July 17, 2020
Affiliate Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. We earn from qualifying purchases.
The Thompson submachine gun, the “Tommy Gun,” is the gun which is said to have made the “Roaring 20s” roar, and its use in that decade by gangsters earned it the moniker “Chicago Typewriter.” So, it only makes sense in this issue to cover this iconic American firearm. Currently, there is only one company making this firearm — Auto-Ordnance.
Auto-Ordnance offers numerous semi-auto carbine versions of the Thompson. They have several models of the simplified M1 (it and the even more bare bones version M1A1 were issued to our troops in World War II), as well as several models of their 1927-A1 Thompson, which more closely resembles the original models which went into production in 1921. You can have your choice of the original steel receiver, a lighter version with an aluminum receiver, stockless pistol versions with a detachable stock, carbines with 16.5-inch barrels or a version with a 14.5-inch barrel with the Cutts compensator permanently attached to provide a total barrel length of 16 inches. Auto-Ordnance also offers short-barreled rifle (SBR) versions if you’re up for the additional paperwork. The version sent to me is the Auto-Ordnance 1927-A1 Deluxe Carbine which features a standard stock and a 16.5-inch barrel tipped with the Cutts compensator. It arrives in a hard case with foam cutouts and one 20-round stick mag and one 50-round drum, which were the magazine options available at the time when this gun was new. The 30-round stick mags came later…but I had Auto-Ordnance send me some of those too.
The Thompson submachine gun was used famously by gangsters, federal agents, police officers, and American serviceman; it is a piece of American history, and you will find no shortage of reference material if you’re interested in this design. There are many people far more knowledgeable about the Thompson’s history and design than me. Countless books have been written about the history of this gun in America and in war time. My review of this piece is instead oriented from a user perspective as, even though I am now in my fifties and a “professional gunwriter,” other than a very brief two-mags-and-then-done exposure to a full-auto Thompson at a machine gun shoot, I have never before had the chance to examine in depth or test one of these firearms.
So, experience this gun with me, as I enjoy this piece of history with virginal eyes and hands…or something like that. The original submachine gun fired from an open bolt design, however this gun fires from a closed bolt. It is chambered in .45 ACP. The first thing you’ll notice upon picking up one of these firearms is the weight. It is heavy, which should be no surprise as it is constructed entirely of steel and wood, and a lot of both. This weight is both good and bad.
If you go online and look for videos of people shooting Tommy Guns on full-auto you will see that the weight enables even inexperienced shooters to keep all their rounds on target during a full magazine dump. With its extended 16.5-inch barrel, compared to the shorter 10.5-inch tube of the original submachine gun, this piece is even heavier, and when shooting on semi auto it is just a pussycat. There is hardly any recoil, your main challenge will be holding the gun up long enough to get through a magazine. My test gun, when empty with no magazine in place, weighed 11 pounds 11 ounces according to my scale. 10.5-inch barreled SBR and SMG versions (even with the lighter horizontal handguards) are over nine pounds empty. A loaded 20-round magazine adds 21 ounces to that total, and a loaded 50-round drum adds four pounds, ten ounces — you see why these things were so controllable on full-auto?
To my hands and brain this gun felt bigger than what it actually was because of its weight. Overall length of this beast is 41 inches, but because a substantial amount of that weight is in the receiver, to the rear, it is not significantly muzzle heavy.
The Cutts compensator is pinned to the front of the barrel, and the post front sight is dovetailed into the compensator. The compensator has four slots across the top, two narrow (closer to the chamber) and two slightly wider. Roughly seven inches of the barrel sports fins, which are meant to help cool it down during full-auto fire. These fins are very stylish, but take a bit of work to machine. Both the barrel and receiver sport a very nice blued finish.
The forward vertical grip is American walnut, as is the pistol grip and stock, and the wood on my sample was very nicely figured. The forward grip is attached via screw to a steel tab extending five inches or so from the receiver. The vertical foregrip has four generous finger grooves and fills the hand. The pistol grip has only one finger groove. I have medium-size hands and the pistol grip fit my hand perfectly. The bolt handle is a large knob at the top of the receiver. It reciprocates with every shot. The bolt handle is slotted…because if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be able to see the front sight. But, interestingly, the bolt with its slot and “wings” to either side seemed like it could be used as a larger, crude rear sight, although it was taller than the actual notch rear sight. One of my plans when heading to the range was to find out how accurate firing was using the bolt handle as a rear sight. Many cops, gangsters, and law-abiding citizens probably did just that, but not U.S. servicemen, as the bolt handle on the M1 and M1A1 Thompsons was moved to the right side of the receiver.
The rear sight is a complicated piece. You have a simple and very shallow notch for a “battle sight.” If you want a more precise rear sight, flip up the fully adjustable piece lying safely atop the receiver, protected by two steel wings. It is a checkered aperture adjustable for elevation. The elevation ladder is marked all the way up to “6”, although I don’t know how many people actually fired a Thompson out to 600 yards. Volley fire at that distance would be quite interesting. While the topside bolt handle is just as easily worked if you’re a lefty, the same can’t be said of the selector and magazine release. The safety selector is a lever on the left side of the receiver, just above your thumb. To the rear is Safe. Rotating it down and forward ninety degrees is the Fire position.
