By David Albert
The Thompson submachine gun (TSMG) is arguably the most intriguing and history-rich automatic weapon in existence. Many variations and hundreds of TSMG accessories generate collector interest similar to Lugers, Colt Revolvers, M1 Rifles, and Carbines. A multitude of paper items associated with the Thompson provide glimpses into its long history, and document its diverse use by police, gangsters, military forces, and civilians during the past 85+ years. The most frequently encountered Thompson paper items are manuals, company catalogs, advertisements, and other ephemera.
Items generally fall within three Thompson eras, beginning with the Colt era from 1921 to 1939, followed by the World War II era, and lastly the Kilgore/Numrich/Kahr era from 1949 to present. Early developmental paper items between 1916 and 1920 are rarely encountered. Like most Thompson items, original paper examples are expensive.
Auto-Ordnance produced high quality handbooks to accompany their Model of 1921 Thompsons, and their catalogs and advertisements featured beautiful illustrations that add to the Thompson mystique today. Six different Model of 1921 Handbooks were produced between 1921 and 1936, as the inventory of 15,000 Colt produced Thompsons sold slowly until the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. A handbook, and sometimes an instruction sheet accompanied each weapon, and additional Manuals of Instruction were produced by the company in 1936 and 1937. Auto-Ordnance catalogs and sales flyers produced between 1921 and 1936 showcased the TSMG variations made from the standard Model of 1921A, intended to generate greater interest while utilizing existing inventory. The 1923 Catalog contains remarkable historical content, and is also the catalog generating the most reproductions. Originals are scarce, and many may believe theirs to be original, but most are reproductions dating back to the early 1960s. The 1923 Catalog featured the Model of 1923 Thompson with a bipod and bayonet, chambered for the more powerful .45 Remington-Thompson cartridge, intended as competition to the BAR. Also featured was a Thompson submachine gun mounted on a motorcycle sidecar, and 30 TSMGs mounted in a Larsen all-metal attack plane, with 28 remotely operated, facing downwards, loaded with C-drums to strafe enemy positions. This setup was referenced as partial inspiration for later aerial gunships. While none of the unique offerings of the 1923 Catalog became commercially successful, it generated much greater interest decades after it was originally published.
Ownership of Auto-Ordnance transferred to Russell Maguire in 1939, who seized the opportunity to revive the struggling company. His timing proved perfect, providing him much wealth, and the contribution of his company’s TSMG to allied victory is well documented. A vast number of Thompson paper items are associated with the war years, including examples from Great Britain, Australia, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway, India, and the U.S. The weapon was primarily used by the Allies, but some Axis use resulted from capture. Examples of post-war Thompson manuals also exist from Yugoslavia and Israel.
The U.S. Marine Corps issued the first military manual for the TSMG in 1935, followed by an Army Standard Nomenclature List (SNL A-32) in 1936, and the classic War Department Field Manual (FM 23-40) in 1940. Each wartime TSMG shipped with an Auto-Ordnance Edition of 1940 Handbook, of which 5 different versions exist. Two War Department Technical Manuals were produced. (TM 9-1215 for the M1928A1, and TM 9-215 for the M1 Thompson) Upper echelon level repair manuals also exist, but are rarely encountered.
World War II era Thompson manuals, as well as other weapons manuals often tell fascinating stories. They may include unit markings, dates, weapon serial numbers, and even soldier’s names and personal information recorded in them. These features can leave a new owner wondering just what kind of action the soldier saw who previously used the manual. In some cases, a soldier’s information is accessible on the internet; since they may have been involved in a famous military event, gone on to do other things after their wartime experiences, or even given their life for their country.
Thousands of Thompsons were acquired by Britain through their Purchasing Commission and the U.S. Lend-Lease Program. As a result, several publications for Home Guard instruction were produced by companies such as Nicholson and Watson, John Murray, Whitcombe and Tombs, and Hodder and Stoughton. One such manual, in two variations, was published by Gale and Polden, and titled “The Thompson Mechanism Made Easy.” It was extremely well produced, and reproductions are prevalent today, but original examples can still be found. It features pictures of Colt Thompson #3386. The British War Office also produced several versions of Thompson manuals, three of which accompanied the “Small Arms Training” series of field manuals used during World War II. The 1944 version combined both the Thompson and the Sten SMG into one manual.
Three versions of a Model of 1921 Thompson manual were produced for the Vichy French government in 1941, 1942, and 1944 by Charles Lavauzelle & Co. They were prepared under Nazi occupation, due to the large number of Colt Thompsons purchased by the French in 1939, many of which ended up being used as police weapons after the French surrendered. Germany also referenced the French Thompsons in a small arms manual. Norway published two versions of a Thompson manual, the first of which was produced in Britain by exiled Norwegian forces. Some intriguing Italian Thompson manuals exist based upon British military manuals, and these were probably produced during the allied occupation of Italy. Many other examples exist that provide further history of the distribution of TSMGs to various forces.
Auto-Ordnance was sold to the Kilgore Manufacturing Company in 1949, and Kilgore produced at least one style of sales flyer for the M1A1 Thompson, which they intended to produce after their attempts to sell the Thompson to Egypt failed. For a short period of time, Frederick Willis, the former Maguire executive who brokered the deal to Kilgore, purchased back the Thompson, and sold it to Numrich Arms in 1951. Many examples of Numrich sales flyers, brochures, and periodical advertising exist referencing their ownership of the Thompson. In 1974, Numrich received approval to produce a semi-automatic model first considered in the mid-1960s. They revived the Auto-Ordnance name in West Hurley, NY for use with their new production models, which later included the fully automatic Model of 1928 and M1. Several collectible catalogs, sales flyers, and manuals exist from the era that can be found at reasonable prices. Numrich paper items hearkened back to the style of Colt era advertising. In 1999, Kahr Arms purchased Auto-Ordnance from Numrich, and the company has produced four different catalogs featuring Thompsons, as well as manuals and various advertisements.
A manual is a necessary accessory, like a cleaning rod or gun case. Military manuals represent experience gained from spending vast sums of taxpayer money on weapons projects, and we can benefit from the information produced. However, operators using old manuals for instruction should exercise caution, common sense, and consult others when operating their live guns. While most information is reliable, changes were often made, and in some cases, incorrectly printed information may exist. It is best to use the latest edition of a manual if intended to aid in the operation and maintenance of a firearm.
Caution should always be exercised when purchasing expensive “original” paper items to ensure the buyer remains well informed regarding reproductions. Collecting Thompson paper items provides exciting historical content to accompany the guns and other accessories. Through collecting efforts, many items have been recently “rediscovered,” providing more pieces to the larger Thompson historical puzzle, and there are probably many more out there to find.
(David Albert is co-author of the book “Thompson Manuals, Catalogs, and Other Paper Items,” a collector guide privately published in 2005. The book is out of print, and a second edition is in the works.)
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