General John T. Thompson, Auto Ordnance, and his Tommy Gun

General John T. Thompson, Auto Ordnance, and his Tommy Gun

John T. Thompson was born in Newport, Kentucky in 1860. He was the son of a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, and grew up moving around from one military post to the next. This may very well be what led him to pursue a career in the military himself. As a teenager, Thompson attended West Point Military Academy and entered the Army immediately after graduation. He went on to have an extensive and successful career, serving mostly in the Ordnance Department. 

Thompson played a vital role in the organization and the issuance of arms to U.S. Troops during the Spanish American War. He would then spend several years overseeing the development of the 1903 Springfield bolt action rifle. A gun that was created out of necessity, because the American troops had been clearly out-gunned by the Spanish Troops armed with the Mauser 1893 rifle during the war. 

The years that Thompson spent in the Army’s Ordnance Department made him certain of one thing, superior firepower was going to be necessary if the United States were to enter any future conflicts. He went to Washington and lobbied for the development of small arms automatic weaponry, but was repeatedly denied. Most of the military brass at the time still thought that more firepower would only lead to ammunition being wasted by poorly trained troops. 

Nevertheless, he continued to serve with the Ordnance Department several more years, but he never strayed from his position that the troops were in need of a better rifle. He would go on to play a key role in the selection of the .45 ACP as the military’s standardized handgun caliber. He also oversaw the famous pistol trials at Springfield Armory, which ultimately lead to the adaptation of the Colt 1911 Semi-Auto Pistol as the U.S. Military primary service handgun.

He continued to plead his case to military leadership, but after many more attempts he was still unable to persuade them to buy into his vision of a smaller automatic weapon. As a result, Thompson abruptly decided to retire from the military in 1914. He accepted a position with Remington Arms as a Chief Consultant Engineer and supervised the development of their Eddystone, Pennsylvania factory and then the construction of their facility in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

In his down time Thompson privately pursued his ambition of building a hand-held automatic weapon. He enlisted the aid of George E. Goll, a young man that worked as his driver and had no previous firearm experience, and Thomas H. Eickhoff, his former assistant at the Ordnance Department who would ultimately become his Chief Engineer. 

The first hurdle that Thompson needed to overcome was to figure out the breech mechanism that was going to support a small machine gun. He studied existing designs and scoured the Patent Office until he came across a “Breech Closure for Firearms”, which was developed by a former Naval Commander named John Bell Blish. The Blish patent was based on the principle of metallic adhesion in which he found that different metals would adhere to each other under heavy pressure. This concept would work as a self-opening breech because it could secure the bolt at peak pressure when the bullet was fired and would only release its bond as the pressure of the round began to dissipate. 

John Blish built a prototype pistol using his design to allow Thompson to see how the mechanism functioned, and after having Eickhoof and Goll test fire it, they decided that the Blish design would be suitable for their automatic rifles needs.

Now that they had a direction for the new gun, the next step was to obtain funding. Thompson would find financial backing through a friend named George Harvey, who had helped convince millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan to put up the startup money for the project.

By 1916 they felt confident that they were on the right track and with the funding that was secured from Ryan, Thompson formed the Auto Ordnance Company. At first this was done in secret and the company had no physical location, no bank account, or assets of any kind. All money that flowed into the project was in the form of personal checks to Thompson’s Chief Engineer.

The team worked tirelessly on the new gun but encountered repeated failures and malfunctions. It was later determined that in order for the Blish mechanism to work properly, they would need to chamber their rifle in a pistol caliber. They settled on the .45 ACP, which would match the rifles ammunition to the military's 1911 pistol. 

Thompson used his past military contacts to secure the help of the Warner & Swasey machine shop in Cleveland, Ohio. This is where Eickhoff would spend much of his time working out of the company’s basement as he worked on the development of the rifle. However, they continued to be met with design issues and nothing Eickhoff tried seemed to perform as they hoped. 

Then in 1917 the United States entered WWI and Thompson was beckoned back into service. He was promoted to Brigadier General assigned to oversee the Ordnance Department. Despite his return to the military, he never stopped pushing for his Auto Ordnance team to develop the automatic rifle, hoping that it could become a decisive part of the war effort. 

