TOMMY GUN by Bill Yenne


How General Thompson's Submachine Gun Wrote History
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An in-depth, entertaining history of the legendary weapon.

John Taliaferro Thompson (1860–1940) served after 1890 in the U.S. Army ordnance developing small arms and ammunition, many of which are still in use. Prolific historian Yenne (Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II, 2009, etc.) delivers a meticulous overview of 20th-century infantry weapons, concentrating on Thompson’s creation. He retired in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, a bloody stalemate in which machine guns gave the defense enormous advantage. Thompson theorized that a portable automatic rifle in the hands of charging infantry might restore the balance. A skilled entrepreneur, he quickly attracted investment and engineers. Yenne delivers a clear description of the technical problems overcome before Thompson’s company perfected an automatic weapon weighing little more than a rifle which was—unlike the heavier, rival BAR—easy to fire without bipod support. With armies downsizing after WWI, nobody bought the new weapon, but it caught the attention of criminals; Yenne devotes many chapters to the murderous activities of gangsters and the media that fawned over them. However, professional soldiers knew its advantages. Marines fighting insurgencies in China, the Caribbean and Central America gave high marks to the Tommy gun. Thompson was out of the picture when WWII produced an avalanche of orders that resulted in 1.5 million guns before production ceased in 1944. Yenne continues his story to the present day, recounting the gun’s exploits in innumerable movies and TV series, as well as its commercial fate as unrelated companies continue to turn out replicas.

A rich combination of firearm and social history.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-312-38326-8
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2009


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