The Gun That Made The Silver Screen Roar

Above: Johnny Depp portraying notorious gangster John Dillinger in the 2009 movie
‘Public Enemies’

When I ask people who aren’t firearm enthusiasts what famous guns come to mind when they think about movies, TV shows, or video games, I’ve received a lot of varied and mostly vague answers, like ‘pump shotgun’, ‘9mm pistol’, ‘M16’ and ‘bazooka’.

I guess it’s easy to forget that many people aren’t as interested in the subject as I am, which is understandable. In all fairness, if you asked me to name five current famous cricket players, you’d have me stumped.
But the one gun that the majority of people can, and do, mention by name is the Tommy Gun – or, as it is officially known, the Thompson submachine gun.

This begs one to ask why, out of all firearms, do people recall this particular one?
Part of the answer most certainly lies in its catchy nickname, illustrating how such a small detail can help put a firearm on the map, as it is definitely easier to recall ‘Tommy Gun’ as opposed to ‘M1921 Thompson’.

The Thompson had other colourful nicknames, such as ‘The Annihilator’ and ‘The Persuader’, coined by its creator to encourage initial sales to the military and, later on, ‘The Chicago Typewriter’, a name bestowed unofficially due to its use in the Chicago gang wars, and its distinctive, repetitive roar during fully-automatic fire.

This leads us to the other reason that people recall it so easily, namely its association with organised crime, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s prohibition era in the United States, and Hollywood’s portrayal of the famous gangsters of that time who used it.
It is impossible to think of the Thompson without picturing a fedora-wearing wise guy, cigar in mouth and Tommy Gun in hand, robbing a bank or firing at the police while hanging out of a speeding car.

The unshakable image of the Tommy-gun in the hands of 1920-1930s gangsters, thanks to Hollywood’s relentless portrayal

It’s ironic that these are the images we picture immediately when we think of the Thompson, since its greatest use and success was not by gangsters during prohibition, but rather by Allied soldiers during the Second World War (and subsequent wars).

The idea for the Thompson submachine gun came about during the First World War, when its designer, General John Taliaferro Thompson, realised that a new type of weapon was required to help troops on the Western Front break the terrible and costly stalemate, and advance through the trenches.

He believed that a light hand-held machinegun was the answer, something that an infantryman could crawl from trench to trench with, and then have enough firepower to ‘clean it out’, leading him to designate it a ‘trench broom’.

By the time he had a working prototype in 1918, the war had already ended. However, he was convinced that this type of firearm was the future of modern infantry warfare, and continued to work on it until he had a production-ready model in 1921.
It was designated the Thompson M1921, and while other firearms with similar characteristics had already been developed, this was the first of its kind to be officially labelled a ‘submachine gun’.

Above: General John Taliaferro Thompson, designer of the Thopmson submachine gun

Thompson even managed to convince Colt’s Manufacturing Company to produce 15 000 units to offer to the defence force. Initial sales were slow, with only a small quantity supplied to the US Marine Corps.
It was then offered to police forces on the civilian market, but the only significant customer was the United States Postal Inspection service, which took 200.
A few other police departments around the United States also placed small orders.
However, it was at this time that it earned its greatest notoriety in the hands of those on the other side of the law.

The large magazine capacity and high rate of fire, yet relatively small size, made the Thompson extremely desirable to underworld thugs, as it gave them incredible firepower in an easily concealable package.
And the timing was perfect as, in 1920, the National Prohibition Act had just been promulgated. Rising crime families went head-to-head with the police and each other in order to gain greater control of the illegal liquor trade, often resulting in violent confrontation and bloodshed.

One of the most infamous incidents which helped cement the association between the Thompson and gang warfare was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, during which seven members of Chicago’s Irish North Side Gang were gunned down by two members of the Italian South Side rivals.
The perpetrators all used Thompson submachine guns, firing a total of 70 rounds within a matter of seconds.

