The First Production Sub Machinegun

With the War in Europe over, Auto Ordnance Corp. realized that the potential for military sales of their remarkable new gun was limited, but they continued to actively court both the Army and Navy with the hopes that the submachine gun would be accepted as standard issue. This was accomplished through various field trials and demonstrations.

The Thompson Submachine gun had it’s first public demonstration in August 1920 at the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. Everyone who witnessed the gun in action was amazed at it’s compact size and massive firepower. The prototype gun shown, firing at a rate of about 1,500 rnds per minute, could empty a one-hundred round drum in four seconds. At this rate, the sound was described as being like “the loud ripping of a rag”. Everyone agreed that this was the most revolutionary small arm of its day.

Pleased with the guns reception in its public debut, Thompson approached the Colt Firearms Co. with a proposal to manufacture it under contract. Thompson hoped that the prestige of the Colt logo, and the company’s close relationship with the military, would hasten it’s acceptance into U.S. military service. However, after a thorough evaluation of the gun, Colt was so impressed that it instead offered to purchase all rights to the Thompson for an even $1,000,000. This could have earned Auto Ordnance a considerable profit, but Thomas Ryan, AO’s majority stock holder, told Thompson that “if it’s worth a million to them, it’s worth more than a million to us.” So the Colt offer was rejected, and the original contract was signed.

In addition to the Colt contract to make 15,000 basic firing mechanisms for $680,705.85, and another $9,105 for spare parts, Auto Ordnance let contracts with Remington Arms for walnut gun stocks for $65,456; and Lyman Gun Site Corp. for adjustable sites worth $69,063. With the signing of the Colt contract, Auto Ordnance shut down its Cleveland research operation and moved to a rented building on the Colt company grounds in Hartford Connecticut where it would oversee the production of the Thompson.

The first Colt guns came off the assembly line at the end of March 1921. These first guns marked "Model of 1921" were sent to Auto Ordnance salesmen, and the Army and Marines for evaluation. Auto Ordnance salesmen demonstrated the gun to the military throughout Europe. But, in-spite of the enthusiastic response it received wherever it was shown, sales were minimal. The submachine gun was simply a class of firearm that was ahead of its time. This, and the depressed economic conditions of a post War society, left very little money for governments to purchase ‘experimental’ weapons with no battle history. Even the US Army was willing to overlook the Thompson’s bargain price of $225, and pay $650 for the outdated Lewis Gun.

Thompson submachine gun advertisementWith military purchases almost non-existent, Auto Ordnance decided that it had to beef up submachine gun sales to State and Local Police departments. AO was quick to take advantage of the public’s concern over the new “motorized bandits” that were terrorizing small towns. These were criminals that would rob a bank and quickly leave town in their get-away cars; often exchanging gunfire with the local police who were hot on their trail. But even with sales to the PD’s of New York, Boston and San Francisco, and to the State Police in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Connecticut and Michigan, sales to law enforcement hadn't materialized in the quantities expected. By 1925 only three thousand Thompsons had been sold. To help boost sales, Auto Ordnance soon resorted to advertising the Thompson Submachine gun as the answer to every possible solution that a firearm could provide. The most notorious being one that depicted a Cowboy blazing away with his Thompson, defending his ranch from Mexican cattle rustlers and bandits.

This sort of advertising may seem incredible today, but in 1925 anyone with $225 could purchase a Thompson Submachine gun either by mail order, or from the local hardware or sporting goods store. And with military and police sales being flat, Auto Ordnance sold it's machineguns through every legal outlet it could. It wasn't until 1934 that machineguns, and other classes of firearms such as suppressors (silencers) and short barreled rifles and shotguns, were eventually placed under strict Federal Regulation with the passage of the National Firearms Act (NFA).

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