By Tom Davis, Jr.
True or False: All Model of 1928 style Thompson submachine guns manufactured by Savage Arms during World War II were equipped with compensators? All that answered true are sided with the great majority of Thompson enthusiasts that seriously study this weapon and devour any and all published information. Those of you who answered false are likely playing the guessing game – unless you can cite or show some evidence to support your answer. And pointing to the picture of Savage Thompson S-17359 is not by itself conclusive evidence. The answer to this question is the subject of this story.
Before we begin, a brief recap of the history of the compensator is needed. The first 15,000 Thompson Submachine Guns manufactured by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in 1921 and 1922 were not equipped with compensators. Auto-Ordnance Corporation had no manufacturing capability at this time and hired Colt’s to manufacture the first production guns. These 15,000 Model of 1921 Thompson guns would be the sole source of Auto-Ordnance inventory for the next 19 years. From these original 15,000 guns, Auto-Ordnance created several different models and many variations.
In 1926, Richard W. Cutts approached Auto-Ordnance with a device that when attached to the end of a Thompson gun would reduce the climb of the muzzle when the gun was fired. This device, a compensator, vented some of the escaping gases in an upward direction thereby forcing the muzzle of the gun downward. Or so Mr. Cutts claimed. General Thompson was very much impressed with this compensator and entered into a royalty agreement with Mr. Cutts in 1927.
Auto-Ordnance immediately began attaching the compensator to the Model of 1921 submachine gun and the newly introduced Model of 1927 Semi-Automatic Carbine. Auto-Ordnance literature soon listed the “A” model - without compensator - and the “AC” model - with compensator. The Model of 1928 was announced shortly thereafter and the compensator became standard equipment on the U.S. Navy Model. Sales of the Thompson gun languished for several years. The reasons were many but the high cost of the Thompson gun (retail price for the base “A” model was $175) was certainly a prime cause. Now with the option of a $25 accessory, sales of the Thompson gun were once again on the rise.
The effectiveness of the compensator for reducing muzzle climb during automatic fire has been debated for many years. Suffice to say, it worked well enough in the minds of Auto-Ordnance customers in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Auto-Ordnance Corporation spent nearly twenty years trying to market the first production run of 15,000 Thompson submachine guns. Unfortunately, no one customer wanted enough of this new type of weapon in any variation to deplete the inventory. In 1939, two very important events transpired: the rumblings of another world war began in Europe and a new management team took over an almost failed Auto-Ordnance Corporation. The new president, J. Russell Maguire, had a fresh vision for Auto-Ordnance and the foresight to place the Thompson back in production – even before the old inventory of Thompson guns manufactured years ago by Colt’s were sold. A deal was struck in December 1939 wherein the Savage Arms Company, Utica, New York, became the second subcontractor to manufacture the Thompson gun. The first 201 Savage manufactured Thompsons rolled roll off the assembly line between April 15 and April 30, 1940.
The First Customers...
The sale of Thompson guns under Maguire’s management of Auto-Ordnance was a great success. Of course, the start of World War II created some ready-made customers and validated Maguire’s decision to place the Thompson gun back into production. The first order of business was to sell off the remaining inventory of Colt manufactured guns, estimated to be approximately 4,700 at the end of 1938 and 4,500 in January 1939. A sale of 951 guns to the U.S. Government around the same time as Maguire’s takeover was a great start. A later sale and delivery of 3,000 guns to the French government in November 1939 resulted in the largest sale ever of Colt manufactured Thompson guns. In January 1940 only 600 Thompson guns remained in inventory - all without compensators. The lack of compensators is not surprising given all original 15,000 Thompson guns were manufactured without compensators. Every Colt manufactured Thompson sold with a compensator had to be hand-fitted (with a compensator). The British Supply Board in Canada was in serious negotiation with Auto-Ordnance for the remaining 600 guns. However, before a deal could be struck, the Government of Sweden on January 25, 1940, purchased 500 of these Thompson guns.