One day while conducting Ordnance Department business, Thompson had a chance encounter with a young designer named Oscar Payne. Payne was already beginning to build a reputation for himself as a gifted drawing designer with a knack for guns. The young man told Thompson that he intended to enlist in the military to help in the war effort, but Thompson was able to persuade him that he had a more suitable job for him that would utilize his talents and serve his country without actually joining. Payne accepted the position with Auto Ordnance.

Thompson sent Payne to Cleveland to work with Eickhoff and in no time the young man developed an “H” shaped brass wedge that made the Blish mechanism function the way they had envisioned. It allowed the receiver to be shortened and linked the locking piece and bolt so that they worked in unison. 

Shortly after, Eickhoff went to Washington to meet with Thompson and discuss the progress and setbacks that they were having with the rifle. Thompson who was closely following what was happening overseas was beginning to grow anxious. The pair discussed perhaps pursuing a slightly different direction, which would help move the project along. He explained to Eickhoff that the troops on the battlefield were locked in trench warfare, where neither side could progress because of their inefficient weapons. He wanted Eickhoff to think of the automatic weapon as more of a hybrid between a pistol and a rifle. A “Trench Broom” is how he described it. A weapon that could allow a soldier to move forward behind a shield of his own bullets as he clears an entire platoon from a trench.

When Eickhoof returned to Cleveland with the new direction, Payne immediately began drafting the design. In less than two weeks he had a hybrid weapon drawn out that would use his “H” shaped Blish lock mechanism as well as the .45 caliber pistol round. It would have hand grips and a finned barrel to dissipate the heat, and it would be fed with a short ammunition belt. Payne nicknamed it the “Persuader”. By November 1917 they had a completed gun, but yet they faced another obstacle. It could not reliably fire more than a few rounds before the tight spaced bolt would snag on the fabric of the ammunition belt.

A month later, the Persuader was scrapped and they began redesigning the gun. The plan was to have a plunger that would remove the cartridge from the belt and feed it unto a loading ramp, where the bolt could then grab it and chamber the round. However, Payne had also built an improvised spring-loaded magazine so that he could continue to perfect the basic firing mechanism at the same time. This magazine worked so well that the idea of a belt fed system was abandoned.

Then in the spring of 1918 it seemed that they were finally very close to completion. They dubbed the new magazine-fed prototype the “Annihilator”. From this point on, Thompson worked much closer with his team, frequently traveling between Washington and Cleveland. He made many requests for minor adjustments and changes and by November of that year they felt confident that they had created the automatic weapon that the troops needed. But before even a single gun could make it into the hands of an American Soldier, the war had ended.

John Thompson would now have to decide how to proceed with his new automatic rifle. In 1919, his son Marcellus joined the company to help market and promote his father’s new submachine gun. The military of course remained their primary objective, but they also knew that they had to try to recover the investment made by Ryan. 

The following year, John Thompson would approach the Colt’s Patent Firearm Manufacturing Company with a proposal to build his submachine gun under contract, hoping he could use their stellar history with the Army as a catalyst for adaptation. Colt countered with an outright offer of a million dollars for all rights to the gun. However, the man with the most to lose, Thomas Fortune Ryan, believed if the gun was worth that much to Colt, then it was worth much more to Auto Ordnance. They would eventually negotiate a deal for Colt to manufacture 15,000 guns along with a surplus of replacement parts. The stocks and sights were contracted out to the Lyman Gun Sight Corporation.

After the terms were settled, Auto Ordnance ceased all operations in Cleveland, Ohio and relocated to Colt’s facility in Hartford, Connecticut. They also opened a sales office in New York City where Marcellus Thompson and the rest of the sales force would be based.

The gun that Colt produced was designated the Thompson Submachine Gun Model of 1921. It was fitted with a selector switch to allow for automatic and aimed semi-automatic fire, it had walnut grips, blued finish, and a slotted cocking knob at the top of the receiver. Its rate of fire was 800 rounds per minute, which was well short of what Auto Ordnance claimed the gun would be capable of, but it was still an impressive accomplishment. 

