Investigator Weapons: The Thompson Gun in Great Britain between the Wars

Here, one would say, is an arm that is useless for sport, cumbrous for self-defence and could not serve any honest purpose …

     ‒ Hugh Pollard, “Gun Running and the Traffic in Arms,” Saturday Evening Post (24-NOV-1923)


Captain Hugh Pollard was mainly talking with the Irish Revolution fresh on his mind, but he certainly did not think that an “honest” Briton could see any non-military use for the Thompson submachine gun. And yet, despite what the sorry state of today’s British gun laws would make one believe, British investigators of the Mythos could most definitely kit themselves out with a Thompson gun in the 1920s and early 1930s.

This article examines the availability and use of the Thompson between April 1921 and May 1937, the former marking the start of availability of the gun, the latter seeing the introduction of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1936 and the Firearms Act 1937, which prohibited all (full-)automatic firearms.

The first purchases of Thompson guns for the British Isles were made in April 1921 and May 1921, when Pollard of all people acquired 15 Model 1921A submachine guns directly from the Auto-Ordnance Corporation in New York. Pollard, a bicycle infantry officer and newspaper correspondent during WWI, was press officer in the Information Section of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920-1922. This was a cover for being an agent with the Irish Office in the Secret Intelligence Service, Pollard being responsible for “black propaganda.” The guns were presumably used in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the following troubles, but then disappeared. Some of them resurfaced in modern times in Argentina. Pollard, the extreme right-wing intelligence agent who in 1936 literally helped to start the Spanish Civil War by engineering the flight of Generalissimo Francisco Franco from his exile on the Canaries (Shadows of War, p. 69, and World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour, p. 81), may have found an “honest” use for them after all. Even more obscurely, Pollard was an old friend of occultist Aleister Crowley (Green and Pleasant Land ‒ The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Sourcebook, p. 23, The Keeper’s Companion, Vol.1, pp. 109-110, The London Guidebook, pp. 73-74, and World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour, pp. 108-109). Could he have supplied a couple of the guns to him and his acolytes?

By contrast, the Irish Republican Army received hundreds of Model 1921A submachine guns beginning in 1921. These were bought by American supporters in the USA and smuggled into Ireland. The largest purchase of these consisted of 600 guns, some 495 of which were concealed ineptly on a ship bound for Ireland and seized by the US Customs Service in June 1921. This resulted in a major scandal for Auto-Ordnance. Most of the guns were given back to the buyer in 1925, who then shipped them to Ireland in a less obvious way. Thompson guns were used in Ireland throughout the 1920s. By the 1930s, many of them had been cached, only to be dug up again after WWII.

A single Model 1921A submachine gun came to London as a sales sample for the local Auto-Ordnance representative, Walter Morgan. This remained in England even after British officials had expressed no interest in the weapon. The early deals with the Irish and its later image as a “gangster weapon” had soured the British opinion to the design.

Looking into unofficial sales, the Parker Catalogue of Arms and Accessories No.10G (June 1930), published by Arthur Parker & Company of Birmingham, England, offered the Model 1921A submachine gun as “a most effective weapon for use against Mobs, Bandits, Mutineers & Pirates.” Nevertheless the company did not expect many sales. “The gun is featured in our list chiefly because it is an interesting new departure.” It continued to be offered in the Parker-Hale Complete Catalogue of Arms and Accessories No.10J (July 1933). It was listed at £47/10/0 including a single Type XX 20-round box magazine. Parker had salesrooms in Birmingham and London.

Dr Robert Wilson, a veteran lieutenant-colonel with the British Army in WWI and the man who took the infamous “Surgeon’s Photo” of the Loch Ness Monster that generated so much excitement in April 1934 (Green and Pleasant Land, p. 50, and Cthulhu Britannica ‒ Folklore, p. 56), was at the same time engaged in writing his Textbook of Automatic Pistols. While this was not published until 1943, the text itself dated to the early 1930s. Wilson tried and tested not only all available semiautomatic pistols, but also machine pistols and submachine guns. The good doctor remarked on the Model 1921AC that “a number could, until recently, be found in gunsmith’s shops in this county as, owing to the excellent advertisement the gun has received from the film industry, it has been considered quite the weapon to take on expeditions to the less civilised regions of Asia and Africa … At one time its price in Britain was £60, but it is now (1933) in the neighbourhood of £32.”

In other words, a British investigator could buy a Thompson submachine gun between 1921 and 1937, either importing it directly from the manufacturer in America or through a gun store. However, as a rifled long arm, buying one requires a Firearms Certificate or an Export License (Horror on the Orient Express, Book I, pp. 33-34). A Firearms Certificate for a Thompson gun would need, in addition to all the standard requirements (Investigator Weapons 1: The 1920s and 1930s, p. 21), a particularly “good reason.” The Keeper could require a quartered Persuade roll for this. A high Credit Rating would also be necessary. Securing an Export License would be easier, including for a trip to Egypt, the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Shanghai, or Tibet.

A British investigator with connections in Ireland could likewise acquire one, if illegally. This would require a suitable Contact, although a quartered Credit Rating roll might also turn up a black-market seller (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 24).

At the Picture Show

In the The Mummy Returns (2001), set in London in 1933, treasure hunter Richard “Rick” O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) stores a Model 1921AC submachine gun as part of his monster-hunting kit in the boot of his Beauford limousine. Given his apparent wealth, frequent trips to exotic places, and later association with the SIS, O’Connell might actually have a Firearms Certificate for it.