The First British Order
One of the first documented discussions concerning a British order of Thompsons occurred on January 19, 1940. Discussions of the purchase in the War Office and later in the Treasury delayed the official decision until February 2, 1940, when approval to order 750 Model 21 A.C. Thompson guns, 3,000 drum magazines, 5,000 twenty round box magazines and 1,000 handbooks was given. Irrespective of specifying the A.C. model, it appeared the compensator was not included for this initial order. According to Cipher Telegram Canada, 2 February 1940, from Sir Arthur Robinson, Ministry of Supply, to Col. J.H.M. Greenly, Controller-General, British Supply Board: “Compensator could follow reasonable period provided guns suitably finished to take them.” For reasons not entirely clear according to the Ministry of Supply, SUPP 4-310 – Contract Record Books, it appears the order was initially divided into two orders: one order for 450 guns to be delivered on or before March 15, 1940, and one order for 300 guns that was to be delivered before April 1, 1940 (for a total of 750 guns). However, the Swedish government acted first and depleted the existing inventory of Auto-Ordnance by the time the British confirmed the order. Now the British were forced to wait for the factory of Savage Arms at Utica, New York to begin delivery of the second production run of the Thompson gun. In the interim, the British were informed manufacture of the Model of 1921 AC was discontinued and the Model of 1928 AC “with compensator” was ordered instead. A handwritten notation at the end of the Cypher Telegram Canada, 15 February, 1940, from Col. J.H.M. Greenly, Controller-General, British Supply Board in Canada to Engineer Vice-Admiral Sir Harold Brown, Director General of Munitions Production. stated, “25 dollars more.”
The Cost of a Compensator
It has been well documented the British government purchased many thousands of Thompson guns in 1940/1941 prior to the enactment of the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941. As with all equipment purchased for the British government during the war, cost was an important factor. Auto-Ordnance had always viewed the compensator as an option or accessory and normally added $25 in cost (retail) for the addition of a compensator. Hand written notations on some of the cited documentation clearly shows “compensator $25” or as stated above, “25 dollars more.” This extra cost did not escape the attention of the British bureaucrats at the Ministry of Supply who recorded and reviewed all “cash-and-carry” purchases made on behalf of the war effort.
Where Are All the Savage Model of 1928 A Thompsons?
A very nice example of an early Savage Model of 1928 A is on display as part of the Donnington Collection at the Combined Services Military Collection at Maldon in England. This is an excellent example of a very early Savage Thompson complete with British “Broad Arrow” markings. Close-up pictures of the front sight clearly show the front sight ring is not of the same dimensions as the earlier Colt manufactured front sight. A front sight (without compensator) on a Colt Thompson is much more pointed at the top. The front sight on S-17359 is much flatter or rounded on top and appears more like the later adopted front sight ring used on the M1 Thompson. It is unknown if the barrel is threaded on the boss and the front sight is threaded and screwed on. Careful examination reveal what appear to be serrations from some type of wrench indicating the front sight may have been screwed on the barrel boss and then pinned. It is also possible the front sight was pressed on the barrel boss and a wrench used to position it correctly for the pinning operation. The front sight has no visible manufacturer markings.
A second example is an often published photograph of a British commando with a Thompson. That Thompson has been incorrectly described as a M1A1 Thompson in other publications. It is not an M1A1 Thompson and the date of the photograph precludes the barrel or front sight from being from a M1 Thompson. Some experts may argue it could be a Colt Thompson but that would be incorrect. Another picture removes all doubt this commando is holding a Model of 1928 A Savage Thompson.
The first Savage Thompsons manufactured were almost identical to the Colt manufactured Thompsons, including the New York address and patent dates on the right side of the receiver. However, there is a distinguishable difference. The New York address on a Savage Thompson is roll stamped as follows: “New York, N.Y. U.S.A.” The New York address on a Colt manufactured Thompson is roll stamped as follows: “New York USA.” The Thompson pictured with the British commando is definitely a Savage Thompson - without a compensator.
Another picture that is often seen is actually not a photograph but a frame taken from a 16mm reel of film titled, Lofoten. This short Ministry of Information film is about the British raid on the German fish oil plants in the Lofoten Islands on March 3, 1941. The picture is a professional print of a British commando Corporal taken from one of the frames of this 16mm film. Unfortunately, the film negative was not good enough to see the details on the right side of the Thompson receiver. However, it can now be shown with certainty the barrel has cooling fins. Actual pictures taken during the Lofoten raid show other British commandoes carrying Thompson guns with compensators indicating both variations were used simultaneously.
One of the most interesting pictures of 1928 style Thompsons without compensators was found at the British Hulton Archive of pictures. It is titled: Two members of the Home Guard, armed with American Thompson sub-machine or 'Tommy' guns, during training at a rifle range in Western Command. The date of the picture, 1/1/1939, is incorrect as the Local Defence Volunteers or LDV was not established until May 17, 1940 and later renamed the Home Guard on July 22, 1940. The two Thompson guns without compensators are clearly visible. Review of this picture by several sources familiar with the British armed forces during World War II confirm the two men in the picture appear to be from a British Home Guard unit. The different style arm bands, one “HG” and one “Home Guard,” indicate the picture was taken early in the war. The soldiers are wearing Denims as Battledress was in short supply and not issued to Home Guard units until late 1940 – mid 1941. It is quite likely this is one of the British propaganda photographs where a few guns were shunted all over England early in the war for photographs to give the impression thousands of Thompsons were available for use.