The magazine release is a pivoting lever on the left side of the receiver. Push it upward with your thumb and the magazine (if you’re using a stick magazine) pops right out. As the magazine release can a bit awkward to hit with your right thumb, depending on your hand size, some Thompson users tended to grab the spent magazine in their left hand and hit the magazine release with their left thumb at the same time.
Both the original 20- and later 30-round stick magazines are double-stack and double-feed designs, simple and reliable and all steel. (Thirty-rounders were not available during the gangster era.) The bolt locks back on an empty stick magazine. If you want to lock the bolt back on your own you’ll have to reach inside the magazine well (such as it is) to push upward on a tab above the magazine catch while retracting the bolt. To release the bolt, just work the handle. Seating a fully loaded stick magazine on a closed bolt takes an extra bit of force.
Compared to the straight-back stocks of AR-15s the drop of the Thompson’s stock more closely resembles something you’d see on a hunting rifle. It looks neat, but honestly feels awkward compared to the ARs I spend most of my time behind, and would take some time getting used to. The odd stock configuration was just one of the unusual things about this gun that I found myself enjoying, simply because it is SO different than the black guns I shoulder so much.
Weirdly, as the gun was designed in an era where the average American male was five foot eight inches tall and probably 150 pounds, the length of pull (LOP) on this gun (the distance from the trigger to the back of the stock) is an incredible 17 inches. Seventeen! For comparison, a fully extended AR stock provides a LOP of 15 inches or less. The buttplate of the Thompson’s stock is smooth black steel, but it is slightly curved to help keep it against your shoulder. Let’s talk about the provided drum magazine, as it is its own animal, both when loading the rounds into the magazine, and loading the magazine into the rifle. First, you’ll need to take the magazine key off the front of the drum (slide it down toward the bottom of the drum to pop it off), followed by the magazine cover. Loaded rounds are then dropped into the magazine nose up, ten rounds per each of the five internal sections. Replace the cover and the magazine key, and use the key to wind the magazine spring 9-11 clicks. FYI the drum magazine with its all-steel construction weighs two pounds, five ounces unloaded.
To insert or remove the drum magazine from the gun the bolt needs to be locked back. This isn’t an issue when inserting the drum…but the drum doesn’t lock the bolt open when the last round is fired. To help you push up that internal tab to lock the bolt back when the drum is in place Auto-Ordnance provides what they call a “Third Hand.” This is a flat piece of steel that needs to be inserted up into the guide rails for the stick magazines. While pulling the bolt the Third Hand is used to push up on that tab to lock the bolt back. And then you’ll still have to push up on the magazine release to slide the drum mag out of the gun. After all that (plus the fact that loaded drums rattle), is it any wonder the U.S. Military said no thanks to drum magazines for combat, and instead just used longer 30-round stick mags? As pictures tell a thousand words, the owner’s manual does a good job of explaining and showing all of the above, as well as how to disassemble the Thompson for cleaning.
Disassembly isn’t really complicated, but you will need a flat-head screwdriver (or something similar) to depress a hard to reach button so you can finish sliding the frame off the upper receiver. Forget the fins on the barrel, there is a lot of machining required to create a Thompson receiver, especially when building a Thompson which accepts drum magazines, as those require additional horizontal cuts in the magazine well. Machining was how you made every gun back in the day, but today much more streamlined manufacturing processes (MIM, injection molding, stamped metal) are available which reduce manufacturing time and thus cost. While Auto-Ordnance is now using CNC machines to cut their receivers instead of tradesmen using analog equipment, it still takes a significant amount of steel and time to create one of these guns. I suspect that is why no other company is currently making them (those patents listed on the side of the Thompson’s receiver have long since expired).
The original Thompson used a “Blish lock” to reduce recoil. This friction delayed blowback action designed by John Blish in 1915 used two angled blocks sliding against each other to slow down the bolt. The Blish lock worked, but was expensive and time consuming to manufacture. The M1 Thompson SMG designed for the U.S. military did away with the Blish lock and went to a straight blowback action, which is also what you’ll find in this Auto-Ordnance. This carbine sports most of the original features of the Thompson design, and more closely resembles those guns used in the 20’s and 30’s during the Great Depression rather than the military’s M1 and M1A1.
Let’s talk briefly of the differences between the “gangster guns” of the 1920s and the Thompsons fielded by our troops in World War II. The changes done to the gun were done primarily to reduce cost, which also reduced machining time, and thus speed up production. They went to a horizontal handguard, got rid of the flip-up adjustable rear sight, moved the bolt handle to the right side of the receiver, removed the cooling fins from the barrel as well as the Cutts compensator, exchanged the Blish lock for a straight blowback operating system, went with a cheaper metal finish, and eliminated the cuts in the receiver needed for drum magazines as a 30-round stick magazine was developed. With the M1A1 they went to a fixed firing pin and eliminated the hammer. All of these changes reduced the cost of a Thompson from roughly $2,500 (in today’s dollars) to $660.
