Gen. John T. Thompson


John T. Thompson

A Brief History

John T. Thompson was born in Newport Kentucky, December 31, 1860. His father was Lt. Col. James Thompson, his mother was Maria Taliaferro (pronounced ‘Toliver’). Thompson’s father, an 1851 graduate of West Point, earned several promotions for gallantry as an artillery officer in the battles of Glendale and Chickamauga during the Civil War. He later taught at Indiana University as a professor of military science, until his death in 1880. Lt. Col. Thompson was a strict disciplinarian with a strong will, and strong character, but was also soft-spoken and philosophical. These same traits would later be found in his son John.

John Thompson grew up at Army posts in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and California. At age sixteen he decided to make the military his career. In 1877 he entered Indiana University, and a year later entered West Point. In 1882 he graduated eleventh in his class at the age of twenty one.

As a newly commissioned 2nd. Lt., Thompson was first stationed at his birthplace, Newport Kentucky, with the U.S. Second Artillery. From 1882 to 1889 he attended the Army’s engineering and artillery schools, and was assigned to several posts. In 1890 he was transferred to the Army Ordnance Dept. where he served through the rank of Brigadier General.

Until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, John Thompson’s military service was routine and uneventful. During the War, he used his weapons training to its fullest advantage. He became a small arms specialist, and took charge of the Army’s ordnance supplies and logistics.

At the start of the War he was promoted to Lt. Col., and appointed Chief Ordnance Officer under General Shafter in Cuba. Thompson was recognized for his skills in logistics, and was able to restore order to an Army supply system that had become hopelessly broken down. He was personally recognized for his efforts that helped deliver more than 18,000 tons of munitions to the War, without a single accident.

It was during this time that an event happened that would later result in the invention of the Submachine gun. Thompson was approached by 2nd Lt. John H. Parker, who had learned that fifteen Gatling guns were assigned to Thompson’s ordnance depot in Tampa Florida, without any orders for their disposition. Parker not only wanted the guns to use in the War, he also wanted to create a new Gatling gun detachment, and prove to the Army the effectiveness of rapid-fire weapons. (A very ambitious venture, considering the Army’s reluctance to upgrade even its main battle rifle, the antique single-shot Springfield, designed in the 1860’s.)

Thompson was very receptive to Parker’s idea. He not only gave him the guns, he also placed Parker in charge of a large supply of reserve ammunition and helped him secretly ship everything to Cuba. Parker would later become a part of history at the battle of San Juan Hill, earning himself the nickname, Gatling Gun Parker. It was at this point in his life that John Thompson dedicated himself to correct the sorry state of American military small arms. He would later be credited with being the first Army Ordnance Dept. officer to recognize the merits of automatic pistols and rifles.

In 1904 Thompson and Col. Louis A. LaGarde conducted tests to find the caliber most suited for military handgun ammunition. The tests included firing shots into live cattle at a Chicago slaughterhouse, and into human cadavers obtained from medical schools. The conclusion? Large and slow moving bullets of about .45 caliber were much more destructive than smaller bullets moving at high velocity. With this knowledge in hand, Thompson was instrumental in developing the .45 caliber rimless cartridge, later adopted for use in the Colt Model 1911 pistol designed by John Browning. Eventually this same cartridge would be chambered in Thompson's Submachine gun.

Tired of fighting the Army to persuade them of the need to adopt automatic weapons, John Thompson surprised everyone at the Ordnance Dept., and retired in 1914. He went to work for the Remington Arms Corporation, managing the construction of the worlds largest rifle factory at Eddystone Pennsylvania. The factory was built to support the War effort in Europe, and eventually was producing rifles at the rate of two thousand a day. The rifles produced at Eddystone were the .303 Enfield for the British Army, and the 7.62 Mosin-Nagant for the Russians.

Successful with his efforts in directing the Eddystone factory, but still consumed with his idea of a lightweight personal machinegun, Thompson decided he would develop one at home, in his spare time, using his own private capitol. He would then submit it to the Army Ordnance Dept. as a civilian inventor. Thompson hoped his invention would not only hasten the end of the War, but would also earn him a good deal of money in the process. So, in 1915, John T. Thompson began his research to create a machinegun, that would be unlike anything the world had ever seen.

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