Model of 1928 Thompsons without compensators do exist but one must have a keen eye to spot this variation. One such picture is taken from the March 1941 issue of Neptune, an undersized British magazine geared toward merchant seaman containing numerous pictures and stories about the Allied war effort. It was published during World War II by Continental Publishers Distributors Ltd., London, and can be found in several languages. Careful examination of the complete picture of a motorcycle unit reveals several Thompson guns without compensators. The soldiers second and third from the left are clearly holding TSMG’s without compensators.
The existence of production Savage Model of 1928 A Thompsons (without compensators) would have been documented many years ago but for a typographical error. Australian author Ian Skennerton’s book, British Small Arms of WWII – 1988, Guide to Contracts and Contractors, clearly references the procurement of 27,000 Thompson submachine guns without compensators by the British government. Unfortunately, the reported date in Skennerton’s book is 8.10.42, meaning October 8, 1942. The late 1942 date associated with Thompson guns without compensators would indicate the M1 variation (that was not equipped with a compensator). The date is incorrect. The Ministry of Supply, SUPP 4-310 – Contract Record Books at the British National Archives reviewed by Skennerton to report this information are clearly dated 8.10.40. Unfortunately, this error was repeated again in Skennerton’s Small Arms Identification Series book titled, .45 Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, (page 6).
Further research at the National Archives reveal this order of 27,000 Thompson guns without compensators on October 8, 1940 caused a flurry of correspondence between the British and Auto-Ordnance. A Cypher Telegram to the Consul General in New York sent on October 3, 1940 was both good and bad news for Auto-Ordnance. The telegram stated, in part, “Please order for further Thompson Machine Guns as follows: 27,000 guns without repeat without compensator…” This telegram was followed up with another Cypher Telegram on October 9, 1940 that reads, in part, “Compensators not required for 17,000 ordered. Reference all Thompson guns under current contracts. Please arrange so far as commitments and progress of manufacture allow to omit compensators from future deliveries and arrange appropriate reduction in cost on account of this modification.” The reference to the 17,000 Thompson guns was for a previous order placed on September 17, 1940 that had not been completed by Auto-Ordnance.
All of the sudden interest in the compensator was answered in a telegram dated November 5, 1940, to wit: “Price of Thompson sub machine gun with compensator on previous orders was 146 dollars and 67 cents and without compensator 130 dollars. Price now quote of 120 dollars therefore represents reduction of 26 dollars and 67 cents if we place order for guns with compensators and reduction of 10 dollars per gun if we accept proposed price of 120 dollars without compensators.” Previous orders? The British had ordered the Thompson gun with and without compensators, taken delivery of both variations and were now price shopping. A telegram dated October 30, 1940 referenced an early price quote from Auto-Ordnance of $130 dollars for a Thompson gun with compensator. The allowance for a compensator was shown to be $16.67. Now with the new quote of $120 for a Thompson gun with compensator the British believed a Thompson without a compensator “ought not to exceed dollars 110 at the most.”
It appears Auto-Ordnance decided to draw a line in the sand; so to speak. The November 5th telegram also included the following declaration: “Manufacturer is firm that he will make no price reductions below 120 dollars with or without compensators.” The British were quick to do the math: “Proposition as submitted to us means we can obtain 79,000 compensators for approximately $400,000 dollars i.e. 25,000 compensators on existing orders and 54,000 compensators orders about to be placed.” This equates to approximately $5.06 a compensator.
What followed were a series of telegrams about canceling the previous orders to delete the compensator from present and future orders. The issue was finally resolved on November 13, 1940 with a simple telegram stating that “compensators to be supplied on all guns ordered.”
A series of handwritten documents related directly to the Thompson gun were included in the files of documentation cited from the National Archives. One of these handwritten documents revealed the need for the compensator was being discussed during this time period at The War Office. The Director of Staff Duties (weapons) or D.S.D. (w) stated the compensator provided “a satisfactory degree of flash elimination” on Thompson guns fitted with the Cutts Compensator. Their opinion went so far as to state “flash eliminators” will have to be manufactured for Thompson guns without Cutts Compensators. The Assistant Chief of the Imperial Staff or A.C.I.G.S. agreed and Colonel L.F.S. Dawes of the Northern American Bureau of The War Office compensators will be obtained on all Thompson guns. This notation put the matter to rest on November 12, 1940 by confirming on the handwritten document was signed off by R. Cullen from the Ministry of Supply that same day.
