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The Chicago Typewriter
AKA The trench broom, the Tommy Gun, the Chicago Typwriter, the Chopper, Ukulele music, the Chicago Organ grinder.
General John Taliaferro Thompson
(William J. Helmer Collection)
The Thompson submachine gun became famous, but not as it was intended to be by it's namesake / originator General John Taliaferro Thompson. It was originally designed to help the U.S. troops that was at war during that time. Unfortunately for the designers, the war was over before they could demonstrate the awesome power unleashed by the Thompson submachine gun.
The real designers were Oscar V. Payne and Theodore H. Eickhoff. The two were comissioned by Thompson to come up with an auto rifle that would help in the war effort.After a few dismal failures, the autorifle design ended and they began steering towards a machine gun that could fire .45 pistol ammo.The Trench broom as Thompson called it, would do the trick.
With the first world war over they tried to pitch their new weapon to police forces around the country.Some bought a few but not the amount that was expected.
Chicago in the Twenties would be where the Tommy Gun made it's history.
Lots of speculation a to when the first time the Tommy was used in Chicago. Sept 25, 1925, by Frank McErlane against Spike O'Donnell.
The shooter who was not used to this new weapon blasted the wall where O'Donnell was standing, but missed his intended target. Police who arrived on the scene could not figure out why so many bullets where fired. They assumed there were at least several gunmen that fired at Spike.
Colt 1911 another favorite of the twenties gangster. When police arrived at the Spike O'Donnell shooting, they thought many gangsters fired pistols at him. It was actually one guy with a Thompson. The confusion may have been that both weapons used the same exact ammo. The Thompson had now made it's mark on Chicago!
The next time a gangster hitspot was jackhammered with bullets police had figured out the riddle and put two and two together. They figured out it was the work of the new fangled Thompson Submachine gun. Police quickly realized they where behind in the arms race and also began arming themselves with the thompson.
The Thompson could be fired with the buttstock removed making it like a machine pistol. Many gangsters preferred this method when drive-by shooting from a moving vehicle.
(Mario Gomes collection)
The Thompson had different ammo magazines to choose from. On the right the standard 20 round clip called the XX and the drum type magazine which came in 50 rounds and 100 rounds called the type L and the type C.
Removing the winding key allows for the drum to be opened to install the rounds of ammunition which are fed by rotating arms (rotor).
The unwinding at the end that is caused by the arms following through (due to no more ammo left) sounded a lot like a ukulele being strummed.Thus many referred to it as ukulele music when using a thompson.
The bullet type used was .45 ACP rounds. ACP stands for Automatic Colt Pistol cartridges.
(Mario Gomes collection)
While we are on the subject of music, over the history of the Thompson many historians and authors made the claim of gangsters transporting the 1921 Colt Thompson in violin cases converted to accept a thompson as the picture above. Much to the dismay of the actual musicians, who at the time where constantly teased about their cases containing a machine gun. Because of this, they were now referred to as gangsters. This is a lore made up in cartoons during that time period. Just being well dressed in those days got you labeled as a gangster. The actual fact was that the violin case was not at all suited for the shape and weight of a Thompson. The violin case is real violin case and the Thompson machine gun is an exact wood and metal replica that shoots blanks (caps). It was made by the Japan Model gun Company in the 1990's.They no longer exist. The blowback action is quite amazing and very real like.
(The photo of Stege is from my buddy author William J. Helmer's book The Complete Public Enemy Almanac. He also wrote one of THE best books on the Thompson submachine gun.)
Chicago's Capt. John Stege here above demonstrates for newspaper reporters that it was not practical nor feasible. Again it's doable, but not very practical. If I owned a Colt Thompson today, I would never put it in that violin case set up! That $100,000 gun might get it's wood furniture scratched up when closing that case. I had even experimented with my $1000 replica (blue case) and I can tell you not practical. The case fell apart after a few weeks due to the weight of everything in it! Let's see, a violin weighs 0.881849 ounces (less than a pound). A 1921 Colt Thompson (empty) weighs almost 12 pounds, and a fully loaded 50 round drum weighs like 4-5 lbs. So with all that weight, the case would not last very long! It shows that while nice looking, it does not fit the bill for the Chicago hit man. They were more prone to transporting guns in, suit cases, trombone cases or golf bags.
Capone gangster Sam Hunt is arrested and a shot gun and automatic pistol are found in his golf bag.
(Chicago Tribune May 29,1930)
Another favorite weapon of the gangtser was the blackjack pictured between the drum and buttstock. Some preferred to use the less conspicuous cake of soap in a sock. This could kill a person by hitting them at the base of the neck.
(Mario Gomes collection)
The thompson has an impressive cycle rate of fire. Depending on the bolt spring used, it could fire anywhere from 600 to 800 shots per minute.
(Mario Gomes collection)
The Thompson machine gun's handy work in Chicago on February 14,1929.
Only used sparingly during the Chicago beer wars, the massacre on Feb.14,1929, propelled it in the spotlight. This is 'THE' event that forever branded the Thompson machine gun the world over onto Al Capone, Chicago gangsters and the city of Chicago. Putting two hands is gun form and saying RAT TAT TAT!!
(Mario Gomes collection)
In 2005, I was lucky enough to view and hold the two Thompsons used in the Valentine's day massacre of 1929.
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For further ultimate indepth info on the Thompson submachine gun please check out this outstanding site at
First Posted June 2006