The first guns out of the factory went to the Army and Navy for testing and some were given directly to the Auto Ordnance salesmen. Thompson along with Eickhoff and Goll began demonstrating the gun to police forces, and domestic and allied foreign militaries, with the hope of getting the word out about their new gun.

However, it wouldn’t take long for the world to learn about the Thompson gun, because just a few months after it went into production the submachine gun was at the center of an international conspiracy. A stash of Thompson guns were found hidden aboard a ship in New Jersey that was headed for Ireland. The guns were intended to arm the I.R.A (Irish Republican Army) who were embroiled in conflict with the British. The problem was that Britain was coincidentally one of the United States closest allies. 

The ties in the conspiracy led to a long drawn out investigation, which by association included Marcellus Thompson and his father in-law Colonel George Brinton McClellan Harvey. The very same George Harvey that helped secure the seed money from Thomas Ryan and long time friend of John Thompson. He was also an Auto Ordnance stockholder and the newly appointed American Ambassador to Great Britain, so it became a sticky situation politically and caused Harvey great embarrassment. The details of the story with all its twists and turns had the makings of a Hollywood movie plot and it would seem that it was more than enough bad publicity for one company.

But the negative light being shined on Auto Ordnance and their submachine gun was just getting started. Despite being immediately pulled into an international conflict, the company continued to market their guns. They targeted police forces around the country who were facing a rash of crimes by a new breed of motorized criminals. Bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom were becoming commonplace. Auto Ordnance went from pushing the "Trench Broom" to the military, to labeling it the Anti-Bandit Gun to help appeal to law enforcement.

One of the problems with this strategy was that the Thompson Submachine Gun was pretty expensive for the time. It retailed for around $225.00 and although, in time local police and government law enforcement would begin to arm themselves with the Thompson Gun, the criminals were the ones with the cash and were already carrying them. They became a symbol of legitimacy and power for the mobsters and gangs of the 1920s and 30s. The press during this time nicknamed the gun the “Tommy Gun”. Although he disliked the association with the criminal element, Thompson would later trademark the name. The long list of famous criminals that used the Thompson Submachine Gun continued to grow for the next two decades. Names like Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, and Ma Barker will all be forever associated with the Tommy Gun. Countless murders of police officers and rival gang members created a dark shadow of negativity over the gun and the company, which John Thompson had initially intended to be an asset to the U.S. Military. 

As if the whirlwind of controversy and negative press wasn’t enough, there was still plenty of drama remaining for Auto Ordnance and their sub-machine gun. After John Thompson’s partial retirement, and the death of Thomas Fortune Ryan in 1928, control of the company landed in the hands of  Ryan’s heirs. 

The debt to Ryan had never been resolved and it only grew greater with interest over the years. After his father's death, Walter Ryan took control of Auto Ordnance and foreclosed on the chattel mortgage that originally funded the company. The Ryan family made several attempts to sell, but Marcellus Thompson managed to block the sale each time. By 1939 Ryan’s family had grown tired of Auto Ordnance, which was now seemingly close to complete failure. They had little more in assets than a stockpile of old guns and a few run-down machines. 

Marcellus Thompson, however, sensed a great need for submachine guns growing in Europe. So, with the help of his partner and New York attorney Thomas A. Kane, as well as a savvy businessman named Russell McGuire, they managed to negotiate a deal with the Ryan Estate to purchase Auto Ordnance.

However, in the final hours as the deal was coming to a close, Marcellus Thompson had a major stroke that placed him in the hospital and would soon claim his life. McGuire capitalized on Marcellus and Kane’s misfortune by demanding a transfer of stock in order to complete the deal with the Ryans. Left with no choice, they agreed and McGuire became the majority shareholder in Auto Ordnance.

McGuire would profit greatly from the Tommy Gun. The gun had finally gained adaptation as the Army’s standard-issue submachine gun, and as Marcellus Thompson had predicted, the second World War brought a tremendous need for the submachine gun. 

John T. Thompson died in October 1940 at 80 years old, just as his gun was finally going to be used in the way he had always intended. Before his death, the amount of guns produced was modest. However, mass production of several variations of the Thompson Submachine Gun would continue throughout WWII by both Auto Ordnance and Savage Arms. During the four year span between 1940 and 1944, nearly 2-million submachine guns would roll off the production line for the war effort. 