Sensational violence such as this always attracts media attention, so it wasn’t long before the many movies portraying gangsters and their exploits started to fill cinema screens.
It was the perfect dramatic source material for Hollywood to base a myriad of movies and TV shows on, especially when you have real, larger-than-life gangsters with colourful names like ‘Pretty-boy’ Floyd, ‘Baby-face’ Nelson, and ‘Machinegun’ Kelly as your main characters.
And the Tommy Gun eventually became a character itself, the trusty sidekick of all made-men, epitomising their underworld authority and power.

In reality, the Thompson wasn’t nearly as widely used as Hollywood would have us believe, as the average low-level hood could not afford its extremely high price tag of around $200, which equates to about $2 540 or R31 950 today (2018).
It was only its use by a small number of the most charismatic and famous figures like John Dillinger, George ‘Machinegun’ Kelly, and Al Capone, and their subsequent portrayals on the Big Screen, that rendered the Thompson such an icon of the gangster world.

Another reason for the Thompson’s silver-screen stardom is Hollywood’s love of things that are different from the norm and that stand out. With its finned barrel, front vertical grip, and cheese-wheel, 50-round magazine, it was unlike any other conventional-looking firearm of the time; that is, the perfect movie gun.

Above: Notorious and charismatic gangster John Dillinger with his Tommy-Gun

Interestingly, during the 1930s, there were relatively few movies that actually portrayed gangsters using the Thompson.
This is because of the Motion Picture Production Code instituted in 1930 (but only strictly enforced from around 1934), a set of guidelines that dictated what could, and couldn’t, be shown in films.

In an attempt to deglamourise crime, the code stipulated that criminals could not be shown using fully-automatic weapons.
Therefore the Thompson could only be used by characters on the right side of the law, for example, the police and the FBI.

There are some famous earlier movies like ‘Little Caeser’ (1931) and ‘Scarface’ (1934) that even feature the Thompson in the hands of gangsters in their movie posters.
However, most of the well-known movies and TV shows that portray the classic image of a Mafioso in a pin-striped suit blasting away with his Tommy Gun were all released after the late 1950s, when enforcement of the code became lax.

Of course, after the Second World War started in 1939, the Thompson quickly found the military customers it was originally designed for.
So, too, did Hollywood’s interest shift from cops ’n robbers to war epics, meaning that the Thompson once again got its share of the limelight, but this time in the hands of heroic Allied soldiers.

However, even with the scale and spectacle of the second Great War (in reality, and on the screen), the Thompson has never really managed to escape that gangster-gun image.
Perhaps the best testament of the strength of this association comes from the war itself.
A famous photograph of Winston Churchill, puffing on his signature cigar while holding and inspecting a Thompson submachine gun, was printed and distributed in Germany (and other Axis nations) by the Nazi propaganda office, in order to portray the British leader as a criminal, implying that the gangster reference would even be understood by European civilians.

Far right: ‘Heckenschützen’ translates to ‘sniper’, intending to portray Winston Churchill has a murderer or villain in this Nazi propaganda leaflet

Above: Tom Hanks portraying mobster and war hero, with a Thompson accompanying both roles

The Thompson (in all of its variations) has reportedly been featured in over a thousand movies, television shows, and video games to date, covering many genres.
Some of these appearances include iconic scenes from cinematic masterpieces, like the bloody executions of Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan) in ‘The Godfather’ and Jim Malone (played by Sean Connery) in ‘The Untouchables’.

One of the movies that stand out for me personally is ‘Public Enemies’, the 2009 biography of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp), which showcases the Thompson often and in great detail, being used by the famous outlaw and his gang members.

Others are ‘The Road to Perdition’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, as Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays characters in both who handle the Thompson, one a mob enforcer, and the other a squad leader in World War II.

Whatever movie, TV show, or video game brings this firearm to mind for you, it is undeniably apparent that the Thompson submachine gun is a true movie-gun icon, and worthy of everyone’s recollection.

By Alessandro De Grandis, first published in On Target Africa magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 7, August 2018

Note: Some of the layout, formatting, images and content of this article has been edited and differs slightly from the original, published version.

Look out for the next article in this series, 'Movie Guns: Honourable Mentions', coming soon.