John T. Thompson

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John T. Thompson
Photograph of Thompson
Birth nameJohn Taliaferro Thompson
Born(1860-12-31)December 31, 1860
Newport, Kentucky, United States
DiedJune 21, 1940(1940-06-21) (aged 79)
Great Neck, New York, United States
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1877-1890).svg  United States of America
Service/branchFlag of the United States Army (official proportions).svg  United States Army
Years of service18821914, 19171918
Rank Brigadier General
Awards Distinguished Service Medal
Other workAuto-Ordnance Corporation founder

John TaliaferroItalian pronunciation:  [ˌtaljaˈfɛrro] (anglicized to "Tolliver" [1] ) Thompson (December 31, 1860 – June 21, 1940) was a United States Army officer best remembered as the inventor of the Thompson submachine gun.

United States Army Land warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Army (USA) is the land warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces. It is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and is designated as the Army of the United States in the United States Constitution. As the oldest and most senior branch of the U.S. military in order of precedence, the modern U.S. Army has its roots in the Continental Army, which was formed to fight the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)—before the United States of America was established as a country. After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the Confederation created the United States Army on 3 June 1784 to replace the disbanded Continental Army. The United States Army considers itself descended from the Continental Army, and dates its institutional inception from the origin of that armed force in 1775.

Thompson submachine gun American submachine gun

The Thompson submachine gun is an American submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson in 1918, that became infamous during the Prohibition era, being a signature weapon of various crime syndicates in the United States. It was a common sight in the media of the time, being used by both law enforcement officers and criminals. The Thompson submachine gun was also known informally as the "Tommy Gun", "Annihilator", "Chicago Typewriter", "Chicago Piano", "Chicago Style", "Chicago Organ Grinder", "Trench Broom", "Trench Sweeper", "The Chopper", and simply "The Thompson".


Early life

Born on December 31, 1860 in Newport, Kentucky, Thompson grew up on a succession of Army posts and had decided on the military as a career by the age of sixteen. His father was Lt. Col. James Thompson, his mother was Maria Taliaferro. After a year at Indiana University in 1877, he gained an appointment to the United States Military Academy, graduating in 1882. [2]

Newport, Kentucky City in Kentucky, United States

Newport is a home rule-class city at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking rivers in Campbell County, Kentucky, in the United States. 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 Cincinnati Metropolitan Area, which includes over 2 million inhabitants.

Indiana University Bloomington public research university located in Bloomington, Indiana,  United States (this is about the Bloomington campus, not the system of universities)

Indiana University Bloomington is a public research university in Bloomington, Indiana, United States. It is the flagship institution of the Indiana University system and, with over 40,000 students, its largest university.

United States Military Academy The U.S. Armys federal service academy in West Point, New York, United States

The United States Military Academy (USMA), also known as West Point, Army, Army West Point, The Academy, or simply The Point, is a four-year federal service academy in West Point, New York. It was originally established as a fort that sits on strategic high ground overlooking the Hudson River with a scenic view, 50 miles (80 km) north of New York City. It is one of the four U.S. military service academies, and one of the five U.S. service academies.

His first duty station was in his birthplace of Newport, where he was 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 spent 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 and sent to Tampa, Florida as Chief Ordnance Officer for the commander of the Cuban campaign, General William R. Shafter. While the rest of the Army was plagued with logistical problems, Thompson managed ordnance supply operations to Cuba efficiently. More than 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.

Spanish–American War conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States

The Spanish–American War was fought between the United States and Spain in 1898. Hostilities began in the aftermath of the internal explosion of USS Maine in Havana Harbor in Cuba, leading to U.S. intervention in the Cuban War of Independence. U.S. acquisition of Spain's Pacific possessions led to its involvement in the Philippine Revolution and ultimately in the Philippine–American War.

Tampa, Florida City in Central Florida

Tampa is a major city in, and the county seat of, Hillsborough County, Florida, United States. It is on the west coast of Florida on Tampa Bay, near the Gulf of Mexico, and is the largest city in the Tampa Bay Area. The bay's port is the largest in the state, near downtown's Channel District. Bayshore Boulevard runs along the bay, and is east of the historic Hyde Park neighborhood.

Cuba Country in the Caribbean

Cuba, officially the Republic of Cuba, is a country comprising the island of Cuba as well as Isla de la Juventud and several minor archipelagos. Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean where the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meet. It is east of the Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico), south of both the U.S. state of Florida and the Bahamas, west of Haiti and north of both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Havana is the largest city and capital; other major cities include Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey. The area of the Republic of Cuba is 110,860 square kilometres (42,800 sq mi). The island of Cuba is the largest island in Cuba and in the Caribbean, with an area of 105,006 square kilometres (40,543 sq mi), and the second-most populous after Hispaniola, with over 11 million inhabitants.

It was also this war which offered Thompson his first exposure to automatic weapons. At the request of Lt. John H. Parker, Thompson arranged for the informal formation of a Gatling gun unit, with fifteen weapons and a generous supply of ammunition, all shipped to Cuba on Thompson's sole authority. This unit later played a significant role in the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Gatling gun 1860s multi-barrel rapid-fire gun of Richard Gatling

The Gatling gun is one of the best-known early rapid-fire spring loaded, hand cranked weapons, and a forerunner of the modern machine gun and rotary cannon. Invented by Richard Gatling, it saw occasional use by the Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s, which was the first time it was employed in combat. It was later used in numerous military conflicts, including the Boshin War, the Anglo-Zulu War, and the assault on San Juan Hill during the Spanish–American War. It was also used by the Pennsylvania militia in episodes of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, specifically in Pittsburgh.

Battle of San Juan Hill decisive battle of the Spanish–American War

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 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) east of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. The names San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill were given to the location by the Americans. This fight for the heights was the bloodiest and most famous battle of the war. It was also the location of the so called "greatest victory" for the Rough Riders, as stated by the press and its new commander, Theodore Roosevelt, who eventually became vice president and later president of the United States, and who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions in Cuba.

Thompsons J.T.T inspector mark on a Colt Philippine Model of 1902 DA Revolver US Revolver JTT proof.JPG
Thompsons J.T.T inspector mark on a Colt Philippine Model of 1902 DA Revolver

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 began in Europe in 1914, and Thompson was sympathetic to the Allied 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, at that time the largest small arms plant in the world. It manufactured Pattern 1914 Enfield rifles for British forces, and Mosin–Nagant rifles for Russia. [3]

General John T. Thompson holding an M1921 Thompson-and-his-gun.jpg
General John T. Thompson holding an M1921

The introduction of trench warfare in the First World War changed tactics substantially, and by 1916 Thompson was experimenting again with automatic small arms, this time attempting to design a weapon that 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. With Blish as a partner, Thompson obtained the necessary venture capital to form the Auto-Ordnance Company, and began working on the design of what eventually became the Thompson submachine gun. [4]

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 resumed work perfecting the "Tommy Gun."

Thompson originally pursued the Autorifle 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 ended 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. [4]


Thompson died at the age of 79 on June 21, 1940 [5] and is buried on the grounds of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Shortly after his death, the looming entry of the U.S. into World War II prompted the Army to order the Thompson submachine gun in large quantities, and it was used extensively during that conflict.

See also

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  1. John T. Thompson; A Brief History
  3. Hallahan, William H. (1994). Misfire: The Story of how America's Small Arms have failed our military. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 337. ISBN   0684193590.
  4. 1 2 The Thompson-LaGarde Cadaver Tests
  5. John Taliaferro Thompson