John Taliaferro (pronounced “tolliver”) Thompson, (1860 to 1940), was the U.S. Army officer remembered in American military history as the inventor of his outstanding Thompson submachine gun. This was one of the finest firearms of WWII.
Thompson was born on December 31, 1860 in Newport, Kentucky. He was from a military family and grew up on a succession of Army posts. Following a year at Indiana University in 1877, he successfully obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated from West Point in 1882. He attended Engineer and Artillery Schools before finally being assigned in 1890 to the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. Some things are just meant to be, and John Thompson would spend the rest of his military career in this military occupation field. Vocation and avocation came together, and it was here that he specialized in small arms.
During the Spanish-American War, Thompson was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and served in Tampa, Florida, as Chief Ordnance Officer. Here, he was in direct support of the senior Army commander for the Cuban campaign, General William R. Shafter. The Cuban campaign was noted for severe logistical issues, but Thompson proved the exception in achieving a highly efficient ordnance supply program. He was able to support U.S. troops in the field with over 18,000 tons of munitions in a rapid and safe manner. But he is best remembered for his grasp of the need for automatic weapons. Based on a request from Lieutenant John H. Parker, Thompson was the right man at the right place in time to make things happen. Outside of the usual military bureaucracy, he informally established a Gatling gun unit consisting of 15 such weapons. Thompson shipped these all to Cuba on his own authority with a generous supply of ammunition. This unit played an essential role in the Battle of San Juan Hill. Based on his expertise and initiative (and accolades from the battlefield by those directly involved), Thompson was promoted to full Colonel, the youngest at that time in the Army.
Following the many lessons learned during the Spanish-American War, Thompson was appointed chief of the Small Arms Division for the Ordnance Department. Here he proved decisive in the rapid study of the German Mauser bolt-action rifle system (captured in Cuba). Thompson played a pivotal role in the adaptation and development of the outstanding U.S. Model 1903 Springfield rifle. He also at this time chaired the ordnance board that set up rigorous tests that resulted in the approval and acceptance of the superb Model 1911 .45 of John Moses Browning. It was noted that Thompson devised unusual tests involving firing the weapon at donated human cadavers from the Chicago Police Department, and the use of live cattle. These unusual but highly effective tests clearly validated the superiority of the .45 over the .38 (which was receiving poor reports from the field of the Philippine Campaign). Sadly, Army bureaucrats would forget these lessons much later in 1985, when a 9mm pistol cartridge (basically a .38) was adapted with much less ammunition effectiveness (a 115 grain bullet vs a 230 grain bullet of the venerable .45).
With World War I commencing in 1914, Thompson clearly recognized the significant need for massive increases in small arms production. He was enthusiastic about the Allied cause and believed that America must enter the war (which we did in 1917). He retired from the Army in November of 1914 and accepted the key position as Chief Engineer at the Remington Arms Company. Here he supervised the construction of the Eddystone Plant in Chester, Pennsylvania, the largest small arms factory in the world. It was most notable in producing Model 1914 Enfield rifles for Britain and Mosin-Nagant rifles for Russia.
World War I, with its devastating ‘trench warfare’ tactics, rapidly changed infantry operations. By 1916 Thompson was experimenting again with automatic small arms. This time he focused on a portable, hand held, trench clearing weapon that American troops could use on the modern battlefield. He referred to this as the “trench broom.” Of the many designs considered, Thompson was most impressed with the delayed-blowback breech system of a U.S. Navy officer named John Blish. Thompson, with Blish as a partner, obtained the necessary financing and formed the Auto-Ordnance Company. Their work eventually resulted in what became known as the Thompson sub-machine gun or more affectionately to American and Allied troops as the “Tommy Gun”. Because the rifle .30-06 round was too powerful for this type of system, Thompson adopted the .45 ACP cartridge (with which he was so familiar with the Model 1911). It was a great match and the Thompson sub-machine gun was patented in 1920.
When America entered WWI in 1917, Thompson returned to the Army. He was promoted to Brigadier General and served as Director of Arsenals throughout the remainder of the war. He received the Distinguished Service Medal for his highly successful supervision of all U.S. small-arms production.
John Thompson died in 1940 and is buried at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. With WWII unfolding, his Thompson submachine gun would be produced in huge quantities and play an important role in Allied victory. He too was an American genius in small arms.