John T. Thompson
John Taliaferro Thompson, (December 31, 1860 - June 21, 1940), was a United States Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

 officer best remembered as the inventor of the Thompson submachine gun
Thompson submachine gun
The Thompson is an American submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson in 1919, that became infamous during the Prohibition era. It was a common sight in the media of the time, being used by both law enforcement officers and criminals...


Early life

Born on December 31, 1860 in Newport, Kentucky
Newport, Kentucky
Newport is a city in Campbell County, Kentucky, United States, at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking rivers. The population was 15,273 at the 2010 census. Historically, it was one of four county seats of Campbell County. Newport is part of the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio Metro Area which...

, Thompson grew up on a succession of Army posts and had decided on the military as a career by the age of sixteen. After a year at Indiana University
Indiana University Bloomington
Indiana University Bloomington is a public research university located in Bloomington, Indiana, in the United States. IU Bloomington is the flagship campus of the Indiana University system. Being the flagship campus, IU Bloomington is often referred to simply as IU or Indiana...

 in 1877, he gained an appointment to the United States Military Academy
United States Military Academy
The United States Military Academy at West Point is a four-year coeducational federal service academy located at West Point, New York. The academy sits on scenic high ground overlooking the Hudson River, north of New York City...

, graduating in 1882.

His first duty station was in his birthplace of Newport, assigned to the 2nd Artillery as a second lieutenant. He then attended engineering and artillery schools, and was finally assigned to the Army's Ordnance Department in 1890, where he was to spend the rest of his military career. During this period he began his specialization in small arms.

Spanish American War

With the beginning of the Spanish American War, Thompson was promoted to lieutenant colonel
Lieutenant Colonel (United States)
In the United States Army, United States Air Force, and United States Marine Corps, a lieutenant colonel is a field grade military officer rank just above the rank of major and just below the rank of colonel. It is equivalent to the naval rank of commander in the other uniformed services.The pay...

 and sent to Tampa, Florida
Tampa, Florida
Tampa is a city in the U.S. state of Florida. It serves as the county seat for Hillsborough County. Tampa is located on the west coast of Florida. The population of Tampa in 2010 was 335,709....

 as Chief Ordnance Officer under the top commander for the Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

n campaign, General William R. Shafter. While the rest of the Army was plagued with logistical problems, Thompson on the contrary ran ordnance supply operations to Cuba in a highly efficient manner. Over 18,000 tons of munitions were transferred to the battlefield from his Tampa command without any accidents. Thompson was promoted to colonel, the youngest such in the Army at the time.

It was also this war which offered Thompson his first exposure to automatic weapons. At the request of Lt. John H. Parker
John Henry Parker (General)
General John Henry Parker aka "Gatling Gun Parker" was a brigadier general in the United States Army. He is best known for his role as the commander of the Gatling Gun Detachment of the U.S...

, Thompson arranged for the informal formation of a Gatling gun
Gatling gun
The Gatling gun is one of the best known early rapid-fire weapons and a forerunner of the modern machine gun. It is well known for its use by the Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s, which was the first time it was employed in combat...

 unit, with fifteen weapons and a generous supply of ammunition, all shipped to Cuba on Thompson's sole authority. This unit would later play a significant role in the Battle of San Juan Hill
Battle of San Juan Hill
The Battle of San Juan Hill , also known as the battle for the San Juan Heights, was a decisive battle of the Spanish-American War. The San Juan heights was a north-south running elevation about two kilometers east of Santiago de Cuba. The names San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill were names given by the...


After the war Thompson was appointed chief of the Small Arms Division for the Ordnance Department. While in this position he supervised development of the M1903 Springfield rifle and chaired the ordnance board that approved the M1911 pistol. For the latter he devised unusual tests involving firing the weapon at donated human cadavers and live cattle to assess ammunition effectiveness.

World War I

World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 began in Europe in 1914, and Thompson was sympathetic to the Allied
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

 cause. Since the U.S. did not immediately enter the war, and because he recognized a significant need for small arms in Europe (as well as an opportunity to make a substantial profit), Thompson retired from the Army in November of that year and took a job as Chief Engineer of the Remington Arms Company. While with the company he supervised the construction of the Eddystone Plant in Chester, Pennsylvania
Chester, Pennsylvania
Chester is a city in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, United States, with a population of 33,972 at the 2010 census. Chester is situated on the Delaware River, between the cities of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.- History :...

, at that time the largest small arms plant in the world. It manufactured 1914 Pattern Enfield rifles
The Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle was the main firearm used by the military forces of the British Empire and Commonwealth during the first half of the 20th century...

 for British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 forces, and Mosin-Nagant
The Mosin–Nagant is a bolt-action, internal magazine-fed, military rifle invented under the government commission by Russian and Belgian inventors, and used by the armed forces of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and various other nations....

 rifles for Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...


The introduction of trench warfare
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

 in the First World War changed tactics substantially, and by 1916 Thompson was experimenting again with automatic small arms, this time with an eye towards designing a weapon which troops could use to clear an enemy trench—what he called a "trench broom." Thompson studied several designs and was impressed with a delayed-blowback breech system designed by John Blish, a commander in the United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

. With Blish as a partner, Thompson obtained the necessary venture capital to form the Auto-Ordnance Company
Auto-Ordnance Company
Auto-Ordnance was a U.S. arms development firm founded by retired Colonel John T. Thompson of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department in 1916. Auto-Ordnance is best known for the Thompson submachine gun, notorious as a gangster weapon of the Roaring Twenties and famous as a military weapon of the Allied...

, and set to work fine-tuning what would eventually become the Thompson submachine gun
Thompson submachine gun
The Thompson is an American submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson in 1919, that became infamous during the Prohibition era. It was a common sight in the media of the time, being used by both law enforcement officers and criminals...


When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, Thompson returned to the Army and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He served as Director of Arsenals throughout the remainder of the war, in which capacity he supervised all small-arms production for the Army. For this service he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He retired again after the war, in December 1918, and went back to work perfecting the "Tommy Gun."

Thompson originally pursued the Autorifle
Thompson Autorifle
The Thompson Autorifle was a semi-automatic rifle that used a Blish Lock to delay the action of the weapon. It was chambered in .30-06, with the 1923 model in 7.62mm Russian rifle rounds....

 concept: a rifle utilizing the Blish principle delayed-blowback action to avoid the complexity of recoil-operated and gas-operated actions. Testing found that the military issue .30-06 cartridge was too powerful to work satisfactorily using the Blish system.

Thompson eventually decided to use the same .45 caliber ammunition in the Thompson submachine gun that he had vetted for use in the M1911 while in the Army. The weapon was patented in 1920, but the major source for contracts had dried up with the armistice. Thompson therefore marketed the weapon to civilian law enforcement agencies, who bought it in respectable quantities. However, by 1928 low sales had led the company to financial crisis, and Thompson was replaced as head of the Auto-Ordnance Company.


Thompson died at the age of 79 on June 21, 1940 and is buried on the grounds of the United States Military Academy
United States Military Academy
The United States Military Academy at West Point is a four-year coeducational federal service academy located at West Point, New York. The academy sits on scenic high ground overlooking the Hudson River, north of New York City...

 in West Point, New York
West Point, New York
West Point is a federal military reservation established by President of the United States Thomas Jefferson in 1802. It is a census-designated place located in Town of Highlands in Orange County, New York, United States. The population was 7,138 at the 2000 census...

. Shortly after his death, the brink of U.S. entry into World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 prompted the Army to order the Thompson submachine gun in large quantities, and it was used extensively during that conflict.

External links

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