Engineers at Savage would also redesign the gun in an effort to lower costs and speed up production. They completely eliminated the Blish lock, making the gun a straight blow-back action. This allowed the cocking knob to be mounted directly on the bolt, moving it from the top to the right side of the receiver. The Savage gun also had a slimmer receiver, a permanently affixed buttstock and they eliminated the fins on the barrel as well as the Cutt’s compensator. The Savage version was adopted by the military as the M1A1 in 1942. No one at Auto Ordnance was in full support of the changes Savage had made, but there was no denying that they managed to cut both production time and manufacturing costs.

Although, it seemed that McGuire had everything figured out, he would still face several lawsuits because of his somewhat questionable business practices. Both the Thompson and Blish Estates sued him over the unethical means by which he obtained control of Auto Ordnance. He was also sued for unpaid royalty payments over the use of the Cutt’s Compensator. The latter case also brought to light some price gouging by McGuire, which forced the renegotiations of government contracts. This included a restitution payment to the U.S. Government of over six million dollars.

After he cashed in on the war and cleared up his series of legal troubles, McGuire would allow Auto Ordnance to disappear into obscurity. It remained a subsidiary of McGuire Industries Incorporated, but was stripped of all machinery and all the remaining inventories were crated up. The entire company was consolidated into boxes and placed in a warehouse.

After the war, McGuire was growing eager to move on from the gun business. He accepted an offer of $385,000 for the rights and contents of Auto Ordnance. A toy manufacturer known as the Kilgore Manufacturing Company made the purchase. Kilgore had no intentions on entering the firearm business, they were simply looking to turn a quick profit by unloading Auto Ordnance to the Egyptian government, who they had learned were interested in building their own machine guns. However, the deal never came to fruition and the Auto Ordnance contents remained warehoused and untouched.

That’s when a New York Investment firm lead by a former Auto Ordnance executive named Frederic A. Willis stepped in to make a cut rate offer. Willis’s group only held the company assets for a short time before selling it to our company’s founder George Numrich Sr. At the time Numrich Arms Corporation was still located in Mamaroneck, NY, and was already building a reputation as a supplier of obsolete gun parts. The acquisition of Auto Ordnance was nothing out of the ordinary as Numrich had already absorbed the assets of other defunct gun manufacturers to add to their growing supply of gun parts. These included Hopkins & Allen, Forehand, and the Standard Firearms Company.

However, when the contents of Auto Ordnance was received in New York, it was discovered that there were eighty-six completely assembled submachine guns. Numrich immediately registered the weapons with the Treasury Department, which resulted in a $200 tax claim for each gun. 

This cost was levied against both Willis and the Kilgore Company who unknowingly sold fully-automatic weapons without a class four federal “machine gun” license. Although, neither party faced prosecution because they were both found to be ignorant of the contents, Kilgore was ultimately charged with a $12,000 tax penalty.

Numrich added the contents obtained from the purchase of Auto Ordnance to their growing inventory of gun parts. However, after their move to West Hurley, NY from Mamaroneck, they would also begin manufacturing the guns.  They first built a .45 caliber semi-auto version of the gun in 1974. They would go on to manufacture the 1928 full auto and the M1 military variation, as well as a 1911 pistol in several calibers, and they would offer a full catalog of Auto Ordnance merchandise. This included the 1927A1 in deluxe and standard models, 1927A5 Thompson Pistol, 1927A3 .22 caliber carbine, violin cases that could fit a Thompson Gun, drum magazines, and much, much more.

Numrich continued to manufacture these guns up until 1999 when they sold Auto Ordnance. They would be the last to manufacture the Tommy Gun as a fully automatic weapon.

Although Auto Ordnance had been plagued with bad publicity and has switched hands many times, it has always been associated with one of the world’s most recognizable firearms. The Tommy Gun had a reputation that far exceeded its actual production or sales, but it maintained an allure that has never allowed it to completely slip away. There has always been someone that wanted to keep General Thompson’s gun and his company going. To this day, variations of the Thompson gun can still be purchased and although they will not be the automatic “Trench Broom” of the 1920s, they will be a representation of a tumultuous and eventful era in the American history.