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Tommy Gun: How General Thompson's Submachine Gun Wrote History

Tommy Gun: How General Thompson's Submachine Gun Wrote History

by Bill Yenne

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The Trench Broom. The Annihilator. The Persuader. The Chopper. The Chicago Typewriter. The Tommy Gun.

The Thompson submachine gun has gone by many names, and for nearly a century the gun's image has been indelibly marked on the popular consciousness. In this broad-reaching cultural and military history, Bill Yenne charts the tommy gun's unpredictable and one


The Trench Broom. The Annihilator. The Persuader. The Chopper. The Chicago Typewriter. The Tommy Gun.

The Thompson submachine gun has gone by many names, and for nearly a century the gun's image has been indelibly marked on the popular consciousness. In this broad-reaching cultural and military history, Bill Yenne charts the tommy gun's unpredictable and one-of-a-kind career, from its infamy in the hands of Al Capone and the Chicago mobsters, to its shady days with the IRA, to its indelible place in the arsenal of World War II, and its truly immortal and ongoing role in Hollywood.

The tommy gun is without a doubt the most famous, and the most infamous, American firearm of the twentieth century. Since its birth in the aftermath of World War I, the tommy gun has enjoyed a varied career on both sides of the law. Though General John T. Thompson invented it for the American military, it first found notoriety thanks to its part in events such at St. Valentine's Day Massacre. But when the United States entered World War II, the gun's true power as an essential, life-saving weapon made it an iconic weapon of the American GI.

Full of incredible stories from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, America's gangland, and Hollywood studio back lots, Bill Yenne's Tommy Gun is the definitive story of this unique American icon.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An in-depth, entertaining history of the legendary weapon. John Taliaferro Thompson (1860-1940) served after 1890 in the U.S. Army ordnance developing small arms and ammunition, many of which are still in use. Prolific historian Yenne (Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II, 2009, etc.) delivers a meticulous overview of 20th-century infantry weapons, concentrating on Thompson's creation. He retired in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, a bloody stalemate in which machine guns gave the defense enormous advantage. Thompson theorized that a portable automatic rifle in the hands of charging infantry might restore the balance. A skilled entrepreneur, he quickly attracted investment and engineers. Yenne delivers a clear description of the technical problems overcome before Thompson's company perfected an automatic weapon weighing little more than a rifle which was-unlike the heavier, rival BAR-easy to fire without bipod support. With armies downsizing after WWI, nobody bought the new weapon, but it caught the attention of criminals; Yenne devotes many chapters to the murderous activities of gangsters and the media that fawned over them. However, professional soldiers knew its advantages. Marines fighting insurgencies in China, the Caribbean and Central America gave high marks to the Tommy gun. Thompson was out of the picture when WWII produced an avalanche of orders that resulted in 1.5 million guns before production ceased in 1944. Yenne continues his story to the present day, recounting the gun's exploits in innumerable movies and TV series, as well as its commercial fate as unrelated companies continue to turn out replicas. A rich combination offirearm and social history.
From the Publisher
"Lethal-firepower fans should warm to this comprehensive, nicely illustrated account of the weapon that made the drive-by shooting feasible. . . . The tommy gun's enduring image plays as large a part in Yenne's presentation as its technical details and legitimate applications, which only makes this all the more excellent a history of one of the most durable, storied, and deadly of weapons."—Booklist

“To find out everything there is to know about Gen. Thompson’s trench broom, check out Bill Yenne’s Tommy Gun. . . . If you’re looking for fascinating stories, Yenne delivers. . . . Yenne reminds us that every generation is remembered for the artifacts it leaves behind: Harley Davidsons. Route 66. Coonskin caps. The Apollo 11 lunar module. The Tommy gun.”—Bookgasm.com

"An in-depth, entertaining history of the legendary weapon."—Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Bill Yenne and his work:


"A must-read."—Shooting Illustrated on Tommy Gun


"Excels as a study in leadership."

The New Yorker on Sitting Bull


"In this remarkable, tragic portrait, Sitting Bull emerges as a thoughtful, passionate, and very human figure."

Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Sitting Bull


"Splendid. . .a book that has the rare quality of being both an excellent reference work and a pleasure to read."

The Wall Street Journal on Indian Wars


"Yenne's readable, anecdotal style realistically depicts life in combat and on the home front."

Booklist on Rising Sons

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St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt

PART ONEMen and ArmsCHAPTER 1NecessityNecessity is the mother of invention.The frequently used maxim is as true of weapons as of any aspect of industrial design. So it was with the Thompson submachine gun and for the man who thought it up.First, there was the necessity.In war, there is nothing, save death and mutilation, that a fighting man fears more than a deadlock. Stalemates tend to become meat grinders, in which neither side can advance and neither side dares to retreat. There is a reason that they call it a deadlock.The worst stalemate--and the most terrible campaign in the history of warfare--was that on the Western Front in World War I.This war, known as the Great War before a second world war necessitated numbering the first, had begun in the summer of 1914 with a series of ultimatums that issued from Europe's leading powers. Between the last week of July and the first week of August, declarations of war were exchanged, and soon the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey were officially at war with the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and tsarist Russia. There was a flurry of excitement, a flourish of angry banter and colorful banners, and troops rode off to war fully expecting to be home for Christmas. For those few weeks, the war seemed very abstract.The opening gambit on the Western Front was a daring move by the Germans in mid-August that nearly brought the war on that front to a swift and decisive completion. Field Marshal Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, who had headed the German General Staff until his retirement in 1905, had drafted a bold strategy to defeat France in five weeks by sweeping through Belgium and the Netherlands, capturing Paris, and encircling the French army before it could fully mobilize. Military historians will argue forever about whether or not the Schlieffen Plan, as the field marshal wrote it, would have worked,but most indications are that it would have. If it had, there would not have been a stalemate.But it was never implemented.Schlieffen died in 1913, and Field Marshal Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who had succeeded him as chief of staff, decided to monkey with the plan by reducing the troop levels from those which Schlieffen had meticulously calculated. This was partly because of an unexpectedly effective Russian offensive on the Eastern Front, and partly because of a haughty underestimation of the armed forces of France by the German General Staff. The German armies had easily defeated France in a few months during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and they were still feeling pretty cocky in 1914.Despite the reduction of the size of their forces, the German offensive slashed quickly through Belgium and into France. It moved efficiently in its early stages, crushing the Belgians, mauling the French, and battering the British Expeditionary Force that had come in to help. However, as often happens in campaigns involving rapid movement, the German armies outran their supply lines and had to slow down. When they did, it gave the French and the Brits a chance to catch their breath and organize their defenses.The Anglo-French forces managed to halt the German advance east of Paris in the First Battle of the Marne in September. Because their troop levels had been short-changed by Moltke's overconfidence, the Germans were unable to resume their offensive. Meanwhile, however, the French and British armies were insufficient to push the Germans back. Both sides dug in to fight the terrible war of attrition that would characterize the Western Front for nearly four years. In August nobody had expected that it would happen like this.During these terrible years, some of the largest armies in world history built some of the longest and most elaborate networks of trenches and defensive positions that had ever been seen. Stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea, many of these lines of "temporary" trenches are still visible nearly a century later.The stalemate became the monster that consumed lives by the million. Numerous attempts--and several major campaigns--were launched in an effort to break out of the trenches. After seeing the German army advance hundreds of miles in a few weeks, it was disheartening to their military planners--and those of the Anglo-French Allies--that most of these campaigns measured their advances by less than ten miles, usually by fewer than five, sometimes by less than one.One case in point was the bloody campaign on the Somme River, oftencalled the "Meat Grinder of the Somme," during the latter half of 1916. The Allies initially committed twenty-four divisions in a massive effort to break the stalemate, eventually pouring seventy-six more into the meat grinder. On July 1, the initial assault by the British cost 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed in action, making it the bloodiest single day in the history of the British army. When this horrible battle ended half a year later, the British had taken 420,000 casualties, the French 204,000, and the Germans 435,000. The front lines had moved five miles.In 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, lasted three months, cost more than 700,000 casualties, and resulted in an advance that was measured in mere yards. These minuscule gains, balanced against almost incomprehensible losses, had a crushing effect on morale both in the trenches and on the home fronts of the affected nations. Until the introduction of the American Expeditionary Force into combat in the summer of 1918, the deadly deadlock was never broken.This gridlock existed because neither side had nor could achieve a decisive advantage. Artillery was deadly, and millions of rounds were fired, but you don't gain ground with artillery. You gain ground with infantry.During the bloodiest years of World War I on the Western Front, both sides were far more adept at defending against the other side's infantry than they were in giving their infantrymen a means to crack the impasse.Both sides desperately sought weapons that might provide that offensive edge. Poison gas was deployed, but it only served to drive up casualty figures. Large, lumbering vehicles that the British called tanks (as in water tank) to disguise the fact that they were armed and armored, were introduced, but the initial results were disappointing. You only gain ground with infantry.The yards or miles could not be captured if not for the troops. Those men who survived artillery barrages and the poison gas attacks stood up, climbing from the relative safety of the trenches, and ran or crawled forward, through the mud, the tangled masses of barbed wire, and the withering fire of the heavy machine guns. They called this hellish world between the opposing trenches "no-man's-land" for a reason.An infantryman who survived no-man's-land long enough to reach the enemy trenches faced the prospect of trying to capture those trenches with his rifle or his sidearm.Year after year, as the nightmare on the Western Front was unfolding, a number of people had the idea that the stalemate might be broken by putting a machine gun into the hands of the infantryman. Having been used in the Boer War (1899-1902) and in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), machineguns were first used on a mass scale as a standard weapon during World War I. Though they had proven their potent deadliness, they were heavy as hell, and awkward to boot. Putting a machine gun into the hands of the infantryman was much easier said than done. A single soldier could hardly, if at all, carry one alone. They were good for a fixed gun position, but not as an infantry weapon.But why couldn't they be?One of several men who decided to answer the question was General John Taliaferro Thompson, late of the Small Arms Division of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department.TOMMY GUN. Copyright © 2009 by Bill Yenne. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

BILL YENNE is the author of more than two dozen books on military and historical topics, including Rising Sons: The Japanese American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II; Superfortress: The B-29 and American Airpower in World War II, written with the legendary U.S. Air Force commander General Curtis E. LeMay. He lives in San Francisco, California.

BILL YENNE is the author of more than two dozen books on military and historical topics. The Wall Street Journal recently called his Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West "splendid" and went on to say that it "has the rare quality of being both an excellent reference work and a pleasure to read." His other works include The American Aircraft Factory in World War II, Operation Cobra and the Great Offensive: Sixty Days that Changed the Course of World War II, Aces: True Stories of Victory and Valor in the Skies of World War II, Black '41: The West Point Class of 1941 and the American Triumph in World War II, and The History of the US Air Force. He is a member of the American Aviation Historical Society, and is a regular contributor to International Air Power Review. He worked with the legendary US Air Force commander, General Curtis E. LeMay, to produce Superfortress: The B-29 and American Airpower in World War II. He lives in San Francisco.

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