The option for a Cutts Compensator, which had been a fantastic money maker for Auto-Ordnance for many years, was coming to an end. It was standard equipment on the Model of 1928A1 Thompson adopted by the U.S. government and now included at no extra cost on the Model of 1928 Thompson guns purchased by Great Britain. This standardization of the compensator on the 1928 model appears to have been in effect to the very end of the production run at both the Savage and Auto-Ordnance Bridgeport factories. There have been no 1928 A models observed that appear to have been manufactured after November 1940.
It is unknown how many 1928 A models were actually manufactured by Savage Arms. The percentage is probably very small seeing how the compensator became standard equipment with all British orders in November 1940. Production records reveal Savage had only manufactured 33,874 Thompson guns by the end of November 1940. All known surviving examples are early Savage guns. Thompson 1928 A models found in photographs without serial number information also appear to be early Savage guns based on the date of the photograph or publication. It is possible many of the original British “A” model Thompson guns were upgraded to the “AC” configuration during arsenal overhauls but no evidence of this happening has been found to date.
While researching this story one early Savage manufactured 1928 A was discovered that was sold by Auto-Ordnance to a police department in the United States during World War II. Collectors refer to this type of Savage Thompson as a Commercial model or Savage Commercial Thompson. This highly sought after variation is a regular production Savage Thompson without government proof markings, usually containing Colt era bright internal parts, flat ejector & no-hole magazine release, nice wood, a New York address and, most importantly, was purchased by a law enforcement agency during World War II. The former owner, a long time advanced collector of Thompson guns and accessories, told how he had “corrected” this Savage Commercial Thompson many years ago with the addition of a compensator. A review of an early ATF form for this Savage Thompson in the 16,000 serial number range revealed the length of the barrel to be 10 inches. The unanswered question is how many other Savage “A” models have been “corrected” by enthusiasts over the years.
The French Contract
One question that has never been answered is what happened to the remaining 100 Colt manufactured Thompson guns in Auto-Ordnance inventory after the Swedish government made the 500 Thompson gun purchase. Why not ship these remaining 100 Colt guns to the British as part of their initial order? A partial answer to this question may be found in a letter from the British Purchasing Commission, the organization responsible for purchasing arms and war supplies from North American manufacturers, to the Ministry of Supply, dated November 6, 1940. The letter tells about the British assumption of the (second) French contract (assumed to be 3,000 guns) and the shipment from Auto-Ordnance of “149 new guns and about 40 second-hand guns, the latter being thoroughly reconditioned in every way.” When France fell, the British assumed the French contract with Auto-Ordnance for Thompson guns. Auto-Ordnance agreed that it did not meet the delivery schedules in the contract negotiated by the French and about one-half (1,500) of the guns remained undelivered. The 149 new guns and 40 reconditioned second hand guns were to be provided to the British government free of charge by Auto-Ordnance as a penalty for not meeting the delivery schedule. After the British negotiated the penalty, they cancelled the contract because the price negotiated by the French was higher than the current British price. Of course, this begs for more information on the pedigree of the second hand or used Thompson guns referenced in this letter. It is very possible these used Thompson guns were the last Colt guns in Auto-Ordnance inventory. While not definitive, it is easy to believe Auto-Ordnance amassed a number of used guns from testing, demonstrations, salesman samples, returns, etc., during the nearly 20 years it spent marketing the Thompson.
There is no documentation that tells the first serial number used by Savage Arms when they began production of the Thompson gun in 1940. Most experts believe the serial numbering began at No. 15041 or where Colt’s stopped. Documented Savage Thompson guns in the 15,000 serial number range support this position. The discovery of any Savage Thompson with a serial number below 25,000 is an important find as these are the 10,000 guns from the first Savage contract with Auto-Ordnance. Savage Thompson S-17359 is very likely the earliest Savage Thompson on public display in Great Britain. While the history is unknown, the markings and early serial number indicate it is one of the first Thompson guns purchased by the British in World War II. The fact it is a 1928 A model makes it ever the more special. However, there is at least one more Savage 1928 A model in Great Britain, S-16739. It is located at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in what is known as the Pattern Room Collection. Did these two Savage Thompsons, only 620 numbers apart, travel on the same ship to Great Britain in 1940? How many other Thompson guns without compensators were also in this shipment (or shipments)? There is no answer to these questions... today.
(Author’s Note: This story would not have been possible without the great assistance of Mr. James West and Mr. Clive McPherson. Mr. West’s outstanding detective work at the National Archives provided most of the authoritative documentation for this story. Mr. McPherson’s pictures and assistance with S-17359 were instrumental early on in keeping the research for this story active. The information from The Pattern Room provided by Dan Shea and Robert Segel proved to be very valuable.)
|SUBSCRIBER COMMENT AREA|
Comments have not been generated for this article.