rifle to act as a "Trench Broom" to sweep the enemy from their trenches in the Great War. He greatly favoured a locking system developed by John Blish who theorized that certain metals when set at certain angles became adhesive at high pressures and would release when the pressure dropped. This theory only worked with lubricated cartridges, not acceptable in the dirt and dust of service use. Thompson made several full bore rifles but breech failure resulted in total destruction after 5 or 6 rounds fired. Not put off, Thompson retained the Blish lock and by reducing the calibre, noted that the system worked well using the .45" ACP pistol cartridge. However, it was by then, 1919, a year after the Great War had ended and that was not a good time to try to sell firearms ! However, having formed his company, Auto-Ordnance, he did a production run of possibly no more than 50 guns plus many spare components. This bit is important. The first 1919 gun was called the Persuader and fed from a belt, later guns were called the Annihilator, full auto only and fired at a cyclic rate of 1,500 rounds per minute from both a box magazine holding 20, a drum holding 100 or using an adaptor, the 8 shot magazine from the Colt pistol Mod.1911. These early guns had neither butt stock or sights but did have both pistol grip and fore grip. Thompson then approached Colt with a view to them buying him out, they refused but did agree to produce an improved gun, the 1921. 15,000 "firing units" were made by Colt, consisting of action body, trigger mechanism, breech block and actuator. The rest, (barrel, small components, the woodwork now including the butt stock assembly) was made by Remington Arms while the complex sight was made by Lyman. These guns, beautifully made were assembled from early 1921 through to 1922. Plus a huge number of spares, another important bit to remember. Both the 1919 and the 1921 Thompsons were civilian guns. If you had bother with burglars, vandals, cattle rustlers or just wanted fun, $250 and a visit to your local ironmonger could result in being a very proud owner of a 1919 or 1921 gun with perhaps, a dustbin lid of a 100 round magazine underneath, a splendid cure for unlawful acts. However, apart from a few police forces and private sales, by 1939, there were still 4,700 '21's in stock. The biggest customer was the IRA. They bought 495 in 1921 and these still formed the basis of the gun to have after the troubles began in 1969. The '21 fired at a cyclic rate of 800 to 1,000 a minute.
Bankrupt by this time, Thompson was desperately requiring a military contract but they stipulated a rate of fire not exceeding 600 rounds cyclic. By lightening the return spring and fitting a heavier actuator, Thompson got the rate of fire to this figure in 1928 and thus, introduced the 1928 directed towards the military. 10 years later in 1938, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines (only) agreed to adopt the gun. Now, both the Americans and us in Britain have similar systems concerning adoption of firearms for the service. Every component is looked at with a view to being suitable for the rough usage of military arms. As the Thompson was a civilian gun, the barrel had 28 thin, finely rounded cooling fins, the walnut furniture had deep finger grooves and of slender proportions, safety, change lever and cocking knob were finely chequered, the finish, civilian. For service use, no chequering, chunky woodwork, flat top thicker fins around the barrel and a straight forend instead of the vertical fore grip. Pattern samples of this hardier gun were approved for service. However, a total disaster for Thompson because all those stores and warehouses full of earlier specification spare parts became scrap metal. Couldn't be used because they weren't to military spec.
September, 1939 and we declare war on Germany. With no machine carbines of our own, in desperation, we ask America for as many Thompsons as they could spare. Any Thompsons, any specification ! He must have thought all his Christmas's had arrived together ! All those obsolete spares were pulled out, dusted off and screwed together for us. Because of neutrality, we couldn't buy from the American Government, we had to buy privately from Thompson direct. We paid in advance, $225 per basic gun, magazines, ammunition, spares, cleaning kit, slings etc. extra. The .45" round was alian to us. What the cost was with all added is not accurately known but by the beginning of 1942, we had paid for 514,000 guns plus all the extra's ! Out of the 514,000, we got just under 90,000, the remaining 425,000 plus were sunk in the holds of ships sent to the bottom of the Atlantic by "U" boat packs. The first guns arrived in Feb. 1940 and were issued to the Auxiliery Units upon their formation mid '40. In America, similar guns to those that we got were known as Commercials and are nowadays, the most rare model. Why ? Because they are an assembly of all those earlier obsolete components. Of higher quality manufacture than the plainer military spec.1928's adopted by American forces. One in my collection is as follows.
1919 round top, round bottom finned barrel.
Cutts compensator, 2nd. pattern from the early 1921.
Fore grip and pistol grip, 1919.
Internals, bright nickel, 1921. Actuator & return spring, 1928.
Butt stock, 1921.
Ejector, extractor, 1921.
Action body, 1928. Assembled by Savage, serial number in the early 50,000 range.
Note ! All known authenticated Aux-Unit Thompsons have been Savage and numbered between 35,000 and 60,000. Enfield examiners worked at Savage viewing the guns destined for England and stamped the broad arrow above the Royal Crown, examiners number and "E" denoting Enfield inspectorate on the right flat of the body forward of the mag. cutout. Most minor components are broad arrow marked and many have crowned examiners marks. British guns generally have butt sling swivel relocated from below the butt to on top, guns with vertical grip have a SMLE swivel & bracket to either left or right side whilst those later guns with horizontal fore grips are re-positioned to left or right. Often, the two lugs of the bronze Blish lock have been removed to allow less friction to the bolt assembly operating in, for example, desert dust. Many imported Thompsons were fitted into wood transit boxes, shortened versions of boxes used to store Bren/Vickers/Lewis. These boxes had provision for 4, 20 rd. box magazines, 3, 50 rd. drums, the detached butt stock, cleaning rod retained by leather loops in the lid and spares box, oil can etc. Comb jointed corners with turn buckle fasteners and heavy hinges, these were deemed to be the best way to store the gun in O.B.'s. The gun serial number preceeded by "S" for savage, stamped inside the lid. After issue to Aux-Units, the Thompson went on to be issued as follows.
Special operations, 2,000
Home Defence Btns., 5,000
India, 5,000 plus, 249,000,000 rounds of .45" ammunition.
814,000 drum magazines.
1,462,040 box magazines.
When the Sten Machine Carbine began to be issued from March, 1941, the Thompson was gradually recalled from the Aux-Units who were rearmed with generally, the Mk.3 Sten.
After starting the war with no Machine Carbines, we went on to become the second biggest user of such guns after Russia. These early Thompsons were eventually recalled from service, some were sold to countries who had supported us but most, were destroyed as obsolete stores.
A word on the Sten will follow but its interesting to note the following for those who are critical of the Sten. When America tested all allied and enemy sub machine guns for reliability, simplicity, accuracy and weight, results as follows, out of 100,
Thompson 1928, 57%
Hyde (American) 70%
High Standard (American), 73%
British Sten Mk.2, 88%. The Germans did similar trials and the Sten won by miles ! They went on not only to make a direct copy by Mauser but made simplified designs for both the army and their Home Guard.
Thanks Richard for an excellent piece of work.
again, a photo for you from Warminster:
Peter D Antill (Researcher, Centre for Defence Acquisition, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom) "We seek a free flow of information... we are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people." JFK, 21 Nov 1963
Hear you are Richard - a present from Uncle Sam some more for Aux Units
Check your numbers.
Photo from F.D.R Archives
Peter Antill has now added a page all about the Thompson to our site. It can be seen here
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