That high cost of the Thompson in the 1920s is the main reason few people other than gangsters and cops had them. In the 1920s, anyone with the cash could walk into a hardware or gun store and buy a full-auto weapon like a Thompson SMG or BAR, without filing any federal paperwork, which is exactly how the Founding Fathers of this country intended things to be when they wrote the Second Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to keep and bear weapons of war in case they (once again) had to fight off their own government. If you think that’s wrong, read some history — I’d recommend the Federalist Papers. While there were a number of highly publicized gangland slayings (such as the St. Valentines Day Massacre), actual murder rates of the 1920s were not high, indicating that ready access to firearms does not cause crime. While the Cutts compensator does look cool, in fact it does almost nothing, even on full-auto, while adding length, weight, cost, machining time… Gas pressure is what makes a compensator function, and combining the low-pressure .45 ACP cartridge with a 10.5-inch barrel means the gas pressure at the muzzle is very low. The weight of the Thompson does more to tame recoil than any muzzle brake ever could — fully loaded with a 30-round magazine the M1 and M1A1 are roughly 12 pounds.
The trigger pull on my Thompson was…interesting. The trigger itself is a smooth, curved, steel piece that feels good under your finger. There is a strong trigger return spring that adds quite a bit of weight to the trigger pull, which is long, but smooth. It is also heavy, measuring 11.5-pounds on my sample, but weirdly I was able to shoot the carbine like it was equipped with a lighter trigger. This is due to two reasons — 1. The trigger pull is long enough that I was able to stage it right before breaking, verify my sight picture, and then fire the shot, and 2. The gun is so heavy that the heavy trigger pull doesn’t cause you to shake and wiggle the gun. All of the accuracy results you see in the accompanying table were accomplished using the adjustable rear aperture sight, shooting off sand bags. The sight radius on this carbine is a huge 28 inches, and I was able to do very respectable groups.
The notch on the “battle sight” is so minimalist as to be nearly useless. For an experiment, I shot a full 20-round magazine at 25 yards offhand using the rear battle sight, then I put up a fresh target and repeated the process, only this time using the bolt handle with its wide deep notch as the rear sight. Not only was the group fired using the bolt handle as a rear sight roughly a third smaller, it was right where the sights were pointing, whereas when using the battle sight the group was a few inches low. Luckily, the battle sight on the military’s M1 and M1A1 Thompson’s (as that gun’s bolt handle is on the right side) is better than the one found on this gun, with both a bigger notch and a small aperture for more precise fire.
The Thompson SMG was designed to fire the standard military .45 ACP cartridge, which has a brass case and a 230-grain FMJ bullet. Auto-Ordnance recommends for their Thompson replica. There is a hugely wide and long feed ramp in the receiver between the magazine and the barrel chamber to help aid reliability. You don’t hear a lot about “reliability issues” with the Thompson, and the only battlefield anecdote I ever read with a problem Thompson involved a bad magazine. I only had one malfunction with my gun, a failure to chamber. When I examined the round I saw the brass case was wrinkled, but whether it came out of the box like that or it happened between the magazine and the chamber I don’t know.
Because of the low pressure of the cartridge and the large volume of a .45’s bore, longer barrel lengths don’t really give you much of a velocity increase with the .45 ACP. If you’re talking 230-grain FMJ loads, whether you’re shooting them out of a five-, eight-, 10.5- or 16-inch barrel you probably won’t see much more than a 50 fps total variation in velocity. Auto-Ordnance sells a number of accessories for the Thompson in addition to spare 10-, 20-, 30-, and 50-round magazines. There is a World War II-style canvas sling as well as a canvas mag pouch to hold three 30-round magazines, plus a violin case which fits their Thompson pistol, and a replica of the classic FBI hard case (for SBRs with detachable buttstocks or pistols).Auto-Ordnance sells a number of versions of their 1927-A1 Thompson, including a gold-plated tiger-striped model (with matching stick and drum mags) for $4,173, but this more historically accurate base model has an MSRP of $1,551. It is a truly unique piece and I enjoyed my time with it.
Auto-Ordnance 1927 A1 Thompson Specs
- Caliber: .45 ACP
- Action: Semi auto, blowback
- Barrel Length: 16.5"
- Receiver: Blued steel
- Muzzle device: Cutts compensator
- Overall Length: 41"
- Weight: 11 lbs. 11 oz. (without magazine)
- Foregrip: Vertical walnut
- Grip: American walnut
- Stock: American walnut, 17" LOP
- Sights: Post front, fixed battle and adjustable rear
- Magazine: 20-rd. incl, optional 10- and 30-round sticks, 50- and 100-round drums
- Trigger: 11.5 lbs. (as tested)
- Accessories: Soft cases, hard cases, spare parts
- MSRP: $1,835
- Manufacturer: Auto-Ordnance (part of the Kahr Firearms Group), Auto-Ordnance.com
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.