Colt Thompsons in French Service
By David Albert

Fully one-fifth of all Thompson submachine guns produced by Colt were exported to France, yet little information has surfaced previously on the subject. Recent research has yielded new facts about these weapons, and their intriguing service life during the war.

Following World War I, the French government undertook a program to improve their military small arms. They developed a list of necessary weapons through a test commission named “Commission D’Experiences de Versailles” (CEV), which undertook to study potential submissions. The CEV was the testing arm of a larger organization named “Etablissement D’Experiences Techniques de Versailles” (ETVS). Various weapons desired for French service were a submachine gun (preferably in 9mm due to stocks of captured German ammunition), a self-loading rifle, a new light machine gun, and an anti-tank rifle.

Concurrent with French efforts, a young Auto-Ordnance Corporation in New York came to market with their Model of 1921 Thompson submachine gun, 15,000 of which were manufactured under license by Colt. The French acquired one TSMG in 1921 for testing purposes, with no resulting action taken.

In 1924, John Thompson presented two TSMG’s to the CEV, one Model of 1921 in .45, and a Model of 1923 in .45 Remington-Thompson caliber, featuring a bipod. Accuracy tests were conducted in semi and full-auto fire, with limited testing of the Model of 1923 due to cartridge availability. Better accuracy results were obtained in semiautomatic fire with the Model of 1923; however the Model of 1921 was favored in full-auto testing due to excessive vibration experienced with the .45 Remington-Thompson cartridge. The CEV concluded that, even though they favored a 9mm submachine gun, they were interested in testing a Thompson chambered for the .351 Winchester cartridge, which was featured as an option in the 1923 Auto-Ordnance catalog. The cartridge existed in French military inventory due to its previous use by World War I observers armed with Winchester carbines. The CEV also theorized the caliber would better utilize the Blish locking system. Desiring to test the .351 Win. cartridge conflicted with a major goal of the CEV, which wanted service pistols and submachine guns to share cartridges. Nevertheless, two .351 caliber Thompsons were ordered for further testing.

Auto-Ordnance eventually delivered one .351 caliber TSMG, and another in .45, and these were tested again by the CEV in 1926. The commission was impressed with the weight comparison of the TSMG recoiling parts vs. the Winchester carbine in handling the .351 Win cartridge (620 grams vs. 1200 grams). However, during testing of the .351 Thompson, the extractor broke after 10 rounds were fired. No spare parts had been shipped, so the extractor from the .45 caliber Thompson was substituted. Many failures occurred and testing ceased after 233 rounds as a result of the substituted extractor becoming bent as well as a broken breech oiler.

In January 1927, a new, European style BSA Thompson in 9mm was delivered to the CEV by the French military attaché in Washington. This Thompson was tested with over 5,500 cartridges fired, producing generally good results, except that a particular magazine produced many problems. Upon disassembly after testing, the Blish lock was found broken. The commission did not favor the high cyclic rate, desiring a slower 500 rpm rate. The CEV decided not to adopt the Thompson in any form.

Late in 1939, with a pending French national emergency, weapons were needed quickly. The French government put preferences aside, and ordered 3,000 Thompsons off the shelf, all of which were delivered in early 1940. Most were Model of 1921 A’s (without Cutts compensator), along with a few previously reconfigured Model of 1928s. This was great news to Russell Maguire, who had just acquired Auto-Ordnance, and who led the company through the World War II years. The CEV pulled 2 of the Thompsons from the order of 3,000 to perform an additional accuracy evaluation. They picked a Model of 1921 Thompson (SN 10384), and also one converted to 1928 configuration with Cutts compensator (SN 10171). The ETVS concluded in a report issued February 1, 1940 that accuracy was “medium,” and that the weapon presented some difficulty for shooters of small stature during automatic fire, but overall results were satisfactory. They witnessed better accuracy and controllability with the 1928 model, and suggested that future orders be placed for that weapon. Another order for 3,000 soon followed, but was not fulfilled prior to France’s capitulation after Germany invaded in May, 1940.

Following the French surrender, what has been referred to as a “puppet” government, the “Vichy” government led by Marshall Petain was formed to regulate French affairs, including a small military force. The military force was limited to 100,000 troops, duplicating the force size the Allies had imposed on Germany after World War I. The Vichy government operated under Nazi occupation, and was complicit in many treasonous acts for which its leaders were held responsible after the war. Some traitors were executed by firing squad. Petain was sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by Charles DeGaulle, due to his old age and his World War I contributions. He spent the remainder of his life in prison alone on the Ile de Re, an island off the French Atlantic coast.

Most of the 3,000 Thompsons ended up in the hands of Vichy French military forces and police units. Some of the guns made it out if the country with expatriate French forces who trained in Algeria, waiting to liberate France, and some ended up in England following Dunkirk.

Manuals particular to the Model of 1921 were produced for the use of Vichy military forces and police units who became equipped with the Thompson. They were published by Charles Lavauzelle and Company of Paris, Nancy, and Limoges, France. The manuals produced were nicely detailed, with many colorized diagrams and foldouts. The original edition was printed in 1941, with reprints in 1942 and 1944. All editions are identical, except for the date, and some minor changes to the company logo on the cover. It is the author’s opinion that, besides being published in French, these manuals are the best ever published for the Model of 1921. Auto-Ordnance published several handbooks and manuals, all of which have good information, but the drawings, and most technical details of the French manuals are impressive.

Since the weapons arrived in France without sling swivels, French Army technical services issued an order to affix Berthier rifle sling swivels to the vertical or horizontal foregrip and the buttstock. Many Thompsons encountered in France today have the Berthier swivels. Most are deactivated war trophies in private collections.

In preparation for the D-Day invasion, and subsequent occupation of former German territory, French troops received training with the Model of 1928A1 and M1 Thompsons. American Thompson manuals, such as FM 23-40, were translated into French to aid French soldiers. They became equipped with many American and captured German weapons, and ran occupational military establishments, such as one in Langenargen, Germany. The Langenargen base issued its own manual for many American weapons, including the Thompson.

The French demonstrated interest in the Thompson gun very early in its history. Visits to France occurred during European Auto-Ordnance sales presentations by John Thompson, Marcellus Thompson, and George Goll in the 1920s. Auto-Ordnance also published some Thompson promotional items in French, including their 1921 Catalog, Model of 1921 Handbook, and print advertising. The early Auto-Ordnance French marketing attempts may have proven useful in landing the largest sale of Colt Thompsons in history.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N2 (November 2006)
and was posted online on January 4, 2013


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