Thompson submachine-gun

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

The Thompson submachine-gun (Bryan Rutlidge © National Museum of Ireland).

The Thompson submachine-gun (Bryan Rutlidge © National Museum of Ireland).

The IRA became the first customers for the machine-gun designed in 1919 by General John T. Thompson of Pennsylvania and made by the Colt Patent Fire Arms Company of Hartford, Connecticut. The first three submachine-guns arrived in Dublin in May 1921 and were test-fired by Tom Barry at a demonstration on 24 May attended by Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Gearóid O’Sullivan. The new weapon was believed to be ideal for guerrilla warfare as it fired a very powerful round rapidly and could be easily concealed, as the stock could be removed. The IRA were also the first to use the machine-gun in combat, when a group led by Oscar Traynor, later a minister for defence in the 1940s, fired one at a train carrying the West Kent Regiment near Drumcondra, wounding three soldiers.
The original order was for 653 machine-guns and they were to be sent to Ireland in June 1921. US Customs, however, impounded 495 of the guns as they were on the docks in New York, and the remaining 158 were eventually smuggled to Ireland mainly after the Truce. The impounded submachine-guns were released in 1925, as it was not illegal to own several hundred machine-guns in the United States. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s these guns were smuggled into Ireland, although some do appear to have found their way to Chicago and were used in the gang wars there.
The Thompson submachine-gun was to remain part of the armoury of the IRA until the 1960s, and on 14 August 1969 the IRA in Belfast fired a Thompson at loyalists from St Comgall’s School and afterwards in various exchanges of fire with police and B-Specials during that night. In the 1970s Armalites, again smuggled in from the United States, replaced the Thompson, and these were replaced in turn in the 1980s by the Russian-designed AK47, smuggled in from Libya.  HI

2Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland.

Further reading:

B. Bell, ‘The Thompson submachine gun in Ireland, 1921’, The Irish Sword VIII, no. 31 (Winter 1967).

P. Hart, ‘The Thompson submachine gun in Ireland revisited’, The Irish Sword XIX, no. 77 (Summer 1995).

P. Jung, ‘The Thompson submachine gun during and after the Anglo-Irish war—new evidence’, The Irish Sword XXI, no. 84 (Winter 1998).


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