|Original Tommy Gun|
The Thompson submachine gun—nicknamed the "tommy gun," "Chicago Piano," "chopper" and "typewriter"—was described by a Collier's magazine crime reporter: "the greatest aid to bigger and better business the criminal has discovered in this generation ... a diabolical machine of death ... the highest powered instrument of destruction that has yet been placed at the convenience of the criminal element ... an infernal machine ... the diabolical acme of human ingenuity in man's effort to devise a mechanical contrivance with which to murder his neighbor." With accolades like that, the American Mafia quite naturally became the weapon's best customer.
The weapon was named the Thompson (inevitably shortened to the affectionate "tommy") after its coinventor, Brigadier General John T. Thompson, director of arsenals during World War I. Thompson had tried to get the weapon ready for use in trench warfare (he called the weapon "a trench broom"), but it was not perfected until 1920. Weighing less than 9 pounds and firing .45 caliber bullets from a circular magazine, the Thompson was effective up to 600 yards and could spew out 1,500 rounds a minute.
To Thompson's disappointment the army had no interest in the weapon which at $175 seemed expensive. Ironically, its prodigious rate of fire also worked against it. The army felt it used too much ammunition.
The underworld had a more positive attitude about the gun. Organized bootlegging gangs found it a spectacular aid as an intimidator weapon during hijackings, and the way it could turn an automobile into a sieve in a half-minute made it very attractive for assassination purposes.
Best of all, it was completely legal. While many states and cities had passed laws similar to New York's 1911 Sullivan Law, prohibiting the possession of easily concealed weapons without a permit, there were no restrictions on tommy guns, which could even be ordered through the mail. When stricter federal and state laws finally were enacted, the underworld was still supplied, although the illegal price jumped into the thousands of dollars.
According to some crime historians, the first victims of the tommy gun were William H. McSwiggin, an assistant state's attorney, and Jim Doherty and Tom Duffy, two hoodlums from the O'Donnell Gang who were taken out in front of the Pony Inn in Cicero, Illinois. It was said by some that Al Capone handled the weapon personally.
|Ilustration: mobster with tommy gun|
Capone was a true devotee of the tommy gun, but he was hardly the first. Tommy guns were first used by the Saltis-McErlane Gang of Chicago's Southwest Side. Both Joe Saltis and Frank McErlane were a bit dimwitted, and they had murderous instincts. They took gleefully to a killing weapon on which all one had to do was squeeze the trigger and hold on. After them, every mob in Chicago and every Mafia family around the country had to have its supply of tommies.
After the underworld demonstrated the value of the tommy gun, the U.S. Army and its allies took a more positive view of the weapon, supplying their troops with almost 2 million of them in World War II.